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Why do patients undergo alternative, unproven treatments?

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A number of naturopathic practitioners in Southern California offer IV treatments that inject vitamins, herbs or chemical compounds directly into your bloodstream. KPCC reports that one of these treatments, IV hydrogen peroxide, is unproven, expensive and potentially dangerous.

Why would patients undergo this treatment?

Some people, especially here in Southern California, try to avoid prescription medication when possible. They could be skeptical of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the pharmaceutical industry; they could be trying to live a more natural lifestyle. To this group, a treatment like IV hydrogen peroxide may seem more appealing than a pill.

Others turn to alternative medicine after getting frustrated with Western medicine. It's frustrating when your doctor doesn't have enough time to take care of you; it's frustrating when it feels like the doctor is writing you a prescription rather than addressing your underlying health problem.

Mercedes Curran, of Beverly Grove Canyon, experienced that frustration before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She saw a lot of doctors but says she didn't feel like they took her concerns seriously. She says the solutions they offered her didn't address the real causes of her problems.

"They're so well intentioned, but they have about 15 minutes to meet with you and they say, 'alright, well, here, maybe you need to take this drug. Or, well, have you tried birth control?'" she says.

It's also frustrating when patients hit the limits of Western medicine.

Western medicine can do amazing things, but it still doesn't have all the answers. There aren't cures for every condition. And anyone who's seen a drug advertisement on television knows that some FDA-approved treatments have unpleasant side effects.

For example, MS is an unpredictable, degenerative disease of the central nervous system. There's no cure, but there are drugs that can modify the disease course. That feeling of being left between a rock and a hard place can drive people toward alternative medicine, says Dr. Paul Offit,  a professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical school and author of a book about alternative medicine.

"I have enormous sympathy for [Curran]," Offit says. "She's looking for help and frankly, turning to the medical profession, she finds there are limits to medicine, whereas when she goes to the alternative healer, he promises something else."

What do patients find when they turn to alternative medicine?

Naturopathic doctors have a reputation for taking time to talk with their patients.

They're known for trying to treat the whole person rather just a person's individual symptoms. They're more likely to try natural, holistic solutions first, like prescribing herbs or diet changes, before prescribing medication.

Are alternative treatments safe and effective?

There are some treatments that were developed outside of Western medicine, that have since been studied and proven to be effective and have been adopted by mainstream medicine.

For example, clinical studies have proven that acupuncture, yoga, massage and mindfulness are all effective treatments for back pain; the American College of Physicians guidelines says providers should recommend these treatments before prescribing painkillers like opioids.

Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics says there's good evidence supporting the use of some evidence-based non-traditional treatments for kids, including supplements like fish oil and probiotics.

There are other alternative treatments that haven't been studied or scientifically proven, but people might be open to trying them due to their mistrust and frustration with Western medicine.

How can patients determine which alternative treatments are safe?

It's a challenge, and the internet doesn't make it any easier. People can fall down a rabbit hole as they find horror stories about FDA-approved medications and anecdotes about miracle potions.

You have to be a smart consumer to distinguish between treatments that are proven to be safe and effective and those that are a waste of money and possibly dangerous.

You should talk with your doctor about any alternative treatments you're using or considering using. And the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is a great source of science-based information on a wide variety of alternative treatments.