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How to Evaluate Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Educating yourself about complementary and alternative medicine helps you determine whether its treatments are worth exploring. Follow these suggestions to help you assess the claims.

Complementary and alternative medicine may give you additional treatment options, but while some of those options can help you, others can hurt you. When considering complementary and alternative medicine, steer a middle course between uncritical acceptance and outright rejection. Be open-minded yet skeptical at the same time.

Assess the credentials of anyone who advocates complementary and alternative medicine. Gather information from a variety of sources and evaluate the information carefully. Remember — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Assess your information source

Take a critical look at the information you have. Scammers have perfected ways to convince you their complementary and alternative medicine products are the best. Here's how to weed out the good products from the bad.

Investigate complementary and alternative medicine Web sites

The Internet offers an ideal way to discover the latest in complementary and alternative medicine. Web sites can be updated at any time to keep up with new products, therapies and advances in the field. But beware — the Internet is also one of the greatest sources of misinformation. According to a study in the Sept. 17, 2003, issue of the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” of 433 complementary and alternative medicine Web sites examined, most made misleading or unproven health claims about the herbal remedies they sold.

Investigate carefully each complementary and alternative medicine site you visit. Be sure to:

  • Check out the site sponsor. Web sites created by major medical centers, national organizations, universities and government agencies are the most credible.
  • Determine the site's objective. Is the sponsor trying to educate you or just sell you something? Stay away from sites that don't clearly distinguish between scientific evidence and advertisements.
  • Find out if the information is current. Look for a date. Older material may not include recent findings, such as newly discovered side effects or advances in the field.

Look for words of warning

Certain words and phrases can be warning signs of potentially fraudulent complementary and alternative medicine products. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that you watch out for the following claims or practices:

  • Red flag words.

The advertisements or promotional materials usually include words such as “satisfaction guaranteed,” “miracle cure” or “new discovery.” If the product were in fact a cure, it would be widely reported in the media and your doctor would recommend it.

  • Pseudomedical jargon.

Though terms such as “purify,” “detoxify” and “energize” may sound impressive and may even have an element of truth, they're generally used to cover up a lack of scientific proof. Watch out for these words.

  • Cure-alls.

The manufacturer claims that the product can treat a wide range of symptoms, or cure or prevent a number of diseases. No single product can do all this.

  • Anecdotal evidence.

Testimonials are no substitute for solid scientific documentation. If the product is scientifically sound, the manufacturer will promote the scientific evidence. If you have to search all over the Web site for this evidence or you can't find any evidence at all to back up the manufacturer's claims, be wary of the information.

  • False accusations.

The manufacturer of the product accuses the government or a medical profession of suppressing important information about the product's benefits. Neither the government nor any medical profession has any reason to withhold information that could help people.

Understand scientific studies

If you read about studies in journal articles, assess the quality of the research. Look for words such as “double-blind,” “controlled” and “randomized.” Doctors consider these types of studies to contain the most valuable information. Here are some common terms you'll encounter in research articles:

  • Clinical studies.

These involve studies on human beings — not animals. They generally come after studies that demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of the treatment in animals and in the lab. Studies done solely in test tubes and petri dishes can't prove benefit to humans.

  • Randomized, controlled trials.

Participants in these trials usually are divided into groups. One group receives the treatment under investigation. Another group may be a control group — participants receive standard treatment, no treatment or an inactive substance called a placebo. Participants are assigned to these groups on a random basis. This helps ensure that the groups will be similar.

  • Double-blind studies.

In these studies, neither the researchers nor the human subjects know who will receive the active treatment and who will receive the placebo.

Look for peer-reviewed journals — those that only publish articles reviewed by an independent panel of medical experts. Also look for replicated studies, ones that have been repeated by different investigators with generally the same results.

One or two small studies, whether the results are positive or negative, usually aren't enough to make a definite decision about whether to use or skip a specific treatment. As research continues, many of the answers will become much clearer.

More and more research studies on complementary and alternative medicine are being conducted every year. Much of the funding for these studies comes from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Evaluate complementary and alternative medicine providers

When selecting a complementary and alternative treatment provider, evaluate your options. Simply choosing a name from a telephone directory is risky if you have no other information about the provider. You might try checking with:

  • State regulators.

Check your state government listings for agencies that regulate and license health care providers. These agencies may list practitioners in your area and offer a way to check credentials.

  • National associations.

National associations and their local affiliates can usually provide you with the names of certified practitioners in your area. To find the addresses and phone numbers of these associations, visit your local library or use the Internet to find association Web sites. But be careful — official-sounding organizations aren't always reputable. Talk with your doctor or another trusted health care professional for advice.

  • Friends and family.

If you know someone who's received the treatment you're considering, he or she can offer advice. Ask about his or her experiences with specific providers. Call the provider to request an interview. Many treatments, both conventional and unconventional, have risks and side effects. With any treatment you consider, find out if the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

Also find out exactly what the treatment will cost. Whenever possible, get that in writing before you start. Many alternative approaches aren't covered by health insurance.

Don't forgo conventional treatment

Ideally the various forms of treatments you select should work together with the care of your conventional doctor. You may find that certain complementary and alternative medicine treatments help you maintain your health and relieve some of your symptoms. But continue to rely on conventional medicine to diagnose a problem and treat diseases. For your safety, tell your doctor about all complementary and alternative medicine treatments you use.

