Millions of people visit complementary therapists for a variety of pains and problems, but can they really help? We weigh up the evidence for three of the most popular ‘alternative’ treatments.
Modern Western medicine is offering ever more sophisticated tests and treatments. But it isn’t always as successful as simpler therapies for dealing with long-term chronic conditions such as backache, headaches and arthritis.
Dr Richard Halvorsen, a GP who is also trained in acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine, points out: ‘Orthodox medicine has a lot to offer, but in terms of chronic conditions it palliates but doesn’t cure. Complementary therapies can provide relief for such conditions and also give more power to the patient.
In conventional medicine we are moving more and more towards guidelines and protocols, which means that everyone with a particular illness gets treated the same. The great thing about complementary therapies is that they treat the individual.’ In this feature, we weigh up the evidence of three popular Eastern-based therapies.
What is it?
A system of movement founded by a Chinese Taoist monk between 960 and 1279AD. There are many different styles and two different ‘forms’ short and long. These are a series of movements learned over a period of weeks or months. Each move is performed slowly with relaxed muscles and complete mental focus.
How does it work?
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), of which t’ai chi is a part, the system helps to rebalance the flow of the body’s ‘life energy’ or ‘chi’, which circulates around the body in invisible channels or ‘meridians’.
Consultant cardiologist Professor Kevin Channer, of Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, offers t’ai chi to patients recovering from heart attacks as part of their rehabilitation. He says: ‘T’ai chi is absolutely complementary. As orthodox doctors we are very good at treating physical problems, but have nothing that helps the psyche. A third of patients who have heart attacks get depressed but conventional cardiac rehabilitation does nothing to address that. I recommend all my patients to try it at least.’
Professor Channer and t’ai chi practitioner David Barrow are currently studying whether the Wu Chian Chuan style of t’ai chi is effective in helping patients with heart failure. ‘T’ai chi is safe and improves the quality of life of heart patients, and the effects are long-lasting,’ says Professor Channer.
Who can it help?
T’ai chi can ease stress disorders, improve balance, aid hearing and heart problems, promote wellbeing and slow the ageing process.
Where's the evidence?
A 2004 study took a group of 256 healthy but inactive elderly people, aged 70 to 92, and taught them either t’ai chi or stretching. After a year, those who had learnt t’ai chi had better balance and suffered fewer falls. A trial carried out in Sheffield in 1996 showed t’ai chi to be as effective as aerobic exercise in helping people recover from a heart attack. And Australian researchers at the Flinders Medical Centre found that t’ai chi can also help reduce the painful post-surgical arm swelling lymphoedema in breast cancer patients.