Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard care. Standard care is what medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy and allied health professionals, such as registered nurses and physical therapists, practice. Alternative medicine means treatments that you use instead of standard ones. Complementary medicine means nonstandard treatments that you use along with standard ones. Examples of CAM therapies are acupuncture, chiropractic, and herbal medicines.
The claims that CAM treatment providers make about their benefits can sound promising. However, researchers do not know how safe many CAM treatments are or how well they work. Studies are underway to determine the safety and usefulness of many CAM practices.
What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
Many Americans use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in pursuit of health and well-being. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey of CAM use by Americans, showed that approximately 38 percent of adults use CAM.
Defining CAM is difficult, because the field is very broad and constantly changing. NCCAM defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine (also called Western or allopathic medicine) is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degrees and by allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. The boundaries between CAM and conventional medicine are not absolute, and specific CAM practices may, over time, become widely accepted.
“Complementary medicine” refers to use of CAM together with conventional medicine, such as using acupuncture in addition to usual care to help lessen pain. Most use of CAM by Americans is complementary.
“Alternative medicine” refers to use of CAM in place of conventional medicine. “Integrative medicine” combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high-quality evidence of safety and effectiveness. It is also called integrated medicine.
Types of CAM
CAM practices are often grouped into broad categories, such as natural products, mind and body medicine, and manipulative and body-based practices. Although these categories are not formally defined, they are useful for discussing CAM practices. Some CAM practices may fit into more than one category.
This area of CAM includes use of a variety of herbal medicines (also known as botanicals), vitamins, minerals, and other “natural products.” Many are sold over the counter as dietary supplements. (Some uses of dietary supplements—e.g., taking a multivitamin to meet minimum daily nutritional requirements or taking calcium to promote bone health—are not thought of as CAM.)
CAM “natural products” also include probiotics—live microorganisms (usually bacteria) that are similar to microorganisms normally found in the human digestive tract and that may have beneficial effects. Probiotics are available in foods (e.g., yogurts) or as dietary supplements. They are not the same thing as prebiotics—nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of microorganisms already present in the body.
Interest in and use of CAM natural products have grown considerably in the past few decades. The 2007 NHIS found that 17.7 percent of American adults had used a nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product. These products were the most popular form of CAM among both adults and children. The most commonly used product among adults was fish oil/omega 3s (reported by 37.4 percent of all adults who said they used natural products); popular products for children included echinacea (37.2 percent) and fish oil/omega 3s (30.5 percent).
Mind and Body Medicine
Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior, with the intent to use the mind to affect physical functioning and promote health. Many CAM practices embody this concept—in different ways.
- Meditation techniques include specific postures, focused attention, or an open attitude toward distractions. People use meditation to increase calmness and relaxation, improve psychological balance, cope with illness, or enhance overall health and well-being.
- The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation. People use yoga as part of a general health regimen, and also for a variety of health conditions.
- Acupuncture is a family of procedures involving the stimulation of specific points on the body using a variety of techniques, such as penetrating the skin with needles that are then manipulated by hand or by electrical stimulation. It is one of the key components of traditional Chinese medicine, and is among the oldest healing practices in the world.
Other examples of mind and body practices include deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, progressive relaxation, qi gong, and tai chi.
Historical note: The concept that the mind is important in the treatment of illness is integral to the healing approaches of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, dating back more than 2,000 years. Hippocrates also noted the moral and spiritual aspects of healing and believed that treatment could occur only with consideration of attitude, environmental influences, and natural remedies.
Current use: Several mind and body approaches ranked among the top 10 CAM practices reported by adults in the 2007 NHIS. For example, the survey found that 12.7 percent of adults had used deep-breathing exercises, 9.4 percent had practiced meditation, and 6.1 percent had practiced yoga; use of these three CAM practices had increased significantly since the previous (2002) NHIS. Progressive relaxation and guided imagery were also among the top 10 CAM therapies for adults; deep breathing and yoga ranked high among children. Acupuncture had been used by 1.4 percent of adults and 0.2 percent of children.
Acupuncture is considered to be a part of mind and body medicine, but it is also a component of energy medicine, manipulative and body-based practices, and traditional Chinese medicine.
Watch this video What Happens during an Acupuncture Session?
Manipulative and Body-Based Practices
Manipulative and body-based practices focus primarily on the structures and systems of the body, including the bones and joints, soft tissues, and circulatory and lymphatic systems. Two commonly used therapies fall within this category:
- Spinal manipulation is performed by chiropractors and by other health care professionals such as physical therapists, osteopathic physicians, and some conventional medical doctors. Practitioners use their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine, moving it beyond its passive range of motion; the amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used. Spinal manipulation is among the treatment options used by people with low-back pain – a very common condition that can be difficult to treat.
- The term massage therapy encompasses many different techniques. In general, therapists press, rub, and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body. People use massage for a variety of health-related purposes, including to relieve pain, rehabilitate sports injuries, reduce stress, increase relaxation, address anxiety and depression, and aid general well-being.
Other CAM Practices
CAM also encompasses movement therapies—a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches used to promote physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Examples include Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration. According to the 2007 NHIS, 1.5 percent of adults and 0.4 percent of children used movement therapies.
Practices of traditional healers can also be considered a form of CAM. Traditional healers use methods based on indigenous theories, beliefs, and experiences handed down from generation to generation. A familiar example in the United States is the Native American healer/medicine man. The 2007 NHIS found that 0.4 percent of adults and 1.1 percent of children had used a traditional healer (usage varied for the seven specific types of healers identified in the survey).
Some CAM practices involve manipulation of various energy fields to affect health. Such fields may be characterized as veritable (measurable) or putative (yet to be measured). Practices based on veritable forms of energy include those involving electromagnetic fields (e.g., magnet therapy and light therapy). Practices based on putative energy fields (also called biofields) generally reflect the concept that human beings are infused with subtle forms of energy; qi gong, Reiki, and healing touch are examples of such practices. The 2007 NHIS found relatively low use of putative energy therapies. Only 0.5 percent of adults and 0.2 percent of children had used energy healing/Reiki (the survey defined energy healing as the channeling of healing energy through the hands of a practitioner into the client’s body).
Finally, whole medical systems, which are complete systems of theory and practice that have evolved over time in different cultures and apart from conventional or Western medicine, may be considered CAM. Examples of ancient whole medical systems include Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. More modern systems that have developed in the past few centuries include homeopathy and naturopathy. The 2007 NHIS asked about the use of Ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy. Although relatively few respondents said they had used Ayurveda or naturopathy, homeopathy ranked 10th in usage among adults (1.8 percent) and 5th among children (1.3 percent).
Watch this video about Tai Chi and Qi Gong:
Source: Alternative Medical Practices, NIH: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/complementaryandalternativemedicine.html