Canadian Children Using Alternative Medicine, Are US Kids Too?

complementary and alternative medicine, CAM
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A wide range of complementary and alternative medicine therapies are used today by children. A new study of Canadian children shows that a considerable number of families use CAM therapies to treat a health condition, so pediatricians are understandably concerned about their safety.

Researchers with the University of Alberta and the University of Ottawa asked 926 parents at two Canadian children’s hospitals about their use of complementary and alternative medicine use. The median age of the children studied was almost nine years old. Half said that they had their children on a CAM therapy at the same time they were taking conventional drugs. Ten percent had tried alterative remedies before turning to medical therapies and 5% had used CAM in place of conventional medicine.

The most commonly used CAM therapies included massage, faith healing, chiropractic care and aromatherapy. Popular products such as vitamin/mineral supplements, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines were used to treat a wide range of conditions including asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer.

Unfortunately, however, many parents hadn’t told their child’s physician or their pharmacist about the use of alternative therapies which could increase the possibility of dangerous interactions. Many of the parents reported adverse effects from CAM therapies. Thankfully most were minor.

"Right now, these families are getting information about alternative medicine from friends, family and the Internet, but a key place they should be getting this information from is their doctor or another member of their health-care team, who would know about possible drug interactions with prescription medicines," said lead author and pediatrician Dr. Sunita Vohra.

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US children are using CAM as well. A 2007 survey found that nearly 12% of children had used some form of complementary or alternative therapy at some times during the previous twelve months. Adolescents aged 12-17, children with multiple health conditions, and families with financial difficulties (who used CAM to delay the cost of standard medical care) were among the most likely to use alternative medicine.

With CAM being used by so many children, Dr. Vohra says it’s time for pediatricians to do a better job of discussing the safety and efficacy of the therapies with parents. “Given the rates of use, we would like to encourage all health care providers to ask about complementary therapies and we encourage all parents to tell,” says Vohra. “In many cases, it’s not discussed because parents think doctors won’t support them, but it’s far better to have an open discussion.”

Health care providers should also take the time to learn about their patients’ chosen CAM therapies so they can provide more scientifically based answers to questions about how safe or effective they are. "Considering parents are saying they want this information, we have an obligation to ensure physicians have the education and resources they need for these conversations," Vohra says.

Parents should also take the time to do research from trusted sources of information before starting children on CAM. Kids are not just “small adults.” Their bodies can react very differently than adults to any medical therapy. Remember that “natural” does not always mean “safe” and side effects can occur.

When treating children with chronic health conditions, it is essential that parents and their child’s pediatrician have an open, honest conversation about all therapies being used at each and every visit.

Journal reference:
Adams D, et al "Complementary and alternative medicine use by pediatric specialty outpatients" Pediatrics 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012.1220.

Additional resource:
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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