Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use and Children
On this page:
- Key Points
- Patterns of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use in Children
- Safety of Childhood Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use
- Discussing Complementary and Alternative Medicine With Your Pediatrician
- Additional Points To Consider
- For More Information
A wide range of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies are used by children, including herbs and dietary supplements, massagePressing, rubbing, and moving muscles and other soft tissues of the body, primarily by using the hands and fingers. The aim is to increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the massaged area., acupunctureA family of procedures that originated in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body by a variety of techniques, including the insertion of thin metal needles though the skin. It is intended to remove blockages in the flow of qi and restore and maintain health., chiropractic care, naturopathyA whole medical system that originated in Europe. Naturopathy aims to support the body's ability to heal itself through the use of dietary and lifestyle changes together with CAM therapies such as herbs, massage, and joint manipulation., and homeopathyA whole medical system that originated in Europe. Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself by giving very small doses of highly diluted substances that in larger doses would produce illness or symptoms (an approach called "like cures like").. This fact sheet from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) offers information for parents who are thinking about using a CAM therapy for their child.
- CAM is used by American children, including adolescents.
- Children are not small adults. Their bodies can react differently from adults' bodies to medical therapies, including CAM.
- In general, CAM therapies have not been well studied in children.
- Tell your child's health care providers about any CAM therapy you are considering or using for your child. This helps to ensure coordinated and safe care.
Patterns of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use in Children
The 2007 National Health Interview Survey gathered information on CAM use among more than 9,000 children younger than 18. Nearly 12 percent of the children had used some form of CAM during the past 12 months. CAM use was much more likely among children whose parents also used CAM. Adolescents aged 12–17, children with multiple health conditions, and those whose families delayed or did not use conventional medical care because of cost were also more likely to use CAM. The accompanying figures show survey findings on CAM use by children, including top therapies and diseases/conditions.
In addition, a 2001 survey of 745 members of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 87 percent of pediatricians had been asked about CAM therapies by a patient or a parent in the 3 months prior to the survey. The pediatricians were asked most often about herbs and dietary supplements.
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Safety of Childhood Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use
Few high-quality studies have examined how CAM therapies may affect young people, and results from studies in adults do not necessarily apply to children. Children are not small adults. Their immune and central nervous systems are not fully developed, so they may respond to treatments differently than adults. This is especially true for infants and young children.
Herbs and other dietary supplements may interact with medicines or other supplements, or they may cause problems during surgery, such as bleeding-related complications. In addition, "natural" does not necessarily mean "safe." CAM therapies can have side effects, and these may be different in children than in adults.
Scientific studies provide valuable information about how safe and effective a specific CAM therapy is in children. However, since few, if any, rigorous studies in young people exist, additional scientific studies are needed. Anecdotes and testimonials (personal stories) about CAM therapies are common and can be compelling, but they are not evidence.
Discussing Complementary and Alternative Medicine With Your Pediatrician
Parents often do not tell pediatricians or other health care providers that their child is receiving CAM. It is important, however, that families speak with their child's health care provider about any CAM therapy being used or considered. Providing a full picture of what is being done to manage your child's health will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
For tips about talking with your health care provider about CAM, see NCCAM's Time to Talk campaign at nccam.nih.gov/timetotalk.
When seeking care from a CAM practitioner, it is important to ask about the practitioner's:
- Education and training
- Experience in delivering care to children
- Experience working with other providers, including physicians, to ensure coordinated care
- Licensing (some states have licensing requirements for certain CAM practitioners, such as chiropractors, naturopathic doctors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists).
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Additional Points To Consider
In addition to asking your child's health care provider what is known about whether a therapy works and is safe for children, consider these points when making decisions about using CAM:
- Ensure that your child has received an accurate diagnosis from a licensed health care provider and that CAM use does not replace or delay conventional medical care.
- If you decide to use CAM for your child, do not increase the dose or length of treatment beyond what is recommended (more is not necessarily better).
- If your child experiences an effect from a CAM therapy that concerns you, contact your child's health care provider.
- Store herbal and other dietary supplements out of the sight and reach of children.
- If you are a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding, remember that some CAM therapies may affect your fetus or nursing infant.
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- Breuner CC. Complementary medicine in pediatrics: a review of acupuncture, homeopathy, massage, and chiropractic therapies. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care. 2002;32(10):353–384.
- Committee on Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Pediatrics. Counseling families who choose complementary and alternative medicine for their child with chronic illness or disability. Pediatrics. 2001;107(3):598–601.
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- Sibinga EM, Ottolini MC, Duggan AK, et al. Parent-pediatrician communication about complementary and alternative medicine use for children. Clinical Pediatrics. 2004;43(4):367–373.
- Wilson KM, Klein JD, Sesselberg TS, et al. Use of complementary medicine and dietary supplements among U.S. adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2006;38(4):385–394.
- Woolf AD. Herbal remedies and children: do they work? Are they harmful? Pediatrics. 2003;112(1 Pt 2):240–246.
- Yussman SM, Ryan SA, Auinger P, et al. Visits to complementary and alternative medicine providers by children and adolescents in the United States. Ambulatory Pediatrics. 2004;4(5):429–435.
For More Information
The NCCAM Clearinghouse provides information on NCCAM and complementary health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
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