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Complementary Health Approaches for Children

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Modern Medicine and Complementary Medicine

Modern medicine is truly amazing. In 2014, people are able to survive accidents and live with diseases that even as recently as 50 years ago would have been debilitating or even fatal. X-ray and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technologies allow us to peer inside our bodies without the damage caused by invasive, exploratory surgeries. Blood testing allows us to identify and pursue the treatment of countless diseases, and vaccines allow us to prevent the negative effects of pathogens that in past centuries wiped out wide swathes of the human population. CAT scans allow us to see inside our brains, and recent developments in PET (positron emission) scans and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) allow us to see our complex brain regions working in real time.

Despite all these fantastic advances—indeed, what doctors, nurses, and technicians can do with modern medical technology is beginning to border on the realm of science fiction—our medicine is not perfect, it cannot predict and cure everything, and there are a number of people in the U.S who, no matter the anecdotal or scientific evidence, simply decide to choose a different approach to health care for themselves and their children. For these people, the type of medicine they choose is called Complementary/Alternative Medicine (CAM).

What is Complementary/Alternative Medicine?

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), Complementary Medicine is defined as any approach to health care which is considered outside the mainstream and used in coordination with traditional, mainstream medicine.[1] The terms Complementary Medicine and Alternative Medicine are often used interchangeably, but they are, in fact, different things. Whereas Complementary Medicine is used in conjunction with mainstream medicine, Alternative Medicine is used in place of mainstream medicine. While both approaches to health care are used by people in the U.S., Complementary Medicine is more common, and Alternative Medicine is quite rare. Even when using non-mainstream approaches to health care, most people combine these modalities in varying degrees with mainstream approaches, which, by definition, makes them Complementary as opposed to Alternative. Despite the differences, it’s typical to refer to both Complementary and Alternative health care practices by the acronym CAM.

Complementary Medicine in Children: Statistics and Common Practices

In a survey conducted in 2007, the NIH found that 12% of children in the U.S. had either used or been given some sort form of Complementary Medicine.[2] The survey further found that the most common modalities of CAM used across all populations (adults and children) were:

  • Acupuncture
  • Homeopathic Remedies
  • Natural Products
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Movement Therapy
  • Spinal Manipulation (includes chiropractic and osteopathic care)
  • Yoga
  • Dietary Therapies
  • Tai Chi and/or Gigong

All of the modalities above were used for children as well as adults. In order of frequency, from most used to least used, the most common CAM therapies for children were:

  • Natural Products
  • Chiropractic/Osteopathic Care
  • Deep Breathing
  • Yoga
  • Homeopathic Remedies
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Dietary Therapies

The NIH survey indicated that CAM therapies were most often used to relieve musculoskeletal pain, relieve anxiety or stress, relieve colds in the head or chest, relieve back pain, relieve neck pain, relieve insomnia, and to relieve the effects of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).[3]

Common Sense Approaches to Complementary Medicine

When considering a CAM therapy for a child, the most important thing for a parent to do is discuss the options with a family physician, and to receive a diagnosis from a professional health care practitioner. Most physicians have knowledge of CAM therapies and can speak to their relevance and effectiveness. Some physicians might even recommend them for families who are reluctant to use pharmaceutical medications or mainstream approaches to health care. Families considering dietary supplements and/or homeopathic remedies for their children should be aware that the FDA does not regulate these supplements as strictly as they regulate mainstream over-the-counter medications, and the companies that produce them do not always test their safety and effectiveness for children. Finally, families who wish to pursue therapies such as massage, chiropractic care, naturopathic care, and acupuncture can rest easy: though the stringency of regulation varies state to state, almost every state in the U.S. has official licensing requirements for these therapeutic modalities.[4] [5]

[1] National Institute of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam

[2] National Institute of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Children and Complementary Health Approaches” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/children

[3] National Institute of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Children and Complementary Health Approaches” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/children

[4] National Institute of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Children and Complementary Health Approaches” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/children

[5] National Institute of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Credentialing: Understanding the Education, Training, Regulation, and Licensing of Complementary Health Practitioners” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/decisions/credentialing.htm

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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