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Integrative medicine can offer patients the best of both worlds

January 15th, 2013

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Integrative medicine can offer patients the best of both worlds

In most people’s opinion, a doctor’s job is to cure disease and “a good doctor” is someone who can cure illness quickly and permanently.

In reality, not every disease can be got rid off. Some diseases can be prevented, while treatment for other diseases can lead to the onset of a new illness.

Some medication has serious side-effects. Even today, with all the impressive advances in medical knowledge and technology we have at our disposal, some diseases still cannot be prevented or treated by conventional means.

However, alternative remedies such as those provided by traditional Thai, Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine can sometimes help.

Having practised as a doctor for several decades now, I know that there are limits to what conventional medicine can accomplish; that some conditions are simply impossible to cure.

Every doctor wants his/her patients to get better, but what if they don’t? Some patients seek out other, less recognised medical options, sometimes in secrecy because they are afraid their usual doctor will not approve.

One patient of mine had been seeing me for quite a while because he had a narrowed coronary artery. One day, he complained of pain in his shoulder. I investigated and found that the pain was not related to heart disease, so I referred him to another specialist to have his shoulder checked.

Several months passed and his shoulder pain had not dissipated. He could not take painkillers because he had heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. I was at my wit’s end, so I suggested he go see an acupuncturist. So he did and soon he was back to normal. Not only that but his blood pressure had dropped as well.

Alternative medicine exists worldwide. In Thailand this option has been available since ancient times and comes in many forms, such as traditional Thai massage, acupuncture, hypnosis and the use of medicinal plants.

Healers in some parts of the world have come up with particularly quirky approaches, such as using electricity or magnetic fields to treat disease. Certain lifestyle options, once adopted simply because they were regarded as healthy or might improve a pre-existing medical condition, are now being considered as an alternative option to treat certain diseases. The best example of this might be those who switch to a Mediterranean diet because of its focus on healthy ingredients such as olive oil, nuts and vegetables.

Thai cuisine is actually a very interesting subject in this regard. Our culinary practices are an accumulation of knowledge passed down from generation to generation; one common stricture is that if we eat durian, we must also eat some mangosteen to cancel out the “heat” created by the former fruit.

Contemporary studies have shown that mangosteen has high levels of antioxidant and is a good foil for durian, which is high in fat and calories. Traditional flavouring agents and spices such as chilli, garlic, ginger and turmeric have been found useful in treating inflammation, which is a major cause of many chronic illnesses.

The consumption of spicy food might even help treat coronary artery disease since this is caused by inflammation of the arterial wall, causing fat to get trapped and eventually clog the artery.

But why are modernday doctors so against alternative medicine? Perhaps because they have been taught to only believe things that have been scientifically proven, that are backed up by studies and statistics.

Before a conventional medicine is prescribed to a patient, the doctor must be confident that this medicine has passed tests and has proven to be effective on the majority of people, with acceptable side-effects. A large number of people must take part in this research in order to determine whether a new drug can be used on the average patient.

Alternative medicine, however, has not been properly tested according to standards laid down by modern medicine. It is old knowledge passed on from previous generations, learned through observation and sharpened by apprenticeship. To be fair, modern medical standards might not be suitable for proving the effectiveness of an alternative medical remedy because complementary medicine is more of an art than a science.

It focuses on making a person feel better and that cannot be measured with numbers alone.

For example, garlic has received mixed reviews. Some say it is effective in lowering blood pressure; others say it isn’t. This could be attributed to the fact the quality of garlic can vary a lot depending on its source, how it was stored and the manner in which it was prepared and consumed. Besides, since garlic is a food, not a medicine, it may take a long time to give measurable results, so, statistically speaking, its efficacy is hard to quantify.

My verdict is that both mainstream and alternative medicines have their pros and cons, so the best way is to go for what is called “integrative medicine”.

But a doctor who wishes to choose this path must have the know-how to make the best use of both approaches.

A patient of mine had pain in his chest because of the narrowing of small coronary arteries, which are harder to treat than the three major arteries of the heart. I tried every medicine available, but she only got better when I treated her with EECP (a mechanical procedure which calls for a special machine to give a deep-muscle massage to the legs). Her condition improved temporarily.

So I decided to go “unconventional” and use acupuncture and an Ondamet machine (used to balance energy in the body) instead. Then, to my great surprise, she really got better. Many of her symptoms disappeared and she no longer needed medicine or the EECP. Years later, I tested her heart again and found that the disease was gone.

In the US, integrative medicine has become a field of study. In addition to using conventional medicine, practitioners also have recourse to meditation, hypnosis, detoxification, acupuncture, Ayurvedic remedies and supplementary foods. More importantly, instead of focusing on physical healing alone, more attention is being placed on how the patient actually feels, something which cannot be measured but which is of great importance.

To find the right treatment for each person, it is important to realise that there is no individual doctor, nor any single approach to medicine that is capable of treating every disease and getting rid of it permanently without side-effects. Think rationally and don’t go for big names or “cures” you see offered in advertisements without doing some prior research and careful contemplation. When your health is at stake, it’s almost certainly worth the effort.

Prof Nithi Mahanonda is consultant cardiologist and interventionist, Perfect Heart Institute.

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