What’s In a Name?

Being sick is confusing these days with so many medical options promising relief.  Allopathic medicine promises medications to heal.  Naturopathic medicine promises natural cures.  Energy medicine promises to realign your energy fields.  That is just the beginning.  When you are hurting, where do you turn?  Who do you trust?  That will depend on both you and your illness, but first you should understand what approach each of these medical fields represent.

            When examining options for care, two main divisions arise, each with a few different names that essentially stand for one approach.  The more well-known division is that of Allopathy, likely better known as Western medicine, conventional medicine, or maybe evidenced-based medicine.  When someone thinks of a doctor, an Allopathic doctor in your average clinic likely comes to mind first.  They could be a doctor of osteopathy, D.O., or an M.D., medical doctorate.  Primarily they approach patient care from a scientific perspective basing most of their care on evidence-based studies and experientially gained wisdom. 

            The other large group also goes by many names, the most common of which is Alternative medicine.  Sometimes terms such as unconventional or “alternative and complementary” may be found as well.  This grouping includes numerous and diverse approaches under its broad heading.  Postponing the specifics of subdivisions for another article, the name derives from the fact that it is an alternative to Allopathic/Western medicine.  Many will choose a care provider in these fields when dissatisfied or distrustful of Western medicine.  Sometimes patients simply prefer what appears to be more natural means of healing. 

            Patients obviously do not have to choose these fields of medicine in an either/or fashion and there are common terms for such combinations as well.  Integrative medicine and holistic medicine may be the most well-known expressions of such utilizing both allopathic and alternative therapies together.  Integrative simply integrates the two.  Holistic medicine holds as a primary principle that patients should be treated as a whole person, not just an organ or disease.  This approach is not unique to “holistic” medicine, but more emphasized in it.  The term “complementary” also assumes that one is “complementing” the former with the latter.  Care providers of these flavors approach patient care with the belief that both forms of medicine can be utilized in overall care.  They feel that they have a broader array of options to offer patients. 

Two other terms which deserve mention in this combined category are functional medicine and osteopathic medicine.  Functional medicine approaches illness from the perspective that finding the root cause or causes of a set of symptoms is better than treating more superficial symptoms.  They utilize science as would an allopathic physician but apply the science somewhat differently and use therapies outside conventional medicine.  These include spinal manipulation work, similar to chiropractic care.  Otherwise, osteopathic medicine appears very similar in practice to allopathic medicine as mentioned earlier.  Their training overlaps with that of M.D.’s, even sharing residency training for board certification.  However, in their schooling, they are taught to approach health and illness with a slightly different understanding of the physical processes causing illness.  They focus more attention on the musculoskeletal system as a source of illness. 

Somewhat overlapping with osteopathy, chiropractic care at its core consider the majority of illness as relating to structural imbalances in the vertebral and spinal cord.  Therapy consists of manipulating vertebra to alter either nervous system function or energy flow (depending on the underlying worldview).  Chiropractors may also overlap with functional medicine in incorporating nutritional therapies and whole person care. 

This division into three groups, Allopathic/Western, Alternative, and Integrative medicine does not explain the full story of how each approaches health and illness.  Alternative medicine, especially, may be further subdivided into multiple theories and therapies (some noted above and others not mentioned).  Though this article does not answer which approach is right for your particular situation, at least you can understand in general what each name means.  Remaining open to hear what each field has to offer will increase your chances of finding relief.  Finding a physician who likewise keeps an open mind as they care for you is also critical, yet you want a discerning provider who can protect you from physically or spiritually harmful therapies.  Take the time to find that wise physician and learn together how to find healing.

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