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Is "Traditional" Medicine Alternative?

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What would do if you went see your doctor about a bad back or stomach problem and you were lain down on a bed and had needles stuck in to you? I imagine you'd be rather shocked and puzzled.

This did in fact happen to me recently. Not at my doctor's office obviously. I was seeing a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, but I was just as puzzled and slightly scared.

Like many people, I had preconceptions and reservations about TCM. There were indeed some surprises in store during my session, which I was filming for my new health consumer series. More on the needles and an octopus attack later. First I want to explore the bigger picture and how people view health care.

What exactly makes a medical treatment accepted and trusted by mainstream society? Does it make a difference if a practitioner wears a white coat and gets employed through the health service? Do they need a certificate and letters after their name? Or do we trust someone who has learnt ancient teachings using the laws and patterns of nature?

It's human nature to agree with the majority and follow the crowd, so in North America and most of the Western world, we tend to go to our family doctor if we are ill before seeking the opinion of an alternative practitioner. But what makes something alternative?

It seems where you live has some bearing on that. For example in the Western world, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is viewed as being alternative. In East Asia however, it is regarded as being commonplace with it accounting for an estimated 40 per cent of all health care delivered. When you take that percentage and consider the population of China (roughly 1.3 billion) compared to the world population (roughly 7 billion), that's a lot of people who trust TCM.

So let's take a step back and consider why we seem to trust "new" medicine more than Mother Nature and treatment of symptoms rather than an analysis of their cause. There was a time when our scientific medicine was viewed as a type of witchcraft.

For nearly 2000 years, bloodletting was the most common medical practice performed by doctors. It was used to treat almost every disease and involved bleeding a patient by puncturing an artery in the forearm or the neck. Barbers rather than physicians used to perform this procedure, which is why we still see red and white poles outside barber shops today. Thankfully it petered out in the late 19th century.

It's easy for us in the 21st century to snigger at our ancestors' attempts at curing illness. Are our ancestors sniggering in their graves as we tackle modern diseases caused by our convenient, man-made and chemically enhanced lives? Who is to say we won't get sniggered at by future generations? Will they laugh at our attempts to cut out, burn and poison cancer?

I'm not for one second criticising the amazing advances we've made in medicine. It is, quite frankly, miraculous what modern medicine does and we must continue to fund research so more cures can be found and causes identified.

What I am doing is questioning why we discard ancient treatments as alternative. Note: I mean treatments that DON'T involve draining your body of blood.

Back to TCM. I was guilty of thinking acupuncture seemed like a silly thing to do. How can tiny needles in your skin and muscles do anything other than cause pain? After one session I had to eat my words. I don't like needles, but I would be happy to have one stuck between my eyes every day. Experiencing is believing, and I felt quite incredible after my session. I then discovered the World Health Organisation has compiled a list of disorders which acupuncture can have an affect on -- depression, arthritis and back pain, to name a few. It's not for everyone, particularly those with certain conditions, and you might need a course of sessions, conducted by trained health professionals. It's certainly worth a try though.

I mentioned an octopus attack earlier. I was referring to cupping which Gwyneth Paltrow made famous. It was my TCM practitioner who actually said I looked like I'd been attacked by an octopus. It looks bizarre and feels even weirder as small glass cups heated by s flame get stuck to your body. It's like a reverse massage because your skin and muscles get sucked away from the body. This treatment I found just plain old relaxing.

I don't claim to have any idea how TCM works and there is far more to it than acupuncture and cupping. Now, I want to find out more. Which make me think, what on earth does that small pill do in my body when I have a headache?

Isla Traquair is an investigative journalist and host of buy.o.logic on OWN Canada Tuesdays 9.30pm ET/6.30pm PT Repeats Sundays 1:30pm & 6:30pm ET/10:30am & 3:30pm PT

www.oprah.com/buyologic