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What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine is a comprehensive approach to health care that considers the whole person, addressing physical, mental, and environmental influences that affect a person’s health. Treatments can include conventional Western medicine practices as well as other therapies such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, massage, chiropractic or adjustments to diet and exercise.

Through personalizing care, integrative medicine goes beyond the treatment of symptoms to address all the causes of an illness. It is not the same as alternative medicine, which refers to an approach that is used in place of conventional therapies.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is a federal agency dedicated to studying practices and products that are outside of conventional medicine. That agency, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, offers training for researchers, maintains a database of herbs and funds scientific research on integrative medicine.

What is Veterinary Integrative Medicine?

A bear injured in the Carr Fire receives acupunture from UC Davis veterinarians.
A bear burned in the Carr Fire receives acupuncture from veterinarians. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Similarly, veterinary integrative medicine is a comprehensive approach to pet care that focuses on treating the whole animal. 

When a bear cub was found near the Carr Fire with burns to her paws, Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, didn't just give her pharmaceutical painkillers.

Jamie Peyton of UC Davis uses cold laser therapy to ease a bear's pain.
Jamie Peyton and other veterinarians used cold laser therapy on the paws of a bear who was injured in the Carr Fire. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Peyton used acupuncture, cold laser treatments and her own honey-based salve to ease the animal’s pain. She also covered the bear’s paws with sterilized fish skin, which helped the wounds heal faster. Peyton is a strong proponent of veterinary integrative medicine. The goal is to utilize all the treatment tools to maximize the benefits and minimize potential side effects. It also focuses on well-being at all stages of life from prevention of disease to treatment. 

Veterinary integrative medicine has a prominent role at UC Davis, where the Integrative Medicine Service has a 1,000 square-foot space inside the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital with treatment tables, underwater and traditional treadmills and other equipment.

A patient’s care may include a combination of medication or surgery with other complementary therapies. Treatments may include acupuncture, chiropractic, and other methods of interventional pain management, palliative care and physical rehabilitation (which can include rehabilitation following surgery, paralysis rehabilitation, weight loss, and canine athlete injury rehabilitation).

Why Integrative Medicine?

The ultimate goal of integrative medicine is to get the patient better through the use of safe, effective and often less invasive interventions whenever possible. It neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts alternative therapies uncritically. Integrative medicine is based in good science. Alongside conventional treatments, the broader concepts of health promotion and prevention of illness are paramount.

While people turn to integrative medicine for many reasons, studies show that the majority do so because they consider it to be more aligned with their values, beliefs, and philosophies about health and life than a strictly conventional medical approach. Some prefer the customized, personal care that comes with integrative medicine's whole-person perspective.

How and Where to Study Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine is a growing field that has been steadily increasing in academic medical schools through support of groups such as the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine & Health.

There are currently only a few veterinary schools that offer integrative medicine as part of their curriculum, but this is also steadily increasing. Most human and veterinary practitioners are boarded in general medicine and some in specialties such as internal medicine or critical care. These doctors then go on to become certified in other modalities such as acupuncture, chiropractic, nutrition, or herbal therapy.

The UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital offers an internship in equine integrative sports medicine. The one-year program for doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) graduates allows interns to perform traditional diagnostics used for lameness work-ups, but also practice acupuncture, chiropractic, and laser therapy.

Integrative Medicine for Cancer

Integrative medicine is often used to help address side effects experienced during cancer treatment including fatigue, pain, anxiety and nausea. Integrative therapies like acupuncture and massage are proven effective at managing symptoms. Other therapies could include aromatherapy, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, as well as some herbs and dietary supplements.

Integrative Medicine for Pain

Integrative medicine is frequently used to treat pain conditions such as headaches, neck, back and joint pain. With the growing concern over dependence and addiction that can come with prescription opioids, there has been increased interest in integrative medicine strategies to help with chronic pain, which is pain that lasts longer than 3-6 months. Integrative therapies for pain can include meditation, tai chi, yoga, biofeedback, massage, acupuncture and chiropractic.