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NIH reports on use of complementary and alternative medicines in children and adults

In a recent National Health Statistics Report, the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that about four in 10 adults and one in nine children use complementary and alternative medicines, including herbs and other therapies such as deep breathing and yoga. The findings were compiled using data from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey.

The NIH defines complementary interventions as those used in combination with conventional treatments and alternative interventions and those used instead of conventional treatments.

Children with parents who used CAM were five times as likely to use CAM. Individuals were more likely to use CAM when worry about costs delayed conventional care, although other factors contributed to the use of CAM.

"Looking at the literature, there is not just one issue or variable that drives people to use alternative and complementary medicine," said Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H., acting director of NCCAM's Division of Extramural Research and co-author of the National Health Statistics Report. "Some use it for cost issues, some use it because they are not satisfied with conventional care, some use it because they feel alternative medicine gives them more control of their own health, and some use it because friends and family use it."

Since the last report of this kind in 2002, NCCAM found that the levels of CAM use have remained relatively constant from about 36 percent in 2002 to 38 percent in 2007 in adults.

"We think the use of CAM has plateaued or is close to plateauing," said Nahin. "We haven't seen a lot of growth since the last survey."

During the same period an increase was seen in the use of acupuncture, deep breathing exercises, massage therapy, mediation, naturopathy and yoga with a decrease in the use of CAM for head or chest colds. CAM was most frequently sought to treat musculoskeletal conditions including neck and back pain.

The most commonly used CAM therapies in adults were supplements, including fish oil and omega 3s, glucosamine, echinacea, flaxseed oil and ginseng. Following supplements, the next five most popular CAM therapies were deep breathing exercises, meditation, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, massage and yoga.

For children, supplements including echinacea, fish oil and omega 3s, herbal combinations, flaxseed oil and probiotics and probiotics were most popular followed by chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, deep breathing exercises and yoga.

CAM therapies were used by more women than men, and more prominently by adults aged 30 to 69 with higher levels of education, living in the West and having quit smoking.

In a December 10 press release on the report, the NIH expressed the need for "rigorous research to study the safety and effectiveness of these therapies," while the report stated that "CAM practices are not part of conventional medicine because there is insufficient proof that they are safe and effective."

"There is always a concern in terms of giving the public some high quality information with which they can make an informed decision," Nahin said. "The NIH approach is that we have to do clinical trial research to determine the efficacy and safety of products and get that information published to let primary care doctors and the public make educated decisions about the use of these alternatives."

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