There’s plenty to consider before deciding non-conventional medicine is right for your child
By Kim Hart Macneill
Since birth, Chris Benjamin’s son Dylan suffered from chronic ear infections. By age four, his doctor suggested surgically inserting tubes into the child’s ears to avoid the infections. Benjamin wanted to relieve his son’s pain, but he had a similar surgery as a child and didn’t have fond memories.
A friend suggested visiting an osteopath first. Benjamin saw one for his chronic hip pain and figured it was worth a try. Dylan’s pain was gone the day after his osteopath appointment. Given the family’s experience with ear infections for the prior four years, Benjamin estimates Dylan was about halfway through the infection when they sought treatment.
Dylan got another infection several months later and the family eventually opted for the tubes. Nonetheless, Benjamin says he sees a place for both treatment approaches.
“Her treatment gave him the relief he needed at the time, and Western medicine has evolved to the point where it’s less intrusive than it used to be,” Benjamin says. “We benefited from both people’s work in the long-term.”
In Nova Scotia, unconventional medicine is known by many names, such as alternative, holistic, and complimentary medicine. It can include naturopathic medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture, physiotherapy, and osteopathy to name a few. For parents like Benjamin, there’s a lot to consider before choosing a non-conventional treatment plan for a child.
Many registered practitioners prefer the term integrated medicine because it better explains how treatments should work. Dr. Jennifer Salib Huber is a naturopathic doctor (ND), registered dietitian, and founder of Pillars of Health, a clinic in Dartmouth, focusing on integrated medicine.
“Integrated is a term I’d use over alternative or complimentary,” she says “Both of those suggest it’s mutually exclusive and that’s absolutely not the case. We frequently work with other health care providers either referring to, receiving referrals from, or collaborating on care.”
According to the Nova Scotia Association of Naturopathic Doctors (NSAND), its members “blend modern scientific knowledge with traditional and natural forms of medicine.” This includes diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease using natural treatments such as botanical medicine, clinical nutrition, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, naturopathic manipulation, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and lifestyle counselling.
In Nova Scotia, Salib Huber says, if a patient or parent chooses a ND, it’s key to maintain a relationship with a general practitioner, i.e. a family doctor. Naturopathic doctors aren’t regulated by the province the same way general practitioners are by the Nova Scotia Medical Act.
NSAND is the professional association and self-regulating body representing licenced NDs in the province. It protects the public by upholding the national standards of competency in naturopathic medicine. Chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and osteopaths all have similar self-regulating provincial associations. NSAND is working toward the implementation of full-regulatory legislation in Nova Scotia.
Because NDs aren’t covered under the Nova Scotia Medical Act, there are limits on their scope of practice, including lack of formal access to provincial testing labs and ability to bill under MSI, which means paying out of pocket or accessing private medical insurance to cover the bill. That’s why Salib Huber encourages parents who choose naturopathic medicine to also maintain a general practitioner.
Rather than rely on an over-the-counter, prescription, or surgical solution, Salib Huber says many of her patients’ parents come to her to try something less invasive.
“Most of the time when people are bringing a child in it is because they’re looking for a second opinion,” she says, “They might be coming to us first because they have an inclination [the issue] is related to diet and lifestyle and they may feel we are better suited to take that on.”
One of the most common concerns Salib Huber says she sees in children is constipation.
“We would talk about a diet or we might be suggesting vitamins, minerals, or herbal treatments that might help to regulate or normalise their bowel movements,” she says.
If the condition doesn’t improve, or the child complains of more severe pain or blood in their stool, she refers them back to a GP for further treatment.
“That’s the importance of our training; recognising when we need to bring someone else into the circle of care,” she says.
Salib Huber notes that for many in HRM, and around the province, the acute shortage of doctors leaves many families to rely on walk-in clinics. For those patients, she says, having a naturopathic doctor can mean continuity of care.
For some parents, making the choice to visit an integrated practitioner is easier because of past personal experience with one. But for others there’s much to consider. Dr. Andrew Lynk says it’s not a decision parents should take lightly.
Lynk has served as chair and chief of Pediatrics at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax since 2016. Before that he was a community pediatrician for 25 years in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
“There’s lots of chronic conditions that adults or children experience that Western medicine has some therapies for but can’t always regulate all of the symptoms in satisfactory manner,” Lynk says. When Western medicine can’t find a solution, he says, it’s easy to understand why a patient would look at other options.
Lynk says he asks his small patients’ families to consider three things before starting a mode of treatment, whether it’s conventional Western medicine or complementary medicine.
First, is it safe? Lynk says parents should ask this same question of conventional medical practitioners.
Some botanical supplements, such as Saint John’s Wart, can cause conventional medicines to under or over preform, so it’s key to ensure your naturopath, prescribing doctor, and pharmacist know all the medications and supplements your child is taking.
Second is efficacy. “You can ask your therapist or the health product store, what’s the evidence for this treatment,” Lynk says. “We should also ask our conventional doctors what’s the evidence for a conventional treatment. Sometimes the evidence is strong and sometimes it is not. We should always be asking that of everyone before we take on a new therapy.”
The third is cost. Not just financial cost, as most integrated practitioners aren’t covered under MSI, but also the cost of relying on what may be an unproven treatment.
In addition to that advice for parents, Lynk has some for fellow pediatricians: “I think physicians should be open minded and not judgemental when parents want to try something new.”
He cautions everyone involved to ensure they’re thinking critically about the treatments they choose and ensure the health of the child. “There’s lots we don’t know about complimentary medicines yet, but that’s not to say Western conventional medicine is perfect either, because it’s not,” Lynk says.
Integrated medicine for body and mind
Integrated medicine practitioners can be found in just about every branch of medicine. Lisa’s Holistic Rehab Occupational Therapy Services is just one example. Established by Marcia-Lisa Dennis, Holistic Rehab offers a full-range of services to patients looking for an integrated approach.
Dennis also focuses on non-traditional areas, such as neuroplasticity. This is the ability for the brain to adapt and create new neural links and pathways if traditional ones haven’t formed correctly or been damaged through trauma.
Dennis says some reflexes in children may not mature due to a variety of factors, including prematurity, C-section, brain injury during delivery, hereditary factors, lack of stimulation at birth, disease, or exposure to alcohol or drugs in utero. This may mean milestones aren’t met, leading to developmental delays, problems with attention or sensory processing, and learning disabilities.
The good news is that research (see Blomberg, H., & Dempsey, M. (2011) Movements that heal: rhythmic movement training and primitive reflex integration. Sunnybank Hills, Qld: BookPal) has shown the brain is resilient and can change itself. With proper treatment by an occupational therapist trained in cognitive rehabilitation, the brain can be rehabilitated (depends on diagnosis) to make new connections and form new pathways even into adulthood. –Ken Partridge