Therapies most likely to make it into mainstream treatment

There are many popular alternative therapies, but which ones are most likely to make it into mainstream treatment?

Acupuncture - chances of going mainstream: 9/10

What is it?

A system of healing that has been used in China and other far-eastern countries for thousands of years. Traditionally, acupuncture involves inserting fine, sterilised needles into certain points on the body to balance the flow of qi (or vital energy) along a network of invisible pathways known as meridians.

Medical acupuncture, however, which is practised by some doctors, uses western diagnostic techniques. Needles are inserted into points in the body to stimulate the nerves and release natural painkillers.

What is it recommended for?

A great many conditions, including nausea, pain, anxiety and insomnia. Doctors use it in palliative care, the treatment of musculo-skeletal disorders and mental health problems, among other things.

Scientific evidence?

Evidence from randomised clinical trials is strong for many uses of acupuncture, according to the World Health Organisation, which lists more than 40 ailments that can be treated with it.

Western herbal medicine - chances of going mainstream: 9/10

What is it?

Many modern drugs are derived from herbs, but herbal medicine uses parts of the whole plant to treat patients, believing this to be more effective than isolating active ingredients.

Like most complementary treatments, herbal medicine is holistic - that is, practitioners aim to treat the whole person rather than eradicating individual symptoms, so lifestyle and detailed consultation plays an important role in treatment.

What is it recommended for?

Herbal medicine is used to treat a very wide range of conditions from nausea to anxiety and insomnia.

Scientific evidence?

Many studies have shown herbal medicine to be effective in treating a wide range of ailments. Valerian, for example, has been shown to be relaxing, ginger to relieve nausea and St John's wort to be an effective mild antidepressant.

A word of warning though - not all herbs are safe and they should only be taken with expert advice.

Homeopathy - chances of going mainstream: 9/10

What is it?

Homeopathy works on the principle of treating like with like, so infinitesimal amounts of substances that cause symptoms are used to treat them.

What is it recommended for?

It is thought to be particularly effective as a painkiller and for allergic conditions such as eczema, hayfever and asthma.

Scientific evidence?

Several studies have shown homeopathic treatments to be more effective than placebos, but the extreme dilution of homeopathic remedies presents problems for scientists. See our article on homeopathy to find out more.

Hypnotherapy - chances of going mainstream: 7/10

What is it?

Hypnotherapy works by placing an individual into a state of relaxation where they will be more sensitive to specific positive messages and perhaps more able to address their own inner issues.

Various methods are used to hypnotise patients who, when under hypnosis, will feel relaxed but will know what is going on.

What is it recommended for?

Hypnotherapy is used to combat anxiety, phobias, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine, pain, high blood pressure and insomnia. It's also used to help people give up smoking.

Scientific evidence?

There is clinical evidence for the effectiveness of hypnotherapy. One of the best-known studies showed dramatic improvements in IBS patients treated with the therapy.

Massage - chances of going mainstream: 7/10

What is it?

One of the oldest forms of medical treatment, massage harnesses the sense of touch to promote relaxation and relieve stiff joints using a set of dedicated rubbing, stroking and kneading strokes.

It's believed that massage works by triggering the release of endorphins and lowering stress hormones. There are many different kinds of massage, ranging from the traditional classical/Swedish massage to Reiki, which is a form of healing.

What is it recommended for?

Depression and back and neck pain are among the many ailments that can be relieved by massage. It's always good for calming and relaxing, and is used in many cancer care centres.

Scientific evidence?

There is a wealth of evidence supporting the effectiveness of massage. Trials have shown that it reduces anxiety in cancer patients. It has also been demonstrated to relieve back and muscle pain, lower blood pressure and reduce depression, and boost the immune system in HIV positive men.

Aromatherapy - chances of going mainstream: 6/10

What is it?

In aromatherapy, concentrated plant oils are massaged into the skin, inhaled or added to bath water. The theory is that these smells trigger the limbic system in the brain, producing a range of therapeutic effects.

What is it recommended for?

Has been used to treat a range of conditions including stress, anxiety, headaches and asthma. One of the most common therapies used in the management of cancer care in the NHS.

Scientific evidence?

Research has demonstrated some positive effects – aromatherapy has been shown to reduce agitation in people suffering from Alzheimer’s, for example, and one study found that some oils seem to prevent epileptic fits. Patients also speak highly of its tension-relieving effects, although researchers have yet to establish any direct effect on the brain.


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