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Complementary Approaches for Integrative Medicine

Teen girl meditating outdoors

Relaxation and meditation can help children and teenagers cope with stress, disease, and treatment side effects.

Complementary approaches treat your child's body, mind, and spirit. They may help your child:

  • Cope better with their illness
  • Manage their symptoms and side effects
  • Improve their well-being

Complementary approaches, used by themselves, cannot cure or lessen a disease. Your doctor may treat your child with complementary approaches and standard medical treatments. Using both types of treatment together is known as integrative medicine.

What are complementary approaches?

There are 3 groups of complementary approaches:

  • Natural products and nutritional
  • Psychological and physical (mind and body)
  • Other practices

Natural products and nutritional approaches

Natural products are substances like essential oils, which you can dilute and apply to your child's skin to reduce stress, help them relax and sleep, or reduce vomiting or pain. Your child can inhale the essential oil using aromatherapy. Your child should not eat or drink essential oils.

Nutritional approaches are things your child eats to help their body, such as:

  • Herbs
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Probiotic products
  • Dietary supplements

Psychological and Physical Approaches

Psychological and physical approaches (mind and body practices) help symptoms like worry and stress. Most of these practices are low risk and include:

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Other complementary approaches

Some approaches do not fit into the other two groups, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (traditional medicine from India).

Benefits of complementary approaches

Complementary approaches can help your child manage side effects from medical treatment. For example:

  • Yoga, focusing on positive things, and acupuncture can reduce nausea and vomiting from medication.
  • Music, art, and play make coping and sharing emotions easier.

Complementary approaches may also help your child manage problems like:

These therapies can have positive effects. Your child may:

  • Feel more positive and in control
  • Have less worry and stress
  • Get their attention away from pain and other physical symptoms
  • Have improved blood flow
  • Experience less swelling and inflammation
  • Have improved nerve function
  • Believe that the therapy will work, so they feel better (placebo effect)

Risks of complementary approaches

Many complementary approaches are safe and work well for children. However, they are still treatments and should be taken seriously like other treatments. Just because a product is available over the counter does not mean it is safe. Also, there may be limited information on how well these approaches work for your child’s disease.

Be aware that some natural products or supplements:

  • May interfere with standard medical treatments, so that they won't work as well
  • Get into the bloodstream and change the way your child’s body works
  • Cause allergic reactions, irritation, or other bad reactions to sensitive skin after treatment
  • Could affect children more than adults (children are smaller and their organs are still developing)
  • Have more risk of problems if your child’s immune system is weak
  • May have harmful substances not listed on the label
  • May not give instructions for how much a child should take (dose information)

If your child has a special diet that limits certain foods, they may:

  • Lose weight
  • May not get the nutrients they need from food to grow and develop properly  

Using complementary approaches

Talk with your child's doctor before using complementary approaches. Your doctor can:

  • Tell you the risks and benefits
  • Monitor your child to see if the therapy helps  
  • Watch for problems that may develop

Check with your child's care team before using any complementary approach, even if your child used it before their disease diagnosis.

Questions to ask your doctor about complementary approaches

  • What symptoms or side effects does this therapy treat?
  • What is the evidence that it works?
  • Was this used to treat children with my child's disease, and what age were they?
  • What are the instructions for use (what dose and how often)?
  • What are the possible benefits, risks, and side effects of this approach?
  • How might this interfere my child's other medical treatments?
  • Is it safe to try this now?

Finding an integrative medicine professional

You are encouraged to:

  • Look for a certified health professional. The provider should be licensed and experienced with complementary approaches.
  • Check if the provider has treated children with your child's disease.

Key points about complementary approaches

  • Doctors who practice integrative medicine use complementary and standard medical treatments together to manage side effects while treating disease.
  • Complementary approaches, used alone, cannot cure or lessen disease.
  • Some complementary approaches are safe, while others can cause harmful reactions or interfere with standard medical treatments.
  • Check with your doctor before using complementary approaches.
  • Find a certified, licensed health professional with experience working with children with your child's disease. 

For more information:

The Together by St. Jude online resource does not endorse any branded product mentioned in this article.

Reviewed: December 2023