Traditional Medicine

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Traditional Medicine medicine or treatment based on traditional uses of plants, animals or their products, other natural substances (including some inorganic chemicals), religious verses, cultural practices, and physical manipulations including torture. As this system of medicine has been in use almost unchanged generation after generation throughout the ages for the treatment of various physical and psychological diseases, it is called traditional. Most of the times, the type, preparation, and uses of traditional medicines are largely influenced by folklore customs and the cultural habits, social practices, religious beliefs and, in many cases, superstitions of the people who prescribe or use them.

The earliest mention of traditional medicine is found in Rigveda, the oldest repository of knowledge in this subcontinent. Later Ayurveda, developed from the Vedic concept of life, became the important source of all systems of medical sciences. In course of time it became a part of culture and heritage of the people of the Indian subcontinent.

Traditional medicine includes not only medicinal substances of natural origin but also items like magic, charms, incantations, religious verses, spiritual methods, amulets, sacrifices, folklore customs, and even physical and mental tortures. For these reasons, the forms of traditional medicine practised today vary from highly organised and long established Chinese, Ayurvedic and Unani systems to various Folk medical practices, such as herbalism, spiritualism, and religious medical practices. Because of their origin in the remote past and the fact that most of them are still practised almost in the same way as in the past maintaining the tradition, they are collectively called Traditional medicine. The basic principle involved in traditional medicine is that it strives to treat the whole person rather than his isolated parts and thinks of him in relation to his emotional sphere and physical environment.

As mentioned above, traditional medicine involves the use of both material and non-material components. The material components invariably comprise parts or organs of plants and their products. They also consist of animal organs, minerals and other natural substances. The non-material components, which constitute important items of religious and spiritual medicines, include torture, charms, magic, incantations, religious verses, amulets and rituals like sacrifices, appeasement of evil spirits, etc.

Diagnosis of diseases in traditional medicine, particularly in the older forms, is based mainly on physical and psychological symptoms. The symptoms are determined (a) by directly questioning the patient, (b) from the patient's description of the ailment, (c) through observation of the patient for any gross abnormality in his posture or breathing or body temperature or any change in his eating habit or social behaviour, (d) by delving into the patient's past life and his family history, (e) by organoleptic examinations of the patient's eyes, skin, urine, stool, and vomits, (f) by communication with the spirits or supernatural creatures through a trance, (g) by the use of astronomical signs and mind changing drugs, and also (h) by analysing any recurring dreams of the patient.

Treatments in traditional medicine are carried out by internal and external application of medicaments, physical manipulation of various parts of the body, performing rituals, psychological treatment, and also by minor surgery.

The medicinal preparations of traditional medicine are usually multicomponental, which are dispensed in various dosage forms such as liquids (eg, infusions, decoctions, elixirs and tinctures), semi-solids (eg, pastes, creams and ointments), solids (eg, whole or powdered plant parts, pills and tablets), and gases (eg, incense, fumigants and inhalants). Most of these preparations are given orally or applied externally on the affected parts of the body. Some medicinal agents for specific purposes are also applied internally through the anus and vagina or by making cuts and injuries on the body or inhaled through the nose and mouth in the form of smoke or steam-absorbed gas. However, intravenous application of drugs is absent in traditional medicine. In addition to treatment by administering medicaments, other methods like therapeutic fasting and dieting, hydrotherapy (bath, massage and compression with cold or hot water), heat therapy including cauterization, blood-letting, bone-setting, spinal manipulation, massage, psychotherapy, and spiritual or faith healing are commonly used in traditional medicine.

Some of the older forms of traditional medicines, particularly the religious, spiritual and folkloric ones, are still used in many developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America including Bangladesh. But they are not officially recognized as scientific medicines or methods of treatment. However, the modern types of traditional medicine, namely, the Ayurvedic and Unani medicines are now officially recognized in Bangladesh as they have undergone tremendous modernization in the country over the years. They are now practised side by side with modern allopathic medicine as an alternative and supplementary system of medicine in Bangladesh. Medicinal products of the Unani and Ayurvedic systems in Bangladesh are now prepared by using both indigenous and modern pharmaceutical technology under strict quality control measures. These medicinal products are dispensed as broken pieces or coarse and fine powders, pills of different sizes, in the form of compressed tablets, as liquid preparations, as semi-solid masses and in the form of creams and ointments neatly packed in appropriate sachets, packets, aluminum foils, plastic or metallic containers and glass bottles. The containers are fully labeled with indications/contra-indications, doses and directions for use and storage.

Ayurvedic medicinal preparations consist mainly of plant materials in the form of powders, semi-solid preparations, decoctions, elixirs and distillates. Many of them also contain inorganic chemical substances, minerals and animal products. Alcoholic extracts and alcoholic solutions of the ingredients, tinctures and elixirs are also frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine.

Whole plants or their powders or pastes or products and their extracts, infusions, decoctions and distillates constitute the major constituents of Unani medicine. Minerals, inorganic chemicals and animal products are also frequently used in preparing these medicines. However, tinctures or elixirs (which are alcoholic preparations) are not used in Unani medicine.

There are about two dozens registered herbal pharmaceuticals in Bangladesh. Of which about four big pharmaceuticals (Sadhana, Sakhti, Kundeswari and Hamdard) are now producing more than 80 percent of the traditional remedies. Almost in every market there exists at least a medicine shop trading traditional medical products. All these are controlled by Bangladesh Unani and Ayurvedic Board.

Both the Ayurvedic and Unani systems of traditional health care have firm roots in Bangladesh and are widely practised all over the country. Traditional medicine plays a very important role in Bangladesh, particularly at the primary health care level, as an estimated 70 to 75% people of the country still use traditional medicine for management of their health problems. [Abdul Ghani and Mostafa Kamal Pasha]

See also hamdard; healthcare system.