Are Alternative Treatments Safe?

photo nurse giving chemo to male patient in hospital bed - are alternative treatments safeIf you (or a loved one) are dealing with a serious medical condition, there’s a good chance you’ve thought about trying complementary or alternative medicine. Perhaps you are wondering if there is anything that might help you heal better and/or faster? Or, maybe you want to reduce your symptoms and/or treatment side effects? There are dozens of complementary and alternative medicine options to consider. However, some treatments do not work, and others are dangerous. Should you consider alternative treatments? Are alternative treatments safe?

In addition to this post on the generalities of CAM treatments, read these posts on the pros and cons of common complementary and alternative medicine:

Let’s get the terminology straight.

Although many people refer to non-traditional treatments as “alternative medicine”, this category of treatment is called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).  As the name suggests, complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional treatments, often to help patients better cope with treatments, symptoms and side effects. Conversely, alternative medicine is used instead of conventional therapies, in an effort to heal the patient.

How popular are CAM treatments?

In the US, about 38% of adults and 12% of children use CAM. Furthermore, a recent study of cancer patients found that 1/3 used alternative therapies. Of this group, about 36% used herbal supplements and 25% went to a chiropractor or osteopath.

What kinds of treatments are there?

photo of acupuncture needles in leg - are alternative treatments safeI’m guessing that you’ve heard of acupuncture, massage and herbal medicines. But there are scores of CAM treatments, many of which you likely have never heard of. (For an extensive list of CAM treatments, along with helpful information, visit the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.)

CAM treatments generally fall into one of the following categories:

Traditional alternative medicine.

Some CAM treatments are well accepted and generally considered mainstream, such as acupuncture and homeopathy. Treatments in this category have been practiced for centuries around the world.

Diet and herbs.

Dietary and herbal treatments aim to balance the body’s nutritional well-being, which practitioners believe can alleviate certain chronic diseases.


Based on the belief that illness or injury in one area of the body can affect all parts of the body. These treatments often combine mind and body techniques.

External energy.

Practitioners believe external energies from objects or other sources can directly impact a person’s health.


These treatments are based on the widely recognized connection between the body and the mind. (Studies show that people heal better if they have good emotional and mental health.)


Based on the belief that the senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste) can impact health.

What are some common CAM treatments?

photo man on table getting massage - are alternative treatments safeAlthough there are too many CAM treatments to include here, below is a list of some common treatments:

  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurveda
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
  • Chiropractic and osteopathic medicine
  • Massage
  • Tai chi and Qi Gong
  • Yoga
  • Dietary supplements
  • Herbal medicine
  • CBD (hemp extract)
  • Nutrition/diet
  • Magnetic field therapy
  • Reiki
  • Meditation
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis
  • Art, dance, and music
  • Visualization and guided imagery
  • Aromatherapy

Do CAM treatments work? Are alternative treatments safe?

Importantly, most CAM treatments have not undergone rigorous testing to prove they are safe and/or effective. Although many patients and doctors attest to the helpfulness of various CAM treatments, some are unsafe and can cause dangerous side effects. Additionally, CAM treatments might negatively interact with conventional treatments, increasing a patient’s risk of side effects and/or decreasing the effectiveness of conventional treatments.

Scams abound!

photo of pile of signs that say ScamShark cartilage anyone? Interested in snake oil? When facing a difficult and/or terminal diagnosis, it’s natural to want a miracle cure. Above all, it’s important to realize there are unscrupulous companies taking advantage of patients’ desperation by offering expensive, fake treatments. Importantly, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And it can be dangerous. So, save your money and protect yourself from danger by talking to your doctor before buying or trying anything.

To learn more about evaluating potential treatments, read by blog posts:

And, visit this FDA website.

Should you try a CAM treatment? 

Before you decide, do your research. Talk to you doctor (see below). And do some internet research. Additionally, ask your friends and family if they have tried the treatment you are considering. For a summary of the pros and cons for many common CAM treatments, watch out for my upcoming blog posts.

Involve your doctors.

photo doctor at desk speaking the patient - are alternative treatments safeBefore starting any type of CAM treatment, discuss it with your doctor(s)! Because there is always a chance that a CAM treatment could make you sicker and/or interfere with your conventional treatment, partnering with your doctor is key. Although sharing this information may seem unnecessary, your health may depend on it! Surprisingly, patients often don’t share this information with their doctors. For example, a recent study of cancer patients found that among those who used alternative therapies, about 30% did not tell their doctor about it. Why not? Surprisingly, it’s mostly because their doctors never asked them!

How to choose a practitioner. 

First of all, ask your doctor if he/she can recommend any practitioners. Next, ask around for personal recommendations from family, friends, co-workers, etc. Also, consider posting a request for recommendations on your social media pages.

Next, search the internet to find any professional organizations for the CAM therapy of interest. Make note of what kind of professional certification and training is required of practitioners for the treatment you are considering. For more information, visit the NIH’s site on credentialing, licensing, and education requirements for CAM practitioners.

If you got a name of a practitioner from your doctor or a trusted friend or family member, then you likely won’t need to do too much research. But, if you found a practitioner on your own, with no recommendations, you should do your homework. Call or visit their office and/or visit their website. Find out about training, certification, and years of experience. And when you visit the office, keep an eye out for bad hygiene practices. Do the practitioners wash their hands between patients? How do they clean between patients? Does the office smell bad? If you get a bad feeling from the office or the practitioner, don’t feel obligated to stay!

Don’t jump into a CAM treatment blindly. Do your homework and make a well-thought out decision. Importantly, don’t let your desperation lead you down a dangerous path.


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