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Complementary/Alternative Medicine

This guide was designed to provide an overview of complementary and alternative medicine and to help you locate additional resources and information on the topic.


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care. 

Both terms refer to treatments, like herbs or acupuncture that are out of the medical mainstream. But complementary medicine is when these therapies are used along with traditional Western medicine. Alternative medicine is when these approaches are used instead of traditional medicine.



A woman getting acupuncture in her back.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Many different areas make up the practice of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In addition, many parts of one field may overlap with the parts of another field. For example, acupuncture is also used in conventional medicine.

Examples of CAM include:

Traditional alternative medicine. This field includes the more mainstream and accepted forms of therapy, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and Oriental practices. These therapies have been practiced for centuries worldwide. Traditional alternative medicine may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurveda
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
  • Chinese or Oriental medicine

Body. Touch has been used in medicine since the early days of medical care. Healing by touch is based on the idea that illness or injury in one area of the body can affect all parts of the body. If, with manual manipulation, the other parts can be brought back to optimum health, the body can fully focus on healing at the site of injury or illness. Body techniques are often combined with those of the mind. Examples of body therapies include:

  • Chiropractic and osteopathic medicine
  • Massage
  • Body movement therapies
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Diet and herbs. Over the centuries, man has gone from a simple diet consisting of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains, to a diet that often consists of foods rich in fats, oils, and complex carbohydrates. Nutritional excess and deficiency have become problems in today's society, both leading to certain chronic diseases. Many dietary and herbal approaches attempt to balance the body's nutritional well-being. Dietary and herbal approaches may include:

  • Dietary supplements
  • Herbal medicine
  • Nutrition/diet

External energy. Some people believe external energies from objects or other sources directly affect a person's health. An example of external energy therapy is:

  • Electromagnetic therapy
  • Reiki
  • Qigong

Mind. Even standard or conventional medicine recognizes the power of the connection between mind and body. Studies have found that people heal better if they have good emotional and mental health. Therapies using the mind may include:

  • Meditation
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis

Senses. Some people believe the senses, touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste, can affect overall health. Examples of therapies incorporating the senses include:

  • Art, dance, and music
  • Visualization and guided imagery

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Even though older adults generally have poorer health, middle-aged adults are most likely to turn to complementary and alternative medicine, a new study shows. The study also found that adults of different races or ethnic backgrounds use these self-care methods in similar proportions.

The current study included data on 30,785 adults from a national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants, with an average age of 45, were about evenly divided between men and women. About 22 percent were African-American or Hispanic, while 4 percent were non-Hispanic Asians.

People were asked if they had used any of 28 complementary or alternative therapies in the past year. Researchers organized these therapies into six categories: alternative medical systems, biologically based therapies, body-based methods, mind-body interventions, energy therapies and self-prayer.

Researchers also asked participants whether they had any ailments such as bodily pain, chronic conditions or difficulty performing everyday activities due to illness.

The researchers found that self-prayer, biologically based therapies, and mind-body interventions were used more frequently than other forms of complementary and alternative medicine.

Middle-aged people reported using complementary and alternative therapies more often than either older or younger people. Older participants were the least likely to use these forms of medicine, with the exception of self-prayer, which was most commonly used by those 65 years and older.

Although there were no significant differences among racial and ethnic groups in how individuals used complementary or alternative medicine.

Older adults may use these forms of treatment less because they are less likely to have been exposed to them when younger. He said it’s possible that older adults perceive bodily ailments as normal signs of aging that don’t necessarily require treatment. Conversely, middle-aged and younger participants may be more likely to seek any treatments that may improve their health.


 It treats the actual cause. One of the best advantages that alternative medicine offers is that it heals the body and is designed to actually treat the cause of the pain or disease that has occurred. By understanding and treating the disease, alternative medicine professionals are able to work at the root of the problem. Mainstream medicine, on the other hand, tends to treat the symptom that the disease or pain is causing, not actually treating the cause.

It is an improvement of the Quality of Life. When we use prescription drugs we generally see an improvement in pain, but once the drug goes out of our system the pain returns. When using alternative medicine, there is a drastic improvement in the quality of life a person has.

It is safer. Alternative medicine is a wide spectrum of therapies, and they are almost always considered to be much safer than mainstream medicine. Natural remedies are used to correct the problem. There are no man-made, unnatural substances that you would be using to put in your body.

It does not have bad side effects. When using mainstream medicine you might be able to get rid of your headache, but the side effects might include nausea, hallucinations and risk of stroke in the process. Almost all mainstream medicine has some type of warning about the bad side effects that come from taking it, where natural remedies don’t.

It is more flexible. Alternative medicine allows more flexibility in treatment plans. Alternative medicine professionals’ change their treatment plans according to lifestyle changes, where mainstream medical professionals wouldn’t.

It looks at overall health of your body. Alternative medicine focuses on healing pain and disease by balancing out other aspects of your life. Sleep, nutrition and stress can affect your body, so adapting health plans with these in mind is important with alternative medicine. Mainstream medicine is not nearly as well rounded.

It doesn’t cause dependency on drugs. Prescription pills can cause dependency and other harmful side effects to the body and mind. Alternative medicine does not have those same disadvantages.

Apex Chiropractic & Wellness

Alternative and complementary therapies are often appealing because they use your own body, your own mind, or things that may be found in nature. But sometimes these methods wrongly claim to prevent, diagnose, or treat cancer even when they have not been proven to work through scientific testing.

And in the worst cases, some alternative or complementary therapies may be dangerous or even deadly. Some may also interfere with how standard cancer treatment works. If you’re thinking about using any non-traditional therapy, it’s important to first discuss it with your health care team.

Some of these therapies promise wellness using a method that sounds simple, wholesome, and without harmful side effects. But this is not always true. Some concerns include:

  • Delaying surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or other traditional treatment by using an alternative therapy can allow the cancer to grow and spread to other parts of the body.
  • Some complementary and alternative therapies have been reported to cause serious problems or even deaths.
  • Certain vitamins and minerals can increase the risk of cancer or other illnesses, especially if too much is taken. Some companies don’t follow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules about making claims and labeling supplements properly. In some cases, harmful contaminants can get into dietary supplements because of how they are manufactured or handled.

American Cancer Society

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Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM)

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National Cancer Institute

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National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

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Dr. Mark de Dubovay and Carol Beckerman clarify the wide ranging applications of alternative treatments and therapies for better health and wellness, as well as for healthier, more robust lifestyles.