Alternative Medicine: Can It Work Alongside Established Medical Treatment?

Over the past decade, the number of alternative treatments for muscle and joint pain, back pain and arthritis has skyrocketed. Joint supplements are available in every drugstore and health food outlet. Yoga classes are filled with people seeking pain relief as well as relaxation techniques. Laser therapies bring a new technological wrinkle to an age-old search for treatment. While many of these alternative techniques can complement established medical treatment, though, evidence suggests that they can’t replace the care of an orthopedic doctor.

For many patients facing a diagnosis of arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome or other painful conditions, the appeal of an easy-to-buy supplement is undeniable, says Boise, Idaho, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Charles Schneider. “Going to a sports medicine center and undergoing a series of sophisticated scans isn’t as convenient as swallowing an herbal pill,” he adds, “but those diagnostics have the weight of years of research and technological innovation behind them.” In the case of degenerative disorders such as osteoarthritis, a quick diagnosis and effective therapy can spare patients considerable pain and may even delay the need for joint replacement, the Idaho hip replacement surgery specialist noted. “Many bone and joint disorders don’t just get better one day; they need physical therapy, medication management or minimally invasive surgery.”

Dr. Robert Hansen, a shoulder and hand surgeon who has helped restore greater mobility to thousands of patients with carpal tunnel syndrome, frozen shoulders and other conditions of the upper extremities, agrees. “Patients sometimes put off a visit to the doctor because they’re worried about facing a knee replacement or resurfacing surgery, but waiting through pain and trying unproven alternative remedies can limit medical treatment options.” In many cases, he says, patients find relief from physical therapy and medications. If a patient does need surgery, Dr. Hansen stresses that modern medical techniques have come a long way from early joint replacement procedures. “Today’s minimally invasive surgery has a shorter recovery time, less soft tissue disruption and more positive outcomes than what we had just 15 years ago.”

For patients who feel that alternative therapies can work together with orthopedic treatment, both physicians feel an open dialogue is the best plan. “Alternative therapies can complement traditional medical care instead of supplanting it,” said Dr. Schneider, “but patients and doctors must communicate openly about all their options. Your doctor needs to know if you’re taking supplements that could interact with prescribed medications or if you’re finding relief from discomfort in your yoga class.”

“Your mobility is too important to leave solely to remedies that don’t have sufficient data to support them,” says Dr. Hansen. “Quick diagnosis is still the best way to treat injuries and degenerative disorders, but alternative therapies typically ignore diagnoses to treat symptoms – and that could have a long-term impact on your health,” the hand surgeon says.