When diagnosed with a serious condition, many people turn to complementary or integrative medicine. The word “complementary” means "in addition to.” In the case of medicine, it refers to a variety of practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment. Similarly, integrative medicine makes use of a wide range of therapeutic approaches, including conventional medicine, with the goal of achieving health and healing.
Some examples of complementary and integrative therapies include massage, reiki, acupuncture, aromatherapy, homeopathy, and others. When used safely, complementary and integrative therapies can provide patients with tremendous comfort and a sense of wellbeing. However, there are also risks. Before choosing whether to use a complementary or integrative therapy, it is wise to consider the following points.
Communicate your thoughts. Many are drawn to integrative or holistic approaches, because the practitioners seem to take more time to ask questions about beliefs, lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the treatment, the person giving the treatment itself, and the condition. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.
If you are feeling this way, share these feelings with your doctor. He or she will likely be receptive and be able to partner with you to create the right combination of conventional medical treatment and complementary therapies.
Find trusted sources. While some clinical research on complementary practices has been conducted, many complementary therapies have not been tested, which means there are many questions about the effectiveness of these practices. What’s worse is that there is a lot of inaccurate and untrustworthy information available. The major risk is that the therapy that you try will actually cause harm or counteract a proven method of treatment.
Look to nationally recognized sources of information, like the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which is a branch of the National Institutes of Health (nccih.nih.gov) or the national society related to your diagnosis, like the American Cancer Society. Nearly all have issued guidance to patients regarding integrative therapies.
Of course, consult with your doctor regarding your plans to try any complementary therapy. He or she will be able to tailor nationally established recommendations to your specific case.
First do no harm. Therapies that rely on touch, sensation, movement, and meditation—like massage, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or yoga—have strong anecdotal support from patients and doctors alike. What’s more, as long as you are physically able and feel good during and after the activity, these practices have very few drawbacks.
Strong caution is recommended, however, for supplements of all kinds. Plant-based remedies can be powerful. And while they may be safe when taken alone or during times of good health, they can have dangerous and little-understood interactions. To be safe, share all of the products you currently use with your doctor and always check with your doctor before you use any new natural products or supplements.
Extra special caution is advised when choosing natural products, because they are not often regulated or standardized. Different brands or even different packages of the same product from the same company can vary widely in potency. And they may also contain harmful things not listed on the label. Once you are assured that a product you are interested in trying has no negative interactions, ask your doctor or practitioner to recommend a brand you can trust.
Beware of fraud. Those newly diagnosed with a serious condition are sometimes vulnerable to companies or practitioners who offer to replace conventional treatment with a simple, one-step answer to their disease. Using untested treatments in place of those recommended by those in the established medical profession is known as alternative medicine, and in almost all cases, your doctor will recommend against it. If these methods worked on their own, we would most certainly be using them. Replacing the recommended care with an alternative method may cause you to miss important treatment that could save your life.
If you feel compelled to investigate complementary therapies and you follow these guidelines, you are very likely to find a combination of conventional treatment and beneficial complementary approaches that will contribute to your sense of self, your peace of mind, and your recovery.
Dr. Matthew Vernon is the medical director of the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. He is board certified in Radiation Oncology and has served on the medical staff at SVMC since 2013. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more articles like this one, visit svhealthcare.org/wellnessconnection.