All in the Head
But experts concede that the popularity of alternative medicine stems in part from the shortcomings of traditional approaches.
A study by researchers at Harvard Medical School published in 2001 found that 66 percent of patients treated for anxiety and severe depression also used alternative therapies, including meditation, for these conditions -- and said they found alternative methods as helpful as conventional treatments.
"Alternative treatments all offer hope," Lilienfeld said. "They fill very important psychological needs, and many are used for conditions that have not responded to conventional treatment or for which there is no known cure. Quick fixes are very appealing."
Below is a discussion of three alternative therapies that both critics and proponents agree are increasing in popularity.
Neurofeedback, also known as EEG biofeedback, is being used to treat autism, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, and even by those who want to improve their golf scores.
The therapy's best known and most hotly debated use is for ADHD. Some therapists say that neurofeedback can be used as an adjunct to stimulants such as Ritalin or can even eliminate the need for drugs; in combination with a behavioral program, medications have been shown to work in about 70 percent of cases.
During a typical neurofeedback session, which lasts about 45 minutes, electrodes are attached to a child's forehead and connected to a small EEG machine linked to a computer. The child sits in a comfortable chair watching a video display that resembles a video game. The operator watches the EEG readout to determine whether the child is emitting brain waves indicative of an alert, focused state or a drowsy, inattentive state. The alert brain waves are rewarded by beeps, augmented by the encouragement of the tester to the child to keep producing them.
The use of a non-drug alternative appeals to many parents who are leery about putting their children on medications and say they prefer a more "natural" approach.
Research on epilepsy has demonstrated that biofeedback can reduce seizures by altering brain waves. The goal for children with ADHD is to filter out mental activity associated with slower brain waves that is believed to be related to impulsivity and inattention.
By remaining relaxed but focused, proponents say, the child learns through repeated sessions to produce brain waves that demonstrate sustained attention, thereby diminishing the hyperactivity and inability to concentrate that are the hallmarks of ADHD.
"We're finding most people are done after about 30 or 40 sessions," said Deborah Stokes, a psychologist who three years ago opened Neurofeedback Consultants in Alexandria. Stokes charges about $125 per session, which she said most insurance plans don't cover. Many of her clients learned about the treatment from Internet support groups or chat rooms for parents of hyperactive children, she said.
But critics say that the evidence that neurofeedback works for ADHD is shaky.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company