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What is complementary medicine?

Complementary medicine is a group of diagnostic and therapeutic disciplines that are used together with conventional medicine. An example of a complementary therapy is using aromatherapy to help lessen a patient's discomfort following surgery.

Complementary medicine is usually not taught or used in Western medical schools or hospitals. Complementary medicine includes a large number of practices and systems of health care that, for a variety of cultural, social, economic, or scientific reasons, have not been adopted by mainstream Western medicine.

Complementary medicine is different from alternative medicine. Whereas complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, 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 physician.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) can include the following:

  • acupuncture,
  • Alexander technique,
  • aromatherapy,
  • Ayurveda (Ayurvedic medicine),
  • biofeedback,
  • chiropractic medicine,
  • diet therapy,
  • herbalism,
  • holistic nursing,
  • homeopathy,
  • hypnosis,
  • massage therapy,
  • meditation,
  • naturopathy,
  • nutritional therapy,
  • osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT),
  • Qi gong (internal and external Qiging),
  • reflexology,
  • Reiki,
  • spiritual healing,
  • Tai Chi,
  • traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and
  • yoga.

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Alternative medicine

Complementary and Alternative Cancer Treatment

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Complementary and alternative cancer treatments are often lumped together. But to a cancer specialist, there is a big difference. Complementary therapy is used in addition to mainstream medical treatment. Alternative therapy is used instead of proven treatment. Another term you may hear is integrative medicine. This means combining CAM and standard care to try to treat cancer in a way that involves your body, mind and spirit. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes:

  • herbs,
  • diet supplements,
  • mind-body exercises,
  • vitamins,
  • and therapies like massage and acupuncture.

What is alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine practices are used instead of standard medical treatments. Alternative medicine is distinct from complementary medicine which is meant to accompany, not to replace, standard medical practices. Alternative medical practices are generally not recognized by the medical community as standard or conventional medical approaches.

Alternative medicine includes dietary supplements, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, massage therapy, magnet therapy, and spiritual healing.

What are complementary and alternative medicine therapies?

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies fall into five major 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 approach 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.

  1. Mind-Body Interventions

Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function 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.

  1. Biologically Based Therapies

Biologically based therapies in CAM use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some 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).

  1. Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

Manipulative and body-based methods in CAM are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage.

  1. Energy Therapies

Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types:

  • Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure 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.

Questions to ask your doctor when considering complimentary or alternative medicine therapies

Cancer patients using or considering complementary or alternative therapy should discuss this decision with their doctor or nurse, as they would any therapeutic approach. Some complementary and alternative therapies may interfere with standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment. It is also a good idea to become informed about the therapy, including whether the results of scientific studies support the claims that are made for it. 1

  1. What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
  2. What are the risks associated with this therapy?
  3. Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
  4. What side effects can be expected?
  5. Will the therapy interfere with conventional treatment?
  6. Is this therapy part of a clinical trial?
  7. If so, who is sponsoring the trial?
  8. Will the therapy be covered by health insurance?

Choosing a CAM practitioner 1

  1. If you are seeking a CAM practitioner, speak with your primary health care provider(s) or someone you believe to be knowledgeable about CAM regarding the therapy in which you are interested. Ask if they have a recommendation for the type of CAM practitioner you are seeking.
  2. Make a list of CAM practitioners and gather information about each before making your first visit. Ask basic questions about their credentials and practice. Where did they receive their training? What licenses or certifications do they have? How much will the treatment cost?
  3. Check with your insurer to see if the cost of therapy will be covered.
  4. After you select a practitioner, make a list of questions to ask at your first visit. You may want to bring a friend or family member who can help you ask questions and note answers.
  5. Come to the first visit prepared to answer questions about your health history, including injuries, surgeries, and major illnesses, as well as prescription medicines, vitamins, and other supplements you may take.
  6. Assess your first visit and decide if the practitioner is right for you. Did you feel comfortable with the practitioner? Could the practitioner answer your questions? Did he respond to you in a way that satisfied you? Does the treatment plan seem reasonable and acceptable to you?

For additional information, please read "Consumer Financial Issues in CAM."

SOURCES: 1 National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health

Last Editorial Review: 7/26/2006

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Reviewed on 7/26/2006
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