Sunday, December 04, 2005

Western medicine vs. alternative therapies

By Bob Devlin
It is difficult to talk about exercise and fitness without considering the complete range of alternatives available to maintain health. We are all familiar with "traditional medicine," but we have become increasingly aware of "alternative" therapies including chiropractic medicine, physical therapy, acupuncture, holistic medicine and many other treatments.

So how do we choose which health professional to use? My answer is to apply the same skepticism to all disciplines. Just as I do my own analysis of recommendations made by my physician, I question other providers as well. In subsequent columns we are going to review these other disciplines. Some of this may be controversial and you are most welcome to e-mail me with your thoughts.

It is a common criticism of the medical establishment that it focuses on "curing" disease and less on preventive measures. For example, with the overwhelming evidence supporting the medical benefits of exercise, I am frustrated that more physicians don't write out a prescription for exercise and insist their patients get started. It is also a common complaint that many illnesses and injuries do not get immediate relief from surgery or drugs prescribed by physicians.

So we look to other alternatives. Western medicine relies on data that has been scientifically tested. The truth is that science has been proven to be the most reliable method to evaluate this type of information. Spiritual insights, personal testimonials and unsupervised experiments just do not consistently give us reliable data. Often, we try something, get relief, and conclude that what we tried helped bring about the desired result. But time itself, the emotional component among other factors, may mislead us into making this conclusion. Also, what might work for one doesn't necessarily work for another.

So when you discover you have an illness, how do you decide where to go? In my case I have a number of rare medical conditions. One of these is pigmentary glaucoma, which I developed in my 30s, and if left unchecked would eventually blind me. The first thing I did was go to a specialist trained in this condition.

So right away I chose traditional Western medicine. After many eye operations and lots of different prescriptions, some of which I still take, I see as well as I did 10 years ago. My glaucoma expert ophthalmologist monitors me regularly and diligently. This is not to say I make his job easy. I continually do my own research and pepper him with questions and make up my own mind when a decision about treatment is required.

But this is not the only route I might have chosen. I could have first started with an herbal remedy (there are some for glaucoma) and waited to see if it worked. I could have tried alternative therapies first. So why didn't I? The answer for me is that it depends on the severity and the nature of the illness. For those conditions which may have a major impact on my health, like going blind or dying, I first try the experts in the field who have the scientific training. If that fails, as it sometimes does, you bet I will try other remedies as I would have little to lose. It is possible that there are solutions that have yet to be thoroughly tested by conventional medicine that may prove their effectiveness later.

The other situation is where the illness is not life threatening but still painful or irritating. Back pain is a great example that seems to be quite the challenge and is addressed by almost every health care provider. I recommend an initial X-ray to determine structural deficiencies, and if none are found, we have choices to explore to find relief. In future columns we will review where one might go for solutions in addition to your personal physician. Keep huffin,' pumpin,' stretchin' and playin' until next time!

Bob Devlin is owner of New York Fitness located at 615-1 New York Ranch Road in Jackson and is a certified personal trainer.
Questions or comments may be e-mailed to or may be mailed to the address above.

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