Mayo Clinic Health Library

Complementary and alternative medicine

Updated: 10-20-2011

Complementary and alternative medicine has never been more popular. Nearly 40 percent of adults report using complementary and alternative medicine, also called CAM for short. Doctors are embracing CAM therapies, too, often combining them with mainstream medical therapies — spawning the new term "integrative medicine." But what is CAM? This guide explains the ABCs of CAM.

What are some examples of complementary and alternative medicine?

Exactly what's considered complementary and alternative medicine changes constantly as treatments undergo testing and move into the mainstream. To make sense of the many therapies available, it helps to look at how they're classified by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the agency that funds scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine:

  • Whole medical systems
  • Mind-body medicine
  • Biologically based practices
  • Manipulative and body-based practices
  • Energy medicine

Keep in mind that the distinctions between therapies aren't always clear-cut, and some systems use techniques from more than one category.

Whole medical systems

A system isn't just a single practice or remedy — such as massage — but many practices that center on a philosophy, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in your body. Examples of whole medical systems include:

  • Ancient healing systems. These healing systems arose long before conventional Western medicine and include ayurveda from India and traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Homeopathy. This approach uses minute doses of a substance that causes symptoms to stimulate the body's self-healing response.
  • Naturopathy. This approach focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing and uses a variety of practices, such as massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.

Mind-body medicine

Mind-body techniques strengthen the communication between your mind and your body. Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners say these two systems must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. Examples of mind-body connection techniques include meditation, prayer, and relaxation and art therapies.

Biologically based practices

Examples include dietary supplements and herbal remedies. These treatments use ingredients found in nature. Examples of herbs include ginseng, ginkgo and echinacea, while examples of other dietary supplements include selenium, glucosamine sulfate and SAMe. Herbs and supplements can be taken as teas, oils, syrups, powders, tablets or capsules.

Manipulation and body-based practices

These methods use human touch to move or manipulate a specific part of your body. They include chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation and massage.

Energy medicine

Some complementary and alternative medicine practitioners believe an invisible energy force flows through your body, and when this energy flow is blocked or unbalanced you can become sick. Different traditions call this energy by different names, such as chi, prana and life force. The goal of these therapies is to unblock or re-balance your energy force. Energy therapies include qi gong, therapeutic touch, reiki and magnet therapy.

Why are some doctors hesitant about complementary and alternative medicine?

Many conventional doctors practicing today didn't receive training in CAM therapies, so they may not feel comfortable making recommendations or addressing questions in this area. However, as the evidence for certain therapies increases, doctors are increasingly open to complementary and alternative medicine. At the same time, doctors also have good reason to be cautious when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine. Conventional medicine values therapies that have been demonstrated through research and testing to be safe and effective. While scientific evidence exists for some CAM therapies, for many there are key questions that are yet to be answered.

In addition, some practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine make exaggerated claims about curing diseases, and some ask you to forgo treatment from your conventional doctor. For these reasons, many doctors are conservative about recommending CAM therapies.

Why is there so little evidence about complementary and alternative medicine?

One reason for the lack of research in complementary and alternative treatments is that large, carefully controlled medical studies are costly. Trials for conventional therapies are often funded by big companies that develop and sell drugs. Fewer resources are available to support trials of complementary and alternative medicine. That's why NCCAM was established — to foster research into complementary and alternative medicine and make the findings available to the public.

Talk to your doctor about risks and benefits of complementary and alternative medicine

Work with your conventional medical doctor to help you make informed decisions regarding complementary and alternative treatments. Even if your doctor can't recommend a specific practitioner, he or she can help you understand possible risks and benefits before you try a treatment. It's especially important to involve your doctor if you're pregnant, have medical problems or take prescription medicine. And don't stop or change your conventional treatment — such as the dose of your prescription medications — without talking to your doctor first. Finally, be sure to keep your doctor updated on any complementary and alternative therapies you're using, including herbal and dietary supplements.