The Rise of Alternative, Complementary and Creative Healing Approaches

This summer, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps—the most decorated Olympian of all time—caused a stir when he dove into the pool at the start of the 4×100-meter relay at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His back and shoulders were covered with round, purple bruises, leading commentators and viewers to speculate about what might be the cause.

The bruises were actually a sign of cupping, an ancient Chinese healing practice that is thought to draw blood to the affected area and reduce soreness, explains Rebecca Flack, RN, MSOM, L.AC., an acupuncturist at Franciscan Health in Indianapolis, Indiana. Athletes like Phelps swear by the practice, claiming it helps keep them injury-free and speeds up the healing of their overworked muscles.

This type of therapy is just one of the many healing methods within the field of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It’s a catch-all term that includes any non-conventional healing therapy, ranging from supplements to yoga and even art therapy. These treatments are generally less invasive and less expensive than conventional medicine.

But do CAM methods work? The scientific evidence isn’t conclusive. The National Institutes of Health says that clinical trials for CAM therapies are often not well-designed and lack rigor, leading to uncertainty about whether each unique therapy is safe and effective. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is working to build a scientific evidence base around CAM to determine whether different therapies are safe, how they work, and whether they work for the conditions for which individuals use them.

The lack of scientific evidence and safety guarantees, however, don’t stop people from actively pursuing new methods to better manage their health, explains HealthTrust Chief Medical Officer Michael Schlosser, M.D., FAANS, MBA. In fact, research shows that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults use at least one CAM approach—the most popular being natural supplements, acupuncture, massage, yoga, tai chi and meditation. The majority of these treatments are used in conjunction with conventional medicine, but patients sometimes don’t involve their physicians in the process, Schlosser says.

“There’s a disconnect between traditional medicine and CAM,” Schlosser notes. “Some physicians don’t know how to manage this space. We need to be more knowledgeable about these offerings so we can better advise our patients on the possible risks and benefits.”

Healing Touch

The Olympics may have put the spotlight on cupping, but it’s acupuncture—another form of ancient Chinese medicine—that is more commonly used.

“In Chinese medicine, it’s believed that energy moves throughout the body in a specific pattern, but that energy sometimes gets blocked,” Flack explains. “That can cause an imbalance. Acupuncture is used to naturally support your body, mind and spirit in its healing process.”

Before treatment begins, Flack works with her patients to determine the root cause of their ailment. Patients fill out a health questionnaire and talk with Flack as she does an assessment. She most commonly treats patients who struggle with anxiety, stress and pain management.

“Our main goal is to help the body make a change,” Flack says. “Over time, our bodies can grow accustomed to imbalance and eventually that becomes the new normal. Acupuncture is a holistic approach, designed to guide the body toward wellness. Although the journey may seem daunting for the patient, our goal is to make each step easier than the one before.”

A typical appointment is an hour. A licensed acupuncturist places fine, hair-thin needles into specific points of the body to stimulate the meridians—channels that are believed to help energy flow through the body. (The needles are removed in about 20 minutes.) Most patients, Flack says, feel relief after the first visit, but she recommends four to six treatments to make a long-lasting change.

Though it’s still not considered part of conventional medicine, acupuncture has gained ground in the healthcare setting. According to the NCCIH, studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease chronic low-back, neck and knee pain, as well as reduce the frequency of migraine headaches.

The Power of Pets

Animal-assisted therapy uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders. The use of pets in healthcare settings dates back more than 150 years, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that scientific studies were conducted to understand the human-animal bond.

Since then, research has shown that animal therapy can help decrease pain and anxiety, lower blood pressure and possibly help alleviate depression by increasing the level of the hormone oxytocin.

Harnessing Creativity

Creative arts therapies (CATs)—music, dance/movement, and the visual arts—don’t receive much empirical attention when compared to other CAM therapies, such as supplements, but anecdotal evidence for their efficacy is strong.

The use of paintbrushes and palettes may seem like an unconventional healing approach when it comes to cancer, but a 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that exposure to CATs can improve anxiety, depression and quality of life among cancer patients.

Rachael Cassidy, the business development manager at the Franciscan Health Cancer Center, says art therapy is a creative outlet that lets patients tackle their illness from a new angle.

“These types of activities are a great outlet for patients,” Cassidy explains. “When you’re going through cancer treatment, you can become focused on doctor appointments, chemotherapy treatments, radiation and figuring out how to pay the bills. This allows patients to switch gears and find that creative relief.”

In fact, the Franciscan Health Cancer Center was selected earlier this year to participate in the Foundation for Hospital Art’s PaintFest America event. (One facility from each state was chosen.) Nearly 80 people—both past and current patients of the cancer center—participated in the event, painting three murals made of six panels each. No artistic talent was necessary, either—the murals were created with a paint-by-numbers approach, explains Joan Himebrook, the community outreach coordinator for the cancer center.

The panel of one mural, however, was set aside for a special purpose. Each hospital was given a canvas with their state bird and flower to be added to a 10×15-foot “Stars of Hope” mural; Franciscan Health chose a cancer survivor and one of its current patients to complete this special painting.

“Healing can’t only happen on a physical level,” Himebrook says. “You have to treat the whole person, not just the illness. Offering arts and crafts is one way we show our patients that we care about their entire well-being. It’s a reminder that cancer is not the only thing happening in their lives.”

The Environment’s Role in Restoring Health

Can giving patients access to nature and daylight decrease length of stay? Could making certain design modifications reduce falls? And what about adding acoustics that decrease noise in a hospital environment—is there evidence that practice could increase HCAHPS scores and patient safety? Yes, say experts at the Center for Healthcare Design, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that studies the value of design to improve health outcomes, patient experience of care, and provider/staff satisfaction and performance.

Backing up these claims are multiple studies, such as one from Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2007 that found noise in the emergency room can affect patient safety. And in the paper, “The Impact of Light on Outcomes in Healthcare Settings,” Anjali Joseph, Ph.D., director of research at the Center for Health Design, writes that day lighting and outdoor views reduced patient depression, eased pain, decreased length of hospital stays, reduced medication use, improved sleep and circadian rhythm, lessened agitation in dementia patients, and improved the well-being of staff.

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