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Traditional Doctors, Alternative Treatments: An Intersection?

First Posted: 05/25/2011 8:21 am EDT Updated: 03/28/2013 12:22 pm EDT

Sometimes it can seem as though complementary/alternative treatments and traditional medicine live in two silos -- never the twain shall meet, as the saying goes. We go to the doctor when we're sick or for regular wellness checks. And we go to the yoga studio or a meditation class. Yet we don't talk to our doctors about how one can support the other.

But the tide may be turning -- a recent study in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine has found that three percent of people seeking out mind/body treatments, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, are doing so based on a referral from a medical provider.

And while that number may not seem to be particularly high, consider a yoga or meditation class, of say, 30 people -- on average, one of them is there because their provider told them to be, explains lead author and HuffPost blogger Aditi Nerurkar, M.D., M.P.H, a physician and integrative medicine fellow at Harvard Medical school and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We weren't expecting it to be that high," she says. "Forty-one million Americans are using mind-body therapies. Of those, 6.4 million are using mind-body therapies because they were recommended to by their provider."

Looking at a nationally representative sample size of 23,000 survey participants, the researchers found that the most commonly prescribed treatments were deep breathing exercises (84 percent of the respondents), meditation (49 percent), yoga (23 percent), progressive muscle relaxation (20 percent) and guided imagery (14 percent). These numbers were similar to those who sought out the treatments on their own.

"For years and years this has been a patient-driven phenomenon," Nerurkar says. As people discover what works best for themselves and loved ones, yoga studios, for instance, have popped up to fill a need that patients haven't always discussed with their doctors.

So why are some physicians ready to hand out an Rx for a little "Om" time?

One reason may be the relatively recent body of research on how various mind-body treatments can be helpful, healthy additions to traditional treatment programs for certain conditions, including anxiety and depression, headaches, chronic pain, cardiac disease, insomnia and treatment-related symptoms of cancer, Nerurkar says.

The researchers also found that the patients who were seeking out mind-body treatments at the recommendation of a medical provider were those who typically had more diagnosed conditions and used the health-care system more often. Nerurkar says one reason that may be is that providers are referring their more complex patients once other treatments have failed -- and this concept may lead to future research studies about what would happen if these complementary programs were offered earlier on in the treatment process.

Of course, not all complementary and alternative treatments have evidence behind them, Nerurkar points out. But when the research that is out there is coupled with patients' success stories, some providers are opening up to the possibilities. "Ultimately you just want your patients to feel better," she says. "At the end of the day, if my patients are using these therapies and they're feeling good, I encourage them to do it."

Here are some starting points for each of the mind-body treatments most commonly suggested by the medical community:

Deep breathing: Regular deep breathing -- taking slow breaths in and out -- has been linked to regulation of the cardiovascular and nervous systems and easing symptoms of anxiety, among other benefits. To start out a deep breathing exercise, focus on your breath coming in and out as it would normally and then begin deeper breaths, spending longer on inhalations and exhalations, according to the University of Rochester:

Breathe deeply and slowly, focusing all of your attention on each breath. Don't rush it or breathe quickly. As you exhale naturally, allow any tension to leave you with the breath. Imagine the tension draining from your body and mind as you exhale. Notice the feeling of calm and relaxation that comes with exhalation.

Meditation: Studies have linked regular meditation to, among many other benefits, a decrease in fatigue and depression in multiple sclerosis patients, boosts in cellular health and a reduction in the severity of various mental and physical side effects from certain types of cancer treatment. Check out this primer for do-it-yourself meditation from the Mayo Clinic, or find a class near you.

Yoga: Of the many potential benefits of yoga, certain forms have been associated with improving recovery from breast cancer, lessening anxiety and counteracting fibromyalgia. Yoga has many different forms -- you can practice poses alone, attend a local class or even do a yoga video at home.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique has been found to benefit people with Alzheimer's disease, patients in the midst of cancer treatment, older people suffering from chronic pain and insomnia sufferers. The basic theory is to focus on groups of muscles in the body, often tensing them up, as you breathe in and then slowly relaxing them as you breathe out.

