Medical marijuana patients usually find that sleep is a wonderful benefit of cannabis. Many chronic pain patients experience insomnia due to their pain and find excellent relief and sleep when using cannabis.
What exactly is alternative medicine? The term is most often used to describe a broad range of approaches to preventing and treating illness that are not widely used in hospitals or taught in medical schools. The category includes the use of herbal remedies, relaxation techniques, diet modification (including the taking of vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements), chiropractic (spinal manipulation), massage therapy and many other lesser-known practices.
Public interest in alternative health care has grown substantially in recent years. According to a January 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one in three Americans tried some form of unconventional health treatment in 1990. The remedies people sought ranged from biofeedback to spiritual healing. Most people sought help for ailments such as back pain, anxiety and headaches because conventional medicine had proved ineffective or the patients were wary of conventional treatments for other reasons.
The report took many in the medical establishment by surprise. Particularly unexpected was the finding that 25 million Americans made an estimated 425 million visits to alternative care providers annually, more than the visits they made to primary care physicians. The study also found that Americans spend a significant amount of money on alternative therapies–$13.7 billion in 1990, 75% of it out of their own pockets, or not covered by insurance. By comparison, Americans spent less–$10.3 billion–on out-of-pocket hospitalization costs in 1990. (In 1995, they spent $11.4 billion.)
The vitamin, mineral and herbal supplement industry in the U.S. is also booming, as many people attend to their own health problems by taking such popularly recommended remedies as melatonin (a synthetic hormone), echinacea or St. John's wort (both herbs), to fight everything from insomnia to the common cold to depression. The market for over-the-counter (nonprescription) alternative remedies has more than doubled over the past several years, climbing to nearly $4 billion in 1996 from close to $2 billion in 1991.
Alternative medicine has grown in popularity as the cost of conventional medical treatment–for prescription drugs, high-tech diagnostic equipment, surgery and hospital stays–has skyrocketed. Health care costs in the U.S. currently total about $1 trillion annually, nearly 14% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). (GDP is the value of the total output of goods and services produced within a country's borders.) Alternative medicine may appeal to people not only because it is cheaper than mainstream care, but because some people prefer its methods. Alternative therapies tend to offer people less invasive and gentler options than drugs or surgery. Patients may also feel that alternative practitioners treat them more as a “whole person,” attempting to heal them both physically and emotionally, while the conventional health care system is too impersonal. Many people have become convinced of the effectiveness of alternative medicine in treating certain health problems and now swear by unconventional remedies.
Yet as alternative remedies have gained wider acceptance in recent years, many in the mainstream medical community remain profoundly skeptical about them. The most common complaint regarding alternative medicine is that many treatments have not been proven effective by rigorous scientific studies and thus many doctors and analysts believe that they may not work. Skeptics charge that no one knows whether the majority of alternative therapies are effective. Much of the evidence that supports alternative therapies, they argue, is anecdotal and therefore unreliable. They say that until better evidence for unconventional therapies is presented, patients will be safer if they stick to the treatment options offered by conventional medicine.
Defenders of alternative medicine include alternative-care practitioners, those who have benefited from alternative treatment and critics of conventional medicine. They say that the medical establishment needs to be more open to alternative therapies and to recognize that many have merit. Conventional medicine, they say, is very expensive, often does not work and can be harmful. Patients could benefit, they say, if conventional doctors would incorporate some alternative therapies into their treatment plans.
The medicinal use of marijuana, an illegal drug in the U.S., is an alternative therapy that has been part of the controversy. In November 1996, Arizona and California legalized marijuana for medical use. Ill people have used the drug to treat glaucoma, an eye disease, and to relieve the nausea associated with chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Opponents of any legalization of marijuana are concerned that using the drug for medical purposes would thwart the nation's drug enforcement efforts.
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Herman, Robin. “Therapies Outside the Mainstream.” Washington Post (August 1, 1995): 10.
Jaroff, Leon. “Bee Pollen Bureaucracy.” New York Times (October 6, 1997): A19.