Date: February 1st, 2008
More and more Americans are turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to treat a variety of their ailments and help them fight diseases. In fact, a national survey found that more than one-third of adults use some form of CAM. Despite this widespread use, many of these therapies are not supported by science and little is known about how or if they work.
What is Complementary & Alternative Medicine
So what exactly is complementary and alternative medicine? According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)—one of the National Institutes of Health—CAM is the group of products, treatments, practices, and systems that are not currently considered to be a part of conventional or “standard” medicine. Standard medicine is practiced by M.D.s (medical doctors), D.O.s (doctors of osteopathy), and their health care teams—and is generally supported by scientific evidence.
Even though they’re often referred to together, complementary medicine and alternative medicine are separate things. Complementary medicine is used with standard medicine to treat a disease or condition, whereas alternative medicine is used instead of standard medicine. Someone taking vitamins and supplements to combat the negative effects of chemotherapy treatments for cancer is using complementary medicine. A person who turns to acupuncture to treat chronic pain instead of taking prescription medications is using it as an alternative therapy.
There are countless CAM treatments out there—some offered by licensed CAM practitioners and others passed down within families and cultures. The national survey that looked at Americans’ use was conducted by NCCAM and found that some of the most commonly used treatments and practices include natural products like herbs and plants, meditation, chiropractics, yoga, massage, prayer, and diets. Interestingly, the list of available CAM treatments is constantly evolving as new options emerge and others are removed as they become supported by science and accepted as standard.
The same survey also found that CAM treatments were most often used for back problems like pain, colds, neck problems, joint pain or stiffness, anxiety, and depression. People turn to CAM for all sorts of reasons but some of the most common found by the survey include the belief that it will help with standard treatments; the belief that standard treatments aren’t working; a desire to find something less expensive; and because a conventional medical professional recommended it.
The Science of CAM
While standard medicine is proven by clinical trials and other scientific evidence, CAM treatments are often only supported by anecdotal and unreliable evidence. Even though a treatment may have hundreds of followers who swear by its effectiveness, in reality it may have little or no value, and could even cause harm.
This is where the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines comes in. NCCAM is a federal agency with the primary responsibility of exploring CAM treatments through rigorous science. Since it was formed in 1998, NCCAM has supported more than 1,200 research projects with results that are helping us make better decisions about various treatments.
Many of the studies include clinical trials where treatments are tested in people to find out if they are safe and effective. The best clinical trials are those that include a large number of people and where participants randomly receive either the treatment or a placebo—an inactive treatment that is designed to seem like the real thing. These trials then study the differences between the two groups.
For example, despite claims that Ginkgo biloba—a dietary supplement—could boost memory, a recent NCCAM study found that it’s ineffective in reducing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease development in older people. Another study found that acupuncture can provide pain relief for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. To learn more about NCCAM clinical trials visit http://nccam.nih.gov/research/results/.
Figuring Out What’s Best for You
So how do you figure out which treatments work? There’s a ton of information out there and a lot of it can’t be trusted. You’ll need to do your homework—thankfully NCCAM has assembled much of the information you need on their website at http://nccam.nih.gov. If you can’t find your answers there, you will need to turn to other websites. Remember to consider who’s running the site, who’s paying for it, and how current the information is. For other things to consider read 10 Things to Know About Evaluating Medical Resources on the Web.
You should also talk with your health care professional about current CAM treatments and those you are considering. While some doctors may be more open than others, they can help to make sure that whatever you decide to do, it won’t interfere with your standard treatments or jeopardize your health. Since treatments can affect people differently it’s important to have a discussion with the medical professional that knows your individual health best.