Is conventional medicine the only way to go, or is there space for an alternative? We ask experts from four different fields – in acupuncture, chiropractic practice, osteopathy and Ayurvedic medicine – about what they can offer, and also get the view of Cigna’s own medical director.
The doctor’s view
“I think people can become quite polarised when they talk about alternative therapies,” says Dr Peter Mills, European Medical Director at Cigna. “You often have people in the medical industry, saying ‘there’s no proof, waste of money etc’, and then you have huge advocates for natural healing who think it can do everything. Actually, I think neither is correct.
“I’m a conventional doctor by trade, but I’m very open to alternative ways of thinking about things, and a lot of doctors are. We do know there are many cancer hubs around the UK that offer complementary medicine services. And this isn’t because they will have a real impact on the cancer but because they can be used for treating individuals in a holistic way – helping their overall well-being and state of mind, which is important in managing cancer. It’s not that it has a direct impact on how a tumour grows or shrinks, but it can impact on how an individual feels and their psychological health. If it makes you feel better, makes you better able to cope with the trials and tribulations of a chronic condition then you have to be in favour of that.
“I would look at the terminology, and consider these not as ‘alternative’ but ‘complementary’, because I think we should be open minded.”
The chiropractor’s view
“Chiropractic practice is about diagnosis and management of issues of the musculoskeletal system,” says chiropractor Anna Maynard. “It doesn’t mean you are going to be racked and cracked, that’s a very old school way of thinking about it. Yes we manipulate, which is the crunching and cracking adjustments that we are renowned for, but it’s done in a way that is comfortable for our patients.”
So what does happen when a chiropractor gets to work? “We are most known for using manipulation for treatment, so short sharp impulses to a joint to improve its range of motion,” says Anna. “But we will work on muscle too, so we might use stretching techniques or massage. And we’ll accompany that with other modalities: dry needling – a western style of acupuncture, or electric therapy such as ultrasound or laser treatment. We will also give lifestyle advice, exercises and rehab so it’s quite a comprehensive way of looking after people.”
Is Chiropractic practice complementary to mainstream medicine? “Yes” says Anna. “I do have occasions when people see me and there is something suspicious or confusing happening, in which case we will refer them back to their doctor. We’ll write them a letter with our concerns and ask them to see their doctor for a diagnosis.
“Anyone called a ‘chiropractor’ has to be regulated and has to undergo ongoing professional development so you’re in safe hands with a chiropractor.”
Chiropractor Anna Maynard runs the Chiropractic Healthcentre.
The Ayurvedic practitioner’s view
“Ayurvedic medicine is officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as the oldest systematic form of medicine on the planet,” says Doctor Sam Watts, Ayurvedic clinician.
“It goes back over 5,000 years as a documented system of healthcare. That’s interesting because generally in medicine, things that don’t work, don’t last. And Ayurveda has filtered lots of things out that didn’t work but the core aspect remains. So many of the health problems that people encounter can be managed by lifestyle. Ayurveda provides a very good blueprint for achieving that.”
Ayurvedic medicine is split into some key therapeutic arms, as Sam explains: “There’s dietary and nutritional protocols; lifestyle; self-care practice – that’s meditation, self-massage, exercise – herbal medicines and Ayurvedic medicines; and body works – so massage therapies, manipulation therapies, of which yoga is a sub set. The more therapeutic arms you can implement, the bigger the gains.”
Ayurvedic treatments have recently risen in popularity, which Sam believes is down to one key reason: “It’s gained traction because there is now a marriage of what’s been know intuitively for thousands of years, with very robust clinical evidence. Most of the patients I work with are also being treated conventionally and adopting an integrated model with conventional medicine gives you the best of both worlds.”
Doctor Sam Watts is the lead Ayurvedic consultant at the Mind-Body Medical practice.
The acupuncturist’s view
“Acupuncture comes under Chinese medicine. So the same principles the Chinese use for herbs, we would use in acupuncture,” says acupuncturist Jim Laity. “I get people coming to see me at every stage of their symptoms – and mostly I have to say they have looked at everything else and may have tried other things and not had release, because having someone stick needles in you is probably not your first treatment choice! Patients often say to me ‘I’m trying you because I haven’t found an answer elsewhere’.”
So what actually happens when someone goes to see an acupuncturist? Jim explains: “We insert needles in a plastic guide tube, to prevent contamination. When tapping them in we do it quite quickly in the hope the patient won’t feel it at all. Once in, we manipulate the needle so the patient feels the sensation. The feeling is called “deqi” which can be a little warming sensation, or an electrical charge. Sometimes it can move along the limb or the body. It’s a rather strange sensation which the patient may find unusual. It’s a sign that we are moving or manipulating “qi” [often translated as “energy”] which is the basis of our treatment.”
When it comes to seeking acupuncture, Jim preaches keeping an open mind as to the methods being used, because, like Ayurvedic medicine, it’s stood the test of time. “Because we treat the whole body holistically, patients often don’t think their other issues are related,” says Jim. “In Chinese medicine terms, if someone comes to you with a headache, the cause of that is likely to be from elsewhere. We start asking questions about digestion, food intake, bowel movements, sleep and other pains. We explain that we are going to treat the cause of the problem, and sometimes not even treat the symptom itself. If someone comes with a headache we might end up putting needles in their feet.
“But acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and rest assured, if it wasn’t working, it would have been given up a long time ago. But it is working and patients keep coming back.”
Acupuncturist Jim Laity works out of the Surrey Holistic Centre in the south of England.
The osteopath’s view
“Osteopathy is a therapy where we can detect, treat and prevent health problems,” explains osteopath Gemma Ware. “We use hands on techniques to increase the mobility of joints, we relieve muscle tensions, we reduce pain, we improve blood supply to joints and tissues, and help the body to heal itself. Our bodies are quite impressive in what they can do on their own.”
With conventional doctors often inundated with patients, osteopaths can even be seen as an alternative first port of call. As Gemma says: “People always have faith in their general practitioner but unfortunately a lot of them are so busy and, although specialised in the whole of medicine, they aren’t specialised in musculoskeletal, and that’s where I feel osteopaths fit in with complementary therapy. We have the training in musculoskeletal, we have the time to spend with patients, examining them and doing the correct test on every single joint and muscle in the body, making sure there’s no red flags or anything serious, and detecting whether the issue is a nerve problem, a skin supply problem, or joint arthritis, or a spinal condition, which may have been missed or could be hereditary.”
So why choose an osteopath over a chiropractor, or instead of a physio? “We get asked all the time! To be honest with you there’s not a massive difference,” explains Gemma. “For osteopathy, physio, and chiropractic care, we all do a four year degree where we learn all the body systems, nerve supply, lymph supply, bones, muscles, even endocrine conditions which we have to be able to recognise so we can flag it up.
“The difference is really the techniques that we use to get certain results and the training we choose to do to further our careers. We are all on the same level with our training and what we do.”
Gemma Ware runs the osteopathic practice and sports massage clinic GW Osteopathy.