Understanding Holistic Medicine: Definition & Overview

The term “holistic” in medicine has become a buzz word. But what exactly does it mean? How is holistic medicine different from mainstream clinical? And is it a useful tool for doctors and patients? Let’s discuss –

Holistic medicine looks at the person as a whole (get it?). That means treatment plans look not only at the illness or injury, but about the patient’s overall physical, mental and emotional health. The idea is the right balance of overall health will prevent new ailments from emerging. It’s a proactive theory of medicine, as opposed to the mitigative perspective typically used in mainstream medicine.

Main Principles of Holistic Healthcare

Doctors in integrated fields of medicine like this view the body and mind as a bunch of interdependent systems. If one is faulty, it will affect the others, too. There is an informal belief behind this theory that a patient has their own innate healing abilities, and mental health is a big part of that. As well, compassionate, personalized care takes a front seat in treatment style. In holistic medicine, a patient is a person, not the disease.

Another important principle is a collaborative approach between doctor and patient. So instead of being handed a script for painkillers and sent on your way after a shoulder surgery, you and your doctor might make a long-term healing plan where you adopt healthy lifestyle habits that you’ll reevaluate every so often to see how it’s going.

What Does a Holistic Doctor Do?

Doctors who work under a theory of holistic medicine, by nature, practice natural, alternative, integrated, and complementary medicine as well. They pair traditional treatments with homeopathic ones wherever possible, and mental health is often addressed as well.

The style of a holistic doctor is a bit different than your typical primary care physician. They’ll get to know the patient – what’s their life like? What are their main stressors? What’s their support system like? Are there any environmental factors that are affecting their health? What about physical and psychological health history? A holistic medical professional will take everything into account before designing a personalized treatment plan.

The philosophy of holistic medicine is that real healing is when your body heals itself. The job of the doctor is to facilitate this process and help it along where the body needs assistance.

Examples of types of holistic doctors include:

  • Ayurvedic practitioner
  • Integrative doctor
  • Naturopath
  • Osteopath
  • TCM practitioner

Types of Holistic Treatments

We’ve already discussed that while this field of medicine leans towards natural, evidence-based therapies, it still utilizes clinical treatments like injection therapies and pharmaceuticals; it just doesn’t depend on it.

For instance, take the example of a rotator cuff injury that refuses to heal. Many times in mainstream medicine, patients with painful, treatment-resistant injuries are directed to a pain clinic where they’re put on a maintenance regiment of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. But if they visit a holistic health practitioner, treatment will look a lot different.

A comprehensive holistic treatment plan for that painful rotator cuff may include:

  • Clinical: low-dose opioids and almost never NSAIDS
  • Bodywork and exercise: massage therapy, yoga
  • Natural: medical marijuana for pain and CBD balms for topical use
  • Nutritional: diet and exercise plan
  • Occupational and physical therapy
  • Psychological: counseling, meditation, progressive relaxation techniques, mind-body techniques
  • Regenerative: injection therapies like PRP and stem cells

The idea is that if we’re supporting the whole person, the body and mind have more resources to heal old injuries and prevent recurrence or the occurrence of new ones. There’s a decent body of evidence – some of it clinical, some of it experiential – that things like your mood and life outlook really do have an effect on your body’s functions, especially the immune system.

Advantages & Disadvantages

The great thing about natural medicines is that they’re safe: eating more veggies and incorporating yoga into your life isn’t going to injure your liver the way 10 years of Vicodin scripts might. Yes, some things may work for you and others may not, but you’re experimenting with healthy habits and alternative/regenerative treatments, not solely pharmaceuticals and surgeries.

The obstacle with a holistic approach to medicine is the multifaceted nature of it. Personalized medicine is a great thing – don’t get us wrong, but when you’re trying to handle and balance so many variables, treatment is often a long-term experiment to figure out exactly what combination of medications, therapies, and treatments work best for a certain patient. This requires collaboration and patience on the part of both doctor and patient.

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