Alternative Medicine: Separating Fact from Fiction 

plants' leaves, flowers, or roots
plants’ leaves, flowers, or roots

Alternative medicine has always had its supporters and opponents. While some methods, like homoeopathy, lack a scientific medical foundation, others, such as hirudotherapy and osteopathy, receive recommendations from doctors. This article aims to explore the most popular alternative medicine practices through a scientific lens to help you understand them better. 


Phytotherapy involves using medicines derived from plants’ leaves, flowers, or roots. Certain plants undeniably possess proven medicinal effects. For instance, medical cannabis in Australia is widely used to alleviate chronic pain and aid in treating epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and certain neurological disorders. Artemisinin, derived from the wormwood annual, is used to combat malaria and certain parasites. Another antimalarial substance, quinine, is obtained from the cinchona tree. 

Plants can serve as pain relievers, anti-inflammatory agents, blood thinners, or laxatives. However, doctors caution that the risks associated with herbal medicines are considerable: 

  • Herbal remedies may not be compatible with traditional medicines.  
  • Herbal medicines can cause severe side effects, including allergic reactions, digestive issues, and poisoning.  
  • Not all herbal medicines are certified, making them susceptible to contamination or made from substandard raw materials.  
  • The evidence supporting the use of herbal medicines is often limited, making them suitable only for treating a limited number of diseases. 

Due to these risks, doctors advise against using herbal medicine for children, the elderly, pregnant and breastfeeding women, patients with preexisting conditions, and those taking medications or preparing for surgery. Nonetheless, even individuals not belonging to any risk group should consult their doctor before considering herbal medicines. 


Osteopathy revolves around the belief that an individual’s well-being relies on the harmonious coordination of bones, muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue. Unlike invasive techniques or pharmaceuticals, osteopaths utilise non-invasive methods involving various physical manipulations: 

  • Muscle stretching 
  • Pressure 
  • Massage 
  • Movements of the patient’s limbs. 

Rather than focusing solely on a specific area, osteopaths address the body as a whole, aiming to restore disrupted biomechanics. 

This approach is commonly employed to treat different types of pain (lower back, spine, neck, joints), arthritis, sports injuries, and headaches. Nevertheless, the efficacy of osteopathy remains subject to debate. Some experts assert that manual therapy can indeed alleviate certain types of neck, shoulder, or leg pain and aid in post-knee or hip surgery recovery. 

However, conflicting research findings exist, with some studies failing to confirm osteopathy’s effectiveness in combating muscle and joint pain. Consequently, more extensive and high-quality studies are essential for a conclusive assessment. 

Regarding the treatment of other conditions, such as scoliosis, asthma, depression, childhood colic, and digestive problems, osteopathy’s effectiveness remains unproven.  


Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine, revolves around the concept of “qi energy,” the vital force believed to circulate within the human body. Disruptions to this energy flow can result in illness. 

The acupuncture technique involves the precise insertion of thin needles under the patient’s skin, targeting specific points to restore proper energy circulation and promote healing. This approach finds widespread application in managing various pain types, including chronic pain, headache, muscle and joint pain. 

Contemporary explanations for acupuncture’s effectiveness suggest that needle stimulation triggers nerve endings in the skin and muscles, leading the body to release endorphins – a class of chemical compounds with analgesic properties that can uplift mood. Some researchers propose that acupuncture also stimulates the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, further enhancing mood and promoting healing by improving blood circulation through minor skin and muscle microtrauma caused by needle insertion. 

Experts caution that while there are certain articles claiming acupuncture’s pain relief benefits, the observed results might be attributed to the placebo effect. Furthermore, the majority of scientific studies on acupuncture originate from its country of origin, China, potentially raising concerns about objectivity since original data are not disclosed for independent verification. 

Healthcare professionals also highlight potential side effects, such as infections and inflammation due to non-sterile needles, potential damage to the central nervous system if needles are misplaced, and risks of injury to internal organs, like collapsed lungs, when needles are inserted too deeply. 

As a result, acupuncture remains an intriguing practice with historical significance, but its contemporary efficacy and safety require further robust scientific investigation. 


Hirudotherapy, a treatment involving the use of medical leeches, has its roots traced back to ancient Egypt. During the procedure, these leeches bite and draw blood from the patient, typically lasting from 20 to 45 minutes, with approximately 15 millilitres of blood consumed in that time. 

This alternative therapy is employed to address various conditions, including high blood pressure, varicose veins, haemorrhoids, arthritis, and skin problems. The saliva of leeches contains a potent blend of chemicals that hinder blood clotting, dampen the immune response, and curb inflammation. Additionally, leech saliva may dilate blood vessels, thicken gastric and intestinal juices, and enhance the effectiveness of certain antibiotics. Consequently, hirudotherapy may reduce swelling, lower blood pressure, and provide benefits in cases of atherosclerosis. 

However, it is essential to be aware that using leeches for treatment carries higher risks compared to standard medication therapies. Potential complications include: 

  • The risk of bacterial infections, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria 
  • Post-bite bleeding leading to scarring 
  • Allergic reactions to components of leech saliva 
  • Difficulties in accurately measuring the concentration and ratio of biologically active substances in leech saliva that can affect the predictability of treatment outcomes.  

When considering hirudotherapy, it is crucial to weigh the potential benefits against these possible complications and consult your healthcare professional for informed decision-making. 


Aromatherapy, an alternative medical practice utilised in ancient China and Egypt, harnesses essential oils from plants for diverse applications: 

  • Inhalation through inhalers and diffusers 
  • Skin application via oils, lotions, and bath salts 
  • Oral administration. 

Aromatherapy finds use in: 

  • Alleviating stress, anxiety, and depression 
  • Enhancing sleep quality 
  • Combating bacterial infections 
  • Easing specific types of pain. 

Studies indicate that aromatherapy can provide relief for certain pains, such as postoperative or postpartum discomfort, but only when used alongside traditional therapies. In general, experts concur that aromatic essential oils can induce relaxation, reduce anxiety, and, when combined with massage, alleviate pain. 

Nonetheless, there is no conclusive evidence supporting aromatherapy as a standalone treatment for diseases. Furthermore, experts caution against potential side effects, such as allergic reactions, skin irritation, poisoning, and liver and kidney damage, especially when essential oils are ingested orally. 

As a final note 

Research indicates that certain alternative medicine methods, like hirudotherapy or herbal medicine, possess a scientific foundation. However, even these practices can become hazardous if administered without expertise or care. 

Conversely, some other practices, such as aromatherapy or traditional Chinese medicines, are either ineffective or potentially harmful. 

In light of this, medical professionals emphasise the importance of seeking a doctor’s advice for any health issues. The most reliable and secure approach involves receiving treatment with scientifically proven products. If you are interested in exploring alternative medicine, it should only be undertaken after consulting a doctor and under their supervision. Prioritising safety and well-being is paramount when considering alternative treatments. 


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