Holistic. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days. Many folks want to try whatever they believe to be holistic, or natural, to solve their aches and pains.
And for good reason.
Many of us are fed up with poor care from the traditional medical field.
From long waits and short visits to rude interactions with the physician and staff.
Then there is the narrow treatment perspective, focused on pharmacology and surgery. These options are typically expensive and invasive, and it’s completely normal to worry about the impact of these interventions on our health.
You should be worried about and question the physician’s recommendations that you take pills and undergo surgery.
These aren’t as casual and harmless as they are often presented to be, and more often than is admitted, are completely unjustified.
But are holistic interventions the answer to solve our epidemic of musculoskeletal pain?
Holistic and “natural”
Holistic gets its origins from the Greek word “holos,” which not surprisingly means “whole.”
Holism was originally created to refer to seeing nature and the world around us as a great whole of systems working together.
The medicine world adopted the word to refer to treating people with the perspective of treating the whole body rather than focusing just on one part or symptom.
These days we often associate holistic medicine with being natural. Basically, using minimally invasive and non-pharmacological interventions to relieve stress and hopefully pain as well.
And that’s really what people want. They want their pain to be gone, and they want to do it the most natural way.
Why the obsession with what is perceived as natural? Because they hope that this comes with the least risk for adverse reactions and hopefully the best chance for long-term healing.
Where holistic AND traditional medicine fall short
It has become a bit of a fad these days to present oneself as a holistic or natural practitioner that can provide healing remedies.
The type of practices advertising such natural healing may include acupuncture, reiki, massage, aromatherapy, cryotherapy, reflexology, yoga, and many more.
Can these professions offer a benefit to our health? Absolutely. Some of these may be a great and even necessary piece in maintaining and improving your overall health and wellbeing.
So here’s what you can tell has been coming and what you’re wanting to read: what’s my beef with these holistic treatments?
My issue with so-called holistic treatments for pain is actually the same big issue I have with the experience you get with your physician these days: no diagnosis.
Most physicians, and most clinicians really, lack the skill to do a thorough exam to determine the cause of your musculoskeletal pain. Thus any treatment they offer is a total guess.
Not an exaggeration.
Holistic practitioners also generally lack the skill to perform a good exam and determine the source of your pain. They may tell you one, but it doesn’t mean they’re anywhere close to the truth.
Holistic treatment can be great for helping you feel good and providing positive gains for your health. But holistic therapies to “treat the whole body” are usually hiding behind the mask of poor diagnostic skill.
A quick analogy and example
Let’s look at a quick analogy to help demonstrate this point.
You’ve been driving a lot and pushing your little sedan to its limits, and it has a habit of breaking down after driving for 40 straight miles. You finally find a local “holistic” mechanic to address your problem.
You tell them about how much you’ve been driving and how it breaks down at 40 miles into any trip.
They explain how your car can do this if it’s overstressed and not maintained well. Makes sense to you. They’ll give it the works and have it running for you!
They change your tires, the oil, the brakes, and the coolant. They even clean everything under the hood and in and around the car. You return to see the car with amazement. It’s never looked so good!
You excitedly pull out and begin your next trip. You’re smiling as you approach 40 miles into your drive and…it breaks down again. How is this possible?
It seems pretty obvious in this example, doesn’t it? The mechanic didn’t know how to figure out what the problem was. So they just treat the whole car to a nice makeover and hope it works.
That kind of work is nice and often needed but you need someone who can identify and eliminate the most pressing pain point: why your car breaks down at 40 miles.
Let’s look at an example that relates to what we’re worried about: human musculoskeletal pain.
If you don’t know how to examine, diagnose, and treat lumbar pain in a 35 yr old female with a history as a competitive dancer, two C-section births, and who now sits at a desk most of the day, you just see a woman who needs some stress relief through massage and aromatherapy.
Makes sense right? She’s stressed, isn’t eating or sleeping great, and she’s stuck in a loud, smelly office all day. A little massage and aromatherapy in a quiet, relaxing room for an hour should do wonders.
And it probably will do wonders and feel great for her. Changing her eating and sleeping habits and finding better ways to relieve stress will also help her health for sure. Those are musts.
Those things alone won’t solve her low back pain that she experiences after she’s been sitting at work for three hours or when she runs for over two miles.
Everyone I see has first tried changing those overall well-being factors before coming to see me. And again, those are great and truly necessary changes to make.
But these changes don’t eliminate specific pain generators just like routine car maintenance is good but doesn’t solve specific engine problems.
A physician telling our friend with low back pain to take some muscle relaxers before work, stop running for exercise, and put heat on her back when she gets home doesn’t help either.
Both holistic and traditional medicine practitioners generally demonstrate poor to zero diagnostic skills. Thus their treatment approach is entirely non-specific and highly likely to fail to treat your specific pain generator.
Your pain demystified
Solving your pain problem is just like solving any problem: first you need to know what the problem is.
You need a skilled clinician who will perform a thorough exam with you. They listen to you, they ask clear clarifying questions, they perform a clinical exam where they actually move you and assess physical signs.
The clinician performs various treatments, then retests your physical exam to assess the effectiveness of the treatments. They thoroughly explain to you their own thought process and demystify the pain you have been experiencing by explaining your specific diagnosis.
(“Knee sprain” or “lumbar strain” or “stress” isn’t a specific diagnosis, though that doesn’t stop professionals from trying to convince you that it is.)
They give you a simple but specific home plan and predict a timeline for what your recovery should look like. They follow up regularly and seek specific and direct feedback from you to assess your progress.
In the end, the clinician helped you learn exactly what was causing your pain. They empowered you to solve the problem on your own without having to come into their clinic time and again, and you got out of pain fast!
That’s how you know you are in the hands of an expert clinician who understands how to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal pain.
Truly natural therapy
Again, holistic therapies can be fun and can be nice for generally improving your mental and physical well-being.
But when you need to target and eliminate a specific musculoskeletal pain, you need a professional who can target and eliminate the actual problem.
The beautiful part about someone who truly understands the body is that they will empower you to make the necessary changes that lead to healing.
The body is incredible at healing itself, but we often need to make some movement and behavioral changes to allow the body to do its healing work. That’s where an expert clinician can provide the guidance you need.
There’s nothing more natural or truly holistic than empowering the body to do the healing on its own.