Alternative therapies

Last reviewed: September 2011

Done anything alternative lately? If so, you have a lot of company. When we surveyed 45,601 Consumer Reports subscribers online, we found that three out of four were using some form of alternative therapy for their general health. More than 38 million adults make in excess of 300 million visits to acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and other complementary and alternative practitioners each year in the United States.

Despite the hoopla over alternative therapies, when we asked respondents how well the therapies they used worked for 12 common health problems, results showed that they were usually deemed far less helpful than prescription medicine for most of the conditions.

Even widely used dietary supplements ranked far below over-the-counter medications in many cases. But hands-on treatments such as chiropractic and deep-tissue massage, as well as the mind-body practice of yoga dominated the lists of helpful alternative treatments for discomfort from conditions such as back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis.

Carola Hamann, 42, of San Francisco said she has found that yoga, combined with monthly chiropractic adjustments and some exercises her physical therapist recommended, has helped a lot to relieve pain in her hips from osteoarthritis and other concerns. She keeps her medical doctor informed about therapies she has tried but notes that her chiropractor "sees how everything's connected."

Of alternative treatments used for general health, mainstream vitamins and minerals were the most widely used, with 73 percent of respondents taking them. But 57 percent said they used dietary supplements other than vitamins or minerals. And about one in five reported using mind-body therapies such as yoga or hands-on therapies such as massage.

A total of 30,332 survey respondents gave us their perceptions of the helpfulness of treatments for their most bothersome conditions over the past two years. The respondents were Consumer Reports subscribers, and our findings might not be representative of the general population. Respondents based their opinions on personal experience, so the results can't be compared with scientific clinical trials. And our results do not take into account the power of the placebo effect, the tendency of people to find even simulated or sham interventions helpful.

Why these treatments?

For most conditions we asked about, the No. 1 reason respondents gave for choosing an alternative treatment was simply that they were "a proponent" of it.

"Some people use these therapies because it's just the way they were raised," says Richard Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H., senior adviser for scientific coordination and outreach at the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Some say they have gone through a transformational process, such as a major illness that has caused them to look at their life in a different way, Nahin says. Others believe dietary supplements are safer than prescription medication because they're natural, even though that's not necessarily the case, he says.

And for some conditions, people choose alternative treatments to avoid the side effects of conventional medications. That was true for about two out of five respondents suffering from insomnia.

Michael Shannon getting chiropractic treatment
Michael Shannon of Ocala, Fla., gets treatment from chiropractor Dennis Seese, D.C., of Belleview, Fla.
Photograph by Steve Williams

When Michael Shannon, 63, of Ocala, Fla., reinjured his back in 2008 he immediately found the closest chiropractor. After the initial 90-minute session, he walked out feeling that it had helped a lot. "It was amazing," Shannon says. After four more chiropractic sessions of about 15 minutes each, along with occasional sessions of massage therapy, he was largely symptom-free. When he feels his back tightening up again, he schedules another adjustment. "It's magical," he says.

One in four respondents undergoing chiropractic treatment for any condition said their chiropractor was more interested and insightful than their medical doctors. More than 30 percent of respondents who had acupuncture felt the same way.

The role of doctors

Our survey found that the wall between conventional doctors and alternative medicine isn't as high as you might assume. Our readers said doctors were generally aware of their use of alternative therapies for their medical conditions.

For instance, 57 percent of people who got Shiatsu massage, usually for back or neck pain, said their doctors knew about it, and so did 81 percent of those who sought chiropractic care.

Sixty-five percent of those who practiced progressive relaxation said their medical caregivers knew about it, as did 68 percent of readers who meditated. A majority of those taking dietary supplements, vitamins, and minerals said their doctors were aware of it.

But doctors were selective in their endorsement of dietary supplements, our survey showed. They tended to point patients toward products with some clinical evidence behind them, such as fish oil for cardiovascular problems, and glucosamine and chondroitin for osteoarthritis.

Avis Brown of Morgan Hill, California
Integrative healing
Avis Brown of Morgan Hill, Calif., says that deep-tissue massage, meditation, and dietary changes have helped free her from the painful symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Photograph by Robert Houser

"We have to be responsible captains of our own health ship," says Avis Brown, 65, of Morgan Hill, Calif., a reader who participated in our survey. "And doctors are our navigators." She said that she received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia about 18 years ago but that massage, meditation, and a sugar-free diet have helped her remain free of symptoms for more than 10 years.

In many cases, a substantial minority of respondents using a particular treatment said their doctors were the ones who had pointed them to it in the first place. Twenty-eight percent of readers who used deep-tissue massage, usually for back or neck pain, said their doctors had recommended it. So did 26 percent of people who used deep-breathing exercises and 21 percent who went to a chiropractor.

Brenda Bourassa being treated for neck pain
Under the needle
Rick Hobbs, M.D., uses acupuncture to treat the neck pain of Brenda Bourassa of Winslow, Maine.
Photograph by Kevin Brusie

Though it's still a rarity, some doctors are adding alternative treatments to their own therapeutic tool kit. Brenda Bourassa, 65, of Winslow, Maine, gets regular acupuncture treatments for her neck pain from Rick Hobbs, M.D., a family physician in nearby Waterville. She says that she was skeptical at first but that the treatments have helped. "I believe that eventually it will eliminate the pain, not just relieve it on a temporary basis," she says.

Hobbs said he became interested in acupuncture in 2004. He now limits his practice mainly to acupuncture and integrative medicine and is president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. "People still think of me as a family doctor as well as an acupuncturist," he says. "My patients stuck with me."