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Complementary therapies

NHS Direct Online Health Encyclopaedia

Introduction There are many different kinds of complementary therapies, some of which are available through the NHS. If you would like alternative therapy through the NHS, you will need to be referred by a doctor, usually your GP. At present, over 40% of GPs provide access to alternative or complementary therapies. Complementary therapies are usually used together with modern western medicine, or when traditional treatments have been unsuccessful. They should not be used instead of advice from your GP or specialist, but rather as an extra aid. Complementary therapies are becoming increasingly common in the UK. As many as one third of people in the UK have tried at least one form of complementary therapy, usually for persistent and chronic problems such as backache or arthritis. Only chiropractors and osteopaths are regulated by acts of parliament.

How does it work? Some of the most popular complementary therapies are: Acupuncture Derived from traditional Chinese healing, acupuncture uses needles to stimulate the function of the organs (meridians), through 500 acupuncture points on the skin. The needles used are 4-25mm long and are left in place for about 30 minutes. The technique causes a tingling sensation and can be very relaxing, bringing about a feeling of extreme energy after the treatment is finished. Acupuncture is most often used for headaches, migraines, anxiety, arthritis, asthma, backache, circulatory problems, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia syndrome, infertility, menstrual problems, sciatica, skin conditions and peptic ulcers.

Aromatherapy uses plant oils (known as essential oils) to improve emotional and physical problems. Essential oils are extracted from all parts of the plant and distilled to become concentrated. They can be bought over-the-counter and claim to have one or more of the following properties: sedative, calming, stimulating, anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antiseptic, analgesic (pain relief), and decongestant. Essential oils can be added to bath water, dropped onto a tissue or handkerchief, added to a vaporiser, or used in massage lotions. Essential oils can also be found in many common over-the-counter remedies such as cold and flu medicines. Some examples of this are eucalyptus, peppermint and camphor oil.

Chiropractic Chiropractors use manual techniques to diagnose, treat and prevent mechanical disorders of the spine, joints and muscles. Treatment consists of physical manipulation known as adjustments. These movements are thought to re-align the spine and other skeletal structures. They may also have some effect on the nervous system, releasing the body's natural healing ability. Chiropractic is regulated by an act of parliament.

Herbal medicine is closest to modern orthodox medicine, and many traditional drugs such as aspirin are derived from plants. Herbal medicines are used in combinations to create specific treatments for individual patients. For example, a treatment for eczema may contain one or more herbs that work to relieve the symptoms, as well as other ingrediants that treat the cause of the condition. There are three types of herbal therapies commonly used in the UK:- Western herbal medicine, Chinese herbal medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine (from India). Herbal therapy is commonly used for migraine, arthritis, respiratory, circulatory and digestive disorders, skin conditions, mild depression, insomnia, cystitis, PMS and menopausal problems. Herbal medicine can be bought over-the-counter from health food shops and pharmacies or can be made up on an individual basis by qualified herbalists.

Homeopathy is based on the law of similars; the theory that the symptoms of a condition are signs that the body is trying to cure itself. Therefore, tiny, highly diluted amounts of substances creating the same or similar symptoms of the condition are administered to encourage the bodys self-healing efforts. Homeopathic treatments are most often prescribed in tiny tablets made of sugar. They are also available in granule, powder or liquid form. They should be placed under the tongue using a spoon or special dispensing container and sucked or chewed, but not swallowed whole. They can be bought over-the-counter at pharmacies and health food shops. There are five NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK. They are located in Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Massage therapy is the stroking and kneading of the bodys soft tissue to promote a feeling of relaxation and stimulate circulation. The skin is the largest organ in the body and the second layer of the skin (the dermis) has thousands of receptors that respond to external stimuli such as heat, cold, pain and pressure.

Other forms of therapy such as physiotherapy, are derived from massage techniques. Massage works by stimulating the skins receptors to trigger the release of endorphins (natural chemicals that make you feel good). As well as calming and relaxing, massage can help to prevent pressure sores in bedridden patients. There are a number of different massage techniques, including:- classical/Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, sports massage, manual lymph drainage, Hellerwork and rolfing (extreme deep tissue massage), Eastern massage (including Shiatsu and acupressure), Reiki (Japanese energy healing), Marma massage (part of Ayurvedic therapy), and, Thai massage (combination of Chinese and Ayurvedic massage).

Hypnotherapy Hypnotherapists encourage their patients to achieve an extreme state of relaxation, when it is possible for them to communicate directly with the subconscious mind. Some NHS doctors such as psychotherapists, psychologists and dentists, perform hypnotherapy, in order to help patients to relax and to relieve anxiety about medical procedures. Hypnotherapy is most often used to overcome phobias such as vertigo, to break habits such as smoking or bedwetting, and to relieve conditions with stress-related causes such as eczema and panic attacks. The therapy usually begins with relaxation techniques and progresses into deeper trance-like states with visualisation techniques. The hypnotherapist will bring you back to a normal state of consciousness at the end of the session.

Osteopathy is a technique that diagnoses and treats problems with your bones and musclesthrough manual manipulation of the muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. Osteopaths identify imbalances in the muscular-skeletal system that may cause problems in the nervous system. Osteopathy is most commonly used to diagnose and treat conditions such as backache, neck pain, joint pain and arthritis, sciatica, sports injuries and repetitive strain injury (RSI), headaches, insomnia, depression, menstrual pain, digestive disorders and asthma.

