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Alternative Medicine: What is in a Name?

By Expert HERWriter
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Wellness related image Photo: Getty Images

For the last month or so I have been asked to write about topics that generally fall into the category of alternative medicine. I find it interesting that it seems like alternative medicine has become a catch-all phrase for medicines that used to be considered medicine before the invention of antibiotics in the late 1800’s and early 1900s.

I thought I would look up the definition from three reputable source to see of there was a consistent definition of alternative medicine.

I started with the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition to define alternative medicine as a variety of therapeutic or preventive health care practices, such as homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, and herbal medicine, that do not follow generally accepted medical methods and may not have a scientific explanation for their effectiveness.

As a naturopathic doctor I didn’t think this definition was accurate enough since many of the naturopathic practices that taught during my four years at an accredited naturopathic medical school do have scientific explanations.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has a more complicated but concrete definition of alternative medicine.

The definition from the NCCAM's first comment is that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is difficult to define because it is very broad and changeable. This is the premise we started this blog with as well.

NCCAM defines alternative medicine as practices and health care systems that are not considered part of conventional medicine or western medicine. It defines conventional medicine, which is sometimes called allopathic medicine, as medicine generally practiced by medical doctors (M.D.) and osteopathic doctors (D.O.).

It also includes registered nurses, physical therapists, psychologist and other allied health professionals under the conventional medicine umbrella as well. NCCAM also defines complementary medicine and alternative medicine differently.

Complementary medicine is any medicine that is practiced along with conventional medicine.

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EmpowHER Guest

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April 4, 2012 - 12:17am
EmpowHER Guest

Allow me to give another way of looking at it - there is not 'alternative' medicine. There is medicine that works, and there is medicine that doesn't. Most of what is labeled as alternative has not been demonstrated scientifically, and most of it doesn't work. Note that I say most, not all - there could be some form of alternative medicine that has yet to be demonstrated through the scientific process to work but does have efficacy and may one day be accepted into mainstream medicine, but almost every claim of alternative medicine I've heard off has not done so and have not demonstrated efficacy beyond placebo.

Now, you have said you went to a naturopathic school and they had "scientific explanations" for it. My question to you is how do you know these explanations were actually scientific? A lot of claims are made using scientific sounding claims that are not actually scientific - buzz words like 'toxins', 'energy', or even 'quantum' are often used, but ill defined. For instance, if someone says the problem is due to toxins, quite often they won't actually be able to name those toxins. It's scary and impressive enough to get interest, but vague enough that no actual details are given.

So in regards to your own field, naturopathy, I looked up the definition - "Naturopathy, or Naturopathic Medicine, is a form of alternative medicine based on a belief in vitalism, which posits that a special energy called vital energy or vital force guides bodily processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and adaptation." So let's go back to the claims your school made - how do you know they are actually scientific? What experiments have verified this "vital energy or force" and how to measure and detect it? Were the methods and results of these experiments submitted to respected peer-review journals? If so, did they pass the checks on the methods so that other scientists could repeat the experiments and verify the results for themselves? These are important questions to ask, because if you aren't sure you can't with certainty claim that those explanations are real science, especially in the face of organizations like the American Cancer Society saying "Available scientific evidence does not support claims that naturopathic medicine can cure cancer or any other disease, since virtually no studies on naturopathy as a whole have been published."

January 27, 2012 - 7:55am
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