What does complementary health approaches mean?

When people talk about “complementary treatment” or "alternative therapies", they are talking about kinds of treatment that are different from the medicines or surgery usually prescribed by doctors and other mainstream health professionals. Some people even define alternative medicine as treatments that aren't taught in traditional medical schools or hospitals. This is quickly changing as more information is learned about these approaches and how they can be used. Some of these treatments are now used by ‘traditional’ health care providers and may be covered by health insurance plans.

Let’s first talk about what the terms mean.

  • Complementary approaches or treatments mean that treatments are used together with conventional medicine.
  • Alternative approaches or treatments are used instead of conventional medicine.
  • Most treatments used today are given together. In some cultures and situations, people may use non-traditional instead of traditional treatments, but this isn’t as common as it used to be in the United States.
  • One of the major differences between treatments considered complementary/non-traditional and traditional medicine or health care is what we know about them and how they are studied.
    • Traditional therapies are studied using a scientific approach to answer questions such as: why they work, how well they work, who they work for, what side effects may occur, and how the benefits compare to the risks.  Results of testing are published in scientific journals.  Most treatments need to receive approval by the Food and Drug Administration or a relevant federal advisory group before they can be marketed and used by the general public.
    • Many complementary and alternative therapies have not been studied using a strong scientific approach. We may not know very much about how well it works and for whom and how the benefits may compare to any risks of the treatment. While some of these may be very helpful, we just don’t have the data about their usefulness in the same way that we have for traditional treatments. Most of these therapies do not go through a review by the FDA or a federal advisory group before they are sold and used.

The list of alternative therapies changes over time as new approaches emerge. Others are proven safe and effective and become part of conventional health care. In epilepsy, for instance, the ketogenic diet began as an alternative therapy but has been scientifically tested and is now considered a conventional therapy for some people with epilepsy.

What types of complementary or alternative therapies are being used?

There are many different types of therapies that fall into this area. One way to group the various treatments is to use the definitions from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):

  • Natural Products: herbs, vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, often called dietary supplements. 
  • Mind and body practices: Examples may include- acupunture, chiropractic therapy, meditation techniques, relaxation therapies, massage therapy, movement therapies, spinal manipulation, tai chi, yoga, qi gong, healing touch, hypotherapy.

What is integrative medicine?

Some people who are interested in complementary and alternative therapies, including many doctors, want to emphasize that these therapies can be a valuable addition to conventional medical care. They use the term "integrative medicine" to emphasize that both types of treatment are combined (integrated) in the patient's care. Practitioners of integrative medicine generally emphasize therapies that have been the most thoroughly tested.

Where can I find out more?

A good resource to learn about this area is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) with links to other resources on this topic too. This agency is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has information for researchers, health care professionals, and the general public.

Authored by: Steven C. Schachter, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN | Joseph I. Sirven, MD on 8/2013
Reviewed by: Joseph I. Sirven, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN on 3/2014
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Add comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.