Alternative medicine is a term used to describe the act of assists medicine in healing. However, it is not proven, tested, and claimed to be effective. Alternative medicine has several synonyms that are interchangeable. It primarily relies on pseudoscience rather than medical science. Traditional practices are known to be “alternative” when they are excluded from their original settings. The term is frequently called by its derogatory names, with pseudo being one of them.
These practices function against the science of how a human body works and this makes alternative medicine even superstitious, sometimes. This medicine is different from experimental medicine as they are frequently tested in labs whereas alternative ones and their experiments lack objectivity. Therefore, their results are often rejected.
When experimental medicine fails to work, alternative therapies are used which may even improve the health and in cases of cancer or HIV infection studies have proven that resorting to alternative medicine worsens conditions. This may have occurred due to the patient avoiding effective medicine and in reality, some alternative practices such as cyanide poisoning from amygdalin can be extremely harmful.
The industry of alternative gains high profits with flexible regulations being one cause and a strong lobby being another. Moreover, their marketing is termed as “natural”. Even though billions of dollars have been wasted in researching alternative medicine there has been no positive result as of yet. The practices that have achieved success have succeeded because they were undertaken over very specific definitions.
Definitions and terminology
As mentioned above alternative medicine is used interchangeably with the following names:
- Complementary medicine
- Integrative medicine
- Holistic medicine
- Unorthodox medicine
- Unconventional medicine
- New age medicine
As branding changed, the alternatives changed as well. Moreover, alternative medicine is frequently referred to as being “natural” whereas conventional medicine is mocked for being “artificial”.
“Alternative” does not mean that it is effective compared to normal medicines, even though their promoters believe that it is. Therefore, the terminology is loose and stretchy. This can mean that a distinction exists between the two however; the comparison is between one type of medicine that is tested and the other that hasn’t been tested or proven.
Alternative medicine can be defined as a collection of theories, practices, and products that have more or equal effects as medicine, but its effectiveness has not been proven under a laboratory. Whereas “biomedicine” is a branch of medical science that is applied on various principles of many subjects and as medicine is based on evidence, alternative ones are derived or based upon hearsay, religion, myths, superstitions and unscientific sources that have no objectivity and cannot be proven.
Alternative medicine is treated with sympathy in the social and political world for not receiving access to research labs and funding that conventional medicine receives with ease. However, it is true that some conventional doctors prescribe alternative medicine and this pushes their importance and viability to such an extent that there are courses in US medical schools that promote alternative therapies.
Complementary or integrative medicine
The combination of alternative medicine with functional medical treatment is known as complementary medicine. One example is acupuncture where the body’s vital points are struck with needles to enhance the flow of energy in a person. It is believed that combining the two will bring forth the best treatment and that treatment is called “quackademic medicine”.
Traditional medicine is a collection of practices that exist before science came into being whereas; “eastern medicine” is the traditional medicines of Asia where conventional bio-medicine came quite later.
Holistic medicine is a synonym of alternative medicine. The concept of this name is of a “whole” person, in contrast to the side-effects of normal medicines.
Obstacles in defining alternative medicine
It is said by scientists that these names should not be used in such ways because they do not refer to or point to any medicine at all. While others believe that alternative medicine should not be counted in the category of medicines because it does not work upon the settings that it should. Alternative medicine is also described as “non-mainstream” whereas it is considered to be more efficient in another case.
Therefore, this matter falls under debate often as conventional medicine practitioners say that placing a “placebo” rules out objectivity from testing and people have gone so far as to say that ‘there is no such thing as alternative medicine, either medicines work or they don’t.
There are many types of alternative medicine, products, practices, and therapies that exist. Because alternative medicine is spread across a wide span of area, they differ because of culture, religion and therefore, the methods keep changing from each other. Every culture has its own set of values and beliefs that affects alternative medicine directly.
Unscientific belief systems:
Naturopathy or homeopathy, instead of conventional medicine is not supported by science at all.
In this, it is believed that the body has the capacity to heal itself using the resources it already has. However, there are issues as naturopaths reject vaccination and science proves that naturopathic medicine cannot cure diseases at all.
In this, it is believed that a substance that causes the symptoms of disease in healthy people can cure similar symptoms in sick ones. However, homeopathy is believed to be invalid on a scientific level.
Traditional ethnic systems:
Alternative medicine systems such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda (India) etc are not accepted because these practices are unscientific therefore, not proven to be true. Traditional medicine will be considered alternative if it is utilized outside the home region.
