Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

The medical systems in the United States and other Western countries often rely upon what is called mainstream Western medicine. But there are other medical practices and treatments, called complementary and alternative medicine, which may have been used in other countries for many years. The different systems may overlap. While some alternative medicine therapies and medications have not gone through testing to determine if and when they might be more helpful than harmful, there are some that have gone through that testing such as the development of aspirin which is related to the herb white willow bark. Medications and treatments may have side effects and limitations so they may be recommended or not recommended for different conditions and even different situations for the same condition. Different medicines and therapies may work together to improve health.

Managing Special Health Care Needs

The Medical Home Portal recommends seeking a licensed practitioner and discussing with your primary care provider before taking any supplements, herbs, or essential oils.
The special health care needs of children often call for the use of more than one type of treatment to find the best result. Integrative medicine, also called complementary and alternative medicine or “CAM,” involves treatments aimed at the body’s biologic systems, and many families like the idea of these “natural” or “time-honored” treatments for their child. Research on the use of integrative medicine is growing. Some types of CAM may be helpful and work well for a number of special needs, but others may not work for everyone and they may not be scientifically proven or evidence-based to treat your child’s special needs, and some can put your child’s health in danger. It is important to discuss all treatments with a licensed healthcare provider to make sure that you pick the safest and best CAM to help your child.
The terms used in this page can be confusing. Here are some explanations.
  • Mainstream Western medicine: allopathic or conventional medical and scientific treatments employed by doctors, nurses, and other conventional healthcare providers.
  • Alternative medicine: treatments that are not scientifically supported and used in place of mainstream Western medicine
  • Complementary medicine: treatments that are not necessarily scientifically supported used together with mainstream Western medicine
  • Complementary and alternative medicine: these terms are often used together, also called CAM and used throughout this document
  • Integrative medicine: practices that blend the use of mainstream Western medicine and CAM, and are most often managed by doctors who have also gotten training in CAM
Experts are studying integrative medicine and hope to have evidence that can lead providers, patients, and families in using those treatments. For more information, see National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH).

Types of CAM

CAM is often sorted into broad groups, such as natural products, mind and body medicine, and manipulative and body-based care. Though these groups are not strictly defined and some fit into more than one, they are helpful for learning.

Whole Medical Systems

These types of CAM are those that look at and treat the whole of the individual, not just the symptom of the moment.
  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy

Mind and Body Medicine

These types of CAM work with the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior, intending to use the mind to help physical function and health. Variations of this are the basis for many CAM practices.
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Deep-breathing exercises
  • Guided imagery
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Tai chi
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • Music therapy and sound healing

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

These types of CAM focus primarily on the structures and systems of the body, including the bones and joints, soft tissues, and circulatory and lymphatic systems.
  • Spinal manipulation
  • Craniosacral therapy
  • Massage therapy

Other CAM Practices

  • Nutrition therapy
  • Movement therapies
  • Practices of traditional healers
  • Manipulation of various energy fields
    • Qi gong
    • Reiki
    • Healing touch

Natural Products

These products are herbal medicines (also known as botanicals), vitamins, minerals, and other "natural products," many of which are sold over the counter (OTC) as supplements. (Some uses of supplements – e.g., taking a multivitamin to meet daily nutritional needs or calcium for bone health – are not thought of as CAM.) Short term, intermittent use should be considered rather than daily, long term use of products, to support the body’s natural healing process, because of the lack of information and research about the long term use of such products.
  • Probiotics
  • Prebiotics
  • Essential Oils

Examining Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Not all CAM or integrative medicine options have been scientifically proven, but that does not always mean they are not effective. Studies can provide information about how they work and their side effects. In collaboration with more conventional Western medicine, more studies can be done to build an evidence base.
Important tip: If you choose to try an integrative or complementary or alternative option, don’t try a several new things all at the same time. It’s best to try one new thing at a time, so you can observe the effects on your child.

Things to Consider When Evaluating a Treatment for Your Child

  • Was a study about it published in a peer-reviewed journal?
  • Was it a large, well-designed study?
  • Was a control group used?
  • Were the subjects aware of whether or not they were receiving a treatment?
  • What did the researchers use to determine the effect (outcome) of the treatment?

Things to Beware of

  • Claims of a high success rate
  • Promises of rapid or instant effect
  • Promoters who benefit financially from use of the therapy (people who are trying to sell you stuff)
  • Testimonials rather objective scientific evidence
  • Promoters who resist objective evaluation
  • Ignoring or resisting negative findings from studies
Your child’s primary care provider can help you sort through this information if you aren’t sure about it.

