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Get the Facts
Are You Considering Using CAM?

December 2006


Introduction

Decisions about your health care are important--including decisions about whether to use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has developed this fact sheet to assist you in your decision making about CAM. It includes frequently asked questions, issues to consider, and a list of sources for further information. To find out more about topics and resources mentioned in this fact sheet, see "For More Information."


Key Points


Questions and Answers

  1. What is CAM?
  2. How can I get reliable information about a CAM therapy?
  3. Are CAM therapies safe?
  4. How can I determine whether statements made about the effectiveness of a CAM therapy are true?
  5. Are there any risks to using CAM treatments?
  6. Are CAM therapies tested to see if they work?
  7. I am interested in a CAM therapy that involves treatment from a practitioner. How do I go about selecting a practitioner?
  8. Can I receive treatment or a referral to a practitioner from NCCAM?
  9. Can I participate in CAM research through a clinical trial?

1. What is CAM?

CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degrees and by their allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. Some health care providers practice both CAM and conventional medicine.

The list of what is considered to be CAM changes continually, as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health care and as new approaches to health care emerge. For more about these terms, see the NCCAM fact sheet "What Is CAM?"

2. How can I get reliable information about a CAM therapy?

It is important to learn what scientific studies have discovered about the therapy in which you are interested. It is not a good idea to use a CAM therapy simply because of something you have seen in an advertisement or on a Web site or because someone has told you that it worked for them. (Tips on evaluating the information you see on a Web site.)

Understanding a treatment's risks, potential benefits, and scientific evidence is critical to your health and safety. Scientific research on many CAM therapies is relatively new, so this kind of information may not be available for every therapy. However, many studies on CAM treatments are under way, including those that NCCAM supports, and our knowledge and understanding of CAM is increasing all the time. Here are some ways to find scientifically based information:

Questions to ask when evaluating Web site information:

  • Who runs the site? Is it Government, a university, or a reputable medical or health-related association? Is it sponsored by a manufacturer of products, drugs, etc.? It should be easy to identify the sponsor.
  • What is the purpose of the site? Is it to educate the public or to sell a product? The purpose should be clearly stated.
  • What is the basis of the information? Is it based on scientific evidence with clear references? Advice and opinions should be clearly set apart from the science.
  • How current is the information? Is it reviewed and updated frequently?
For more tips on evaluating information on the Web, read NCCAM's "10 Things To Know About Evaluating Medical Resources on the Web."

3. Are CAM therapies safe?

Each treatment needs to be considered on its own. However, here are some issues to think about when considering a CAM therapy.

4.How can I determine whether statements made about the effectiveness of a CAM therapy are true?

Statements that manufacturers and providers of CAM therapies may make about the effectiveness of a therapy and its other benefits can sound reasonable and promising. However, they may or may not be backed up by scientific evidence. Before you begin using a CAM treatment, it is a good idea to ask the following questions:

5. Are there any risks to using CAM treatments?

Yes, there can be risks, as with any medical therapy. These risks depend upon the specific CAM treatment. The following are general suggestions to help you learn about or minimize the risks.

6. Are CAM therapies tested to see if they work?

While some scientific evidence exists regarding the effectiveness of some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies-questions such as whether the therapies are safe, how they work, and whether they work for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are used.

NCCAM is the Federal Government's lead agency for scientific research on CAM. NCCAM supports research on CAM therapies to determine if they work, how they work, whether they are effective, and who might benefit most from the use of specific therapies.

7. I am interested in a CAM therapy that involves treatment from a practitioner. How do I go about selecting a practitioner?

Here are a few things to consider when selecting a practitioner. If you need more information, see our fact sheet "Selecting a CAM Practitioner."

8. Can I receive treatment or a referral to a practitioner from NCCAM?

NCCAM is the Federal Government's lead agency for scientific research on CAM. NCCAM does not provide CAM therapies or referrals to practitioners.

9. Can I participate in CAM research through a clinical trial?

NCCAM supports clinical trials (research studies in people) on CAM therapies. Clinical trials on CAM are taking place in many locations worldwide, and study participants are needed. To find out more about clinical trials in CAM, see the NCCAM fact sheet "About Clinical Trials and CAM." To find trials that are recruiting participants, go to the Web site nccam.nih.gov/clinicaltrials.You can search this site by the type of therapy being studied or by disease or condition. If you do not have access to the Internet, contact the NCCAM Clearinghouse for information.


For More Information

NCCAM Clearinghouse

The NCCAM Clearinghouse provides information on CAM and NCCAM, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226
TTY (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers): 1-866-464-3615
Web site: nccam.nih.gov
E-mail: info@nccam.nih.gov

Statistics on CAM Use

Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), NIH

ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications and the International Bibliographic Information on Dietary Supplements (IBIDS) database.

Web site: ods.od.nih.gov
E-mail: ods@nih.gov

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), PubMed contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. CAM on PubMed, developed jointly by NCCAM and NLM, is a subset of the PubMed system and focuses on the topic of CAM.

Web site: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez
Web site: nccam.nih.gov/camonpubmed/

ClinicalTrials.gov

ClinicalTrials.gov is a database of information on federally and privately supported clinical trials (research studies in people) for a wide range of diseases and conditions. It is sponsored by NIH and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Web site: clinicaltrials.gov

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA oversees the safety of many products, such as foods (including dietary supplements), medicines, medical devices, and cosmetics.

Web site: www.fda.gov
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-463-6332

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

The FTC is a Federal agency charged with protecting the public against unfair and deceptive business practices. A key area of its work is the regulation of advertising (except for prescription and medical devices).

Web site: www.ftc.gov
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-877-382-4357

National Library of Medicine (NLM)

NLM is the world's largest medical library. Services include MEDLINE, NLM's premier bibliographic database covering the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, the health care system, and preclinical science. MEDLINE contains indexed journal citations and abstracts from more than 4,600 journals published in the United States and more than 70 other countries. MEDLINE is accessible through NLM's PubMed system at pubmed.gov. NLM also maintains DIRLINE (dirline.nlm.nih.gov), a database that contains locations and descriptive information about a variety of health organizations, including CAM associations and organizations.

Web site: www.nlm.nih.gov
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-346-3656




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