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Alternative Medicine to Treat Lymphedema

Alternative Medicines to Treat Lymphedema

What is Alternative Medicine

By Pat O'Connor (1952-2013)


As people become more frustrated with existing medical treatments, perceived indifference of the medical community or frustrated with the cost or lack of progress in the treatment of their medical condition, many are turning to what is commonly referred to as alternative medicine.

This is especially true in the world of lymphatic conditions such as lymphedema, lipedema, lymphangiectasia and others. But, can we trust alternative medicine? What is it anyway? Is there any proof it works?

This is from the Mayo Clinic in their basic page on the topic:

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What are the principles of complementary and alternative medicine?


Many alternative medicine practitioners base their work around a few common principles. Some of these are similar to what your conventional doctor might do, while others are quite different. Basic philosophies of complementary and alternative medicine include:

  • Prevention is key to good health. Taking steps to better your health before you get sick is the best way to keep yourself healthy.
  • Your body has the ability to heal itself. Alternative medicine practitioners see themselves as facilitators. To them, your body does the healing work, and treatment encourages your natural healing processes.
  • Learning and healing go hand in hand. Alternative medicine practitioners see themselves as teachers and mentors who offer guidance. To the practitioner, you're the one who does the healing.
  • Holistic care. The focus is on treating you as a whole person — recognizing that physical health, mental well-being, relationships and spiritual needs are interconnected and play a part in your overall health.

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What are some examples of complementary and alternative medicine?


To make sense of the many therapies available, it might help to look at them in the broad categories that the National Institutes of Health uses for classification. Keep in mind that while these categories may be useful for understanding types of complementary and alternative medicine, the distinctions between therapies aren't clear-cut. Some treatment systems may use techniques from more than one category. For example, traditional Chinese medicine uses several types of complementary and alternative medicine. Some techniques may fit in more than one category. For example, acupressure could fit either in the category of manipulation and touch or in the category of energy therapies. Here are the broad categories of complementary and alternative medicine.


Healing systems


Healing systems are complete sets of theories and practices. A system isn't just a single practice or remedy — such as massage — but many different practices that all center on a philosophy or lifestyle, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in your body. Many healing systems developed long before the conventional Western medicine that's commonly used in the United States.
Examples of complementary and alternative medicine healing systems include:

  • Ayurveda. This form of medicine, which originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, emphasizes a unique cure per individual circumstances. It incorporates treatments including yoga, meditation, massage, diet and herbs.
  • Homeopathy. This treatment uses minute doses of a substance that causes symptoms to stimulate the body's self-healing response.
  • Naturopathy. This type of treatment focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing. Naturopaths draw on many forms of complementary and alternative medicine, including massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.
  • Ancient medicines. These complementary and alternative medicine treatments include Chinese, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Tibetan practices.

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Mind-body connections


Mind-body techniques strengthen the communication between your mind and your body. Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners say these two systems must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. Examples of mind-body connection techniques include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Prayer
  • Hypnosis
  • Relaxation and art therapies, such as poetry, music and dance

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Dietary supplements and herbal remedies


These treatments use ingredients found in nature. Examples of herbs include ginseng, ginkgo and Echinacea, while examples of other dietary supplements include selenium, glucosamine sulfate and SAM-e. Herbs and supplements can be taken as teas, oils, syrups, powders, tablets or capsules. Some say that they trust herbal medicine because it's been used for thousands of years. Others say that they like it because it's "natural."


Remember, though, that natural doesn't mean that herbs and supplements are always safe — and added ingredients aren't always natural. Dietary supplements and herbal remedies can cause side effects and interact with medications, so be sure to investigate possible dangers or drug interactions with your doctor. As with other complementary and alternative treatments, always talk to your doctor before taking an herb or supplement to make sure it's safe for you.

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Manipulation and touch


These methods use human touch to move or manipulate a specific part of your body. They include:

  • Chiropractic and spinal manipulation
  • Massage
  • Other types of manipulation and touch therapies, such as osteopathy, craniosacral therapy and acupressure

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Energy therapies


Some complementary and alternative medicine practitioners believe an invisible energy force flows through your body, and when this energy flow is blocked or unbalanced you can become sick. Different traditions call this energy by different names, such as chi, prana and life force. Unblocking or re-balancing your energy force is the goal of these therapies, and each claims to accomplish that goal differently. Proponents of acupuncture, for instance, say that the insertion of needles into points along energy pathways in your body restores your natural energy.


Other energy therapies include:

  • Therapeutic touch
  • Reiki
  • Magnet therapy
  • Polarity therapy
  • Light therapy

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Are conventional doctors opposed to complementary and alternative medicine?


Many doctors aren't opposed to complementary and alternative medicine. But many doctors practicing today did not receive training in CAM therapies, so they may not feel comfortable addressing questions in this area. However, as the evidence for certain therapies increases, doctors in the United States are increasingly referring people to complementary and alternative practitioners. Your doctor may be willing to discuss these options with you.


At the same time, conventional doctors also have good reason to be skeptical when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine. Some complementary and alternative medicine practitioners make exaggerated claims about curing diseases, and some ask you to forgo treatment from your conventional doctor to use their unproven therapies. Some forms of complementary and alternative medicine can even hurt you.


Conventional medicine relies on methods proved to be safe and effective with carefully designed trials and research. But many complementary and alternative treatments lack solid research on which to base sound decisions. The dangers and possible benefits of many complementary and alternative treatments remain unproved.

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Why is there a lack of evidence about complementary and alternative treatments?


One reason for the lack of research in complementary and alternative treatments is that large, carefully controlled medical studies are costly. Trials for conventional medications or procedures are often directly or indirectly funded by the government or drug companies, giving conventional treatments more resources to do studies. Most complementary and alternative treatment trials are more difficult to fund, so there are fewer trials. Nonetheless, a number of studies are currently under way on complementary and alternative treatments ranging from herbs to yoga that may help identify what works and what doesn't, and what's safe and what isn't. In fact, the U.S. government has established a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to help guide the public in making wise choices when it comes to complementary and alternative treatments.

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Talk to your doctor about possible benefits and dangers


Work with your conventional medical doctor to help you make informed decisions regarding complementary and alternative treatments. Even if your doctor can't recommend a specific complementary and alternative treatment, he or she can help you understand possible risks and benefits before you try a treatment. Though some of these treatments can be helpful, many have side effects and can cause problems with certain medications or health conditions. Keep in mind that CAM treatments aren't a substitute or replacement for conventional medical care — but used wisely and in conjunction with conventional medical treatment, they may help you alleviate stress, pain and anxiety, manage your symptoms, maintain strength and flexibility, and promote a sense of well-being.

By Pat O'Connor (1952-2013)
My Life With Lymphedema

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Page Last Modified 02/15/2014