Kids and Cures

Is holistic medicine—acupuncture instead of antibiotics—the future of health care for children?

The offices of Dr. Timothy Culbert in Minneapolis are all blond wood and soothing light, with bright murals and leather armchairs. The place feels more like a day spa than a doctor’s office, which isn’t by accident. Culbert aims to bridge the gap between conventional and alternative medicine, and the space’s “healing design,” as he calls it, was laid out with that mission in mind. In one room, a patient diagnosed with anxiety might be employing biofeedback, in which muscles are connected to a computer via electrodes that indicate tension level. In another, an insomnia sufferer might be experimenting with aromatherapy. And in yet another, someone plagued by headaches might be trying acupuncture.

Culbert wants his patients to be comfortable, active participants in their health-care regimen, of course, which is why the treatment rooms are also stocked with baskets of scruffy stuffed animals, colorful balls, and children’s books (including a series co-authored by Culbert, Be the Boss of Your Body). This also isn’t by accident. All of Culbert’s patients, after all, are kids.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the use of alternative medicine for children is becoming increasingly common. Between 20 and 40 percent of healthy children now use some form of such treatment. Among kids with chronic illnesses, it’s more than 50 percent. And Minnesota, it turns out, is on the leading edge of the trend. The Integrative Medicine Program at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota—where Culbert’s office is located—is the largest integrative pediatric-medicine program in the country.

Culbert became interested in mind-body approaches in 1986, after he finished medical school. During his residency, he studied developmental and behavioral pediatrics, including hypnosis and biofeedback. “It was pretty radical,” he recalls. “People thought it was really fringe and weird. It’s more mainstream now.” He joined Children’s in 2001, soon after the integrated-medicine program launched, and has overseen the program’s rapid growth. In 2006, the practice saw more than 2,000 kids, and Culbert estimates the number of visits grew by roughly 20 percent last year. The program’s outpatient practice is currently booked three months in advance.

For kids who come to Children’s, there’s biofeedback, aromatherapy, and acupuncture (the preferred term is “acupoint stimulation”—less scary for kids), as well as hypnosis, herbal medicine, healing touch, and massage. About half the kids suffer from chronic pain associated with diseases such as sickle-cell anemia or arthritis, while others have chronic headaches or abdominal pain, depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or autism. Still others have “biobehavioral” problems, such as sleep disturbance, bed-wetting, or school avoidance. Generally, the children the practice works with are 5 or older. “They’re not passive then,” Culbert explains. “We want kids to develop active skills. We want to engage them more.” And the kids get excited about it. “Kids can’t wait to see us,” he says. “To them it’s not weird. This is all very natural stuff, to balance the body.”

Among parents, the interest in integrative medicine is often a response to the skyrocketing use of medications among children today, says Culbert. It’s common for him to see an 8-year-old who has been prescribed three different drugs—one for ADHD, one for sleep problems, and one for mood disturbance. “The use of psycho-pharmacologicals in kids and preschoolers has increased dramatically in the last five, 10 years,” he says. In conventional medicine, “all we did with kids was medicate them. It was the only option. It wasn’t a thoughtful, safe way to treat them.”

Many parents want other options. Ruth Shepard Trode, a childbirth instructor who lives in Baldwin, Wisconsin, is among those who have decided to take alternative approach to her kids’ health. And though she brings her four children—who range in age from 1 to 10—to a conventional doctor when necessary, they’ve all seen various alternative medical practitioners since they were born. “I did have to decide what I was going to believe,” says Trode, 36. “Did I believe in the body’s innate ability to heal itself? Or did I believe the body needed drugs and surgery?”

All of which sounds great, but as the mother of a 2-year-old, I was skeptical. It’s one thing for adults to choose alternative therapies, whether it’s because they’ve tried Western medicine with little success—or because they want another approach to health. It’s another thing when they’re making that decision for their kids. Children are so different from adults. They change so quickly. How can you know whether alternative medicine is safe or effective for them?

Culbert is sensitive to such concerns. Research on alternative medicine for kids has lagged behind that for adults, but the Children’s program strives to be research-oriented. The integrative-medicine program also conducts its own research, including a recent pilot study on using aromatherapy to treat symptoms among pediatric cancer patients. With some treatments, such as herbal remedies, Culbert emphasizes caution. “We just don’t know enough about them,” he notes, stressing that kids may react differently or metabolize differently from adults.

It’s important to remember that there’s a big difference between what Children’s is doing and what some independent practitioners are doing. Though Culbert respects chiropractors, homeopaths, and naturopaths, he is adamantly old school when it comes to treating many ailments. “If you have a kid with a 102-degree fever at three months old, he might have meningitis,” Culbert says. “That’s not appropriate care for a chiropractor. It just isn’t.”

The key to deciding if and when alternative medicine is right for your kid is dependent on everyone involved—conventional doctors, alternative practitioners, the families themselves—sharing information. “I don’t think the lines of communication have been opened up completely in a way that’s mutually respectful,” Culbert notes, adding that roughly half of people who see conventional doctors say they won’t tell them that they’re using alternative therapies for fear of being criticized. “People tend to say they want both types of practice to work together. Not one or another.”

That balanced approach makes sense. Like a lot of parents, I like the idea of having more options out there for my daughter, even if I never use them. It just feels healthy.

Leyla Kokmen, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and journalism instructor, coordinates the health-journalism program at the University of Minnesota.