Healing Touch?

by kwolosz on October 30, 2012

Image courtesy of Smart Alternatives

I have an aunt. For the sake of this story, we will call her Aunt zany Stacy.

Aunt Stacy is a very successful massage-herbal-energy healing therapist that uses every natural and alternative modality available with her clients. Growing up with this influence and method of medicine, I must admit that sometimes I wonder if ‘holistic medicine’ really is effective.

After the stress of midterms, I made a visit to Aunt Stacy’s office for a free (family perk) massage.

Just walking into her office, she could tell that my left hip was higher than my right creating chaos is my body’s ability to function optimally. After a sequence of pulling and stretching, she did her energy work and discovered a series of required adjustments, which included:  left lung down, rib cage expand, kidneys down and to the left, and poof! I was healed.

Well, kind of.  I did feel better, but was it because of Aunt Stacy’s energy work? Maybe…

Health is not merely the absence of disease rather it takes into consideration all aspects of wellness. Holistic medicine, or often known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) addresses the whole person and integrates conventional and alternative therapies to both prevent and treat disease, but more importantly, to promote optimal wellness.

Principles of CAM

CAM includes a range of modalities, including acupuncture, massage therapy, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, yoga and meditation.

Proponents of CAM emphasize a range of attractive and important themes:

  • Patients need to be understood as whole individuals.
  • Treatments must be individualized.
  • Healthcare should be patient-centered.
  • Patients deserve time, empathy, sympathy and dedication.
  • The therapeutic relationship is important for the clinical outcome.

Image courtesy of Natural Holistic Health Center

Popularity of CAM

There is a growing area of research on CAM and it’s relationship with those who use it to treat an illness from those who use it for health promotion. In fact, Health Services Research (2011) reported that:

  • 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. use some form of CAM each year
  • $34 billion spent on CAM in 2007 – mostly out-of-pocket – $12 billion on visits to practitioners, $22 billion on products, classes, materials
  • Over $10 billion spent on CAM research in last ten years
  • Chronic back, neck and joint pain are most likely to generate CAM usage
  • The global market for herbal medicines is over $60 billion annually, and is growing steadily
  • In 2007, more than 3.1 million people used acupuncture and Chinese medicine – a 50% increase since 2002
  • 2/3 of adults using CAM don’t tell their doctors
  • More than 50 U.S. hospitals and medical centers have integrative medicine centers or programs
  • Many health plans offer CAM discount programs and/or coverage for certain CAM treatments if prescribed by a medical doctor

Assuming that the substantial use of holistic medicine will continue to grow, it could have profound public health effects.

So there is a desire to stray from conventional medicine, and search for a more natural remedy, but is CAM effective?

CAM has been associated with a reduced risk for an array of chronic diseases, especially chronic pain, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and an overall improved quality of life and wellness.

CAM Use for Chronic Pain

The Mayo Clinic conducted a prospective, partially blinded, controlled, and randomized clinical trial of 25 patients receiving true acupuncture compared with a control group of 25 patients who received simulated acupuncture. Results of total fibromyalgia symptoms were significantly improved in the acupuncture group compared with the control group during the study period (less than one year). Fatigue and anxiety were the most significantly improved symptoms during the follow-up period. However, activity and physical function levels did not change.

Scientific Evidence on CAM

In the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, back pain was by far the most common condition cited as a reason for using CAM, followed by neck pain, joint pain/stiffness, and arthritis; other musculoskeletal pain and severe headache. The survey also found that almost 40 percent used at least one form of CAM.

Despite the widespread use of CAM for chronic pain, scientific evidence on whether CAM helps alleviate the conditions for which they are used, and if so, how – is limited. Evidence for CAM is growing, especially for CAM therapies that many people use for common pain, e.g. headache, back pain, arthritis. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) highlights the research status of some CAM therapies used for common types of pain.

CAM Effective?

Complementary and alternative medicine has a reputation for good value among health conscious consumers. Evidence on out-of-pocket expenditures is a testament to the widely held belief that CAM therapies have benefits that outweigh their costs. Regardless of public opinion, there is often little more than anecdotal evidence on the health and economic implications of CAM therapies.

Bottom line: Aunt Stacy, I will see you next week for my free massage.



Davis, M. A., West, A. N., Weeks, W. B., & Sirovich, B. E. (2011). Health behaviors and utilization among users of complementary and alternative medicine for treatment versus health promotion. Health services research, 46(5), 1402-1416.

Martin, D. P., Sletten, C. D., Williams, B. A., & Berger, I. H. (2006, June). Improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms with acupuncture: results of a randomized controlled trial. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 81, No. 6, pp. 749-757). Elsevier.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) (2011) Chronic Pain and CAM: At a Glance. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Available at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/pain/chronic.htm.