June 30, 2005 -- Healing hands are the best alternative medicine, Consumer Reports readers say.
The nonprofit consumer magazine asked its readers how well alternative medicines work for what ails them. More than 34,000 readers took part.
"We asked them to rate the effectiveness of conventional and complementary treatments for their two biggest problems over the last two years," Consumer Reports Features Editor Leslie Ware tells WebMD. "They told us whether these treatments helped a lot, helped some, helped a little, or were no help at all."
The consumers' verdict:
- Chiropractic ranked ahead of all conventional treatments for back pain.
- Deep-tissue massage was very popular. It was particularly effective for osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.
- Exercise helped a wide range of conditions: back pain, allergies, respiratory problems, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, insomnia, and prostate problems.
- Herbal remedies and dietary supplements often ranked below over-the-counter remedies, while for most conditions prescription drugs ranked at or near the top.
The survey findings appear in the August issue of Consumer Reports.
Hands-On Therapies Get Thumbs Up
"For conditions such as back pain, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia, some forms of alternative medicine did work well," Ware says. "Those were, specifically, chiropractic and deep tissue massage. So look for hands-on therapies to work well for these conditions."
That's because moderate pressure to muscles and soft tissues stimulates a cascade of biological effects, explains Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"We are finding that moderate pressure is essential for any of the effects we see from massage," Field tells WebMD. "That may be one way chiropractic works, because typically a chiropractor applies moderate pressure. So does just about any sport that you do -- or any self-massage exercise like yoga. Anything that stimulates the body's pressure receptors will help."
Field warns that it's important to find a qualified therapist before undergoing such therapies.
"I always recommend that people go to their local massage school for a referral," she says. "And I suggest that since these treatments are expensive, that they learn the techniques themselves and teach their significant other to do it, so couples are massaging each other and parents are massaging children. Because the effects are so compelling, I recommend a regular dose, just like diet and exercise."
Supplements Not Getting Fair Shake?
Consumer Reports last asked its readers about alternative medicines in 1999. Since then, there's been a big change in doctors' attitudes.
"In 1999, doctors were just starting to accept alternative medicines as a valid way of treating people," Ware says. "Medical doctors are becoming increasingly likely to accept it, and patients are more likely to tell their doctors they are using it."
Doctors often complain that patients don't tell them about supplements they are taking. But 75% of Consumer Reports readers said they'd talked with their doctors about supplement use.
Even more impressively, one in four readers said their doctors suggested a supplement in the first place.
So why did the consumers rank supplements so low? Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents the supplement industry.
"Throughout the article, they put these herbal products up against drugs, and that is unfair," Mister tells WebMD. "This is comparing apples to oranges. It supports this erroneous idea that supplements should be viewed exactly the same as prescription medicines. To reinforce these false expectations of what supplements can and should do is a disservice to the industry."
Taking Herbal Remedies Right
Nutritionist Andrew Shao, PhD, CRN, vice president of science and regulatory affairs, says supplements work less like drugs than like diet.
"The classic example is glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis -- while they are very effective, they don't work the same way as drugs," Shao says. "It takes weeks or months, whereas an over-the-counter painkiller works in minutes or hours."
The problem is that herbal remedies should be prescribed by experts, not purchased like over-the-counter drugs, says Janine Blackman, MD, PhD. Blackman is medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore.
"For example, the idea of using chondroitin/glucosamine alone for arthritis is a Western approach," Blackman tells WebMD. "This is totally different from how these herbs should be used. An herbalist would examine a patient and write an individualized prescription for that person.
Blackman says that herbal remedies are important but must be part of a holistic approach. Her team combines the talents of a Chinese herbalist with those of a medical doctor and a psychologist.
"In the right hands, herbal remedies can be more powerful than drugs -- in the long run," Blackman says. "Drugs are more powerful in the short run. The beauty of herbal remedies is that they balance the body. They are not needed forever."
People interested in pursuing alternative medical treatments should consult a qualified practitioner. Blackman suggests that people find someone accredited by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).