Alternative Medicine and Your Child
May 31, 2004, KidsHealth.org

As you wander the aisles of your local health food store, you stumble on one that is full of bottles that look like they belong in the drug store. Looking up, you notice that the name of the aisle is Alternative Medicine.

Seeing the phrase "alternative medicine" might conjure up images of pungent herbal teas, poultices, 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 alternative medicine, 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.

But the boundaries of alternative medicine 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. Can alternative medicine help your child?

Types of Alternative Care
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health recognizes seven general areas of alternative care (some of which have been put through rigorous scientific testing, but many have not):

Alternative medical systems generally fall outside the conventional medical system of doctors and hospitals. They include acupuncture, the practice of stimulating points on the body (usually with a needle) to promote healing; traditional Oriental medicine, which focuses on diagnosing disturbances of energy in the body; homeopathy, treating health problems with very diluted substances; and community-based healers like midwives, herbalists, and practitioners of Native American medicine.

Herbal remedies include a wide range of plants used for medicine or nutrition. They are available in grocery stores, in health food stores, or through herbalists and are often in the form of teas, capsules, and extracts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate these substances. About one third of American adults regularly take some sort of herb, anything from a cup of chamomile tea to soothe nerves to echinacea to fight a cold.

Manual healing treats medical problems by manipulating and realigning body parts. Perhaps the most widely known method is chiropractic care, which focuses on the nervous system and adjusting the spinal cord. Other forms of manual healing include massage therapy; osteopathic medicine, which uses manipulation in addition to traditional medicine and surgical treatment; and healing touch, where practitioners place their hands on or near the patient's body to direct energy.

Making a change in diet or lifestyle is an area of alternative medicine that almost everyone has practiced at some time. Many people take supplements if their regular diet does not have enough vitamins or minerals. And people with chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes often change their diet (more whole grains and vegetables and less salt or processed sugar) or habits (regular exercise) to keep the problem in check. This is one of the most useful forms of alternative care because altering your diet and habits not only helps treat numerous diseases but can help prevent them as well. This area of alternative medicine is widely accepted in the traditional medicine model.

Mind-body control focuses on the mind's role in conditions that affect the body. Hypnosis, a sort of conscious sleep or trance, can help some people deal with addictions, pain, or anxiety, whereas treatments like psychotherapy, meditation, and yoga are used for relaxation. Many people also turn to support groups and prayer to cope with an illness or feel more connected to others.

Drugs and vaccines that have not yet been accepted by mainstream medicine are also considered alternative. Eventually, after extensive testing and approval by the FDA, some of these medications or vaccines may become regularly prescribed treatments.

Lastly, an emerging area of study looks at how changes in the body's electromagnetic fields can affect health. Bioelectromagnetics is based on the idea that electrical currents in all living organisms produce magnetic fields that extend beyond the body.

How Does It Differ From Traditional Medicine?
Alternative therapy 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. In alternative medicine, many practitioners address patients' emotional and spiritual needs as well. This "high touch" approach differs from the "high tech" practice of traditional medicine, which tends to concentrate on the physical side of illness.

Most alternative practices have not found their way into mainstream hospitals or doctors' offices, so you or your child's doctor may not be aware of them. However, new centers for integrative medicine offer a mix of traditional and alternative 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 alternative therapies.

Despite the growth in the field, the majority of alternative therapies 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 alternative therapies are based on long-standing practice and word-of-mouth stories of success.

What Are the Risks?
The lack of scientific study means that some potential problems associated with alternative therapies may be difficult to identify. What's more, the studies that have been done used adults as test subjects; there is little research on the effects of alternative medicine on children. Although approaches such as prayer, massage, and lifestyle changes are generally considered safe complements to regular medical treatment, some therapies - particularly herbal remedies - might harbor risks.

Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies are not rigorously regulated by the FDA. They face no extensive tests before they are marketed, and they do not have to adhere to a standard of quality. That means when you buy a bottle of ginseng capsules, you might not know what you're getting: the amount of herb can vary from pill to pill, with some capsules containing much less of the active herb than stated on the label. Depending on where the herb originated, there might also be other plants, even drugs like steroids, mixed in the capsules. Herbs that come from developing countries are sometimes contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals.

"Natural" does not equal "good" and many parents don't consider that herbal remedies can actually cause health problems for their children. Medicating a child without consulting the child's doctor could result in harm. For example, certain herbal remedies can cause high blood pressure, liver damage, or severe allergic reactions. Consider these examples:

Ephedra, also called ephedrine and often sold as the Chinese herb ma huang, was on the market for years until it was linked to several deaths in people with heart problems. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided the health risks associated with ephedra were too great, and it banned the substance in December 2003.

Alone and in combination with prescription drugs, several dietary supplements - such as chaparral, comfrey, germander, and ephedrine - have been linked to severe illness, liver damage, and even death.

Parents might also give their children much more of an herb than recommended, thinking that because it's natural, higher doses won't hurt. But many plants contain potent chemicals; in fact, 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 will only jeopardize the health of your child.

Can Alternative Care Help Your Child?
Many parents turn to a cup of chamomile tea or ginger as a first line of treatment against the flu or nausea. Anxious children can learn to relax with the help of meditation or yoga. Such alternative therapies complement traditional care and can give you and your child a greater sense of control over his health.

If you want to try alternative medicine for your child, you should first discuss the proposed treatment with your child's doctor or talk to your pharmacist to make sure it is not dangerous or will not conflict with any traditional care your child receives. Your child's doctor can also give you information about treatment options and perhaps recommend a reputable specialist. By coordinating alternative and traditional care, you don't have to choose between them. Instead, you can get the best of both.