Beyond the White Coats

Curious about alternative forms of health care?  Feel like your doctor isn’t treating the root cause of your illness, but rather managing your pain with pills? If so, alternative medicine might be worth investigating.

Before you start . . . 

If you have a health condition or think you may have a health condition, make an appointment with a medical doctor and always get your doctor’s advice before you start something new.

If you are curious about alternative medicine, seek out the highest level of training and qualifications before trusting your body to anyone who doesn’t have an MD, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.


Complementary and Integrative Medicine
Complementary and Integrative medicine widens the scope of traditional medicine by giving medical doctors the freedom to integrate alternative forms of care with traditional treatment. For example, doctors might use acupuncture, yoga or even meditation or Mindfulness techniques to help reduce a patient’s stress or anxiety rather than rely on medication alone. Doctors will generally choose methods that are backed by medical research. Talk show host and surgeon, Dr. Oz, and health guru Dr. Weil both practice integrative medicine.

8008429046_fa62fe5785_oOsteopathic Medicine
Osteopathy is a whole person approach to health care that relies on a drug-free ‘hands on’ treatment. Osteopaths seek to improve the body’s nervous, circulatory and lymphatic systems by manipulating the musculoskeletal system, which includes the joints, muscles and spine. Osteopaths are licensed physicians and fully qualified to perform surgery and write prescriptions.

Functional Medicine
Functional medicine isn’t about naming a disease and writing a prescription, it’s about finding the underlying cause of the illness or disease and treating it. Functional medicine presupposes that each individual is unique genetically and biochemically and therefore the treatment options must be as well. The patient plays a vital role in determining their best treatment option, which can include drugs, botanical medicines, nutritional supplements, as well as diet and lifestyle changes. Dr. Mark Hyman is one of the best-known doctors practicing functional medicine.

Physical Therapy (PT)
Why is physical therapy on the list for alternative medicine? PTs aren’t practicing alternative medicine, but they are in the trenches with patients in a way doctors aren’t. They hear the nuances of each case and over time that amounts to a lot of knowledge. If you have a lingering issue, it may be worth having a conversation with a highly qualified physical therapist. They treat numerous injuries from ankles, necks, and knees to vestibular system dysfunctions such as dizziness and balance issues. It’s always a safe bet to find one that works with athletes, medical schools and/or dancers.


6549285891_6d89319223_oNaturopathic Medicine
Naturopathic medicine puts a heavy emphasis on self-healing and finding the root cause of an illness rather than treating the symptom. Treatment options may include diet, exercise, herbal medication or homeopathy (pills typically found in a vial). It’s important to note that there isn’t much scientific research to support the effectiveness of homeopathy, in fact most clinical trials show that it’s no more effective than placebos (sugar pills). The active ingredient in most homeopathic medicine is typically so diluted it’s almost undetectable. Naturopathic doctors are currently licensed to practice in 16 states. They attend a 4-year graduate level naturopathic medical school and have to pass board exams, but not all naturopathic doctors are licensed, so be sure to ask.

Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic medicine originated in India over 5,000 years ago and is one of the oldest forms of holistic health care on Earth. The goal is prevention and developing a connection between mind, body and spirit. The Ayurvedic definition of wellness isn’t just the absence of disease, but rather achieving energy and vitality. Treatment may include meditation, herbs, spices, oils, diet changes, breathing exercises and yoga.

Traditional Chinese Medicine
This form of health care has evolved over thousands of years and encompasses treatment methods such as acupuncture, acupressure, tai chi, (‘meditation in motion’) and herbal medicines. It seeks to balance the body, mind and spirit with a focus on keeping qi (pronounced “chee”) or the flow of “life energy” within the body.


Cranial Sacral Therapy (CST)
Cranial sacral therapists use a gentle touch to manipulate the bones of the skull and the sacrum to restore and regulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. CSTs put a heavy emphasis on calming the central nervous system so the body can heal itself.

Developed in Japan and originally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cryotherapy is gaining popularity. Elite athletes like basketball great LeBron James swear by whole-body cryotherapy to reduce inflammation and help repair injuries faster.  Liquid nitrogen is used to cool a chamber to as low as -300 degrees. A patient will be exposed to the chilly temps for only 2-3 minutes. Currently cryotherapy is not FDA-approved and the agency is quick to point out that there is very little, if any, evidence to support the number of health claims associated with it. There are risks, so discuss this option with a doctor before trying it.

