What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)? Read to learn about complementary and alternative therapies and how to find reliable practitioners.
- In the United States, 42% of people have tried complementary or alternative medicine.
- The goal of complementary medicine is to support conventional treatments.
- Complementary medicine offers a holistic view of health and illness.
- Five main types of complementary medicine focus on: body, mind, diet, senses, and energy.
- Complementary medicine approaches that are commonly used include acupuncture, nutrition therapy, homeopathy, behavioral therapy, and pelvic floor therapy.
- Always use reliable complementary medicine provider directories.
Curious about complementary or alternative medicine? You are not alone. Forty-two percent of people in the United States have tried at least one of the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies.
Although most complementary medicine therapies, also called alternative, holistic, or integrative therapies, are safe and proven to be effective, we know that you may have questions. This article will help you make informed choices and find the best complementary medicine provider for your health problems.
What is complementary medicine?
There is no consistent definition of complementary medicine. From the medical point of view, the term encompasses diagnostic and therapeutic approaches that are used together with conventional treatments to improve symptoms of disease.
You may have seen a division into Western (conventional) and Eastern (complementary or alternative) medicine. It’s true that many complementary treatment methods come from Asia. However, complementary approaches have been applied by practitioners and doctors worldwide for centuries.
Are complementary medicine and alternative medicine the same thing?
Not exactly, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Complementary treatments support conventional medicine, while alternative treatments intend to replace conventional treatments altogether.
In that sense, the same method, such as acupuncture, can function as both a complementary and alternative treatment option, depending on the intent.
A holistic approach to health
All complementary treatments have one thing in common: a comprehensive approach to health. The reason why so many people go to acupuncturists or nutritionists is that they take their time to talk to the patient and know his or her story.
Complementary treatments go beyond treating the symptoms of disease. Holistic medicine looks deeper into the causes of health problems and offers holistic solutions.
The role of prevention in complementary medicine
Have you had your annual medical checkup lately? Can you remember the advice your doctor gave you? Chances are it was pretty generic — eat a balanced diet and plenty of exercise, don’t smoke, drink in moderation or not at all.
All great advice. But a nutritionist will dig deeper into your symptoms and how the foods you eat may be connected.
For example, abdominal pain can have many causes, and it’s often hard to diagnose. A nutritionist or dietitian would take the time to examine your diet and guide you through a trial-and-error approach to dietary changes.
Types of complementary medicine
Complementary treatment types reflect the holistic view of human health and well-being. It is not uncommon for practitioners to work together to help the patient achieve best results.
For example, a person — let’s call her Maria — might have a chronic condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a condition that’s challenging to treat, and the standard medical treatment might not bring relief.
Maria’s doctor may recommend that she see a dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in gut health. A change in eating habits improves her symptoms, but they may come back whenever she has a stressful period at work.
Her dietitian might suggest behavioral therapy. Learning to manage her stress with the help of a behavioral therapist might finally let Maria get her illness under control.
This type of treatment journey is common. Many people find that a holistic approach using a combination of conventional and complementary treatment is what works best for them.
Here are the five main areas of focus for different complementary medicine modalities:
While conventional doctors treat disease with medicines, complementary approaches use touch and movement to balance the body.
This is the domain of chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists, and massage therapists. Many traditional CAM practitioners recommend physical exercise as well, for example tai chi or yoga.
Many therapeutic interventions are backed by science and recognized by some insurance companies. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one example. CBT can help you manage chronic stress and anxiety. Other mind-based holistic therapies include meditation, hypnosis, and biofeedback.
Diet and herbal treatments
Unlike conventional doctors, complementary therapists use herbal mixtures instead of chemicals to treat disease.
Dietitians and nutritionists can help you pinpoint which foods might boost your health and which could make you feel worse. Remember that it will take some time for the positive effects to kick in, but the results will be worth the wait. With the right diet, you can manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes, and possibly reduce the number of drugs you have to take to control your symptoms.
A word of caution: It’s crucial that you keep your conventional and complementary medicine providers informed about all medication, herbs, and supplements you’re taking.
