Alternative Medicine for Kids?
Alternative medicine is a hot topic in the medical world right now. I can’t pick up a paper or watch a news program without some type of breaking medical news incorporating the word “alternative” into the lingo. What does it mean? What are some ways we can treat our children using unconventional methods? What is safe and what is not?
Alternative or Integrative?
Dr. Robert Pendergrast, associate professor of pediatrics at Georgia Health Sciences University (GHSU), director of adolescent medicine and pediatric mind-body medicine and owner of Aiken-Augusta Holistic Health in North Augusta, says that he does not like to use the term “alternative medicine” and would rather use “integrative medicine” to describe his philosophy.
There is a sense of polarization in the community between people who believe mainstream medicine is bad for them versus those who think that of alternative medicine. “What we really want is good medicine,” he says. “Wherever it came from, if it works and is safe, use it.”
Pennie Sempell, integrative medicine specialist and author of the Healthier Happier Life Skills Series (www.healthierhappierlife.com), agrees alternative medicine and integrative medicine are not synonymous. “Alternative medicine commonly refers to a wide range of practices that are used instead of Western medicine treatments or medications,” she says. “Integrative medicine refers to approaches that are used together with, or in coordination with, Western medical approaches.”
For example, she says, a child may be taught a self-coping skill, such as relaxation training or an acupuncture point to hold when initially experiencing an asthma attack. If that approach is not effective, then a pharmaceutical approach is taken. “Typically the doctor and the parent are in communication and agreement on the approach,” she adds.
The idea of integrative medicine is how we incorporate the best of all treatments in the solution, says Dr. Pendergrast. As Americans, we have a bias against medical practices that are not of the mainstream, Western-based world that we didn’t invent, even if they work and are safe. Acupuncture is an example of a safe treatment for post-operative nausea and vomiting that is effective, although it is treatment we did not invent.
“Much of what we do in pediatrics could be considered integrative,” says Augusta Pediatrician Dr. Douglas Nesbit. “All pediatricians have ‘non-medical’ treatments for a host of common complaints that aid or seem to aid healing and symptoms.”
Sometimes a hot shower or cold night air for croup does the trick. Honey is effective for some types of cough and safer and cheaper than some over-the-counter cold medicines.
Use the Best Treatment for the Symptoms
When children have significant illnesses with treatments that have been proven to work, forgoing or compromising these treatments with unproven CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) is both dangerous and wrong, according to Dr. Nesbit. For example, honey and pushing fluids are used to treat a common cold but not in an infant who could be at risk for botulism from eating the honey.
Dr. Nesbit cautions that integrative medicine or CAM is one type of medicine where there has not been much research. “In pediatrics, there is even less research into CAM than in adult medicine, so we have less solid knowledge,” he says. “In addition, children can be more fragile than adults and often are not the primary decision makers in their own care, which can complicate matters more.”
Dr. Pendergrast says to use common sense when approaching natural medicines and not throw out important Western treatments such as immunizations and vaccinations.
Dr. Nesbit says he believes vaccines are one of the largest public health advances in history and have saved millions of lives.
With this said, Dr. Pendergrast adds that it is important to be suspicious of medicines and prescriptions that we are so quick to write. If you tip the balance in favor of the child, the child may get well on his own using natural means, he says.
This is where the mind-body approach comes in—using hypnosis, nutrition, exercise, massage and some herbal remedies to treat illnesses.
The Mind-Body Approach
“Children have an enormous capacity to learn self-coping skills to reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep hygiene, increase exercise, improve diet and make other lifestyle changes that support the body’s natural healing system,” says Sempell.
Dr. Pendergrast started a program at GHSU called the Pediatric Mind-Body Clinic to see if he could help alleviate children’s pain where conventional medicines weren’t working. “It is great to work with kids’ imaginations and to help them get to that ‘happy place’ where pain does not exist,” he says. For example, a child goes to the emergency room with a broken arm and the doctor talks to him about concentrating on where he would much rather be than in the hospital. The child uses mental imagery to help ease the pain.
To ensure the safety of these integrative approaches to healing, Sempell suggests that parent first research the efficacy of the approach and discuss it with their healthcare provider. She says that open communication between the parent and the doctor is essential when dealing with children to avoid potential problems. She also suggests avoiding any approach that is invasive or untested in rigorous clinical trials as they may potentially be unsafe.
Dr. Nesbit agrees and suggests that if you are thinking of using the integrative approach to healthcare to talk with your doctor to make sure that it will “first, do no harm.” Even if your physician is not familiar with the therapy, they can certainly give you a medically informed opinion, according to Dr. Nesbit.
“The primary benefit of many integrative approaches to care is decreased stress, improved immune functioning and better self-responsibility and empowerment in one’s health,” says Sempell. When used in addition to or in coordination with conventional medications and treatments, integrative medicine can be extremely effective and successful.
Integrative Medicine for Children
Integrative medicine includes using massage in children, especially for babies in the NICU. It has been proven that premature babies who get a regular massage in the hospital grow at a more accelerated rate, gain weight more quickly and thus, leave the NICU faster. “Is there a place for massage in pediatrics?” says Dr. Pendergrast. “Yes.”
Not really seen as an alternative treatment, nutrition does play a large part in preventing and controlling ailments. Eczema is an example of a skin condition that can be controlled, in part, by eating anti-inflammatory foods. “Pediatricians have known for years the importance of vitamin and mineral deficiencies and other nutrition-related components of health and we keep improving our knowledge with better research,” says Dr. Nesbit.
Herbs and botanical means of treating children is a little tougher. There have not been many studies on children. The results of adult studies, in reality, cannot be applied to children since children are not just small adults. There are some exceptions, according to Dr. Pendergrast, and one is chamomile tea. “This is an herb used for centuries to help with tummy aches, colicky babies, sleep issues and anxiety,” he says. “I do recommend this.”
Dr. Pendergrast cautions about using chiropractic means for younger children but says it is okay for older children and teenagers. Dr. Gregg Stern, D.C., DACCP, of Stern Chiropractic, Ltd., says, “First and foremost, when performed by a properly trained chiropractor, pediatric chiropractic care is very safe.” He says that the nerve system is the master control system of the body and that interferences with the nerve system (subluxation) will interfere with the proper function of the body. “Chiropractic care will help to ‘flick the fuses,’ turning the power back on and allowing the body to heal and perform at higher levels,” he adds.
For children with chronic allergies or nasal symptoms, the use of the Neti pot is very effective, according to Dr. Pendergrast. Basically, the teapot-like structure is used to thin mucous and flush it out of the nasal passages using a saline rinse. It has become popular recently but has been around for centuries.
Cammie Jones is an Augusta freelance writer and mother of three.