Comparing and contrasting alternative medicines to Western medicine (Proceedings)
Alternative therapies have become increasingly popular in recent years, but their use in veterinary medicine is not without controversy. As the use of these therapies has become evermore popular in the general population, and because they have proven to be effective, it has become commonplace to see some of them used in professional practices, both human and veterinary. Other alternative medicines are being used by many people (for themselves and/or their pets), but some of these have not yet received broad-based acceptance.
Examples of the more accepted alternative medicines would be acupuncture and chiropractic. An example of an alternative method that is perhaps less accepted in the veterinary field might be the shamanic approach to soul retrieval. Aromatherapy and Flower Essences (Bach Flowers) are examples of medicines readily available to the general public and to practitioners alike.Practitioners who use alternative medicines may combine them with Western medicine techniques, or they may use one or more of them almost exclusively. Some holistic practitioners use a variety of alternative methods, and they might use them exclusive to any Western medicine; others stick to one or perhaps two core alternative methods to enhance their Western medicine practice. Practitioners have thus come to use terms such as complementary medicine or integrative medicine to describe the way alternatives are used in their particular practice, and in the case of human medicine CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) has become a popular term.
Comparing and contrasting alternative medicines with Western medicine
While it is impossible to lump all types of alternative medicines into one format, there are some generalities that apply to most alternative medicines.
•As a rule, alternative medicines are "wholistic", and they are applied to the whole animal: body/mind/emotions/spirit. In other words, while a disease may manifest itself in one part of the body, an alternative practitioner would be concerned about how other parts of the whole body were affected by the disease process. And, in addition to attempting to heal the physical aspects of a disease, alternative medicines try to alleviate problems that may be coming from mental, emotional, or "spirited" (i.e. the vital principal or animating force within living beings) sources.
Side effects from alternative medicines
Anything that has the ability to heal or cure ... also has the ability to cause harm. This holds true for the alternative medicines, although most practitioners report far fewer adverse side effects than they previously observed when using Western medicines. It also holds true – in both Western medicine and the alternative medicines — that the better qualified the practitioner, the better the results will be without untoward adverse side effects.
In addition, there are some alternative therapies, especially some of the herbal remedies – depending on how they are used, that may interfere with the actions of the Western medicines. In this case it behooves the practitioner to know how and when these interferences may occur.
Do the alternative medicines work?
Again, we can only generalize here, but here are some observations:
•Alternative medicines can be effective for treating many diseases, but as a rule they do not work as quickly as some of the Western medicines do. It may take 30 days or more before beneficial results are seen when using herbal medicines, and it typically takes three or four chiropractic or acupuncture treatments before real results are seen. While some diseases may respond rapidly to an appropriate alternative medicine, as a general rule, you won't want to call for an herbalist if you've just been hit by a car.
On the other hand, many of the alternative medicines have been used for thousands of years or more by millions of people around the world. Whether we choose to admit it or not, the anecdote continues to be an important engine of novel ideas in medicine. There is a long history of anecdotal and case history evidence revolutionizing medical treatment.
As but only one example, it was the anecdotal observation of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis that led to the discovery that washing hands reduced post-partum mortality, decades before germs were even "discovered." Today's observant doctors recognize that their own experiences, and the experiences of their patients are just as essential to good diagnosis, treatment and patient care as are double-blind, peer-reviewed study results. No matter how wide the perceived rift between the science of doctoring and the art of doctoring, and no matter what the new technologies may deliver unto us in terms of more precise tests and life-prolonging therapies, the work of caring veterinarians will always necessarily take place at the intersection of science and the language and the stories that our clients (and their animals) bring to us.