Alternative medicine is a broad term for any method that seeks to prevent or heal disease through methods outside of the practices of mainstream "western" medical practice. The term refers to alternatives to western medical/surgical treatment. Those who make use of both alternative and mainstream medicine often prefer the term complementary medicine, in order to highlight the desire to use alternative practices in order to complement, rather than replace, mainstream medical practice.
In Ayurveda, the alternative medicine system from India, the idea is to use the mind-body connection to improve one's immune system and, consequently, one's health. Ayurveda may thus be seen to offer something in addition to symptomatic treatment of disease.
It should be noted that the term "alternative medicine" itself implies that all these methods see themselves as alternatives to conventional medicine. In fact some see themselves as promoting wellness, not as healing disease, and refuse to be categorized within another system's framework. Many of these methods do not attempt to diagnose or treat specific diseases, as defined by conventional medicine. For this reason, terms like "alternative health" and "alternative healing" are often preferred by practioners of these methods.
Practitioners of mainstream western medicine rely on the scientific method for results; they point out that it is impossible to make and interpret claims based on testimonials, hearsay and religious arguments.
Some practitioners of some alternative healing arts may eschew the scientific method because on the grounds that it is reductionistic and because, they argue, the cold objectivity scientists impose in their search for truth tends to erode their human compassion and that it is a bias that causes them to miss complex but intuitively available observations that could be very helpful.
Scientists regard such claims as nonsense and doublespeak. If a medical phenomenon is real, it can be measured and observed by people of any religion, or even people of no religion at all. For instance, if only believers in "alternative medicine" can "sense" someone's "energy fields", then the conclusion should be that one is dealing with fraud or self-deception, and not some mysterious energy field that is only sensed by true believers.
Skeptics hold that one may only hold to on such beliefs through magical thinking. Phillips Stevens writes "Many of today's complementary or alternative systems of healing involve magical beliefs, manifesting ways of thinking based in principles of cosmology and causality that are timeless and absolutely universal. So similar are some of these principles among all human populations that some cognitive scientists have suggested that they are innate to the human species, and this suggestion is being strengthened by current scientific research....Some of the principles of magical beliefs described above are evident in currently popular belief systems. A clear example is homeopathy...The fundamental principle of its founder, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), similia similibus curentur ("let likes cure likes"), is an explicit expression of a magical principle."
Public interest in alternative medicine is nonetheless significant. Since traditional medicine is still in a relatively early stage of development and is not yet able to treat many diseases and injuries, some turn to alternative medicine in the hope that cures which can't be found through traditional medicine might somehow be found in an herb or some mystical practice. Others are attracted by the sense of personal empowerment offered by some forms of alternative practice, ie: a chance to imagine one's self as doctor or healer.
A sense of power attracts people not only as consumers, but also as practitioners of alternative medicine. Many forms of alternative practice are relatively easy to enter, and a practitioner may obtain the social status and the some of the financial potential associated with the healing arts without going through the difficulty, time and expense of training and getting credentials in traditional medicine.
Alternative treatments are nonetheless sometimes effective, occasionally by their direct action on the body - even though this action is rarely accurately understood either by practitioner or patient - and more often by placebo effect. They may also sometimes be harmful, most commonly when they distract a patient from seeking conventional medical care in cases in which conventional care is known to be effective.
Some practitioners of some forms of alternative medicine, however do believe in the scientific method. They explore scientifically valid alternatives to current medical treatments. This is true for those who advocate herbal remedies, for example, or those who emphasize improving bodily health over the use of powerful medication.
Sometimes, the boundary line between alternative and mainstream medicine changes over time. Some of the methods considered alternative at one time may later be adopted by western medicine. Other methods may never achieve any scientific support and are thus rejected as useless by the mainstream medical practitioners.
- Mind-Body medicine
- Chiropractic (controversial: many chiropractors consider themselves part of mainstream scientific medicine. Medical doctors do not share this view.)
- Healing Touch -- Herbal Therapy -- Homeopathy -- Naturopathic Medicine -- Rebirthing-Breathwork -- Reiki -- Blood letting
- Colon Hydrotherapy (Colonics)
- Planer, Felix E. 1988 Superstition Revised ed. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books
- Hand, Wayland D. 1980 Folk Magical Medicine and Symbolism in the West in Magical Medicine Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 305-319.
- Phillips Stevens Jr. Nov./Dec. 2001 Magical Thinking in Complementary and Alternative Medicine Skeptical Inquier Magazine, Nov.Dec/2001