As many people with IBS go to see complementary therapist for their IBS as go to their doctors. Complementary therapies provide what conventional medicine lacks; the time to listen and develop a rapport with the patient. This allows the therapist to understand the situations that predispose to flare ups in the context of the patient’s life and then to customizes the therapy to suit their personality and history.
Complementary therapies are holistic; they treat the whole person, body and mind, in the context of their life story. Specific therapies capture the patient’s imagination and create an expectation of cure. The hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies IBS is replaced by a therapy that instils confidence and hope.
People need something to put their faith in so they can let go of the illness. In a society that seems to be losing its faith in scientific system of modern medicine, the application of a charismatic healing arts can capture the patient’s belief and be very effective.
Traditional and complementary systems of medicine are powerful applications of the art of healing: the process by which rituals and natural products are used to facilitate a person’s own natural capabilities to re-establish a state of health and well-being.
The sheer variety of therapies can seem so bewildering. There is acupuncture, shiatsu, reflexology, massage, aromatherapy, chiropraxy, homeopathy, relaxation therapy, faith healing, meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, medical herbalism, iridology, the different forms of psychotherapy, biofeedback; to name but a few! Surely they cannot all be effective – or can they?
Different therapies emphasise different aspects of healing. The more physical therapies such as massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, reflexology, shiatsu, use touch and massage as a means of making a deep sense of communication that helps to relieve tension. Music and art therapies are said to restore a sense of balance by enhancing emotional and creative activity of the right side of the brain. Biofeedback training allows patients to learn how to change bodily functions by altering the way they feel. It is said to work better for those who are more skeptical and require convincing. The scientific appearance of homeopathy, with its resemblance to immunisation and chemotherapy, conveys a high degree of credibility and most closely resembles the practice of orthodox medicine without the toxic effects of drugs. Both meditation and hypnotherapy induce a trance like state of relaxed and focussed attention using calming mental imagery, progressive muscular relaxation and a slow repetitive vocal cadence. While in this state, suggestions implanted by the therapist can be implanted and employed to alter bodily functions.
It has to be said that the specific scientific basis of many ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ therapies is to say the least, dubious. There is, to my knowledge, no anatomical basis for the body meridians which form the basis of acupuncture. There is no physiological connection that can explain why pressure on the sole of the foot, as employed by practitioners of shiatsu and reflexology can heal dysfunction of the liver or the heart. And it is difficult to believe that homeopathic dilutions – which would need to split the atom to retain any of the active substance – have any biological action at all. But I do not think we should worry too much about whether the specific mechanism of action can be proven scientifically. That, in my opinion, is not what makes people feel better.
What matters is the skill of the therapist in recruiting the belief and self confidence that encourages healing. Seen from that perspective, the tinctures, powders and needles are like Mesmer’s tub of iron filings, stage props focusing the impact of the therapeutic drama. Thus, complementary medicine is not just a random collection a specific therapies, each of which needs to be validated by randomized controlled trials, it is, I believe, an alternative therapeutic approach that uses different techniques to recruit the patient’s own powers of healing.
Complementary therapies confer what is often missing from a modern medical consultation: the time to listen, the development of a therapeutic rapport, the use of techniques that reduce emotional tension and establish a sense of harmony, the time to think and the space for creative possibilities to take root and grow. The specific therapeutic approach recruits patients’ trust by providing a positive identification, around which they can focus their own capacity for healing. This has been called the Trojan Horse approach, conveying the idea that a healing connection is concealed inside a therapeutic symbol or idea that gains the patient’s confidence.
Touch can be used to reassure anxious and ill people, allowing them to feel relaxed and safe in the hands of another person. Most mothers know how they can soothe away their infants aches and pains by a cuddle. And lovers know how that combination of physical and emotional intimacy can break down their resistance and instil a sense of trust that transforms their lives. So it is not so much the specific techniques that need to be evaluated but the therapeutic approach. Therapies as diverse as massage, acupuncture, relaxation, hypnotherapy, reflexology can all reduce the secretion of stress hormones, rectify physiological functions and can be of great benefit to people with IBS.
The active selection and participation in an individual therapy imparts a sense of personal control and confidence that is often lacking in orthodox medicine’s rushed appointments, peremptory diagnoses and reflex dispensation of pills. Add to that a specific belief structure that the patient can identify with and you have a powerful healing concoction. In our 24/7 society with its daily challenges and threats, we seem to have lost the knowledge of self healing. Yet our bodies have a restorative capacity that is better than any tonic, supplement or symptomatic remedy. Complementary therapies can help us find this.
Our health service, like the rest of our society, appears too preoccupied with waiting lists, efficiency, accountability and audit to think about holistic aspects of health and well-being. Yet there is abundant scientific evidence that feelings of peace, contentment, relaxation, confidence and containment reduce emotional tension, restoring a healthy balance of hormones and reversing pathogenic processes. The more scientific medicine becomes, the more it seeks to deny the art of healing, which is fundamental to any therapeutic relationship.
So there is little point in deriding complementary therapists because the materials they use do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Instead, we should be encouraging health service managers to recognise the importance of the healing methods perfected by psychotherapists and complementary practitioners and seek to incorporate them into mainstream medicine. We urgently need to restore the balance between the art and science of medicine.