Traditional Chinese medicine:
Practices like herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy are found in TCM. However, they are based on superstition and religion therefore people reject them.
Based on religion, it believes that if someone is sick then their natural balance is out and herbs, minerals, and plants can reinstate that balance. However, there are serious safety issues regarding Ayurveda and the stuff used in it can be harmful to people.
These beliefs are a collection of energies that are beyond the realm of physics and science.
Based on energies that surround the body however, writes have spoken against it due to the lack of objective evidence which makes it doubtful.
Usage of electromagnetic fields in unconventional matters however it is said that these fields can cause diseases.
Manipulation of the spine that helps the posture of the body. However, this is not proven by science to be helpful.
Based on chakras and the belief that a practitioner can fix the chakra of the patient by placing their hands on them. However, this too lacks credible scientific evidence.
Herbal remedies and other substances:
There is a wide range of substances that are used in different ways to help the body become better. They may be herbs, foods, non-vitamin supplements etc and these may also be animal products that have gained commercial popularity due to branding and marketing. However, they have shown to be less effective and this reduces their validity.
Religion, faith healing, and prayer:
Christian faith healing:
God intervenes to heal the person however; studies have proved that this claim is false.
National Center on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has divided medicines into many groups. They include energies, magnet therapy, colorpuncture but science has proven that they have no effect on the body.
Dialing back to the 1970s, a group of diverse medical practices was branded as “alternative medicine” and western media called them “irregular practices”. Before the 1970s, practitioners who were not taking part in science-based medicine were called irregular practitioners and were rejected. Then, the practices that were not part of the science world became collectively known as “alternative medicine”.
Thereafter, misleading marketing campaigns increased the popularity of alternative medicine and the side-effects of conventional medicine pushed people to try and test alternative medicine more. After this, many books, articles, and journals were published that talked about alternative medicine and this led to them being popular.
After 1910 Flexner’s Report led to the abolishment of alternative medicine being taught in medical schools. Students were taught basic medicine and related topics. But by 2001, some schools started offering CAM training and this led to an increase in the regulations and rules imposed by medical bodies.
Since alternative medicine cannot be proven by science, they face many rejections and their claims are questioned and this is where their efficacy drops down. Medical bodies have argued that the ineffective alternative therapies may work because the body naturally recovers and this is thought to work in the way of alternative medicine practitioners.
Many scientists have spoken against alternative medicine and they called it weak, based on the placebo effect. However, Ernst believes that conventional doctors can learn a lot from chiropractors and homeopaths.
It becomes difficult to prove the efficacy of alternative medicine in clinical trials and the Helsinki Declaration says that these practices cannot be done as they are unethical.
Mechanism of action
A placebo is a medical treatment that has no therapeutic value. This concept says that patients will be given a “fake pill” that they will perceive to be helpful. However, patients report betterment in their health. However, research says that this is a flawed method.
Regression to the mean
Natural recovery from an illness may be misbelieved as help from alternative medicine. This concept says that an extreme result is bound to be chased by a less extreme result.
It may be that patients report positive results due to “experimental subordination” or they are just being polite. Moreover, the decreased use of conventional medicine may be credited as help from alternative medicine.
Use and regulation
Patients show interest in alternative therapies because they are not given drugs to use. There are also psychological effects that make them think it’ll work.
Alternative medicine and its industry are portrayed as a “superhero” in comparison to “big pharma” that is shown to be the “villain”.
It is believed that in minorities due to lower literacy rates alternative medicine stays popular and the marketing propels their success in front of people. There are also conspiracy theories that revolve around conventional medicine and biases make these scientific practices unpopular so people seek non-expensive options instead.
Prevalence of use
Lifestyle choices have made CAM more popular. Since traditional remedies like herbs, plants are found easily they are used more often by people. Even though NCCAM has spent billions of dollars researching alternative practices, they still show unfavorable results.
Alternative medicine has achieved success in pushing for less regulation than conventional medicine, for example, chiropractors while others have found it difficult to gain full regulation from government authorities like Ayurveda from FDA.
Risks and problems
Since alternative medicine is untested, its results can be fatal and harmful as well. Practitioners of alternative medicine argue that their medicine should not face regulation otherwise the patients seeking cure will face problems. One example is of a woman who almost bled to death before an operation. She admitted to drinking “power potions” to gain strength.
Alternative medicine carries its fair share of risks and side-effects with it and even though the FDA tries to regulate these medicines, people still believe and consume them regularly.