What is complementary and alternative therapy?

Complementary and Alternative Therapy

Complementary medicine

Complementary medicine is a nonstandard therapy that some people use in addition to their doctor's standard care. (The word "complementary" means "in addition to.") It includes mind and body practices like acupuncture, natural health products like dietary supplements, and alternative health approaches like traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy.

What are the types of complementary medicine?

Complementary medicine includes a wide range of therapies that some people use along with their standard medical care. Here are some common types.

  • Bodywork. This includes massage therapy, reflexology, and spinal manipulation (like chiropractic therapy).
  • Energy therapies. These include reiki, healing touch, and therapeutic touch.
  • Mind and body practices. These include guided imagery, hypnosis, meditation, music therapy, relaxation techniques, tai chi, and yoga.
  • Natural health products. These include supplements, plant products (like herbs and spices), probiotics, and vitamins. They also include special foods or diets.

Ayurveda, homeopathy, naturopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine also have practices that some people use along with their standard medical care. One example is acupuncture, which comes from traditional Chinese medicine.

How well does complementary medicine work?

Many people get help from complementary medicine. Some research suggests that there are benefits of certain therapies. For example, acupuncture may help with pain. Mindfulness meditation can help with sleep problems, and tai chi may help with balance.

How can you use complementary medicine safely?

  • Tell your doctor if you use or want to use this type of treatment.
  • Some of these therapies—such as acupuncture, massage therapy, or yoga—are very safe when people who are healthy go to a well-trained professional. Choose this person just like you would choose a doctor.

Know the risks

  • Don't use these therapies in place of standard care. You may miss important treatment that could save your life.
  • Use these treatments wisely. Natural health products like dietary supplements and herbs aren't regulated the way medicines are. This means the label may not be accurate. And they may cause side effects. Or they can interact with medicines that you take.
  • Consider the cost. Your insurance may not cover this type of treatment.

How are complementary therapies used in cancer treatment?

Some people use complementary therapies along with medical treatment. They may help relieve the symptoms and stress of cancer or the side effects of cancer treatment. Therapies that may be helpful include:

  • Acupuncture to relieve pain and other symptoms.
  • Meditation or yoga to relieve stress.
  • Massage and biofeedback to reduce pain and tension.
  • Breathing exercises to help you relax.

Talk with your doctor about any of these options you would like to try. And let your doctor know if you are already using any complementary therapies. They are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment. But they may help you feel better and cope better with treatment.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.