Does it Work?

Scientific evidence

Some people claim the beneficial effects of complementary medicine are due to factors such as the user’s belief in the therapy or the length of time a practitioner spends with a client, rather than the actual effects of the treatment. However, there’s a growing body of research from around the world, investigating the effects, mechanisms and success rates of complementary treatments, which disproves this.

Many studies have reported significant decreases in symptoms, as well as high levels of satisfaction among users. But while some therapies have been clearly shown to work, others remain questionable. More funding and research is needed to establish the safety of certain treatments, to determine the best uses and applications for different therapies, and to identify any that may be therapeutically useless or even harmful.

Appropriate research models are also needed. Classic double-blind clinical trials – whereby patients are given ‘real’ or ‘sham’ treatments, without them or the doctors knowing which they’re receiving – aren’t always practicable for research into complementary therapies. It’s difficult to give ‘sham’ acupuncture, for example, as Chinese medicine asserts that putting needles into almost any part of the body will have some therapeutic effect. Also, those doing research into the effect of complementary treatments on serious illnesses, such as cancer, need to measure changes in the quality of life as well as actual physical changes.

Is it safe?

Most complementary therapies are safe. Generally they involve more gentle or mild forms of treatment and have fewer side-effects than some conventional treatments. However ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘safe’. Some herbal medicines may be toxic or even life-threatening if prescribed incorrectly and both herb quality and the level of contaminants can vary enormously. Inexperienced or untrained practitioners can also be dangerous; for example a misplaced acupuncture needle could puncture a lung, with serious consequences, or an over-zealous osteopathic manipulation on a fragile joint could cause pain or damage.

For this reason it’s vital to check the qualifications and training of practitioners, the source and quality of remedies and the safety of the technique before embarking on any treatment. Significant progress on safety has been made within many professions, in terms of training, licensing and quality control. A House of Lords report on complementary therapies, written in consultation with many of the professional bodies, has recognised this and also recommended more widespread regulation, standardising of training and research to ensure safety.

How can you tell it’s working?

It’s very important that you don’t just continue with treatments waiting for something to happen. Make sure the practitioner explains the treatment plan to you and ask what signs of progress you should expect. For example, with homeopathy and some naturopathic treatments it’s normal for symptoms to get worse before they get better. This ‘healing crisis’ is generally regarded as a good sign and is taken to mean that the body is striving to establish a new balance. Aggravation of symptoms is generally short-lived, but if they’re prolonged you should go back to your practitioner for further advice.

Sometimes symptoms may first decrease in severity or frequency before disappearing altogether, as in the treatment of headaches and migraines, or they may temporarily shift to another part of the body, as in the case of aching joints.

Get advice from your practitioner on what signs to look for to show that the treatment is working. It may also be helpful to chart for yourself any changes in symptoms so you can clearly see effects over time. For example, if you’re exploring the link between food allergies and eczema it can be helpful to keep a record of what’s eaten alongside an indication of the location and severity of the eczema and the treatment undertaken.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in March 2009.