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Traditional Doctors, Alternative Treatments: An Intersection?

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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.

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