What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?
Alternative Medicine refers to the practice of using natural or non-invasive treatments for illnesses that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine and used in place of conventional (Western Medicine) medicine.
Alternative medicine practices and beliefs are very diverse in their methodologies, which may incorporate and base themselves on traditional medicine, folk knowledge or spiritual belief.
The most widely known alternative medicine is homeopathy, which is the use of natural treatments including herbs, plants, minerals, and other such substances diluted as necessary. Alternative medicine practitioners also utilize other natural treatments such as acupressure, acupuncture, and physical therapy.
Nearly 38% of adults use complementary and alternative medicine in the pursuit of health and well-being. Because the field is always changing, providing a clear definition for complementary and alternative medicine is challenging, but generally speaking, complementary and alternative medicine involves a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not often considered to be a part of traditional conventional medicine (also known as Western Medicine).
Complementary Medicine is the combination of alternative medicine used with scientific-based medicine, with the belief that it increases the effectiveness (complements) the scientific-based medical treatment.
Integrative Medicine (also known as Integrated Medicine) is the combination of treatments from conventional medicine as well as Complimentary and Alternative medicine for which there has been some demonstrated quality of safety and effectiveness.
It's important to note that while the term "alternative medicine" is used by many public bodies in the US and UK, regulation and licensing of alternative medicine varies depending upon the country and/or state.
Many of the claims that are made about alternative medicine and its efficacy are controversial as the research into alternative medicine is often of poor quality and flawed. The safety of alternative medicine has also been called into question as some alternative treatments have been fatal.
It is of vital importance that everyone who is considering the usage of alternative medicine speak with their health care practitioner and read about alternative medicine before engaging in alternative medicine practices. Many alternative medicine techniques are contraindicated for people on prescription medications.
What Are The Types of Alternative Medicine?
The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) categorizes alternative medicines into several major groups, some of which overlap. While these categories aren't firmly defined, they're useful when discussing CAM practices.
Whole Medical Systems refers to many treatment practices working together based on one philosophy, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in the body. Examples of whole medical systems include: ancient healing systems from India and traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy utilizing massage, acupuncture and herbal remedies.
Naturopathy is an approach that focuses on non-invasive treatments to help the body heal itself using a variety of practices including massage, acupressure, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise, and lifestyle counseling.
Definition of Natural Products - this aspect of CAM includes a wide variety of herbal medicines (botanicals), vitamins, minerals, and other natural ingredients. Many of these natural products are sold over the counter as dietary supplements. Natural products and supplements may be taken as teas, oils, powders, tablets, capsules, or syrups.
Homeopathy stems from discoveries by an 18th century German physician named Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann experimented with natural substances as a cure for malaria. The concept was "like would cure like," also referred to as the Law of Similars. Hahnemann discovered that while a substance in large doses might cause specific symptoms, that same substance in small doses could also cure the same symptoms. Homeopathy works in harmony with the immune system rather than suppressing it.
Natural CAM products include probiotics, which are live bacteria similar to the bacteria lining the GI tract that may have beneficial effects. Probiotics can be found in some foods, such as yogurt or as dietary supplements.
Historical Uses of Natural Products - the usage of botanical medicines are some of the first attempts at improvement of the human conditions. The mummified effects of the "ice man" found in 1991 in the Italian Alps included medicinal herbs, and by the Middle ages, thousands of botanicals had been inventoried for their medicinal effects.
Current Usage of Natural Products - the growing CAM market has been growing steadily for the past decades. In 2007, a study determined that nearly 18% of American adults had used a non-vitamin/non-mineral natural product, most commonly, fish oil/Omega-3s.
Mind and Body Medicine:
Definition of Mind and Body Medicine - these techniques are used to strengthen communication between the mind and body using techniques such as guided imagery, deep breathing techniques, hypnotherapy, progressive relaxation, and tai chi. Alternative medicine practitioners believe that the mind and body systems must be in harmony for the body to stay healthy.
Types of Mind and Body Medicine include:
- Acupressure uses the fingers to apply gradual pressure to key healing points stimulating the body’s natural self-curative abilities. Acupressure therapy is most effective in the relief of stress-related ailments and for boosting the immune system. It is ideal for self-treatment.
- Acupuncture - acupuncture is a family of treatments that involve stimulation of specific areas of the body using a wide variety of techniques, like penetration of the skin with needles that are then manipulated by the hand or an electrical current.
- Meditation - meditation techniques use specific poses, focused attention, or an open attitude about distractions. Meditation is used to increase feelings of calm and well-being, improve mental balance, cope with illness or enhance health and well-being.
- Yoga - yoga is used for health purposes to combine physical poses, breathing techniques and meditation and relaxation.
Historical Usage of Mind and Body Medicine: the idea that treatment of the mind is important to healing the body dates back more than 2,000 years. Hippocrates himself noted that treatment of illness involved more than just conventional medicine - that the mind needed to be healed as well.
Current Usage of Mind and Body Medicine: usage of mind and body medicine ranks among the top ten complementary and alternative method techniques, especially deep-breathing exercises and yoga.
Energy Healing Therapy:
Energy Healing Therapy involves channeling healing energy through a practitioner into another's body to restore a normal energy balance, and promote health. Energy healing therapy has been used with a wide variety of medical problems and ailments, and is often used in conjunction with other alternative and conventional medical treatments. Energy medicine is divided into different types: "Hands On Energy Healing," "Hands Off Energy Healing" and "Distant Energy Healing."
