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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The use of complementary and alternative medicine has grown over the past few decades. Many are safe, but some can be dangerous. Always talk to your regular doctor before starting any complementary or alternative medicine treatments for you or your family.

What Are Complementary and Alternative Medicines?

Complementary and alternative medicine are types of medicine and healing that differ from conventional medicine. Conventional medicine (also called mainstream, traditional, or western-style medicine) is the main type of medicine taught at most medical schools. It is scientifically tested and practiced by many doctors in hospitals and clinics. Common conventional medical treatments include medicine, surgery, and changes in diet or exercise patterns.

There are some differences between complementary and alternative medicines, but many people use the terms to mean the same thing. A slight difference is that “complementary” means it is used along with conventional medicine, while “alternative” means it’s sometimes used instead of conventional medicine.

What Are Some Types of Complementary and Alternative Medical Treatments?

There are many types of complementary and alternative medical treatments. Not all have been scientifically proven to be safe or to work.

Some types of complementary and alternative medicine can be grouped as:

Mind–body therapies

  • Meditation trains the mind to be quiet, calm, and focused.
  • Hypnosis puts someone into a trance-like state. This can help some people respond to a suggestion (for example, to stop smoking).
  • Biofeedback teaches people to change how the body responds to a situation (for example, to slow breathing when faced with stress).
  • Yoga uses a series of stretching and poses with rhythmic breathing.
  • Tai chi uses a slow dance-like set of movements.

Nutritional therapies

  • herbs such as chamomile
  • dietary supplements such as probiotics
  • vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C or calcium taken as a pill)
  • special diets such as a keto diet

Body-based therapies

  • Massage uses different pressures of touch.
  • Therapeutic touch uses gentle touch.
  • Reflexology puts pressure on certain areas of the feet and hands.
  • Acupuncture is the use of tiny needles to stimulate points on the body.
  • Chiropractic therapy uses spinal manipulation (pressing on different parts of the spine).
  • Reiki uses the hands near or lightly touching the body.

Whole medicine systems

  • Traditional Chinese medicine uses methods such as herbs, acupuncture, and tai chi.
  • Ayurvedic medicine uses mainly plant-based treatments and changes to diet, exercise, and lifestyle.
  • Homeopathic medicine uses very diluted forms of herbs, minerals, and other substances.
  • Naturopathic medicine uses a combination of conventional medical practices along with herbs, dietary supplements, homeopathy, massage, and other treatments.

Why Do People Use Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Many people feel that the best approach to health and wellness is to use a combination of conventional, complementary, and alternative medicine. This is called integrative medicine. They may see their regular doctor for a prescription for allergy medicine, for example, or a surgeon to set up surgery for an injury. They also might see a chiropractor for treatment for back pain or take an herbal or vitamin supplement.

Some people choose to try an alternative or complementary medicine if conventional medicine hasn’t helped or has too many side effects.

What Else Should I Know?

Ask your doctor before you use complementary or alternative medicine. They can help you find out if the treatment is safe and if it works. They also can make sure that any new treatments won’t cause problems with those you already use. Your regular doctor also can help you check that complementary and alternative medicine providers have the right training and licensing to make sure you get the best care.

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