Complementary and alternative medicine: Evaluate 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 (CAM) treatments, such as herbal remedies and acupuncture, are growing in popularity. And thanks to increasing research on CAM treatments, doctors are now better able to understand the role these alternative therapies can play in helping treat and prevent disease. In fact, conventional medicine and alternative medicine treatments may be offered together — a practice called integrative medicine.

But while complementary and alternative medicine — CAM for short — offers you more options, not all CAM treatments have been studied well enough to know whether or not they're safe or effective.

When considering CAM treatments, 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. Also, talk with your doctor before trying any treatment — especially if you take medications or have chronic health problems — to be sure it won't be harmful to you.

How to evaluate treatment claims

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 reliable. You can find many of these studies online or by asking a reference librarian at your local library.

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 or on people. 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. A lack of evidence doesn't necessarily mean a treatment doesn't work — but it does make it harder to evaluate whether or not a particular treatment is safe and effective. Don't hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have questions.

Weed out misinformation

The Internet is full of information about CAM treatments, but not all of it's 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 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. 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 or from a CAM practitioner, check with your doctor for guidance.

Supplements: 'Natural' doesn't always mean safe

Herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, and dietary supplements are marketed as "natural" products, but natural doesn't always mean safe. These products can have serious side effects.

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 or 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 (Coumadin) 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.
Sep. 20, 2014 See more In-depth