Alternative Treatments ~ Consumer Reports’ survey of 34,000 readers

Consumer Reports’ Survey of 34,000 Readers
Finds Hands-on Treatments Most Successful

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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A Press Release from Consumer Reports ~ YONKERS, NY —

Alternative medicine is no longer truly alternative. A Consumer Reports survey of more than 34,000 readers reveals that many people have tried it, and more and more doctors are recommending it. Readers gave the highest marks to hands-on treatments, which worked better than conventional treatments for conditions such as back pain and arthritis. Chiropractic was ranked ahead of all conventional treatments, including prescription drugs, by readers with back pain. (Readers said it also provided relief for neck pain, but neck manipulation can be risky and is not recommended by CR.) Deep-tissue massage was found to be especially effective in treating osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. While readers suffering from back pain deemed acupuncture and acupressure less effective than chiropractic and massage, one-fourth of readers who had tried these therapies said they helped them feel much better. Of all the hands-on alternative therapies, acupuncture has the most scientific support.

Readers also reported good results for exercise, not only for conditions such as back pain, but also for allergies and other respiratory ills, anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, insomnia, and prostate problems. Those results are consistent with a broad range of clinical studies of treatments for all of these conditions except allergies and respiratory ailments.

On the other hand, well-known, heavily promoted herbal treatments such as echinacea, St. John’s wort, saw palmetto, melatonin, and glucosamine and chondroitin didn’t work as well for readers. Readers reported that alternative treatments were far less effective than prescription drugs for eight conditions: anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insomnia, prostate problems, and respiratory problems. Interpreting these results of the reader survey is somewhat difficult because the U.S. regulates alternative and conventional medicines differently. Federal laws ensure that a bottle of prescription or over-the-counter pills contains the amount and kind of medicine stated on the label, and dosages are standardized, but no such standards apply to dietary supplements. Moreover, there are no standard recommended dosages.

Treating symptoms of menopause

A separate Consumer Reports survey of 10,042 women who had gone through menopause or were experiencing it found that a large minority of women have turned from hormone replacement, which can be risky, to black cohosh, soy supplements, and vitamin E for relief from hot flashes. However, those alternatives were far less effective. Sixty percent of respondents who took estrogen plus progestin said it helped them feel much better, as did 53 percent of those who took estrogen by itself. The botanicals scored far lower. Black cohosh was typical. It helped 17 percent of women feel much better, but 51 percent said it did nothing at all. Some, but not all, studies have found that black cohosh is modestly helpful against hot flashes and night sweats. However, its long-term safety has not been studied. Most studies of soy supplements have suggested that they’re not very helpful, and breast-cancer patients should talk with their doctor before taking large amounts of soy. For other supplements, studies show little or no evidence of benefit.

For specific, free advice on how to choose an alternative treatment, visit during the month of July. In general, CR recommends the following:

  • Ask your doctor. Many doctors will refer patients to preferred alternative practitioners. And your doctor may be able to steer you away from potentially hazardous alternative treatments.

  • Do your own research. Objective online references include the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health; Medline Plus (, for plain-language medical information; and Consumer Reports Medical Guide (, which rates treatments, including alternative treatments, for several dozen common conditions. It costs $24 per year or $4.95 per month; the others are free.

  • Consult other reliable sources. If your doctor doesn’t have a referral list of practitioners, check with a local hospital or medical school. You can also turn to national professional organizations, many of which have geographic search functions on their Web sites.

  • Check your health plan. Many cover some alternative therapies.

  • Check the practitioner’s credentials. Make sure your practitioner has the proper license, if applicable, or check for membership in professional associations, which require minimum levels of education and experience. Some also make practitioners pass an exam.

© Consumers Union 2005. The material above is intended for legitimate news entities only; it may not be used for commercial or promotional purposes. Consumer Reports® is published by Consumers Union, an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. To achieve this mission, we test, inform, and protect. To maintain our independence and impartiality, CU accepts no outside advertising, no free test samples, and has no agenda other than the interests of consumers. CU supports itself through the sale of our information products and services, individual contributions, and a few noncommercial grants.

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