Back to top

People often turn to complementary therapies and alternative medicines to assist with some of the issues created by a brain injury.

In addition to the traditional rehabilitation therapies discussed earlier, some people have found benefit in therapies such as, craniosacral therapy, massage, acupuncture, biofield therapies, hyperbaric oxygen treatment and naturopathic medicines. Anecdotally, these types of approaches have been found to be successful for some when applied to ease the more intractable impacts of brain injury, such as chronic pain, sleeplessness, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Complementary therapies should never be used as an alternative to conventional treatment, and care should be taken when using therapies that have not been proven to be safe or effective. Always check with your health care professional, particularly in the case of alternative medicines, as there may be adverse reactions with prescribed medication.

People may try alternative medicine for various reasons, including:

  • Prescribed medications have no effect
  • The side effects of prescribed medication outweigh the benefits
  • An aversion to drugs and preference for more natural

Do alternative medicines work?

This is a common and, at times, fiery debate. Prescription medicines have undergone a rigorous process to determine if they will work, how likely they are to work and what the side effects will be. In contrast, alternative medicines tend to rely more on anecdotal evidence and claims that are tested to a much lesser degree, if at all. Generally, if an alternative medicine works, eventually the active compound will be found, isolated, tested then produced by pharmaceutical companies. However, there may be potentially effective alternative medicines for which evidence is lacking simply because the therapy is new and the evidence base is yet to be established.

Potential pitfalls

It is important to advise the therapist of any existing medications and conditions in case of contraindications (a situation where a medicine/therapy is known to react adversely with a condition or another medicine). Some therapies may be harmful if performed under certain circumstances (e.g. massage when you have high blood pressure; ingesting certain herbs while pregnant). It is therefore important to choose a therapist who is accredited

in their field. Some alternative medicines may interact quite badly with prescription medicines; a good example of this is St John’s wort (hypericum perforatum), a common and widely used herbal antidepressant, which can have severe interactions with a wide range of prescription medications, including antidepressants and the contraceptive pill. Usage should be discussed with your doctor.

Find quality evidence

As with prescription medications, do your research. Complementary therapies are not always regulated by the same legislative controls, and there may not be minimum standards of qualification required for practitioners. Do your own homework on the topic (google scholar can be quite useful here) and look for published research (in literary journals), rather than generic webpages.

Evidence-based practice

This approach asks four questions about the data supporting each medicine, practice, procedure, or therapy to help decide if they are trustworthy.

Validity – is the supporting evidence unbiased, performed by knowledgeable researchers and published in a well- respected journal? For example, internet claims that bee stings improve memory could be doubtful.

Importance – (significant difference/benefit) – do the results outweigh the risks? E.g. The bee sting medicine was “studied” in only two patients, caused an allergic reaction in one, improved attention span for only 30 minutes in the second person, but they were in pain.

Applicability – is the treatment performed easily, available to most people, medically possible, and cost- effective? E.g. Is it convenient for a person to transport their own bees around to sting them three times a day?

Purpose – does it do what it should, and for most people?

E.g. The bee sting approach should be tested across a broad range of people.

By assessing each approach on its own merits, and thoroughly examining potential risks in conjunction with your doctor, you can decide whether a specific complementary therapy or course of treatment is for you.