Myofascial Release Therapy
Fascia is fibrous connective tissue found all throughout the body. When it gets tight due to overuse or an injury, it can cause pain and stiffness. Myofascial (my-o-FASH-e-ul) Release Therapy seeks to release the tight tissue through gentle pressure. Talk show host and comedian, Ellen Degeneres, claims it helped her chronic back pain. There is some research to show its effectiveness, but more studies are needed.

Reflexology involves stimulation of specific areas on the hands, feet and ears that relate to organs and systems in the body. Several studies funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health have shown that reflexology can enhance relaxation and help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It may help reduce the stress associated with a serious illnesses like cancer. There’s little scientific evidence to support other health claims.

Massage Therapy
More than just a self-indulgent luxury at a spa, there’s scientific research to support its positive effects on our health.  Massage actually helps boosts the body’s immune system so it’s better able to fight disease. Massage also reduces stress and anxiety, headaches, insomnia, soft tissue strains or injuries, sports injuries and joint pain. We may not think of massage as an alternative to traditional medicine, but used effectively, it can be incredible beneficial in preventing and treating injuries.

Alternative Stress Relievers
Chronic stress can cause serious health issues. If you’re working too many hours or burning the candle at both ends, it’s important to find some safe form of relaxation that eases the pressure of stress on the body.

Reiki – rei (supernatural or spiritual)  ki (life force energy)
Reiki seeks to channel positive healing energy from the practitioner to the patient via a light touch or no touch at all. The goal is to support the body’s ability to heal itself. Currently, there isn’t much conclusive scientific evidence to support reiki’s effectiveness, but it is considered safe.


Qigong (pronounced chee) gong (pronounced gung)
Qigong is a Chinese practice that emphasizes breathing, posture and mental focus and awareness. It is similar to tai chi and has been called “moving meditation.” The goal is a deep state of relaxation.  There is a growing body of evidence to support the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong.

Sound Therapy
Sound therapy relies on a variety of sounds including voice, drums, tuning forks and Himalayan singing bowls to create a relaxing and stable frequency for the brain. This can result in deep relaxation or even a meditative or sleep state. Some claim it helps relieve aches, pains and anxiety.

Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness focuses energy on breathing to bring awareness to the present; the goal is to quiet the mind. The benefits range from reducing anxiety, depression, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) to lowering blood pressure. Mindfulness meditation appears to produce measurable changes in the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion. This form of meditation is gaining credibility and is used by some major corporations, like Google, to help its employees reduce stress and increase productivity.

Discuss it with your MD first
Many forms of alternative therapy can be incredibly beneficial , but before you seek out alternative methods of treatment, consult with your medical doctor.

Learn More
UCLA Collaborative Centers for Integrative Medicine
Dr. Mark Hyman- “Why Functional Medicine”
University of Maryland Medical Center – “Osteopathy”
Naturopathic Medicine Committee, Department of Consumer Affairs, state of California- Naturopathic Brochure 
Dr. Weil, “Cranial Osteopathy”
University of Maryland Medical Center – “What is Ayurveda?
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – “Traditional Chinese Medicine”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?
Consumer Reports – What You Should Know About Homeopathy
Harvard Health Publications – “The Health benefits of tai chi” National Institutes of  Health – “A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi”
National Institutes of Health – “Myofascial Release as a Treatment of Orthopedic Conditions: A Systemic Review
FDA – Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) : A “Cool” Trend that Lacks Evidence, Poses Risks
New York Times – What’s the Buzz? Sound Therapy
Science Daily – Osteopathic manipulative treatment resolves concussion symptoms, report suggests”
U.S. News & World Report – “What Is Reiki?”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – “Meditation: In Depth”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – “Mindfulness Meditation is Associated with Structural Changes in the Brain”
Mayo Clinic – “What can you tell me about myofascial release therapy as a treatment for back pain? Does it work?

Feature Image courtesy of Alex Proimos on Flickr @ Creative Commons

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