Acupuncture: Complementary Medicine or Alternative Medicine?

The terms “complementary medicine” and “alternative medicine” are often utilized in the same manner, as if they are interchangeable, and jointly describe any type of medicine that falls outside the realm of current western medical practice. However, just by thinking about the terms it is easy to determine that they are references to very different philosophies about the use of non-traditional or non-western medical therapies for the treatment of pain, illness, or disruption to the body of the patient. Acupuncture is a form of medical therapy to which both the term “complementary medicine” and the term “alternative medicine” is often attached. What is the difference between these two terms, and does it matter which term is utilized to describe acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine that employs the use of hair-fine needles, which are inserted into the skin at strategic points in the body known as “acupuncture points.” By regulating the flow of energy (known as “qi” by acupuncture practitioners) through the body, acupuncture can help to promote healing, alleviate pain, calm spasms and ticking, bolster the immune system, and generally encourage good health in myriad ways. Because of its eastern origin, and its obvious break with the practices of western medicine, acupuncture is generally referred to as a form of complementary or alternative medicine.

The term “complementary medicine” refers to a medical therapy or grouping of therapies that are used in conjuncture with, or as a complement to, western medical treatments. The term “alternative medicine”, on the other hand, refers to medical therapies that are practiced in lieu of, or as an alternative to, those same currently accepted western medical treatments. Complementary medicine and alternative medicine are often used to describe the same basic set of treatments. These treatments include, but are not limited to, acupuncture, herbal supplementation, qi gong, reike, and other energy therapies. Even massage therapy and the practice of Yoga are often considered forms of complementary and alternative medicine.

Where should the use acupuncture fall in the question of complementary medicine versus alternative medicine? This is a question I am asked often by patients living with chronic pain and illness who are treated in the acupuncture clinic that I run, and I have a fairly strong opinion on the subject. Patients and their families who are frustrated with the side effects of the medications the patients are taking, exhausted by the pain of the injections, procedures, and manipulations that their standard western medical treatments are causing them, and just plain sick and tired of all the visits to the doctors’ offices often want to know if they can just focus on the acupuncture, as they are getting such positive results from their acupuncture treatments. They are attracted to the “natural approach” and report feeling much more positively about their situation after acupuncture.

My answer is this. Can they chuck out the western medical bells and whistles and rely solely on acupuncture as an alternative medicine approach to treatment? Of course they can. Should they? In almost all cases, my answer is absolutely not. My personal feeling about the question of whether acupuncture is best utilized as alternative medicine or as complementary medicine is that acupuncture should absolutely, almost across the board, be considered a form of complementary medicine.

The use of acupuncture as alternative medicine is an idea that, in my opinion, is not only potentially self-detrimental on the patient’s part, but is also very limiting to the scope of patient care. For decades, as advances in western medical practices have brought about life saving discoveries and incredibly useful technology that can improve the health and well being of people and prolong their lives, practices employed by eastern medicine, many of which have successfully helped patients to manage their pain and quiet the symptoms of their disease for several millennia, have been largely ignored and dismissed. Now, as those practices are once again gaining popularity in the West, many people are drawn to push aside the more recent, scientific advances for the gentler approach of therapies like acupuncture. My feeling is that any treatment that ignores the benefits of one school of medicine while relying on another is a treatment that dramatically limits the possibilities for the patient’s well being and recovery.

In many cases, as with serious illness such as cancer, the use of acupuncture as an alternative medicine therapy is not only not indicated, but also is a potentially dangerous, even life threatening choice. For example, cancer patients often utilize acupuncture as a complementary medicine intervention to help them to combat the effects of the cancer and of the medical treatments they are undergoing to fight the disease. Most people are well acquainted with the terrible side effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Nausea, vomiting, and extreme fatigue, among other effects, are common conditions that occur as a result of the standard treatments for cancer. Acupuncture is often very effective in helping to calm, and sometimes eliminate the nausea and vomiting for varying amounts of time. It can also be used to bolster the patient’s energy and immune system, helping them to feel stronger and to stave off parasitic illnesses. Because they often feel so much better when utilizing acupuncture as a complementary medicine intervention, many cancer patients misunderstand the true benefits of the acupuncture treatment. They feel that acupuncture is “making them better.” In actuality, while acupuncture can help to combat the effects of an illness, like cancer, it cannot address the cancer itself. The patient is not being cured, despite the fact that they feel better. Continuation with the chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or whatever course of treatment the patient’s oncologist determined is best suited to address the patient’s cancer is crucial.

Obviously, the treatment of cancer is an extreme example of the argument in favor of acupuncture as a form of complementary medicine over its use as an alternative medicine, but the same argument applies to almost all pain and disease conditions. Regardless of the assistance provided by acupuncture, for patients suffering from chronic problem continued care by the patient’s general practitioner and other health care provider(s) as ordered by the treating team of physicians is warranted for almost all medical conditions. Acupuncture can help the patient to manage the pain and varying side effects associated with their condition and may provide some relief, which will help the patient to gain greater benefit from the other therapies available to him or her. Nonetheless, acupuncture should be utilized in conjuncture with conventional western treatment, as an adjunct treatment, and not in place of it. This practice makes the most of complementary medicine. Taking advantage of everything the medical knowledge of both hemispheres has to offer is a great way to ensure the most effective treatment for any medical condition. Acupuncture can be an excellent complementary medicine therapy, but I do not recommend any type of medical therapy be used as alternative medicine.

Are there any times when acupuncture can be used as alternative medicine? I do believe that there are some situations when acupuncture can be used appropriately in that manner. For instance, if all western medical therapies are failing, and acupuncture is providing some relief to the patient, than there is certainly no reason to discontinue the acupuncture. In that case it would be appropriate to use it as the sole treatment modality during the interim. The patient should continue to work with his or her medical team to continue to find the adjunct medical treatment that will complement the benefits being provided by acupuncture.

Another time when acupuncture might safely be used as an alternative medicine therapy is when the condition has been extinguished. For instance, let’s consider a patient with chronic headaches. After a course of acupuncture treatments as a means of complementary medicine, the headaches have disappeared, and the patient would like to wean off of the pain medications he or she has been taking to address the pain. As there are virtually no negative side effects associated with acupuncture, there is no reason for the patient to discontinue the treatment if he or she chooses to continue after the western medical treatments are no longer necessary. And to take that point one step farther, I would also argue that if the patient’s headache were to return, after determining that there is no injury or new anomaly to the brain, it would be acceptable for the patient to attempt to address the headaches with acupuncture first, as a form of alternative medicine, to see if the headaches could be brought back under control with acupuncture, as the therapy had been successful in addressing the headache condition in the past.

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