Alternative Medicine is a very broad subject and runs the gamut from Aromatherapy through to Zero Balancing. In the West, alternative medicine or complementary healthcare is, to a large extent, anything that falls outside of the rigorous double blind based scientific trials that Western medicine is subject to. Essentially, when we talk about alternative medicine, we are looking at healthcare that is usually unproven or untested, often based on more nebulous concepts like Qi or Prana (your lifeforce) or more subtle pulses and energy flows through the body. Though in fact much of alternative medicine has not been proven, it is not to say that its theories are incorrect, merely untested and so by nature, alternative medicine is often something that people use because of anecdotal evidence - the "it fixed this ailment so it works" type of thing.

Often, people turn to alternative medicine to try and heal ailments that haven't responded well to conventional western medicine. This can include anything from postural and structural problems through to terminal diseases like cancer through other ailments like chronic fatigue syndrome. Complementary and alternative medicine tend to work well for stress related disorders, though obviously it is difficult to say if it is simply a placebo effect in place or if any real mechanism (biological or otherwise) is in place behind the therapy. It is true to say, however, that in any country where the healthcare system is oversubscribed, alternative medical practitioners often give clients what they need most; a sympathetic ear. Doctors often just don't have the time to spend with patients to really make them feel like they have been listened to - not the fault of the doctors, they are usually overworked and under fairly tight deadlines, but when you turn to alternative medicine, you are paying directly for someone else's time and part and parcel of the service is that they listen to your problems and focus entirely on you for the duration of the treatment. That alone offers great comfort to many people in the hectic world we live in, simply because that kind of undivided attention is rare.

Alternative medicine is sometimes based on more traditional folk remedies - things like naturopathy for example. Though it is important to note that what would be considered alternative in one country would be considered mainstream medicine in another - a classic example being acupuncture which in the west is classed as alternative medicine, but in China, is still used as primary healthcare.

It is interesting that often, alternative medicine is considered more natural or more healthy than western medicine because it is perceived to use only natural ingredients in any oral remedies and work with the body's natural tendency toward health.

There are so many alternative therapies available today so sometimes it is difficult to know where to start if you want to explore them. Often, some therapies work better for some conditions than others so if you have something you want to address with alternative medicine it is a good idea to look around a bit and find out the kind of thing that each therapy is good at - for example, if you have postural problems, you could seek out a crystal healer to put you in balance and eventually your posture would change, but it may be more sensible to seek out a good massage therapist and tackle the problem head on! Here is a brief rundown on a few of the more popular alternative medicines....

Acupuncture - Pretty much everyone knows what acupuncture is, but for those who don't, it is the use of very fine needles that are put into acupoints in the body to stimulate the flow of Qi to restore balance to the body. Acupuncture is based on a complex and to the western mind rather alien form of disease diagnosis that was formulated in China. People can be said to suffer from, for example Damp or Heat and that these pernicious influences have invaded specific Organs in the body. Though in TCM they talk of Organs with the same name as western organs, it is important to note that the TCM theory is more about an overall function of the body rather than an individual organ. For example, the Lung in Chinese medicine encompasses breathing, but also controls our skin and body hair as well as our immune system.

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils for health and wellbeing. Supposedly pioneered by the Egyptians who used essential oils for everything from cosmetics to healing remedies, aromatherapy is gaining more popularity. There is no doubt that smell can affect us in many, from relaxing and calming us to making us excited and ready to face anything, but aromatherapy isn't only about smelling, the oils, when applied to the skin can be absorbed and help many ailments, boosting our immune system or stimulating blood circulation for example.

Chiropractic - The basic idea behind chiropractic is that if the spine is well aligned, the body will be in balance and heal itself; chirpractic is often used when people have chronic back ache and involves manipulating the vertebrae which when pushed back into place can make a loud "cracking" sound.

Crystal Healing - here the practitioner will use various crystals and stones that have different healing properties to help a client. Placing the stones at various points on the body is supposed to channel energy around the patient to protect and heal them. Usually stones placed on chakras will correspond to the colour of the chakra..

Massage and Bodywork - This pretty much covers all forms of massage from sweedish to thai to shiatsu (japanese acupressure massage). Massage is a great tool for any stress related or structural problem and is used in western medicine, particularly phsiotherapy. Massage is a great way to unwind and in our society, where we spend so much of our time thinking and living in our brains, can bring people back into their bodies, really allowing them to feel a little more at home in themselves.

Osteopathy - Osteopathy is related to chiropractic and is essentially the manipulation of the axis and atlas (top two bones of the vertebrae) to stimulate pulses of synovial fluid in the spine and brain. It is a popular alternative medicine, often used in pregnancy and is very calming and relaxing.

Reflexology - massage and manipulation of the feet (usually with essential oils) to heal the body. Reflexology works on the idea that various zones on the feet correspond to different parts of the body or internal organs, and by correct massage of these zones, you can heal corresponding part of the body. Another deeply relaxing therapy.

Reiki - a Japanese art that channels Ki (the Japanese word for Qi or lifeforce) through the practitioner into the client. Reiki is a very relaxing therapy and even though usually the healer will place their hands on the recipients body, it can equally be used hands off. Usually treatments last about an hour and involve channeling energy into various chakras.

Yoga - yes even yoga can be considered an alternative medicine! Not much to say about this one because we've all seen yoga or at least have a passing understanding of it - stretching and moving the body in various ways to promote health and longevity - exercise is very much an important tool in keeping ourselves fit and well!

Well, I hope you've enjoyed my brief introduction to alternative medicine. Obviously it is a vast topic and I haven't been able to cover everything in it, but hopefully you have a broad overview!