Whole medical systems are complete systems of diagnosis and practice. Examples are traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and unconventional Western practices of natural healing.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Originating in China more than 2,000 years ago, this system is based on the theory that illness results from the improper flow of the life force (qi, pronounced chee) through the body. Qi is restored by balancing the opposing forces of yin and yang, which manifest in the body as heat and cold, external and internal, and deficiency and excess. Various practices are used to preserve and restore qi and thus health. They include diet, medicinal herbs, massage, meditative exercise called qi gong, and acupuncture.
Traditional Chinese medicine uses formulas containing mixtures of herbs to treat various ailments. For example, Chinese herbs seem to effectively treat common forms of arthritis and have few side effects. One herbal combination, sho-saiko-to, may reduce scarring in the liver and protect people with cirrhosis against liver cancer. One problem with traditional Chinese medicine is that standardization and quality control are almost nonexistent. For example, some traditional Chinese medicines have been laced with drugs or contaminated with toxic heavy metals.
Acupuncture, a therapy within traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most widely accepted alternative medicine techniques in the Western world. Licensed practitioners do not necessarily have a medical degree, although some medical doctors, often pain specialists, are trained and licensed to perform acupuncture. Acupuncture involves stimulating specific points on the body, usually by inserting very fine needles into the skin and underlying tissues. Stimulating these specific points is believed to unblock the flow of qi along energy pathways or meridians (there are more than 350 of these points along the meridians) and thus restore balance between yin and yang. Sometimes stimulation is increased by twisting or warming the needle. Acupuncture points may also be stimulated by pressure (called acupressure), lasers, ultrasound, or a very low-voltage electrical current (called electroacupuncture) applied to the needle. The procedure is not painful but may cause a tingling sensation.
Research has shown that acupuncture releases various chemical messengers in the brain (neurotransmitters) that serve as natural painkillers, including endorphins. Acupuncture has also been used to relieve pain after surgical or dental procedures. Besides its potential effectiveness as a pain reliever, acupuncture may help relieve the nausea and vomiting that commonly occur with pregnancy or after surgery or chemotherapy. As part of a comprehensive treatment plan (sometimes as accompanying treatment), acupuncture may be useful in treating addiction, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headache, low back pain, osteoarthritis, and dry mouth (in people with advanced cancer). Acupuncture may also aid in stroke rehabilitation and may improve the success rates of in vitro fertilization. It is not clear whether acupuncture can help improve lung function in people with asthma or decrease pain and improve joint function in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Acupuncture is ineffective in helping people stop smoking or lose weight.
Millions of people are treated with acupuncture every day. Side effects are rare if the technique is done correctly, but the following should be noted:
Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India, originating more than 4,000 years ago. It is based on the theory that illness results from the imbalance of the body's life force or prana. The balancing of this life force is determined by the equilibrium of the three bodily qualities called doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Most people have a dominant dosha, and the specific balance among the three doshas is unique to each person.
Health care practitioners evaluate people by questioning them about symptoms, behavior, and lifestyle; observing their overall appearance, including the eyes, tongue, and skin; and taking their pulse and checking their urine and stool. After determining the balance of doshas, health care practitioners design a treatment specifically tailored to each person. Ayurveda uses diet, herbs, massage, meditation, yoga, and internal cleansing (therapeutic elimination). Cleansing typically involves injecting fluid into the rectum to cause a bowel movement (an enema) or washing out the nose with water (nasal lavage) to restore balance within the body and with nature.
Few well-designed studies of Ayurvedic practices have been done.
In some of the herbal combinations used, heavy metals (mainly lead, mercury, and arsenic) are included because they are thought to have therapeutic effects. However, heavy metal poisoning has occurred in some people.
Homeopathy, which was developed in Germany in the late 1700s, is based on the principle that like cures like (thus the name homeo [Greek for “like”] and patho [Greek for “disease”]). In other words, a substance that in large doses causes illness is believed to cure the same illness if given in minute doses. The minute dose is thought to stimulate the body's healing mechanisms. Treatments are based on a person's unique characteristics, including personality and lifestyle as well as symptoms and general health.
The remedies used in homeopathy are derived from naturally occurring substances, such as plant and animal extracts and minerals. These substances are used to stimulate the body's innate capacity to heal. Remedies are prepared by diluting these substances over and over and rapid shaking of the resulting solution. The more chemically dilute the homeopathic medicine, the more potent it is considered to be. Many homeopathic remedies are diluted so much that none of the original substance is present. However, many other homeopathic remedies do retain some pharmacologic activity.
No scientific explanation for how ultradiluted remedies used in homeopathy might cure illness has been proved. There are few risks associated with homeopathy. However, side effects, such as allergic reactions and toxic reactions, can occur.
In the United States, homeopathic medicines are classified by the Food and Drug Administration as over-the-counter or prescription drugs. Quality testing for consistency of ingredients and potency is limited. Homeopathic medicines may contain alcohol, which is sometimes used to dilute the drug. The label is required to have the following:
Some homeopathic drugs are available by prescription only.
Homeopathy has not been established as effective treatment for any specific disorder.
Naturopathy, which draws on practices from many cultures, began as a formal health care system in the United States in the early 1900s. Founded on the notion of the healing power of nature, naturopathy emphasizes prevention and treatment of disease through a healthy lifestyle, treatment of the whole person, and use of the body's natural healing abilities. This system also focuses on finding the cause of the disease rather than merely treating symptoms. Some of this system's principles are not that different from those of modern Western medicine.
Naturopathy uses a combination of therapies, including the following:
Few clinical trials have been conducted specifically on naturopathy.
Last full review/revision February 2009 by Steven Rosenzweig, MD