Few people might think to call a balneotherapist when their face breaks out or a reflexologist when asthma flares. But no matter how weird they might seem, alternative medical practices are gaining traction in the U.S. So we’ve put together a guide to some of the most popular alternative physical therapies working their way into the mainstream.
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In general, the term "alternative therapy” refers to any health treatment not standard in Western medical practice. Beyond that, complementary and alternative therapies are difficult to define, largely because the field is so diverse; it encompasses practices spanning diet and exercise changes, hypnosis, chiropractic adjustment, and poking needles into a person’s skin (aka acupuncture). Technically, “alternative” treatments are used in place of conventional medicine; when used alongside standard medical practices, alternative approaches are referred to as “complementary” medicine.
The benefits (or lack thereof) of alternative therapies are hotly contested. More research is needed to determine the efficacy of nearly all of these practices, but that hasn’t stopped people from engaging in them: In 2008, more than 38 percent of American adults were using some form of alternative medicine. Follow along as we sort through the practices that are changing the way Americans approach medical care.
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Acupressure is similar in practice to acupuncture (see below), only no needles are involved. Practitioners use their hands, elbows, or feet to apply pressure to specific points along the body’s “meridians.” According to the theory behind acupressure, meridians are channels that carry life energy (qi or ch’i) through the body. The reasoning holds that illness can occur when one of these meridians is blocked or out of balance; acupressure is thought to relieve blockages so energy can flow freely again, restoring wellness. More research is needed, but pilot studies have found positive results: Acupressure might decrease nausea for chemotherapy patients and reduce anxiety in people scheduled to have surgery.
Though “acupuncture” may immediately bring needles to mind, the term actually describes an array of procedures that stimulate specific points on the body. The best-known variety consists of penetrating the skin with thin needles controlled by a practitioner or electrical stimulation, and it’s currently used by millions of Americans each year. Despite its popularity, controversy over acupuncture’s efficacy abounds. Some studies find it helpful for chronic pain and depression, but evidence on all counts is mixed.
Aromatherapy uses essential oils (concentrated extracts from the roots, leaves, seeds, or blossoms of plants) to promote heeling. The oils can be inhaled, massaged into the skin or (in rare cases) taken by mouth, and each has a specific purpose: Some are used to treat inflammation or infections; others are used to promote relaxation. Studies suggest aromatherapy might reduce pain, depression, and anxiety, but more research is needed to fully determine its uses and benefits.
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Also known as Ayurveda, Ayurvedic medicine originated in India and has been around for thousands of years. Practitioners use a variety of techniques, including herbs, massage, and specialized diets, with the intent of balancing the body, mind, and spirit to promote overall wellness. Studies of Ayurveda are few and far between (perhaps because the practice includes such a wide variety of treatments), so it’s difficult to determine how effective it is as a treatment system.
Also known as hydrotherapy, balneotherapy involves the use of water for therapeutic purposes, and it dates as far back as 1700 B.C.E. It’s based on the idea that water benefits the skin and might treat a range of conditions from acne to pain, swelling, and anxiety; practitioners use mudpacks, douches, and wraps in attempts to reap agua’s rewards. Proponents of the therapy cite findings that water might boost people’s immune systems, though research on balneotherapy’s effectiveness remains inconclusive.
Biofeedback techniques allow people to control bodily processes that normally happen involuntarily — such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature — in order to improve conditions including high blood pressure, headaches, and chronic pain. Patients work with a biofeedback therapist to learn these relaxation techniques and mental exercises. In initial sessions, electrodes are attached to the skin to measure bodily states, but eventually the techniques can be practiced without a therapist or equipment. Researchers still aren’t sure how or why biofeedback works — but a lot of research suggests it does work. Relaxation seems to be a key component, as most people who benefit from the practice have conditions that are caused or exacerbated by stress.
Chiropractic is pretty widely accepted in the medical community, and thus qualifies more as a “complementary” medicine than an alternative one. The practice focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, including pain in the back, neck, joints, arms, legs, and head. The most common procedure performed by chiropractors is “spinal manipulation” (aka an “adjustment”), which involves applying controlled force (typically the chiropractor’s hands) to joints that have become “hypomobile.” The idea is that joints’ movements become restricted when surrounding tissues are injured either during a single event (tweaking a muscle during a weight-lifting session) or through repetitive stress (sitting with poor posture for extended periods). Chiropractic adjustments of the affected area are intended to restore mobility and loosen the muscles, allowing the tissues to heal and the pain to resolve. Studies of chiropractic generally affirm its efficacy, with research suggesting the practice can decrease pain and improve physical functioning.
Homeopathy functions in much the same way as a vaccine: It’s based on the principle of treating “like with like,” meaning a substance that causes adverse reactions when taken in large doses can be used — in small amounts — to treat those same symptoms. (This concept is sometimes used in conventional medicine, as well; for example, Ritalin is a stimulant used to treat patients with ADHD.) Homeopaths gather extensive background information on patients before prescribing a highly diluted substance, usually in liquid or tablet form, to jumpstart the body’s natural systems of healing. There’s some clinical evidence that homeopathy is more effective than placebos, though more research is needed.
Naturopathic medicine is premised on the “healing power of nature. Naturopathic doctors are trained in both conventional and alternative medicines, and seek to understand the cause of a condition by exploring its mental, physical, and spiritual manifestations in a given patient. Naturopathy typically involves a variety of treatment techniques including nutrition, behavioral changes, herbal medicine, homeopathy, and acupuncture. Because it involves so many different therapies, it’s difficult to design studies that specifically target naturopathy’s effectiveness; that said, one study that evaluated the practice for low back pain found positive results.
Reflexology involves “applying pressure to specific areas on the feet, hands, or ears. The theory is that these points correspond to different body organs and systems; pressing them is believed to positively affect these organs and a person’s overall health. (For example, applying pressure to a spot on the arch of the foot is believed to benefit bladder function.) A person can either use reflexology on her or his self, or enlist the help of a reflexologist. Millions of people around the world use the therapy to complement conventional treatments for conditions including anxiety, cancer, diabetes, kidney function, and asthma. Studies have found that reflexology can improve respiratory function in breast cancer patients, reduce fatigue, and improve sleep — but other studies have reached less definitive conclusions.
Reiki is a form of energy healing based on the idea that a “life force energy” flows through everyone’s body. According to this philosophy, sickness and stress are indications that life force energy is low, while energy, health, and happiness signify a strong life force. In a Reiki session, a practitioner seeks to “transfer” life energy to the client by placing their hands lightly on the client’s body or a slight distance away from the body (Reiki can also be performed long-distance). The purpose is to promote relaxation, speed healing, reduce pain, and generally improve the client’s wellbeing. For the most part, there’s no regulation for Reiki practitioners. Studies of the practice’s efficacy are varied (shocking, we know): Some find therapeutic touch to be an effective form of treatment; some don’t.
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