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Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine a Good Idea for Kids?

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Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine a Good Idea for Kids?

Apr 20, 2015

Complementary and alternative medicines are all over lately: herbal supplements, massage, essential oils, and more. You might love how some of these therapies make you feel, but are they safe for your child? You might be surprised to learn that there are some risks. Dr. Cindy Gellner is an expert on this subject and talks about the ways you can safely apply these practices with your child.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Gellner: With essential oils, mindfulness and yoga in the news a lot, it seems complementary and alternative medicine is everywhere. But are these really good for your child? I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner and today we will be talking about complementary and alternative medicine on The Scope.

Announcer: Keep your kids healthy and happy. You are now entering the Healthy kid Zone with Dr. Cindy Gellner on The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: So you hear a lot about essential oils and teas, and massage and everything out there as ways to help your child through a cold, or the stomach ache, or sleeping. But how much do we really know about them and are they safe for kids? So although, there is no strict definition of complementary and alternative medication, it generally includes any healing practices that are not part of mainstream medicine. That means any practice that is not widely taught in medical schools or frequently used by doctors or in hospitals.

There is actually a difference between complementary and alternative medication. Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medical treatment. Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional medical treatments. Complementary and alternative medicine also known as CAM in the United States, is constantly changing as different types of care becomes more accepted by doctors and more requested by patients. Some of us are more open to complementary and alternative medicine than others, that's where you need to figure out if your Pediatrician is comfortable with them or not. Many of us are.

The National institutes of Health classifies two general areas of complementary and alternative care, there are natural products such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, probiotics, other dietary supplements and essential oils. Then there are mind and body practices, which include acupuncture, massage, spinal manipulation, yoga and meditation. When talking about alternative medicine, the alternative medical systems include traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic which is found in the Middle East, homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine.

Alternative medical system incorporates many of these practices into their treatments. Some complementary and alternative medicine practices are supported by scientific research, while others have not yet been fully studied. Sometimes experts have scientific evidence that a practice like acupuncture works but they don't have a clear understanding as to why it works.

So how does complementary and alternative medicine differ from traditional medicine? Complementary and alternative medicine is frequently distinguished by its holistic methods, which means that the doctor or the practitioner treat the whole person not just the condition or the disease. Despite the growth of the field, complementary health approaches are usually not covered by medical insurances.

So what are the risks of using complementary and alternative medicine? The lack of scientific study means that some potential problems are associated with CAM therapies and that they may be difficult to identify. What's more, almost all of the studies that have been done, involve adults as test subjects. There is very little research on the effects of CAM on children.

Some therapies particularly herbal medicines and other dietary supplements may actually have significant risks to children. Unlike prescription and over-the counter medications, dietary supplements are not rigorously regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. They face no extensive tests before they're marketed and they do not have to meet quality standards. That means when you buy an herbal supplement such as echinacea or ginseng, you might not know what you're getting. The amount of the ingredient may be more or less than what is stated on the label. The herb may not be the right plant species, or the supplement may be contaminated with other herbs, pesticides, metals or other ingredients including prescription drugs.

Also natural doesn't always equal safe and many parents don't realize that some supplements can actually cause health problems for their kids. Certain herbal supplements can cause high blood pressure, liver damage or allergic reactions. For example echinacea can cause allergic reactions in kids with seasonal allergies and eucalyptus can be deadly if ingested.

Parents might also give their kids much more of an herb than recommended, thinking that because it's natural, a higher dose won't hurt. There is a saying in toxicology that dose makes the poison. It does not matter what substance you're talking about, even water, too much of it is not good. Many plants contain potent chemicals and approximately 25% of all prescription drugs are derived from plants. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're safe just by themselves.

Choosing a practitioner can pose another problem. Many physicians may not know much about complementary and alternative medicine and others may choose to only focus on medical treatments taught about in their training and may not be open to a family using complementary and alternative medicine. Perhaps the greatest risk though, is the potential for people to delay or stop medical treatment in favor of alternative therapy. Relying entirely on alternative therapies for any serious, chronic or acute conditions can jeopardize a child's health.

Can complementary and alternative medicine really help? Absolutely. It's not uncommon for a parent to turn to a cup of chamomile tea or ginger as a way to soothe the symptoms of a flu or upset stomach in their child. Anxious kids can learn how to relax with the help of meditation or yoga and it's often recommended by psychiatrists that children learn this type of bio feedback. Massage has been shown to help premature babies grow and the scent of lavender is good to help your child go to sleep.

So if you want to try complementary and alternative medication for your child, talk to your pediatrician to make sure it's safe and will not conflict with any traditional care your child is already receiving. Always make sure that if you are using any type of complementary or alternative medication, please be sure to mention that to your child's pediatrician. We definitely want to know everything you child is taking, even vitamins, because we want to make sure that if we need to give your child medication for anything, it's not going to interact with anything else that you're giving your child as a supplement.

By coordinating complementary approaches with traditional care, you don't have to choose between them, instead you can get the best of both worlds.

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