The most commonly used CAM therapies included massage, faith healing, chiropractic and aromatherapy, while the most popular products to treat conditions ranging from cancer to asthma and inflammatory bowel disease were vitamins and minerals, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines.
"Whether we're looking at the general population or at children's hospitals, it seems that complementary medicine use is extremely common," says Dr. Sunita Vohra, lead author of the study and a pediatrician who is chair of the section on integrated medicine for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In the United States, a recent survey found that one in nine children had used alternative therapies to treat a health condition.
Vohra says parents' own beliefs about and reliance on CAM therapies is a major factor behind its use in children, as is parents' desire to provide their children with every possible health option.
"For most parents, their number one priority is the health of their children so they're interested in exploring all options to promote their children's health," says Vohra. "Many parents consider all products that are available and seek out not only conventional health care but also complementary health care."
With CAM being used by so many children, however, she and her colleagues say it's time for pediatricians to do a better job of discussing the safety and efficacy of the therapies with parents.
"Given the rates of use, we would like to encourage all health care providers to ask about complementary therapies and we encourage all parents to tell," says Vohra. "In many cases, it's not discussed because parents think doctors won't support them, but it's far better to have an open discussion."
Such discussions can avoid potentially harmful interactions between conventional medicines and herbal remedies, for example, or other incompatibilities that can worsen, rather than improve, symptoms. In the study, parents reported 80 adverse effects, most of which were described as minor.
Most parents, says Vohra, will deny that their children are taking alternative therapies, even if they are -- and not because they want to intentionally deceive their doctors.
"They don't think of herbs as medicine," says Vohra. "So doctors should ask parents, 'What are all the therapies, including complementary medicines, that your child is taking?'"
Image: Acupuncture, via Shutterstock