Updated on January 2, 2023
For many years, alternative medicine remained outside mainstream medicine due to a paucity of scientifically validated evidence. Today, this is rapidly changing—thanks to new developments in alternative medicine research and evolving perspectives among patients and clinicians. Rather than rejecting alternatives to conventional medicine out of hand, patients and physicians are looking to benefit from recent findings. Studies suggest that alternative medicine increasingly plays a role in the treatment of a multitude of conditions and that younger generations of patients and clinicians employ alternative treatment methods more than their predecessors. As alternative therapies increasingly move into the mainstream, patients have more options for finding relief from symptoms than ever before.
Alternative medicine refers to medical treatments that fall outside mainstream medical care. Historically, clinicians refrained from prescribing such therapies due to a lack of empirical evidence of efficacy. Patients, however, often sought out alternative therapies on their own, and anecdotal evidence has long suggested that alternative therapies can have significant benefits for a wide variety of medical conditions.
Beginning in 1999, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, with the help of federal government funding, sought to investigate whether these anecdotal claims could be replicated on a statistically significant level in empirical studies. The result was the emergence of a still-expanding body of research demonstrating that many alternative medicine modalities are safe and effective. Such research has spurred increased integration of alternative practices in mainstream treatment environments.
Today alternative medicine is a common component of regimens for a host of medical conditions. Research suggests that alternative medicine is now used by up to 91 percent of oncology patients and is offered by 86 percent of U.S. hospices. In the field of psychiatry, alternative treatments like nutritional supplements have been shown to provide meaningful help for symptoms related to a wide variety of mental health disorders. For example, 60 percent of Norwegian physicians have been properly trained to use acupuncture as an analgesic, and 69 percent of Australian hospitals incorporate alternative treatments for cancer patients. Alternative medicine is undeniably reshaping clinical practice.
One of the fields where alternative medicine is quickly becoming ubiquitous is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Studies show that up to 95 percent of children with autism receive alternative therapies and alternative medicine is now an essential component of many such strategies. In U.S. autism treatment programs, commonly used alternative medicine modalities include:
As the prevalence of alternative medicine regimens in autism shows, not all patients respond well to conventional treatments or experience adequate relief from symptoms. A growing body of both anecdotal and empirically verified evidence suggests that alternative practices can provide significant help for symptoms even where conventional interventions have failed. Moreover, this research shows that some alternative practices can simultaneously improve the overall quality of life for individuals with autism.
Another area where alternative medicine is making significant inroads is gastrointestinal conditions. The prevalence of alternative medicine use in pediatric patients with GI issues, for example, is as high as 83 percent. Multivitamin supplementation is the most common alternative therapy used for GI issues, representing 91 percent of alternative medicine use. However, a number of other modalities are common, including:
According to researchers, there is compelling evidence that these therapies can provide meaningful relief of gastrointestinal symptoms. For example, one research cohort found that nutritional supplements were perceived as helpful by 47 percent of parents of pediatric patients. Meanwhile, a large-scale study on adults discovered that more than 80 percent of respondents with a GI condition reported that alternative therapies improved their symptoms. With evidence of efficacy mounting, the popularity of these therapies will likely soar as patients seek more complete resolution of symptoms and improved tolerability of treatment.
As interest in alternative medicine grows among clinicians and patients, there are a number of challenges that must be addressed to ensure safe use of alternative practices. For example, patients often embark on alternative therapies independently, without the supervision of physicians. However, this can result in improper treatment and create potentially hazardous interactions with conventional therapies. To ensure patient safety and create effective treatment plans, physicians need to acknowledge patients’ desire to try alternative modalities and seek the expertise necessary to guide the integration of these modalities. Newly scientifically validated methodologies for certain alternative medicine practices are already providing physicians with new tools to craft meaningful treatment experiences for today’s increasingly knowledgeable and empowered patients.
The mainstreaming of alternative medicine is spurred in large part by mounting evidence of efficacy. As a result, the distance between alternative therapies and mainstream medicine is closing rapidly, even in modalities where empirical evidence is only now emerging. To fully realize the potential of alternative medicine, however, further research is needed. Deeper and broader investigations into alternative practices will bring a wider array of alternative medicines into the fold of conventional medicine as the underlying science and physiological effects of alternative therapies are better understood. At the same time, empirical investigations will help us to create safe and effective protocols, refine therapy selection, and shape clinician and patient expectations. With thoughtful study designs and rigorous analysis, alternative medicine research can open up new possibilities for healing and move the medical establishment toward more integrative models of care.
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