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Complementary, Integrative and Alternative Medicine 101

About 50% of patients with atopic dermatitis report having used alternative and complementary treatments. But what does complementary and alternative medicine mean? And how do you know which natural treatments work for eczema and which ones you should pass on?

Complementary, Integrative and Alternative Medicine 101

In recent years, alternative medicines have become increasingly popular treatments for many conditions, including eczema. Defining complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is difficult because the field is very broad and constantly changing.

Conventional, or Western, medicine is practiced by holders of M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) and D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degrees and by allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and registered nurses.

The boundary between complementary and alternative medicine and conventional medicine is not absolute, and specific complementary and alternative medicine practices may over time, become widely accepted.

Conventional medicine

Conventional treatments for eczema are based upon prevention and control of symptoms. Prevention includes the avoidance of environmental triggers and irritants, as well as a proper bathing and moisturizing regimen. Conventional treatments for eczema include the use of prescription topicals, immunosuppressants, phototherapy and biologic drugs.

Conventional medicine is based on scientific research and trials and clinical practice. This means that new ways of treating a condition are tested following strict guidelines before they are used on people.

Complementary, alternative and integrative medicine

Complementary medicine refers to the use of non-conventional treatments together with conventional medicine (using acupuncture, for example, in addition to conventional care to help lessen pain).

Alternative medicine refers to the use of such treatments in place of conventional medicine.

Integrative medicine combines therapies from conventional and alternative medicine to care for the whole patient: mind, body and spirit.

Types of complementary and alternative medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine practices are often grouped into broad categories, such as the use of natural products, mind and body medicine, and manipulative and body-based practices. Although these categories are not formally defined, they are useful for discussing complementary and alternative practices. Some CAM practices may fit into more than one category.

Natural products

This area of alternative medicine includes the use of a variety of herbal treatments (also known as botanicals), vitamins, minerals and other natural products. Many are sold over the counter as dietary supplements. Some uses of dietary supplements — for example, taking a multivitamin to meet minimum daily nutritional requirements or taking calcium to promote bone health — are not thought of as complementary and alternative.

Other products include probiotics — live microorganisms (usually bacteria) that are similar to micro-organisms normally found in the human digestive tract and are considered to have beneficial effects. Probiotics are available in foods (for example, yogurts) or as dietary supplements.

Mind and body practices

Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, body and behavior, to affect physical functioning and promote health. Many complementary and alternative medicine practices embody this concept in different ways.

Meditation techniques include specific postures and/or attention to breathing patterns. People use meditation to increase calmness and relaxation, improve psychological balance, cope with illness, or enhance overall health and well-being.

The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation. People use yoga for general health and also for a variety of health conditions.

Acupuncture involves the stimulation of specific points on the body using a variety of techniques, such as penetrating the skin with needles that are then manipulated by hand or by electrical stimulation. It is one of the key components of traditional Chinese medicine and is among the oldest healing practices.

Other examples of mind and body practices include deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, hypnotherapy and progressive relaxation.

Manipulative and body-based methods

Manipulative and body-based practices focus primarily on the structures and systems of the body, including the bones and joints, soft tissues, and circulatory and lymphatic systems.

Spinal manipulation is performed by chiropractors and by other health care professionals such as physical therapists, osteopathic physicians, and some conventional medical doctors. Practitioners use their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine, moving it beyond its passive range of motion. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used.

Massage therapy encompasses many different techniques. In general, therapists press, rub, and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body. People use massage for a variety of health-related purposes, including relieving pain, rehabilitating sports injuries, reducing stress, increasing relaxation, addressing anxiety and depression, and aiding general well-being.

Other complementary and alternative medicine practices

Complementary and alternative medicine also encompasses movement therapies — a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches used to promote physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Examples include the Feldenkrais method, the Alexander Technique, Pilates, Rolfing, Structural Integration, and Trager Psychophysical integration.

Practices of traditional healers can also be considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine. Traditional healers use methods based on indigenous theories, beliefs, and experiences handed down from generation to generation.

Whole medical systems, which are complete systems of theory and practice that have evolved over time in different cultures and apart from conventional or Western medicine, may be considered complementary and alternative medicine.

Examples of ancient whole medical systems include Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. More modern systems that have developed in the past few centuries include homeopathy and naturopathy.

Common natural remedies used for eczema

About 50% of patients with atopic dermatitis report having used alternative and complementary treatments. These treatments have not been well studied and may have associated risks. It is important to discuss any treatments with your healthcare provider before trying them, even if they appear to be harmless.

Common eczema treatments include:

A note about safety and effectiveness

Rigorous, well-designed clinical trials for many complementary and alternative medicine practices are often lacking. Therefore, the safety and effectiveness of many complementary and alternative medicine therapies are uncertain.

At present, there is no known cure for any type of eczema. As with any medical treatment, there can be risks with complementary and alternative medicine therapies. To minimize any potential risk to your health, take these precautions:

  • Select complementary and alternative medicine practitioners with care. Find out about the practitioner’s training and experience.
  • Be aware that some dietary supplements may interact with medications or other supplements, may have side effects of their own, or may contain potentially harmful ingredients not listed on the label. Also keep in mind that most supplements have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

Read: Leaky Gut and Atopic Dermatitis: Does the Concept Hold Water or Is It Full of Holes?

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