Have you tried one medical treatment after another or seen various specialists without actually getting better? Have you felt there was something physically wrong with you even when all your test results were normal? These experiences are all too common. 

Fifteen years ago, I had a similar experience. I had run the gamut of Western medicine for treating recurrent sinus infections. The sinus pain increased in intensity, even without the presence of infection, and yet my diagnostic tests were normal. Was I crazy?

Finally, my neighbor suggested I see her acupuncturist. She had been diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia, which had gone into remission after she began acupuncture treatment. She didn’t know if remission was due to her acupuncture treatments, but was convinced it helped. 

Since nothing else had helped me, I decided to give acupuncture and herbal treatments a try despite my skepticism as a nurse practitioner.

Once I began these treatments, I had fewer sinus infections, and they seemed less severe. After a few years, my sinus problem was resolved completely.

Thus began my personal journey into the “integrative health care” realm.

Something shifted internally, and I knew I had to seek additional tools than those available in Western medicine.

As a nurse practitioner, I am licensed to provide medications for almost anything: depression, heartburn, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and allergies, to name a few. I could even offer some diet and lifestyle counseling, and patients might improve somewhat, as long as they stayed on their medications and followed at least some of the recommended diet and lifestyle changes. 

In truth, however, I didn’t feel as though I was getting to the root of their problems. Essentially, I was providing temporary or partial relief from a condition that often had the potential to be resolved entirely.

To help people overcome persistent medical problems without a lifetime of medications, and to improve my patients’ overall state of well-being, I was going to need more tools and an understanding of ways in which I could support this outcome. 

I expanded my treatment toolbox by becoming an East Asian medicine practitioner. Many of my Western-medicine colleagues have asked if I find it difficult to practice both conventional medicine and acupuncture, which is based on a completely different physiological paradigm of the body. I don’t see them as separate, but as parts of a continuum. 

The skills I have gained by studying acupuncture have actually strengthened my practice of Western medicine, in part due to the emphasis on observation. Observation, such as of the tongue and pulse, gives vital information about one’s state of wellness or disease without having to rely on laboratory testing.

Of course, laboratory testing can be useful in some instances, and, as a nurse practitioner, I have training and access in this area as well.

The result of combining Eastern and Western medicines has increased my treatment options to support my patients on their path to wellness and expanded my view about what it means to be well.

Integrative health care is being increasingly practiced in the U.S., even in Walla Walla. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, nearly 40 percent of Americans are using health-care approaches outside of conventional or mainstream medicine. 

But what, exactly, does integrative health care mean?

Depending on whom you are talking to, you might come across various definitions. The practice of integrative health care is dynamic and broad. Moreover, a variety of terms has become popular and is frequently used interchangeably.

These include terms such as integrative medicine, holistic medicine, complementary medicine and alternative medicine, which makes trying to understand the meaning even more difficult. 

The NCCAM helps to clarify current thinking on the topic by delineating the terms “alternative” and “complementary.” “Alternative” is described as care that is used in place of conventional medicine, whereas “complementary” refers to care that is used concurrently. 

Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, a well-known proponent of integrative medicine, has explained that alternative medicine can be thought of as any new or old therapy that is excluded by or used instead of conventional medicine. This includes a vast array of therapies, some of which are more known than others, such as acupuncture, herbal therapy, naturopathy, massage, t’ai chi and yoga.

When any such approach is combined with conventional medicine, then it is referred to as complementary. 

Put them all together, and the result is an expansive opportunity to heal, nurture and promote a state of wellness. In other words, using a well-stocked toolbox ready to meet the needs of the individual, instead of trying to fit an individual into a specific treatment approach that may or may not be helpful.

Central to integrative health care is the concept of caring for the whole person. Mind, spirit, community, as well as body, are considered interrelated, and all equally important aspects that influence health, wellness and disease.

Meanwhile, using conventional medicine aided by technology and research facilitates in-depth understanding of disease and the body, while simultaneously becoming increasingly specialized and, thus, compartmentalized. 

In certain circumstances, such as a traumatic injury, the specialization of conventional medicine can be helpful, even lifesaving; however, there are many conditions that can benefit from more natural, less invasive, less costly and, sometimes, safer treatment options. 

Embedded in the philosophy of integrative health care is a partnership between patient and practitioner. This partnership fosters engagement from both parties, thereby encouraging the patient to become an active participant in the healing process. In this way, patient and practitioner can work together to seek long-term solutions and promote optimum wellness.

Maybe it’s not you. Maybe your health-care provider needs a bigger toolbox.

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