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Americans Turning to Alternative Medicine

Government survey finds 36% use non-traditional therapies

THURSDAY, May 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- More than one-third of American adults now use some form of alternative medicine, according to the most comprehensive look yet at non-traditional therapies in the United States.

A new government survey of 31,000 U.S. adults found that 36 percent of respondents said they generally used some sort of alternative medicine, including yoga, natural products or massage. But the percentage almost doubled when prayer was added to the list: 62 percent used "prayer for health reasons." Prayer was not defined beyond being split into two categories: for one's own health and by other people on your behalf.

The findings appear in a report released Thursday and prepared jointly by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With worldwide estimates of alternative-medicine usage hovering at about 80 percent, however, the United States still lags behind, Dr. Stephen E. Straus, director of NCCAM, said at a teleconference Thursday.

And because the current U.S. survey was much larger than previous studies, it is difficult to know whether the use of alternative medicine is growing or shrinking in the country. Richard L. Nahin, NCCAM's senior advisor for scientific coordination and outreach, said "there probably has been an increase."

The research, which was part of the CDC's 2002 National Health Interview Survey, gathered information from adults considered representative of the population. Participants answered questions on 27 types of alternative therapies, including acupuncture and chiropractic, both of which require a provider, as well as natural products, special diets and other therapies that do not require a provider. The questions were both more numerous and broader in scope than on previous surveys.

"[The survey] does not look at safety or effectiveness," Strauss pointed out. "It really looks at usage, why people are using CAM, why they choose it, what practices they're using and for what health conditions."

Women, people with higher education levels, people who had been hospitalized and former smokers tended to use alternative medicine more. Black adults were also more likely than whites or Asians to use alternatives, particularly including megavitamin therapy and prayer.

More than one-quarter (28 percent) of those surveyed said they used alternatives because they thought conventional medicine would not help them, while 13 percent said they used alternatives because conventional medicine was too expensive.

More than half (55 percent) said they were most likely to use an alternative therapy when they thought it would complement conventional treatments.

The alternative therapies were used most often to treat chronic conditions such as back, neck and joint pain, anxiety and depression, as well as the common cold.

The survey found the top 10 most commonly used therapies were:

  • Prayer (for one's own health), 43 percent
  • Prayer (by others for your health), 24 percent
  • Natural products, 19 percent
  • Deep breathing exercises, 12 percent
  • Participation in prayer group for own health, 10 percent
  • Meditation, 8 percent
  • Chiropractic care, 8 percent
  • Yoga, 5 percent
  • Massage, 5 percent
  • Diet-based therapies (such as Atkins, Pritikin), 4 percent.

The low number of people using a diet-based therapy may reflect the fact that the survey was conducted in 2002, before the intensive media coverage of the diets, Nahin said.

The use of natural products, including herbal remedies, appeared to be an increase from previous surveys, Nahin said. Echinacea use was particularly high -- higher than in previous surveys and topping the list of natural products. Also widely used were gingko biloba (to ward off dementia) and glucosamine (to prevent osteoarthritis).

The survey also uncovered continued use of the herbal remedy kava kava, a potentially troubling finding.

"It is sometimes associated with liver disease, and several countries have removed it from the shelf and the FDA has issued an advisory warning," Nahin said. "The public makes the assumption that because something is natural that it is safe. A number of studies have shown that natural products can be unsafe when used inappropriately or when used with pharmaceutical drugs."

Although this particular study did not look at the effectiveness of alternative therapies, officials at NCCAM and the CDC are hoping the survey results will help guide future research efforts.

"This is a very important public health issue," Strauss said. "We have conventional treatments that are proven to be safe and effective and people are making individual decisions to neglect those therapies at some point. And there are concerns that we have about those choices. Our goal is to provide better evidence as to whether products are safe and effective as claimed."

More information

Visit the NCCAM for the survey results and for general health information on alternative therapies.

SOURCES: May 27, 2004, teleconference with Stephen E. Straus, M.D., director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., senior advisor for scientific coordination and outreach, NCCAM; Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults
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