Two Sides of the Same Coin: Traditional vs. Alternative Treatments for Arthritis – by Ashley Boynes-Shuck

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There has been a lot of bickering – and worse yet, a lot of what comes across as hatred – on social networks lately, regarding the use of alternative treatments for arthritis.

The way that I look at it, though, is that those who use alternative treatments and those who use traditional medical treatments for arthritis and similar conditions are two sides of the same coin.

The end goal is the same: we all want to feel better, and so, our goals to get there should be the same, too: we should exhaust every avenue and try every option to reaching that end goal. That being said, what works for each of us may not be the same, and we need to accept that. What other people do shouldn’t have any control or effect over us, in the grand scheme of things.

Certain media outlets and certain organizations will always tout one side or the other. There will always be studies showing that the traditional approach is better, and others claiming that the alternative route is the way to go. Even within each of those schools of thoughts there are things that work, and things that don’t. Even recently, Arthritis Today discussed a study that some, but not all, supplements work for arthritis, and they said that some alternative treatments, including but not limited to, acupuncture, are shown to be effective — in most, but not all, cases.

There’s been a debate lately, too, about an episode of Dr. Oz and an article in the New York Times about a mother whose son’s juvenile arthritis seemingly remissed from first an integrative and then a natural approach. Of course, most people in the medical field think that her story is the exception rather than the rule, and many JA parents were outraged — but I’m still, after much dialogue on the topic, unclear about why. Maybe we could shift our perspectives: why can’t her story, and stories like my own, be a ray of hope, instead of a source of negativity?

It is never irresponsible to share one’s own story, one’s own truth, or one’s own reality. If you aren’t directly encouraging others to do the same, there is no harm done. We all have the right to share what our beliefs are, and we can do so without putting others down. My side of the coin, doesn’t affect your side of the coin, and vice versa. Yes, we’re a part of the same coin, but we should coexist, separate but equal.

I feel like I can voice my opinion on the issue because I have personally been on both sides of the coin. When I was, for 19 years, taking every medication prescribed to me, and not getting any better, I’d often get angry and defensive when people suggested I try an alternative route. “How dare they?” I’d think. “Don’t they understand how serious my condition is?” And I’d laugh them off.

But, when you spend months in and out of the hospital, with heart problems and being tested for cancer and the like, you’ll do anything to get better, and so, I decided that trying a new approach was worth a try. I did it the responsible way: I consulted with all of my medical doctors here in Pittsburgh, and then, I found a reputable translational rheumatologist in Washington, D.C., to help me safely wean off of my meds and who got to the real root of my problem.

Now, I am on a regimen of supplements, nutritional changes, and exercise. I do yoga, acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic. I close my mind to nothing. For me, it’s been a year of trial and error. I’ve taken silver supplements and earthworm protein and electrolyte drinks. I’ve had countless blood tests and scans to monitor my health and my progress.

I now exercise every day and, for lack of a better term, am in remission, and I am back in school to become a holistic health coach and drugless practitioner myself.

NOW…let me say this: I know my story is unique – but so are all of yours. I know that some people never have a side effect from drugs, or a complication or a comorbity along with arthritis. Some people will take their prescriptions and flourish or thrive. My story didn’t look like that, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with me, and it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with the people for whom that approach does work. I know that this approach won’t work for everyone – I am not ignorant to that fact. We are all bioindividually unique, and there is not a one-size-fits all treatment. No two cases of RA or JA look the same, and, even over the course of one’s own lifetime, what works for us may change. We also all have different mindsets. My philosophy is that a positive attitude helps, that meds should be a last line of defense instead of the very first option, that mental and emotional health are as important as physical health, and that food makes a huge difference in the way we feel. But, I would never be so close-minded to say that there isn’t a place for medicine. There is, of course, and I believe there are cases where it may be the only option. It is a God-send for so many people. All I’d like, though, is the same open-mindedness in return. I have been told that I “must not have been as sick” as other rheumatoid arthritis patients if a natural approach worked for me. For anyone who believes that, I will gladly send you my piles and piles of medical records — that accusation simply isn’t true. It is FAR from the truth and doesn’t even resemble my reality.

