People have been using alternative therapies for thousands of years, long before scientific-based medicine became the norm. Defined as any form of medical treatment not covered by top medical school courses, alternative therapies come under many guises, from acupuncture and chiropractic to homeopathy and naturopathy.

Many people will only use alternative therapies whereas others believe in a complementary approach, whereby elements of conventional and alternative therapies are used to get the desired result.

Are alternative therapies a safe and effective choice? Here are the facts.

Types of alternative therapies

There are dozens of types of alternative therapies, which range from practitioner-based to therapies that can be completed in the home. Many of these therapies are closely aligned with each other, whereas others have very different thoughts and methods of diagnosis and treatment.

Some of the more common types of therapies used in the developed world, as listed by the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, include acupuncture, hypnosis, diet-based therapies (e.g. Atkins diet, South Beach diet), massage, meditation, naturopathy, yoga, chiropractic and energy healing therapy.

Alternative therapies today

In an American study, the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, it was found that 38 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children had used some form of complementary or alternative therapy in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Additionally, the survey found that Americans had spent $33.9 billion on alternative therapy services and products. As an increasing amount of funding is put into researching the benefits of alternative therapies, more people, including medical doctors, are taking it seriously.

As an example of the effects that research can have on the uptake of an alternative medicine in the general public, in 2002 the most commonly used natural product was echinacea. By 2007, echinacea had dropped to third place and omega 3 fish oil use had drastically increased. This came after several positive studies proved the benefits of fish oil and the mainstream media jumped on it (NCCAM, 2008).

What can alternative therapies help with

Alternative therapies can offer relief from a wide range of health problems, and can also assist in the prevention of illness. While many of the types of alternative therapies can offer a very broad spectrum of health benefits (e.g. naturopathy), others are much more specific (e.g. chiropractic for spine-related pain relief)

The most commonly used alternative therapies are used to treat back and neck pain, largely through the use of a chiropractor. Arthritis, anxiety, insomnia and head or chest colds are also on the list of commonly treated illnesses. (NCCAM, 2008).

Scientific evidence

The main problem that has always inhibited the large-scale uptake of alternative therapies is the lack and quality of scientific evidence. Instead, a lot of the claims made by providers of services and products are anecdotal.

The popularity of alternative therapies in recent years has demanded for a more serious, scientific look into their benefits. In a positive move for the industry, the National Centre for Contemporary and Alternative Medicines (NCCAM) was established in 1999 to help fund detailed scientific-based research into the safety and efficacy of alternative and complementary therapies.

Since then, a range of therapies have been endorsed and scientifically proven. For example, several studies into the benefits of chiropractic therapy found that spinal manipulation could provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain and was proven to be as effective as conventional medical treatments (Rubinstein et al, 2011).

Additionally, women are turning to acupuncture as a fertility and miscarriage prevention treatment, even more so now after scientific evidence has proven it helpful. Manheimer et al (2008) found that women who are using IVF treatment could benefit from the use of specialist fertility acupuncture.

5 Quick facts about alternative therapies

  1. Between 60 and 80 per cent of the world’s population rely on alternative therapies as their primary choice of health care (World Health Organization, 2005)
  2. Almost 20 per cent of Fortune 500 companies offer alternative therapies as part of their health care packages for employees
  3. The National Institute of Health (NIH) currently invests about $40 million per year in complementary and alternative medicine related research (NCBI, 2012)
  4. Studies have shown that regular yoga practice can improve a variety of health problems including back pain, headaches and stress, as well as improve quality of life (Lipton, 2008)
  5. Omega 3 is the most commonly used natural product among adults in the United States, followed by glucosamine and echinacea (NCCAM, 2008)

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Cite this article:
Edberg M (2013-10-30 12:31:46). Alternative therapies - the facts. Australian Science. Retrieved: Jul 22, 2024, from