This week a report from St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, reveals that one in six cancer patients is also using some form of complementary therapy. The study of 400 patients shows that the feel- good factor is as important as the hoped-for cure.

But how do people with cancer, or more common conditions, choose a complementary medical treatment? When you are buying a computer or a washing machine there is no shortage of lists giving advice on comparative storage capacities or spin cycles. Buyers in the alternative health market have no such handy guides, and the product range is enormous. With infinite time and money you can shop around - try crystals one week, needles the next. But few are in a position to do that.

In an effort to supply some maps to this maze, one private London clinic, the Hale Clinic, has started a series of lectures dealing with 15 of the commonest conditions that come through their doors. These include back pain, weight loss, arthritis and asthma. Each is discussed by four practitioners with different approaches.

The talks are designed to show how therapies vary in the way they approach the same problem. 'Conventional medicine tends to look at the body in terms of organs that go wrong - joints seize up in arthritis, airways constrict in asthma and so on,' says Dr Harold Gaier, who works at the clinic. 'But Chinese medicine, for instance, doesn't recognise the same illnesses we do. They see disease as a matter of blockages of energy.'

If the lectures are not an option, there are alternative sources of information. The Institute of Complementary Medicine will send a list of approved practitioners, which is fine if you know what you want. But they cannot recommend any particular treatment. 'Individuals have to make up their own mind,' said a spokesperson, who suggested Complementary Medicine Careers Handbook by Jane Foulkes (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 7.99).

The Council of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CCAM) has its own list of practitioners in the big four - acupuncture, homoeopathy, osteopathy and herbal medicine - and is happy to give guidance. It suggests reading Start a Career in Complementary Medicine by G Maher (Element Books, pounds 12.95). CCAM is connected with another organisation, the British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA), which has a register of practitioners for all the other specialities, ranging from auricular therapy to yoga by way of flower remedies and colonic irrigation.

Having consulted the experts, here are some examples of complementary remedies for common problems. Of course, homeopathic remedies should be taken under proper supervision.

ASTHMA

Nutrition: avoid dairy products, cold drinks, sugar, processed foods, tea, coffee, chocolate and salt. Go for a vegan diet (but no apples or citrus fruit) which includes wheatgerm, fish, peanuts, onion and garlic soup and chillis. Boost intake of vitamins B6, B12 and C.

Homoeopathy: especially effective with children. For restlessness and anxiety - arsenicum album. When it is worse at night or in cold weather - aconite.

Herbs: Western - elecampane infusion. Eastern - ephedra, bitter almond seed and Chinese skullcap.

Acupressure: put right hand over left shoulder and press on a point on the spine opposite the point of the shoulder blade, massaging downwards.

Psychotherapy: certain ailments are thought sometimes to be associated with particular psychological patterns. In the case of asthma, psychotherapy could be useful where there has been parental pressure to achieve or a strong sexual taboo in childhood, leading to dependency relationships in adulthood.

Chiropractic: manipulating specific points on the spine can help with the diaphragm and the rib cage, which tend to stiffen up as a result of breathing problems.

MIGRAINE AND HEADACHES

Nutrition: avoid animal fats, cow's milk, eggs, chocolate, orange, wheat, cheese and tomato. Go for fatty fish or carbohydrates, if the problem is low blood-sugar.

Homoeopathy: For headache (throbbing, especially at the temples) - belladonna. For pain aggravated by movement plus constipation - bryonia alba. For migraine (hammering pain that comes and goes with the sun, plus a visual disturbance, and preceded by tingling lips) - natrum muriaticum.

Herbs: Valerian is a sedative, feverfew affects serotonin in the brain, niacin expands blood vessels. Aromatherapy: oil of lavender and sweet marjoram.

Acupressure: a point just above the eyebrow, in the middle, massage in towards the nose and down. Other points include the eye socket, the joint between the thumb and hand and the inner side of the big toe.

Psychotherapy: useful in adult relationships when one partner cannot tolerate expression of emotion by the other.

Chiropractic: specific manipulation between the occiput and first and second cervical vertebrae.

ARTHRITIS

Nutrition: avoid red meat, dairy products, sugar, shellfish, coffee and citrus fruits. Some people are affected by food of the nightshade family - tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, peppers and tobacco. Go for a low-fat diet, unrefined carbohydrates, vegetable oils, oily fish. Increase intake of magnesium, selenium, zinc and vitamin E.

Homoeopathy: when it is worse in warm weather and joints are intolerant of touch - colchium; worse in stormy weather - rhododendron.

Herbs: Western - devil's claw. Eastern - pubescent angelica acutiloba, ledebouriella seseloids, liquorice and Chinese skullcap, all of which are anti-inflammatory.

Psychotherapy: useful when problems in an adult relationship stem from an upbringing where expressing negative emotions was taboo.

ECZEMA

Nutrition: avoid allergens like dairy products and wheat. Go for fatty fish, goat's milk (soya milk if there is a dairy allergy). Increase vitamins C and A and bioflavonoids.

Homoeopathy: for hot, itchy skin - sulphur; for cracked skin with a yellow discharge - graphites.

Herbs: Western - burdock and liquorice root as well as evening primrose oil to relieve itching. Eastern - oriental wormwood, Chinese gentiana and peony root.

Acupressure: rub down from the front of the knee, at the bottom, slightly to the right and also on the inside of the big toe.

Psychotherapy: useful in a co-dependency adult relationship where one makes the other into a parent figure to be pleased and feared.

Hale Clinic, 7 Park Crescent, London W1N 3HE (071-631 0156). Seminars now running approx twice a week, 5.30-9pm, on subjects such as asthma, eczema, arthritis and menopause. pounds 25 per seminar, incl drinks and buffet.

British Complementary Medical Association, St Charles Hospital, Exmoor Street, London W10 6DZ (081-964 1206). Send SAE and three first class stamps.

Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 179 Gloucester Place, London NW1 6DX (071-724 9103). Send SAE and pounds 1.

Institute of Complementary Medicine, PO Box 194, London SE16 1QZ (071- 237 5165). Send SAE and pounds 1.

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