Complementary and alternative medicine treatments, such as herbal remedies and acupuncture, have become more popular as people seek greater control of their own health. But while complementary and alternative medicine, called CAM for short, offers you more options, not all CAM treatments have been proved safe or effective.
When considering CAM treatments, it pays to be a savvy consumer. Be open-minded yet skeptical. Learn about the potential benefits and risks. Gather information from a variety of sources and check the credentials of CAM practitioners. And be sure to talk with your doctor before trying any treatment — especially if you take medications or have chronic health problems.
How to evaluate claims of treatment success
Look for solid scientific studies
When researching CAM treatments, do like doctors do. Look for high-quality clinical studies. These large, controlled and randomized trials are published in peer-reviewed journals — journals that only publish articles reviewed by independent experts. The results of these studies are more likely to be solid.
Be cautious about studies in animals, laboratory studies or studies that include only a small number of people. Their results may or may not hold up when tested in larger clinical trials. Finally, remember that sound health advice is generally based on a body of research, not a single study.
Although scientific studies are the best way to evaluate whether a treatment is safe and effective, it isn't always possible to find good studies about alternative medicine practices. Keep in mind that a lack of evidence doesn't necessarily mean a treatment doesn't work — but it does mean it hasn't been proved. Don't hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have questions.
Weed out misinformation
The Internet is full of information about alternative medicine treatments, but not all of it is accurate. To weed out the good information from the bad, use the three D's:
- Dates. Check the creation or update date for each article. If you don't see a date, don't assume the article is recent. Older material may be outdated and not include recent findings, such as newly discovered side effects or advances in the field.
- Documentation. Check sources. Are qualified health professionals creating and reviewing the information? Is advertising clearly identified? Look for the logo from the Health on the Net (HON) Foundation, which means that the site follows HON's principles for reliability and credibility of information.
- Double-check. Gather as much information as you can. Visit several health sites and compare the information they offer. If you can't find supporting evidence to back up the claims of a CAM product, be skeptical. And before you follow any advice you read on the Internet, check with your conventional doctor for guidance.
Supplements: 'Natural' doesn't always mean safe
Herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, and all types of dietary supplements are marketed as "natural" products, but they can have drug-like effects that can be dangerous. Even some vitamins and minerals can cause problems when taken in excessive amounts. So it's important to do your homework and investigate potential benefits and side effects of dietary and herbal supplements. Play it safe with these tips:
- Talk to your doctor before taking a dietary supplement. This is especially important if you are pregnant, nursing a baby, or if you have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes or heart disease.
- Avoid drug interactions. Prescription and over-the-counter medications can interact with certain dietary supplements. For example, the herbal supplement ginkgo can interact with the blood-thinning medication warfarin and increase the risk of serious bleeding complications.
- Before surgery, tell your doctor about supplements you take. Some supplements can cause problems during surgery, such as changes in heart rate or blood pressure or increased bleeding. You may need to stop taking these supplements at least two to three weeks before your procedure.
Watch out for CAM scams
Scammers have perfected ways to convince you that their alternative medicine products are the best. These opportunists often target people who are overweight or who have medical conditions for which there is no cure, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS and arthritis. Remember if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be alert for these red flags:
- Big promises. Advertisements call the product a "miracle cure" or "revolutionary discovery." If that were true, it would be widely reported in the media and your doctor would recommend it.
- Pseudomedical jargon. Although 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.
- 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.
- Testimonials. Anecdotes from individuals who have used the product are no substitute for scientific proof. If the product's claims were backed up with hard evidence, the manufacturer would say so.
- Guarantees and limited offers. These pitches are intended to get you to buy before you can evaluate the product's claims.
Choose CAM practitioners wisely
Take care when choosing an alternative medicine practitioner. Picking a name out of the phone book isn't the safest way to select a practitioner. Instead, try these tips from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):
- Talk with your doctor. Ask your conventional doctor for recommendations. He or she can also be a source of advice about any recommendations you get from an alternative medicine practitioner.
- Contact a local hospital or medical school. They often keep lists of area CAM practitioners. Some have their own CAM practitioners on staff.
- Check the national association. Alternative medicine associations will often provide a list of certified practitioners in your area. To find the addresses and phone numbers of these associations, check the Directory of Health Organizations online compiled by the National Library of Medicine.
- Call your local health department. Ask if they know of state or local certifying, licensing or accreditation bodies for the alternative medicine practice you're considering.
- Ask questions. Ask CAM practitioners about their education, training, licenses and certifications. Ask if they specialize in particular diseases or health conditions and whether they frequently treat people with problems similar to yours. Also ask what treatments cost — and find out if your health insurance covers them.
CAM starts with complementary
Ideally the various forms of treatments you select should work together with the care of your conventional doctor. You may find that certain alternative 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. Don't change your conventional treatment — such as your dose of prescribed medication — without talking to your doctor first. For your safety, be sure to tell your doctor about all alternative treatments you use.