Non-traditional practices helpful for some medical conditions

Eat this root.

This root is heathen. Say this prayer.

This prayer is superstition. Drink this potion.

This potion is snake oil. Take this pill.

This pill is ineffective. Take this antibiotic.

This antibiotic is artificial. Eat this root.

Dr. Marja Verhoef uses this historical timeline to show that interest in herbal remedies is as old as the caveman. 

The professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary gave the annual Una Ridley Health Sciences Lecture Nov. 20 at the University of Lethbridge.

She said complementary and alternative medicine is becoming widely used by Canadians, and treatments including massage, prayer, relaxation therapy, chiropractic adjustment and herbal treatments are commonly sought by patients.

“People are starting to identify that medicine has a lot to offer but it doesn’t always cure, and its treatments come with some side-effects,” said Verhoef. “People who are looking at complementary therapies and are looking at sensitive and thoughtful ways of combining both are quite often doing very well.”

There are no reliable statistics on how many Canadians use treatments and therapies other than traditional medicine, but Verhoef said it appears to be on the rise.

“First of all, I think people like to take part in their disease trajectory. The medical system is not so good at doing that. (Doctors) see you for two minutes or five minutes and they say this is good for you and if it doesn’t work, come back. 

“A complementary physician spends a lot more time with patients. He’ll ask what they think is wrong, what they want to work on. I think that’s a really important factor.”

The feeling of personal control offered by complementary and alternative medicine is attractive and there is solid evidence some treatments are effective for certain conditions.

For example, chiropractic treatment is effective for some types of back pain, massage therapy is proven to reduce stress, acupuncture can relieve nausea and relaxation therapy combats anxiety and insomnia.

Similarly, there is evidence that specific natural health products are effective. 

Ginkgo helps memory retention, echinacea helps relieve cold and flu symptoms, saw palmetto can treat prostate trouble and black cohosh gives relief from conditions associated with menopause.

Verhoef cautioned patients to understand that natural is not the same as safe.

There are risks if patients do not or cannot obtain reliable information on the effectiveness of various therapies and remedies, a situation worsened by lack of label information. 

Anecdotal evidence, gut feeling, trial and error and testimonials are not reliable ways to decide on therapies and remedies, the doctor said. 

Health Canada has been regulating natural health products since 2000, and its website is one place to go for information. Verhoef also cited the Oxford Handbook of Complementary Medicine and The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to the 50 Most Common Medicinal Herbs as reliable.

She advised people to check the credentials of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners and talk with their doctors about alternative therapies they are seeking or using.


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