Complementary and Alternative Therapies Gain Popularity, CDC Study Finds
U.S. residents are now commonly using complementary and alternative medical therapies -- such as prayer for good health, herbal tonics, acupuncture, massage and yoga -- either alone or in conjunction with conventional medicine, according to a survey conducted by CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, the Washington Post reports. In the study, commissioned by NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers surveyed more than 31,000 U.S. adults nationwide in 2002 about 27 types of alternative therapies, including 10 provided by practitioners, such as acupuncturists and chiropractors, and 17 self-administered therapies, such as herbal and botanical remedies, special diets and megavitamins. They found that 36% of respondents were using some form of complementary or alternative therapy excluding prayer; including prayer for one's health, the figure increased to 62% of respondents (Stein, Washington Post, 5/28). The survey -- the largest yet to examine the issue and the first government study on alternative medicine -- showed that 43% of respondents prayed for health; 18.9% used natural products such as herbs; 7.6% received chiropractic care; and 5% used massage (McKenna, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/28). Of respondents who used dietary supplements such as herbs and enzymes, 40% used echinacea, 24% took ginseng, 21% used gingko biloba and 19% used garlic. Researchers also found that 12% of respondents performed deep-breathing exercises for medical reasons, 8% meditated, 5% did yoga and 4% went on special diets.
Complementary and alternative therapies were most commonly used by women, highly educated people, people who had been hospitalized within the past year and former smokers. The health problems that were most frequently treated with alternative remedies were anxiety; back, neck, head and joint aches; colds; depression; insomnia; and stomach problems. The therapies were also used for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and symptoms of menopause, asthma, diabetes and cancer. When asked why they used alternative therapies, 55% of respondents said they used it to complement conventional medicine; 13% tried them because they thought conventional medicine was too expensive; and 28% believed conventional treatments were ineffective (Washington Post, 5/28). Although NIH officials cautioned that the study's methodology did not mirror the methodologies of previously published research on such therapies, the results "suggest that the use of alternative medicine has increased in the past 10 years," the Journal-Constitution reports. Based on the study, researchers estimate U.S. residents' expenditures on alternative therapies equal about half of what they spend on conventional doctor visits (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/28).
"These new findings confirm the extent to which Americans have turned to (alternative) approaches with the hope that they would help treat and prevent disease and enhance quality of life," Stephen Straus, director of NCCAM, said (Washington Post, 5/28). Edward Sondik, director of NCHS, said the survey results are significant because they show "a sizeable percentage of the public puts their personal health into their own hands" (Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/28). Richard Nahin of NCCAM said the public may be turning to such treatments "because it's not getting relief from conventional medicine." However, he added that some people assume that "because something is natural ... it's safe," even though many studies show that natural products "can be unsafe when used inappropriately or with other drugs." He said that he was concerned about the number of people who turned to alternative treatments because of the high costs of conventional medicine, and he added that more research should be conducted to see whether those people are insured (Yee, AP/San Luis Obispo Tribune, 5/27). David Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School, a researcher who has conducted similar surveys, said the study shows that alternative therapies have become an integral part of the national health care system, saying, "This should lay to rest any question as to whether this is a momentary fad. I think what it argues fairly convincingly for is the need for more research to figure out which of these therapies work and which don't, which are safe and which are not, how these work when they work, and whether access to these therapies will increase costs or decrease costs" (Washington Post, 5/28). However, Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs the Web site Quackwatch, said the survey is flawed because prayers for good health, as well as therapies such as massage, hypnosis and progressive relaxation, should not be considered alternative therapies because they are often used by mainstream health care providers (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/28).
NPR's "All Things Considered" on Thursday reported on the survey. The segment includes comments from Nahin and an organic food market worker (Silberner, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/27). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.