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Alternative Medicine For Kids: What are the risks?

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When my twins were barely three months old, I took them to my rolfer. A former violin teacher who worked with professional musicians all over the world, Linda was trained as both a rolfer and a craniosacral therapist.

Craniosacral therapy, a very gentle kind of body work, taps into the energy from the pulsing fluid that passes around the skull and down the spine to the sacrum.  It’s often used for colicky infants and older children with sensory issues; years before a neighbor had taken her newborn son to a craniosacral therapist when he had trouble latching on.   To me, craniosacral sessions seemed like a safe, good option for my babies who could, at times, be a little more than fussy. My husband wasn’t wild about the idea, but he wasn’t exactly against it, either. As parents, we have to make decisions about the safety of any kind of treatment we choose for our kids, both conventional and alternative, all the time.

Putting aside the questions of vaccines (I am for them) along with circumcision (I circumcised my son for religious reasons), the conventional medicine question that comes up most among the parents of typical kids I know has to do with antibiotics.  Do you need them for ear infections? When do you give them? How aggressive is your pediatrician with them?

But then there are the parents I know of not-so-typical kids. When one of my kids had twice-weekly physical therapy sessions at a sensory gym, the talk among the moms in the waiting room was all about enzymes, herbal medicine and alternative diets. One mom took her 2-1/2- year-old off gluten, sugar, and dairy.  Another worked with an herbalist who was also a neurologist.  Conventional medicine didn’t have a lot of answers for us, and for some, natural medicine seemed a whole lot more appealing.

But when isn’t alternative medicine a safe option for children?  A study of alternative medicine and pediatric treatment in Australia from 2001-2003 found that alternative medicine is most dangerous — sometimes lethally so — when it replaces conventional treatment for chronic conditions.  For example, an epileptic child died when alternative treatments were used instead of anti-convulsant medication. Highly restrictive diets in infants also meant serious health complications.

Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners insist these life-threatening complications from alternative medicines don’t come up as much in the US. Larry Rosen, a pediatrician at the Whole Child Center in Oradell, N.J., and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Complementary and Integrative Medicine, is quoted saying: “Most studies in the U.S. show that the use of these therapies is done in complement to conventional medications, not as an alternative.” In other words, in the US, parents don’t typically swap out conventional medical treatment for alternative medicine.

When it comes to alternative medicine and its use by parents for children in the US, the problem is parents often don’t tell their pediatricians they’re using it for their kids. At this point, there’s been enough news coverage of herbal remedies and alternative medicine for us to know that just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe. It’s crucial that parents tell pediatricians if they’re pursuing alternative therapies so pediatricians have all the facts about any supplements, herbal remedies, and therapies a child might be taking or using.

Adam Rindfleisch, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and director of its Academic Integrative Medicine fellowship program is quoted saying: “Many parents don’t report its (alternative medicine’s) use, because they feel either their provider won’t be familiar with the forms of treatment they are using, or because they fear criticism.”

I absolutely understand that fear.  I don’t think I told my pediatrician that I’d brought my kids to a craniosacral therapist — it was only one session for each baby after all — but if I’d brought them to more treatments, I hope I would’ve said something. By coordinating treatment between both conventional and alternative medical professionals we as parents are doing everything possible to insure our kids get the best and safest care we can give them.

What do you think?  Would you or have you used alternative medicine treatments for your kids? If so, for what? And did you tell your doctor?

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