Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment based on the belief that blocked energy triggers pain.

Complementary and alternative health treatments have become more popular in recent years. According to a Consumers Report survey, one third of Americans have used some sort of alternative health care in the past year. This category includes treatments, practices or products not generally considered part of conventional health care.

Here’s a look at some popular health treatments.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment based on the belief that blocked energy triggers pain. Insertion of thin needles in specific spots on the body is done to relieve pain. Some research has shown that it can work, especially for osteoarthritis, chronic headaches, or chronic neck or back pain. In the United States, acupuncturists are required to take a national exam after three to four years of study and become licensed. Generally there are no side effects associated with acupuncture, but it may take multiple visits over several weeks to see results. Be sure to look for a licensed practitioner.

Chelation is approved for treating only one thing: heavy metal poisoning. Medication delivered into the bloodstream binds with heavy metals, making it possible for the kidneys to filter them out and expel them in urine. This is beneficial when someone has been exposed to large amounts of mercury, lead or arsenic, or when a child has overdosed on adult-strength iron supplements. However, chelation has been presented as a treatment for everything from Alzheimer’s and autism to cancers and heart disease. The side effects to chelation can be severe and include kidney damage, seizures, brain damage, cardiac arrhythmias, allergic reactions and even death. Chelation is only recommended for use in treating metal poisoning where the benefit clearly outweighs the risk.

Cupping is another ancient Chinese practice that has become popular with Olympic athletes and celebrities, as evidenced by the telltale marks that it leaves. Cupping involves applying suction cups made of glass, bamboo, earthenware or silicone to the skin then pulling them off. Cupping is said to increase blood flow, decrease inflammation and pain, and support healing. Although one study found that cupping could be effective in short-term relief of chronic neck and low-back pain, more studies are needed. Side effects are generally minimal but can include bruising, soreness, burns and skin infection. 

Various detoxes and cleanses seem to make the rounds of social media every few months. These might involve drinking only juice or some other concoction for several days or even longer. Or it might be sweltering in high temperatures for extended periods or even enduring colonics (colon cleansing procedure) with coffee or other substances. These are usually promoted for losing weight or ridding the body of toxins. Generally, all of these are wasted time and money. Our liver, kidneys and skin are designed to eliminate any toxins through our urine, stool and sweat. There is little evidence to support the use of any of these treatments, and the side effects range from unpleasant (cramping, nausea) to dangerous (kidney failure, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, bowel perforation and even death). 

Neti pots are designed to treat allergies, colds and sinus conditions by rinsing the debris and mucous from your nose. Several studies show that using Neti pots or similar devices may be helpful in relieving sinus symptoms. Use caution, though, as there have been reports of bacterial infections due to using unsterilized tap water. Keep your device clean and sanitized, use distilled water, and use it only as needed.

Essential oils are powerful plant extracts. Some have antifungal properties, some are an effective antibacterial, some deter bugs, and the list goes on. Aromatherapy can help lessen anxiety and reduce nausea. But — and this is important — you need to be cautious when using essential oils. They can irritate your skin, cause allergic reactions or increase sun sensitivity, and they should be diluted before applying. Essential oil diffusers are popular, but they may trigger asthma attacks or other reactions. Avoid diffusing around infants younger than 2 months, pets and guests. 

Essential oils are not meant to be consumed and can cause vomiting, diarrhea or aspiration pneumonia. Remember that essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration for quality, and any health claims are not based on scientific evidence. Just because they are “natural” doesn’t make them safe.

These are just a few of the many complementary and alternative health care practices. Others include biofeedback, hypnosis, dietary supplements, yoga, meditation, massage, light therapy and dozens others. Although there may be value in some of these treatments, they can be damaging to your bank account and your health if you use them in place of evidence-based treatments.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.