Which alternative treatments provide real relief?

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For people who suffer from chronic pain, stress, or insomnia, sometimes mainstream medicine doesn't have a very good solution.

For people who suffer from chronic pain, stress, or insomnia, sometimes mainstream medicine doesn't have a very good solution. It leads many to pursue alternative therapies.

Consumer Reports' Health Editor Lauren Friedman says it can be tough to tell which alternatives are effective.

"Americans spend billions of dollars on alternative treatments every year and while some of those are dangerous and some of them don't work at all, research has shown that some of them can actually help," she said.

There is evidence that alternative treatments like meditation, yoga and tai-chi can help with chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.

"A lot of people do yoga to relax or to promote flexibility or because they enjoy it," Friedman said. "But there is actually evidence that regularly practicing yoga can help ease depression, can help with low back pain and can even reduce blood pressure."

Mindfulness techniques, including yoga, and certain forms of meditation and deep breathing may also be effective with relieving stress.

If you're having a tough time getting a good night's rest, there's evidence that taking melatonin may help with specific kinds of sleep problems, such as those related to jet lag or shift work.

But melatonin may be only minimally effective for other sleep issues, like insomnia.

"First thing you do shouldn't be pills or something like melatonin, but there is something you can try called cognitive behavioral therapy, and that's something that can help you disrupt poor-sleeping habits and set you on a better course to healthier sleep," Friedman said.

While some alternative treatments are effective, there are many others that have no proof of effectiveness.

To make the situation even more confusing, many staples of alternative medicine aren't subject to the same rules that govern doctors' offices and prescription and over-the-counter drugs. That means manufacturers don't have to prove that their treatments contain what their labels claim or that they are effective or safe. Some can even be dangerous, like kratom, which is promoted as a safe pain reliever, but could be as addictive as opioids. It has also been linked to at least 44 deaths.

So it's important to do your research, be choosy about alternative health practitioners, consider how much it could cost you and think holistically.

"When you're interested in alternative treatments, the more serious the problem you have, the more cautious you should be in turning to alternative treatments," Friedman said. "Before trying any new treatment, you should always consult with your doctor first."

The experts at Consumer Reports have put together their guide to alternative health treatments, and you can find it here: www.consumerreports.org.
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