Sometimes there are dangerous interactions between pills and herbs. Certain natural treatments can also alter the mechanism of action of pharmacy-bought medication or interfere with treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.
Sensory therapies are commonly used with kids, but adults can also benefit from incorporating sensual awareness into their healing journey.
Art therapists, for example, use color, painting, and drawing to help patients relax and deal with problems such as anxiety or grief. Dance and movement therapists can help people deal with the aftermath of trauma.
This type of complementary treatment is based on the belief that humans are fueled by energy or spiritual force and that disease is a result of disturbances in that energy force. Gifted practitioners, such as reiki healers, can often help people feel better.
Which complementary therapy or alternative treatments are right for you?
Making sense of all the complementary medicine options out there can feel overwhelming. Here is a brief guide into the main forms of complementary therapy and the conditions they can help with.
This method relies on the use of thin needles that are placed into special points on the body. The goal is to unblock the flow of qi, the body’s life force, and to restore balance to the mind and/or body.
Don’t worry, the needles are very thin; you will hardly feel them. The treatment typically requires at least ten sessions, but the results can last for a long time.
Here are a few common conditions that can be treated with acupuncture:
- Seasonal allergies
- Menstrual cycle disturbances
- Gastrointestinal problems, including IBS
- Lower back pain
- Tension headaches and migraines
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but there’s a lot more to TCM. Experienced practitioners combine needles with herbal remedies for best results.
Make sure to find an experienced herbalist who uses safe ingredients to prepare the mixtures. Some organizations in the U.S., for example, the American Herbalists Guild, provide a peer-review credential to people who work with herbs in their health practice.
Or visit our provider directory. We can also connect you with a reputable herbalist in your area.
This method aims to treat medical conditions through dietary changes. Some people think that a dietitian or nutritionist is only useful for those wishing to lose weight, but that’s not true.
There is a large body of research on the effects of food on health. You will recognize a good nutritionist by his or her ability to back the suggested solutions by science.
Your eating choices can help you improve your gut health and reduce digestive symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or similar conditions. But tummy problems are not the only area where nutrition therapy can help. Here are some of the conditions that can be managed with a tailor-made diet:
- Menstrual cycle disturbances
- Kidney disease
- Cognitive problems, such as brain fog
This is a gentle approach to healing — and one of the most controversial ones. Homeopaths use diluted substances, usually over extended periods to achieve gradual improvement.
The idea behind homeopathy is that “like cures like,” the idea that the substances that cause disease symptoms can also treat them when given in tiny doses.
In some countries, there are supervisory bodies that make sure all homeopathic treatments on the market are reliable. In the US, homeopathic substances are not FDA-approved, and there is limited research on its effectiveness.
If you choose to try a homeopathic remedy, be sure you’re working with an experienced homeopath with a credible safety record. Drug interactions or interference with other treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, are always a risk with any type of supplement.
Again, it’s imperative that you keep all of your healthcare providers informed of the names of all substances you’re taking and in what dosages.
Most women learn about the pelvic floor when they get pregnant. Pelvic floor muscles are located in the pelvis in both men and women. They surround the internal genitals and support your internal organs.
A healthy pelvic floor allows you to hold your urine until you find the restroom. It’s also vital for pleasurable sex.
Typically, women seek the help of a pelvic floor therapist when they suffer from incontinence or sexual issues after childbirth. But pelvic rehabilitation can also help for digestive problems, such as constipation, and menstrual pain.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This approach focuses on the mind and has been scientifically proven to work for a range of psychological issues.
CBT is often used for serious psychiatric conditions, but it can also provide relief for mild anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and addictions.
Get informed and choose your complementary or alternative medicine practitioner wisely
Complementary medicine may sound intimidating at first. Doing basic research and using directories of recognized practitioners — like Soundry — will help you find the best solutions.
A combination of conventional medicine and complementary approaches might be exactly what you need to solve your health problems.
Sound Cycle can help
Choosing the right complementary practitioner may feel challenging. Let us be your ally on your way to better holistic health. Follow our blog for more information on complementary and alternative therapies, and visit our provider directory to find a practitioner near you.