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Survey Suggests Many Americans Use Traditional Medicine - 2004-05-27

A U.S. government survey reveals that a significant portion of Americans use traditional medical practices to supplement or replace Western high technology medicine and drugs. Natural remedy use in the United States still lags behind much of the rest of the world.

Although the United States leads the world in medical technology, government health officials find that many Americans are no strangers to traditional medicine. According to a survey of 31,000 in 2002, 36 percent of them use herbal remedies, acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, massage, special diets or some combination of these.

Many Americans, 43 percent, also pray to achieve health benefits. In addition, deep breathing and meditation are also popular among about 10 percent of the people questioned.

The poll finds that people turn to such ancient techniques mostly to cure pain and stiffness, colds, anxiety and depression, even though there may be a drug or other sophisticated medical therapy available to deal with the problem.

The man who oversaw the poll, Richard Nahin of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, said that the results might reflect a growing dissatisfaction with science-based medicine.

"It may be that the public is turning to complementary and alternative medicine because it's not getting relief from conventional medicine," he said. "In fact, the survey found that 28 percent of the people who responded to the survey said they used complementary and alternative medicine and did so because they thought conventional medicine would not help them."

Of the survey respondents, 13 percent said they use traditional medicine because they believe conventional medicine is too expensive. Nevertheless, the survey shows that most Americans use it together with standard medicine. About one-fourth who did so say a conventional health care worker suggested it.

Of all of the non-prayer techniques used in the United States, natural products such as herbs and animal-based remedies are the most popular types of traditional medicine. About one-fifth of Americans use them, but Mr. Nahin is troubled by the fact that people continue to use some that the government warns might have adverse health affects, such as kava kava for anxiety.

"The public makes the assumption that because it is natural, it is safe, but there is increasing research showing that when used inappropriately, these natural products can potentially be harmful," he stated. "And there are studies showing that if you use natural products with some pharmaceutical drugs, there are unexpected adverse interactions that may impede the ability of the pharmaceutical drugs to do what they are supposed to do."

Despite the apparent growing popularity of traditional medicine in the United States, the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Stephen Straus, noted that it is much more common elsewhere. He pointed to the high use of acupuncture in China, yoga in India, and herbal medicine almost everywhere.

"Herbal therapy use is also much more common in some European, African and Asian countries," he added. "The World Health Organization estimates worldwide over 80 percent of humans use natural products."

Some individual national statistics tell the tale. While about 20 percent of Americans have swallowed a natural remedy, the World Health Organization finds that 90 percent of Germans have done so at sometime in their life. It says herbal medicines are the preferred treatment for up to 60 percent of children with malarial fever in some African countries, while in China, natural preparations account for 30-50 percent of all medicine consumed.