Health Watch -- Alternative Medicine

Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

Can alternative medicine play a role in conventional health care?

About half of all Americans practice some form of alternative medicine. Alternative medicine can be defined as medical practices that aren't widely taught at US medical schools or practiced in US hospitals. It includes things like herbal remedies, vitamins, massages, hypnosis and acupuncture. Most often, patients pursue these treatments without guidance from their doctors. In fact, about three-quarters of the people using alternative medicine don't tell their doctors about it.

Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center say some alternative medicine practices can be helpful when used in conjunction with conventional medicine. For example, deep breathing may be used to help with labor pain, and behavioral therapy is a useful tool for treating depression and anxiety. Many modern-day medical practices have roots in alternative medicine. About half of the drugs on the market are derived from plants and herbs.

But Dr. Steven Leach, a UT Southwestern internist, says that the availability and popularity of herbal remedies doesn't mean they're all safe and effective. While many herbs are safe and some can be effective, there are still possible risks and side effects. It's important to tell your doctor what you're taking so your progress can be monitored.

A lot of alternative medicine is used for preventive care, and Dr. Leach says the best preventive care you can give yourself is to eliminate harmful behaviors, like smoking and a sedentary lifestyle. Getting regular exercise will do more for your health than just about any herb.


April 2004