Health libraryBack to health library
Alternative medicine 101
Check with your doctor if you're considering nontraditional medical treatment.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a part of the National Institutes of Health, defines alternative medicine as a non-mainstream approach to healthcare used in place of conventional medicine.
According to the NCCIH, complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is used in place of conventional medicine.
Holistic medicine generally refers to treatments that consider the whole person, including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects.
Terms used to describe the healthcare that you receive from an MD or DO include conventional, mainstream or Western medicine.
Finally, integrative healthcare is a growing trend that integrates practices with roots outside mainstream medicine into treatment and wellness promotion.
The NCCIH breaks CAM into two broad categories: natural products and mind and body practices.
Natural products include things that are often sold as dietary supplements, such as:
- Vitamins and minerals.
Mind and body practices include procedures or techniques taught by a trained practitioner. Some examples are:
- Chiropractic and osteopathic treatment.
- Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and guided imagery.
The NCCIH acknowledges that a few other approaches—such as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India—don't fit neatly into these groups but are also types of complementary and alternative medicine. Not all kinds of CAM are safe or backed by scientific evidence.
Many people claim that alternative therapies help them, but their stories alone should not convince you that a particular therapy works. Controlled scientific studies usually provide the best information about a therapy's effectiveness, according to the NCCIH. Although few studies have been done on CAM in the past, more trials are taking place today. You should read up on existing studies if you're considering using CAM.
There is no single answer to the question of whether or not alternative therapies are safe. Some therapies, such as herbs, can interact with other medications you may be taking and raise the risk of complications if you undergo surgery. People are often also surprised to learn that herbs, like many other alternative therapies, are largely unregulated. Even though people consider herbs "natural," there's no guarantee that they're safe.
Before trying alternative medicine, talk with your doctor. He or she can help you determine if a particular therapy may be a waste of time or possibly dangerous.
The National Cancer Institute suggests asking your doctor these questions:
- What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
- What are the possible risks?
- Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
- What are the side effects?
- Will the therapy interfere with my conventional treatment?
- Is this therapy part of a clinical trial?
The NCCIH suggests the following when choosing a practitioner:
Check the practitioner's expertise. If the practitioner is regulated by a state or local agency (some practitioners, such as acupuncturists and naturopathic physicians, may be), you can ask about the practitioner's license, education and whether any complaints have been filed against him or her.
Consider the service delivery. Visit the practitioner's office to examine conditions. Find out how many people the practitioner sees and how much time is spent with each person. Talk with the practitioner to learn about how he or she communicates and approaches treatment.
Check the cost. Insurance companies do not currently pay for many CAM treatments, though some provide partial coverage for acupuncture, chiropractic and massage. It's important to find out how much the treatments will cost you. It can be helpful to talk with several practitioners to learn about a reasonable charge.
To learn more about alternative medicine, visit the Alternative Medicine health topic center. You can also find out more at these websites: