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Reconsidering How We Evaluate Nontraditional Therapies

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Hanlon

The National Institutes of Health comprises 27 institutes, all of which deal with specific disease conditions and general health. There is no institute for chronic pain, however, there is the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).


Malcolm Herman

Director, National Coalition of Chronic Pain Providers and Professionals (NCCPPP) – A program of U.S. Pain Foundation

NCCIH is currently finalizing its five-year plan,


To many of us, there is a fair amount of irony in these goals, since numerous medical providers and advocacy organizations, including U.S. Pain Foundation, have been promoting a similar vision for as long as we can remember. The immediate reaction is, therefore, “Better late than never, but how long is the next phase going to take?”


NCCIH is fully aware of the countless impediments to the implementation of its goals (e.g., access, affordability, healthcare disparities), but it does not consider two fundamental questions. 

First, isn’t there a basic contradiction inherent in the study of complementary approaches based on treatment of the whole body with the same scientific techniques traditionally used to study the effectiveness of traditional medications or treatments (e.g., physical therapy for sciatica, surgery for low back pain, NSAIDS for fibromyalgia)? 

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The draft five-year plan states interventions like meditation and acupuncture affect the central mechanism of pain perception and processing, and it goes on to discuss the “scientifically plausible mechanisms” for these interventions. However, many of these interventions are rooted in essentially Eastern philosophies of medicine. They are known to be effective in Eastern medicine, but now we are attempting to analyze them by employing the standard techniques used for studies of Western remedies, namely seeking “scientifically plausible mechanisms.” 

Second, are we attempting to analyze whole-body treatments using the traditional techniques, which the NCCIH acknowledges are designed for the analysis of separate organ systems? For example, in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is considered to balance the flow of energy or life force flowing through pathways (meridians) in the body, with the goal of rebalancing the energy flow. 

Similarly, traditional mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Buddhism includes a journey toward enlightenment, which encompasses attention, awareness, and being present. Is it appropriate to assess these holistic systems using western technology, such as fMRI machines or pain scales? 


Westernization of Eastern medicine

Over the past few years, Western cultures have adapted such treatments to the Western taste. For example, licensed acupuncturists undergo rigorous education and fieldwork, but there are also practitioners of acupuncture who undergo brief courses and acquire minimal education in the holistic elements of the treatment, regarding it more as the mechanical insertion of needles. 

There are practitioners of mindfulness who essentially employ it as a relaxation technique (e.g., artistic mindfulness, interpersonal mindfulness, forest mindfulness). Similarly, yoga is frequently presented as just another exercise program with all sorts of Western adaptations (prenatal yoga, sweat yoga, and even goat yoga).  

Such adaptations may provide an element of pain relief, and the placebo effect is not to be discounted, but they are a long distance away from the original, holistic healthcare approaches that are so successful in Eastern culture.

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The westernization of Eastern medicine into easily marketable packages runs counter to the NCCIH’s definition of “integrative health” as the treatment of the whole person as opposed to separate organ systems. This raises the question: Are we attempting to analyze a three-dimensional treatment through a one-dimensional lens?

As NCCIH moves forward with its draft five-year plan, I hope there will be more acceptance that Eastern medicine and its treatments have succeeded because they are holistic and reflect local cultural norms and philosophies of life. They are not “complementary” or “alternative.” 

Unless we educate our medical professionals about the importance of treating the whole body, we will not be able to address the fundamental health issues underlying the prevalence of chronic pain in our society.


This article was previously published by U.S. Pain Foundation.

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