Testing the benefits of alternative medicine practices

There’s a CAM treatment today for many female ills, and studies to help us gauge their safety and effectiveness.

By Jamileh Daneshnia

Alternative therapies are gaining adherents.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are practices which fall outside the umbrella of conventional medicine, though they may be used in conjunction with or instead of mainstream techniques. Many of these therapies have roots in historical and cultural traditions. Popular CAM therapies include acupuncture and herbal remedies.

In the last two decades, many CAM therapies have been researched and gained recognition, and studies have shown considerable increase of CAM use in almost all Western industrial countries.

Women, who spend almost two-thirds of health care dollars, are the heaviest consumers of CAM therapies. They face a vast range of health-care issues that cause them to seek help, including normal life events such as menstruation and menopause. More women than men use CAM for common medical conditions.

In the United.States, about 50 per cent of CAM users are women. They seek CAM care through practitioners, but many also self-medicate and look independently for effective remedies. Although many studies and case reports lead to caution in applying some CAM treatments for women with specific health issues, use of CAM treatments by women is considerable.

Women can use CAM therapies for a broad range of health issues including cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, major depression, migraine headaches and problems affecting the reproductive system. Meditation, biofeedback (the process of improving health through one’s awareness of physiological activity) and herbal medicine are common CAM options for controlling blood pressure. Herbal medicine can be used to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.

Common CAM approaches dealing with cancer-related issues include acupuncture for chemotherapy-associated vomiting and chronic pain; mind-body connections and self-hypnosis for lengthening survival; and herbal medicine that increases intake of antioxidants, beta-carotene and ascorbic acid. Acupuncture has been effective in treating arthritis, and in conjunction with biofeedback, relaxation, hypnotherapy and related stress-coping treatments. It has also been useful in the management of migraines and depression.

Women who are dissatisfied with conventional treatments do not necessarily seek CAM treatments. Their reason for electing to use these therapies may be that CAM practices match their own values, beliefs, and attitudes toward life; or because they would like to be a more dynamic participant in their own care plan; or because they find conventional medicine does not offer an effective cure; or because they would like to limit the  possible adverse side effects of some conventional medical interventions.

Critics of CAM therapies claim many therapies are not safe, or are unscientific or lack statistical success rates. Most CAM therapies pose little to no risk, but herbal medicine may be a health risk due to toxic effects, allergic reactions, contaminants and drug interactions. Some argue that the safety of herbal medicine has been proven over time, while others suggest this argument doesn’t take our modern lifestyle and illnesses into account.

Despite the criticisms of CAM treatments, there are enough scientific studies available for many therapies – such as acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine – to make it worthwhile to mathematically analyze them.

Jamileh Daneshnia is a research and evaluation associate at the Victoria Institute of Clinical Research & Evaluation. To support VICR&E and patient care at the Vic, please contact Victoria General Hospital at 477-351 in Winnipeg or online at www.thevicfoundation.ca.

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