What Is Complementary And Alternative Medicine
Volume 1, Number 1
From The National Center for
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
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
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
What are the major types of complementary and
CAM therapies into five categories, or domains:
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.
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.
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).
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
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,
therapies involve the unconventional use
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
authoritative information to the public and to
professionals. Its focus includes:
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
Training and career development for
predoctoral, postdoctoral, and career
conferences, town meetings, and educational
programs, and operates an information
clearinghouse and Web site of CAM practices.
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
Primary Care Providers In Selecting A CAM
making is the cornerstone of patient empowerment,
accountability, and patient/provider
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?
NCCAM Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 7923,
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-7923
Call toll-free: 888.644.6226