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Some Alternative Answers

New database lets you research alternative medicine questions

SATURDAY, May 26, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Can meditation really lower your blood pressure? Does magnesium ease asthma?

In laboratories across the nation, researchers are constantly asking such questions while conducting medical studies to determine whether complementary or alternative medicines can really do you any good.

Now, you can see the latest results for yourself.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Library of Medicine recently launched a new Internet database that lets you freely access more than 200,000 medical journal articles on alternative or complementary medicine, which includes hundreds of herbs, supplements, treatments and techniques. The articles deal with topics that range from homeopathy to hypnosis, chelation therapy to chiropractic.

Called CAM, the new database is part of PubMed, a free system that gives the public access to 11 million citations from medical journal articles.

The database "represents a major step in mainstreaming CAM research information," says Dr. Stephen E. Straus, the director of NCCAM, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

And Dr. David Spiegel, medical director of Stanford University Health System's Complementary Medicine Clinic, calls the new database a valuable tool for patients and medical professionals.

"What NCCAM is trying to do is bring science to the practice of alternative medicine," Spiegel says. "Some of these treatments work, some don't. The goal is to integrate what is good about complementary and mainstream medicine to inform practitioners and patients."

Spiegel has one caveat, however. Because the articles in the database are written for scientists and doctors, patients could perhaps misinterpret the results, he says. So before starting a new supplement or treatment, you should consult with your doctor. Because some alternative medicines are so potent, you need to make sure there won't be any side-effects or interactions with other medicines you're taking, he adds.

"Patients are becoming a major force in educating physicians," Spiegel also notes. "They download something off the Internet, take it to [their] doctor's office and say, 'Why aren't you giving me this?' Sometimes doctors have a very good reason for it; sometimes it's new to them. It keeps everyone on their toes."

The CAM database was established in response to the increase in popularity of alternative medicine, Straus says.

Between 1990 and 1997, the number of Americans using an alternative therapy rose from about 33 percent to more than 42 percent, according to a 1998 survey in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And according to a 1998 study, 75 of the nation's 125 medical schools were offering courses that cover topics like acupuncture, herbal medicine or therapeutic massage.

Getting respect from traditional doctors "has been a long process," says Donald Rosenthal, the president of the American Alternative Medicine Association who is a chiropractor in Gilmer, Texas.

"People with back pain don't want to spend their lives on painkillers. People with osteoporosis want a natural supplement instead of prescription medicines," Gilmer says. "They are finding traditional medicine has not worked for them, and they are looking elsewhere."

And traditional medicine has also been informed by alternative medicine, Spiegel says, adding that, Digitalis, for example, a drug prescribed to treat heart arrhythmias, is a derivative of the foxglove plant, which has been used as a herbal treatment for years.

"Who knows where the next medical advance will come from?" he says.

What To Do

To learn more about magnet therapy, acupuncture, homeopathy or dozens of other alternative treatments, check out the CAM database on PubMed. Searching the site is easy. Just type in a subject, author name or article title to retrieve a list of related articles.

The Hawaii Medical Library's Consumer Health Information Network also has extensive links to other alternative medicine sites.

Or check out these other HealthDay stories on alternative medicine.

SOURCES: Interviews with David Spiegel, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, Calif.; Stephen E. Straus, M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Silver Spring, Md.; Donald Rosenthal, president of the American Alternative Medicine Association
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