Alternative Therapies for Palliative Care: Exploring Holistic Health Approaches

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Feb 24, 2023
Last updated:
May 21, 2024

Starting a chat about palliative care might feel like stepping into unknown territory. But what's the heart of it all? It's about putting patients first and showing heaps of compassion. Palliative care is all about easing pain and making life better for anyone facing severe illnesses that can't be fixed. It's like wrapping them in support and making sure they're as comfy as can be as they deal with their illness.

This special care can benefit various conditions, from body aches to depression, chronic pain, discomfort and even sleep. The key is making sure each person gets the care that's just right for them. With the correct info, patients can make choices that really suit them.

Let's dive into how specific treatments can help those going through palliative care and really change their day-to-day.

What is Palliative Care?

Understanding palliative care is crucial for anyone dealing with a serious illness. It's a special kind of medical care all about boosting the quality of life for those with life-limiting or terminal illnesses. The goal? To ease pain and other challenging symptoms while caring for patients' physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.

Many healthcare professionals, from doctors to nurses, can offer palliative care. It works alongside treatments like chemotherapy and is available at any stage of a severe illness to help people feel better overall. Moving from active treatment to palliative care might feel challenging, but patients and their families can lean on their healthcare team for support and find the right treatments for their unique situation.

Conditions Suitable for Palliative Care

Palliative care helps those dealing with a bunch of different conditions, no matter their age. Some common ones include:

  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • HIV/AIDS

Palliative care isn't just for the final stages of illness—it's there to support people right from the start. Imagine it as a helping hand offered when someone gets diagnosed with a severe disease. It's like having a friend by your side through all the stages of your journey.

From the moment you hear the news, palliative care offers comfort and relief. It's not about giving up hope; it's about making every moment as comfortable and meaningful as possible. Some might need palliative care for a short while, while others may benefit from it for a longer period. No matter the duration, the goal remains the same: to help you feel better and manage symptoms so you can focus on what truly matters to you.

Symptoms Treated

Palliative care is about making you feel better when dealing with challenging illnesses. Here are some symptoms palliative care can help with:

  • Pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty breathing

Different treatments, like medicine and other therapies, help ease these symptoms. Everything done is based on what works best so you can feel better and keep doing the things you love. And remember, keep track of how you're feeling and talk to your healthcare team about any changes you notice. They're here to help you every step of the way.

Palliative Care By The Numbers

Palliative care touches the lives of many, providing comfort and support to those facing serious illnesses. Let's take a closer look at who is impacted by palliative care:

Hospital Patients: In 2021–22, there were 94,800 palliative care-related hospitalisations in public and private hospitals. More than half of these patients were males, with an average age of 75 at admission. For every 10,000 people, around 20 hospitalisations were for primary palliative care, and 17 were for other palliative care needs. 

Aged Care: Around 4,800 older Aussies, about 2% of those in aged care, needed palliative care in 2021–22. About 59% were aged 85 and over.

Diagnoses: About 40% of palliative care hospitalisations had a principal diagnosis of cancer. Many patients dealing with cancer benefit from palliative care, along with those facing other serious illnesses. 21% of those in aged care palliative care had cancer listed as their main issue, compared to just 3.7% for others.

Length of Stay: The average length of stay for palliative care patients was almost twice as long as for all overnight hospitalisations, showing the significant support needed during this time—fortunately, half of those needing palliative aged care left within eight weeks of moving in.

Palliative Medicine Services: In 2021–22, 14,500 people received 69,100 palliative medicine attendance and case conference services. These services primarily supported people aged 65 and over, with an average of 4.8 services per person annually. Most of these services were provided in consulting rooms or hospitals, ensuring access to care where it's needed most.

Prescriptions: 1.3 million palliative care-related prescriptions were provided to 453,300 people in 2021–22. 

Addressing Pain Relief in Palliative Care

Pain relief is a cornerstone of palliative care, ensuring that patients find comfort and tranquillity amidst the challenges of serious illness. In Australia, pain relief prescriptions may include various medications such as opioids (e.g., morphine, oxycodone), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and adjuvant medications like antidepressants and anticonvulsants. These medications aim to alleviate pain for individuals facing serious illness. 

Let's explore the landscape of pain management in palliative care using the following statistics:

  • Pain Relief Prescriptions: In 2021–22, a substantial 1 million prescriptions were dedicated to pain relief, comprising 79% of all palliative care-related prescriptions. These prescriptions encompass a range of medications tailored to alleviate pain and enhance patients' overall wellbeing.
  • Prescribing Practices: General practitioners are pivotal in palliative care, prescribing 9 in 10 (89%) palliative care-related prescriptions. 
  • Trends in Prescription Rates: Despite an overall decline in the number of people dispensed with palliative care-related prescriptions by 18% between 2017–18 and 2021–22, there has been relative stability in the number of palliative care-related prescriptions over this period. This consistency has increased the number of prescriptions per person from 2.1 to 2.8, showcasing ongoing efforts to ensure adequate pain relief for palliative care patients.

