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Rising Popularity of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Approaches

Scott Olson, ND


Prior to the 20th century, natural medicines were the only real medicines available. The rise of science and the scientific method, which first took off during the European enlightenment, caused this situation to change dramatically; mostly within the last hundred years. Natural vitamins and medicines were largely abandoned as modern so-called “miracle" drugs became available in the early part of the 20th century. These wonder drugs, mostly taken for granted today, were truly revolutionary and were welcomed as the solution to many previously hopeless health problems. Antibiotics, steroid anti-inflammatories such as cortisol, and other drugs were developed in laboratories. Accompanying these new drugs was the thought that science would eventually discover the cure for all diseases. As a result, things natural seemed old-fashioned and out-of-date.

As the 20th century closed, the failing of many "miracle" medicines prompted a search for alternative treatments. The decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics, in particular, spurred this search for replacements. For example, the rise in popularity of Echinacea (a common herb use to treat colds and flu) can be traced to the decline of antibiotic usage.

Contemporary Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Determining how many people currently use complementary and alternative medicine is difficult. If prayer used as a medical treatment is considered a CAM therapy, then it is estimated that over 50% of the people in the United States use some from of alternative medicine; without including prayer, that number is around 20-30%. The use of CAM varies across religious, cultural, and racial sub-groups, but remains around the 30% range for people in the United States.

A study conducted by the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who use alternative medicine tend to be more educated and in poorer health than individuals who use traditional therapies. Participants in the study reported that chiropractic, lifestyle/diet, exercise/movement and relaxation therapies were the most commonly used CAM treatments.

Alarmingly, very few of the study participants used CAM in isolation; instead, they often mixed standard and CAM medications without alerting their doctor! This strategy is potentially very harmful! Many complementary and alternative medicines can interfere with conventional medications. In addition, many CAM therapies lack studies determining their potential for interaction effects (serious side effects occurring when drugs are combined). It is always a good idea to inform your doctor about all medicines you are taking, CAM or otherwise. It is also typically a good idea to seek professional guidance from a Naturopathic Physician or similarly trained alternative health care provider before selecting and using natural medicines as treatments for complex health problems.

The most common reasons for a visit to a CAM practitioner are back pain or back problems, head or chest colds, neck pain or neck problems, joint pain or stiffness, and anxiety or depression. The number of people using CAM specifically for mental disorders is similar to the numbers of individuals seeking CAM treatment for other general conditions. In one study, 10% percent of patients with schizophrenia and 30% of patients with an affective disorder (major depressive disorder, bipolar disorders, and anxiety disorders) consulted an alternative care practitioner for either physical or psychiatric symptoms.

It is commonly thought that people visit CAM practitioners because they don’t like or are concerned about the side effects of standard medications. Patient surveys reveal that this isn’t so. Patients tend to choose CAM because it matches their values, beliefs, and philosophical orientation to life and health. In other words, dissatisfaction with conventional medicine does not necessarily predict who will use CAM.