Pain drives Canadian youth to seek alternative medical treatment

10/13/05

Family income and geography affect level of use, new Queen's study shows

(Kingston, ON) Aching backs and chronic pain are the most common reasons for Canadian adolescents to seek complementary or alternative medical treatment.

And there's a wide disparity both in where they live and their family income between young people who use alternative treatments and those who don't.

These are two of the findings from a new Queen's University study into the use by Canadian youth of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which includes massage therapy, acupuncture, homeopathy and naturopathy. Funded by the Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, this is the first population-based study of its kind.

"We don't like to think Canada has a two-tiered health system, yet this is clearly a service which is more accessible to those who have the resources to pay for it than those who don't," says lead investigator Dr. Mary Ann McColl of Queen's Centre for Health Services and Policy Research. "In the desperate situation these families may find themselves having a child in pain, with persistent problems the availability of options is different for well-off kids than it is for poorer kids."

Also on the team are Alison James (Centre for Health Services and Policy Research), Diane Davies (Canadian Adolescents at Risk Research Network), Michelle Garieri (Kingston Wellness Centre) and research analyst Nancy Churchman.

The new study analyzes data collected by Statistics Canada as part of the Canadian Community Health Survey in 2000-2001. A total of 17,545 adolescents across the country, between the ages of 12 and 19, are included in this health-care snapshot. "Disability" is defined by the researchers as having at least one impairment (for example a visual or mobility problem) and at least one activity restriction.

Among the key findings:

  • 4.9 per cent of Canadian adolescents visited a CAM practitioner in the preceding 12 months, with girls outnumbering boys by more than 2:1
  • Back problems (16.7 per cent) and disabilities (nine per cent) are the most common reasons for seeking alternative help, followed by asthma and allergies (seven per cent)
  • CAM use is highest in western Canada (six per cent per capita) and lowest in the Atlantic provinces and the North (three per cent per capita)
  • 75 per cent of CAM users come from families with household income in the top two quartiles
  • Massage therapy is the most common type of CAM used by youth

Dr. McColl suggests that the east-west gradient may be explained by the fact that complementary and alternative medicine receives more regulatory and financial support (through publicly-funded insurance coverage) in the western provinces.

While the study does not look at the effectiveness of these treatments, "what's concerning is that young people across the country have different levels of access to alternative therapies as publicly-funded services," says Dr. McColl. "There are noticeable differences in access and utilization based on education, income and geographic location."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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