Last updated: Sep 23, 2010
alternative-therapy-child
At one time in the not too distant past, asking a doctor about an herb or an acupuncture treatment for your child's health problem would probably get you a patronizing glance, if not an outright sneer and a reputation as an irresponsible parent.

But that attitude is changing. One day soon, your pediatrician may suggest some decidedly non-white-coat treatments for your child, especially if he or she has a chronic health condition. Here's why: This week's issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published a guide for doctors who want to learn more about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for kids.

Practices such as acupuncture, massage, and guided imagery were once considered on the fringe but are now proven to be so safe and effective that scores of hospitals across the country are integrating them into children's treatment programs. To name just two: Children's Hospital of Orange County in California has a comprehensive in-patient CAM program within its neonatal and pediatric departments. And Columbia University Medical Center in New York City has established the Integrative Program for Children With Cancer, offering acupuncture and other treatments designed to make beating a deadly, scary disease a little easier.

The Pediatrics report was written by Kathi J. Kemer, MD, the Caryl J. Guth chair for holistic and integrative medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, N.C. In it, she and her colleagues note that doctors who use integrative methods combine the best practices of alternative, complementary, and Western medicine to promote healing by focusing on the whole person (your child), rather than just the bits that hurt, so to speak.


Here are some alternative therapies that may be coming to a pediatrician's office near you.
Massage
Tiny preemies in neonatal intensive care units grow and develop better when they're massaged, according to groundbreaking research done at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. And not only do the tiniest benefit: Massage is proven to give kids relief from symptoms of asthma, insomnia, colic, cystic fibrosis, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Biofield therapies
These treatments include acupuncture, Reiki, homeopathy, polarity therapy, and therapeutic touch therapies that may seem wildly different, but which all rely on the decidedly nontraditional concept of manipulating the "energy fields that surround and penetrate the human body in order to stimulate healing." These treatments are considered both gentle and safe.
  • Acupuncture is one of a variety of Asian practices that involve stimulating points on the body—either with hair-thin needles (classic acupuncture), electric stimulation, vigorous massage (called shiatsu), hand and finger pressure (acupressure), or other techniques. Acupuncture can ease children's nausea and vomiting following surgery and chemotherapy; it may also be helpful for chronic headaches and allergies. Find practitioners online.
  • Therapeutic touch is taught in more than 80 nursing schools and offered in many hospitals; its premise is that healing happens when the body's energies are in balance. Nurse-healers are trained to identify and treat energy imbalances to make people of all ages feel better. Find qualified practitioners.
  • Homeopathy uses small, highly diluted medicines to stimulate healing. According to the report, some 3,000 healers, including MDs, RNs, chiropractors, naturopaths, and even dentists, use homeopathy in their practices—and up to 10% of children use homeopathic remedies. Because remedies are so diluted, homeopathy is considered safe when used as directed. Learn more or find a practitioner.

Mind-body medicine
Therapies that engage a child's imagination, including hypnosis and guided imagery, partner effectively with traditional treatments for relieving pain, anxiety, bed-wetting, sleep problems, and behavioral issues—with nearly zero side effects. Learn more about guided imagery.

Herbs
The Pediatrics article comes to no conclusions about using herbal medicine to treat children's health problems, noting that herbs' variables—purity, potency, preparation, dosage, time of harvest, proper handling and identification—make them notoriously difficult to study. Studies of echinacea to prevent or treat kids' colds, for example, have had mixed results. Still, many prominent herbalists suggest the herb to treat colds and upper respiratory infections because, based on their clinical experience, it works. Visit the American Herbalists Guild to find an AHG–credentialed practitioner or to learn more. Another excellent resource on herbal medicine is Herbal Therapy & Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston.