I think it's very confusing for patients to decide what the best roles are for Western medicine and alternative medicine.
In this article, I'll try to clear some of that confusion with a few simple principles. I can tell you how I view the difference between the two systems of medicine and you can decide what to do for yourself and your family.
First, a short explanation of alternative medicine. It is often also called complementary medicine, integrative medicine, wellness or holistic health.
Alternative medicine is a catch-all term that includes many healing methods from many countries and cultures. From India it includes yoga, ayurveda, chakra healing, and herbal medicine. From China it includes tai chi, chi gong, acupuncture, acupressure, massage and another set of herbal medicines. From North America it includes homeopathy, naturopathy, massage therapy, reflexology and many other types of therapies.
By Western medicine, I mean the usual type of medicine used here in the U.S. and Canada. Pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics and surgery are the most commonly prescribed treatments under Western medicine.
The name alternative medicine makes it sound like these therapies should be used instead of Western medicine. But this really isn't the case. Hardly anyone ignores Western medicine and just focuses on alternative medicine.
My own approach can be summarized in four principles:
Use the safest, cheapest, effective remedy first.
Use alternative medicine for chronic or lifestyle ailments.
Use alternative medicine for prevention.
Use Western medicine for acute and life-threatening ailments. Again, this is my way of looking at alternative and Western medicine. You need to decide on your own approach.
Using the safest, cheapest, effective remedy first is sensible, I think. Use safe, cheap remedies with no side effects first, then progress to stronger, more dangerous, more expensive treatments later.
A good example of this is when my wife's allergies come on in springtime. She starts by taking an aromatherapy combination that she rubs on her nose and forehead. Most of the time, this works.
But when it doesn't, she moves on to a homeopathic remedy for allergies. Usually, that will solve whatever problem the aromatherapy couldn't help.
But if neither one works, she moves on to an off-the-shelf drug for allergies. And that usually fixes whatever symptoms the first two couldn't work on.
I suppose if she was still suffering after that, she might go to the doctor and get a very strong prescription treatment. That hasn't happened yet, thankfully.
Why not just take the over-the-counter drug first? Because it has bad side-effects. It makes her sleepy, it dries out her nose making it bleed, and lots of other bad stuff. And it is costly. But that's worth it if she's already tried the other safer, cheaper remedies.
In another example, when I have a back problem, I'll go to a massage therapist, rolfer or Feldenkrais practitioner. They can usually help me. If not, I go to a chiropractor. Chiropractors are great for relieving back pain. If that doesn't help, then I'll think about taking off-the-shelf pain medication. If that isn't strong enough, I go to the doctor to get a prescription drug that can knock the pain out while I have the bodyworkers help me with the actual problem in my back.
My second principle is that I use alternative medicine for the everyday problems and the chronic problems. By chronic, I mean the problems that linger day-after-day, week-after-week. Alternative medicine is well-known for helping people with the chronic ailments like diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, etc. Chronic problems can also be less severe like back pain, soreness, obesity, chattering mind, etc. Western medicine seems clueless when it comes to these problems.
Third, I use alternative medicine for wellness and prevention. I go to see a massage therapist even when I don't have any problems, just to help me stay healthy. I go to see a naturopath as a "checkup" every six months or so to make sure I'm on the right track and to report any seemingly small symptoms that may turn into something worse down the road.
Fourth, I definitely turn to Western medicine for acute or life-threatening problems. If my appendix starts hurt, I'm not going to see a massage therapist or reflexologist. I'm going to trot over to the hospital emergency room. If I've been involved in a car accident and my legs got crushed, I want the best surgeons to put me back together.
I follow these principles, not just because they are healthier, less risky and more prevention-oriented, but also because of another consideration.
Western medicine, especially when used as a "first resort," is just too expensive for me. My health insurance policy has a high deductible, because my wife and I are both self-employed and we cannot afford thousands of dollars a month for health insurance. So I want the best possible healthcare for the best price. And that seems to be alternative medicine more often than not.