Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) involves treatments that are not part of mainstream medical care. Sometimes it is called integrative medicine. You may hear the terms “alternative,” “complementary,” and “integrative.” But they are each a different kind of approach.

  • Complementary: A non-mainstream practice is used along with traditional medicine.
    • Example: A person with anxiety takes prescribed anxiety medicine and practices meditation at home.
  • Alternative: A non-mainstream practice is used instead of traditional medicine. True alternative care is uncommon. It is not recommended by doctors.
    • Example: A person with cancer treats the disease with nutrition instead of radiation or surgery.
  • Integrative: Complementary and traditional medicine are used together in a coordinated way.
    • Example: Patients in a pain management center receive pain medicine and acupuncture.

There are 3 general types of CAM therapies:

  • Natural products – These are often sold as dietary supplements. They include herbs, vitamins and minerals, and probiotics.
  • Mind and body practices – These include yoga, chiropractic care, deep breathing, acupuncture, and massage therapy.
  • Whole medical systems – These often center on a philosophy and encourage “self-healing.” They are not based on evidence-based medicine. They include naturopathy, homeopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine.

People have used CAM practices for thousands of years. But many practices have not gone through in-depth clinical trials. It is unclear how safe or effective many of these therapies are. Doctors do not recommend many of these practices.

Path to improved health

You may choose to use complementary or alternative therapies to improve your health. It is important to make an informed decision. Talk to your doctor about the approach you are interested in. He or she will discuss the benefits and risks.

Things to consider

There are risks involved with all types of medical products and treatments. CAM approaches have risks, too. They have not been studied as much as mainstream medical practices have. You should make sure the therapy is safe.

A “natural” therapy might not be safe or effective. (Poisonous mushrooms are natural. But you don’t want to eat them.) There is not much information on the safety of many natural products. The FDA has banned or discouraged some, such as ephedra and kava. Research showed they posed health risks.

The FDA does not have to approve dietary supplements before they are sold. The FDA tests companies that make supplements from time to time. In some cases, they found that the ingredients did not match what the label said. Make sure you buy supplements from a company that quality tests their products.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Have any studies been done on this therapy?
  • What are the benefits of this therapy?
  • Are there any risks involved?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
  • Will the therapy interfere with conventional treatment I’m receiving?
  • What side effects can I expect with this therapy?
  • Is this therapy covered by insurance?

Resources

National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Complementary and Integrative Medicine

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine)

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