There is perhaps no experience so human as that of dealing with illness and/or injury. Our very existence is predicated on being able to function so that we can do all that is expected of us on a daily basis. When we have to cope with a serious injury or illness, there are many choices to be made. Many people are increasingly moving toward the use of treatments and medicine that are covered under the broad term of “holistic medicine.” This is a philosophy that believes in treating the whole person and not just an injured body part or an illness. The notion of the integrated mind-body-spirit is integral to holistic medicine. An important distinction to make is that of the difference between alternative medicine and complementary medicine. The first is used in place of traditional Western medicine, whereas the latter is given in conjunction with traditional medicine and not in place of it.
Keywords Acupuncture; Allopath; Alternative Medicine; Chinese Medicine; Chiropractic Care; Complimentary Medicine; Energy Healing; Herbalism; Holism-Holistic; Homeopathy; Naturopathy; Reiki
Holistic medicine has become far more popular in Western countries than it ever has before. There may be many reasons why people are choosing to investigate alternative and complementary medicine. One of these may be a sense of dissatisfaction with what modern or conventional medicine can and cannot do. Many people feel that a traditional Western doctor (usually known as an allopath) is limited by the very focused, scientific training he or she receives. While there is respect for the technological innovations and surgical techniques, many feel that Western biomedical science is limited when it comes to a wide range of issues. These often include conditions that are difficult to treat and/or resistant to modern pharmacological medicines such as fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome (sometimes called Epstein-Barr Syndrome), chronic pain, cancer, recurring muscular pains and injuries, among others.
There have been some misunderstandings about what holistic medicine is. Some misinterpret it as a group of treatments that are basically “natural remedies” with no science behind them whatsoever. However, homeopathy, herbalism, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, and other treatments are very much rooted in science, albeit in different scientific beliefs than those that serve as the foundation for Western or conventional medicine.
The Philosophy of Holistic Medicine
The terms holistic medicine, alternative medicine, and complementary medicine have often been used interchangeably. In fact, alternative medicine and complementary medicine are different (as explained below), and holistic medicine is a term that 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 in order 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 relationship. The disharmony can often come about from a dysfunction in any one of these areas. Holistic medicine believes that a dysfunction in one area affects the whole person and not just that one area of the body.
Research in Australia demonstrated that one of the reasons so many Australians seek out alternative and complementary medicine is because of the holistic philosophy that guides their work. It is also the reason why many Australians are becoming less enthusiastic about Western or conventional medicine, which is seen as nonholistic in nature (Hassed, 2004).
One of the terms that is increasingly popular in Western culture is "wellness." It is not only a term we see in popular magazines advertising day spas and on the shelves of health food stores, wellness is also becoming a philosophy that is permeating Western society. Universities, colleges, and even corporations are beginning to offer wellness programs for their staff. The notion of “holistic” is the foundation for this growing movement of wellness. Many people have become tired of waiting long hours in an emergency room only to be treated by a tired doctor. They want to take their well-being into their own hands, and they feel empowered when they do.
Holistic medicine is as much about a way of life as it is about medical treatment. The holistic philosophy embraces an approach that promotes overall body wellness.
This term refers to alternative medical systems other than allopathic or traditional (conventional) Western medicine. These include traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and herbalism. These all require certification, and the practitioner is referred to as a doctor. He or she might carry the title of naturopathic physician or doctor of chiropractic. Alternative medicine is used in place of traditional or conventional medicine, although some people use them together.
The growing popularity of alternative medicine is due in large part to the growth of homeopathy. This science was developed in the late eighteenth century 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 from 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 infinitesimals, which states that "substances become more potent when diluted" (Novella et al., 2008, p. 9).
Of course, Hahnemann did not have the technological advantage that modern doctors and scientists enjoy. Over the years since its inception, homeopathy has always been somewhat controversial. Some scientists have suggested that the remedies are so highly diluted that there is actually nothing of the original substance left. There are doctors who have criticized homeopathy and suggested that people get well only because they have convinced themselves they are better (the placebo effect). An interesting roundtable discussion of scientists took place at Penn University in 2008. After much initial skepticism, their conclusion was that homeopathy is indeed a valuable form of medical science. Novella (2008) states:
… homeopathy is very plausible and there is both ample clinical and epidemiological evidence that it works. Homeopathy will become an integral part of medicine despite the paradoxical nature of its remedies and all other prejudices against it, simply because homeopathy is safe, efficacious, and cost effective (p.13).
The concept of the constitution is an important one in homeopathy. In many ways, this is the vital life force that Hahnemann believed exists in all of us. As a result of this belief, the classical homeopath engages in a highly detailed discussion with every patient especially during the initial visit. The homeopath is concerned with everything, not just the physical symptoms occurring at the time. They want to know about the person's emotions, their personal interactions, work life, stressors, dreams, and anything else of importance in the person's life. They also take into account the person's appearance, demeanor, and body language. "Homeopaths use the vital force assessment to guide dose (potency) selection and treatment pace and to judge the likely clinical course and prognosis" (Bell et al., 2004, p. 124).
This notion of a vital force or constitution indicates that Hahnemann may have already known or understood (at least to a degree) what happens to the body on the atomic or molecular level. This is something that not even our present-day scientists can measure. The inability to measure this notion of the “life force” or “constitution” has been one of the criticisms leveled at homeopathy. The other has been its use of substances that are toxic in their natural state, such as arsenic, but are medicinal and safe in their diluted form, such as Arsenicum Albun, a well-known homeopathic remedy.
Jobst (2005) states her conclusions thusly:
In the meantime, if patients are recovering through the use of nontoxic homeopathic medicines and using the homeopathic method, let us, as physicians, get on and heal in the truest sense of that word, while as scientists we search to understand the mechanisms by which our activities might be working, and let us strive to always remain open (p. 274).
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) may be one of the world's oldest medical systems. It was developed over 2,000 years ago and has only become popular in Western cultures in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. One of the key concepts in TCM is the notion of the qi, or life-force. In some ways, this notion of a life-force is somewhat 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. Even with a small similarity to homeopathy, it is also distinctly different from any other form of medical treatment. It is important to take into account that TCM is a reflection of a specific culture, like Ayurvedic medicine developed in India. Some of...
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