Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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Alternative medicine is used instead of standard medical treatment. One example is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of cancer drugs that are prescribed by an oncologist. Less research has been done for most types of alternative medicine.

Integrative medicine is an approach to medical care that combines conventional medicine with CAM practices that have shown through science to be safe and effective. This approach often stresses the patient's preferences, and it attempts to address the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of health.

Conventional medicine is a system in which health professionals who hold an M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degree treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery.  It is also practiced by other health professionals, such as nurses, pharmacists, physician assistants, and therapists. It may also be called allopathic medicine, biomedicine, Western, mainstream, or orthodox medicine. Some conventional medical care practitioners are also practitioners of CAM.

Standard medical care is treatment that is accepted by medical experts as a proper treatment for a certain type of disease and that is widely used by healthcare professionals. Also called best practice, standard of care, and standard therapy.

Complementary medicine is used along with standard medical treatment but is not considered by itself to be standard treatment. One example is using acupuncture to help lessen some side effects of cancer treatment. Less research has been done for most types of complementary medicine.

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Scientists learn about CAM therapies every day, but there is still more to learn. This list is meant to be an introduction to what types of CAM are practiced, not an endorsement. Some of the therapies listed below still need more research to prove that they can be helpful. If you have cancer, you should discuss your thoughts about using CAM with your health care provider before using the therapies listed below. 

People may use the term "natural," "holistic," "home remedy," or "Eastern Medicine" to refer to CAM. However, experts often use five categories to describe it. These are listed below with examples for each. 

Mind–body therapies

These combine mental focus, breathing, and body movements to help relax the body and mind. Some examples are

  • meditation: focused breathing or repetition of words or phrases to quiet the mind and lessen stressful thoughts and feelings.
  • biofeedback: using special machines, the patient learns how to control certain body functions that are normally out of one's awareness (such as heart rate and blood pressure).
  • hypnosis: a trance-like state in which a person becomes more aware and focused on certain feelings, thoughts, images, sensations or behaviors. A person may feel more calm and open to suggestion in order to aid in healing.
  • yoga: ancient system of practices used to balance the mind and body through stretches and poses, meditation, and controlled breathing
  • tai chi: a form of gentle exercise and meditation that uses slow sets of body movements and controlled breathing
  • imagery focusing on positive images in the mind, such as imagining scenes, pictures, or experiences to help the body heal
  • creative outlets: interests such as art, music, or dance 

    Biologically based practices

    This type of CAM uses things found in nature. Some examples are

    Manipulative and body-based practices

    These are based on working with one or more parts of the body. Some examples are

    • massage therapy: a therapy where the soft tissues of the body are kneaded, rubbed, tapped, and stroked
    • chiropractic therapya type of manipulation of the spine, joints, and skeletal system
    • reflexology: a type of massage in which pressure is applied to specific points on the feet or hands, which are believed to match up with certain parts of the body

    Energy healing

    Energy healing is based on the belief that a vital energy flows through the body. The goal is to balance the energy flow in the patient. There's not enough evidence to support the existence of energy fields. However, there are no harmful effects in using these approaches. Some examples are

    • reiki: placing hands lightly on or just above the person with the goal of guiding energy to help a person's own healing response
    • therapeutic touch: moving hands over energy fields of the body or gently touching a person's body 

      Whole medical systems

      These are healing systems and beliefs that have evolved over time in different cultures and parts of the world. Some examples are

      • Ayurvedic medicine: a system from India in which the goal is to cleanse the body and restore balance to the body, mind, and spirit. It uses diet, herbal medicines, exercise, meditation, breathing, physical therapy, and other methods.
      • Traditional Chinese medicine: based on the belief that qi (the body’s vital energy) flows along meridians (channels) in the body and keeps a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health in balance. It aims to restore the body’s balance between two forces called yin and yang.
        • Acupuncture is a common practice in Chinese medicine that involves stimulating certain points on the body to promote health, or to lessen disease symptoms and treatment side effects.
      • naturopathic medicine: a system that avoids drugs and surgery. It is based on the use of natural agents such as air, water, light, heat and massage to help the body heal itself. It may also use herbal products, nutrition, acupuncture, and aromatherapy. For details about specific CAM therapies, NCI provides evidence-based Physician Data Query (PDQ) information for many CAM therapies in versions for both the patient and health professional.  Also see the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health's page, Cancer and Complementary Health Approaches: What You Need to Know for more details about CAM and some of the current research.