One-Third of Adults Have Tried Alternatives

Dissatisfaction Prompts Many to Try Alternative Medicine

May 27, 2004 -- Yoga, meditation, herbal supplements: More than one-third of adults use some form of alternative medicine, according to a nationwide survey.

"This is the most comprehensive data ever compiled about use of alternative medicine by the U.S. adult population," Stephen Strauss, MD, director of the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, told reporters in a news teleconference today.

"We will be relying heavily on this survey to guide research investments," Strauss said. "We prioritize according to practices and products more widely used by the public and for which there is already some suggestion of benefit."

More than 31,000 adults in the U.S. answered the survey about health care practices during 2002. The survey involved questions about 27 alternative medicine practices currently used in the U.S.

Among the findings:

  • 36% of adults use some form of complementary and alternative medicine.
  • When "praying specific to health reasons" was included in the survey, that number rises to 62%.
  • Back pain, head and chest colds, neck pain, joint pain, and anxiety/depression were the most common conditions treated with complementary and alternative medicine.
  • 19% of adults use natural products like herbal supplements, functional foods like garlic, and animal-based supplements like glucosamine for arthritis.
  • Of that group, 40% used echinacea, 24% used ginseng, 21% used ginkgo biloba, 20% used garlic supplements, and 7% used kava kava.

The NIH is currently conducting clinical trials of echinacea for respiratory viruses including colds, Richard L. Nahin, PhD, MPH, a senior advisor at the NIH, told reporters.

The fact that 7% were using kava kava is "interesting, because kava kava has been associated with liver disease. In fact, several companies in Europe have removed kava kava from the shelf. The FDA recently issued a warning in the U.S. about using kava kava," Nahin noted.

Of the 10 therapies most commonly used, most were mind-body interventions like prayer for health, prayer groups, deep-breathing exercise, meditation, yoga, and massage. Eight percent used chiropractic care. Four percent followed special diets like Atkins, vegetarian, Ornish, Pritikin, and Zone.

One "surprising" finding: 28% of people using alternatives believe that conventional medicine would not help their health problem, writes lead researcher Patricia M. Barnes, MA, with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Also, 55% believe alternatives combined with conventional medicine would help them; 50% tried alternatives because they thought it would be interesting. More than a quarter -- 26% -- were following a conventional doctor's suggestion; 13% felt that conventional medicine was too expensive.

About people using alternatives:

  • Women were more likely than men to use alternative therapies, especially mind-body therapies like prayer for health.
  • Older adults used more alternatives than younger adults did -- prayer, specifically.
  • Nearly three-quarters of black adults -- 68% -- prayed for health reasons, compared with 50% of white adults and 48% of Asian adults.
  • Lower-income adults were more likely to use alternatives, including megavitamin therapy and prayer.
  • Seniors covered by Medicare were more likely to use alternatives, compared with those with private insurance coverage or who were uninsured.

The findings confirm earlier reports that most people use alternative medicine to treat or prevent chronic or recurring pain, writes Barnes. The high usage is not surprising considering that one-quarter to one-third of the adult population might be suffering from one of these disorders, yet many forms of chronic pain are not relieved by conventional means, she adds.

SOURCE: Barnes, P. National Center for Health Statistics. NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine teleconference.