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Study: Americans use ‘alternative’ treatments for chronic pain

Americans frequently use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to deal with chronic pain, according to a comprehensive federal survey.

Thirty-eight percent of adults and 12 percent of children use some form of CAM, which is also called “integrative’ medicine, according to the report by the National Center for Health Statistics. Unlike alternative treatments, CAM methods are often used in conjunction with conventional treatment practices. 

For adults, CAM use has remained steady since the last survey was taken in 2002. But the most recent data shows increases in the use of acupuncture, deep breathing, meditation, massage therapy and yoga.

What the study doesn’t reflect is how many people are interested in CAM “but don’t know how to pursue it,” said Robert Dumont, a Loyola University Health System pediatrician who practices CAM–including Chinese medicine, herbal, acupuncture and homeopathy–and was not involved in the research.

“There’s a silent majority that doesn’t have the wherewithal or know-how to approach it. No one has ever quizzed people: ‘If you could safely do this, would you?'” he said.

Also, more people would pursue CAM if more doctors offered it, he said. But, he added that “I find that physicians in general are more resistant [to CAM] than patients.”

Still, the numbers may help guide research agenda.

“What I’m most struck with is how people are turning to CAM methods to treat chronic pain,” said Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM.) “This has important implications for where we need to invest research dollars.”

Adults used CAM most often to treat pain including back pain or problems, neck pain or problems, joint pain or stiffness/other joint condition, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

The most commonly used CAM therapies among U.S. adults were:  Nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products (17.7 percent) Most common: fish oil/omega 3/DHA, glucosamine, echinacea, flaxseed oil or pills, and ginseng, Deep breathing exercises (12.7 percent), Meditation (9.4 percent), Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation (8.6 percent), Massage (8.3 percent), Yoga (6.1 percent).


Who uses CAM?  

Women (42.8 percent, compared to men 33.5 percent), Those aged 30-69 (30-39 years: 39.6 percent, 40-49 years: 40.1 percent, 50-59 years: 44.1 percent, 60-69 years: 41.0 percent), Those with higher levels of education (Masters, doctorate or professional: 55.4 percent) , Those who were not poor (poor: 28.9 percent, near poor: 30.9 percent, not poor: 43.3 percent), Those living in the West (44.6 percent), Those who have quit smoking (48.1 percent).


CAM Use Among Children

Overall, about 1 in 9 children use CAM methods, but the researchers noted the numbers might be higher than results indicate, especially among adolescents who might not tell their parents they were using CAM methods. Children are five times more likely to use CAM if a parent or other relative uses CAM, the survey found.

Other characteristics of adult and child CAM users are similar—factors such as socioeconomic status, geographic region, the number of health conditions, the number of doctor visits in the last 12 months, and delaying or not receiving conventional care because of cost are all associated with CAM use. 

Among children who used CAM in the past 12 months, CAM therapies were used most often for back or neck pain, head or chest colds, anxiety or stress, other musculoskeletal problems, and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD).

The most commonly used CAM therapies among children were: Nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products (3.9 percent) Most common: echinacea, fish oil/omega 3/DHA, combination herb pill, flaxseed oil or pills, and prebiotics or probiotics, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation (2.8 percent), Deep breathing exercises (2.2 percent), Yoga (2.1 percent).

The survey, conducted as part of the 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), had several limitations. It relied on the respondents’ memory and or their willingness to accurately report their use of CAM. The data was also collected at a single point in time so it didn’t follow an individual’s use of CAM.  


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