What’s the Difference Between Complementary and Alternative Medicine?


So many terms are used to describe non-traditional medicine, but what do they all mean?  There is scientific evidence to support traditional “Western” therapies, but what about the so-called “alternative” medicines? Nearly 40 percent of adults report using CAM, so it’s important to understand this field.


What’s the Difference Between Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Both terms are often combined, yet they are distinctly different.  Complementary medicine (CAM) refers to non-traditional treatment like acupuncture working in conjunction with traditional medicine like chemotherapy. Alternative medicine refers to a total substitution of alternative treatment for traditional therapy, such as dietary changes instead of chemotherapy.


What is integrative medicine?

This third term sometimes tossed into the mix refers to both complementary and alternative medicine, as it draws from both and combines with traditional Western medicine. For instance, a cancer patient may adapt dietary changes, receive chemotherapy, and undergo acupuncture to relieve side effects such as nausea.


Who uses CAM?

Data from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) revealed that women, people between the ages of 40 and 60, and people with higher levels of education tend to use CAM.


What are the most popular examples of CAM?

A few forms have been increasing in popularity as of late including yoga, meditation, massage therapy, and acupuncture.


What are the different types of CAM?

The NCCAM has identified five categories of complementary and alternative therapy.  The first category is ‘mind-body medicine’; medicine that focuses on mental health and emotional status and their effects on physical health.  Some examples would be music therapy and meditation.


Chinese medicine as CAM?

Chinese medicine and similar Western approaches like homeopathy and naturopathy are categorized as ‘whole medical systems.’  This means their medical theory and practice go back thousands of years.


Chiropractic and osteopathy as CAM?

These practices are categorized as ‘manipulative and body-based practices,’ as they rely on handling the body to improve precise symptoms and overall health.


Qi gong and Reiki as CAM?

These forms of CAM are categorized as ‘energy medicine,’ meaning they rely on energy fields that are thought to surround the body as well as bioelectromagnetic -based therapies that rely on magnetic fields.


Herbal remedies and dietary supplements as CAM?

These forms of CAM are categorized as ‘biologically based practices,’ as they focus on herbs, vitamins, and nutrients to heal.


Does CAM work?

Most conventional doctors are hesitant to recommend CAM, as they are trained in conventional medicine, which relies on medicines demonstrated through research and testing to be safe and effective.  Some scientific evidence exists for some forms of CAM, but for most research is still needed.  Doctors do seem to be embracing CAM more and accepting them as integrative medicine.


Why is there little research on CAM?

Large-scale and controlled medical studies cost a lot of money, and fewer resources are available for CAM trials.  Wealthy companies that manufacture medicine often fund trials for traditional medicine.


The takeaway

Your doctor may hesitate to suggest CAM as a course of treatment, but talk with them about the risks and benefits of any therapy you are considering.  With CAM therapies on the rise, they may suggest an integrative approach to treatment.


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