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38% of U.S. Adults Use Alternative Treatments

Complementary and alternative medicine -- sometimes called CAM -- is an umbrella term for a collection of wide-ranging medical and health care systems, practices and products that aren't generally considered conventional medicine. It includes herbal supplements, meditation, chiropractic treatment and acupuncture.

The question about CAM use is really the same as that for conventional medicine -- is it safe and effective? For CAM, the answer has been mixed. Some remedies have been found to be safe and effective, some are safe and not effective, and others are unsafe.

"If you are going to use CAM, you should always let your conventional [health care] provider know about it," said survey co-author Richard L. Nahin, acting director of the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's division of extramural research.

For the survey, more than 23,300 adults were interviewed about their use of CAM, and, for the first time, more than 9,400 were asked about their children's use of CAM.

The survey found that use of CAM among adults remained about the same from 2002 to 2007, with 36 percent using alternative therapies in 2002 and 38 percent in 2007.

However, use of techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, massage therapy, and yoga increased significantly.

The most common supplements used by adults are fish oil/omega 3/DHA, glucosamine, echinacea, flaxseed oil or pills, and ginseng. The most popular alternative techniques are deep breathing exercises, meditation, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, massage and yoga, the survey found.

Adults use CAM most often to treat pain, including back pain, neck pain or problems, joint pain, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Nahin offered some advice for those looking at CAM for their health needs.

Do your homework first, he said. "It's a little bit 'buyer beware' in buying products and getting information," he added. "Be sure you get reliable information."

Most techniques, such as acupuncture, massage and yoga, are safe, he said. "But herbal supplements may interfere with conventional medications. So let your conventional doctor know, so they can be monitoring you for any unexpected events," he added.

Other findings from the survey showed that more women than men use CAM (42.8 percent versus 33.5 percent), as do older and more educated and wealthier adults, and those living in the west.

Among children, nearly one in nine uses CAM. And, children are five times more likely to use these therapies if a parent or relative uses them.

The most commonly used products by children are echinacea, fish oil/omega 3/DHA, combination herb pill, flaxseed oil or pills, and prebiotics or probiotics (foods containing supplements). A small number of children use chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, deep breathing exercises and yoga.

Therapies were most often used by children to treat back or neck pain, head or chest colds, anxiety or stress, musculoskeletal problems, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the survey.

And CAM use to treat head or chest colds dropped from 9.5 percent in 2002 to 2 percent in 2007, according to the survey.

Mark Blumenthal is founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, an independent, nonprofit research group that says it's dedicated to helping people live healthier lives through the responsible use of herbs and medicinal plants. He said he views the use of CAM is a positive trend.

"People are using these products to enhance wellness," Blumenthal said. "The dietary supplement increase reflects consumer trends toward improving and increasing their sense of wellness and their own self-empowerment with respect to their health."

The increasing use of CAM among children is also positive, Blumenthal added. "Look at children's diets. We are seeing more childhood obesity, we are seeing people who want to give statins to children because of higher cholesterol -- I think that's deplorable," he said.

Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine Prevention Research Center, said people turn to CAM to enhance vitality, and to relieve pain, discomfort or fatigue.

"The continued popularity of CAM highlights the importance of physicians being knowledgeable, because it is here that patients most need expert guidance," he said. "Doctors and patients alike should approach the many offerings of CAM with open-minded skepticism, to take advantage of what is likely to help, and be on guard against what may cause harm."

-Steven Reinberg

More information

To learn more about CAM, visit the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.



SOURCES: Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., MPH, acting director, division of extramural research, U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director, American Botanical Council, Austin, Texas; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., and director, Integrative Medicine Center, Griffin Hospital, Derby, Conn.; Dec. 10, 2008, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults and Children: United States, 2007

Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2008

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