Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine: What’s What?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) defines complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as a variety of medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not usually part of standard medicine. Some data exists on their use. But more studies must be done to answer the many questions about them.

What’s the Difference?

Complementary medicine is used along with standard care. Massage may be used with massage therapy to ease fibromyalgia pain.

Alternative medicine takes the place of standard care. A special diet may be used to treat cancer instead of things like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Integrative medicine uses standard medical therapies with complementary and alternative therapies that have high-quality data on safety and effectiveness.

Categories

CAM is often grouped into these categories:

Whole Medical Systems

These are approaches to healing and health based on a person's views of nature and the healing process. Practitioners diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses. The approaches are:

Homeopathic Medicine

This system is based on the belief that “like cures like.” It treats symptoms by giving small, diluted substances. These would cause the symptoms they are designed to treat when given in higher doses.

Naturopathic Medicine

This system is a system in which a practitioner works with the natural healing forces within the body. The goal is to help you heal from a health problem and achieve better health. Diet, exercise, massage, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, or other methods may be used.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

This system includes a number of therapies. Those that are more common in the United States are:

  • Qi gong is used to improve bloodflow and enhance immune function by balancing the flow of energy, known as qi (pronounced "chee"), through movement, meditation, and breathing.
  • Acupuncture is based on the belief that qi flows in patterns near the surface of the body. Illness happens when it becomes blocked or missing. The acupuncturist inserts thin needles at specific points on the energy pathways. This is thought to bring the qi back into balance and promote health.
  • Acupressure: Acupressure is like acupuncture. But a practioners fingers are used to press on key points on the skin.

Ayurveda

Ayurveda is an ancient health practice from India. It focuses on the body, mind, and spirit. Herbs, massage, and special diets are all used to treat and lower the risk of illness.

Mind-Body Therapies

Mind-body therapies use many methods to enhance the mind’s influence on the healing of the body. They are:

Meditation

Meditation is when a person focuses the mind on one thought, word (mantra), object, or mental image for a period of time. The goal is to quiet your mind.

Prayer or Spiritual Healing

Prayer and spiritual healing have been used for thousands of years to heal the mind and body. Prayer may be done alone, in a group, in a service, or with the help of a spiritual healer, shaman, pastoral counselor, or clergy member.

Mental Healing

Individual or group psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, support groups, and other methods are used to prevent, treat, or promote recovery from illness.

Creative Therapies

Some mental health practitioners use art, music, and dance as a form of therapy. Creative therapies may help boost mental and physical well-being and recovery from illness.

Biologically-Based Therapies

These therapies use substances found in nature, such as:

  • Herbs
  • Foods
  • Vitamins and dietary supplements

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses essential oils. People who use them believe they can help with relaxation, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, stimulate digestion, and release endorphins ("feel good chemicals") in the brain.

Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

Chiropractic

This method focuses on the relationship between the structure and function of the body (primarily the spine) and how it affects health. It manipulates the vertebra in the spine and surrounding structures. It is often used to treat back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as headaches, sports injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, some jaw problems, and other disorders.

Osteopathic Medicine

This method is based on the theory that problems in one system of the body affect function in other parts of the body. Osteopathic physicians are like other physicians. Almost all osteopaths have been trained in, and many still use, osteopathic manipulation. This is a system of hands-on methods to ease pain, restore function, and promote health and well-being.

Massage

This method manipulates muscle and connective tissue to enhance tissue function and promote relaxation. It is used most for chronic pain syndromes and stress-related health problems.

Reflexology

This method is based on the belief that organs, nerves, and glands in the body are connected with certain reflex areas on the bottoms of your feet, hands, and other areas of the body. Massage is used on these areas. It is thought to provide relief for many health problems.

Tai Chi

This method is an ancient Chinese therapy that is used to prevent or treat illness by restoring the balance of qi in the body. It uses slow, gentle swaying movements, deep breathing, and mental focus.

Yoga

In the West, most Yoga practices focus on the physical postures called "asanas," breathing exercises called "pranayama," and meditation. Yoga has been used to increase physical fitness, promote well-being, enhance mental clarity and self-understanding, and control stress.

Energy Therapies

Biofield Therapies

Biofield therapies are meant to affect the energy fields that are thought to surround and penetrate the body. These fields have not been proven to exist. In some forms of energy therapy, practitioners use their hands to manipulate these biofields. Some therapies are:

  • Qi gong (see Traditional Chinese Medicine)
  • Reiki is based on the belief that the inner spirit can be harnessed to heal the physical body. Practitioners use their hands to channel energy to heal the spirit, mind, and body of their patients.
  • Therapeutic Touch is based on the belief that healing takes place when the body’s energies are in balance. Practitioners pass their hands over patients to find and redistribute energy imbalances.

Bioelectromagnetic-Based Therapies

Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating current or direct current fields.

Magnet therapy is a type of bioelectromagnetic therapy. It is based on the belief that the body's cells have tiny electromagnetic fields that fall out of alignment when disease is present. It is thought that the field is realigned when magnets are applied to the affected body part.

Before Choosing a Therapy

Here are things to think about before choosing any CAM therapy:

  • Talk to your doctor before and while using a therapy, especially if you have a serious illness or are taking medicines. Your doctor needs to have a full picture of your treatment plan.
  • Gather information from many sources, even after you have selected a therapy or practitioner. Stay on top of current research. Talk to people (such as those with the same health problem) who have had the therapy.
  • Look into the background and qualifications of any care practitioner. Get in touch with a state or local agency with authority over practitioners who practice the therapy or treatment you seek, if you are able.
  • Visit the practitioner’s office, clinic, or hospital. Look at the conditions of the office or clinic. Ask the practitioner:
    • How many patients do you see in a day or week?
    • How much time do you spend with a patient?
    • How much does each session cost and how many sessions will I need?

RESOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
https://nccih.nih.gov
Office of Dietary Supplements—National Institutes of Health
https://ods.od.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

References:

Aromatherapy. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/aromatherapy. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Ayurvedic medicine: in depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/ayurvedic-medicine-in-depth. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Chiropractic: in depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/chiropractic-in-depth. Updated December 12, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what's in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/complementary-alternative-or-integrative-health-whats-in-a-name. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Homeopathy: what you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/homeopathy. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Magnets for pain. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/magnets. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Massage therapy: what you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/massage-therapy-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Meditation: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Naturopathy. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/naturopathy. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Reflexology. University of Minnesota website. Available at: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/reflexology. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: What’s in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/complementary-alternative-or-integrative-health-whats-in-a-name. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Reiki. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/reiki. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Tai chi and qi gong: in depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tai-chi-and-qi-gong-in-depth. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Therapeutic touch. University of Minnesota website. Available at: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/therapeutic-touch. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Traditional chinese medicine: what you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/traditional-chinese-medicine-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Yoga: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at:
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Accessed October 27, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/27/2021

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