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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rating Alternative Medicine

Air Date: Week of

In the May issue of Consumer Reports, readers rate how well they thought a variety of alternative treatments worked for medical conditions ranging from arthritis to depression. Host Steve Curwood talks with the magazine’s Health Editor Ronni Sandroff about what consumers need to keep in mind when shopping for alternative treatments.


CURWOOD: Few Americans have tried such exotic healing practices as Tibetan medicine, but more and more are trying a variety of other alternative treatments. There have been some notable successes, but there are also some problems. For example, many herbal products aren't standardized. The May issue of Consumer Reports offers an overview of some common alternative treatments and herbal supplements. The magazine polled its readership about how they treated some common ailments. Health editor Ronnie Sandroff says 35 percent of the respondents had tried alternative medicine, for problems ranging from arthritis to depression.

SANDROFF: It was very interesting. Sixteen thousand of the 46,000 readers who replied to this survey had tried at least one alternative medicine, and most of those who tried it found that it helped somewhat or a lot for the problems that they had.

CURWOOD: What kinds of things did they try?

SANDROFF: A whole range of things, from dietary supplements and herbals, garlic, magnet therapy, to hands-on treatments like chiropractic, deep tissue massage, and acupressure and acupuncture.

CURWOOD: So, what kinds of alternative approaches seem to be the most effective?

SANDROFF: For the ten medical conditions that we looked at, the common ones, prescription drugs actually did better than anything else, except in the area of back pain. That's a very difficult condition for medical science to treat. And there the alternative therapies did better. Deep tissue massage, chiropractic treatment, also exercise, physical therapy, and acupressure, all rated higher than prescription drugs for back pain. Of course, this is not a medical study. This is our readers’ reports on what they think helped them.

CURWOOD: How appropriate were people's attempts to use alternative therapy, do you think?

SANDROFF: Many of them were appropriate, but there were also some patients who tried what we thought were very odd things, like garlic for back pain, and Echinacea or allergies. That's commonly used for colds, Echinacea. And interestingly, those people who tried herbals upon the recommendation of a health professional or an alternative practitioner said they work better than those who just relied on the advice of friends and their own research and reading.

CURWOOD: Well, could there be a placebo or white coat effect, of the woman sitting there in the white jacket says try this, that it works?

SANDROFF: I think that's possible, but I think it also might be that the health professionals made more appropriate choices. For example, the most common treatments recommended by health professionals were dietary supplements for arthritis, and saw palmetto for prostate. And those are treatments that have done pretty well in clinical trials.

CURWOOD: I've noticed as a consumer that the quality of what's being sold seems to vary. I'm a user of saw palmetto, and I found that sometimes what I get out of the bottle does nothing, and other times it works just fine. What's going on here?

SANDROFF: Well, no one is really monitoring to make sure that what it says on the label is what is actually in the pills. And Consumer Reports has tested a number of supplements and found that the contents vary a lot from brand to brand and even from bottle to bottle in the same brand. So we very strongly feel that consumers need better information and kind of a more honest sell, so that they know what they're getting.

CURWOOD: Are there dangers here that consumers need to be worried about?

SANDROFF: Well, we very strongly believe that these things need to be safety-tested. For example, St. John's Wort for mild to moderate depression has done well in clinical trials. But, you know, if it acts like a drug, perhaps it acts like a drug in every way, including side effects and interactions. And recently, St. John's Wort has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of over 30 prescription drugs, including birth control pills. And some treatments for AIDS. So it's really very important, if you're taking an herbal or any nutritional supplement, to discuss it with your doctor. Make sure first of all you're taking the right thing, that you know what condition you have, and also that it won't interfere with your other treatments.

CURWOOD: So basically, you're recommending that if you're going to do this work with your physician, you see this as a more complementary form of medicine rather than an alternative.

SANDROFF: That's the way it seems to be moving. And the mainstream and alternative community are beginning to work together more, and that's definitely for the benefit of the consumer.

CURWOOD: Ronnie Sandroff is the health editor of Consumer Reports. The May issue of the magazine has a cover story about alternative medicine. Thanks for talking with me today, Ronnie.

SANDROFF: Thanks a lot.



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