In recent years, our nation and our world have seen profound changes occur in every aspect of life. All our institutions-including politics, education, economy and technology-are in the midst of unprecedented change. These changes, though difficult at times, are vital to our growth.
One part of our society that reflects this rising tide of change is our healthcare system. Over the past several years, Americans have expressed their dissatisfaction with the limitations of modern conventional medicine by seeking different approaches for restoring and maintaining health. This ground swell of demand for alternative treatments has brought to light a vast array of therapies-some ancient, some new-that have the potential to help where conventional treatments come up short. One term used to describe this wide range of therapies is complementary medicine. The phrase makes it clear that these modalities do not replace modern technological medicine, but rather work along side it, and expand the range of options needed in a complete healthcare system. With a dizzying stream of information coming to us daily about this treatment or that, it is essential to understand what its really about. In this article we will explore the common principles that most complementary therapies are based on, and clear some of the muddy waters that have gathered around this vital area of health and today's healthcare.
Complementary medicine is based in the principles of wholistic health. The word wholistic comes from the word whole. The word heal means to make whole. Wholistic health seeks to restore and maintain health by looking at the whole person. Since people have four aspects-body, emotions, mind and spirit-we acknowledge the effect that each aspect has on health. Modern research is beginning to discover what Eastern medicine known for millennia-that thoughts and emotions can cause or prevent physical illness. The point is that our perceptions, attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and sense of identity and purpose can help or hinder our well-being.
Our idea of what health is is changing. It was once thought that if you weren't sick, then you must be healthy. Some vestiges of this concept remain. How many of us have known someone who didn't feel right somehow, knew that something was wrong, and was told that there was nothing wrong with them because their test results were negative. Clearly there is more to health than the absence of disease. In wholistic health the goal is an experience of balance, wellness and vitality. The World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations recently stated that health is A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In wholistic health the focus is not just to treat disease, but to build health.
A truly wholistic practitioner must accomplish two things in working with a patient:
- Correct the imbalance.
- Remove the source of imbalance.
The first job is to correct the imbalance. In Western medicine, this is referred to as treating disease. Regardless of what therapy is used, a wholistic practitioner first seeks to correct the problem using non-invasive, natural therapies that stimulate the body's ability to heal itself. As a practitioner of Oriental medicine, I might use acupuncture, bodywork therapy and herbal medicine to restore balance in a patient suffering from chronic headaches and fatigue. In Oriental medicine, the intent is to rebalance the patient's energy system in order to restore health.
It is not enough to simply treat the symptoms of a health problem. If I succeed in alleviating that patient's headaches by the end of the visit, and yet they return each week with the same complaint, I have done little to address the cause of the problem. So the second function of a wholistic practitioner is to remove the source of imbalance. This goes beyond managing symptoms, as most medications are limited to doing, to seeking the root cause of the problem. This relates to another fundamental principle of wholism which states that the body always tends towards health, and a person will be healthy unless there is a source of imblance present. This patient's headaches may well stem from her diet, digestive function, inability to manage stress, lack of exercise, or a host of other factors. Wholstic medicine looks to the cause of a person's dis-ease to remove the barriers that prevent balance in the body.
Other principles of wholism include:
- Minimize iatrogenic disease (health problems caused by the treatment). This is a big problem in conventional medicine, since all drugs have potential side effects, and contribute to body toxicity.
- Do as I do, not just as I say. This implies that the practitioner should be a model of health for his patients. I know that if I don't walk my talk, my patients lose faith in me and their healing process.
- A cornerstone of wholistic healthcare is patient education. A practitioner's job is to teach you how to better take care of yourself, and give you tools for health and living which you can use for your whole life.
- Prevention over intervention. It is easier and cheaper to prevent disease than treat disease. And an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure. I encourage all of my patients to continue to come in once a month or so for a tune up treatment, after the health problem that brought them in has resolved.
- Patient responsibility. This contrasts the just take a pill mentality, which favors the quick fix over the lasting solution. Once you take responsibility for your life and health, you have the power to change them for the better.
As we enter the next millenium, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create a better world for ourselves and our children. As each person heals, so our world comes nearer to health. Let us sensibly blend ancient wisdom with modern technology to create a better way of taking care of ourselves, and improve the quality of our life by improving the quality of our health.
By Michael Gaeta L.Ac.
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