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The Rise of Alternative Medicine for Children is Putting Kids in Danger

Your local chiropractor and Chinese medicine practitioner probably know about as much about evidence-based medicine as you do.

Your kids don’t need supplements. Gripe water, herbal concoctions, and probiotics are all useless for colic. Vaccine schedules are fine just the way they are. And your local chiropractor or Chinese medicine practitioner probably knows about as much about evidence-based medicine as you do. In a word, “complementary and alternative medicine” is a scam.

At Fatherly, we debunk frivolous alternative medicine claims as a matter of course. Most are simply ineffective—a few are potentially dangerous. But every now and then, we like to bring in the big guns. Physician, author, and professor Edzard Ernst has dedicated his career to revealing the biases and studying the dangers behind CAM. His new book, More Harm Than Good? The Moral Maze of Complementary And Alternative Medicine is a concise summary of his conclusions. We spoke with Ernst about how alternative medicine presents a specific threat to kids and what parents need to know to keep their children safe.

What are the most pressing dangers of alternative medicine when it comes to treating children?

In several ways, treating children is special. The organ systems of children are still developing and they react differently from adults to most therapies. And, of course, young children cannot give informed consent. They rely on a parent to do it for them. This can create ethical problems and might mean they receive treatments they don’t need simply because the parents have a bee in their bonnet. Generally speaking, the biggest danger of alternative therapies is that they replace effective therapies. In such cases, they can become positively life-threatening.

Let’s talk about the dangers of relying on alternative medicine professionals for pediatrics. What are the potential pitfalls in visiting chiropractors?

Many chiropractors claim that the birth causes subluxations, and therefore a newborn needs spinal adjustments. This assumption is wrong; spinal adjustments do more harm than good. They may injure the nerves and blood vessels of the spine, especially to very young children.

How about acupuncturists?

Acupuncture needles can penetrate vital organs such as the heart and the lungs. This danger is particularly acute in children simply because of the dimensions: Vital organs are within easy reach of the needle

Homeopaths?

Recently, the FDA had to recall homeopathic teething remedies because they had caused poisonings. Normally homeopathic remedies are so diluted that they contain absolutely nothing. But there are exceptions when the remedy has not been made according to quality control standards.

Naturopaths?

Naturopaths, like all of the therapists already mentioned, claim to be competent in treating children. However, their pediatric training is woefully insufficient, which means they are not able to diagnose adequately nor treat children effectively.

There’s usually some research backing alternative medicine practices. Is any of it worth looking at?

Yes, there is quite a bit of research in most areas of alternative medicine. Unfortunately, much of it is of such poor quality that its findings are less than reliable. Sadly, research in alternative medicine is often abused for promotion. Much of it suggests positive results, but this is not because the therapies are effective, it is because the science is flawed. So, it turns out that plenty of research is not necessarily a good thing; often it merely provides plenty of misleading information.

Should parents be cautious when a health care practitioner begins talking about “holistic” care? Why?

Many terms are used in alternative medicine like marketing tools. Holistic is such a word. It sounds impressive until you realize that all good medicine is holistic, and that alternative practitioners have just hijacked the term because it sounds attractive to consumers. In fact, if one scratches the surface, one discovers that most alternative therapies are the opposite of holistic.

Parents are inundated with supplements and probiotics for their kids. Are any worthwhile?

As long as a child is fed adequately and healthy, he or she needs no supplements at all. If parents feel like giving supplements, they should consult with their doctor and avoid listening to quacks.

Do you have any tips non-scientist parents can use to separate bad medicine from real medicine?

Not an easy question! I suppose, the best general rule is this: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.