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What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

More than one-third of Americans turn to it for well being, a study shows

By National Institutes of Health

Based on content from the NIH publication, "What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?"

The use of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, in pursuit of health and well-being may be more common than you think.

The National Health Interview Survey in 2007 showed that approximately 38 percent of adults turn to CAM.

Just what constitutes CAM is difficult because the field is very broad and constantly changing.

Defining CAM

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. 

Conventional medicine (also called Western or allopathic medicine) is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degrees and by allied health professionals, like physical therapists, psychologists and registered nurses.

The boundaries between CAM and conventional medicine are not absolute, and specific CAM practices may, over time, become widely accepted.

"Complementary medicine" refers to the use of CAM together with conventional medicine, like using acupuncture, in addition to usual care to help lessen pain. Most use of CAM by Americans is complementary. "Alternative medicine" refers to the use of CAM in place of conventional medicine. "Integrative medicine" combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high-quality evidence of safety and effectiveness. It is also called integrated medicine.

Types of CAM

CAM practices are often grouped into broad categories, like natural products, mind and body medicine, and manipulative and body-based practices. Although these categories are not formally defined, they are useful for discussing CAM practices. Some CAM practices may fit into more than one category.

Natural products

This area of CAM includes use of a variety of herbal medicines (also known as botanicals), vitamins, minerals and other "natural products." Many are sold over the counter as dietary supplements. (Some uses of dietary supplements — e.g., taking a multivitamin to meet minimum daily nutritional requirements or taking calcium to promote bone health — are not thought of as CAM.)

CAM "natural products" also include probiotics — live microorganisms (usually bacteria) that are similar to microorganisms normally found in the human digestive tract and that may have beneficial effects. Probiotics are available in foods (e.g., yogurts) or as dietary supplements. They are not the same thing as prebiotics — nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of microorganisms already present in the body.

Mind and body medicine

Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body and behavior, with the intent to use the mind to affect physical functioning and promote health. Many CAM practices embody this concept — in different ways.

  • Meditation techniques include specific postures, focused attention, or an open attitude toward distractions. People use meditation to increase calmness and relaxation, improve psychological balance, cope with illness or enhance overall health and well-being.
  • The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation or relaxation. People use yoga as part of a general health regimen and for a variety of health conditions.
  • Acupuncture is a family of procedures involving the stimulation of specific points on the body using a variety of techniques, like penetrating the skin with needles that are then manipulated by hand or by electrical stimulation. It is one of the key components of traditional Chinese medicine, and is among the oldest healing practices in the world.

Other examples of mind and body practices include deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, progressive relaxation, qi gong  and tai chi.

Manipulative and body-based practices

Manipulative and body-based practices focus primarily on the structures and systems of the body, including the bones and joints, soft tissues, and circulatory and lymphatic systems. Two commonly used therapies fall within this category:

  • Spinal manipulation is performed by chiropractors and by other health care professionals, like physical therapists, osteopathic physicians and some conventional medical doctors. Practitioners use their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine, moving it beyond its passive range of motion; the amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used. Spinal manipulation is among the treatment options used by people with low-back pain — a very common condition that can be difficult to treat.
  • The term massage therapy encompasses many different techniques. In general, therapists press, rub and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body. People use massage for a variety of health-related purposes, including to relieve pain, rehabilitate sports injuries, reduce stress, increase relaxation, address anxiety and depression, and aid general well-being.

Other CAM Practices

CAM also encompasses movement therapies — a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches used to promote physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Examples include the Feldenkrais method, the Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration and Trager psychophysical integration.

Practices of traditional healers can also be considered a form of CAM. Traditional healers use methods based on indigenous theories, beliefs and experiences handed down from generation to generation. A familiar example in the United States is the Native American healer/medicine man.

Some CAM practices involve manipulation of various energy fields to affect health. Such fields may be characterized as veritable (measurable) or putative (yet to be measured). Practices based on veritable forms of energy include those involving electromagnetic fields (e.g., magnet therapy and light therapy). Practices based on putative energy fields (also called biofields) generally reflect the concept that human beings are infused with subtle forms of energy; qi gong, Reiki and healing touch are examples of such practices.

Finally, whole medical systems, which are complete systems of theory and practice that have evolved over time in different cultures and apart from conventional or Western medicine  may be considered CAM. Examples of ancient whole medical systems include Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. More modern systems that have developed in the past few centuries include homeopathy and naturopathy.

How to Find an Alternative Medicine Provider

National Institutes of Health
By National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the nation's medical research agency — making important discoveries that improve health and save lives. NIH is the largest single source of financing for medical research in the world, seeking new ways to cure disease, alleviate suffering and prevent illness. By providing the evidence base for health decisions by individuals and their clinicians, NIH is empowering Americans to embrace healthy living through informed decision-making. NIH is made up of 27 institutes and centers, each with a specific research agenda, focusing on stages of life, like aging or child health, or particular diseases or body systems.

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