Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?
We’ve all seen the words “complementary,” “alternative,” and “integrative,” but what do they really mean?
Note: Also has been referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine,” or “CAM” as an abbreviation.
Complementary Versus Alternative
Many Americans—more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children—use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine. When describing these approaches, people often use “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts:
- If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
- If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”
True alternative medicine is uncommon. Most people who use non-mainstream approaches use them along with conventional treatments.
There are many definitions of “integrative” health care, but all involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. The use of integrative approaches to health and wellness has grown within care settings across the United States. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors, and programs to promote healthy behaviors.