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What Is Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

2004: Volume 1, Number 1


From The National Center for 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 part of conventional medicine.1,2 While there is some scientific evidence regarding certain CAM therapies, for most there are key questions yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies—questions such as whether CAM therapies are safe and effective for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are used. The list of what is considered to be CAM therapy changes continually as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health care, and as new approaches emerge.

Are complementary medicine and alternative medicine different from each other?

COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE is used together with conventional medicine. An example of a complementary therapy is using aromatherapy to help reduce 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 combines mainstream medical therapies with 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 approaches used in the United States. 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 and mind-body medicine
These therapies use a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily functions 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. 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 the 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 are believed to surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been proven scientifically. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure to 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 the National Center for Complementary And Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)?
NCCAM is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and to professionals. Its focus includes:


Supports clinical and basic science research projects in CAM by awarding grants internationally. NCCAM also designs, studies, and analyzes clinical and laboratory-based research on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

Training and career development for predoctoral, postdoctoral, and career researchers.


Sponsors conferences, town meetings, and educational programs, and operates an information clearinghouse and Web site of CAM practices.



Announces published research results; studies ways to integrate evidence-based CAM practices into conventional medical practice; and supports programs to develop models for incorporating CAM into the curriculae of medical, dental, and nursing schools.


Guidance For Primary Care Providers In Selecting A CAM Practitioner

Informed decision making is the cornerstone of patient empowerment, accountability, and patient/provider communication.


To advise patients regarding CAM, primary care providers can develop information and resources :

• Do you know any CAM practitioners personally and do you feel confident in their abilities? If not, consider soliciting recommendations from colleagues you respect.

• Create a resource list of CAM practitioners, by therapy, to share with your patients.

When patients are seeking a CAM practitioner, encourage them to:


• Ask basic questions about the credentials of all CAM practitioners they consult. Ask where they received their training? What licenses or certifications they have? How much will the treatment cost? Does insurance cover the cost of therapy?

• Take a list of questions to the first CAM visit and be prepared to answer questions about their health history and use of prescription medicines, vitamins, and other supplements.

• Consider these questions: Did you feel comfortable with the practitioner? Could the practitioner answer your questions? Were his or her responses satisfactory? Does the treatment plan seem reasonable and acceptable?


For further information:
NCCAM Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898-7923
Call toll-free: 888.644.6226
Web site:


Reference, accessed 3/8/04


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