Children with chronic health conditions are regularly treated with alternative therapies, according to a new Canadian study that suggests the use of so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" in pediatrics is on the rise. Many children in the study took multivitamins or minerals, while others tried treatments like massage, aromatherapy and chiropractic manipulation.
"The use of [alternative medicine] is always going to be much higher in those kids who have a specific condition, particularly one not well-treated with conventional medicine, because parents are always asking, 'What can I do to help my kid?'" said Dr. Joyce Frye, an integrative physician and epidemiologist with the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine, who did not work on the study. Because there is no clear definition of the term, any health care system, practice or product outside of Western medicine is generally grouped under the label of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM.
In the new study, published online in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, researchers asked more than 900 parents of children at two children's hospitals in Canada whether their children had ever used alternative medicine and, if so, how. The patients were being treated in cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, oncology or respiratory clinics.
Almost half of the parents reported that their child had used an alternative therapy at the same time that he or she was undergoing conventional medical treatment. Nearly 10 percent of parents said they'd turned to alternative medicine before seeking conventional treatment for their child's condition, and 5 percent used CAM in lieu of conventional medicine.
The most popular alternative products used were vitamins and minerals, followed by herbal products and homeopathic remedies, while the most popular practices were massage, faith healing (which can include the laying on of hands or a visit to a spiritual location) chiropractic manipulation, aromatherapy and relaxation techniques.
In the U.S., the most recent comprehensive information on alternative medicine use among children was published as part of a 2008 report issued by the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It found that nearly 40 percent of adults and 12 percent of children, or 1 in 9 kids in the U.S., have used some form of complementary medicine. Children whose parents used complementary therapies were far more likely to do so, as were teens, white children, those whose parents had more education and those with multiple health conditions. The survey also found that children whose families put off seeking out traditional medical care because of costs were more likely to try alternative medicine.
Frye told The Huffington Post that to-date, most studies have focused on the prevalence of alternative medicine use rather than its potential risks and benefits.
"Some dietary supplements, particularly herbals, may change [how] the body [metabolizes] certain drugs. It's what we call herb-drug interactions," said Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. More than half of the children in the Pediatrics study were using alternative medicine in conjunction with prescription drugs, and while the majority said they'd consulted with their doctor first, nearly 20 percent had not spoken with a doctor or pharmacist.
"The take-home message from this is that doctors should ask, and patients should tell their health care providers about the use of any dietary supplements," said Briggs.
Other alternative therapies have been studied more rigorously, she said, including acupuncture. A Canadian review of 37 studies published in Pediatrics in 2011 concluded that the practice is generally safe for kids. The study found that the incidence of adverse events during acupuncture was just over 10 percent, and most were mild.
"We very much feel that many of these CAM [practices] have promise in symptom management, particularly mind and body [work]," said Briggs. "Parents who chose to try vitamins and minerals for children with chronic illness should be carefully discussing it with their pediatrician."