Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

What is alternative therapy?

In some cases, doctors will recommend, or patients may request, treatment alternatives that are not considered conventional medicine. Conventional refers to medicine typically practiced by people who have M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degrees, and who suggest treatments that have been scientifically tested, found to be safe and effective, and approved by the FDA.

Sometimes, however, these doctors may also recommend some nonconventional therapies that may be used to complement, or complete, a treatment plan.

  • Complementary medicine. Any form of therapy used in combination with standard or conventional medicine. Complementary therapy usually serves to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. This is sometimes called integrative medicine. 

  • Alternative medicine. This is used alone, without recommended standard treatment.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine.

The NCCAM points out that what is considered to be CAM changes continually because once those therapies are proven to be safe and effective, they become incorporated into conventional medicine.

What are the different types of complementary and alternative therapies?

The following are some complementary therapies that may be included in a patient’s treatment plan:

  • Hypnosis

  • Massage

  • Herbs

  • Yoga

  • Meditation

  • Acupuncture

  • Dietary supplements

  • Naturopathy

  • Guided imagery 

Before considering complementary and alternative therapy

Most complementary and alternative medicine fields are not standardized or controlled by any Western medical guidelines. You should consult your doctor before beginning any complementary or alternative therapy, as some therapies may interfere with standard treatment.

It is important to be an informed health care consumer when considering complementary or alternative medicine. Before starting therapy, you should consider the following:

  • Consult with your doctor.

  • Use your library to research books, articles, and scientific journals.

  • Use the Internet to do research.

  • Look for information on controlled, scientific studies on the therapy you are considering.

  • Talk to others who have actually tried the therapy.

What warning signs may indicate a fraudulent therapy?

According to the American Cancer Society, it is better to avoid treatment with the following warning signs:

  • The treatment is based on unproven theories.

  • The treatment promises or guarantees a cure.

  • The treatment is a secret and can be given only by certain providers.

  • The treatment requires travel to another country.

  • Those who provide the treatment discount standard or conventional medicine and/or tell the patient not to use standard or conventional medicine.


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