Alternative wellness for kids

For four years, Kristin Duda says her son, Owen, was the healthiest sick kid around.

He ate and drank well, getting plenty of fruits, vegetables and milk. He loved to run and play. And he hardly ever had a fever or runny nose.

But that cough. That loud, constant cough. It began when he turned 1 and never went away, Duda says.

To help Owen find relief, Duda and her husband, Andy, propped him up in bed. They regularly visited his pediatrician and an allergist, who told them Owen had symptoms of an upper respiratory infection and asthma. They followed doctors’ orders, giving him different antibiotics and asthma medications. They taught Owen how to irrigate his nasal passages with a saline solution. And they cared for him after sinus surgery, done to reduce his nasal and sinus inflammation.

“We were doing everything we could,” says Duda, an Ellicott City resident. “We had days on end of treatments and lost nights.”

The cough persisted.

Three weeks after the surgery, 4-year-old Owen started coughing again. Duda had had enough.

“I was willing at that point to do anything,” she says. “I didn’t want to give him another bottle of medicine.”

Seeking solutions, Duda turned to integrative care -- care that combines complementary or alternative therapies with those practiced by mainstream medical doctors.

Duda is one of many parents across Howard County embracing this approach, which treats the whole person -- body, mind and spirit -- and not just the disease. Their reasons range from wanting a second opinion to searching for ways to alleviate food sensitivities or symptoms of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Integrative medicine supporters say the practice offers a more comprehensive, natural approach to children’s overall health. But the concept still has skeptics, especially when it comes to safety.

“The misperception is that there is no science -- that we’re taking advantage of local parents,” says Dr. Pamela Compart, a developmental pediatrician and founder of HeartLight Healing Arts in Columbia.

The science is there, she says. And so are the results.

What is integrative medicine

The terms integrative, complementary and alternative medicine are often used interchangeably. But according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternate Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health, they have different meanings.

Complementary medicine usually refers to using a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine -- medicine practiced by a medical doctor (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathy (D.O.), as well as health professionals like registered nurses and physical therapists. Alternative means using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine.

Integrative medicine covers a range of non-mainstream health care approaches. It can include natural products like herbs, vitamins, minerals and probiotics, as well as mind and body practices like acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, meditation and even yoga.

Compart prefers the term “functional medicine,” which addresses the underlying cause of a disease or illness.

“Functional medicine is giving the body what it needs and getting rid of what may be interfering with the goal of optimizing function,” she says.

Whether integrative or functional, both forms of medicine address the whole person and not just a set of symptoms, experts say.

Choosing the integrative path

Many parents turn to integrative medicine when their children are suffering from an ailment and are not getting positive health results from conventional care, says Jade Connelly-Duggan, acupuncturist and founder of WisdomWell, a family acupuncture and wellness center in Columbia.

“People don’t bring their children in unless something is going on,” she says.

Compart agrees.

“People we tend to see are people who tried traditional but it didn’t work … or they tried traditional and didn’t like the side effects,” she says.

Combining acupuncture with conventional medicine made a significant difference in H. Dane Bates’ son’s life. The 13-year-old Columbia resident, who has autism, attends biweekly 45-minute sessions at WisdomWell.

In addition to the calming effect, acupuncture helps the teen control his emotions, Bates says.

“We truly believe in the doctor,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to stop there.”

Duda, exhausted from failed attempts to improve Owen’s health, began researching chronic inflammation and coughing on her own. That’s when she discovered a possible link to dairy products. To confirm her suspicions, she visited Dr. Jennifer Rabenhorst, a board-certified family physician and founder of Integrative Family Medicine in Columbia.

“I’ve never been a super naturopath person,” Duda says. “I just (couldn’t) put him on another medicine.”
Rabenhorst spent 90 minutes with the Duda family during their first visit, discussing Owen’s history and symptoms as well as the family’s lifestyle. She recommended an immunoglobulin G (IgG) test -- a test that measures the level of certain antibodies in the blood -- for the 30 most common food allergens. Duda says the test confirmed her suspicions: Owen had a severe dairy sensitivity.

“I sat on my front stoop and started crying,” Duda says. “Never once did the pediatrician or allergist mention cutting out dairy.”

Finally, Duda says, they had an answer.

