When we make understanding the physical body our life’s work, we sometimes fall into the trap of reductionism: the theory that complex systems can be understood by a study of their components. When we do this, we approach disease and health through blinkered procedures that by definition demand we narrow our focused. A patient comes to see us. We, in turn regard the patient as a list of physical symptoms, a collection of body parts, a single trail of interlocking biomechanical processes. We see the proverbial trees instead of the proverbial forest. Many times, of course, this approach is adequate. Sick patients get better. Symptoms disappear. The protocol we prescribed appears to work.
If this weren’t the case, many of us would surely have abandoned our professions in despair long ago. However, the danger is that a narrow focus can cause us to miss information, or opportunities to synthesize information, that we could use to become better at what we do.Philosophers and mystics have longed us to look at life holistically. ” to see the world in a grain of sand ” n the words of William Blake. They know that perceiving ” the whole ” is essential to understanding It’s the open heart that can experience the good. It seems we’re finally starting to listen. Increasingly, Americans seek holistic ways to improve outcomes, not only in healthcare but in a wide range of endeavors. Many professional athletes, for instance, now seek to cultivate ” Big Mind ” , a state of relaxed awareness, being in this state allows athletes to more easily perform to their potential.
The concept of eating whole foods is so mainstream you can buy stock in a company that’s taken Whole Foods as it’s name. Science is also bearing out the wisdom of holistic thinking, and doing so in terms that increasingly bridge the apparent divide between it and philosophy. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for instance, reported on new research linking creative breakthroughs , ‘ Eureka moments’ with states of mind best characterized as relaxed and open. ” the flypaper of an unfocused mind” the article’s author suggests, ” may trap new ideas and unexpected associations more effectively than methodical reasoning. ”
Nowhere is this evolution more important than within healthcare. It’s no secret that many people are disillusioned with so -called Western medicine. Some 42% of Americans have decided to at least augment their Western-style healthcare programs with some sort of non-traditional care. Sales of nutritional supplements are expected to reach $13 billion in 2015, up 39% from 2008, a truly eye-popping growth curve, particularly in this economy. So, what is driving this trend?
The answer to this question is complex. But one factor must surely be this.: an approach to medicine that relies too much on reductionist thinking frequently fails its patients. Certainly, this explanation is supported anecdotally. The Internet teems with stories of people whose health conditions improved only when they sought answers outside their doctors offices. In other cases , the effects of reductionist medicine is more subtle. Patients might feel they’re not being treated as whole human beings. They become dissatisfied with protocols that address symptoms that can’t explain why they got sick in the first place.
The danger, of course, is that when we throw out Western medicine, we also throw out the baby: the insights, the science, the diagnostic and clinical tools that represent the best of what Western medicine has to offer. It’s the danger of presenting non-Western protocols as an ” alternative ” to Western medicine : we deny patients access to the advances Western medicine has achieved. Fortunately, there is another choice: top approach Western and non-Western medicines as complementary.
Call it a “best of breed” approach to healthcare. As healthcare providers we choose from a variety of tools and protocols, some derived from western medicine, others from traditions that originated elsewhere, whether it’s Far East, folk traditions like herbalism, or offshoots of mainstream science such as chiropractic, kinesiology, or nutritional therapy. Let me be clear. Complementary medicine should not abandon science. On the contrary it must recognize the value of clinical evidence. Responsible practitioners of complementary medicine understand this. They keep abreast of the scientific literature and they select their treatment strategies as much as possible on the basis of clinical research.
At the same time we shouldn’t view complementary medicine purely in terms of expanding the healthcare menu. There is a greater value. Complementary medicine widens our focus, and as one’s focus widens, connections that were formerly hidden suddenly become clear. We see that the energy meridians that form the basis of Chinese acupuncture correspond to structures in the body’s nervous system. We understand that digestive processes gone wrong can affect something as seemly far flung as an immune system. We see how stress affects us on a continuum that spans the body as well as the mind. in that subjective and objective symptoms can be expressions of the same underlying stress. The ability to see these connections , in turn, means we can offer our patients better care.
Within my own practice I draw on a number of modalities, including clinical diagnostic testing, chiropractic, acupuncture and the use of nutritional supplements with enzymatic therapy. But a holistic approach can be even more powerful when it reaches outside of individual practices top foster partnerships among healthcare providers. Indeed, the real promise of complementary healthcare is our ability to select from the best of every available medical tradition. A patient undergoing cancer treatment might therefore use acupuncture to alleviate side effects of chemotherapy. Someone who is suffering from allergies can first gain symptomatic relief via prescription medication, then address root causes through enzymatic therapies. An individual with back pain might try chiropractic before a more expensive and invasive option such as surgery.
As healthcare practitioners the thing we dread most is the dead end. The symptom that won’t respond to the treatments we’re able to offer. The patient gets worse instead of better. Terminal cases, chronic or incurable diseases. It is these intractable cases that most benefit when we step back and look at the bigger picture. In simplest terms the complementary model expands our patient’s options But that’s not all it does. Practicing complementary medicine enables us to become better practitioners. It enriches our thinking with ideas we might not otherwise encounter. It encourages the intellectual flexibility that is a prerequisite for all inspired problem solving.
And in so doing it enhances the quality of the healthcare services we offer our patients.
Steven T Sadlon MA La.C DC
Doctor of Chiropractic