Alongside conventional pain relief medications, alternative treatment modalities such as massage therapy, acupuncture, and mindfulness practices may also complement pain management strategies in palliative care, offering patients a holistic approach to symptom relief and comfort.

Treatment Modalities in Palliative Care

Palliative care can occur in different places, such as at home, in a hospital, or at a hospice. Usually, a team of healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, social workers, and counsellors, works together to plan and provide this kind of care.

Pain Management

To ease pain, doctors often prescribe strong painkillers like opioids or NSAIDs. But lately, people are also looking into other ways to manage pain, like using specific herbal remedies.

Massage and Touch Therapy

Massage and touch therapy are common in palliative care. Specially trained massage therapists can give massages to help with muscle pain and spasms. These therapies offer human connection and comfort, which can mean a lot to someone dealing with a severe illness.

Counselling and Psychological Support

Having someone to talk to is crucial in palliative care. Dealing with a life-limiting illness can be challenging, and skilled counsellors can help patients and their families handle the emotions that come with it.

Nutritional Support

Maintaining a healthy diet can be challenging for many people in palliative care. Symptoms like loss of appetite or difficulty swallowing can get in the way. However, dietitians or nutritionists can help patients develop eating plans that fit their needs and ensure they get the nutrition they need.

Harnessing Technology

As technology advances, so does its role in palliative care. Healthcare providers are finding creative ways to deliver therapies from a distance. Take virtual reality (VR) therapy, for example. It transports patients to calming environments, reducing pain and stress without them having to leave their beds.

Mind-Body Connection

More and more, we're seeing the power of connecting the mind and body in palliative care. Practices like mindfulness and yoga therapy are gaining popularity for their ability to help patients cope with symptoms and emotional distress. By focusing on both mental and physical wellbeing, these therapies provide valuable tools for navigating challenging times.

Healing through Art and Music

Art and music therapy are increasingly recognised for their healing properties in palliative care. These creative outlets allow patients to express themselves, process emotions, and find comfort during challenging moments. Whether painting a picture or listening to soothing melodies, these therapies can significantly improve overall quality of life.

Natural Remedies

Nature has its way of offering relief from symptoms. Herbal remedies and plant-based supplements are being explored for their potential to manage pain, nausea, and insomnia. From herbal teas to botanical extracts, these gentle alternatives provide comfort and relief without the side effects of traditional medications. Evidence is emerging that specific plant-based medicines could help alleviate pain associated with life-limiting illnesses such as cancer pain, spasticity, neuropathic and visceral pain.

Energy-Based Therapies

Energy-based therapies like Reiki and therapeutic touch are gaining acceptance as complementary approaches to palliative care. By balancing the body's energy systems, these therapies promote relaxation and peace, offering patients a sense of comfort amidst their illness.

These emerging trends promise to improve the lives of those in palliative care, offering new avenues for symptom management and holistic support.

Addressing Potential Concerns

While alternative therapies can be helpful in palliative care, it's essential to consider potential concerns or issues patients and healthcare providers might face. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Access and Affordability
  • Safety and Regulation
  • Integration with Conventional Care
  • Evidence Base and Efficacy
  • Patient Preferences and Values

We’re All Unique

In palliative care, respecting each person's beliefs, values, and culture is vital. Our individual backgrounds shape how we think about treatment. Healthcare teams should have open chats with patients to really understand where they're coming from.

Different cultures have different ideas about healing and spirituality. Some might prefer traditional methods or rituals. By learning about these beliefs, providers can tailor treatments to suit each person, creating trust and teamwork and leading to better results for everyone involved.

Coping with Death in Palliative Care

Talking about the end of life and dealing with death are essential parts of palliative care. Healthcare providers support patients and their families, focusing on dignity, comfort, and respect during this time. Open conversations, emotional help, and spiritual guidance can make it easier for both patients and their loved ones to prepare for and handle the reality of death.

Euthanasia, Voluntary Assisted Dying Laws in Australia

In Australia, voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws offer a choice for people facing severe medical conditions causing unbearable suffering. Currently, VAD is legal in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia, each state with specific rules for who can access this option. Patients considering VAD should talk to their healthcare provider for detailed information and advice about their options and what's required by the law where they live.

Complementary Therapies in Palliative Care

Palliative care is like a warm hug in healthcare. It is all about making people comfy, keeping their dignity intact, and making every day a bit better for those facing serious illnesses.

By combining different treatments, those with life-limiting or terminal conditions can find relief from their most challenging symptoms. Palliative care is all about giving a helping hand and a listening ear, offering hope and comfort to patients and their families through the rough patches.

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