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Your Guide to Complementary & Alternative Treatments

Jul 30 2021
7 min read
Woman laying on massage table with practitioner's hands above her face during a healing energy treatment.

What do the treatments called “healing therapies” have in common?

They’re all forms of complementary and alternative (CAM) medicine — therapeutic practices used alongside, or instead of, mainstream medical treatments.

Almost 40 percent of people in the United States, and more than 50 percent of Europeans now use some form of CAM, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Some healing therapies are ancient — massage, acupuncture, and Chinese herbs, for example. Others, like Healing Touch, have been around for just a few decades. Many are starting to be offered as part of integrative medicine programs in hospitals and clinics around the country, as patients show interest in complimentary treatments that are usually less invasive, have fewer potential side effects, and can often reduce side effects or pain from traditional treatments, such as chemo and radiation.

Read on to learn about the benefits of some of the most popular kinds of healing treatments:

Touch Therapies

These treatments rely on skin-to-skin contact and pressure to provide their benefits:

Massage
Hopefully you’ve experienced a good massage yourself. Trained practitioners use their fingers and hands (and sometimes their forearms, elbows, and feet) to rub and press muscles and other soft tissue. It’s one of the most widely accepted healing therapies, and for good reason: Aside from its relaxation benefits, a good rubdown has been shown to alleviate aches and pains, loosen muscle tightness, soothe headaches, improve circulation, release toxins, and reduce depression and anxiety with the boost of “feel good” hormones such as oxyocin and serotonin.

Massage appears to be especially effective for treating low-back pain. There is such a thing as a bad massage, however — one that leaves you in more pain than when you started. That’s why it’s important to find a skilled therapist who knows how to massage your body so you leave the appointment saying, ahhh, not ouch.

Reflexology
If you’re familiar with the concepts of acupuncture and acupressure (more on that below), you already know a bit about reflexology, too. All of these techniques target pressure points that are said to correspond with internal organs and the body’s systems. Reflexology, though, uses pressure points that are different from those used in acupuncture and acupressure. Practitioners apply pressure to points on the feet, as well as on the hands and the ears, to unblock energy said to be “reflexively” connected to different organs.

Research suggests that the technique may help treat pain, bowel issues, anxiety, and other conditions. If you’re nervous about taking your clothes off and having someone touch different areas of your body during a massage, reflexology provides a big dose of relaxation — you only need to expose your feet!

Eastern Medicine

These traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practices date back thousands of years. They are becoming increasingly popular now in the West as more physicians incorporate and collaborate with eastern practitioners to address their clients’ interest. Here’s an informational snapshot:

Acupuncture and Acupressure
Practitioners of these two techniques apply either hair-thin needles (acupuncture) or physical pressure (acupressure) to “acupoints” throughout the body to painlessly unblock and restore the flow of energy, or “qi,” in order to restore or maintain health. A recent review of 29 studies on almost 18,000 people found acupuncture to be an effective treatment for chronic pain. Acupuncture is also used to treat digestive issues, infertility, PMS, anxiety, addictions, and many other conditions.

Exactly how it works is debated: One theory suggests that stimulating acupoints helps conduct electromagnetic signals in the body, and a group of Chinese researchers recently reported locating these points on CT scans. Acupuncture’s popularity is growing fast: According to a National Health Interview Study (NHIS) more than 14 million American adults reported trying acupuncture and 3.5 million Americans reported using acupuncture in the last 12 months. These figures are from 2012, so experts estimate higher figures today.

Chinese Herbs
People from different cultures have been using plants, seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, and flowers as medicine for many thousands of years. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population still uses herbal medicine in the form of teas, capsules, liquid extracts, granules, and powders. In fact, about one-quarter of pharmaceutical drugs are based on botanicals.

In the U.S., TCM providers combine herbs like bitter orange, gingko, and ginseng into custom-made “formulas” based on an individual’s health needs (single herbs are rarely prescribed because they work better in combination and can offset each other’s potential side effects). If you’re interested in using Chinese herbs to prevent or treat a health issue, it’s best to consult with a TCM practitioner. That expert will know the right formula for what ails you, and how to safely source herbs to reduce risks (such as contamination by heavy metals). It’s crucial to discuss any herbs you’re on with your primary care provider, too (studies show that most people don’t).

Energy Healing

This practice is premised on the idea that energy flows through and around us and can be adjusted, unblocked, and rebalanced to restore health. Consider these popular forms of energy work:

Reiki
Many people have heard of reiki but don’t know what it means. Reiki is a relaxation and stress-reduction technique that’s also believed to promote healing. The practice originated in Japan in the 1800s.

During a treatment, you’ll be fully clothed as the practitioner’s hands move on or above various spots on your body for several minutes to pass along energy to you. In reiki, the laying-on of hands is believed to restore the four life-force components: emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy.

The scientific evidence for reiki is conflicting; it may improve sleep, alleviate stress, treat depression, and ease pain. Reiki has very few side effects. To get the best experience, seek out a practitioner who belongs to an organization that ensures its members have extensive training, such as the International Association of Reiki Professionals.

Healing Touch
In 1989, an American nurse founded this calming practice, which combines energy work with touch. Today, it’s used in hospitals, clinics, holistic health centers, and spas around the country. As with reiki, research on Healing Touch is limited, but it’s believed to create an overall sense of well-being, reduce anxiety, stress and depression, and promote relaxation, deepen spiritual awareness, help the body heal, ease chronic pain, and reduce trauma from surgery, cancer treatment, and other procedures.

Placing their hands on or above you, practitioners move slowly through your body’s energy field to balance your chakras (energy centers) and clear unbalanced or “stuck” energy. Many Healing Touch sessions also include relaxation elements, like deep breathing and guided imagery.