Interest in alternative therapies has grown rapidly in the United States, both among healthy persons interested in avoiding illness and among those with chronic or acute illnesses. According to data collected by federal researchers through national random surveys, one-third of U.S. residents use some form of alternative therapy. The most commonly used therapies are herbal and other dietary supplements; deep breathing exercises; yoga, tai chi, and qi gong; chiro- practic or osteopathic treatments; and meditation.
Users of alternative therapies are disproportionately likely to be female, younger than 65, and college educated. Use is also more common among those who live with chronic health problems, especially back, neck, or joint pain. Most who use alternative therapies do so because conventional treatments have not helped them. That said, individuals typically use alternative therapies to complement rather than replace mainstream medicine.
The popularity of alternative therapies rests on belief—or at least hope—in the efficacy of these treatments. These beliefs are supported by both personal ex- perience and recommendations from friends and acquaintances who have used alternative therapies. In some cases, the therapies no doubt did help, either be- cause of the biological effects of the therapies or because consumers’ belief in the therapy helped the body to heal itself, as happens in around 30% of all persons treated with placebos (drugs known to have no biological effect). In other cases, individuals attribute cures to alternative therapies when actually the problem went away on its own, as happens with 70% to 80% of all health problems. Finally, people sometimes convince themselves that therapies helped even though their health did not actually improve.
Use of alternative therapies also rests on the dangerous assumption that “nat- ural” treatments are automatically safe. For example, the Chinese herb ma huang can help individuals lose weight, but it can also cause heart attacks and strokes. Similarly, kava kava tea may reduce anxiety but cause liver damage, and gingko biloba can improve circulation but increase bleeding during surgery. Moreover, whereas the federal Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety, potency, and effectiveness of prescription drugs, no governmen- tal agency regulates herbal remedies or supplements. Although manufacturers can’t legally claim that alternative herbs and supplements cure any condition or disease, they can claim that their products might help. Unfortunately, avail- able research suggests that few of these treatments are useful, some contain dangerous contaminants such as lead or arsenic, and some don’t even contain the herb or vitamin listed on the bottle.
Seeking Information on the Internet Whether individuals rely primarily on mainstream or alternative therapies, many seek information about their con- ditions on their own rather than relying solely on information provided by health care professionals. In the past decade, public access to information has exploded with the exponential growth of Internet use. As a result, more than half of Americans use the Internet to seek health information, and more than one-third have used the Internet to diagnose themselves or others. That said, Internet use is not evenly distributed across the pop- ulation: Whites, women, and middle- to upper-class individuals are more likely than others to use it.
Unfortunately, there are no controls on the quality of materials posted on the Internet, and its vast size makes it impossible to police for fraudulent in- formation such as claims that herbs can cure cancer or HIV/AIDS. Moreover, more often than not, popular search engines take readers seeking health-related information to websites run by individuals or corporations that have vested economic interests in selling certain drugs or treatments. Partly in response to concerns about misleading websites, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now runs its own website (www.healthfinder.gov) to link consumers to reliable online sources of health information.
Despite these problems, the Internet has proven enormously beneficial to those living with chronic health problems. The Internet has allowed individuals to find online forums designed to help individuals who share similar health issues or concerns and to find information far beyond what they otherwise could access. This is especially useful for those with rare conditions, those confined to their homes by severe illness or disability, and those with stig- matized illnesses who might shy away even from doctors. Consequently, the Internet can help individuals negotiate with health care providers regarding treatment and navigate the daily difficulties of living with illness or disability.