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Modern medicine is effective, but some people want more. That’s why they turn to complementary and alternative medicine, say experts

Would you call a chiropractor for help with your back and neck pain? How about a reflexologist when your asthma flares? Or a Reiki healer, to help you reduce stress and anxiety? No matter how unreal it might seem to some people, alternative medical practices are gaining traction all over the world.

In general, the term “alternative therapy” refers to any health treatment not standard in Western medical practice. When used alongside standard medical practices, alternative approaches are referred to as “complementary” medicine.

Beyond that, complementary and alternative therapies are difficult to define, largely because the field is so diverse. It encompasses well-known and trusted practices such as homeopathy and Ayurveda, diet and exercise changes, hypnosis, reflexology, chiropractic adjustment, and poking needles into a person’s skin (aka acupuncture), acupressure, reiki and aromatherapy among other treatments.

Why it is in demand

Alternative medicine has certainly gained popularity in recent years and especially in the UAE, as more people seek new treatments for various health issues.

“One reason for this trend is the perceived limitations of modern medicine,” says Diana Zeitouni Yasin, General Manager, Holistic Healing Medical Center. “Many people feel that mainstream medicine focuses too heavily on treating symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes of illness. They express frustration with the side effects of prescription medications. For some individuals, the side effects of prescription medications may outweigh the benefits, leading them to seek alternative treatment options. Some people may also have concerns about the long-term effects of taking prescription medications, particularly if they are managing chronic conditions that require ongoing treatment.”

In the last two decades or so, there has been a great deal of excitement about Ayurveda worldwide; and a continuing demand for traditional medicine in the Middle East. “We need to be aware about the value and efficacy of various systems; be they conventional, complementary, or alternative,” says Dr V L Shyam, Medical Director, Dr Shyam’s Ayurveda Centre. “Market forces aside, a surprising number of modern doctors are also getting interested in Ayurveda. Lack of documentation in Traditional Complementary and Alternative Medicine (TCAM) has not prevented the increased use of such therapies. The phrase “clinical legitimacy” can be seen as a trump card that overrides other factors.”

Who uses it?

Studies have identified numerous factors that made people more likely to use alternative therapies, such as suffering from hard-to-treat conditions such as chronic pain, back problems or anxiety. Those who were in poorer health were also more likely to look for alternatives to conventional treatment, suggesting they turned to these therapies when they felt that conventional medicine couldn’t do anymore for them. However, most factors were personality related, such as commitment to environmentalism or an interest in spirituality. Patients using alternative therapies were also likely to be more educated than the average.

“The use of alternative therapies cannot be stereotyped as the patient profile varies significantly,” says Yasin. “However, it is possible that those with a higher income may be more inclined to use alternative therapies since they are usually not covered by insurance. While educated individuals may have a greater interest in exploring alternative treatment options, information on health is readily available on various media platforms, so people from a wide range of backgrounds may seek alternative medicine for various reasons.”

While conventional medicine offers a variety of interventions designed to alleviate the burden of chronic illness, such as pharmaceuticals, physical therapy and surgeries, alternative medicine are often sought in conjunction with or instead of these options, providing individuals with natural paths for treatment and prevention.

“It helps chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiac problems, weight issues, autoimmune conditions, in addition to chronic pain or symptoms that are unresolved by modern conventional medicine,” says Dr Khalid Shukri, Functional Medicine, General Practitioner, at the UAE-based integrative medicine hub, Wellth.

Personal factors

Alternative therapists dedicate substantial amounts of time to each patient and consider their treatment as holistic, treating the whole person rather than the disease and taking into account psychological and personal factors. As a result, treatments are tailored and place more value on the patient as a person. This approach may help patients to feel more in control of their treatment as they feel that their input is valued.

“It is important to understand the root cause of a patient’s condition, especially since many seek out alternative practitioners only in the chronic stages of illness, often after being affected by long-term medication use,” agrees Dr Mohamed Rifas, Ayurveda Specialist, Holistic Healing Medical Center. “Spending adequate time with patients allows practitioners to gather crucial information about their medical history and about their constitution to be able to make the treatment more effective.”

Complementary medicine

Alternative therapies such as meditation, reiki and aromatherapy can help promote relaxation and a general sense of wellbeing. This is important for patients, regardless of whether these therapies have an effect on the cause of their illness or not. As such, alternative therapies can complement conventional treatments by helping patients to feel better. “As per Ayurveda and holistic principles, the sensations of pleasure or pain perceived by the sense organs are regarded as vital components of the healing process and can significantly impact it,” explains Dr Rifas. “These therapies not only complement modern medicine but also functional medicine systems like Ayurveda, Homeopathy, TCM, etc.”

Is it without risks?

As well as assuming that alternative therapies are effective, most patients believe that they are without risks. This is usually associated with the idea that they are “natural”, and that this means that they do not have adverse effects. Is natural always equivalent to harmless?

“Alternative medicines are typically based on natural substances and lifestyle changes, which generally do not have any adverse effects,” assures Dr Amir Firouzjaei, Acupuncturist, Holistic Healing Medical Center. “The underlying principle of all holistic medicines is to promote balance and harmony throughout the body’s various organs. While this approach may seem simple, it is actually a complex therapy that requires a skilled practitioner to perform effectively. It is an art, the art of harmonising the body, so choosing the right doctor or therapist is essential for achieving optimal results.”

Patients also need to keep in mind that it is not applicable in emergency situations, says Dr Shukri. “Most alternative treatments do not heal instantly,” he says. “It usually takes several hours or even months before you can see any positive effects. Also, people require lifestyle changes.”

When it comes to Ayurveda, explains Dr Jitha George, Medical Director, Ayurheritage Ayurveda Clinic, mostly substances such as herbs and oils are used. “These are either completely natural or extracts from natural products. Typically these medicines or oils do not cause side effects or issues to the body. “

Additionally, in the field of holistic medicine, there is a fine line between true and false natural substances, techniques, information, and recommendations. Therefore, it is imperative to be cautious and informed when choosing alternative therapies. “Another important point is that alternative medicine does not disregard conventional medicine, including any ongoing medication or emergency situations,” says Dr Firouzjaei. “Your therapist or doctor should have a thorough understanding of your current medical condition and knowledge of conventional medicine too.”

Dr George warns, “UAE has very stringent regulations from health authorities regarding the alternative medicines and patients must verify the authenticity of the place and the practitioner before approaching for a treatment.”

Dr Shyam too has a word of caution. He says natural is always not harmless. A medicine can have negative side-effects or positive side-benefits. Suddha Chikitsa – a treatment for a disease should not provoke another disease – is a fundamental treatment principle of Ayurveda. “During a detailed consultation process, an experienced TCAM practitioner, should prescribe medicines ensuring positive benefits rather than negative side effects. Therefore, one should not consume any Ayurveda medicines without a consultation and prescription. During the consultation, a patient should also enquire about the ingredients and possible adverse reactions.”