There have always been traditional systems of medicine across the World, but the development and mainstreaming of Western bio-medicine has resulted in many people viewing these traditional systems as inferior to Western medicine and seeing them as value-less.
Therapies such as acupuncture, massage and reflexology were developed thousands of years ago and continue to be respected for their proven benefits within the cultural and belief systems of the societies in which they developed. In the West, however, complementary and alternative medicines were until recently marginalised as primitive and ineffective, and as there was no research to prove otherwise, unsafe.
In the 1990s a UK government working party concluded that there needed to be more research into and regulation of complementary medicine, better education of practitioners and more integration of complementary medicine into the NHS (BMA, 1993). However, 30 years later and the amount of research and practitioner education still varies according to the therapy, with only some complementary therapies better regulated by professional bodies. Integration into the NHS is sporadic with maternity services, oncology and mental health services embracing the benefits of complementary therapies most frequently.
Despite this, complementary medicine has a growing acceptance amongst healthcare professionals and the general public as a valid, cost effective, holistic option worthy of further scientific study to demonstrate its effectiveness and safety.
Complementary therapies treat the whole person as an individual.
The term complementary therapy is often used to describe manual therapies such as massage, aromatherapy and reflexology, which are supportive rather than curative and are commonly used by midwives, nurses and physiotherapists within their professional practice.
Complementary therapies differ from conventional medicine as they all share a common philosophy of treating the whole person, whichever mechanism of action the therapy involves, rather than just the presenting symptom or condition as is often the case in Western medicine.
Conventional Western medicine is based around categorising people, symptoms or diseases to enable labels to be put on them that the medical community understands. Although the Western medical system claims to focus on the bio-psycho-social model, in reality medical practitioners often take a mechanical and reductionist view of people as machines which have one faulty part that can be fixed without considering any associated emotional, social or spiritual issues. The focus is on the symptom not the cause, which often results in costly investigations and invasive procedures to only cure or manage the symptoms without considering why the person has developed them at this time?
Complementary medicine and therapies view the person as unique and treat the whole person considering the physical, social, emotional and spiritual aspects of the persons life. Practitioners are concerned with identifying the imbalance within the individual and they plan to return the individual to homeostatic balance, rather than just addressing their immediate symptoms. This is done by facilitating the individual’s self-protection and self-healing mechanisms so they can regain, maintain and strengthen themselves to prevent future ill health. Many consider this process to be ‘healing’ rather than ‘curing’.
“Health is more than the absence of disease”
Disease prevention as a part of Western medicine is achieved through different strategies such as immunisation and screening programmes. Health policies worldwide focus on the needs of the majority using blanket strategies, generic drugs or standardised surgery to treat those identified as having a particular medical condition. Whilst this is an essential part of maintaining the health of the global general public, it does not always meet the diverse needs of the individual and their wishes may even be disregarded in favour of the benefit to the majority, particularly when there are financial implications. Strict adherence to national policies and guidance and the use of standardised routine procedures often prevents healthcare practitioners from treating people as individuals, and can result in the clinical relevance of certain non-physical symptoms being missed.
Health is more than the absence of disease and wellbeing is more than a physiological equilibrium – it is a complex interaction between physical, emotional, social and occupational wellness (Hunter et al 2013). Complementary therapies facilitate the inner resources of the individual to consciously participate in their own health by balancing their internal resources with the external environment both natural and environmental. Complementary therapists work with individuals to achieve optimum health using gentle methods to alleviate symptoms, often with less side effects than conventional medicine, focusing on prevention rather than cure and looking holistically at the individual.
This concept of self-healing is an integral part of the ethos of complementary therapies with the practitioner facilitating the client to regain homeostatic balance. Clinical assessment involves consideration of why the person has symptoms, as well as how to facilitate the body to repair itself, and considers the complex interactions between the mind, body and spirit of the individual.
Complementary therapies are seen as ‘healing’, not just ‘curing’.
Complementary therapists consider an individual’s symptoms as the body’s attempt to regain homeostatic balance. For example, vomiting is the body’s way of getting rid of potentially harmful substances in the stomach. Western medicine, however, often just supresses these symptoms rather than looking for a way to treat the cause. For example, prescribing pain relief for back pain without considering why the back pain is present. Holistic, whole person healing is facilitated by complementary therapists in a variety of ways. Some examples include physical therapies such as aromatherapy massage, reflexology or acupuncture, or psychological therapies such as clinical hypnosis.
The process of healing aims to rid the body of toxins to cleanse and return the body to homeostatic balance in the mind, body and spirit. Unlike many conventional quick fixes, such as fast-acting pain relief, this process can take time and the individual may experience worsening symptoms before they improve as the body rids itself of the toxins. This is well-documented and understood as a ‘healing reaction’ that is common to most complementary therapies and is a normal reaction to the treatment. It can, however, be a difficult concept for the general public and many Western medical practitioners to appreciate.
A normal healing reaction usually occurs during the treatment or within the first 24 to 48 hours and is generally worse after the first treatment, but is self-limiting. Common reactions can include: headache, nausea, lethargy, general aches and pains, skin reactions, mood swings, emotional effects, sleep disturbances or worsening of the presenting symptoms. Healing reaction symptoms are often relieved by resting, drinking plenty of water and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol.
The skill of the practitioner (during pregnancy in particular) is in identifying which post-treatment symptoms are healing reactions, and which may be symptoms of a developing pathological condition that requires obstetric review. This demonstrates the importance of complementary therapists who treat pregnancy-related conditions being qualified and registered as midwives, or having sufficient obstetrics-based clinical training.
Are complementary therapies right for me?
What is certain is that the population are increasingly looking for complementary additions or alternatives to Western medicine. Studies indicate 71 per cent of the population use complementary medicine (Hunt et al, 2010) and many people with existing medical conditions self-administer supportive natural remedies (Rahmawati and Bajorek, 2017).
Pregnancy in particular can be a key time for people to look for complementary therapies to help with pregnancy-related ailments and to avoid medical intervention. Studies show that between a quarter and third of people use complementary therapies during pregnancy to enhance their pregnancy and birth experience (Tiran, 2018). However, people often self-administer herbal remedies and essential oils often without knowledge of the potential side effects or contraindications. Often, they are ill advised by well-meaning but misinformed maternity workers without sufficient training. This is why I always take the time to have a proper consultation with my clients to ensure I can offer them safe, holistic therapies for the positive pregnancy and birth experience that they deserve.
Keep reading my blog for more information about each of the therapies I offer and how they could help you!
BMA (British Medical Association), 1993, Complementary Medicine: New Approaches to Good Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hunt, K. J., Coelho, H. F., Wider, B., Perry, R., et. al., 2010. Complementary and alternative medicine use in England: results from a national survey. International Journal of Clinical Practice. 64 (11): 1496-502.
Hunter, J., Marshall, J., Corcoran, K., Leeder, S., Phelps, K., 2013. A Positive Concept of Health: Interviews with patients and practitioners in an integrative medicine clinic. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 19 (4): 197-203.
Rahmawati, R., and Bajorek, B. V., 2017. Self-medication among people living with hypertension: a review. Family Practice. 34 (2): 147-53.
Tiran, D., 2018. Complementary Therapies in Maternity Care: An evidence-based approach. London: Singing Dragon.