Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

With the popularity of alternative and complementary medical techniques on the rise, many people often wonder how to differentiate the two and how they differ from mainstream conventional Western medicine, which is when doctors, nurses and other health care professionals treat diseases and symptoms with drugs, radiation and surgery. 

Complementary Versus Alternative Medicine

Millions of Americans interchange the terms complementary medicine and alternative medicine, but the two are not the same thing. 


  • Complementary medicine is when non-mainstream medical therapies are used together with conventional medicine to achieve results. Examples would be mixing acupuncture (a non-conventional medical approach) with a surgical operation, or having a patient take probiotics (a non-conventional medical approach) in addition to an anti-fungal. 


  • Alternative medicine is when non-mainstream medical therapies are used in place of conventional medicine to achieve results. Examples would be using solely hypnosis to manage chronic pain or solely acupuncture to manage allergies. 


When complementary medicine and alternative medicine are referenced together, many experts use the acronym CAM.

Integrative Medicine

In addition to alternative and complementary medicine, there is a type of health care called integrative medicine. There are many ways to define this term, but the main component of integrative medicine is that it’s a mix of complementary and conventional therapies brought together in a coordinated way. Integrative medicine is relatively new, and researchers and physicians are currently testing whether or not it can work to help patients experiencing cancer and other serious illnesses. In fact, some hospitals and clinics are already using integrative medicine, including Nemours Children’s Health System, which focuses on “care for the whole child — body, mind and spirit.” 

Types of Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Alternative medicine encompasses a number of medical systems, many of which date back many centuries before conventional Western medicine became established. They include traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, homeopathic medicine, naturopathic medicine and others.


The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) alternative therapies into two general categories:


  • Natural products including amino acids, botanicals, dietary supplements, herbs, minerals, probiotics and vitamins.


  • Mind and body practices including acupressure, acupuncture, breathing exercises, guided imagery, healing touch, hypnosis, massage therapy, meditation, movement therapies, qi gong, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, tai chi and yoga. 


However, as NIH points out, some approaches use a mix of therapies from the above list and cannot easily be classified. 

Complementary and Alternative Medicine Fact Sheet

  • Nearly 1/3 of all American adults use CAM therapies
  • About 12% of American children use CAM therapies
  • Complementary medicine is a mix of alternative and conventional medicine
  • Integrative medicine is a mix of complementary and conventional medicine
  • The most popular complementary health approaches in a 2012 study included the use of natural products, deep breathing, yoga, meditation and massage therapy
  • The least used complementary health approach in 2012 was guided imagery
  • More studies are needed to show the effectiveness and safety of alternative, complementary and integrative health and wellness therapies

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