Alternative Medicine

Complementary and Alternative Medicines Image

You can think of alternative medicines as any treatment not typically used by medical doctors and related healthcare professionals in conventional Western medicine. The line between what might be considered conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is sometimes ill-defined and can change as complementary therapies become accepted in conventional medicine.

Defining Alternative Medicines

In the United States, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (2010) provides the following definitions:

  • Alternative medicine is the use of CAM instead of conventional medicine.
  • Complementary medicine is the use of CAM together with conventional medicine.
  • Integrative (or integrated) medicine combines conventional treatments and CAM treatments that have scientific evidence to support their safety and effectiveness.

The World Health Organization (2008) defines traditional medicine as the healing practices of indigenous cultures. Two traditional medicine systems commonly available as alternative medicines in the United States are Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, the traditional healing system of India. The practices of groups such as folk healers or Native Americans are also considered traditional medicine.

Natural medicine is a general term referring to any form of treatment that uses natural substances to promote the body’s natural healing ability.

Complementary Therapies

In CAM, medicine can take may forms:

  • Ayurvedic medicine includes treatments such as exercise, breathing techniques, meditation, massage, herbs and diet.
  • Energy healing attempts to influence the energy of the body to promote healing (for example, qigong, Reiki and healing touch).
  • Homeopathy uses tiny doses of highly diluted substances in an attempt to stimulate the body’s natural healing ability.
  • Massage therapy uses the manipulation of soft tissue (muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments) to relieve stress and pain.
  • Movement therapies use movement for healing (such as the Feldenkrais MethodÃ’, Alexander Technique and Pilates).
  • Naturopathic medicine uses natural therapies to prevent disease, encourage the body’s natural healing abilities and treat the whole person, instead of just symptoms.
  • Spinal manipulation includes chiropractic and osteopathic adjustments of the spine.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes acupuncture, acupressure, herbal medicine and diet.
  • Evaluating Alternative Medicines

Although many alternative medicines are natural, they aren’t always safe. For example, some herbs can have side effects similar to conventional medicines or dangerous interactions with other drugs you’re taking.

In addition, many alternative medicines and complementary therapies don’t have conclusive scientific research that proves their safety and efficacy. In considering CAM, medicine and your needs:

  • Have an open mind, but don’t blindly accept all claims that you hear or read.
  • Learn about the possible benefits and risks of any treatment that interests you. Get information from more than one source.
  • Let your conventional doctor know what you’re doing, which may minimize the possibility of negative interactions with any other treatment.
  • Make sure that your alternative medical practitioner has the proper credentials.


Bastyr Center for Natural Health. (2010) Naturopathic medicine. Retrieved August 16, 2010, from

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2006). Alternative medicine: Evaluate claims of treatment success. Retrieved August 16, 2010, from

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2010). What is complementary and alternative medicine? Retrieved August 16, 2010, from

Rosenzweig, S. (2009). Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM): Introduction. Retrieved August 16, 2010, from

World Health Organization. (2008). What is traditional medicine? Retrieved August 16, 2010, from