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Is Complementary And Alternative Medicine Right For You?

Many of these approaches, either on their own or with traditional medicine, can ease many symptoms and prevent others.

Two trends in the demographic profile of the United States appear headed towards convergence—the impending shift of the huge baby boomer generation toward retirement and old age and the increasing interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which currently has its highest rates of use in those 40 to 64 years old. It seems quite likely that the use of CAM in an aging population will increase dramatically in the coming years. It's already gaining in popularity, whether it's seniors practicing tai chi to help with their flexibility or arthritis sufferers taking supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin to help with joint point.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, CAM typically means "those treatments and healthcare practices not taught widely in medical schools, not generally used in hospitals, and not usually reimbursed by medical insurance companies." That's a very broad definition, but then CAM involves many different approaches, also called modalities.

Unlike conventional medicine, or biomedicine, CAM recognizes the physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual dimensions of the individual, which is why it's referred to as "holistic." Holistic medicine had been the first line of treatment for centuries until the advent of modern medicine.

Biomedicine seeks to cure the disease; CAM tries to heal the person. Biomedicine usually treats symptoms after they appear; CAM usually focuses on prevention and health promotion. The basic philosophy underlying the various CAM modalities is to manage diet, lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, relationships and even energy balance before disease arises.

The holistic perspective used in CAM makes its various modalities suitable to patients with mental health problems, especially those of a chronic nature or related to chronic physical conditions such as arthritis pain and fibromyalgia. Other conditions that may respond to CAM modalities are anxiety, depression, substance abuse, cognitive decline and even dementia. Older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions usually combined with psychological or behavioral aspects. It is for ailments like these that CAM seems tohave a positive impact.

CAM: A Wide Choice Of Modalities

There are four main types of CAM: biologically-based techniques, manipulative and body-based techniques, energy medicine and mind-body techniques, and these practices often overlap.

Biologically-based techniques use vitamins and supplements, healthy foods and other nature-based products to enhance the person's diet. Dietary supplements contain important substances believed essential for body processes, such as vitamins and minerals, herbs, enzymes, botanicals and probiotics. Popular examples are the botanical St. John's wort, the mineral selenium and the probiotic acidophilus often found in yogurt.

Manipulative and body-based techniques include massage—of which more than 80 styles exist, reflexology and the chiropractic technique of spinal manipulation. These modalities address imbalances in body structures and systems such as the circulatory system, the lymph glands of the immune system, soft tissues, bones and joints.

Energy medicine taps into energy fields such as magnetic fields and biofields to produce beneficent influences on health. Magnetic fields are well-known; biofields are believed to be subtle forms of energy present in people. Magnet therapy, Reiki and healing touch therapy are some techniques used in energy medicine.

Mind-body medicine addresses the interaction of the mind and the body and aims to tap mind power in regulating bodily functions. The most well-known methods used here are meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, imagery and creative outlets like art and music.

CAM: A Wide Range Of Benefits

Being holistic, most CAM approaches do not compartmentalize the physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual dimensions of health and disease.

For example, an older adult suffering from depression, lower back pain, arthritis and social isolation may be prescribed various pain medications, antidepressants and anti-inflammatory drugs in conventional medicine. These interventions do not really address the root cause of the health conditions, may encourage chemical dependency and may lead to problems such as harmful drug interactions.

In contrast, the CAM approach of regular participation in yoga classes can address those same problems. Yoga has proven effective in lowering anxiety, controlling pain and enhancing musculoskeletal flexibility, while attending the classes will diminish the social isolation.

This is not to say that CAM can or should replace traditional treatment, and never do so without consulting a medical doctor. But CAM approaches from the "complementary" side of this branch of medicine can work with the traditional approach, sometimes resulting in fewer or smaller doses of prescription drugs being needed, for instance.

CAM: What Research Shows

In comparison to traditional medicine, very limited scientific study has addressed CAM approaches. However, enough scientific evidence has accumulated to show that some CAM treatments are effective for certain conditions:

  • For arthritis, CAM approaches include glucosamine sulfate, acupuncture and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • For hypertension, CAM approaches include meditation and biofeedback
  • For depression, CAM approaches include exercise through yoga and tai chi

Arthritis. A number of arthritis studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association have concluded that glucosamine sulfate (which comes as a dietary supplement) helps osteoarthritis. The exact mechanism is not clear, but it appears to help protect the cartilage in the bone. Acupuncture has been thoroughly studied in many randomized clinical trials, which pointed to its effectiveness in treating osteoarthritis of the knee. Similar clinical trials have shown that TENS helped in controlling the pain of arthritis.

High blood pressure. Known medically as hypertension, high blood pressure is the most common cardiovascular risk in the US, especially among older adults. Since 1976, trials have demonstrated a useful therapeutic role for biofeedback in treating hypertension. Meditation is also useful for people with hypertension. Major medical journals have published results of clinical trials demonstrating that transcendental meditation has helped reduce hypertension among various populations. Again, this isn't to say you won't still need to take blood pressure medication, but that these modalities may help lower your numbers.

Depression. Depression afflicts 15 to 20 percent of older adults. Many of these people may not be getting adequate treatment because they wish to avoid the stigma of psychotherapy or the side effects of antidepressant drugs. Many clinical studies have concluded that exercise, including the exercises in yoga and tai chi, helps to reduce symptoms of depression.

The proportion of older adults in the population is increasing, and with this trend more people are likely to suffer chronic ailments and the diseases of aging. CAM approaches will inevitably become more popular. It is important for older people and their caregivers to get as much accurate information as possible about these approaches to help ensure their continued well-being.