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Complementary & alternative therapies -- concerns & potential

Ano Lobb

More and more Americans are seeking non-traditional therapies to find relief from symptoms and pain and to maintain overall health. But if you're a medical consumer interested in complementary or integrative treatments, how do you know what's safe and what's effective? One reliable source is the National Institutes of Health.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at NIH gives an overview of these kinds of therapies – and what to look out for. A Harvard- and Yale-trained physician, Briggs is recognized internationally for her research accomplishments. The center she heads investigates and researches these therapies and informs the general public of their findings.

The term “complementary medicine” is used for health approaches that didn’t come through standard medical research or pharmaceutical research. They are traditional remedies or treatments that have come through centuries of practice. Basically, outside the mainstream of medicine.

“Integrative” is a term used by variety of health practitioners that are open to these nontraditional remedies. These practitioners pay particular attention to health and wellness. Many of them use the patient’s own concerns as a starting point in their treatment, with an emphasis on a more holistic approach to health care.

About 40 percent of Americans use one or other of these health approaches, according to a survey the NIH and Centers for Disease Control takes each year of health practices of Americans. Briggs says they survey 20,000-30,000 households across the country.

The main reason most consumers turn to complementary or alternative medicine, is to promote their own health or manage symptoms they haven’t found an answer for, says Briggs. And far and away the most common symptom people look for alternative therapies is pain management, she says.

Pain management is a huge problem in the United States. The powerful drugs doctors prescribe to reduce pain all have side effects and long term risk, Briggs notes. So she says it’s important to build evidence about alternative approaches to pain management because of the potential to help the societal problem.

And many in the medical profession are recognizing that a mind-body approach can add a valuable component to the quandary of pain management, Briggs says.

“It’s not a one size fits all -- not yes or no. It is, ‘what is the patient trying to do and is it helping,’” Briggs says.

The NIH center researches and provides information and access to information on these therapies to the public. And that can mean disproving a treatment. Like the large study that showed ginkgo does not help dementia. Briggs said that study had an immediate impact.

Dietary supplements of all kinds are one of the biggest parts of complementary medicine. Briggs says it’s very important that patients share with their doctors any supplements they may be taking. That’s because they can interact with prescriptions in ways that are problematic. But Briggs says there are complementary medical practices patients can try on their own.

“I don’t exactly worry too much about people telling their doctors about the details of their yoga classes. But certainly the use of dietary supplements is a very important piece of health information that needs to be a part of people’s medical record and shared with health care providers.”

Briggs says one of the biggest concerns about complementary medicine is all the misinformation on the internet.

She says there’s a set of questions the urge people to ask about any medical websites:

  • Who is putting up the information? Is it a website created by someone selling something or by a reliable organization like a federal government agency or large health institution?
  • Does it seem to good to be true? The old adage “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is,” applies to this area. Be skeptical if claims seem excessive.

Briggs says dietary supplements are one of the biggest areas of concern about safety and effectiveness. And three kinds of supplements in particular often are promoted using excessive and poorly founded claims. And she says there are real safety concerns about many of these products:

  • Weight loss supplements
  • Muscle- building supplements
  • Supplements to help sexual function

The bottom line, Briggs says, if you’re considering or using a nontraditional therapy – ask yourself – does this help? And are there risks?