Naturopathy, chiropractic, herbs, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, meditation, yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, biofeedback, hypnosis, homeopathy, deep breathing exercises, and acupuncture, to name a few. When I went to medical school some forty years ago, the words alternative, complementary, holistic, and integrative medicine were unknown. There was no such thing as “mind-body” medicine. In fact, practitioners of Western medicine looked with disdain, even hostility, at those practitioners of complementary modalities. Most of this attitude stemmed from ignorance.
To think that Eastern practices, including acupuncture and herbal medicine, which have been practiced for two thousand years, had nothing to offer our patients was hubris. While some like to argue that “alternative” is code for quackery, dubious and implausible, I beg to differ. My own eyes were opened when, as a resident, I watched a surgeon perform a thoracotomy—a surgical incision into the chest wall—on a patient who was awake and given acupuncture as the sole anesthetic agent. Later, at a lecture I attended, a Chinese physician pointed out that so many of the medications that doctors use daily are derived from plants and herbs.
In fact, almost all of the major pharmaceutical companies spend large sums on research and development of new pharmaceuticals from plant life, sending researchers into the farthest corners of the planet, in places such as the Amazon and Africa. In these regions, many of the native peoples have been benefiting from these natural secrets for centuries, if not millennia.
It is no wonder that many of these integrative treatments have become a part of the usual armamentarium of modalities to treat low back pain.
Developers of new drugs aren’t the only ones searching for “alternative” ingredients for their formulas. Complementary, or integrative, medicine has been a growing aspect of medicinal healing as the general public becomes more interested in different aspects of natural living. When I was in medical school, purely conventional treatments were discussed. Thankfully, in my lifetime, I’ve watched the medical community embrace a combination of both conventional and integrative treatments, as now a significant number of medical schools offer elective courses in integrative medicine. In fact, according to a 2011 study from the Archives of Internal Medicine (now called JAMA Internal Medicine), more and more American doctors are recommending mind-body therapies to their patients. And when it comes to back pain, an increasing number of both doctors and their patients are becoming receptive to the option of complementary treatment.
So no, alternative therapies are not bunk. You would do well to try some of these techniques as a complement to your more traditional therapies. And if you don’t know which one might help your particular back pain, experiment. Seek a second opinion when you doubt the advice of your treating physician.