Alternative vs. Traditional Health Practices: What’s the Difference?

Alternative vs. Traditional Health Practices: What’s the Difference?

Traditional medicine includes the treatment of symptoms and conditions with drugs, medical procedures, surgery, or other traditional medical practices. The majority of us are familiar with and regularly utilize traditional health practices. These include doctors' appointments, hospital visits, trips to medical clinics, and shopping at a pharmacy. 

Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is an entire philosophy, or idea, that there are other, more holistic ways to approach health and treatment. For example, if you suffer from chronic migraines and adjust your diet and exercise routines to remedy those migraines rather than take a medication prescribed by your doctor, you're practicing alternative medicine.

In the past, traditional medicine has been a more widely accepted form of medical treatment. But with the internet making it easier to communicate and share information with a broader audience, more people are starting to integrate alternative healthcare practices into their homes and lifestyles. 

Traditional Health Practices

Most of us have utilized traditional health practices in one form or another. If you have a primary care physician, have been to the hospital, or have received a prescription drug medication, you've received traditional healthcare. 

Traditional health practices are based on research, lab experiments, and trials. And while traditional medicine is a widely accepted norm, some individuals may benefit from a holistic approach as well. 

Each unique person has to determine whether traditional or alternative health practices are right for them. Sometimes, the right choice is a combination of both practices; other times, it's one or the other.

Types of Traditional Medicine

There are a few different types of traditional medicine. Traditional medicine typically focuses on treating specific areas or conditions of the body, rather than the body as a whole. These forms of treatment and care are administered by professional, board-certified healthcare providers. 

  • Pharmacology: This is the branch of traditional medicine that deals with prescription drugs and their appropriate uses and effects. Pharmacology also looks at drugs and how they work in the human body;

  • Psychopharmacology: This type of traditional medicine is similar to pharmacology but specifically focuses on drugs that help treat mental disorders;

  • Surgery: Surgery is performed by a board-certified surgeon to fix broken bones, repair vital organs, repair torn tissue, or remedy other injuries manually;

  • Medical devices: Medical devices, like oxygen tanks or nebulizers, are often prescribed by traditional medical providers to treat certain conditions.

These traditional medical practices generally form the bedrock of traditional medicine as we know it today, providing a foundation for new medicine to build upon.

How Does Medicine Become Accepted in Society?

When a medication is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is typically accepted by American society as a good medication to use. There are certain steps and requirements to getting a drug approved by the FDA. 

After the drug is developed, the first step is testing the toxicity on different species of animals. Next, the sponsor of the drug submits their initial application so the FDA can investigate. After that, the testing phase begins with people. When clinical trials are finished, the FDA makes final reviews and inspections before approving or denying the drug.

Some medicines are denied because the FDA deems them unsafe or ineffective. There are also cases where drugs are denied because of health fraud, which means the sponsor claims they treat disease or improve health but are proved ineffective.

Alternative and Complementary Health Practices

Alternative health practices are healthcare methods that do not require prescription drugs, surgery, or any type of medical device. In most cases, alternative and complementary health practices address the entire body, rather than a specific ailment. 

According to NCBI, over 50% of people in the United States report using alternative medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that those in developing countries are more likely to seek medical care from traditional healers and use other forms of alternative medicine than they are to visit a physician or use other forms of what we consider to be traditional medicine. This trend is not confined to developing nations; France alone reports 75% of its population using alternative medicines. C

Types of Alternative Medicine

While those in developed countries may consider pharmacology, surgery, and the use of medical devices as "traditional" medicine, many nations around the world have their own "cultural" ways of healing. Indigenous populations often use these methods and consider them traditional. At the same time, the Western medical establishment considers them to be “alternative.” Some forms of alternative medicine include:

  • Chiropractic medicine: This type of alternative medicine focuses on the relationship between the main structure of the body (i.e., the skeleton, the muscles, and the nerves) and the individual’s health;

  • Acupuncture: This is a practice in which an acupuncturist inserts multiple, very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. Adherents believe that acupuncture can help activate your body’s natural painkillers;

  • Supplements and vitamins: Many people supplement their healthcare regime with vitamins and supplements. For example, vitamin B12 can help keep your body functional and keep your systems at their best. Some people also use weight loss supplements or other methods of weight loss as an alternative health practice;

  • Diet changes: People make changes to their diet for a lot of health reasons. For example, if you have high cholesterol, you could cut out certain foods instead of taking a drug to lower your cholesterol.

With these and other types of alternative medicine in practice today, how do we know when they work and when they don't? How can you decide if alternative medicine is right for you?

Do Alternative Types of Medicine Work?

Alternative types of medicine can work, but typically, it will depend on your health and lifestyle. It’s important to understand that before you accept any type of alternative medicine into your lifestyle, you should consult with your medical provider.

Oftentimes, patients will use both traditional medicine and alternative medicine for various conditions and ailments they experience. For example, someone with an anxiety disorder may take prescription medication to deal with their mood swings but may supplement it with something like Glutathione, which is known to fight free-radical damage caused by stress in your body. 

The Difference Between the Two

Traditional medicine is a societal norm — patients are used to using drugs, surgery, and other forms of traditional medicine to cure or treat a condition. When the FDA approves a drug, society tends to accept it. 

But alternative medicine may be just as effective in treating a patient's conditions as traditional medicine. Alternative medicine complements traditional medicine by taking a step back and approaching the body as a whole, while traditional medicine zooms in and focuses on the specifics of the patient's conditions.

As such, it's becoming more widely accepted to use both traditional and alternative health practices in tandem with each other. Many times, healthcare providers will recommend things like meditation or acupuncture to help treat a patient’s condition, in addition to traditional healthcare methods.

But regardless of whether you believe in traditional medicine or alternative medicine or a combination of the two, you should ensure that any medications, supplements, or treatments you are using are safe. Be sure to discuss all your health practices and concerns with your healthcare provider.

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