Those who practice energy healing therapy use the invisible energy force that (some practitioners believe) flows through the body. When that energy flow is blocked or unbalanced the body can become sick. Various traditions call this energy by different names, the most widely known are: chi, prana, or life force. Energy therapies include reiki, magnet therapy, qi gong, and therapeutic touch.
Manipulative and Body-Based Practices:
Definition of Manipulative and Body-Based Practices: manipulative and body-based practices focus largely on the structures and the systems of the human body, which include the bones and joints, soft tissues, circulatory and lymphatic systems of the body. Two common therapies are:
- Massage Therapy - in this type of manipulative and body-based therapy, trained massage therapists rub, press, and manipulate the muscles and soft tissues, to promote pain reduction, rehabilitate an injury, reduce stress, increase relaxation, decrease anxiety and depression, and aid in overall well-being.
- Spinal Manipulation - this type of body-based therapy is practiced primarily by chiropractors and involves the manipulation of the spine, using hands (or a device) to apply a controlled force to a join in the spine. The goal is pain reduction and improved physical function.
History of Mind and Body Medicine: Spinal manipulation has been around since the ancient Greeks, and was added to chiropractic medicine in the late 19th century.
Current Use of Mind and Body Medicine: chiropractic massage and manipulation is among the top ten of CAM therapies in both children and adults.
Is It Safe To Use CAM Products and Practices?
As is the case with any type of medical treatment, it's important to consider safety before starting any type of Complementary and Alternative Medicine treatments. The safety of each CAM treatment is dependent upon the type of treatment.
Natural herbal remedies are readily available at almost all pharmacies and other stores to be sold to consumers, but it should be noted that most of these herbal medicines and botanicals are not well-researched. This is, in part, because the FDA does not have to regulate the manufacture of these supplements, nor does the manufacturer have to demonstrate the effectiveness of the supplement.
The primary concerns for dietary supplements are:
Drug Interactions - some herbal supplements can alter the efficacy of prescribed medications.
Product Contamination - some of the supplements sold over the counter have been found to contain hidden prescription drugs or other compounds - particularly supplements that are marketed toward weight loss and sexual health.
This is why it's vital to disclose all vitamins and supplements that you talk to your doctor before you are prescribed any new medications.
Is Alternative Medicine Safe and Regulated?
Alternative medicine practitioners are trained and licensed professionals and typically go through three or four years of training. Most naturopathic colleges have programs specifically in homeopathy. Many homeopathic practitioners are also medical doctors (MD), chiropractors, doctors of osteopathy (DO), or naturopaths (ND). When looking for an alternative medicine practitioner it is wise to ask if the practitioner is certified before proceeding with a consultation.
In 1983 the U.S. Congress passed a law declaring that homeopathic remedies were to be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the same manner as non-prescription (or over-the-counter) drugs. The official guidelines for homeopathic medicines can be found in the guide Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States.
What to Expect During an Alternative Medicine Consultation:
Your first consultation will last roughly one to two hours on average. Alternative medicine practitioners treat the patient and not the illness, so they will interview you at length, asking questions about your health, habits, and history. They will be looking for behavior symptoms in addition to physical symptoms. Depending on your reason for seeking treatment, a physical examination may be included and/or lab work ordered.
Questions you should consider asking the practitioner:
- Are you a licensed practitioner in alternative medicine?
- Can you provide examples of treatments you’ve provided to other patients, and how the recovery process went?
- How long will the initial consultation take?
- Why is it necessary to spend so much time asking me about unrelated aspects of my habits and health?
- What are the costs of the initial consultation and the subsequent treatment plan?
- How long will I need to continue the natural treatment?
- How will I know if the natural treatment is working?
- Will there be side effects or worsening of symptoms from the natural treatment?
- How many follow up sessions do you anticipate I will need to treat my particular symptoms?
- Is my treatment covered by insurance? Do you accept my insurance?
Tips For Using Complementary and Alternative Medicine:
Most insurance companies will not cover homeopathic treatments; however, some insurance companies may offer discounts on certain services, such as acupuncture or massage therapy using acupressure. You should contact your insurance provider with questions about coverage.
Some flexible spending accounts (FSA) may be used for alternative therapies that aren’t covered by insurance. You should check with the administrator of your FSA account.
Be an informed consumer - find out the scientific evidence behind every medication and CAM you're considering.
Understand that, like Western Medicine, everyone responds to therapies in a different way. The way that you will react to CAM may be different than the way others react and depends greatly on overall state of health, the belief system, and how the therapy is used.
Remember: natural doesn't always = safe.
Find out about the credentials of the person who is administering any CAM - where they studied, for how long.
Be aware of medication safety - some over-the-counter medications can react badly to others. Learn what these interactions are and if you should be concerned by them.
Tell your doctor or other health care provider about any and all CAM you use.
Additional Alternative Medicine Resources:
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has the goal of defining the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine through rigorous scientific investigation in order to improve health and health care.
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians has the goal of transforming the healthcare system from a disease management system to a comprehensive health program incorporating principles of naturopathic medicine.
ABC Homeopathy is an online resource for information about homeopathy and natural remedies.
Office of Dietary Supplements - mission of ODS is to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, stimulating and supporting research, disseminating research results, and educating the public to foster an enhanced quality of life and health for the U.S. population.
FDA - US Government's Food and Drug Administration website has a wealth of information about dietary supplements and complementary medicine.