Alternative is one of a number of ways of referring to a variety of therapies and types of health care which are not normally available from practitioners trained in orthodox or conventional medicine.
The term natural remedies may sound too partisan for some tastes and it is a rather inexact term to apply to some systems. Some remedies may be termed as traditional however not every alternative therapy has a long tradition behind it. A great many therapies are more sophisticated than the term folk medicine suggests. The term holistic may suggest to some people that alternative therapies have a monopoly on holism and that they are inherently holistic. This may deny the fact that in the wrong hands they may also be practised in an unholistic manner.
The word complementary has often been interpreted as a way to show how conventional and (perhaps) unconventional therapies can work together in a complementary fashion. In a way this conceals that there is a basic rivalry between the two forms of treatment. Quite often they are totally opposed. For example homeopathy can never be used to complement the antibiotics of conventional medicine. So in the range of of descriptions; folk, natural, unorthodox, unconventional, alternative, complementary, traditional, holistic, alternative is, perhaps, the most accurate and the least contentious.
Alternative medicine takes a lot of different forms. There are total systems of healing, such as acupuncture, herbalism, and homeopathy Then there are alternative methods of diagnosing conditions which are not part of any overall system of medicine; these include Kinesiology (for allergies), iridology (for hidden disease), hair analysis (for nutritional defects). Other therapies and treatments that do not belong to any particular system may be a beneficial supplement to other (including conventional) treatment. These could include aromatherapy, massage, reflexology and hydrotherapy. There are also a number of self-help therapies, some of which may have started life as part of whole systems of medicine. In this category we could put meditation, visualisation, breathing and relaxation, exercise therapies such as Tai Chi, and aspects of food and diet.
In Ireland people are allowed to set themselves up as therapists of any kind without interference from the state. (Although there have been recent moves to regulate the industry.) The only legislative restriction is that an alternative practitioner must not claim to be a medical doctor. This explains the proliferation and availability of different kinds of alternative therapies in Ireland however it does not explain why the demand for them has grown so much in recent years.
Once upon a time the medical profession was respected above most others. Probably that is no longer the case. By the 1960's the medical profession had made some giant strides an unrealistic expectation; that medicine could eventually cure all man's ills, had become all-pervasive. It was inevitable that there would be a reaction against such blind faith. An important triggers may have been the Thalidomide tragedy in the early 1960s. All of a sudden public attention was drawn to the fact that modern drugs can have catastrophic side-effects. The public's perception of doctors changed significantly however the doctors themselves were slow to recognise this. They clung on to their conviction that their methods were right and seemed content to be dispensers of drugs.
The medical profession is now modifying its stance, but it has been a very slow process. In 1986 the Lancet published a report of studies on acupuncture and homeopathy, and in May 1986 the report of the British Medical Association's (BMA) Board of Science and Education on Alternative Therapy was published. In that report the BMA accepted that acupuncture, osteopathy and chiropractic might have a valid role in pain relief. The report concluded that there was "no logical class of alternative therapies: only therapies with and without good evidence for their efficacy". So-called conventional medicine is now having to admit that it does not have all the answers and that many of its previous stated objections to alternative medicine were not fully objective.
Despite this there is an gulf between orthodox western medicine and the main systems of alternative medicine. Orthodox medicine regards the human body as a mechanism. If it fails, or breaks down somewhere, the doctor intervenes to eradicate all symptoms of disease or illness in attempt to get everything working properly again. Most alternative systems of medicine see patients as multifaceted and disease is a late manifestation of underlying imbalances. Alternative medicine recognises that these imbalances need to be corrected. The disease is generally the body's own attempt to re-establish harmony; intervention should not therefore attack symptoms indiscriminately, since they are part of the body's natural coping mechanism.
Alternative systems of medicine stress the interconnectedness of all things and that there is a need for a holistic approach. Health and disease lie along a continuum and represent the person's degree of harmony with the wider universe. It is the task of the alternative healer to encourage the innate capacity of the patient to restore their state of balance and harmony.
Most alternative systems of medicine are largely preventive and that all must be done to help the person to preserve that crucial balance. This is true health-care, whereas conventional medicine has become sick-care. Doctors are only consulted consulted when something has obviously gone wrong; the orthodox system dispenses treatment but does not invest in health.
The increasing popularity of alternative medicine, regardless of whether or not orthodox medicine is seen to have failed, is perhaps also due in part to the opportunity it offers people the prospect of self-responsibility. People that subscribe to orthodox medicine tend to have a dependency upon medicine rather than on themselves. In contrast Alternative Medicine places responsibility back with the individual. Health is then one of the few remaining areas of life in which the individual can maintain a sense of self-control, self-determination, and self-empowerment - and therefore perhaps a truer sense of self.
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