Use of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) is on the increase in the United States. A recent survey indicates that
- 40% of Americans use CAM for chronic conditions;
- CAM was most frequently used for pain control, and nearly 50% reported using CAM because their prescribed medications were ineffective;
- more than half of these patients used dietary supplements or herbal therapies, and almost two-thirds of the patients found CAM helpful; and
- 30% to 70% of cancer patients who are inadequately treated by their physicians turn to CAM in the hope of curing or alleviating their pain.
The role of alternative medicines, either as analgesics used alone or as adjuvants to minimize the need for opioid analgesics, remains unexplored.
Ancient traditional practices were the primary treatments for illnesses for more than a millennium, long before the emergence of Western allopathic medicine. Historically, medical research methodology has not systematically measured the efficacy of many "alternative" treatments in ways that would be acceptable to Western scientists. Many drugs widely used in conventional therapy have their origins in plants and other natural products. These age-old remedies have stood the test of time, but the process of identifying medicinal agents empirically by trial and error was not efficient.
The onus is on basic scientists and clinical investigators to develop a methodology that fits CAM. In order to maintain traditional ideas of patient care, academic medicine must understand and embrace the research possibilities offered by CAM, even those that have not fit easily within the established venues of Western scientific philosophy.