Covers benefits and risks of complementary and alternative medicine. Provides links to various therapies, including homeopathy, yoga, acupuncture, and herbal supplements. Also includes links to tools to help you decide if complementary medicine is right for you.
What is complementary medicine?
"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:
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:
Is research being done on it?
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative
Medicine (NCCAM), National Institutes of Health
Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of
6100 Executive Blvd., Room 3B01, MSC 7517
Bethesda, MD 20892-7517
The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) supports research and
disseminates research results in the area of dietary supplements. The ODS also
provides advice to other federal agencies regarding research results related to
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.