Determine If a Treatment Is Effective for Your Child’s Specific Problems

  • Describe the problem and think about how to objectively measure it. For example:
    • Repetitive behavior: count the number of times it occurs in a specific 30-minute period each day
    • Sleep: assess it nightly on a 0-3 scale
    • Melt-downs: keep a record of the number per day, duration and intensity (using a 0-3 scale)
  • As you implement the treatment, use your measures to evaluate the impact:
    • Record what you note on a regular basis
    • Review the records to see if there are changes
    • Keep track of when new treatments are started or discontinued
    • Start one new treatment or change at a time

Partner with Your Primary Care Provider

Discuss options with your doctor before trying a new treatment. Many parents who try IM don’t tell that to their child's doctors, which may result in confusion for the provider and does not allow for sharing of information that may be helpful for everyone, including the child. Your child's primary care provider could help in decision making by:
  • Finding and sharing research on treatments and helping to understand the quality of that research
  • Identifying potential harmful effects. Sometimes not sharing this information may be dangerous because there can be interactions between therapies or dosage adjustments that may be required based on your individual child’s situation
  • Sensitively discussing problematic alternative strategies
  • Helping to monitor responses to treatments

Questions to Ask Before Using CAM/IM

When you are thinking about using any new complementary, alternative, (“CAM”) or integrative (IM) medications, supplements, or therapies for your child’s health, take a look at these ideas for questions to ask your child’s healthcare providers and yourself:

CAM Medicines or Supplements

  • What symptoms am I trying to target? Does this medication or supplement target these symptoms?
  • Will this take the place of anything else I am using?
  • Are there any harmful side effects we might see?
  • When should my child start to feel differently? When should I report back to the doctor?
  • Should I avoid giving my child any other medicines, dietary supplements, or treatments while using this?
  • Should my child avoid any drinks, foods, other substances, or activities while using this?
  • What are the possible side effects? Is there anything I should watch for? What do I do if my child gets a side effect?
  • Will my child need any tests (blood tests, x-rays, other) to make sure it is working as it should? When? How will I get the results?
  • Are there any other special directions for using this?
  • What should I do if we miss a dose? What do I do if I give my child too much?
  • What is the cost of the treatment? Will my insurance company pay for the treatment? Can we use a generic form?
  • Where and how can I get more written information about this?

CAM Therapies

  • What symptoms am I trying to target? Does the treatment target these symptoms?
  • Are there any harmful side effects linked to this treatment?
  • What positive effects of treatment would I hope to see?
  • What short-term and long-term effects might I see with this treatment? If there is an improvement, how long will it last?
  • Can this treatment be added to my child’s current program?
  • What is the cost of the treatment? Will my insurance company pay for the treatment?
  • How much time does the treatment take? Do I time enough time to do this?
  • Have I researched the treatment? Is there good quality scientific information that says this treatment works? Is there good information that this treatment works specifically in children?
  • What do other parents and professionals say about the treatment’s pros and cons, or other helpful information?
  • Do people who market the treatment claim that it can help nearly everyone? If so, this should be seen as a "red flag"…slow down and be more careful than ever in making a choice about the treatment. It may be too good to be true.
  • What do my child’s doctor and other professionals think about this treatment specifically for my child?

    Adapted from Robert Nickel, Controversial Therapies, Infants and Young Children Vol.8, No. 4, April 1996.
Parents and caregivers may turn to a variety of sources for information about Complementary and Alternative Treatments. The most common source is "word of mouth" – either from friends or the internet. Be careful in evaluating information from these sources since they are often biased and internet sources may be commercially driven. A more balanced view may come from your child's primary care provider, an integrative medicine specialist, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH), or nonprofit organizations in the specific disorder area.

Resources

Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine? (NCCAM/NIH)
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, of the National Institutes for Health defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine as practiced by holders of MD (medical doctor) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degrees or their allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies (MedlinePlus)
Information about therapies including acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary supplements, and more.

Services for Patients & Families in New Mexico (NM)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Studies

Studies of Complementary & Alternative Medicine (clinicaltrials.gov)
A current list of studies of CAM therapies and utilization registered with ClinicalTrials.gov

Helpful Articles

Sawni A, Breuner CC.
Complementary, holistic, and integrative medicine: depression, sleep disorders, and substance abuse.
Pediatr Rev. 2012;33(9):422-5. PubMed abstract
Promoting a healthy mind, body, and spirit in children is important in developing emotional stability. Achieving this goal involves good nutrition, exercise, a healthy environment, proper sleep hygiene, and supportive family, friends, and community. Integration of CAM therapies such as mind-body therapies (meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis, relaxation), herbs and supplements, and massage may be helpful.

Adams D, Dagenais S, Clifford T, Baydala L, King WJ, Hervas-Malo M, Moher D, Vohra S.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use by Pediatric Specialty Outpatients.
Pediatrics. 2013. PubMed abstract
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use is high among children and youth with chronic illnesses. The objective of this study was to assess the prevalence and patterns of CAM use in 10 subspecialty clinics in Canada and to compare CAM use between 2 geographically diverse locations.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: January 2013; last update/revision: March 2020
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Authors: Gina Pola-Money
Tina Persels
Contributing Author: Lynn A. Gershan, MD, CM
Reviewers: Jennifer Goldman-Luthy, MD, MRP, FAAP
Karena Luttmer, DACM, MSOM, L.Ac