The Treatment of a Traumatic Brain Injury: Alternative Medicine
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has played a significant role in treating a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Unfortunately, for those who have suffered a TBI, the neurological damage is often permanent.
Understandably frustrated by this prognosis, families have often sought other treatment options for their loved ones. This is where complementary and alternative medicine has played a role.Conventional Medicine
Conventional medicine is defined as medicine typically prescribed by medical doctors. This includes:
- Medicine practiced in the emergency room
- Procedures performed in a hospital setting
- Medicine practiced in the outpatient setting (such as the visits that take place in an office)
Complementary treatments are often paired with conventional medicine, while alternative therapies are commonly used instead of conventional medicine. These therapies have played a significant role in the treatment of:
- Severe pain syndromes
- Management of chronic symptoms
- Treatment of severe suffering, both physical and emotional
Those who have suffered a TBI are often prone to developing symptoms that fit the pattern above. Therefore, complementary and alternative medicine therapies have become more popular. In some research studies, as many as 30-percent of adults have tried CAM therapy at some point.
On the other hand, these therapies, like conventional medical options, do have their risks. It is essential to understand both the benefits and the dangers of these therapies before starting treatment. In some cases, these treatments could interact with conventional medical therapy, leading to a severe reaction.Examples of Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies
Everyone needs to understand a few of the common examples of CAM therapies. Some people might be using CAM therapy and not be aware of this. Some of the most common CAM therapies include:
- Biofeedback includes visual or audio feedback to control certain body functions
- Chiropractic treatment involves joint manipulation, mainly of the spine
- Massage therapy
- Procedures that involve hyperbaric oxygen, which consists of inhaling high concentrations of oxygen
- Herbal supplements
- Supplements used to enhance focus and concentration without a prescription
- Homeopathy uses natural substances as a form of therapy
- Reiki therapy is a touch therapy
- Chinese medicine
- Qigong which is deep, often rhythmic, breathing
It is important to note that many of the medications that conventional medicine uses today were derived from some of the herbs and natural substances used in CAM therapies. The difference is that these ingredients have been refined into forms that are regulated by the FDA. Prescription medications, while derived from the substances above, have been through rigorous clinical trials. These trials have tested both the safety and effectiveness of these prescription medications.
However, many of the therapies above have no regulation but could interact with the conventional treatment plan of a TBI. Therefore, those who are using one or more of the therapies above should:
- Discuss all of this with your doctor so that a trained medical provider can ensure that no dangerous interactions will take place.
- Not start any CAM treatment without the supervision of a trained professional.
- Be aware of the potential side effects of all CAM treatments and visit a medical provider if any new symptoms arise.
Like conventional medical treatments, some CAM treatments carry more risks than others.Common Herbs and Natural Supplements Used in CAM Treatments
There are several commonly used herbs that people might discover when researching CAM treatments. All of these carry risks when combined with common conventional medications. These include:
- John’s Wort: This herb can lead to severe light sensitivity when combined with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
- Gingko: This herb can lead to dangerous brain bleeds, including subdural hematomas and subarachnoid hemorrhages if used in an uncontrolled fashion.
- Kava: Kava can lead to severe movement disorders, including painful muscle contractions called dystonias combined with a benzodiazepine such as Klonopin or Xanax.
- Ginseng: This popular herb can have dangerous interactions with Digoxin and Warfarin, potentially leading to mania.
- Valerian: This supplement is well-known for causing severe headaches if used for too long.
- Yohimbine: This supplement can lead to severe respiratory distress if combined with diuretics or antipsychotic medications.
These reactions can be severe and even life-threatening. It is vital to keep your physician informed if you are using any of these. Your doctor can identify potentially dangerous interactions between your conventional and CAM medications.Approaching CAM Therapies with Individuals Suffering a TBI
Ultimately, since many of these CAM therapies have not been well-studied, the evidence behind them is limited. Of the CAM therapies that have been studied, the evidence, overall, is weak. Few of the CAM therapies have shown any real benefit to individuals suffering from a TBI. In the end, the damage to the neurons of the brain is still permanent. Once the motor and sensory functions have been lost, they are typically gone forever.
On the other hand, medical providers still need to take a severe approach to try CAM therapies. Some of the most critical points to remember include:
- Taking a History: Many patients will not reveal that they are using CAM therapy unless asked directly. Therefore, take the time to gather information on the use of these therapies during the visit. Overlooking a CAM therapy when prescribing a medication could lead to a dangerous interaction.
- Non-Judgmental: Patients who are trying CAM therapy should feel safe to reveal this to their doctor. Medical providers should not be judgmental towards individuals for seeking an alternative that might improve their quality of life. Doctors need to assist individuals in making safe decisions regarding CAM therapy.
- Consider the TBI: Remember that some individuals who suffer from a TBI could have issues with judgment and decision-making. Typical examples are individuals with frontal lobe damage. If concerns about the individual’s capacity to make tough decisions are present, make sure to involve the entire family.
Suffering following a TBI can be tremendous. It is this suffering that might prompt you to seek out assistance from complementary and alternative medicine. Some of these therapies can have dangerous interactions with conventional medical therapies. Open communications between you and your doctor can help you try CAM therapies safely.
The following video from Mayo Clinic Radio discusses complementary pain management therapies.
Editor's Note: This page has been updated for accuracy and relevancy. [cha 5.6.21]
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