In 1992, two Iowans crafted legislation that led to Congress’ creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine or OAM. Sen. Tom Harkin claimed bee pollen had cured his hay fever and Rep. Berkeley Bedell swore that cow colostrum had rid him of Lyme disease.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that at the time OAM was created, about half the U.S. adult population had tried some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) and 10 percent of kids had.
By 2007, the percentage for children had grown to 12 percent, a modest gain, but nonetheless it begs posing the question: Is alternative medicine safe for kids?
The National Institutes of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAM)’s website lists some reasonable arguments for why a parent should not blindly seek and alternative therapy administered to their child:
- Children are not small adults. Their bodies can react differently from adults' bodies to medical therapies, including CAM
- CAM therapies have not been well studied in children
- "Natural" does not necessarily mean "safe"; CAM therapies may have side effects
The top five therapies, according to NCAM, are:
- Natural products
- Deep breathing
Supplements for kids
Omega-3 supplements, according to the NIH, were the most commonly used nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product taken by adults, and the second most commonly taken by children. But supplements can act like drugs, and many have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children, says the NIH.
Alternative medicine for kids with chronic disease
In the case of cerebral palsy (CP), the CP International Research Foundation’s stance on alternative therapies is that they are dubious at best. A critique of alternative therapies, originally published in Clinical Pediatrics, analyzed three modalities for kids with developmental disabilities.
The paper’s author evaluated one lesser-known form of CAM: hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which involves breathing higher levels of oxygen than normal. It costs $4,000 (or $100 per session; 40 treatments is the norm, says the research) but is no more effective for the treatment of CP than pressurized air. The study’s conclusion: “There is no good clinical evidence to support the use of these 3 alternative treatments for cerebral palsy.”
But Dr. Karen Moody, founder and director of the Integrative Medicine and Palliative Care Team (IMPACT) at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, New York, believes alternative care for kids, mixed with conventional treatment, can be effective in alleviating symptoms of chronic diseases like cancer.
“The symptoms of incurable diseases are often difficult to treat, especially when a kid is on a myriad of medications; alternative medicine can improve the quality of life without having to add more drugs or medicine,” says Moody, whose program offers bedside yoga instruction; aromatherapy and massage therapy; Reiki; herbal medicine and dietary supplement consultations; acupuncture and other interventions, all while the kids in the program undergo essential cure-directed treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Studies on alternative medicine for kids do exist
Moody says “it’s just not true” that there is no evidence supporting the efficacy of alternative therapies for kids. “There are plenty of studies now on what we would call complimentary modalities in addressing symptoms. They are small in number and not as robust and well designed as placebo-controlled sub trials,” Moody says.
Moody adds that pharmaceutical companies also lack properly designed trials and clinical proof of their drugs' efficacy on kids. The biggest reason, though, that evidence is lacking in studying alternative medicine for children, according to Moody, comes down to funding.
But Moody, whose program is in the midst of a clinical trial enrollment, notes that yoga has been proven to manage pain. After all, she’s seen it happen with several pediatric cancer patients in her program.
Many other practitioners would probably agree with Moody’s assertion, but there are too many variables to unequivocally assert that yoga alleviates pain, according to a meta-analysis published in Complimentary Therapies in Medicine, which concludes that for now, yoga merely has the “potential for alleviating pain.”
Biggest risk can be dismissing conventional treatment
Whether it’s yoga for your kid’s pain, massage for anxiety or acupuncture for nausea, alternative medicine for kids can be dangerous, especially if the practitioner administering it doesn’t have proper credentialing and is unfamiliar with a child’s medical condition.
But the biggest risk, says Moody, is when parents choose to completely avoid a conventional therapy.
“When I have families that want to explore and pursue alternatives, I have to first identify if there’s a clear and safe and effective conventional remedy," says Moody, who presents a hypothetical situation, yet one she’s dealt with before: “If the parents of a kid with leukemia didn’t want their child to receive chemotherapy, I’d say to them, ‘There’s really good data that supports that your child could be cured with chemotherapy.'"
Moody says she also would validate their belief in alternative medicine, telling the parents that the child’s symptoms would be mitigated with acupuncture, and would be in the parents' best interest to try both approaches.
Angela Yvonne, a licensed acupuncturist and the senior career services adviser at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, maintains that acupuncture is safe for everyone, even infants.
“Acupuncture can bring immediate relief of colic and digestive problems in newborns,” says Yvonne, who says she has administered acupuncture to a 1-week-old baby.
So now that you have more information, would you have your newborn stuck with needles if he was crying hysterically? The bottom line, says Moody: “With alternative medicine, we can provide support when there is no other option in the conventional realm."
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