Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs)

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead.

girl using natural medicine

Complementary and alternative medicines are products that can be taken along with, or instead of, pharmacological pain medications.

Natural health products (NHPs) are the main type of complementary and alternative medicine. They include vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plant materials, homeopathic medicines, Chinese and Ayurvedic (East Indian) medicines, probiotics, amino acids and essential fatty acids.They may come in pill, capsule, powder or liquid form and be sold in grocery, health food or drug stores.

Specific natural health products promoted for pain relief include devil’s claw, magnesium, fish or flaxseed oils and Arnica montana, a type of homeopathic medicine. The current available evidence is not strong enough to definitely recommend natural health products.

‘Natural’ doesn’t always mean ‘safe’

Many NHPs come from natural sources. However, ‘natural’ does not mean ‘safe’; for instance, some mushrooms and berries are natural but poisonous!

A natural health product may have side effects or interact with your pharmacological medications. In addition, some NHPs have caused harm. For example, the herbs kava and comfrey have been linked with severe liver damage.

NHPs have been regulated by Health Canada as over-the-counter substances since 2004. However, NHPs are not as strictly regulated as some other medications and researchers have found some safety issues with many types of common NHPs. For example, in some cases:

  • the bottle did not contain the ingredients listed on the label
  • the contents had very little of the active ingredient
  • the product was contaminated (tainted) with other ingredients.
girl with natural medicine

Talking to your healthcare team about CAMs

You might think that your doctor doesn’t want you to try CAM therapies. Because of this, you might feel uncomfortable telling your doctor about your plans to use them. But it's important that your healthcare team knows about all the treatments you are taking. This is to minimize the risk of unexpected side effects or interactions with your pharmacological medications or standard medical treatments.

Before trying a natural health product

  • Ask your healthcare team before trying any new product. What works for someone else might not work for you.
  • Even if a natural health product might work, find out if it will be safe to take with your prescription or other over-the-counter medications.
  • Do your research. Find out if there is scientific evidence about the effectiveness of the treatment. Also find out about any side effects. Get as much information as you can from independent sources. Don’t only rely on those providing the treatment.
  • Find out how much the treatment will cost and check if your insurance will cover it.

Resources on natural health products

National Institutes for Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Provides an overview of the efficacy and safety of many CAMs, but most studies relate to adults

How to choose a CAM practitioner

cam practitioner

​​Many individuals seek the advice of a CAM practitioner to choose CAM therapies or products for their pain. It is important to choose a CAM practitioner who is regulated by your provincial government​. These regulations ensure that the practitioner meets specific standards in their education and licensing so that they are qualified to provide high quality care.

If you’re looking for a complementary health practitioner, be as careful and thorough in your search as you are when looking for standard medical care. Be sure to ask about the practitioner’s:

  • education, training and licence
  • experience in delivering care to youth with chronic pain
  • experience in co-ordinating care with conventional health care providers.

Important!

  • Weigh the potential benefits and risks of the treatment (and costs) to make a decision.
  • Beware of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners who say they can cure diseases that do not respond to standard medical treatment.

​Sources

Newmaster, S.G., et al, 2013. DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal product. BioMed Central Ltd.; 2013; 11: 222; doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-222​​

Last updated: May 2nd 2016