Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine: What’s What?
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), 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
, 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 NCCAM, complementary and alternative medicine practices are often grouped into broad categories, including:
Whole Medical Systems
Whole medical systems are comprehensive approaches to healing and health based on their own fundamental views of nature and the healing process. Practitioners of these systems diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses. The approaches include:Homeopathic MedicineHomeopathic medicine is based on the belief that “like cures like.” It involves treating symptoms by administering small, diluted medicinal substances. When these substances are given at more concentrated levels or higher doses, they would cause the symptoms they are designed to treat.Naturopathic MedicineNaturopathic 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 MedicineTraditional 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. AyurvedaAyurveda
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:MeditationMeditation 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 HealingPrayer 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.Mental HealingIndividual or group psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, support groups, and other mental healing methods are used to prevent, treat, or enhance recovery from illness.Creative TherapiesSome 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
AromatherapyAromatherapy 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.
Manipulative and Body-Based Methods
ChiropracticChiropractic 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 MedicineOsteopathic 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.MassageMassage 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.ReflexologyReflexology 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 ChiTai 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.YogaIn 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 TherapiesBiofield 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 TherapiesBioelectromagnetic-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.