Friday, February 1, 2013

Where I Stand Today on Using Alternative Therapies to Treat Chronic Illnesses

I used to be a consumer of alternative health services like acupuncture, homeopathy, nutritional consultations, body work and chiropractic. I started using alternative therapies in 1995.  Back then, I had a lot of medical symptoms that I didn't feel were getting adequately addressed by my primary care doctor.  I shared my frustration with an acquaintance and he suggested I try seeing his chiropractor that was helping him live well with HIV.

What can I say? After that glowing review I had to try this approach too.  And try it I did for over 15 years.

 But then about two years ago I read the blog post Let Us All Praise Medical Woo and started feeling really stupid about spending so much money out-of-pocket on alternative health care.  That post made me realized that I got sucked into a branch of the healthcare system that appealed to my unmet medical needs but ultimately delivers little in the way of health in terms of care or results.

 So for the last two years I've given up seeing alternative health providers and the only thing I have really missed is the occasional chiropractic adjustment.  What I have gained is more money in my pocket, which has translated into fewer arguments with my spouse about our budget, or rather, my inability to stay within ours due to my medical-related expenses.

I've also stopped beat myself up for being so gullible.  Because heck, even the Federal government has allocated money to alternative medicine via the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). This agency is tasked with figuring out which alternative treatments really work in the hopes of making a difference in medical outcomes.

If you head over to their website and look under research results, you'll see a lot of reports with the word "may" in them, like this one: Acupuncture May Be Helpful for Chronic Pain: A Meta-Analysis. Not exactly a stamp of approval or scientific proof of effectiveness, but perhaps enough to convince someone desperate for pain relief to give acupuncture a try, even if their health insurance doesn't cover it.  Which is where the danger of alternative health lies.

In my experience, alternative health practitioners sell hope.  They do this by convincing patients that they can get better if they pay for treatments, herbs, supplements and nutritional advice over the course of months and even years.  But there are few scientific studies that support the notion that alternative treatments can treat or cure specific diseases or illnesses. When it comes to embracing the hope that alternative therapies seem to offer, I know I'm not alone.  In the United States, consumers spent $34 BILLION dollars out-of-pocket on things like acupuncture, therapeutic touch and nutritional supplements in 2009.

By the way, I do still take nutritional supplements, some of the same ones that were recommend and sold to me by the alternative health practitioners I used to see.  But now, I skip the expense of an office visit to get these products "prescribed" to me. 

In retrospect, none of the alternative health professionals I saw claimed to treat or cure any of the specific illnesses I had.  When I first starting seeing them in the mid-1990's, they spoke to me a lot about enhancing my well-being and returning my body back to a state of health.  But after I started living with chronic pain and fatigue in 2004, and it started becoming clear that their treatments weren't really helping, some of them got as frustrated as I was about how I wasn't getting any better.

So some decided to ramped up their efforts, which only made me feel worse, not better.  That made it easy for me to decide stop seeing them.  Others blamed my use of medications--the ones prescribed by my doctors--as the barrier to achieving wellness, even after I explained how they were helping me manage my illnesses.  When it was suggested I need to cut back or stop them, I decided it was time to stop the alternative health treatments that weren't helping me instead.

Between the expense and the lack of results, it was easy for me to finally stop all alternative treatments about two years ago.

With the benefit of time and distance, I've come to see using alternative medicine to treat chronic illness as similar to putting a bandage on a deep puncture wound. I think it's the wrong-sized treatment for your health problems. When you are chronically ill, you don't need health enhancement, you need to regain your health.  From where I stand now, I just don't think alternative health practices can do that.

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elana r. snyder said...

selena i am nearly bedridden with pain and don't have a pcp or any pain meds. i do not have the means for all this naturopathy and such so i don't do it except for the occasional full body massagge which is also not covered by my medicare. i appreciate your post today

http://www.allostasishealth.com.au said...

I love to try acupuncture, never tried it before.

Geoffrey said...

Hi Selena,

You have an interesting perspective on homeopathy and other "alternative" therapies for treating chronic pain. I wonder if you've tried prolotherapy or trigger point injections.

Full Disclosure: I work for Delight Medical & Wellness--a pain management medical practice over in Century City.

With that said, prolotherapy is used by the world's top athletes to treat pain, (in fact, as recently as this weekend Dwight Howard of the LA Lakers had his shoulder injected.) Prolo is sometimes lumped in the category of homeopathy, but a good osteopath will continue to prescribe medications in conjunction with prolo treatments.

I just figured it's something you might want to look into. Good luck!