Do Alternative Medicine Therapies Work?

According to a 2007 survey, about one in four Americans use Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), which includes yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and integrative medicine. Practices enjoying increases were deep breathing, meditation, massage therapy, and yoga. A Consumer Reports survey suggests people employ CAM for numerous maladies: headaches, general pain, insomnia, anxiety, colds, flu, and digestive problems. But aside from their prevalence, do CAM therapies actually work?

Millions of practicing Americans can’t be wrong … right? It depends on whom you ask. Talk to any person who utilizes CAM, and the cited benefits are usually endless. Of course, there is the matter of science: Are CAM therapies actually more effective, as claimed by adherents, or are many of them a placebo (sham) treatment, effective in improving treatment outcomes only because patients believe in them? And if this is the case, does it even matter if it’s the treatment or the patient’s belief if they’re getting better?

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An increasing amount of research suggests many CAM therapies are effective at treating common ailments above and beyond the placebo effect. Thus, medical and insurance authorities commonly accept that biofeedback, visual imagery, and meditation can support lower blood pressure, control heart rate, and manage pain. Yet comparatively little rigorous research on yoga has been conducted. Thus, low-back pain is the only health concern for which yoga is considered an evidence-based treatment.

In fact, research on the effects of many CAM therapies remains inconclusive. For any treatment to be considered an insurance-reimbursable equivalent to the standard of conventional medical care, multiple randomized controlled trials (RCTs) must consistently demonstrate comparable treatment efficacy for each health-related concern. However, some argue that due to treatment complexity, CAM therapies may not lend themselves well to the standard RCT design without significant modifications. And finally, with so many health concerns and so little CAM-related federal research funding, the scientific evidence base is unlikely to expand rapidly in the foreseeable future.

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Though some traditionalists lament the burgeoning field of CAM as a return to the medical dark ages from which it has laboriously extricated itself over the last few centuries, the meaning and belief ascribed to these therapies by millions is undeniable. Even within the bastions of science there has recently been a move towards acknowledging that humans and the etiology of disease are situated in complex and dynamic systems. Thus, topics conventionally scoffed at by science—for example, spirituality/religiosity; indigenous healing systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda; and yoga—increasingly hint at the potential to mobilize the body’s own healing resources.

What have been your experiences with complementary and alternative therapies? Have you used them as an adjunct to conventional medical care, or on their own?

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