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.

Dalma October 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm

It’s so refreshing to read some coverage on CAM without the unscientific stance that a lack of evidence is evidence in itself. Thank you for your objectivity!

kwolosz October 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm

CAM is a very subjective topic, and while the “hard-science” may be lacking, the amount of support that CAM has speaks volume.
Thanks for reading!

phanmo October 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm
Andrew Maynard October 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm

@phanmo – interesting site, although it does seem to rely predominantly on anecdote rather than analysis. On the same basis, I wonder how many other things could be added to the list – driving, using ladders, advised use of conventional theraprutics, ill-advised use of same… Anecdotes help highlight potential dangers of courses of action, but do not in themselves create a strong basis for decision-making.

phanmo November 1, 2012 at 4:49 am


A good site, in and of itself, and loads of good links. Particularly good regarding woo science and medicine in the UK and the British post-secondary education system.

kwolosz November 1, 2012 at 9:39 am

The ‘scientific evidence’ of CAM is limited. But the rise in popularity for alternative medicine is an important topic, especially when the reported 2/3 of CAM users do not tell their doctors. Certain CAM therapies include herbal remedies which may affect traditional prescription medication.
The article below discusses the battle between CAM and traditional medicine in the academic realm of teaching hospitals.


Brian Clegg October 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm

For balance on acupuncture, perhaps you should see this: http://edzardernst.com/2012/10/acupuncture-for-chronic-pain-almost-certainly-not/ – “even the enthusiastic authors of this article admit that, when compared to sham, the effect size of real acupuncture is too small to be clinically relevant. Therefore one might argue that this meta-analysis confirms what critics have suggested all along: acupuncture is not a useful treatment for clinical routine.”

kwolosz October 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm

CAM therapies such as acupuncture show promise in pain management. The basis of my post was to suggest other ways to look at “modern” medicine that are actually turning away from conventional remedies, and towards a holistic approach. Instead if treating a disease within a certain part of the body, CAM focuses on the entire body as a system that functions together.

Jeffrey Hammond October 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm

To provide a deeper insight into this topic I would like to share an educational and touching documentary on the power of alternative medicine. “The trials he and his family endure along the way remind us that the human spirit can transcend any boundaries while exploring a universal community of healing and transformation.” The trailer and full movie can be seen in the links provided below.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl2GGU63ZFc
Full Movie: http://skylo.me/rc.php?Id=1b2be96ad23852b7f4c54e9425140f20

kwolosz October 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Thank you Mr. Geoffrey. Another CAM therapy that has been receiving much attention, yet not mentioned in this post, is called ‘Floatation”…. maybe you should look in to this form of meditation.

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