Alternative Medicine and Disability
In this 3-part series we will explore the ways in which alternative treatments and alternative medicine might be helpful for people with disabilities. The 3-part series will unfold as follows:
Part 1: Alternative Medicine & Disability
Part 2: Alternative Treatments & Disability
Part 3: How to Select and Work with an Alternative Practitioner
Alternative medicine has become highly popular especially in North America where millions of people seek to explore new and healthier ways of taking better care of themselves. But, what exactly is alternative medicine? Some understand it as ‘natural medicine’, but it is a far more complex idea than that. Here are some of the aspects of alternative medicine that people have begun to explore:
- Herbal medicine
- Traditional Chinese medicine
The terms holistic medicine, alternative medicine and complementary medicine have often been used interchangeably. In fact, alternative medicine and complementary medicine are different and holistic medicine is a term which tends to embrace the larger definition of a system of treatment and practitioners who do not work within the system of conventional medicine. A more precise definition of the term is that holism is a philosophy that believes in treating the whole person and in the integration of mind, body and spirit. Holism promotes the belief that these three elements of a human being must be treated together to achieve any notion of ‘healing,’ rather than simply treating a person for a specific illness or injury.
In the holistic belief system, illness and injury are often the result of disharmony in the mind-body-spirit, which they see as one. The disharmony can often come about from a dysfunction in any one of these areas. But, holistic medicine believes that a dysfunction in one area affects the whole person and not just that one area of the body.
These three forms of medicine have existed for thousands of years. In fact, many of our modern medicines originally existed in herbal form. For example, willow bark is the natural form of aspirin, and devil’s claw is the natural form of Advil or an anti-inflammatory. Until modern pharmaceuticals came into existence in the 20th century, natural medicines continued to be popular. Let’s take a look at these three forms of what are now being called alternative medicine.
The growing popularity of alternative medicine is due in large part to the growth of homeopathy. This 250-year-old science was developed in the late 18thcentury by the German doctor and biologist, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann. One of the primary principles in homeopathy is the Law of Similars. The premise states that ‘like cures like.’ “In other words, a substance produces symptoms of illness in a well person when administered in large doses. If we administer the same substance in minute quantities, it will cure the disease in a sick person” (Novella et al., 2008, p.9). Hahnemann had very different ideas about the body than his colleagues who practiced conventional medicine. He believed in the concept of the ‘constitution,’ the notion that the body must be treated as a whole, and that the right remedy would literally ‘kick start’ the system into healing itself at the most basic level. In this way, homeopathy would not treat disease, it would heal the body. The second principle is the Law of Infintesimals, which states that “Substances become more potent when diluted” (Novella et al., 2008, p.9).
Herbal medicine may have been humanity’s first attempt at a synthesis of conditions and corresponding treatments. Thousands of years ago, humanity was in its infancy and so was medical treatment. The very first treatments were likely the herbs and flowers that people found in their immediate surroundings. However, herbal medicine has come a long way since those early days of human civilization. In fact, the words ‘herbal’ and ‘natural’ seem to be everywhere. People in western countries are flocking to the stores to buy lotions with lavender, tea with chamomile and even cleaning products are being infused with natural and herbal elements. Today’s herbalists engage in training and they must be certified to practice. Although many advancements have been made in our understanding of what herbs can do and our preparations of herbal remedies, there are still concerns about the safety of these remedies.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) may be one of the world’s oldest medical systems. It was developed over 2000 years ago, and has only recently become popular in western cultures. One of the key concepts in TCM is the notion of qi (pronounced “chi”) or life-force. In some ways, this notion of a life-force is similar to the notion of the vital force in homeopathy but they are understood and treated differently. There is no doubt that TCM is fundamentally different from western medicine in many essential ways. As well, even with a small similarity to homeopathy, it is also distinctly different from any other form of medical treatment. It’s important to take into account that TCM is a reflection of a specific culture, like Ayurvedic medicine which was developed in India. Some of the components that are essential to TCM include: personal observations of the physician, a subjective basis for diagnosis, healing as a way to balance the body’s processes, measuring the outcomes of treatment qualitatively (versus quantitatively) and gearing the treatment to the individual and not the condition (Shea, 2006).
With these principles in mind, the question is, how can alternative mind help people with disabilities? The question is less about disability as a subject in and of itself, and more about the individual. For example, some people with arthritis have found relief with herbal salves, cremes and the Homeopathic remedy known as Rhus Toxicodendron. This doesn’t imply, however, that all people with arthritis will find relief there. While the use of alternative or complementary medicine is increasing, there are warnings people should take seriously:
- Just because a remedy is natural does not mean it can’t be harmful. Even natural remedies can be used too frequently and in doses that are too high, even dangerous. Do not assume you can self-treat or self-medicate.
- Homeopathic remedies and TCM generally do not interact well together.
- If you are going to use one of these three systems, it is best to go to a Certified Practitioner. In that way, you know you are receiving proper care.
- Do not mix remedies without consulting your practitioner.
- Do not get lulled into believing outlandish claims by the producers of some ‘natural remedies’. They are not miracle remedies, but rather remedies from natural sources.
- Take care to identify all the risk associated with a particular remedy.
- Do not use a natural remedy if you are taking a pharmaceutical prescription or medication without first consulting your doctor AND the alternative practitioner. This can be dangerous.
Many people are using natural or alternative medicines because they believe them to be safer than conventional medications. In some cases, this is true, but it is NOT TRUE IN ALL CASES. Natural remedies can also be harmful and one should always take great care with their use.
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