holistic vs. traditional medicine
How are conventional and holistic medicine different?
Western and complementary medicine each have their own approach, different disciplines, and treatment options. Each has its place; this article explores areas in which each excels and different types of holistic medicine.
You know you have searched for “a natural remedy for x” or “alternative therapy for y.” There are many words for these “other” forms of medicine: holistic, natural, alternative, complementary, etc. Whatever term is used, you usually know that it is referring to methods other than Western medicine. Western medicine itself has many names – some people call it “traditional.” However, I would contend that traditional medicine should refer to forms of healing that have been around for thousands of years. It is most commonly called conventional or the word the medical world uses: allopathic. Holistic means looking at the whole individual but holistic has become synonymous with an alternative or natural, so these terms are interchangeable.
What does holistic medicine mean?
Conventional medicine relies most heavily on the use of pharmaceutical interventions and surgery. That is not to demonize these therapies because they have their place. If, (God forbid), I break my arm, take me to the nearest ER. Western medicine has made revolutionary leaps in terms of medical advances that we sometimes forget to appreciate how far it has come. Drugs that keep chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure and diabetes in check for decades. Surgeries that add years to life by fixing structural issues. Interventions that save lives like organ transplants and cancer therapy. Type 1 diabetes was a death sentence until insulin was discovered. People casually refer to “having a knee done;” a surgery to replace their actual joint with an artificial substitute which can immensely improve quality of life. Most people think of MDs (medical doctors) but conventional medicine also includes dentists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, PTs (physical therapists) and DOs (osteopathic doctors).
Conventional medicine absolutely has its place, but what about alternative medicines? They have their place, too. Collectively referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (or CAM), these many healing systems can also be beneficial. Keep in mind that there is also a lot of overlap in these circles. In some states, chiropractors can draw blood and act as primary care physicians. In some states, naturopathic doctors can prescribe medication. Some parts of the world still have homeopathic hospitals and traditional or “folk” healers. Let us dive into what some of these alternative options are.
- Chiropractic medicine is probably the most well-known alternative medicine and is primarily a system of treating the musculoskeletal system using the hands (the name comes from the Greek words for “done by the hand.”) Chiropractors most often treat back pain, joint pain, nerve issues, muscle tension, headaches, etc. Some chiropractors also use nutrition, herbs, and supplements to treat these and other conditions. Many DC (chiropractic doctors) also do rehab work for patients after an injury, car accident, or surgery. DC will sometimes utilize acupuncture if they have the appropriate training.
- Acupuncture is part of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) and uses very thin needles to affect the body. Acupuncture is built upon the foundation of meridians which are lines of energy on both sides of the body which connect to different organ systems. After a thorough intake and TCM diagnosis, underlying pathology or causes of disease are identified and treated. More about TCM below. Acupuncturists typically have a master’s or doctoral degree.
- Naturopathic medicine, in my biased opinion (as a naturopathic doctor myself), is the most direct alternative to conventional medicine. We share the language of medicine, we adhere to rigorous standards for training and licensing, and we have large overlaps in the scope of practice. Some states license naturopathic doctors to prescribe, but most NDs view prescription medicine as only one of their many tools. NDs utilize dietary changes (like some MDs), botanical medicine, hydrotherapy, physical medicine (similar to DC), and some also employ energy medicine like homeopathy. NDs operate as natural GPs (general practitioners) or PCPs (primary care physicians).
- Massage and body work is another area that many people are familiar with but also has numerous branches. You may be familiar with some, all or none of them: tui na, Rolfing, deep tissue, cupping, shiatsu, Swedish, cranio-sacral, naprapathy, etc. Naprapaths are very similar to chiropractors but they focus on the soft tissues of the spine instead of the joints (like DCs). Cupping and tui na belong to TCM. Massage is thought of primarily to treat areas of muscular tension and pain. Myofascial work or “body work” can also be very effective for reducing stress and anxiety and have positive effects for conditions like arthritis and heart disease. Specialty massage can be utilized for pain control in cancer patients and pregnant women.
- Energy work is definitely considered “alternative” and, like massage, has many traditions – chakra work, Reiki, angel healing, shamanic healing, homeopathy and “folk healing” are all often thought of as energy therapies. Prayer, affirmations, the law of attraction and positive intentions can also be considered energetic modalities.
TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) and Ayurveda are two examples of alternative “whole body” systems of medicine. TCM comes from ancient China, and Ayurveda comes from India. These systems encompass the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of their followers. They are each built of many pieces. Many people are familiar with yoga, but most do not know that it is just 1 pillar of Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda also includes dietary recommendations, herbal medicine, and physical medicine. Similarly