When Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Works

By Jennifer Wang

Nurses and medical professionals rely heavily on traditional medicines and treatments to fight disease and pain in their patients. But, more and more Americans are also incorporating complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into their health regimen. CAM is practiced by 42 percent of Americans, according to a 2005 report published by the Institute of Medicine. Patients who use CAM turn to dietary supplements, acupuncture and even yoga to help treat their conditions.

"To me, the most important thing that nurses should know about CAM is that it's not [composed] of treatments that people receive instead of medical treatments," says Joan Fox, Ph.D., who founded Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine. "Rather, CAM involves recognition by patients that they can have a powerful effect on their own wellbeing and health by participating in practices... that they find helpful in decreasing stress, bringing calm or providing spiritual benefits."

CAM encompasses a range of practices and treatments, and there are several different therapies that can achieve positive results.

Mindfulness and Meditation

In 2003, out of curiosity, Lorraine Chase enrolled in a trial mindfulness and meditation program at the University of California, San Diego. She admits to being skeptical at first.

"We started out focusing on a raisin," recalls Chase. "And I thought, 'Great, I'm sitting around contemplating a raisin!'-but it was the idea of being really aware of now without throwing other garbage in there."

After six months of mindfulness practice, Chase noticed she was no longer suffering from migraines.

"It never occurred to me that this would help, but now, I have one migraine-or none-a year, which is enough to keep me doing it," says Chase.

Mindfulness and meditation also helped her two years later, when she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer.

"I'm fine now, and most of the credit goes to traditional medicine and my doctors and nurses," she says. "But I obviously worried [about] what was going to happen to me, and I could focus on enjoying as much of each day as I could because of what I'd learned."


Shelley Watters, DNP, RN, is the Director of Professional Development at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), Shadyside. After several major knee surgeries-and despite physical therapy, braces, medications and even an arthroscopy-she couldn't walk without stiffening up.

Her first treatment at UPMC's Center for Integrative Medicine brought immediate relief.

"I went in for my appointment and I couldn't even bend my knee," says Watters. "When the needle hit the point that was associated with knee immobility... it was like a river of pressure had been unblocked."

After her success with CAM, Watters is doing her part to spread the word.

"I think the [Center's] clinic services are underutilized," she says. "So [I'm] working with practitioners from the Center to educate physicians and nurses to make referrals to the Center to complement the traditional medicine we currently utilize. Health care providers should be aware there is more out there that may help patients with recovery."

When CAM Might Be an Option

Unfortunately, because of the medical model in place, nurses have few opportunities to discuss CAM with patients.  One hospital that has addressed this issue is Midwestern Regional Medical Center's Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA).

"Three times a week, our physicians, clinicians and representatives from all of the CAM departments meet to discuss our patient's diagnosis, progress and treatment plans," says Michelle Bregenzer, NP, APNN, CTCA's Infusion Center Manager. "At this endorsement meeting each patient's individual needs are assessed so that if a patient can benefit from a CAM consult we can be proactive. For example, if weight loss is identified as an issue, a nutritional and metabolic support consult would be initiated."

According to Watters and Bregenzer, patients may benefit from CAM if they:

  • Have pain or immobility not relieved by traditional treatments like surgery, physical therapy and non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Need additional support to manage the physical and emotional stresses related to diagnoses and treatments of non-curable diseases like cancer or fibromyalgia.
  • Express an aversion to potential side effects of medications, or an interest in trying CAM therapies.

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