When Shawn Eaton injured his neck at the gym, his medical doctor prescribed the usual painkillers and muscle relaxants. But they didn’t work.
Seeing a chiropractor was his brother’s idea. Eaton was skeptical at first, but the sleepless nights were catching up to him. So he went. After just a few spinal adjustments, he was back in the gym and enjoying life again.
Eaton’s story is fairly common, and it’s just one example of the growing acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). More than 33 percent of Americans used alternative therapies in 2012, a slight increase over 2002. Although interest in nontraditional medicine isn’t snowballing like it did from the 1970s to the turn of the century, when CAM use more than doubled, it’s still on the rise.
As a result, the alternative medicine industry as a whole has seen steady revenue growth over the past five years, expanding from nearly $12 billion in 2011 to more than $14 billion this year.
“It’s clear that millions of Americans every year are turning to complementary and alternative medicine,” said Richard L. Nahin of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
What’s Fueling Demand?
Like Eaton, most CAM patients seek nontraditional therapies to ease chronic pain. The majority employ it in conjunction with traditional medical care, while fewer than 5 percent rely exclusively on alternative medicine.
“People turn to complementary and alternative medicine for pain management,” said Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). “They are not used as alternatives to standard, proven therapies but as a complement to standard care.”
However, patients are increasingly using CAM for reasons other than pain management—stress relief, for example. In the Journal of Clinical Psychology, researcher Crystal Park suggests that the heightened interest in alternative medicine may arise from a “greater awareness of the critical role that psychological distress plays in many medical conditions and health outcomes.”
Another factor to consider is that those who are considering alternative medicine now have a growing body of research to draw upon when researching its effectiveness at treating a wide range of ailments. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine alone spends about $120 million annually on research to determine whether CAM lives up to its promise.
“I think people are aware that the results are showing alternative medicine is beneficial,” said Ashley Flores, an acupuncturist and herbalist.
Role of Chiropractic in CAM
Together, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation represent the fourth most common type of alternative treatment (after dietary supplements, deep-breathing exercises, and yoga). One study found that nearly 20 million adults had received some form of manipulation within the past year.
It’s no wonder, given that back pains and headaches—both of which chiropractors excel at treating—were two of the top five medical conditions most frequently treated with alternative medicine.
Chiropractic treatment has gained increasing recognition for its ability to relieve chronic pain without the use of prescription painkillers, whose “serious and all too often fatal risks far outweigh the unproven and transient benefits,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). More than half of all opioids in the United States are prescribed by primary care physicians, and as many as one in four people who receive long-term painkiller therapy struggle with addiction.
“There are safer alternatives,” Frieden said.
In fact, the risk of addiction has become such a concern that in its new guidelines on prescribing opioids for chronic pain, the CDC affirms that painkillers should not be used as a first-line therapy for chronic pain. The organization urges doctors to first consider non-pharmacological treatments, such as chiropractic care.
“There are effective conservative treatments that help many patients lessen reliance on addictive painkillers and get back to their normal lives and activities,” said David Herd, president of the American Chiropractic Association.
“Chiropractic physicians, for example, are well positioned to play a vital role in the conservative management of acute and chronic pain. They offer complementary and integrative strategies, as well as guidance on self care, that can provide needed relief for many who suffer from pain.”