In the July issue of the Atlantic there is an article by David Freedman along with a series of online commentaries on the controversies surrounding the study and practice of complementary and alternative medicine. This type of dialogue is important, and we were pleased to be among those asked to offer perspectives on the topic.
Debate about complementary and alternative therapies has often been polarized, with advocates squaring off against critics and no common ground emerging. There are, in fact, some causes for concern. Many excessive claims are being made for alternative health practices, many therapies are lacking in plausibility, and some are being found to be potentially dangerous. But the field of complementary and alternative medicine is not monolithic. Some therapies—indeed some of those most widely used—are sensible and deserve our attention as we look for methods to help with problems not well managed by conventional medicine.
The most common health problem for which people turn to complementary and alternative approaches is chronic pain. Pharmacological management of chronic pain, while important, has hazards. Evidence is showing, based on carefully controlled studies, that there is promise in certain complementary treatments as adjuncts to conventional pain management. For example, the pain of osteoarthritis may be relieved by acupuncture; tai chi has been found to be helpful in reducing the pain of fibromyalgia; and massage and manipulative therapies can contribute to the relief of chronic back pain.