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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine might make you think of pungent herbal teas, chanting, or meditation. In fact, both herbal remedies and meditation, as well as dozens of other treatments, fall under the heading of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Although there is no strict definition of CAM, it generally includes any healing practices that are not part of mainstream medicine — that means any practice that is not widely taught in medical schools or frequently used by doctors or in hospitals.

Both alternative and complementary medicine use the same kinds of remedies to treat health conditions. The difference is that alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medical treatments and therapies. Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional medical treatments and therapies, not as a replacement.

The boundaries of CAM in the United States are constantly changing as different types of care become more accepted by doctors and more requested by patients. A few practices (such as hypnosis) that were dismissed as nonsense 20 years ago are now considered helpful therapies in addition to traditional medicine.

So, are there any complementary health approaches that might be right for your family?

Complementary Health Approaches

In the United States, the lead agency that's charged with scientific research into CAM is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH classifies two general areas of complementary and alternative care:

  1. Natural products include vitamins, minerals, herbs and other botanicals, probiotics, amino acids, and other dietary supplements.

  2. Mind and body practices include a wide variety of procedures and techniques, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, yoga, tai chi and qi gong, meditation, and relaxation techniques.

In addition to these different practices, CAM can refer to different types of medical philosophies. These alternative medical systems are entire fields of theory and practice, and many date back to centuries before the conventional medicine we use in the West today. Examples of alternative medical systems include traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, homeopathic medicine, and naturopathic medicine.

Alternative medical systems incorporate many of the practices listed above into their treatments. For example, the TCM practice of acupuncture may be combined with herbal medicine and qi gong. And Ayurveda includes the mind-body therapies of meditation and yoga, along with the practice of taking specific herbs for health reasons.

Some CAM practices are supported by scientific research, while others have not been fully studied yet. Sometimes experts have scientific evidence that a CAM practice (like acupuncture) works, but they don't have a clear understanding as to why it works.

How CAM Differs From Traditional Medicine

CAM is frequently distinguished by its holistic methods, which means that the doctor or practitioner treats the "whole" person and not just the disease or condition. With CAM, many practitioners also address patients' emotional and spiritual needs. This "high touch" approach differs from the "high tech" practice of traditional medicine, which tends to concentrate on the physical side of an illness.

CAM is starting to make its way into mainstream hospitals and doctors' offices. New centers for integrative medicine offer a mix of traditional and complementary treatments. There, you might receive a prescription for pain medication (as you might get from a traditional health care provider) and massage therapy to treat a chronic back problem. Such centers usually employ both medical doctors and certified or licensed specialists in the various CAM therapies.

Despite the growth of the field, complementary health approaches usually are not covered by medical insurance. This is largely because few scientific studies have been done to prove whether the treatments are effective (unlike traditional medicine, which relies heavily on studies). Rather, most CAM therapies are based on longstanding practice and word-of-mouth stories of success.

What Are the Risks?

The lack of scientific study means that some potential problems associated with CAM therapies may be difficult to identify. What's more, almost all of the studies that have been done involved adults as test subjects; there is little research on the effects of CAM on children. Although approaches such as prayer, massage, and yoga are generally considered safe complements to regular medical treatment, some therapies — particularly herbal remedies and other dietary supplements — might have risks.

Unlike prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, dietary supplements are not rigorously regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They face no extensive tests before they are marketed and they do not have to meet quality standards. That means when you buy an herbal supplement like ginseng you might not know what you're getting: The amount of the ingredient may be more or less than what is stated on the label; the herb may not be the right plant species; or the supplement may be contaminated with other herbs, pesticides, metals, or other ingredients like prescription drugs.

"Natural" does not equal "safe," and many parents don't realize that some supplements can actually cause health problems for their kids. For example, certain herbal supplements can cause high blood pressure, liver damage, or allergic reactions. Talk to your doctor before giving your child any dietary supplement.

Parents might also give their kids much more of an herb than recommended, thinking that because it's natural, higher doses won't hurt. But many plants contain potent chemicals; approximately 25% of all prescription drugs are derived from plants.

Choosing a practitioner can pose another problem. Although many states have licensing boards for specialists in acupuncture or massage, for instance, there is no organization in the United States that monitors alternative care providers or establishes standards of treatment. Basically, almost anyone can claim to be a practitioner, whether he or she has any training.

Perhaps the greatest risk, however, is the potential for people to delay or stop traditional medical treatment in favor of an alternative therapy. Illnesses such as diabetes and cancer require the care of a doctor. Relying entirely on alternative therapies for any serious chronic or acute conditions can jeopardize a child's health.

Can Complementary Approaches Help?

Many parents turn to a cup of chamomile tea or ginger as a way to soothe symptoms of the flu or an upset stomach. Anxious kids can learn to relax with the help of meditation or yoga. Some CAM therapies may be helpful for a child when used to complement traditional care.

If you want to try CAM for your child, talk with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure it is safe and will not conflict with any traditional care your child receives. Your doctor also can give you information about treatment options and perhaps recommend a reputable practitioner.

By coordinating complementary approaches with traditional care, you don't have to choose between them. Instead, you can get the best of both.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: March 2014

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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