The Science Behind Alternative Medicine



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Killing nearly 100 Americans every day, the opioid epidemic is taking the country by storm. Over the last several years, opioid prescriptions for pain alleviation have more than tripled, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and, now, the drug abuse problem is becoming worse than ever.


In an effort to overcome the misuse and abuse of prescription medications, many healthcare professionals are turning towards a new form of care: alternative medicine.


Alternative medicine describes a field based on unorthodox methods of clinical treatment. It often involves natural therapies or exercises that focus on both the physical and mental well-being of the body. But what does the science say? Just how effective are these “medicines”? While controversy still exists around the credibility of it, recent clinical research has demonstrated the promise of several particular remedies and practices.




The main active compound in red chili peppers, capsaicin is one of the most well-regarded natural painkillers in the world. Upon exposure to the body, capsaicin activates specialized heat receptors in the body, called TRPV1 receptors. When triggered, these receptors cause the body to feel a burning sensation, similar to when actual heat is present. Prolonged activation can cause exhaustion of the TRPV1 receptors, and a depletion of chemical signaling molecules necessary for pain sensation. Hence, this exhaustion essentially numbs the surrounding tissue, so that other forms of pain cannot be perceived. In this way, capsaicin, applied topically or invasively to an injury, can seemingly alleviate pain in the body.


Earlier this year, Centrexion Therapeutics, a Boston-based medical startup company, developed a capsaicin-based injection therapy, named STRATI® (Synthetic TRans cApsaicin ulTra-pure Injection), to relieve neuropathic pain. After conducting a 12-week long clinical trial with osteoarthritis knee pain patients, the company found that over two-thirds of the patients “achieved a 50% or greater reduction in pain” with just one 1.0 mg injection of capsaicin. This level of pain reduction is comparable to traditional opioids, hence offering a safer, but equally as effective treatment alternative. Ultimately, the study verified the efficacy of capsaicin as a natural painkiller and set the groundwork for a further optimized commercial product in the future.




Perhaps the most widespread form of alternative medicine is yoga. Originally developed in India, yoga is a longtime practice that is said to integrate the mind, body, soul, and spirit. It involves breathing techniques, stretching exercises, and mindful meditation, and has been shown to alleviate both physical pain and mental stress.


Recently, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study showcasing the benefits of yoga for chronic pain. A clinical trial was performed with 320 chronic back pain patients to compare the efficacies of physical therapy and yoga in relieving pain. After a 12-week period, the researchers found that both methods resulted in the same level of pain reduction. In other words, yoga was found to be equally as effective in alleviating chronic pain as the conventional method of physical therapy.


However, the advantages of yoga are not merely limited to physical pain. Studies suggest that regular practice of yoga can help in reducing anxiety or stress, controlling blood pressure, increasing respiration and energy levels, and improving flexibility.


In 2005, researchers in Germany found that stress and anxiety levels were improved by at least 50% in “emotionally distressed” patients who engaged in regular yoga sessions. More recently, in 2016, a study conducted at Georgia State University illustrated a similar correlation in patients with general anxiety disorder (GAD).


Yoga has evidently been an active research area for several years, as it markedly benefits a wide spectrum of health conditions. In comparison to opioids and other manufactured medications with side effects and addictive tendencies, yoga may offer a more benign, natural, and holistic treatment source.




Another common form of alternative medicine, acupuncture, involves the insertion of needles at various points of the body to relieve tension, pain, and discomfort.


Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of medicine that first developed thousands of years ago. While the exact reasoning behind its pain-relieving qualities are still being researched, many studies have been published on possible theories. Some researches believe that acupuncture triggers the release of endorphins and other neurochemicals that directly reduce tension and pain. Others theorize that the pressure of the needles causes a discharge of nitrogen oxide which increases blood circulation, and hence, affects pain levels.


Nevertheless, while the precise methodologies of acupuncture are still in the gray, its effects are being increasingly felt around the world. In fact, acupuncture has become an established practice of medicine in Australia, where even emergency medicine doctors are putting it to use. A paper published recently in the Medical Journal of Australia states that acupuncture was as effective as conventional drugs in treating patients with back pain or ankle sprains. As acupuncture is not as common in the U.S., due to skepticism, the implications of this study are significant in offering patients a comparable replacement to prescription medicines.


Ultimately, an abundance of research must still be conducted before we can truly understand the scientific mechanisms of alternative medicine. However, especially in light of the opioid epidemic and current drug abuse, many forms of alternative medicine present a safer alternative to conventional pharmacotherapies that have the potential to positively impact the pain and stress levels of patients.