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Alternative Medicine: Is It Really Worth The Risk?

Aug 17, 2007
There has been a surge in recent years of people looking to alternative medicine for treatment of illness. It is a practice that generates a great deal of controversy both inside and outside of the traditional world of medicine, and an issue that some experts say does not receive enough attention.

What Is Alternative Medicine?
The most commonly accepted definition of alternative medicine is a treatment or substance that is untested or unproven using accepted scientific standards. Common types of alternative medicine include herbs, supplements, therapies and activity programs that fall outside of traditional medical practice and are questionable in terms of safety and effectiveness. For example, acupuncture, massage, meditation, herbal teas, and plant extracts are quite popular forms of alternative medicine that many medical doctors say are ineffective at best and dangerous at worst for some conditions.

Why Is Alternative Medicine So Popular?
Alternative medicine has grown in popularity as more and more people face the inevitable aches, pains and illnesses that come with aging. In some cases, traditional medicine has failed to produce a cure and patients go in search of other options for treatment of their illness. In other cases, patients believe strongly that natural methods of treating illness are superior to traditional medicine so they seek treatment from alternative practitioners rather than medical doctors.

The Risks Of Alternative Medicine
Some of the greatest risks associated with alternative medicine come from the use of substances that are untested, ineffective, and sometimes unsafe. The makers of such substances often make exaggerated claims of effectiveness and/or misrepresent the science associated with the substance in order to convince consumers to buy their product, even if use of the product may endanger the consumer's health or well-being.

For example, some herbal remedies are promoted as having the ability to improve memory, increase metabolism, or even cure diseases like cancer and heart disease. In practice, though, some remedies may actually cause physiological harm when taken in excessive amounts, ephedra being one well-publicized recent example. Another risk is that a person with a serious condition such as cancer, heart disease or some other chronic illness will forego more traditional treatments that have been proven effective in favor of alternative treatments that are of questionable value. They may be literally risking their lives by treating illness with unproven alternative medicines rather than scientifically validated traditional medicines. Another common risk associated with alternative medicine is when a patient uses both traditional and alternative methods of treatment but does not disclose this to their medical doctor. It is very common for prescription medications to produce negative interactions when taken at the same time as alternative medicines like herbs and plant extracts. These interactions may range from diminished effectiveness all the way up to and including toxicity that causes serious harm. If the medical doctor is not made aware of any other substances the patient may be taking, he or she may unknowingly prescribe a medication that produces and unwanted or harmful interaction.

How To Recognize Potentially Risky Alternative Medicines
A good rule of thumb to follow is that if a product, substance or therapy sounds too good to be true then it probably is. While you may already be familiar with this cliché, it is worth repeating because it is often true when it comes to alternative medicine. Beware of any product that claims to be "miraculous", "a scientific breakthrough", "amazingly effective", "an ancient remedy", "a secret formula" or possess some other attribute that supposedly makes it superior to more traditional medicines.

If you are considering an alternative form of therapy, such as reflexology, acupuncture, biofeedback or the like, carefully check the qualifications of the therapy practitioner before undergoing treatment. What kind of training has he or she received, and is that training from a reputable source? Research the treatment itself to determine if it is something that has been scientifically tested, evaluated, and found to be effective. Don't take the practitioner's word for it, and don't accept at face value the claims of anyone who stands to make money or benefit in some way if you choose to undergo the treatment.

Finally, ask your doctor about any form of alternative medicine that you are considering. If you don't feel comfortable doing so then find a doctor with whom you feel more at ease and discuss the alternative treatment you are considering. Remember that a trained medical professional has the education and experience to help you make good, safe decisions about whether or not to use alternative medicine.
About the Author
Emanuele Allenti offers valuable tips and help about alternative medicine at best alternative medicine and alternative medicine tips websites.
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