Overview of complementary and alternative medicine

Published On: Jan 31 2013 02:00:14 PM EST   Updated On: Feb 12 2013 12:07:19 PM EST

A woman gets a massage from a male therapist.

By Pure Matters

What is alternative therapy?

In some cases, physicians will recommend, or patients may request, treatment alternatives that are not considered conventional medicine. “Conventional” refers to medicine typically practiced by persons 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 US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Sometimes, however, these physicians may also recommend some non-conventional therapies that may be used to complement, or complete, a treatment plan.

  • Complementary medicine is any form of therapy used in combination with other alternative treatments or standard/conventional medicine. Complementary therapy usually serves to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
  • Alternative medicine is used alone, without recommended standard treatment.

When the term “CAM” is used, that means that the treatment combines complementary and alternative medicine.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (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 and alternate therapies that may be included in a patient’s treatment plan:

  • hypnosis
  • massage
  • biofeedback
  • diet and herbs
  • art therapy
  • music therapy
  • dance therapy
  • distraction
  • imagery
  • yoga
  • physical exercise

Before considering complementary and alternative therapy:

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

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

  • Consult with your physician.
  • 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:


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