Complementary Health Approaches – Potential Benefits for Our Seniors?

The availability of complementary health care offerings across the country is expanding.

Growing numbers of people of all ages are seeking out alternate therapies to treat medical conditions, manage side effects of traditional therapies and relieve pain.

These approaches could be helpful for your senior loved one, too.

What is complementary health? They are practices, systems and products derived not from mainstream healthcare but usually from Eastern countries that have been in use for years.

Because there is currently very little research to prove whether these practices are safe — or even effective — for how they are used, the National Institute of Health has begun funding research, so we should be hearing even more about different strategies in the near future.

What Are Complementary Practices?

There are many non-traditional health approaches that are considered complementary, or alternative, that have been providing many with relief.

Here are some types:

Mind and body techniques

  1. Acupuncture – a practice that stimulates certain specific points of the body using needles applied through the skin.
  2. Massage therapy – involves manipulating the muscles and other soft tissues in the body.
  3. Meditation – a process that involves focusing attention, there are a variety of different kinds including mindfulness and transcendental.
  4. Movement therapies – process involving movement techniques, including forms such as Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psycho-physical integration.
  5. Relaxation – a way to encourage the body’s natural response for relaxation, uses guided imagery, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation.
  6. Spinal manipulation – when trained professionals use their hands or a device to apply pressure or force to a joint such as in the spine or muscle.
  7. Yoga and tai chi – combination of movement, focus and breathing to manage symptoms.

Natural Products

  1. Herbs, botanicals including vitamins, minerals, and items such as glucosamine and are sold as supplements.
  2. Probiotics – natural food products or supplements that replace intestinal flora for gastrointestinal health.

Other Complementary approaches

  1. Traditional Chinese Medicine – holistic approach which uses many forms of complementary styles, including botanicals, acupuncture, tai chi, dietary changes, body movement to achieve healing and focus.
  2. Ayurvedic Medicine –  first practiced in India; it includes lifestyle changes, diet, herbal compounds, and exercise.
  3. Homeopathy – developed in Germany; uses minimum doses of substances from plants, minerals or animals in forms such as ointments, gels, drops, creams and tablets often used under the tongue. Not considered effective and often opposed to concepts we know of chemistry.
  4. Naturopathy – combination of traditional medicine and idea that nature can be healing. Uses least possible intervention or forces. Includes supplements, herbs, manipulation, exercise, massage, and lifestyle change.

Use with Caution & Precautions

Complementary practices are used at the same time traditional medicine is used, while alternative approaches replace standard healthcare. It is important to understand the difference, especially remembering little is actually known about their safety when replacing other therapies.

If you are taking complementary approaches with prescribed drug therapy, you should check with your doctor to be sure there are no potential drug-drug or food-drug interactions that could be harmful. Many supplements can cause prescription drugs to be ineffective or even unsafe in certain combinations.

Depending on the mineral and vitamin preparations your senior may be taking, using additional fortified foods or single large doses of other supplements could lead to excessive amounts which could be dangerous. Be aware of how much could be too much.

Because dietary supplements are not regulated by the government in the way food and medicine is, you may not be getting what you think you are getting. The ingredients could be something other than what you were expecting, too much or too little of a harmful substance or none of what the label says is inside.

Buyers Be Aware

Be wary when buying these products over the internet from unknown distributers. Products have been tainted and that is only determined once someone is made ill because these products are unregulated. Some Ayurvedic Medicine products have been found to contain poisonous metals considered dangerous for human consumption.

Don’t automatically accept advertised claims, especially for dietary supplements, because again there is no scientific proof of cures or even effectiveness at this point. Also, “natural” has no universally defined meaning and doesn’t necessarily mean the product is safe.

When seeking a complementary provider, look for someone who has been specifically trained and works with many people so that safety practices and positive outcomes can be validated.

Ask Questions Before Using

Before trying any complementary approach, it is a sound idea to learn all you can about the treatments. Are they safe? Will they be effective? Is there any research about the therapy you are considering? Will they cause harm? Should they be a substitute for traditional medicine? Can I talk to my doctor about my options?

As with any treatment, pill or product that makes a claim, search for the source. Is the person or company seeking to sell something without validated claims? Is the information they are using to support their claims out of date or scientific?

Many people will use therapies such as dietary supplements, spinal manipulation, yoga, massage or one of the other complementary approaches. Your senior may already be using one or more of these approaches right now.

Using complementary treatments without following their healthcare team’s prescribed plan could be dangerous for your senior.

Urge senior loved ones to seek relief in partnership with their medical team — not in spite of them.