Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The "holistic" or CAM approach

CAM stands for "complementary and alternative medicine". This probably brings to mind myriads of therapies, conflicting information, theories that sound frankly absurd to anybody sensible, not enough evidence.  So what is it that makes us even consider to go “alternative”? and why are there millions of people* in the UK choosing to pay for all sorts of CAM treatments even when they have access to free health care?

There are many reasons why people end up visiting a CAM clinic.  Some people just believe that addressing health problems without drugs or chemicals is more effective. But it is not just a question of belief, many of the people I have treated with Acupuncture and Chinese herbs did not actually “believe” that they would feel better as a result of these interventions. They either came out of curiosity because they had heard from someone else that it could help, or out of desperation after exhausting the options that conventional medicine could offer them. This is not to say that any form of complementary medicine is better than conventional medicine. The disciplines are just different and have strengths and weaknesses that often “complement” each other: Conventional medicine is at its best saving lives from extreme life-threatening conditions and injuries, but it is not so effective at understanding or treating chronic conditions such as M.E or chronic pain. Some CAM disciplines with well-established clinical knowledge such as Chinese Medicine can improve the quality of life of those suffering from chronic illness, while they may not be the wisest choice in life-threatening situations.  A more enlightened society could easily put this to good use to everyone’s advantage. Unfortunately, although things have moved on a lot in the last 10 years and we can now find therapies such as Acupuncture and Massage in a limited number of NHS clinics, we are still entangled in a pointless “either-or” situation. 

The best of two worlds would benefit everybody
In an ideal world, we would be working together for the benefit of all those suffering from any type of illness and for the prevention of disease through the CAM holistic approach that sees every aspect of each person as an important part of the whole. The body-mind-spirit terminology still sounds like a hippy concept to many, but is in fact more relevant now than it has ever been. Working at physical (symptomatic), ecological, psychological and emotional levels, is fast becoming the best way to treat illness as we slowly come to realise that there are no “wonder” drugs that can take away all our symptoms, and that our life-style and environment affect our health in ways that cannot be resolved without us making deep changes. 

The holistic philosophy behind CAM therapies not only presents a different way of looking at health and illness, but allows us to take an active role in the management of our symptoms and the maintenance of our health. Many people find this empowering as they move from feeling totally dependent on health providers to having more control over their own health.

So what does a holistic health approach have to offer?  

1. You are not regarded as a symptom or a collection of symptoms: Traditional Chinese Medicine for example, has a solid theoretical framework that helps a practitioner make associations between seemingly unlinked symptoms in order to understand the origin of the problem. Thus, a headache is not just something that is happening in your head but could be caused -amongst other things- by a deficiency of your Blood due to heavy periods, a weakness in the Kidney from over-work, an imbalance in your Liver coming from stress or unexpressed emotions, blockage in the channels that run through the back or neck from heavy physical work, or the beginning of a common cold. This “mapping” of how a symptom develops looks at how your constitution, life-style, environment and relationships are affecting you to cause headaches, and is actually more important than the symptom itself.  As a result, you are not expected to have treatment every time you experience a headache for the rest of your life. On the contrary, correct treatment should not only relieve the symptom but it should ultimately aim to resolve whatever is causing it. Some of this may be down to you making suitable changes to your life-style.

This is very much in contrast with the conventional medicine approach, where treatment is purely symptomatic. Although this is highly effective in the short-term, it generally does not work for chronic conditions. When you just address the symptom without looking at causes or contributing factors, even the most powerful medication will eventually be rendered useless as the body creates tolerance to it. Most people taking medication long-term end up on the highest possible dosage which inevitably puts the body under toxic strain (the inactive parts of drugs are nasty chemicals after all) and can result in the development of side-effects that usually means taking new drugs to relieve them. 

A truly holistic approach would use conventional drugs only when appropriate, and use alternatives in the form of diet, body work, acupuncture or herbal remedies when the side-effects of the drugs are worse than the symptom they are trying to help.

2.  A symptom is more than a symptom: Rather than some annoying occurrence that does not let you get on with your day, in holistic health a symptom is regarded as a “messenger” that gives access to what is happening much deeper in the body.  In fact, the real role of a holistic health practitioner is not just to relief symptoms but to show you the complex interconnectivity between your body, your environment, your mind, relationships, and emotions. This is where the root of all chronic illnesses lies. 

Acknowledging that what we do, and how we do it, has an effect on our health is perhaps the single most important thing that we can learn in order to manage and prevent illness.

Taking control for your health is not easy but it sets you free!
3.The power is yours: Going “alternative” or “holistic” does not in itself rule out using conventional medicine. What it does do, is take the responsibility for your health away from doctors, therapists, and practitioners, and put it back in your hands, where it should have always been. You can have your power back but, as always, power entails responsibility. It may be that you are not ready for that, you may want to stick to the old way and expect your symptoms to be taken away, and even be prepared to put up with them as long as you don’t have to change anything. This is a perfectly valid position, as long as you are taking a conscious stand.

Those who want to go the whole way are not necessarily in for an easy ride either. Going “holistic” is definitely not for the faint-hearted. You will be required to acknowledge that what you daily put into your mouth, how you treat yourself and others, your views on the world, and your relationships can all affect you and those around you. Not only that, but you will also have to DO something about it! Once you know these things there is no escaping them.  

There is no need for all of us to go to dark places
It is indeed hard work, but I can say from experience that it is worth-while. If I look back 17 years or so, I see myself as a terrified and broken young woman banking on the doctor to take away severe symptoms that simply would not go away, even with the strongest medication. It was a painful process to realise that it was down to me, not to the doctor or anybody else, to become healthy again. Those difficult years were the price I paid for getting to be in control of my health and of my life. I can honestly say that I feel enormously grateful for everything, even for the pain, but I do not think it has to be that way for everyone. There is no need for all of us to go to dark places, or suffer from terrible illnesses and fear, knowing that there is a choice. We can benefit from other people's experience and knowledge to become more conscious and responsible for ourselves before we lose our health or touch bottom in other ways.

This is of course not the answer to everything. We can never control every aspect of our lives, and pain, ill-health, and confusion will always be part of our human experience. The difference is that taking responsibility for our actions and thoughts, and acknowledging that everything we do and think has consequences for ourselves and others, can give us strength to accept whatever life brings us with an openness to experience it fully, no matter how unpleasant it may be. In my opinion, this is a risk worth taking!

*Website:http://business.wales.gov.uk/FS4BWales_files/syn0441__Complmentary_Therepies.pdf in 2008 this market study found that 6 million people a year were accessing complementary therapies in the UK.

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