Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine: What’s What?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), defines complementary and alternative medicine as diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently part of conventional medicine. Some scientific evidence exists regarding complementary and alternative therapies, but for most there are many questions in need of answers through well-designed scientific studies.
What’s the Difference?
Complementary medicine is used along with conventional medicine such as using massage and drug therapy to reduce the discomfort of fibromyalgia.
Alternative medicine replaces conventional medicine such as using a special diet to treat cancer instead of conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
Integrative medicine combines mainstream medical therapies with complementary and alternative therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.
Categories of Alternative Therapies
According to NCCIH, complementary and alternative medicine practices are often grouped into broad categories, including:
- Whole medical systems
- Mind-body therapies
- Biologically-based therapies
- Manipulative or body-based methods
- Energy therapies
Whole medical systems are comprehensive approaches to healing and health based on an individuals fundamental views of nature and the healing process. Practitioners of these systems diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses. The approaches include:
Homeopathic medicine is based on the belief that “like cures like.” It involves treating symptoms by administering small, diluted substances. When these substances are given at more concentrated levels or higher doses, they would cause the symptoms they are designed to treat.
Naturopathic medicine is a system in which a practitioner works with the natural healing forces within the body to help you overcome a health problem and achieve better health. The practitioner may use diet, exercise, massage, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, or other interventions.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine includes a number of therapies. Those that are more common in the United States include:
Qi gong: Qi gong is a practice used to improve circulation and enhance immune function by balancing the flow of energy, known as qi (pronounced "chee"), through movement, meditation, and regulation of breathing.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture is based on the premise that qi flows in organized patterns near the surface of the body. Illness results when this energy becomes blocked or depleted. The acupuncturist inserts thin needles at specific points on the energy pathways, which can bring the qi back into balance and restore the patient to health.
Acupressure: Acupressure is similar to acupuncture but, rather than using needles, the practitioner or patient uses his or her fingers to press key points on the surface of the skin.
Ayurveda is an ancient health practice from India that focuses on the body, mind, and spirit in the prevention and treatment of disease. Herbs, massage, and specialized diets are all used to treat and prevent illness.
Mind-body therapies use a variety of techniques to enhance the mind’s influence on the healing of the body. They include:
Meditation involves focusing your mind continuously on one thought, word (mantra), object, or mental image for a period of time. The goal of meditation is to quiet your mind.
Prayer or Spiritual Healing
Prayer and spiritual healing have been used for thousands of years in an effort to heal the mind and body. Prayer may be initiated alone, in a group, in a service, or with the help of a spiritual healer, shaman, pastoral counselor, or clergy member.
Individual or group psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, support groups, and other mental healing methods are used to prevent, treat, or enhance recovery from illness.
Some mental health practitioners use art, music, and dance as a form of therapy with patients. Creative therapies may help increase mental and physical well-being and enhance recovery from illness.
Biologically based therapies use substances found in nature such as:
- Vitamins and dietary supplements
Aromatherapy uses essential oils, which proponents claim can induce relaxation, as well as enhance immune activity, lower blood pressure, stimulate digestive processes, and cause the release of endorphins ("feel good chemicals") in the brain.
Chiropractic focuses on the relationship between the structure and function of the body (primarily the spine) and how it affects health. Treatment involves manipulation of the vertebra in the spine and surrounding structures. It is often used to treat back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as headaches, sports injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, certain jaw conditions, and other disorders.
Osteopathic medicine is based on the theory that problems in one system of the body affect function in other parts of the body. Its early practitioners emphasized the musculoskeletal systems as the primary source for illness and health. Today, most osteopathic physicians are similar to their conventional, allopathic colleagues. Almost all osteopaths have been trained in, and many still use, osteopathic manipulation—a system of hands-on techniques to alleviate pain, restore function, and promote health and well-being.
Massage involves manipulation of muscle and connective tissue to enhance tissue function and promote relaxation. It is used most for chronic pain syndromes and stress-related conditions.
Reflexology is based on the theory that various organs, nerves, and glands in the body are connected with certain reflex areas on the bottoms of your feet, hands, and other areas of the body. Reflexology involves massaging these corresponding areas. It is believed to provide prompt relief from a variety of conditions.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese therapy that is used to prevent or treat illness by restoring the balance of qi in the body. Considered a “moving meditation,” Tai chi incorporates slow, gentle swaying movements, deep breathing, and mental focus.
In the West, most Yoga practices focus on the physical postures called "asanas," breathing exercises called "pranayama," and meditation. Yoga has been used to increase physical fitness, promote general well-being, enhance mental clarity and self-understanding, and to control stress.
Biofield therapies are intended to affect the energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. In some forms of energy therapy, practitioners use their hands to manipulate these biofields. Examples include:
Qi gong: (see Traditional Chinese Medicine)
Reiki : Reiki is based on the belief that the inner spirit can be harnessed to heal the physical body. Reiki practitioners use their hands to channel spiritual energy for the purpose of healing the spirit, mind and body of their patients.
Therapeutic Touch: Therapeutic touch is based on the belief that healing takes place when the body’s energies are in balance. Practitioners pass their hands over their patients to identify and redistribute energy imbalances.
Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating current or direct current fields.
Magnet therapy is a type of bioelectromagnetic therapy. It is based on the theory that the body's cells possess tiny electromagnetic fields that fall out of alignment when disease is present. By applying magnets to the affected part of the body, the electromagnetic field is realigned.
Before Choosing a Complementary or Alternative Therapy
Consider the following tips before choosing any complementary or alternative therapy:
- Talk to your doctor before and while using an alternative or complementary therapy, especially if you have a serious illness or are taking medications. Your doctor needs to have a complete picture of your treatment plan.
- Be an informed consumer and continue to gather information from many sources, even after you have selected a therapy or practitioner. Stay abreast of research. Talk to people (preferably with the same condition) who have received the therapy.
- Look into the background, qualifications (experience, licensing or accreditation) and competence of any potential health care practitioner. Contact a state or local regulatory agency with authority over practitioners who practice the therapy or treatment you seek, if applicable.
Assess the quality of the service delivery by visiting the practitioner’s office, clinic, or hospital. Assess the conditions of the office or clinic. Ask the practitioner the following questions:
- How many patients do you see in a day or week?
- How much time do you spend with a patient?
- How much does each session cost and how many sessions will I need?
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Office of Dietary Supplements—National Institutes of Health
Dietitians of Canada
Aromatherapy. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/aromatherapy. Updated April 7, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Ayurvedic medicine: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm. Updated April 7, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Chiropractic, spinal manipulation, and osteopathic manipulation. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/chiropractic?lang=es. Updated December 12, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what's in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam. Updated April 12, 2016. Accessed July 22, 2014.
Homeopathy: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/naturopathy. Updated February 24, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Magnets for pain relief. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/magnet/magnetsforpain.htm. Updated April 5, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Massage therapy. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/massage. Updated April 19, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Meditation: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm. Updated May 24, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Naturopathy: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/homeopathy. Updated April 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Reflexology. University of Minnesota website. Available at: http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/reflexology. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Reiki: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/reiki/introduction.htm. Updated May 3, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Tai chi: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm?lang=es. Updated April 21, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Therapeutic touch. University of Minnesota website. Available at: http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/therapeutic-touch. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Traditional chinese medicine: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm?lang=es. Updated April 21, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
What is complementary and alternative medicine? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/sites/nccam.nih.gov/files/D347_05-25-2012.pdf. Updated May 2012. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Yoga for health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm. Updated May 5, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 5/31/2016