Tools for Reading Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research

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Tools for Reading Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research

Published on 08-03-2009

"ChadD" is an acupuncturist and lives in Minneapolis and has authored 363 other posts.

The care of our health is a complex endeavor. Whether we make it that way or our bodies and environments are changing in complex ways, I'm not sure. What I do know is that there is a tremendous amount of information out there about health, this along with a huge amount of misinformation, marketing propaganda, and many good willed people sharing their stories of success regardless of how odd their approach may seem.

In no other field is there such a range of credible studies, conflicting opinions, turf wars, and fiction as there is in the field of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). For better or worse, CAM is often where people turn when all other viable western medical options have failed. While some modalities such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and herbal medicine are quite old and have extensive published and clinical-based research, other modalities and techniques are less understood.

Resources and Caveats

What I would like to share is a few resources (and caveats) to help you in your quest for health information.

One of the best resources that we have available to us is a website called PubMed that is run by the National Institutes of Health in the US. PubMed contains abstracts and some full text versions of published research in peer reviewed journals from around the world.  

While many published studies are arguably conservative, they are useful when read with the proper caveats and within the context of other sources of information including health professionals, textbooks and other websites.

Some of the more useful sources of information on the web are listed below:

Now that you have the links, what of those caveats? Well, reading published research is a task that requires a bit of training. The training involves not just understanding medical terminology but also research perspective and analysis of results. Due to the nature of research funding, many studies are done in small pieces to prove an aspect of a possible solution. This means that many studies are not done to be informative to you, just to be useful enough to get more funding for a study that will hopefully be useful to you.  

Without knowing all of the available research, it is often difficult to figure out where in this continuum each study is. An example would be recent studies on a particular acupuncture point on rats to see what chemical is released from the brain. Will a study like this prove to you that you should have acupuncture for depression? That acupuncture works? No, probably not. But when they find better ways to analyze what happens with acupuncture or other modalities, they will ideally have very useful studies published.

Outside of understanding perspective and terminology, you also have to be cautious of not reading too much into the results. A study with 8 people is far from definitive but can still be quite useful, and a study with 30,000 seems useful, but may be too abstract to make detailed conclusions. Along that note, CAM related studies tend to be hit and miss as far as results go.  

Techniques such as acupuncture, for example, are useful largely because you can tailor your treatment to each individual. Because of this, they do not fit well into the western double blind clinical trial model. Accordingly, many studies do not show results which match up with the clinical experiences of patients and practitioners in the field. Furthermore, many CAM studies are performed by MD's or others who are not fully trained in the modality but are employed by research facilities who have the money to perform the clinical studies. Again, the results will vary because of these factors but that doesn't mean the studies are not valuable given proper perspective.

Not the "End All, Be All"

What you are hopefully seeing is that these studies are not the "end all, be all" of medical information, nor are they necessarily meant to be informative to the general public at any given time. They are, however, useful tools to help validate other sources of information and opinions. For practitioners and patients alike that feel they need to make well informed decisions, they are important tools when read within the proper context and understanding.


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Issues/Symptoms: depression

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