Just like their parents, kids are taking herbal supplements from fish oil to ginseng, a sign of just how mainstream alternative medicine has become. More than one in nine children and teens try those remedies and other nontraditional options, the government said Wednesday in its first national study of young people's use of these mostly unproven treatments.
Given that children are generally pretty healthy, the finding that so many use alternative medicine is "pretty amazing," said one of the study's authors, Richard Nahin of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The sweeping study suggests about 2.8 million young people use supplements.
Their parents' practices played a big role. Kids were five times more likely to use alternative therapies if a parent or other relative did. The same study showed that more than a third of adults use alternative treatments, roughly the same as in a 2002 survey.
The researchers used a big umbrella in defining alternative medicine: Acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, traditional healing, yoga, Pilates, deep breathing, massage and even dieting were included.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are not considered alternative medicine, nor are prayer or folk medicine practices.
Herbal remedies were the leading type of alternative therapy for both adults and those under 18. Among kids, such therapies were most often given for head or neck pain, colds and anxiety. Body aches and insomnia were other top reasons children got alternative therapies, the study found.
Fish oil for hyperactivity and echinacea for colds were the most popular supplements, although there's no proof such treatments work for those conditions, nor have they been tested in kids.
Nahin cited the lack of rigorous scientific testing in declining to call such widespread use harmful or beneficial. Unlike federally regulated medicines, herbal remedies don't have to be proven safe or effective to be sold. And studies that have been done on them have focused on adults, not children.
But some doctors are troubled that parents may be giving children alternative therapies in place of proven clinical treatments, said Dr. Wallace Sampson, an emeritus clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University.
"The reality is none of these things work, including some of the more popular ones. They're placebos," said Sampson, who was a founding editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.
The study was done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is based on a 2007 survey of more than 23,000 adults who were speaking about themselves and more than 9,000 who were speaking on behalf of a child in their household.
Women are the most likely to use alternative medicine, as are those with advanced college degrees and people who live in the West. Among non-elderly adults, it is used about equally by those with private insurance and those with no health insurance at all.
For adults, pain was by far the main reason adults tried massage, chiropractic care and other alternative therapies. Many adults say they had trouble getting back pain relief from mainstream medicine. "Some facet of conventional care is not satisfying and they're looking at other options," Nahin said.
It's a bit surprising adult use didn't increase more, given other trends, said Michael Cohen, a lawyer who teaches health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health. Adult use was 36 percent in 2002, compared to 38 percent last year.
In this decade, many academic medical centers and other mainstream health care providers have integrated alternative medicine into their research and patient services. Acupuncturists now work with anesthesiologists, and chiropractors can be found in general hospitals. Insurance coverage and licensing of these therapies also is rising, experts said.
U.S. supplement sales grew about 6 percent from 1998 to 2007, totaling $23.7 billion last year, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a monthly publication that tracks the industry. The new government study showed the most popular among adults were glucosamine, used for joint pain, and fish oil, taken to reduce the risk of heart disease.
The last two years have seen a big increase in supplements targeting children, said Carlotta Mast, editor of the nutrition business publication. She had no sales numbers for that portion of the market.
Medical doctors need to be careful about attacking alternative medicine, because some long-endorsed pharmaceutical products have turned out to be treatment failures, noted Dr. Kathi Kemper, a pediatrician at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
For example, drug makers in October announced they no longer would recommend cough and cold medicines for youngsters under 4, acknowledging there is scant evidence they work in children and that they may even be dangerous in some cases.
"We have a pretty spotty history of being evidence-based ourselves," said Kemper, who chairs an American Academy of Pediatrics committee on complementary and integrative medicine.
The cough medicine debacle is no rationale for embracing alternative medicine, said Dr. Seth Asser, who consults with a nonprofit organization opposed to faith healing and other religious practices used in lieu of conventional medicine.
"Two wrongs don't make a right," he said, adding that he believes there's a "can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality toward alternative medicine among some doctors and hospital administrators.
There were some differences in how the 2002 and 2007 surveys were done. On the topic of herbal remedies, the 2007 study asked people whether they'd used such a product in the previous 30 days, while the 2002 study asked if they'd taken it in the past year.
That change may partly explain why adult use of some herbal remedies shifted significantly from 2002 to 2007. For example, echinacea use declined, but most people don't suffer colds year-round.
But news of the scientific failures of some remedies may also have an effect. A rigorous study in 2005 found that echinacea failed to prevent or treat colds.
Use of St. John's wort, used as an antidepressant, also dropped, perhaps because of research showing it didn't work against major depression, experts said.
Fish oil use was up. Some recent studies have suggested it can reduce heart disease risks, protect the eyes and provide other benefits.
"We think the public is listening to this data," Nahin said.