Guided imagery: Guided imagery has been associated with increased immunity and reduced feelings of depression. This process helps you to relax by taking you through a series of visualizations and direct suggestions, according to the Academy For Guided Imagery. You can find a certified instructor through the academy, practice guided imagery with a therapist or buy a tape to try the technique at home.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Steve Jobs

    Although pancreatic cancer is often life-threatening, Jobs actually had a rare, treatable form of the disease. But the tech visionary, a practicing Buddhist and strict vegetarian, pursued alternative therapies for nine months before eventually electing to follow a more conventional path. Although he had hoped to avoid an operation, Jobs had surgery in 2004, but by then the cancer had already spread. Some have speculated that had Jobs proceeded with conventional treatment for pancreatic cancer from the start, he may have won the battle. <strong>More from Health.com:</strong> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20543333,00.html" target="_hplink">The Biggest Celebrity Health Stories of 2011</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20466776,00.html" target="_hplink">25 Shocking Celebrity Weight Changes</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20432752,00.html" target="_hplink">The Hottest Ways Hollywood Lives Healthy</a>

  • Farrah Fawcett

    The <em>Charlie's Angels</em> bombshell was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. To complement her chemotherapy treatments, she reportedly traveled to Germany for "natural supplements and also immune treatments" that aren't approved in the United States, according to Access Hollywood. Fawcett lost her battle with cancer in 2009.

  • Gwyneth Paltrow

    A regular proponent of various too-good-to-be-true-sounding cleanses, Paltrow is no stranger to natural remedies. In 2004, the actress showed up to a premiere with circular spots across her back, the telltale signs of a procedure called cupping. The process involves warm glass cups, which are placed on the skin to make a vacuum. It's said to increase blood flow, open pores, and allow toxins to leave the body.

  • Jenny McCarthy

    When the actress's son was diagnosed with autism in 2005, she went looking for answers and came across Generation Rescue, a community of families who believe vaccines and antibiotics are to blame for their children's autism. McCarthy now serves as president of the organization, which promotes "recovery" from autism. Despite repeated debunking of the decade-old study that alleged vaccines cause autism, many parents continue to question vaccine safety and reject the conventional medical practice outright, putting their children at risk of potentially deadly diseases.

  • Oprah Winfrey

    The media mogul has drawn criticism for her promotion of unapproved treatments and alternative therapies. Several natural-medicine proponents have appeared on her TV show, including Jenny McCarthy. Although she said in a statement that she believes viewers understand she is merely presenting information and not endorsing natural medicine or any of the procedures she has discussed, she has, given the widespread affect she has on her audience, undoubtedly convinced many viewers that these treatments can -- and do -- work.

  • Dr. Oz

    No surprise here, given that Mehmet Oz, M.D., was a frequent guest on <em>The Oprah Winfrey Show</em>. The cardiologist-turned-TV-host has integrated alternative treatments into his conventional practice. He has taken flack from the mainstream media for his methods, but he says he continues to use alternative therapies both in his practice and at home. He also regularly practices Transcendental Meditation (a type of concentrative meditation where a person focuses on one sight or sound) and has been doing yoga daily for more than 20 years, a ritual he calls "the most important health practice I have adopted." He recommends to patients other alternative treatments, such as mud baths for people with arthritis or other joint problems and aromatherapy oils to reduce stress and ease muscle aches.

  • Princess Diana

    The Princess of Wales was a regular at an alternative-medicine treatment facility called Chinese Clinic, according to <em>People</em> magazine. She is said to have taken part in reflexology treatments, a stimulation of the feet, hands, and ears that aims to impact other, more troublesome parts of the body. Some of the clinic's most popular alternative treatments included colonic hydrotherapy, electrical stimulation of the facial muscles for an instant "lift" and Australian herbal remedies.

  • Elle Macpherson

    Nicknamed "The Body," supermodel Macpherson spoke with U.K. magazine Fabulous in 2010 about her "Chinese medicine perspective" on health, which she said "promotes and maintains wellness rather than treats illness." She said she has undergone regular acupuncture treatments and seen a doctor who treated many of her ailments with herbal remedies.

  • Tom Cruise

    In 2005, the actor publicly criticized Brooke Shields's treatment for postpartum depression after the 2003 birth of her daughter. Cruise spoke out against the use of antidepressants, saying Shields didn't understand "the history of psychiatry." When Matt Lauer asked him to explain on the <em>Today</em> show, Cruise expressed doubts about the existence of depression, saying, "There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance."

  • Christy Turlington Burns

    The supermodel-turned-documentary-filmmaker told <em>Psychology Today</em> that she started practicing yoga at age 18, and was eventually introduced to Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old Indian holistic science about discovering individual balance. This ancient theory of medicine emphasizes healthy habits such as massage, meditation, and healthy eating to prevent and treat illness.

