Alternative Therapies—Why Many Use Them

ALTERNATIVE, or complementary, medicine covers a broad range of healing techniques and treatments. Many come under the general heading of naturopathy, which is a system of treatment that emphasizes the use of natural agents or physical means to condition the body and allow it to heal itself. Quite a number of these therapies, commonly used for centuries, have long been abandoned or ignored by modern medicine.

For example, the August 27, 1960, Journal of the American Medical Association noted  that the application of cold for burns was “known to the ancients but seems to have been ignored by physician and layman alike. Although scattered references in the literature are unanimous in praise of this form of treatment, it is not generally used today. Indeed, most physicians say ‘it isn’t done,’ although no one quite knows why.”

In recent decades, however, the application of cold water or cold compresses for burns has once again been advocated by conventional medicine. The Journal of Trauma, of September 1963, reported: “Interest in the use of cold water in the early treatment of burns has developed since the reports of Ofeigsson and Schulman in 1959 and 1960. We have been treating patients for the past year with this method; our clinical results were encouraging.”

The treatment with cold water is relatively safe, and it certainly provides comforting relief. Hydrotherapy, which uses water in various ways to treat ailments, is utilized in alternative medicine, and now various forms of such treatment are also recognized by modern medicine. *

Similarly, alternative therapists often use plants to treat disease. This has been a practice for hundreds—even thousands—of years in some parts of the earth. In India, for example, the use of herbs has long been a mainstay of medicine. Today, practically everywhere, the healing power of certain plants is recognized by many health professionals.

A Noteworthy Experience

About a hundred years ago, Richard Willstätter, who later became a student of the biochemistry of plants, was influenced by what happened to a close young friend, ten-year-old Sepp Schwab. Sepp had a badly infected leg that a doctor said needed to be amputated to save his life, but Sepp’s parents postponed the operation till the next morning. In the meantime, they sought out a shepherd who had a reputation for his use of herbal remedies. The shepherd gathered a combination of plants, cut them into very fine pieces until they were a mass resembling cooked spinach, and applied this to the wound.

By morning the wound had improved, and the operation was again postponed. The treatment was continued, and in time, the wound healed completely. Willstätter went on to study chemistry at Munich University in Germany and later won the Nobel prize for discoveries made in connection with his studies of plant  pigments, particularly chlorophyll. Significantly, some 25 percent of pharmaceutical drugs now used are derived either in part or entirely from chemicals occurring naturally in plants.

The Need to Exercise Balance

Yet, it should be recognized that when it comes to medical treatment, what works wonders for one person may do little for another. The effectiveness of any kind of therapy depends upon a host of factors, including the type of disease and its severity and the patient’s general state of health. Even timing may be a factor.

Alternative methods usually work more slowly than orthodox methods, so a disease that might have been warded off had it been diagnosed and treated earlier may develop to the point where strong drugs—perhaps even surgery—are necessary to save life. It may therefore be unwise to hold to any one kind of therapy as though it were the only way to handle a health problem.

Alternative medicine differs from conventional therapies in its approach to health. Usually its healing methods deal more with prevention, and they focus on a person’s life-style and environment and how these factors impact his or her health. In other words, practitioners of alternative therapies generally look at the whole person rather than at just a troubled organ or a disease state.

A strong appeal of alternative medicine no doubt is the perception that its use of natural products and its methods of treatment are gentler and less hazardous than those employed by conventional medicine. Therefore, because of increased interest in identifying safe and effective medical treatments, a few examples of alternative therapies will be presented in the following article.


^ par. 5 See Awake!, June 22, 1988, pages 25-6.