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Does Complementary Therapy Really Work?

By: Sarah Knowles BA, MA - Updated: 18 Apr 2016 | comments*Discuss
Complementary Alternative Medicine

As more and more doctors who practice conventional medicine learn about complementary therapies, they are realising that a significant number of patients are trying them out. With this in mind, they are integrating both conventional with complementary medicine – with surprisingly good results.

What is Complementary Medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine are two different things. Complementary medicine is used in addition to prescribed medication, while alternative medicine is used in place of it. For example, if you have surgery for your back and are on pain-relieving medications, special massage to make you feel better would be considered complementary.

Why is it Used?

As more and more people turn to complementary medicine, some doctors are beginning to prescribe it alongside conventional medicine, as a way to integrate therapies that are not considered part of mainstream medicine into their practice.

Combining complementary therapy with prescribed medical care is called integrative medicine, and studies have shown that it does have benefits for many people. If you decide to take a nutritional supplement - with your doctor's knowledge and consent - in addition to the prescription statins your doctor has prescribed to reduce cholesterol, that is integrated medicine.

However, be aware that many conventional doctors are not trained in complementary and/or alternative therapies, and therefore may not be comfortable in prescribing them. While there is some availability of such therapies on the NHS, that does not necessarily mean all doctors are willing to prescribe them. It is up to your GP to make that decision him or herself.

Complementary Medicine Available on the NHS

Some of the complementary therapies available on the NHS include:
  • Acupuncture: Treatment for either pain or disease by inserting needles in specific points of the skin
  • Iridology: A way to diagnosis disease by fully examining the eye's iris
  • Craniosacral Therapy: Using light touch to balance the craniosacral system in the body
  • Crystal Therapy: Using crystals to channel energy in the body and promote healing
  • Osteopathy: Manipulating both the muscles and the skeleton to realign the body
  • Reiki: A form of healing that doesn't rely on touch of any kind
  • Shiatsu: Usually in massage form, applying pressure with fingers to specific body parts to stimulate the energy flow
  • Physiotherapy: Using exercise and massage for physical benefits
  • Reflexology: Massaging and manipulating the soles of the feet to improve general health throughout the entire body

Is There Hard Evidence to Prove Their Worth?

No, although that may be changing. Many complementary therapies gain a reputation either through word of mouth, or because they have been around so long (in some cases, thousands of years), that people think they must have some validity. But most of the evidence is anecdotal, at best. Also what works well for one person may not necessarily work well for someone else.

Many complementary therapies have not been evaluated scientifically, because such tests are costly. But as they gain more and more mainstream acceptance, more trials are in the offing. If you are concerned about a specific therapy, ask your doctor if there is any scientific evidence to back it up. There may be!

Safety Aspects

Some people assume because a therapy is “natural” that means it's safe, just as they assume that all vitamin supplements derived from natural ingredients are therefore not harmful. There are actually two significant risks of complementary therapies:
  • You may have an existing serious medical condition that is misdiagnosed, and therefore goes untreated.
  • You might take a supplement or have a treatment carried out that could be harmful or have harmful side effects. This could be because of a condition you have, such as pregnancy or a blood disorder, or because you are taking other medications, which could interact.
Always tell your GP if you are about to embark on any complementary therapies, and always tell your complementary therapist of any medical conditions you may have, or prescription medicine you may be taking. Be especially wary if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.

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