Yoga is a technique used in the Indian healing system, Ayurveda. Yoga is a series of gentle exercises, designed to achieve balance between the body and mind. It is best taught by qualified instructors and encourages physical suppleness and flexibility, improves breathing and blood flow, and helps prevent anxiety and stress-related problems. The most common type of yoga practised in the UK is Hatha yoga. Yoga therapy uses specific posture positions for individual problems, although all classes will begin with very gentle warm-up exercises and end with exercises designed to help the body to cool down. Ideally, participants will finish the class in a state of complete relaxation of the body and mind. Other complementary therapies include: the Alexander technique, autogenic therapy, Bach flower remedies, biofeedback, colour therapy, craniosacral therapy, creative therapies, kinesiology, magnet therapy, meditation, naturopathy, nutritional therapy, qigong / chi kung, reflexology, relaxation and breathing, t'ai chi, Tibetan medicine, and visualisation.

Advantages The biggest advantage of complementary therapies is the opportunity to build a complete picture of your habits and lifestyle. This is important if you want to change your diet or exercise habits, or are thinking about making a big lifestyle change such as quitting smoking. Complementary therapists often take a holistic approach to treatment. This means that they consider physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual factors and tailor treatments to suit the individual. Many complementary therapies offer patients the opportunity to relax, which in itself can be very beneficial. They may also enable patients to take control of their own treatment and encourage a pro-active approach to healing. Cautions Complementary therapies are designed to complement rather than replace orthodox medicine. It is important that you first consult your GP if you have persistent or distressing symptoms, to ensure that you get a full and accurate diagnosis. Always let your GP know that you are using complementary therapies and dont stop taking any prescribed medications unless advised to do so by your GP or specialist. It is highly recommended that you use a qualified practitioner who is a member of a regulatory body.

Acupuncture , chiropractic, osteopathy, homeopathy and herbal medicine were recently regarded by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology to have the best professional organisations and self-regulating bodies of all the complementary therapies. By law, chiropractic and osteopathy practitioners must be registered with the appropriate professional bodies. Disadvantages It is difficult to assess how well many complementary therapies actually work, as there is little clinical evidence available. Some experts believe that complementary therapies such as homeopathy and herbal medicines do not affect the natural course of an illness, but are beneficial in some way due to the patients belief that they will work (the placebo affect). Another theory is that many diseases have natural cycles when the symptoms are better or worse, and these ups and down may not have anything to do with intervention by complementary therapies. Some people believe that complementary therapy practitioners are more able to improve the mood or spirit of their patients, because they have more time to spend treating them. This may also contribute to the success rates of some complementary therapies.

Most complimentary therapies are not regulated by law, but usually have recognised qualifications to practice, and should be members of the relevant professional body even if it is self-regulating. There are also common standards which have to be complied with , for example, relating to hygiene, health and safety and industry best practice. What is it used for? Complementary therapies can be used for a wide range of ailments and conditions including: backache, neck and shoulder pain indigestion and heartburn, insomnia, hay fever, giving up smoking, headaches, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). They can also be beneficial in supporting orthodox treatments for more serious conditions such as: some forms of cancer, anxiety and panic attacks, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, arthritis, eczema, migraine, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and cystitis. Side effects Side effects are specific to the type of therapy used. However, to minimise the risk of unwanted side-effects: Consult your GP before using complementary therapies, particularly if you have a history of high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, epilepsy or other medical conditions. You should also consult your GP if you are pregnant, elderly, trying to conceive, or about to have or recovering from surgery. Let your complementary practitioner know if you are pregnant or taking prescribed medications or supplements before using alternative therapies. Check the labels on herbal medicine and prescribed medication - some supplements, herbal and homeopathic remedies can interfere with prescribed medications, even the contraceptive pill.

Glossary  Blood Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.

Tissue Body tissue is made up of groups of cells that perform a specific job, such as protecting the body against infection, producing movement or storing fat.

Joint Joints are the connection point between two bones that allow movement.

Spine The spine supports the skeleton, and surrounds and protects the delicate spinal cord and nerves. It is made up of 33 bones called the vertebrae.

Acupuncture Acupuncture is a complementary treatment that uses needles on specific parts of the body.

Physiotherapy Physiotherapy is a treatment that uses physical movements, massage and exercise to relieve illness or injury.

Chronic Chronic usually means a condition that continues for a long time or keeps coming back.

Fatigue Fatigue is extreme tiredness and lack of energy.

Heartburn Heartburn, also known as indigestion, is a painful, burning discomfort felt in the chest, usually after eating.

High temperature A high temperature, also known as a fever, is when someone's body temperature goes above the normal 37C (98.6F).

Placebo A placebo is a treatment that has no physical effect on a person and is usually used in clinical trials to test the effects of new medicines and drugs

Pain Pain is an unpleasant physical or emotional feeling that your body produces as a warning sign that it has been damaged.

Depression Depression is when you have feelings of extreme sadness, despair or inadequacy that last for a long time.

Ulcer An ulcer is a sore break in the skin, or on the inside lining of the body.

Anxiety Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling when you feel worried, uneasy or distressed about something that may or may not be about to happen.

Panic To panic is to be quickly overcome with a feeling of fear or worry.

High blood pressure Hypertension is when the pressure of the blood in your bloodstream is regularly above 140/90 mmHG.

Homeopathy Homeopathy is when you take natural medicines that produce minor symptoms of a disease or infection, to encourage your body's immune system to produce

Analgesic Analgesics are medicines that relieve pain. For example paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen.

Anti-inflammatory Anti-inflammatory medicines reduce swelling and inflammation.

Antiseptic Antiseptic is a substance that reduces the growth and development of germs.

Decongestant Decongestant medicine relieves congestion by reducing the swelling of the lining the nose and sinuses and drying up the mucous.

© Queen's Printer and Controller of HMSO, 2005

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the controller of HMSO and the Queens Printer for Scotland.




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