Complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, is a category of medicine that includes a variety of treatment approaches that fall outside the realm of conventional medicine. An increasing amount of research is being done to establish the safety and efficacy of alternative medicine. But compared with traditional "Western" therapies such as drugs, research on alternative medicine is still limited.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What’s the Difference?
It is important to understand the difference between complementary medicine and alternative medicine — the two approaches are often lumped together but are, in fact, distinct.
Complementary medicine refers to healing practices and products that work in conjunction with traditional medicine. For example, a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy may also undergo acupuncture to help manage chemo side effects like nausea and vomiting. Alternative medicine differs in that it is not used as a complement to, but rather as a substitute for traditional therapy. An example would be a cancer patient who forgoes recommended chemotherapy and instead chooses to treat the disease with specific dietary changes.
There is a third category that also often gets lumped in with conventional and alternative medicine — integrative medicine. Integrative medicine draws from both complementary medicine and alternative medicine and combines these with traditional Western therapies, says Donald Abrams, MD, director of clinical programs for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Who’s Using It?
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recently surveyed Americans on their use of complementary and alternative medicine. The survey, which gathered information from more than 20,000 adults and nearly 10,000 children, found that about 40 percent of adults and 12 percent of children use some form of complementary and alternative medicine.
Women, people ages 40 to 60, and adults with higher levels of education and income tended to use complementary and alternative therapies more frequently. There have been considerable increases in the number of people using common forms of complementary and alternative medicine, such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and massage therapy.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What Are the Categories?
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recognizes five main categories of complementary and alternative medicine:
- Mind-body medicine. Mind-body medicine includes treatments that focus on how our mental and emotional status interacts and affects the body's ability to function. Examples include meditation and various therapies expressed through art and music.
- Whole medical systems. This category refers to complete systems of medical theory and practice, many of which go back thousands of years and have roots in non-Western cultures. Examples include traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, a therapy that originated in India. Whole medical systems from the West include homeopathy and naturopathy.
- Manipulative and body-based practices. Relying on the physical manipulation of the body, this practice is intended to improve specific symptoms and overall health. Examples of these practices include chiropractic and osteopathy.
- Energy medicine. This form of alternative medicine uses energy fields to promote healing. Biofield therapies affect energy fields that are said to encircle the human body — forms include Reiki and qi gong. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies, such as magnet therapy, involve the manipulation of electromagnetic fields.
- Biologically based practices. Since the focus is on herbs, nutrition, and vitamins, dietary supplements and herbal medicine are perhaps the most common forms of biologically based complementary and alternative medicine. A growing interest in these kinds of therapies is leading to more research, but many of these biologically based practices have yet to be thoroughly tested.
If you are considering using complementary or alternative therapy, make sure you consult with your regular doctor and do some research before your first session