In a study of more than 200 patients with Parkinson's disease, 40 percent used at least one type of alternative therapy, such as vitamins/herbs, massage and acupuncture. More than half failed to inform their physicians about the use of alternative therapies.
"This is concerning," said Stephen Reich, associate professor of neurology at Hopkins and co-author of the study. "While the public generally assumes that vitamins and herbs are safe, a rapidly growing number of studies shows that they can have potentially harmful effects and interactions with other drugs. More attention should be directed at testing the safety and efficacy of these treatments," he said, "and also on improving physician and patient communication about the potential benefits, costs and risks of alternative therapies."
Parkinson's patients who use alternative therapies tend to be younger, more educated and have higher incomes than patients who don't use alternative therapies. The researchers found no relationship between severity of disease and use of alternative therapies.
Alternative medicine is one of the fastest-growing industries in health care, with at least one-third of American adults taking some sort of alternative therapy on an annual basis. Yet many physicians are unaware of the widespread use of alternative therapies among patients, according to Reich.
"Few studies have focused on the use of alternative therapies by patients with neurologic conditions, and ours is the first to investigate Parkinson's disease," he said.
For the study, published in the Sept. 11 issue of Neurology, 201 Hopkins patients were interviewed about their current and past use of alternative treatments for Parkinson's disease. Of the patients using alternative therapies, 26 percent reported using two therapies, 33 percent reported more than two, and 12 percent used five or more therapies. Of those using vitamins and herbs, vitamin E was the most commonly used.
"This is surprising, because a well-designed, rigorous study showed conclusively that vitamin E has no beneficial effect on Parkinson's disease,'" Reich said.
There was a strong relationship between education and income and alternative therapy use, which reflects that most alternative therapies are out-of-pocket expenditures. There was no relationship between alternative therapy use and sex or race.