Complementary and alternative medicine: Evaluate treatment claims

Don't take all CAM claims at face value. Do your homework when considering CAM therapies. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Complementary and alternative medicine treatments, such as herbal remedies and acupuncture, have become more popular as people seek greater control of their own health. But while complementary and alternative medicine, called CAM for short, offers you more options, not all CAM treatments have been proved safe or effective.

When considering CAM treatments, it pays to be a savvy consumer. Be open-minded yet skeptical. Learn about the potential benefits and risks. Gather information from a variety of sources and check the credentials of CAM practitioners. And be sure to talk with your doctor before trying any treatment — especially if you take medications or have chronic health problems.

How to evaluate claims of treatment success

Look for solid scientific studies
When researching CAM treatments, do like doctors do. Look for high-quality clinical studies. These large, controlled and randomized trials are published in peer-reviewed journals — journals that only publish articles reviewed by independent experts. The results of these studies are more likely to be solid.

Be cautious about studies in animals, laboratory studies or studies that include only a small number of people. Their results may or may not hold up when tested in larger clinical trials. Finally, remember that sound health advice is generally based on a body of research, not a single study.

Although scientific studies are the best way to evaluate whether a treatment is safe and effective, it isn't always possible to find good studies about alternative medicine practices. Keep in mind that a lack of evidence doesn't necessarily mean a treatment doesn't work — but it does mean it hasn't been proved. Don't hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have questions.

Weed out misinformation
The Internet is full of information about alternative medicine treatments, but not all of it is accurate. To weed out the good information from the bad, use the three D's:

  • Dates. Check the creation or update date for each article. If you don't see a date, don't assume the article is recent. Older material may be outdated and not include recent findings, such as newly discovered side effects or advances in the field.
  • Documentation. Check sources. Are qualified health professionals creating and reviewing the information? Is advertising clearly identified? Look for the logo from the Health on the Net (HON) Foundation, which means that the site follows HON's principles for reliability and credibility of information.
  • Double-check. Gather as much information as you can. Visit several health sites and compare the information they offer. If you can't find supporting evidence to back up the claims of a CAM product, be skeptical. And before you follow any advice you read on the Internet, check with your conventional doctor for guidance.

Supplements: 'Natural' doesn't always mean safe

Herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, and all types of dietary supplements are marketed as "natural" products, but they can have drug-like effects that can be dangerous. Even some vitamins and minerals can cause problems when taken in excessive amounts. So it's important to do your homework and investigate potential benefits and side effects of dietary and herbal supplements. Play it safe with these tips:

  • Talk to your doctor before taking a dietary supplement. This is especially important if you are pregnant, nursing a baby, or if you have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes or heart disease.
  • Avoid drug interactions. Prescription and over-the-counter medications can interact with certain dietary supplements. For example, the herbal supplement ginkgo can interact with the blood-thinning medication warfarin and increase the risk of serious bleeding complications.
  • Before surgery, tell your doctor about supplements you take. Some supplements can cause problems during surgery, such as changes in heart rate or blood pressure or increased bleeding. You may need to stop taking these supplements at least two to three weeks before your procedure.
Oct. 22, 2011 See more In-depth