A growing field

According to a 2007 NCCAM survey, nearly 12 percent of American children have used or been given a complementary health product or practice, with the most common being herbs and botanicals, and chiropractic spinal manipulation. The top reasons for accessing this care include neck and back pain, head or chest cold, anxiety and stress, musculoskeletal problems and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Additional statistics on children and complementary health practices are limited. But as for adults age 18 and older, NCCAM data shows the number using some form of complementary and alternative medicine increased from 36 percent in 2002 to 38 percent in 2007.

Locally, integrative medicine specialists also are seeing an increase. At the Center for Integrative Medicine, part of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the number of patients treated with complementary practices jumped 21 percent between 2008 and 2009. Today, the center treats about 9,000 patients a year.

Part of the reason for the jump is increased awareness and acceptance, says WisdomWell’s Connelly-Duggan.

“There is more publicity, more regulations, more practitioners now,” she says.

More conventional doctors also are willing to consider integrative approaches, she says, adding that medical doctors often refer patients to WisdomWell for acupuncture.

In addition, hospitals across the country are adding integrative services to their pain management and cancer programs.

Still, when it comes to children, some parents remain hesitant.

“There are a lot more heightened emotions about integrative medicine when it comes to kids,” says Rabenhorst.

The majority of complementary therapies are not covered by medical insurance, and some have not yet been tested for safety and effectiveness in children. Researchers also say diagnostic tests like the food-specific IgG test that helped identify Owen’s dairy sensitivity are unproven and experimental.

Parents should always keep their pediatrician informed if they choose to integrate complementary therapies into their child’s health care, Compart says.

“One hand needs to always know what the other is doing,” she says.

Within a week of eliminating dairy from Owen’s diet, he stopped coughing and his inflammation disappeared. Any signs of asthma vanished.

Owen, now 6, still visits Rabenhorst every few months for evaluations. Since his initial test, his dairy sensitivity has decreased. But he still keeps most dairy products out of his diet, just to be safe, Duda says.

Looking back, Duda says she’s glad she found Rabenhorst and an answer to the health issues that plagued Owen for years. She also hopes awareness of integrative and complementary medicine continues to grow.

“What would it hurt?” Duda says. “How could you come away with any information from a doctor like this that could be bad?”


The National Institutes of Health classify four general areas of complementary and alternative care:

1. Mind-body medicine. This includes practices such as meditation, prayer, tai chi and music therapy, which are intended to develop the mind’s ability to affect physical symptoms. It focuses on the mind’s role in conditions that affect the body.

2. Biologically based practices. This includes substances such as herbs, foods, vitamins and dietary supplements that are geared to help heal the body. Herbal remedies include a wide range of plants used for medicine or nutrition. They are available in grocery stores, over the Internet, in health-food stores or through herbalists and are often in the form of teas, capsules and extracts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate these.

3. Manipulative and body-based practices. These practices are based on the manipulation or movement of body parts. Methods include massage therapy and therapeutic touch, which manipulate and realign body parts, to help alleviate symptoms. You’ve probably heard of chiropractors, who focus on affecting the nervous system by adjusting the spinal column.

4. Energy medicine. This area of medicine is based on the theory (which has not been proved scientifically) that certain energy fields surround and penetrate the body. This includes practices such as reiki, qi gong and therapeutic touch. Also included are therapies based on bioelectromagnetics, the theory that electrical currents in all living organisms produce magnetic fields that extend beyond the body.



If You Are Considering a Complementary Health Approach for Your Child:

¿    Make sure that your child has received an accurate diagnosis from a licensed health-care provider.
¿    Educate yourself about the potential risks and benefits of complementary health approaches.
¿    Ask your child’s health-care provider about the effectiveness and possible risks of approaches you are considering or already using for your child.
¿    Visit the resources included on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s website at
¿    Remind your teenagers to discuss with their health-care providers any complementary health approaches they may use.
¿    Do not use any health product or practice that has not been proven safe and effective to replace or delay conventional care or prescribed medications.
¿    If a health-care provider suggests a complementary health approach, do not increase the dose or duration of the treatment beyond what is recommended (more is not necessarily better).
¿    If you have any concerns about the effects of a complementary approach, contact your child’s health-care provider.
¿    As with all medications, store herbal and other dietary supplements out of the sight and reach of children.
¿    Tell all your child’s health-care providers about any complementary health approaches your child uses. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your child’s health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

Source: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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