Is it safe and does it work?
Before using any product or service to support your health and well-being, it is important to know that it is both safe and effective. From choosing a therapist to personal health, research to resources - we give you some useful guidance on what to consider before you book.
All complementary healthcare therapies should be safe, providing these are carried out by a fully qualified, competent and professional therapist. Currently, very few therapies – apart from chiropractic and osteopathy - are regulated by statute, which means that anyone can set up in practice as a therapist, regardless of whether they have training or insurance. That is why in the first instance, it is extremely important to find a therapist who belongs to, and is registered with, a respected professional association, like the Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT), so that you can be sure that they are qualified to industry and government agreed standards, appropriately insured and abide by a strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.
Before you have a treatment, you will have a full consultation with your therapist, to ensure that the treatment you are about to have is right for you. When asked, it is important that you tell your therapist if you:
- have a medical condition or recently had surgery;
- are taking any form of medication;
- are under the care of another health professional, including a doctor or midwife;
- if you are pregnant or breast feeding.
Depending on your personal health status, your therapist may ask you to seek permission from your doctor or midwife before going ahead with treatment. Your therapist may also decline treatment, or suggest an alternative, if they feel this is best for you at the present time. In some instances, they may suggest you visit another therapist or health professional who has specialist training, if they feel they do not have the appropriate knowledge, skills or experience to meet your needs.
When you return to your therapist for further treatments, they will ask whether there have been any changes in your personal circumstances since your last visit, and how you felt after your previous treatment. Again, it is very important that you give your therapist all relevant information, as it will help them to ensure that any future treatments are safe and appropriate to your needs.
It is also advisable to inform your doctor if you are having any form of therapy or taking any supplements to support your health and well-being.
In the unlikely event that you have an adverse reaction to treatment, seek medical attention (where appropriate) and advise your therapist as soon as possible. If you believe your adverse reaction was due to negligence on the part of the therapist, advise their professional association or voluntary or statutory regulator, where appropriate.
Is it effective?
This is of course a very important question - but unfortunately, it is not a straightforward one to answer!
People visit therapists for very different reasons, from seeking relaxation and relieving day-to-day stresses and strains, to helping them improve or manage a particular health condition, or their quality of life, if living with a life-limiting condition.
Whatever your reason for visiting a therapist, it is only natural that you will want to know ‘does it work?’.
One way to establish whether a therapy is effective is to look at the available research or best available ‘evidence base’ for that therapy. Many healthcare commissioners and providers look in particular for ‘randomised controlled trials’ (RCTs) that indicate a therapy is effective, as this is commonly acknowledged to be the ‘gold standard’ in terms of research methodology. Systematic reviews, which pool together the results of several or lots of RCTs, are also commonly referred to, as these offer more data and therefore the results are considered more reliable.
However the sort of research outlined above is not readily available for many therapies, for a variety of reasons – from a lack of funding to carry out large and reliable studies, to the suitability of using such research models for assessing the health benefits of a given therapy.
By their very nature, complementary therapies are difficult to research because they are quite ‘complex’ treatments: they often bring together lots of different elements – such as a long consultation, treatment, and dietary and lifestyle advice – and are usually tailored to suit the needs of the individual. All of this makes it difficult to carry out research into the effectiveness of a therapy, as it is not a ‘standard intervention’ (it’s much easier, for instance, to compare the effects of a medication with a dummy pill, as both the medication and the pill would be identical for all of the subjects taking part in a study).
That’s not to say that there isn’t lots of research available – there have been many published studies that indicate different complementary and bodywork therapies are effective in helping people to manage and cope with a variety of conditions, from massage for fibromyalgia and low back pain, to reiki and reflexology in cancer care, and aromatherapy during pregnancy and childbirth (to name but a few). The problem is that studies can vary quite considerably in terms of sample size (how many subjects were involved); the study design; the quality, length, number and consistency of the treatments provided in the study; and the type of research methodology used - which can make it difficult to say in black and white terms that ‘X therapy will help people with Y condition’. And of course with all things in life, what suits one individual may not suit another.
In light of all of the above, members of the public who want to learn more about a therapy and whether it is effective may wish to:
- look for the best available evidence/research into a particular therapy or condition, from reliable resources (see useful resources section below);
- look for testimonials or feedback from others who have used a particular therapy or therapist for the same condition or reasons;
- ask their prospective therapist whether they have treated other people with a similar condition, and whether treatment benefited those individuals.
For those interested in finding therapy research, you might find the following resources useful:
- The Self Care Library is a not-for-profit online patient resource providing free evidence-based information about health care. In particular the Self Care Library focuses on self-care treatment options for chronic conditions, such as back pain, depression, stress and anxiety and sore muscles. For more information
- NICE Evidence Services are ‘a suite of services that provide internet access to high quality authoritative evidence and best practice, which includes research into complementary therapies. For more information
- FHT Research Guidelines – although primarily aimed at therapists who belong to the Federation of Holistic Therapists, these guidelines offer a lots of useful links to documents and websites where you can find therapy research
- Arthritis Research UK: Complementary and alternative therapies report – Published in January 2013, this report summarises the current evidence base for different practitioner-based therapies in relation to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis (OA), fibromyalgia (FM) and low back pain (LBP). To read this report