Pros & Cons of Alternative Medicine, Modern Medicine, & Traditional Medicine

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Wading through the options of medicine for patients with chronic conditions

Imagine this scenario:

You’re a long-time migraine-sufferer. You’ve been shuttled around from doctor to doctor, handed prescription after prescription after prescription. Your medicine cabinet is filled with medications – both prescription and over-the-counter. Your purse sounds like a pharmacy – every time you set it down, a pill bottle rattles.

After a while, you wonder, “I wonder if there are other ways to treat my migraines?”

In conjunction with all of these prescriptions, you begin to make appointments with massage therapists, chiropractors, apply essential oils to your skin, and take supplements.

And wonder of all wonders – your migraines actually begin to improve!

This, my fellow nurses, is a very brief summary of the past twenty years of my life.

As a patient or a health care provider, it can be difficult to wade through the various options of medicine available to patients with chronic conditions, especially when we must consider that what works for one patient may not work for another patient.

Modern Medicine

What is it? If you’ve ever gone to an urgent care clinic because you had strep throat or pink eye and left with a prescription for an antibiotic, you’ve been the recipient of modern medicine.

Modern medicine, or standard medical care, is practiced by a medical doctor (an MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (a DO). It is also practice by the healthcare team: “…physical therapists, physician assistants, psychologists, and registered nurses.”

Pros: The rate at which modern medicine is advancing is astonishing. You can sit on your couch and watch TV and see commercials for new medications at an alarming pace – and these new medications have reduced our death rates for stroke, heart disease, and cancer. In fact, due to modern medicine, the death rate from heart disease has decreased by 60% since 1970. The death rate HIV/AIDS has dropped more than 75% since 1995, when it was at its peak.

Cons: However, critics of modern medicine are quick to point out that there is a pill for everything. Yes, we are quick to create more drugs, and yes, we are living longer due to said drugs – but are we living better?

Medicine has evolved, and we now have surgeons who are able to perform surgeries robotically. We have cardiovascular surgeons who can perform open-heart surgery using a minimally invasive approach. We have physicians trained in specialties such as oncology, cardiology, nephrology, podiatry, and urology.

But critics point out that medicine has evolved to the point that we’re treating disease instead of preventing it.

Alternative Medicine

What is it? Alternative medicine is a treatment that is used in place of a conventional medical treatment. For example, if your physician prescribed you a blood pressure medication and you opted instead to overhaul your diet completely in hopes of reducing your blood pressure, this could be an example of an alternative medicine.

Pros: Often, alternative medicine is considered “natural.” Most people who opt for alternative medicine are choosing these treatments because they are seeking a more natural approach to healing their chronic conditions.

Examples of alternative medicine include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic care
  • Reiki, which is an energy therapy that relies on the practitioner to use healing energy to mend imbalances by placing their hands gently over the body.
  • Herbal medicine – the World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world’s population use some type of herbal medicine, and studies show that herbal preparations are effective at treating allergies, chronic fatigue, and premenstrual syndrome, amongst other health maladies.
  • Ayurvedic medicine, which is a 3,000-year-old Indian medical system that is still in use today. It utilizes herbs, diets, and specific health practices to treat illness.

Cons: Certain alternative medicine practices have been studied and have been deemed to be safe, and even effective. Others have not been heavily studied – and some have even been found to be harmful. For example, the products used in Ayurvedic medicine may contain toxic minerals, such as lead.

In addition, just because something is “natural” does not always mean it is safe. A prime example is the herb kava kava; this herb is often used to treat anxiety, but it can also cause liver damage.

A good practice would be to discuss alternative treatments with your physician. You may also want to consider complementary medicine, which is utilizing alternative treatments along with standard medicine. For example, I take prescription medicine daily to prevent migraines. I also go to a chiropractor once weekly, because these therapies complement each other.

Traditional Medicine

What is it? According to the World Health Organization, traditional medicine is, “the knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”

Although there are various forms of traditional medicine, one of the most prevalent and most commonly used is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), as it dates back over 3,000 years and is still in practice today.

TCM uses yin, “…the earth, cold, and femininity” and yang, “the sky, heat, and masculinity.” Yin and yang must be in balance for good health.

Pros: Although TCM is 3,000 years old, it is still evolving, and its prevalence and practice is growing throughout the world. It is used to prevent and treat disease.

TCM relies heavily on a variety of practices, but it uses herbal medicine. Three of its most commonly used herbs are gingko biloba, garlic, and ginseng.

Cons: The herbs used in TCM can be unsafe in certain individuals. In addition, there is less regulations in place for the safety of herbs. For example, when you pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, you can be assured that it has tested to ensure its safety and its efficacy. You cannot be as certain regarding your herbals.

As such, taking an herb that has been untested can lead to toxicity, especially in people who are ill and the elderly.

The Bottom Line…

Regardless of which branch of medicine you prescribe to, you should ensure that any medications, supplements, or treatments you are utilizing are safe – discuss with your healthcare provider.

Resources
Kiefer, D, MD. (2016, November 1). What exactly is alternative medicine? Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/

National Cancer Institute. (2015, April 10). Complementary and alternative medicine. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam

Sullivan, T. (2018, May 6). Modern medicine vs alternative medicine: different levels of evidence. Retrieved from https://www.policymed.com/2011/08/modern-medicine-vs-alternative-medicine-different-levels-of-evidence.html

Wachtel-Galor, S., & Benzie, I.F.F. (2011). Herbal medicine: a growing field with a long tradition. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92773/

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About Author

Krystina Ostermeyer RN, BSN, CDE
Krystina Ostermeyer RN, BSN, CDE

Krystina is a 30-something RN, BSN, CDE who has worked in a variety of nursing disciplines, from telemetry to allergy/immunotherapy to most recently, diabetes education. She is also a writer and has enjoyed expanding her writing career over the past several years. She balances her careers as a nurse and a writer with being a wife and a mother. She has a four year old son who is an inquisitive, energetic little guy who is up for anything. She also enjoys reading, traveling, cooking, baking, and yoga (both practicing and teaching).