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Explore the different types of complementary and alternative medicine. When you were a child and sprained an ankle or came down with the flu, you probably visited a pediatrician to soothe your symptoms. As an adult, you most likely visit your primary care physician for everything that ails you. But now your friends are suggesting complementary and alternative medicine treatments that you've never heard of — things like homeopathy, ayurveda, acupuncture and herbs.

What are these complementary and alternative medicine therapies? Are they safe? Will they work? Educate yourself before starting any new complementary and alternative medicine therapy, and always tell your doctor which ones you're trying.

What is complementary and alternative medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine generally refers to practices that aren't integral parts of conventional medicine. What is or isn't considered complementary and alternative medicine changes constantly as an increasing number of treatments undergo rigorous study and are proved to be effective or not.

Though the two terms are often grouped together, complementary medicine and alternative medicine aren't necessarily the same thing. Complementary treatments are often thought of as treatments used along with the conventional therapies your doctor may prescribe, such as using tai chi or massage in addition to prescription medicine for anxiety.

Alternative approaches are generally thought of as being used instead of conventional methods. For example, this might mean seeing a homeopath or naturopath instead of your regular doctor.

Many complementary and alternative medicine practitioners base their work around a few common principles. Some of these are similar to what your conventional doctor might do, while others are quite different.

Basic philosophies of complementary and alternative medicine include:

  • Your body heals itself.

Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners see themselves as facilitators. To them your body does all the healing work, and you only need treatment to encourage your natural healing processes.

  • Prevention is key.

Your complementary and alternative medicine practitioner may wish to see you before you get sick to make sure you're doing all you can to keep yourself healthy.

  • Learning and healing go hand-in-hand.

Your complementary and alternative medicine practitioner views himself or herself as a teacher and mentor who offers guidance. To the practitioner, you're the one who does the healing.

What are some examples of complementary and alternative medicine?

To make sense of the many therapies available, it might help to look at them in the five broad categories that the National Institutes of Health uses for classification.

  • Healing systems

Healing systems are complete sets of theories and practices. A system isn't just a single practice or remedy — such as massage — but many different practices that all revolve around a philosophy or lifestyle, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in your body. Many healing systems developed before the conventional Western medicine commonly used in the United States.

Examples of complementary and alternative medicine healing systems include ayurveda, which emphasizes a unique cure per individual circumstances, homeopathy, which uses minute doses of medicine to evoke cures, and naturopathy, which focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing. Traditional Chinese, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Tibetan practices also fall into the healing systems category.

  • Mind-body connections

Mind-body techniques strengthen the communication between your mind and your body. Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners believe these two systems must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. Examples of mind-body connection techniques include meditation, yoga, biofeedback, prayer, hypnosis, relaxation and art therapies, such as poetry, music and dance.

  • Dietary supplements and herbs

These treatments use ingredients found in nature. Examples of herbs include ginseng, ginkgo and echinacea, while examples of other dietary supplements include selenium, glucosamine sulfate and SAMe. Herbs and supplements can be taken as teas, oils, syrups, powders, tablets or capsules. Many people trust herbal medicine because it's been used for thousands of years. Others like it because it's “natural.” Remember, though, that natural doesn't mean that herbs and supplements can't hurt you.

  • Manipulation and touch

These methods use human touch to move or manipulate a specific part of your body. A chiropractor, for instance manipulates your spine using his or her hands. And a massage therapist uses his or her hands to massage your sore muscles. Other types of manipulation and touch therapies include osteopathy, craniosacral therapy and acupressure.

  • Energy therapies

Some complementary and alternative medicine practitioners believe an energy force flows through your body. You can't see this energy, but if its flow is blocked or unbalanced you can become sick. Different traditions call this energy by different names, such as chi, prana and life force. Unblocking or re-balancing your energy force is the goal of these therapies, and each one accomplishes that goal differently. Proponents of acupuncture, for instance, believe that the insertion of needles into points along energy pathways in your body restores your natural energy.

Other energy therapies include therapeutic touch, in which practitioners move their hands back and forth across your body to manipulate your energy, and Reiki, a Japanese technique that transfers healing energy from one person to another. Others you may have heard of include magnet therapy, polarity therapy and light therapy.

Why are conventional doctors opposed to complementary and alternative medicine?

Most doctors aren't opposed to complementary and alternative medicine. It's true that some doctors may not want to discuss complementary and alternative medicine therapies, but as many as half the doctors in the United States refer people to complementary and alternative practitioners. Your doctor may, in fact, be willing to discuss these options with you.

Conventional doctors have good reason to be skeptical when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine. Some alternative medicine practitioners make exaggerated claims about curing diseases, and some ask you to forgo treatment from your conventional doctor to use their unproven therapies. Some forms of alternative medicine can even hurt you.

Work together with your conventional doctor when considering complementary and alternative medicine. He or she can help provide you with information about risks and benefits so that you can make informed decisions regarding these treatments.

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how_to_evaluate_complementary_and_alternative_medicine.txt · Last modified: 2012/10/16 14:40 (external edit)