When I was taking a traditional approach, I felt judged by those who practiced alternative medicine. Now that I do things the holistic way, I feel very judged by those who take a traditional medical approach.

This needs to end – not just for me, but for all of us. Patients and parents shouldn’t feel attacked by others fighting the same exact battle, however they are fighting it. We are all in this together, and me sharing my story, or anyone else sharing theirs, does not mean that they are judging yours – something that it took me a while to learn, and something that I think everyone needs to accept.

If you are quick to get angry and defensive when someone shares an idea or point of view that is different from yours, you should ask yourself why that is. Is it because there is an inkling of you that knows what they are saying could be right? Is it out of fear? Is it frustration due to their ignorance? A few things to consider: fear is normal and natural — these things are very emotionally charged, and changing up your plan of attack is a huge decision that can be risky. Additionally, someone else’s ignorance should not affect your emotions — let it be an occasion to educate them, kindly and respectfully. If you think that, after doing some soul searching, that you are getting defensive because they may be right, maybe start taking baby steps towards educating yourself on their point of view. Again – someone telling their story does not mean that your story is less valid. Someone doing something that was right for them doesn’t mean that what you’re doing for you is, in any way, wrong…unless it is wrong for you. If whatever you are doing – natural or traditional – is not working for you, it is time to re-evaluate your treatment plan. Make sure, no matter what kind of approach you take, that the benefits are outweighing the risks for you. Ask your doctor what other options there are. Just because they suggest something doesn’t mean that you “have” to listen. You can ask for other options, you don’t have to go with the first thing that they say — your health is in your hands — you are in control, and whether that means herbal supplements or biologic infusions, that is a decision that you need to make. Go with your instinct, and don’t compare your experience to others around you – again, we’re all different.

I used to think that, once I tried just about every med possible, to no avail, that there was no other options, but lo and behold, I found that there was a whole other world of options out there. I know, too, that if the natural protocol stops working for me, that there is tons of research going on, all the time, for new ways to treat and maybe someday cure RA. I wouldn’t be totally opposed to going back on a medication if I had to, but, I pray that I won’t have to. I pray that I can keep going the way I am.

But, for me, the fact that there are these two polarizing approaches is a source of hope. It means that there are constantly new options coming out, on both sides of the coin. It means that there is a lot more ground to be covered, a lot of untapped potential, and so many resources that a narrower mind never would have encountered.

It doesn’t mean that one side of the coin is “right” or one is “wrong.” They are just different — and there’s nothing wrong with that!

So, I’m really no one special, but if anyone cares to hear what I have to say, what I would suggest is this:

When reading or hearing about a new treatment or a unique medical approach that’s different from your own, take a moment to pause and think before you criticize. What you may view as ridiculous or harmful or just a bunch of malarkey, may be someone’s lifeline, someone’s source of hope, someone’s inspiration. What may be wrong for you, may be right for them. We’re just different sides of the same coin. The ultimate goal is the same, and that is healing and living well despite whatever illness we’ve been dealt. Their story might not look like yours, but their journey is the same. Be an instrument of peace, and not a source of division. Take a moment to realize that someone else’s belief system doesn’t have to look like your own — this applies in our medical approaches and in so many other areas of life. Realize that someone else’s path, though you may cross it, is really none of your business. It’s freeing to realize that, sometimes, and sometimes minding our own business and thinking before we speak can avoid a lot of dissent, stress, and heartbreak. We should take a moment to reflect: what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if we were on the other side of the coin? How would we react? What would we feel, think, or say? We’re all in this together, but it doesn’t mean that we have to agree. It just means that we have to do the best we can, and help one another along the way, without judgment. So whether you’re taking pills or sipping teas or using healing crystals or infusions or nutrition or injections or patches or aromatherapy or acupuncture or physical therapy or whatever the case may be – just do you, and be kind. That’s my thought for the day!

As always, let’s build each other up, instead of tearing one another down. We’re a team — a team where we all play different positions, so let’s be team players, and think about the end game instead of the plays that will get us there.


In Kindness,

Ashley Boynes-Shuck

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