On the other hand, Palfrey said he’s leery of some of the herbal and “natural” medicines his patients take.
“These products are not regulated by the [Food and Drug Administration] or the consumer products agency because they are not considered medications, or they are made up of so many different components that it’s impossible to study them,” he said. “Families don’t know what’s in them. I don’t know what’s in them.”
His biggest fear for children, he said, is that these products might contain lead, which has been used before to sweeten traditional medicines. (Lead poisoning can severely damage the developing brain.)
Palfrey recommends that families discuss any indigenous or home remedies with their doctor — even if the doctor doesn’t ask about them directly. And he suggests that doctors try harder to ask patients about what therapies and remedies they’re using, especially if prescribed medication isn’t working as expected.
In some cases, though, the problem is too little access to complementary therapies, not too much.
National surveys show that affluent white families are the heaviest users of treatments like acupuncture, massage, and yoga — “I think because they can afford it,” said Dr. Paula Gardiner, a family physician and integrative medicine expert at Boston Medical Center. Gardiner has found that when she made such treatments available in Dorchester, Codman Square, and South Boston, “we have been finding that patients love it and are open to trying it.”
Gardiner said most of her patients are referred by primary care doctors who have run out of conventional therapies, “and now we’re here to help, to try the things outside the box.” Her team offers stress reduction, yoga, healthy eating programs, and instruction in meditation. “We’re giving them different tools to help them think about their lives in a different way,” she said.
And she tries to keep it all affordable. Gardiner has arranged partnerships with nearby schools of massage and acupuncture, for instance, to provide training opportunities for students in exchange for free services to patients.
Lisa MacIsaac, whose daughter is Dr. Gardiner’s patient, said it was great to get access to these for free, but neither really helped Kathleen. Instead, it is a private acupuncturist, charging $120 a week for two sessions, who has helped the most. MacIsaac has taken on extra nursing shifts to pay for the sessions.
MacIsaac said she now thinks stress is the source of Kathleen’s headaches. A recent illness her father suffered, and the transition to middle school — where there’s no recess, more social stress, and higher academic expectations — have all taken their toll this year, her mother said.
In addition to pain relief, MacIsaac said she hopes the alternative treatments will give Kathleen more coping strategies, “so when she’s an adult she’ll have the tools and techniques she needs to have a healthy life.”
Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.