The Popularity of Alternative Medicine in Chattanooga Raises Questions

By Joe Bailey, Features Editor –

After being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder at 18, Susan Fox’s life was changed forever when an acupuncture treatment helped her control her symptoms more than conventional medical treatment ever had. 

This experience inspired her to seek out the necessary qualifications to start her own office in Chattanooga where she now practices Eastern healing techniques such as acupuncture and herbal therapy. 

At Chattanooga’s Hill City Acupuncture and Herbs, Fox has made it her aim to fill in the gaps that western medical traditions leave open. In doing so, she and her contemporaries have inspired curiosity and skepticism from those on the outside. 

“I came into this Medicine literally kicking and screaming,” Fox said. “I was confident that this ‘voo-doo’ magic wouldn’t help me, but at the end of the day, It did. It saved my life. So I definitely feel compassion for the doubters, I was one.”

Fox is one of many in the Chattanooga area who practice what is known in medical circles as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM): a broad term that encompasses everything from chai tea to tai chi. 

While at one point in history, the practices were homogeneous, CAM and conventional medicine diverged in the eyes of Americans during the early to middle 19th century. According to a 2010 article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), CAM practitioners distinguished themselves from more scientifically oriented physicians by using labels like “safe” and “natural” to contrast their cold and clinical counterparts.

The next century saw the two sides in competition, with the more emotional and spiritual option proving appealing to many. However, as the twentieth century progressed, medical advancements, which brought about more effective treatments, started to eclipse CAM’s appeal, and its popularity diminished. 

The past couple of decades have seen a resurgence in this style of treatment. In a 2008 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), it was found that 38% of adults and 12% of children used CAM treatments. The figure for adults rises to 62% if prayer and megavitamin therapy are considered. According to an article by the International Journal of Clinical Practice, 70% of surveyed patients with chronic diseases used some form of CAM, and 90% viewed it as having fewer side effects compared to conventional medicine.  

But why are people coming back to these practices? The NCBI article indicated that the wide variety of information available on the internet has something to do with this shift. Increased exposure to cultures that traditionally used CAM, the proliferation of ideologies like environmentalism, and a general view that natural products are safer and healthier are all factors made more potent by the introduction of the internet. 

Susan Fox also said that people choose CAM because they feel that the medical orthodoxy is more concerned with treating specific diseases rather than their root causes or the overall health of patients. This all-encompassing approach that she eluded to is often referred to as holistic medicine.  

“More people are stepping away from ‘band-aid’ Medicine, or Medicine that just contains symptomology (largely through medication) and are focusing on healing instead,” Fox said. 

Many in the medical and scientific community have expressed doubts about the tangible effects of these types of treatments. Studies have indicated that the primary factor contributing to the success of most CAM treatment is something called the placebo effect: a phenomenon where a patient’s expectations about the effects of a particular treatment coincide with their actual response. 

Take homeopathy: a centuries old CAM practice that deals in water-based concoctions designed to treat particular ailments. A study from the British medical journal Lancet concluded that the medicine itself had no effect outside of placebo after analyzing the results of a placebo-controlled trial. 

A study of type 2 diabetes patients in Bangladesh showed that CAM treatments were ineffective in maintaining good glycemic control and, in some cases, resulted in other negative side effects. In its conclusion, the study’s accompanying article recommended that doctors inform patients of the demonstrated ineffectiveness of these techniques. 

Despite the evidence working against many of them, CAM practices can be found all across Chattanooga. An online list of the 30 best holistic healers in the city only accounts for a fraction of the total number of CAM practitioners. There are at least 20 chiropractors (although the status of chiropractic as a CAM therapy is contested) and 15 acupuncturists in the city as well. 

The NCBI article also made it a point to show that the definition of CAM doesn’t refer to any specific type of technique or medicine, and is more concerned with delineating methodologies. While conventional medicine is more rigorously evidence based than CAM, this distinction does not preclude CAM from sometimes leading to actual effective solutions. The poppy plant, for example, was used for years in the context of alternative medicine, and eventually contributed to the development of drugs like morphine and codeine. As it turns out, about 25% of all modern pharmaceutical products are plant based in some way. And it doesn’t stop at plants. Clinical studies have shown that acupuncture helps with musculoskeletal problems, depression and a variety of other issues. 

While studies seem to contradict many of the anecdotal success stories associated with CAM, accounts like Fox’s leave the door open for novel and sometimes strange treatments to take us by surprise every once in a while.


















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