Complementary and alternative medicine: Evaluate claims
Medically reviewed on September 29, 2017.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments, such as herbal remedies and acupuncture, are growing in popularity. And thanks to increasing research on CAM treatments, doctors are now better able to understand the role these complementary therapies can play in helping treat and prevent disease. In fact, conventional medicine and evidence-based complementary medicine treatments may be offered together — a practice called integrative medicine.
But while complementary and alternative medicine — CAM for short — offers you more options, not all CAM treatments have been studied well enough to know whether they're safe or effective.
When considering CAM treatments, 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. Also, talk with your doctor before trying any treatment — especially if you take medications or have chronic health problems — to be sure it won't be harmful to you.
How to evaluate treatment claims
Look for solid scientific studies
When researching CAM treatments, do what 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 reliable. You can find many of these studies online or by asking a reference librarian at your local library.
Be cautious about studies in animals, laboratory studies or studies that include only a small number of people. Their results may not hold up when tested in larger clinical trials or on people. 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. A lack of evidence doesn't necessarily mean a treatment doesn't work — but it does make it harder to evaluate whether a particular treatment is safe and effective. Don't hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have questions.
Weed out misinformation
The internet is full of information about CAM 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 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. If you look for information on social media, be sure to follow reliable, reputable sources, such as the National Cancer Institute.
- Double-check. Gather as much information as you can. Visit several health sites and compare the information. The site for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine is one trustworthy source of information. 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 or from a CAM practitioner, check with your doctor for guidance.
Supplements: 'Natural' doesn't always mean safe
Herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, and dietary supplements are often marketed as "natural" products, but natural doesn't always mean safe. These products can have serious side effects.
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 or 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 (Coumadin) 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.
CAM and cancer
Many people who have cancer look to CAM as a way to relieve side effects caused by their treatment, be an active participant in their care or find alternate treatments. It is vital to remember that there is no evidence that any CAM options either prevent or cure any type of cancer. In addition, many of these types of therapies can have their own side effects, and could even prevent more-proven treatments from working.
Even worse, if you put off using proven, mainstream treatments for your cancer to try alternative treatments, your cancer could grow and spread to other parts of your body. If you wait too long, the cancer could become impossible to treat.
However, if you are looking to use CAM to help deal with some of the symptoms of cancer or its treatment, there are some therapies that might be worth considering. CAM therapies that have been proven to be safe and helpful when they are used in conjunction with standard medical treatment include the following:
- Music therapy
Watch out for 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," "scientific breakthrough," "secret ingredient," "ancient remedy" 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 practitioners wisely
Take care when choosing a CAM 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 Integrative Health (NCCIH):
- Talk with your doctor. Ask your primary care doctor for recommendations. He or she can also be a source of advice about any recommendations you get from an integrative 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. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine provides a database of licensed practitioners on their website. The American Massage Therapy Association provides a database of certified massage therapists on their website.
- Call your local health department. Ask about 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 whether your health insurance covers them.
- Be wary. As with supplements, be concerned if you hear big promises from a practitioner. Again, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
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 complementary 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. Delaying conventional treatments can be dangerous, particularly for certain conditions, such as cancer or HIV/AIDS. For your safety, be sure to tell your doctor about all CAM treatments you use.