In today’s world, it seems as if alternative therapies are everywhere. Advertisements for herbal remedies are nearly as prevalent in health magazines and on television as ads for FDA approved medications. Once considered unconventional, yoga, massage, and acupuncture have become nearly mainstream. Judging from the amount of marketing, one might assume that most Americans are using some form of alternative medicine.

What exactly is “alternative” medicine? “Alternative and complementary medicine,” or CAM— the official title, according to the National Institutes of Health, can be defined as any therapy or treatment that is not part of conventional medicine. This broad definition includes interventions as simple as taking an herb, like echinacea or ginseng, to fight off a cold, or as complicated as acupuncture or chiropractic care.

A study published in the January/February 2005 issue of Alternative Therapies compared the results of two surveys to determine if the prevalence of alternative medicine use changed between 1997 and 2002.

About the Study

This study analyzed the results from two national surveys of alternative medicine use by adults. The first survey took place in 1997, and the second in 2002. All of the respondents were age 18 or over, and were interviewed either in person or by phone. The surveys consisted of questions regarding the use of 15 different complementary and alternative therapies during the previous 12 months:

While the two surveys were not identical, the researchers only compared results for the 15 therapies that were determined to be comparable. The respondents were also asked if any of the therapies they used were covered by insurance.

The Findings

The results of the study revealed that although the prevalence of some treatments increased and others decreased, overall use of alternative medicine remained stable from 1997 to 2002. The greatest increase in use between 1997 and 2002 was seen for herbal medicine and yoga, and the greatest decrease was for chiropractic care. Nevertheless, chiropractic care remained one of the most common treatments used in 2002, along with herbal therapy and relaxation techniques. Respondents who were most likely to use an alternative therapy were non-Hispanic white females between the ages of 40 and 64, with a household income of $65,000 or higher.

The authors concluded that the prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine use has remained stable from 1997 to 2002. Approximately 72 million Americans use complementary and alternative medicines.

How Does This Affect You?

More than 10 years ago, when it was first discovered that a surprising number of Americans reported using alternative therapies, many critics predicted it was only a fad. This study strongly suggests otherwise. Many people feel comfortable using some form of alternative medicine. Indeed, the results of this study reveal that nearly one in three US adults are willing to seek out their own unconventional therapy for health problems. While most of these therapies are far safer than many conventional treatments, their lack of regulation raises some concern.

The use of herbal therapies increased by 50% between 1997 and 2002, the largest increase of all the therapies investigated. There is currently no system in place in the United States to determine the relative safety and effectiveness of herbal treatments. Currently the FDA places most herbal remedies in the category of dietary supplements, which is somewhere between drugs and foods. Classifying a product as a dietary supplement means that its manufacturer is not legally required to prove that it is safe and effective before being marketed. This means that the Echinacea you take for your cold may be helpful, may do nothing, or may be harmful. Unfortunately, because many alternative therapies are marketed as “all natural,” they may be perceived as safe.

The fact is, most of these therapies are safe, and some studies have supported their effectiveness. However, when considering an alternative therapy, it is important to remember that just like prescribed drugs, they can be helpful or harmful. As with any new drug or therapy, it is important to talk with your doctor before starting, to find the best way to integrate an alternative therapy into your life.