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Palliative medicine – alternative therapies

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 217 views

Anyone who receives the diagnosis of an incurable disease usually gets into a psychological emergency and fears an agonizing last phase of life. Many of those affected and their relatives then want to leave no stone unturned and turn to alternative or complementary therapy methods. Read here what is meant by this and what contribution such non-conventional medical procedures can make to alleviating symptoms!  

Palliative care for an incurable, progressive disease places enormous demands on medical professionals, relatives and, above all, those affected . Specialists have the task of providing comprehensive information about the disease and the treatment options and observing ethical limits in therapy. On the other hand, those affected are overcome by fear and powerlessness – especially in the case of diseases that come on suddenly, such as incurable tumor diseases. In addition, the sometimes serious side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy put a strain on both the body and the psyche .

It is therefore understandable that many patients – and often also their relatives – are looking for therapy methods that go beyond “conventional medicine”, i.e. scientifically sound (evidence-based) medicine.

Alternative and complementary therapies

According to the definition, “alternative therapies” should be an alternative to conventional medical treatment. However, there is a lack of verifiable data on their effectiveness in most cases. Forgoing a medically recommended treatment (such as chemotherapy ) and instead relying on an alternative healing method can therefore pose health risks.

However, most patients do not turn away from conventional medicine at all, but rather would like to try other forms of therapy as a supplement. One then speaks of complementary therapies. Their effectiveness is also often not sufficiently scientifically proven. However, many years of good experience with such methods speak in favor of their application.

A combination of classic (conventional medicine) and complementary therapy methods can therefore make sense. Interested patients should definitely talk to their doctor. He can develop a suitable combined treatment concept – if necessary together with a specialist who is not only familiar with conventional medicine but also with complementary medicine. Because although complementary methods are mostly gentle procedures, there can sometimes be a risk of serious side effects.

Alleviate symptoms with complementary therapies

Irrespective of whether the last phase of life occurs due to the patient’s old age or due to a serious illness such as cancer – the most common complaints include exhaustion, nausea and vomiting , inflammation of the oral mucosa, dry mouth , weight loss and pain.

In addition to conventional medical treatment, complementary procedures can be used to alleviate such symptoms (in consultation with the doctor treating you). The following are examples of complementary methods that can be helpful in individual cases:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): Acupuncture, a branch of TCM, helps against pain, insomnia , nausea and vomiting. Qigong , Tai Chi and acupressure also improve the quality of life in some patients.
  • Phytotherapy : Some medicinal plants stimulate the appetite, others soothe inflamed oral mucosa, others again help against weakness, nausea, vomiting, sleep disorders or depressive moods. Attention: Some medicinal herbs can influence the effect of medicines (eg St. John’s wort) or have serious side effects!
  • Mistletoe therapy : Mistletoe-based preparations are often used as an alternative cancer remedy, although an anti-cancer effect has not yet been sufficiently proven. However, the therapy is well tolerated and can reduce cancer-related pain and improve mood and general well-being.
  • Vitamin/Mineral Supplements : Dietary supplements containing vitamins and/or minerals can benefit, but they can also cause harm. For example, selenium can help against inflamed oral mucosa, but in high doses it may increase the risk of cancer. Vitamin C is important for the immune system, among other things. In high doses, however, it can have a negative effect on cancer therapies and thus shorten life expectancy.
  • Homeopathy : Homeopathic preparations are intended to provide relief for various ailments, such as nausea or diarrhea.
  • Ayurveda : Ayurvedic treatments such as oil massages, nutrition or herbal preparations help to strengthen the body and mind.
  • Aromatherapy : Essential oils are used as fragrances, applied to the skin , or inhaled. They stimulate olfactory perception and – depending on the oil selected – can have a calming or activating effect, for example.
  • Movement therapies : Movement helps against exhaustion, lack of appetite, muscle loss, depression or lack of drive. Which type of movement therapy makes sense and to what extent depends on the individual situation of the patient.
  • Laughter therapy: Laughter as therapy can open up reserves of strength, promote emotional and mental abilities and possibly reduce pain. Even without scientific evidence, humor is very healthy in the palliative phase.
  • Art and music therapy : Creativity can help against stressful emotions such as fears. The same goes for music, especially your favorite music. It is perceived by the dying for a very long time and improves their mental state.
  • Ergotherapy and logotherapy : With the help of these therapies, mental and motor reserves can be promoted. The exercises also help against swallowing disorders, an altered sense of taste or malnutrition .
  • Touch therapy : caressing the skin, regular changes in body position, massages or placing objects in the patient’s hands promote well-being, often even during the dying phase.

Beware of promises of salvation

Occasionally, alternative therapies or preparations are offered that promise a complete cure or a drastic improvement in advanced diseases. If, in addition, conventional medical treatment is presented as having little effect and is advised against, caution is advised. Talk to your specialist if you are interested in therapies outside of conventional medicine. He can advise you on complementary procedures that can usefully support your ongoing treatment.

Take away the fear of dying

It is also part of the task of the palliative care physician to inform the patient when conventional medical treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy or long-term ventilation are no longer useful. Medication or gentle therapies then help to alleviate symptoms such as pain or anxiety . Finally, there are the senses of touch, sight, hearing and smell. Gentle caresses, beloved paintings or photographs in sight, pleasant music and natural room fragrances create a dignified setting for dying, which is just as much a part of life as birth.

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