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How safe are alternative medical procedures?

Created date

March 27th, 2015

In recent years, more people have been trying complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 30% of older adults use some type of CAM. 

These two terms have slightly different meanings. Complementary medical treatments are typically used along with standard medical care; whereas, alternative medical treatment replaces standard medical care. CAM is still relatively new and does not yet have a large body of research supporting its safety and effectiveness. So do any popular CAM treatments really work? 


Many people use acupuncture to relieve pain. In Chinese medicine, the body is viewed as a system of 12 channels of energy. If any of these channels become blocked, pain can result. Practitioners use needles to release the energy channels, restore the body to a natural state of balance, and thus alleviate pain.

Techniques behind placing the needles vary based on training and culture. For instance, in Chinese acupuncture, the patient might feel a little jab when the needle is inserted; in other types of acupuncture, that doesn’t occur. Sometimes, people have minor pain after treatment; others don’t.

“Twenty-five of 32 research reviews of acupuncture have shown no consistent pain-relieving efficacy to this technique, but some scientific evidence indicates that it is successful in two areas: treating postoperative and chemotherapy-associated nausea,” says Matt Narrett, M.D., chief medical officer of Erickson Health Medical Group.

Tai chi

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art. When practiced today, it is more of a mind-body experience in which you slowly move your body while breathing deeply. As a particularly senior-friendly activity, it has been shown to increase muscle strength and flexibility, ease joint pain and stiffness, improve sleep, and make people feel as if they are breathing easier. People who regularly take tai chi classes also report being in a good mood and feeling satisfied with life.

Some scientific data show that tai chi may help you live longer. In one study, researchers found that study participants who engaged in tai chi for one year had a significant increase in a certain type of stem cell that spurs cell growth and renewal throughout your body. 

“Practicing tai chi on a regular basis has shown some promise in older adults with regard to balance, and one study found it to improve the quality of life and mood of heart-failure patients,” Narrett says. 

Tai chi is safe and easy. Nevertheless, you should check with your doctor before beginning any activity program. In addition, you shouldn’t participate in a class right after eating or if you have a hernia, fractures, or an acute illness such as an infection. 

Chiropractic care

Chiropractic care is not limited to spinal manipulation, although that is how it started. In 1895, a self-taught healer named Daniel David Palmer believed that correcting the alignment of the vertebrae (bony segments of the spine) would restore normal brain and nerve function and also enhance the body’s natural ability to recover from illness.

Today, most chiropractors mix spinal adjustments with other therapies, such as hot or cold treatments; electrical stimulation; rehabilitative exercise; and counseling about diet, weight loss, and other lifestyle factors. The main reason people seek chiropractic care is pain, particularly in the back, knees, hips, and shoulders. “There have been many studies that support the benefits of spinal manipulation for back pain, neck pain, and flexibility,” says Thomas Morris, D.O., medical director of Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. “In addition, there are many gentle chiropractic treatments that are safe for some people with osteoporosis.”

But chiropractic care is not right for everyone,” Morris continues. “Your doctor and other health care providers should be aware of any chiropractic care you are receiving.”

Herbal and dietary supplements

Over-the-counter herbal and dietary supplements have become big business. Some people use them as alternatives to conventional prescription medicines. Common herbal supplements and their uses are St. John’s wort for depression; kava for anxiety; ginkgo biloba for memory enhancement; glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis pain; ginger, chamomile, and cinnamon for digestive problems; and saw palmetto for enlarged prostate urinary symptoms.

None of this is proven to work, however. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal products, which means these products can be sold with no proof of their safety, purity, or efficacy. Manufacturers of herbal supplements are supposed to ensure that claims they make about their products aren’t false or misleading, and that they’re backed up by adequate scientific evidence. This evidence, if it exists, does not have to be submitted or reviewed by the FDA. “Gingko biloba, which has sparked a lot of research due to various health claims, has not been shown to improve blood pressure, prevent cancer, or have any positive effects on memory or dementia,” Narrett says.

“Some over-the-counter herbal supplements can have serious interactions with prescription medicines,” says Brian Tremaine, medical director of Eagle’s Trace, an Erickson Living community in Houston, Tex. 

Overall, consider safety first, and make sure your doctor knows about what types of CAM you want to try. “Like many physicians, I am cautious about some CAM treatments for older adults,” says Tremaine. “If, however, a patient gives me a good report after trying something safe, I may continue to recommend it.”