According to a recent survey performed by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), approximately 12 percent of children ages 17 and under used some form of complementary and alternative medicine in the last year. Not surprisingly, kids whose parents use alternative medicine are more likely to use it themselves, as are adolescents (ages 12 to 17), children with more than one health condition, and those whose families avoid or delay conventional care because of financial reasons.
Alternative Medicine for Kids: Common Options
The most common alternative medicines used by children who participated in the survey include natural products, such as herbs and dietary supplements, and chiropractic and osteopathic modalities. Kids also reported using deep-breathing techniques, yoga, massage, meditation, and dietary therapy. Back and neck pain and colds were the most common reasons for children’s use of alternative medicine, but kids also reported seeing alternative medicine practitioners for anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and insomnia.
Alternative Medicine for Kids: Safety and Precautions
Complementary and alternative medicine use among kids is on the rise for a number of reasons, across a wide variety of health conditions. However, it’s important to remember that research on complementary and alternative medicine use in children is limited. Whatever evidence exists for efficacy or safety in adults does not necessarily apply to children.
“Kids are not mini-adults,” says Tim Aitken, a New York-based acupuncturist and herbalist who specializes in pediatrics. “In pediatric medicine, there are many considerations that are unique to treating children.”
Since children do not have fully developed immune and central nervous systems, they tend to respond differently than adults to treatments. This is true with traditional, Western treatments as well as alternative medicines. But some alternative medicines may require additional precautions because there has been less research on their side effects and interactions with other treatments.
Alternative medicine is generally thought of as having limited side effects, which is true for certain modalities performed by qualified practitioners. However, some treatments, like herbs and dietary supplements, can potentially interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications or cause their own side effects. Parents should always gather whatever safety information is available before exposing their child to any alternative medicine. If you can’t find information, ask your pediatrician. NCCAM advises that parents speak to their regular pediatrician, regardless of how much research they’ve done on their own. Complementary and alternative medicine should not replace traditional medical care.
Alternative Medicine for Kids: A Family Affair
In selecting a complementary and alternative medicine practitioner for your child, it is important to find someone the whole family feels comfortable with. “Pediatrics is family medicine,” says Aitken. “A lot of the work we do in treating children involves treating the parents as well.”
Before you settle on a complementary and alternative medicine practitioner, NCCAM recommends inquiring about her education, licensing, and experience in dealing with children, as well as her experience working with other health care providers in order to ensure coordinated and comprehensive care for the child.