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Be cautious with non-conventional healthcare

Modern medical care, largely based on the science of disease, is what currently defines conventional healthcare. But non-conventional medical care has always had its place and includes complementary medicine, alternative medicine and integrative medicine. When non-mainstream healthcare is used together with conventional medicine, it's considered "complementary". And when a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, it's considered "alternative". Integrative care involves bringing complementary and alternative approaches together in a coordinated manner.

There are many types of complementary healthcare approaches, but they mainly fall into either use of natural products or mind and body practices. Natural products are herbs, vitamins, minerals and probiotics. They are available in many forms, and are marketed as dietary supplements. Mind and body practices include yoga, acupuncture, meditation, massage therapy, chiropractic, relaxation techniques, and many more.

It has always been questioned whether complimentary or alternative medicine really work. Some natural products have been subjected to rigorous research, but the results are variable. Claims of the effectiveness of some of the products are at best erroneous. Some products may even be unsafe. Research on body and mind approaches shows evidence of benefit for some health conditions. An example is the benefit of acupuncture or osteopathy for treating lower back pain.

How do you decide if complementary or alternative medicine is for you? You must initially find out as much information as possible about your health condition, and potential treatment options. It may be worthwhile discussing your plans with your conventional healthcare provider. Then seek out a complementary practitioner with the same diligence as you would use to seek a conventional medical practitioner. Don’t take anything for granted. Ask questions about safety, effectiveness, any research on the products or practice, cost, and if there are any regulations governing the practice.

Don’t ever settle for catchy anecdotes about benefits that are either unproven, or just plainly dishonest. There are never magical cures, secret ingredients, or quick fixes for long-term health issues. Natural products are not necessarily safer either. Claims that a practice or a certain product is a cure for multiple ailments are usually false. If someone else responded well to the same treatment, it doesn’t mean that you will, it could just be what is described as a placebo effect. In other words, a belief and expectation that the treatment actually worked, even when it really didn’t.

Some complementary and alternative healthcare practices are based on sound scientific principles, but others cannot stand the scrutiny of basic proof of benefits. However, the use of integrative approaches to health and wellness will continue to grow. And ongoing research will continue to inform on the benefits of integrative medicine in a variety of health conditions. When faced with the dilemma of veering away from conventional medical care, always trend cautiously.

Dr Alfred Murage is a Consultant Gynecologist and Fertility Specialist. amurage@mygyno.co.ke

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