In response to the number of aging baby boomers and the rise of chronic disease, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is quickly becoming a fixture in the healthcare marketplace. In combination with conventional medicine, CAM provides healthcare options that are more personal, non-invasive and less costly.
CAM covers a number of healthcare practices, products and therapies, including massage therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture, to name a few. These therapies focus on fostering the body’s natural ability to heal itself, rather than the emphasis on prescription medication and technology of conventional medicine. CAM is about prevention and treating the individual as a whole.
Approximately 40 percent of Americans use CAM for overall well-being, and CAM services represent about $9 billion of the U.S. healthcare market each year. According to Time magazine, the practice of CAM has risen dramatically in recent years:
- 18 million Americans get massage therapy each year
- Chiropractors treat more than 30 million people annually
- More than 42 percent of hospitals in a 2011 survey offer one or more CAM therapies – up from 37 percent in 2007
Given its growing popularity across all generations, more traditional healthcare professionals are integrating CAM as a way to prevent injury and provide non-invasive pain relief. The Mayo Clinic, for example, uses massage therapy in its post-surgical treatment.
Massage Therapy (MT)
MT is a form of bodywork used to improve the body’s function. Massage therapists manipulate the soft tissues in the body to foster relaxation and improve circulation, which in turn promotes overall health and well-being. Among its many benefits, massage has been shown to:
- Alleviate low-back pain and improve range of motion
- Ease medication dependence
- Enhance immunity by stimulating lymph flow—the body’s natural defense system
- Help athletes of any level prepare for, and recover from, strenuous workouts
- Increase joint flexibility
- Lessen depression and anxiety
- Release endorphins—amino acids that work as the body’s natural painkiller
Chiropractic focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system and is used to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints, including back pain, neck pain, pain in the joints of the arms or legs, and headaches. Chiropractors practice a drug-free, hands-on approach to healthcare that includes patient examination, diagnosis and treatment, recommendation of rehabilitative exercises, and nutritional and lifestyle counseling. Like other forms of CAM, chiropractic focuses on maintaining an individual’s health naturally to help boost resistance to disease, rather than simply treating the symptoms of disease.
Acupuncture dates back at least 2,500 years in China, and is based on the idea that there are patterns of energy flow in the body. It is believed that disruption of these patterns leads to disease. Acupuncture is intended to correct imbalances of flow at points close to the skin, and has been studied for a wide range of pain conditions, such as post-operative dental pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, headache, fibromyalgia, back pain, myofascial pain and osteoarthritis.
Studies conducted in Germany on patients with chronic low back pain found that only 15 percent of subjects who received acupuncture treatment needed extra pain medication, compared with 34 percent who were receiving placebo treatments, and 59 percent receiving conventional therapy. Long-term pain reduction was also best for subjects who received either real or placebo acupuncture versus those who received conventional therapy.
The Impact of CAM in the United States
The leading cause of disability, low back pain affects more than 632 million people worldwide. One-third of all Americans live with chronic pain, affecting more than the number of people affected by heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined. The economic costs of medical care and lost productivity of low back pain is at least $550 billion annually.
- Chiropractic provides pain relief that appears to be as effective as conventional treatments
- Acupuncture is more effective than no treatment for relieving pain and improving function
- Massage therapy is useful for low back pain, based on a number of clinical trials
- Forms of CAM can serve as an option for chronic back pain that does not improve with self-care
The growing popularity of CAM underscores a number of ways for improving conventional medicine, creates an opportunity for greater communication between patient and healthcare provider, and gives more Americans the chance to benefit from alternative, non-invasive therapies