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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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What Is It?

Some healing treatments — like acupuncture or herbal medicine — are not part of conventional medical training. People in Western countries like the United States used to consider these treatments outside the mainstream, or "alternative."

In lots of Eastern countries it’s common to use practices like acupuncture in medicine. But until recently, most Western hospitals didn't provide any alternative treatments, and Western medical schools didn't teach them. In the last few decades, patients in Western countries have become interested in these approaches, and they've started to ask for them. Now some Western medical schools teach non-traditional therapies and some hospitals use them in their care.

Some approaches like meditation, yoga, and massage therapy are known as “complementary medicine” because they “complement” traditional medical treatments. Together, complementary and alternative medicine have come to be called “CAM” for short.

Both alternative and complementary medicine use the same kinds of remedies to treat health conditions. The difference is that alternative medicine is often used instead of conventional medical techniques. Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional medicine, not as a replacement.

How Is CAM Different From Conventional Medicine?

Conventional medicine is based on scientific knowledge of the body and uses treatments that have been proven effective through scientific research. Doctors are trained to have a thorough knowledge of the body's systems, diseases, and their treatments.

Complementary and alternative medicine is based on the belief that a medical care provider has to treat the whole person — body, mind, and spirit. The techniques used in CAM are mostly less invasive than conventional medical practices, meaning that they don't rely on surgery or conventional medications.

Some CAM therapies are supported by scientific evidence, others are not. Many still need to be studied. This doesn't mean these therapies don't work, it just means that experts haven't studied them enough to know if they do — and if so, how.

Why Do People Use CAM?

People often turn to CAM when they have a long-lasting problem that conventional medicine hasn't completely cured. Someone might try complementary health approaches to help improve symptoms or manage side effects from conventional treatments.

People may also use CAM when they're not sick. Because many people believe that CAM approaches — such as practicing yoga or taking dietary supplements — can improve overall well being, healthy people often use alternative medicine to try to prevent illness or ensure a healthier lifestyle.

Complementary Health Approaches

Just as there are many fields in conventional medicine, CAM covers many different practices. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) — part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — groups CAM practices into two areas:

  1. Natural products include vitamins, minerals, herbs and other botanicals, probiotics, amino acids, and other dietary supplements.
  2. Mind and Body practices include a wide variety of procedures and techniques, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, yoga, tai chi and qi gong, meditation, and relaxation techniques.

In addition to these different practices, CAM includes several whole medical systems. These alternative medical systems are entire fields of theory and practice, and many date back earlier than the conventional medicine we use in the West today. Examples of alternative medical systems include Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, homeopathic medicine, and naturopathic medicine.

Alternative medical systems incorporate many of the different practices listed above into their treatments. For example, the TCM practice of acupuncture may be combined with herbal medicine and qi gong. And Ayurveda includes the mind-body therapies of meditation and yoga, along with the practice of taking specific herbs for health reasons.

Some of these alternative medical systems are supported by scientific research, while others have not yet been studied. Sometimes experts have scientific evidence that a CAM practice (like acupuncture) works, but they don't have a clear understanding of why.


Although CAM does have some proven benefits, like anything it has its limitations.

Experts haven't researched many CAM supplements and practices enough to tell how effective they are as treatments. Some people may not feel it's worth investing a lot of time or money in treatments that haven't been proven effective. Insurance policies don’t cover most CAM treatments, so people may have to pay for them out of their own pockets with no reimbursement.

Alternative healing approaches on their own may not be enough to help a person get well. For example, a bacterial infection needs treatment with antibiotics. And just like traditional medications, dietary supplements may have unwanted side effects.

Another reason you should be up-front with your doctor about CAM is because, in some cases, some natural products can actually interfere with traditional medical treatments. For example, certain herbal supplements can interfere with some prescription drugs, such as birth control pills or antidepressant medication. That's why it's always best to see your doctor if you have a health problem and talk openly about any CAM you are using or might want to try.

As with modern medicine, CAM treatments that are effective for one problem will not help with all problems. Certain treatments are only used for certain problems, so if you want to try an alternative practice for a health reason, make sure it will help the specific problem you're looking to treat.

Before You Try It

Traditional medical doctors are not only trained, they're licensed. But that's not always the case with CAM practitioners. Some states have licensing requirements for certain specialists, like acupuncturists and massage therapists, and many are expanding their requirements for licensing as CAM practices grow in popularity.

Finding a good CAM practitioner is still not as easy as looking someone up in a phone book. NCCAM recommends asking a health care provider for a referral, gathering information about the practitioner you are considering (such as training and licensing), and meeting with the practitioner to ask about the risks and benefits of treatment — the same kinds of things you'd do if you were interviewing a new doctor.

You may have already used a complementary or alternative practice, like yoga or massage, and not even thought about it! Trying practices like meditation and breathing can't do any harm, but other CAM techniques may have consequences for people with certain health conditions. Even the more mainstream practices like yoga can hurt someone with a health condition — like a back problem — if they are not done properly. So check with your doctor before trying any CAM approach. Your doctor will try to guide you on which practices you can safely try while continuing with your current method of treatment.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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