What Are Complementary and Alternative Medicines and Treatments?

People with atopic dermatitis (AD) may use complementary and alternative medicine as they seek to find relief from their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Alternative medicine is a term that means any medicinal products or practices that are not part of mainstream medicine given by medical doctors and allied health professionals. Alternative medicine is also defined by its use as an alternate to traditional medical care.

Complementary medicine is used in combination with traditional medicine. There have been research studies on many alternative and complementary medicine practices to determine their effectiveness in treating a range of conditions, including atopic dermatitis. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review alternative and complementary medicine. Patients are encouraged to talk to their doctor about all therapies and practices they are using to manage their symptoms.1

There are a variety of practices and remedies that fall under the umbrella of complementary and alternative medicine, including:

  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Acupressure
  • Massage
  • Botanical remedies

Complementary approaches for itch relief

Itching is a major symptom of AD, and it greatly impacts quality of life for people living with AD. Acupuncture has been shown in clinical trials to have a beneficial effect on itch in other conditions, including allergen-induced itch. Small trials have also suggested that acupressure has benefits on itch and lichenification (the thickened patches of skin common with chronic AD). Another technique that has shown promise in clinical trials on reducing itch and loss of sleep due to itch is progressive muscle relaxation therapy, in which the individual is guided to relax muscle groups in the body from the toes to the head.2

Stress and atopic dermatitis

Stress plays a role in the development of AD, as stress negatively affects the immune system and creates more inflammation, as well as being a common trigger for relapses of AD. People with AD have an increased response to stress, including a higher amount of cortisol released in the body. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” and is best known for its involvement in the “fight-or-flight” response of the body. Early exposure to stress in children can lead to a persistent sensitization, which increases a vulnerability to stress later in life.2

Living with a visible skin condition like AD can also be a source of stress and can negatively impact an individual’s quality of life. Because of the impact of stress on AD and the additional stress experienced by those living with AD, stress management strategies can be beneficial.3

Complementary approaches for stress relief

Many people with AD use complementary approaches for stress relief, including mind-body practices. The mind-body connection recognizes that emotional, mental, and behavioral factors can directly affect our health, and mind-body techniques can improve quality of life and may help reduce symptoms of disease. The mind-body connection does not imply that the mind is the cause of disease. However, researchers have found that mind-body techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can have benefits, such as reducing stress and improving mood.1

Some studies have also shown that hypnotherapy and biofeedback may improve symptoms of eczema, including reducing the skin surface damage and lichenification (thickened areas). Massage also seems to provide benefit to people with AD. Studies that have compared topical treatment alone to topical treatment with massage found that massage significantly improved symptoms of redness, scaling, lichenification, and itching.2

Botanical, complementary, and alternative remedies

Complementary and alternative remedies include those that come from plants (botanical) as well as some animal products. Some of the common remedies used for skin conditions like AD include:

  • Coconut oil
  • Sunflower seed oil
  • Cardiospermum
  • Aloe vera
  • Calendula cream
  • Emu oil

Some of these products have been studied in clinical trials with people with AD, but there is limited evidence to prove their effectiveness. As with all complementary and alternative approaches, people who use these remedies to soothe their symptoms from AD should discuss the use of them with their doctor.

Emily Downward | June 2017
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