  • Kate Moss

    After checking into rehab for cocaine addiction, her career on the line, the supermodel was photographed leaving a friend's house with two bandages on her right ear, thought to be covering the marks of acupuncture treatment, according to the BBC. The therapy may reduce withdrawal symptoms and even prevent relapse in people who are addicted to drugs.

  • Richard Gere

    One of Hollywood's most famous Buddhists, Gere started meditating at age 24 and continues to do so daily. He told PBS that it's a creative process involving finding "the space between thoughts" and that it's different for him every time. The relaxation technique can ease a range of ailments -- including chronic pain, depression and insomnia -- and it may even help smokers quit.

  • Olivia Newton-John

    Along with chemotherapy, the singer and actress used complementary treatments such as herbal supplements, acupuncture, meditation, and visualization to battle breast cancer. When she was first diagnosed in 1992, she even considered forgoing chemotherapy entirely in favor of homeopathic treatments and acupuncture, but eventually "common sense prevailed," she told CNN. Maintaining a positive mindset throughout the experience also helped her heal, she said.

  • Russell Simmons

    The hip-hop mogul may not seem like the typical meditation practitioner, but he's been getting his om on for over a decade. In a 2010 blog on The Huffington Post, Simmons wrote that meditation "has given me energy, strength, health, wisdom, and access to my own inner stillness, inner silence, inner bliss. It is my connection to myself; it is my connection to the universe."

  • Madonna

    After claiming that urinating on your feet is a cure for athlete's foot on <em>The Late Show With David Letterman</em> in 1994, it's not surprising that Madonna has ascribed to some strange natural cures. Today, the buff performer is a fan of more mainstream alternative practices, such as yoga.

  • James Hetfield

    A sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll-loving guitarist and singer isn't the typical poster boy for natural remedies. But in 2008, Metallica's Hetfield told the <em>Houston Chronicle</em> in order to get through the band's tour to promote that year's <em>Death Magnetic</em> album, he was trying out some alternative treatments, including reflexology, acupuncture, and drinking a "secret vegetable concoction."

  • Steve McQueen

    The bad-boy actor was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lung lining, in 1979. He traveled to Mexico in July 1980 to be treated with pancreatic enzymes, a controversial therapy developed by a dentist who had since been "blacklisted" by the American Cancer Society, the <em>New York Times</em> reported. McQueen is also said to have received 50 daily vitamins and minerals, psychotherapy, coffee enemas, and injections made from sheep and cattle fetuses, all while taking part in healing massages and prayer sessions. After additional treatments with laetrile, a controversial apricot-pit-based injection, McQueen said he was in recovery, but he died shortly thereafter, following surgery to remove cancer from his abdomen and neck.

  • Suzanne Somers

    The actress is no stranger to alternative treatments, having cited unregulated hormone creams, around 60 vitamins and supplements, and estrogen injections directly into her vagina as her personal fountain of youth. But after surgery and radiation treatment for breast cancer in 2001, Somers opted for a drug made from mistletoe extract over chemotherapy, and wrote a book promoting the work of some very unconventional physicians.

  • Nick Nolte

    In a 2000 visit to Larry King Live, the Oscar nominee sat down with well-known alternative-medicine practitioners Andrew Weil M.D. and Eric Braverman, M.D., to discuss the hormonal injections Nolte was receiving. He also said he was undergoing treatments in hyperbaric oxygen chambers, a practice that involves breathing pure oxygen inside of a specially pressurized tank to promote healing.

  • Sarah Ferguson

    The former Duchess of York (and her daughters, princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, now famous Stateside thanks to those unforgettable royal-wedding hats) are said to have undergone bioenergy treatments from a Russian energy healer. Energy healing is similar to Reiki. Both treatments are said to harness positive energy, whether through touch or close proximity, to break negative thoughts and promote the body's natural healing processes.

  • Andrew Weil

    Of course Andrew Weil, M.D., an integrative-medicine specialist, digs herbs and tinctures. But he sees the wisdom in conventional medicine as well. He surprised some when he famously said, "If I'm in a car accident, don't take me to an herbalist. If I have bacterial pneumonia, give me antibiotics. But when it comes to maximizing the body's natural healing potential, a mix of conventional and alternative procedures seems like the only answer." <strong>More from Health.com:</strong> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20543333,00.html" target="_hplink">The Biggest Celebrity Health Stories of 2011</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20466776,00.html" target="_hplink">25 Shocking Celebrity Weight Changes</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20432752,00.html" target="_hplink">The Hottest Ways Hollywood Lives Healthy</a>

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