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Alternative medicines & brain injury

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Alternative medicines & brain injury

People often turn to alternative medicines as an answer to issues created by a brain injury.

Alternative medicine is exactly that: an alternative to conventional medicine. It is also referred to as 'complementary medicine' and 'alternative therapies'.


While conventional medicine is supported by scientists and a rigorous evidence-based approach, alternative medicine is not endorsed in the same way. In some cases, these alternative therapies have existed in other cultures for long periods of time. There are other instances where a particular person will state an alternative medicine works for various illnesses and develop a following. 


People may try alternative medicines 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 remedies. 


Many treatments once classed as alternative are now mainstream e.g. putting moldy bread on wounds eventually led to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin. However, this does not necessarily mean that all alternative medicines work. Of course, not all prescription medications work either, but the research should give a clear indication of how likely it is to work or have side effects. 


Can alternative medicines be proven to 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, that still leaves alternative medicines where research is lacking because the therapy is new and there simply has not been time to accumulate reasonable evidence.


Potential pitfalls

It is important to advise the therapist of any existing contraindications (existing medical conditions that may affect the therapy). Some therapies may be harmful if performed under certain circumstances (e.g. massage when you have high blood pressure; ingesting certain herbs when you're pregnant). This is why it is also important to choose a therapist who is accredited in their field - as they will understand what the particular contraindications to their therapy are.


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. It can have severe interactions with a wide range of prescription medications, including antidepressants and the contraceptive pill, and its usage should be discussed with your doctor.


Do your research

As with prescription medications, do your research. Alternative medicines are not always regulated by the same legislative controls, and there may not be minimum standards of qualification required for the practitioners. 


Do your own research on the topic (Google Scholar can be quite useful here) and look for published research (in literary journals), rather than generic webpages. See to evaluate them using evidence-based practice.


Evidence-based practice

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


Validity  - Is the supporting evidence unbiased, performed by knowledgeable researchers and published in a well-respected journal? E.g. 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.


References and further information


  • Brain Injury Resource Foundation: Alternative Medicine: An Overview:
  • Evidence Based Medicine on Wikipedia:
  • Health Insite (Australian). An Australian Government Initiative, Health Insite acts as a portal to reliable health information, including a section on brain injury
  • Media Doctor Australia: Using the tagline "improving the accuracy of medical news reporting", Media Doctor Australia examines medical reports in mainstream news media, including daily papers, and ranks each article as "Satisfactory" or "Not Satisfactory" on several criteria. If you see a news item on a treatment that sounds good, check here to see what the experts think about the story. You might need to wait a week or so for the analysis to appear.
  • Quackwatch (USA) - Quackwatch is a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people without specialist education stay informed of fraudulent, unsupported or manipulative health claims.
  • National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (US): Run by the National Institutes of Health, NCCAM is a resource for current scientific evidence and medical thinking on complementary and alternative medicines.
  • National Council Against Health Fraud (USA) - Affiliated with Quackwatch, the NCAHF has the same goal and adds to the wealth of information available.
  • World Health Organisation: Traditional Medicine:



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