National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

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Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director’s Page
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Wellness Versus Treatment: The Reasons Why People Choose Complementary Health Approaches

November 04, 2015

We know from our research that more than one-third of American adults use some form of complementary health approach. But until now, we haven’t had a full picture of the reasons so many people choose these health approaches. New findings released today give us more insight into why people use three specific complementary health approaches—dietary supplements (other than vitamins and minerals), yoga, and spinal manipulation.

An analysis from the most recent National Health Interview Survey published in a National Health Statistics Report found that people who take dietary supplements or who practice yoga were more likely to do so for wellness reasons than for treating a particular health problem. Interestingly, the opposite was true for spinal manipulation: people who use spinal manipulation more often do so to treat an ailment. Another intriguing finding is that compared to users of dietary supplements and spinal manipulation, people who practice yoga reported the most positive health benefits.

While yoga seems to play a big part, I find it especially interesting that people who use a variety of complementary health approaches reported better health and well-being. To me, this may suggest that people perceive more benefit of wellness when they are actively engaged in their health, for example by taking a yoga class. The role of complementary health approaches in promoting positive health behaviors is an exciting area of investigation, particularly when so many are faced with chronic conditions impacted by lifestyle. The good news, too, is that mind and body practices, such as yoga, are generally considered to be safe in healthy people when practiced appropriately.

It is important to know that while spinal manipulation may be beneficial to treat some ailments, and is relatively safe for low-back pain when performed by a trained and licensed practitioner, it may result in minor side effects such as temporary soreness. There have been rare reports of serious complications such as cauda equina syndrome (a condition involving pinched nerves in the lower part of the spinal canal), but cause and effect are unclear. To learn more about what we know about the risks and benefits associated with spinal manipulation, check out the information on our Web site. Safety of spinal manipulation remains an important focus of ongoing research for NCCIH. 

With respect to dietary supplements, while widely used as this recent report describes, there is a lot we don’t know about the safety and effectiveness of many of these products.  It is a good idea to let your health care providers (including doctors, pharmacists, and dietitians) know which dietary supplements you're taking so that you can discuss what's best for your overall health. Your health care provider can help you determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable for you. I encourage you to check out the information on dietary and herbal supplements on our Web site, which may be a useful resource in your decision-making.

Given this new information about the use of these complementary practices and dietary supplements I remain committed to support rigorous research to explore scientific questions about complementary health practices to better understand how they impact overall health.

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