Complementary versus alternative medicine - sorting out fact from fiction - Tucson Local Media: Aging Well

Complementary versus alternative medicine - sorting out fact from fiction

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Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 4:00 am

Can an apple a day really keep the doctor away? What about acupuncture? When it comes to our health and how to maintain it, we want to know what works. Similarly, when considering Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) like acupuncture, chiropractics, homeopathy and herbal supplements, it’s important to sort out fact from fiction. Today almost 40 percent of adults use CAM as part of their healthcare regimen. Evaluating the many types of CAM is becoming easier as more information is developed and shared.

Alternative medicine isn’t new. Through the ages, people have sought options to standard medical practice when faced with symptoms and diseases that are difficult to treat, or with health problems that are not well understood by the established medical community. Andrew Weil, M.D., a pioneer in the field, describes CAM as any treatments not included “by conventional medicine, and that patients use instead of conventional medicine.” Often times, however, CAM is used in conjunction with a more traditional health treatment.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, was founded in 1998 to learn more about the effectiveness of increasingly popular medical alternatives. Today, there’s increased support for evidence-based and scientifically researched studies to move this interesting component of medicine forward.  One recent study reported higher use of CAM for older adults in treating hypertension, but a vast majority of CAM is used for treating or preventing other conditions.

Findings in the Field


Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing practice that uses fine needles to stimulate specific points on the body with a goal of healing. It is often used for alleviating pain. Research regarding acupuncture for treating pain shows promising results in the areas of tension headaches and migraines, chronic low-back pain, neck pain, and knee pain.  


Approximately 1 in 15 Americans see a chiropractor each year. It is the most commonly used CAM for back pain. Chiropractics focus on the proper alignment of the spine, and other body structures to support natural healing ability. Spinal manipulation is a common practice in chiropractics. A recent review of scientific studies on chiropractics shows that it may successfully treat back pain, headaches, neck pain, and joint conditions, but may not be useful in treating asthma, hypertension, and menstrual pain.  


Homeopathy originated in Europe about 200 years ago. Homeopaths treat disease through a concept of “like cures like.” The central belief of homeopathy is that disease can be cured by the administration of miniscule amounts of a natural substance, which in larger amounts can produce similar symptoms in healthy people. While there is little scientific evidence showing that homeopathy is an effective treatment for disease, more than 4 million people use it each year, which suggests it has provided some relief.

Herbal Supplements

Fish oil has been shown to be effective in reducing triglyceride levels associated with heart disease and untreated diabetes. Levels may be reduced by as much as 20 percent to 50 percent. Fish oil may also help healthy people prevent heart disease and lower the risk of dying from it for those who already have heart disease. Ginkgo Biloba is a very popular herbal supplement. However, a recent study showed that is was not effective in preventing dementia or in slowing cognitive decline. St. John’s Wort, another herbal supplement has been shown to be no more affective than a placebo for treating mild and moderate depression.

Be a smart consumer of CAM. Beware of big promises, testimonials and pseudo-medical jargon. Most importantly, when using CAM for your health, keep your doctor informed, as having complete information is vitally important in their decisions about your treatment.

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