Parents often ask us pediatricians for our opinions on alternative medicine, or what is better known as “complementary” or “holistic” medicine.
Acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology and the like have been viewed with great skepticism from Western medicine. Time and again, carefully controlled studies across the globe have shown many alternative medicinal therapies to work little or no better than a placebo.
Yet modern medicine does not know all. Every second of every day, something new is being learned or something old is being discredited. Studies are published by the thousands every month, expanding our knowledge and breaking down our preconceived notions. That is the beauty of science and medicine: evidence-based practices and protocols are continually subjected to re-examination until we come as close to “fact” as ever may be possible. Many popular alternative medicine practices are not grounded in this systematic methodology.
Which is not to say that alternative remedies cannot provide mental health benefit – they may. Sometimes this is referred to as “the placebo effect.” If such effect lowers patients’ stress, even if it doesn’t relieve their illness, it can still be beneficial because stress plays an important role in worsening disease.
The world’s most foremost professor of complementary medicine, Dr. Edzard Ernst, who pioneered the rigorous study of everything from acupuncture to herbal remedies, writes in his seminal work, “Guide To Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” that around 95 percent of the alternative treatments he and his colleagues have studied over several decades are statistically indistinguishable from placebo.
Parents also often ask pediatricians about “natural” remedies for common, or even uncommon and serious, childhood illnesses. While it’s natural to think that natural is good, it’s a false assumption. “Natural” does not mean “no risk of harm.” For example, you can have allergic reactions to “natural” herbal teas and balms just the same as you can experience them with prescription medications.
These risks may be small, but are present nonetheless. In the case of using plants to treat illness, there are plenty of “natural” poisons. If there is a chemical in a plant that is medicinally useful, it’s unnaturally good luck. When a useful medicine comes to us from a plant, it may also bring chemicals that may do us harm. Better to isolate the useful chemical – as witnessed by many modern pharmaceuticals that originally were derived from plant chemicals.
Conventional medicines must be shown to be both safe and efficacious before they can be licensed for sale. That is rarely true of alternative treatments, which may rely on appeals to the “natural” wholesomeness of their products to reassure customers.
Parents should talk to their pediatrician or healthcare providers about any medicines and treatments they are considering and work together to find the best solutions for the health of their child.
Have more questions? Ask your pediatrician!
Dr. Todd Huffman is a pediatrician at McKenzie Pediatrics in Springfield. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this website or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org /