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What is complementary medicine?

The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is treatment and medicine that you use in addition to your doctor's standard care.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry, but it may not be standard if used to treat cancer.

Other examples of complementary medicine include:

  • Yoga.
  • Massage therapy.
  • Herbal remedies.
  • Naturopathic medicine.

Is research being done on it?

Many complementary treatments and medicines have not yet been studied to see how safe they are or how well they work. Some treatments, such as prayer or music therapy, are hard to study.

In the U.S. the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was formed within the National Institutes of Health to test the safety and effectiveness of these treatments. The center has guidelines to help you choose safe treatments that are right for you.

Should you use complementary medicine?

Before you decide to use this type of treatment, think about these questions:

  • Why are you considering this treatment? People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term health problems or to stay healthy. But if you are looking for a "cure-all," you may be disappointed. Before you begin to use it, make sure that you learn how well it is likely to work.
  • What are you comfortable with? Part of the philosophy of some forms of complementary medicine is to listen to and touch people in a healing way. Some people find great comfort in this. Others may be bothered by it.

Many complementary treatments are covered by insurance plans. But check to see what your plan covers.

What are the risks?

The greatest risk is that you may use these treatments instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.

Sometimes complementary medicines can be dangerous when they are combined with another medicine you are taking. Always talk to your doctor before you use any new medicines. Diet supplements, for example, are complementary. And they can vary widely in how strong they are and in how they react to other medicines.

Also, complementary medicine isn't controlled as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. Sellers or people who practice complementary medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:

  • Require large up-front payments.
  • Promise quick results or miracle cures.
  • Warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits?

One benefit is that many people who practice complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the treatment, the person giving the treatment itself, and the condition.

In some cases, this type of medicine works as well as standard medicine. For example, research shows that St. John's wort works as well for depression as a common antidepressant and causes fewer side effects. Also, these treatments often cost less and have fewer side effects than standard treatment.

Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most complementary medicine looks at the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about complementary medicine:

  • What is complementary medicine?
  • What is the difference between complementary medicine, alternative medicine, and integrative medicine?
  • Should I use complementary medicine?

Alternative medical systems:

  • What is homeopathy?
  • What is naturopathy?
  • What is ayurveda?

Mind-body interventions:

  • What is yoga?
  • What are tai chi and qi gong?
  • What is meditation?

Biologically based therapies:

  • What is kava?
  • What is valerian?
  • What is ginkgo biloba?
  • What is St. John's wort?
  • What is saw palmetto?

Manipulative and body-based methods:

  • What is massage therapy?

Energy therapies:

  • What is acupuncture?
  • What is reiki?

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

An alternative medical system is a set of practices based on a philosophy different from Western biomedicine. Most of these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical system used in the United States.

  • Ayurveda
  • Chinese medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

These techniques develop the mind's ability to help the body to heal or keep itself well. Some of these techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, were in the past considered complementary medicine and are now a part of conventional medicine in the United States.

  • Aromatherapy
  • Autogenic training
  • Biofeedback
  • Guided imagery
  • Humor therapy
  • Hypnosis
  • Light therapy
  • Meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Prayer
  • Tai chi and qi gong
  • Yoga
Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

These therapies use substances found in nature to help treat illness or promote wellness. They include foods, vitamins, and both herbal and nonherbal dietary supplements.

  • Antioxidants
  • Beta-sitosterol plant extract
  • Butterbur extract
  • Capsaicin
  • Chamomile
  • Chelation therapy
  • Chromium
  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Ephedra
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin
  • Herbal and natural supplements
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Kava
  • Milk thistle
  • Probiotics
  • Rye grass pollen extract
  • SAM-e
  • Saw palmetto
  • St. John's wort
  • Tea tree oil
  • Valerian
Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

These therapies involve the movement or realignment of parts of the body.

  • Bodywork
  • Massage therapy
Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

There are two types of energy therapies, both of which involve the use of energy fields. Biofield therapies are used to affect energy fields in and around the human body. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies use electromagnetic fields to affect the body, such as those from magnets or electrical current.

  • Acupuncture
  • Healing touch
  • Magnetic field therapy
  • Reiki
  • Therapeutic touch
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) (U.S.)
Web Address:

National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements (U.S.)
Web Address:

  • Care at the End of Life
  • Chronic Pain
  • Healthy Eating
  • Making the Most of Your Appointment
  • Melatonin
  • Smart Decisions: Know Your Options
  • Stress Management

Other Works Consulted

  • Micozzi MS (2011). Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 4th ed., St. Louis: Saunders.

  • Pizzorno JE, Murray MT (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., St. Louis: Mosby.

By: Healthwise Staff Current as of: June 4, 2014
Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

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