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How Safe Is Alternative Medicine For Your Child?

As alternative medicine becomes the norm for adults, it's natural that questions about the appropriate use of such therapies will arise.

October 29th, 2012

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In 1992, two Iowans crafted legislation that led to Congress’ creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine or OAM. Sen. Tom Harkin claimed bee pollen had cured his hay fever and Rep. Berkeley Bedell swore that cow colostrum had rid him of Lyme disease. 

The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that at the time OAM was created, about half the U.S. adult population had tried some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) and 10 percent of kids had.

By 2007, the percentage for children had grown to 12 percent, a modest gain, but nonetheless it begs posing the question: Is alternative medicine safe for kids?

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The National Institutes of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAM)’s website lists some reasonable arguments for why a parent should not blindly seek and alternative therapy administered to their child:

  • Children are not small adults. Their bodies can react differently from adults' bodies to medical therapies, including CAM
  • CAM therapies have not been well studied in children
  • "Natural" does not necessarily mean "safe"; CAM therapies may have side effects

 The top five therapies, according to NCAM, are:

  • Natural products
  • Chiropractic/osteopathic
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • Homeopathy

 Supplements for kids

Omega-3 supplements, according to the NIH, were the most commonly used nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product taken by adults, and the second most commonly taken by children. But supplements can act like drugs, and many have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children, says the NIH.

Alternative medicine for kids with chronic disease

In the case of cerebral palsy (CP), the CP International Research Foundation’s stance on alternative therapies is that they are dubious at best. A critique of alternative therapies, originally published in Clinical Pediatrics, analyzed three modalities for kids with developmental disabilities.

The paper’s author evaluated one lesser-known form of CAM: hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which involves breathing higher levels of oxygen than normal. It costs $4,000 (or $100 per session; 40 treatments is the norm, says the research) but is no more effective for the treatment of CP than pressurized air. The study’s conclusion: “There is no good clinical evidence to support the use of these 3 alternative treatments for cerebral palsy.”

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