Integrated-medicine specialists combine many alternative treatments and therapies with Western medical treatments to help their patients, but research to determine which approaches are most effective is ongoing and in some cases inconclusive. Certain therapies, however, have consistently produced good results, and so they are used in most integrated cancer and heart disease treatment programs around the country. Here's a quick take on some of the most popular therapies.
Dates back at least 2,000 years in China and is now also widely used in the United States and other countries. A licensed acupuncturist (the only type a patient should see) works by inserting tiny needles — much smaller than those used for blood tests or other shots — into points on the body along so-called meridians (think little pipelines running throughout your body). When expertly inserted, they cause little or no pain or bleeding. Western scientists are still studying precisely how acupuncture works, but it has been shown to relieve pain, nausea, high blood pressure, asthma, and many other conditions, with few side effects.
Using an electronic monitoring device called a biofeedback machine, a patient can learn how to recognize and control — without pain or medication — different parts of the body, such as muscles or heart rate, to relieve medical conditions. Many hospitals and clinics now have experts on staff who can teach biofeedback, typically in a 60-minute session. Research has shown the technique can improve scores of health problems, including nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia) and high blood pressure.
This is considered one of the more common of the many "energy medicine" therapies in use. Essentially, a person trained in how to channel or focus the body's own natural energy fields lays hands on or very near someone, to stimulate healing. The therapy, which has its roots in ancient healing practices and is now practiced at many academic medical centers in the United States, is credited with enhancing the body's own healing abilities and greatly reducing stress. But because scientists have not been able to prove its effectiveness through conventional studies, healing touch remains among the more controversial of alternative remedies.
Rooted in Eastern religious cultures, this age-old mind-body therapy involves a conscious process — focusing on calming the mind — to bring about what scientists call a relaxation response. Research looking at brain activity has shown that certain regions of the brain activate during meditation, producing a calming effect on the nervous system. Integrated-care specialists recommend meditation to help relieve stress, which in turn can lead to an enhanced immune response and a positive emotional state.
The science of nutrition is so far advanced these days that integrated-medicine specialists consider food and certain supplements to be critical parts of the healing plan for their patients. Many engage in full-scale nutritional counseling — offering a far more extensive regimen than the standard advice to, say, eat a low-fat diet. The most advanced integrated-care hospital programs often include test kitchens and classes that teach people how to cook, eat and supplement their diets to enhance healing.
Developed in ancient India, yoga incorporates breathing techniques, stretching and concentration into various exercise poses. The most difficult poses help strengthen the body, but yoga can be adapted so almost anyone at any fitness level can benefit from it in some way. Integrated-medicine programs at hospitals and clinics often have classes designed specifically for people who have undergone surgery or chemotherapy. Studies show that practicing yoga can reduce the heart rate, lower high blood pressure and decrease anxiety. Some types of yoga can also help with pain relief.