Complementary and Alternative Medicine

There are many terms used to describe approaches to health care that are outside the realm of conventional medicine as practiced in the United Kingdom. This fact sheet explains how the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines some of the key terms used in the field of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

What is complementary and alternative medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine, as defined by NCCAM, is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.1,2 While some scientific evidence exists regarding some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies--questions such as whether these therapies are safe and whether they work for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are used.

Are complementary medicine and alternative medicine different from each other?

Yes, they are different.

Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. An example of a complementary therapy is using aromatherapy to help lessen a patient's discomfort following surgery.

Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. An example of an alternative therapy is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy that has been recommended by a conventional doctor.

What is integrative medicine?

Integrative medicine, as defined by NCCAM, combines mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.

What are the major types of complementary and alternative medicine?

NCCAM classifies CAM therapies into five categories, or domains:

  1. Alternative Medical Systems

    Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical approach used in the United States and United Kingdom. Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine. Examples of systems that have developed in non-Western cultures include traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.

  2. Mind-Body Interventions

    Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some techniques that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream (for example, patient support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy). Other mind-body techniques are still considered CAM, including meditation, prayer, mental healing, and therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music, or dance.

  3. Biologically Based Therapies

    Biologically based therapies in CAM use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some examples include dietary supplements,3 herbal products, and the use of other so-called natural but as yet scientifically unproven therapies (for example, using shark cartilage to treat cancer).

  4. Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

    Manipulative and body-based methods in CAM are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage.

  5. Energy Therapies

    Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types:

    Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or manipulating the body by placing the hands in, or through, these fields. Examples include qi gong, Reiki, and Therapeutic Touch.

    Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating-current or direct-current fields.

What is NCCAM's role in the field of CAM?

NCCAM is the Federal Government's lead agency for scientific research on CAM. NCCAM is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals.

Procedure information is copyright Department of Health (http://www.dh.gov.uk. Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence.