Alternative medicine is any practice that is put forward as having the healing effects of medicine, but does not originate from evidence gathered using the scientific method is not part of biomedicine or is contradicted by scientific evidence or established science. It consists of a wide variety of health care practices, products and therapies, ranging from being biologically plausible but not well tested, to being directly contradicted by evidence and science, or even harmful or toxic. Examples include new and traditional medicine practices such as homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, energy medicine, various forms of acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Sekkotsu, and Christian faith healing.
Complementary medicine is alternative medicine used together with conventional medical treatment, in a belief not confirmed using the scientific method that it “complements” (improves the efficacy of) the treatment. CAM is the abbreviation for complementary and alternative medicine. Integrative medicine (or integrative health) is the combination of the practices and methods of alternative medicine with conventional medicine.
Complementary and alternative medicine therapies fall into five major categories, or domains:
Alternative Medical Systems
Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical approach used in the United States. Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine. Examples of systems that have developed in non-Western cultures include traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.
Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some techniques that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream (for example, patient support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy). Other mind-body techniques are still considered CAM, including meditation, prayer, mental healing, and therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music, or dance.
Biologically Based Therapies
Biologically based therapies in CAM use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some examples include dietary supplements, herbal products, and the use of other so-called natural but as yet scientifically unproven therapies (for example, using shark cartilage to treat cancer).
Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types:
- Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or manipulating the body by placing the hands in, or through, these fields. Examples include qi gong, Reiki, and Therapeutic Touch.
- Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating-current or direct-current fields.
Magnetic Field Therapy
What it is: Magnets are thought by some to have healing abilities. Centuries ago, people believed magnets could treat everything from gout to baldness. Today, they’re worn inside bracelets, shoes, and other accessories.
Alternative medicine practices are used instead of standard medical treatments. Alternative medicine is distinct from complementary medicine which is meant to accompany, not to replace, standard medical practices. Alternative medical practices are generally not recognized by the medical community as standard or conventional medical approaches.
Manipulative and Body-Based Methods
Manipulative and body-based methods in CAM are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage. Alternative medicine includes dietary supplements, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, massage therapy, magnet therapy, and spiritual healing.
The field of complementary and alternative medicine is known as CAM.
CAM tries to prevent and treat different conditions with techniques such as:
- Healing touch
- Herbal medicines
Many CAM therapies have been around for centuries.
There is research to show that some CAM techniques can help with problems like pain and nausea. But other alternative therapies don’t have enough medical evidence to determine if they are effective. Before you try CAM, read this overview. Learn which treatments might actually help you feel better — and which ones may not be worth the money.
What it is: This traditional Chinese medicine technique uses thin needles to stimulate various points around the body. Each point corresponds to a specific condition. The aim of acupuncture is to restore a balance of energy and good health to the body.
The evidence: More study needs to be done into the benefits of acupuncture. However, evidence suggests that acupuncture holds promise for relieving vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. It also may help ease some chronic pain conditions, including:
What it is: Chiropractors specialize in adjustments — manipulating the spine to put the body into better alignment. People typically visit the chiropractor when they have pain in their lower back, shoulders, and neck. But many chiropractors claim adjustments can also improve overall health.
Studies have also found the technique effective for:
But there isn’t much data on the effectiveness of chiropractic medicine for some general medical conditions. For example, there’s no solid evidence that it can treat asthma, high blood pressure, menstrual pain, or fibromyalgia.
The treatments are those that are not part of the science-based healthcare system, and are not clearly backed by scientific evidence. Despite significant expenditures on testing alternative medicine, including $2.5 billion spent by the United States government, almost none have shown any effectiveness greater than that of false treatments (placebo), and alternative medicine has been criticized by prominent figures in science and medicine as being quackery, nonsense, fraudulent, or unethical.
Types Of Alternative medicine
Alternative medicine consists of a wide range of health care practices, products, and therapies. The shared feature is a claim to heal that is not based on the scientific method. Alternative medicine practices are diverse in their foundations and methodologies. Alternative medicine practices may be classified by their cultural origins or by the types of beliefs upon which they are based. Methods may incorporate or base themselves on traditional medicinal practices of a particular culture, folk knowledge, supersition, spiritual beliefs, belief in supernatural energies (antiscience), pseudoscience, errors in reasoning, propaganda, fraud, new or different concepts of health and disease, and any bases other than being proven by scientific methods. Different cultures may have their own unique traditional or belief based practices developed recently or over thousands of years, and specific practices or entire systems of practices.
Unscientific belief systems
Alternative medical systems can be based on common belief systems that are not consistent with facts of science, such as in naturopathy or homeopathy.
Homeopathy is a system developed in a belief that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people. It was developed before knowledge of atoms and molecules, and of basic chemistry, which shows that repeated dilution as practiced in homeopathy produces only water and that homeopathy is scientifically implausible. Homeopathy is considered quackery in the medical community.
Naturopathic medicine is based on a belief that the body heals itself using a supernatural vital energy that guides bodily processes, a view in conflict with the paradigm of evidence-based medicine. Many naturopaths have opposed vaccination, and “scientific evidence does not support claims that naturopathic medicine can cure cancer or any other disease”.
Traditional ethnic systems
Alternative medical systems may be based on traditional medicine practices, such as traditional Chinese medicine or practices of other cultures around the world
Holistic health and mind body medicine
Mind-body medicine takes a holistic approach to health that explores the interconnection between the mind, body, and spirit. It works under the premise that the mind can affect “bodily functions and symptoms”. Mind body medicines includes healing claims made in yoga, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, progressive relaxation, qi gong, and tai chi.
Yoga, a method of traditional stretches, exercises, and meditations in Hinduism, may also be classified as an energy medicine insofar as its healing effects are believed to be due to a healing “life energy” that is absorbed into the body through the breath, and is thereby believed to treat a wide variety of illnesses and complaints
Substance based practices use substances found in nature such as herbs, foods, non-vitamin supplements and megavitamins, animal and fungal products, and minerals, including use of these products in traditional medical practices that may also incorporate other methods. Examples include healing claims for nonvitamin supplements, fish oil, Omega-3 fatty acid, glucosamine, echinacea, flaxseed oil, and ginseng.
Herbal medicine, or phytotherapy, includes not just the use of plant products, but may also include the use of animal and mineral products. It is among the most commercially successful branches of alternative medicine, and includes the tablets, powders and elixirs that are sold as “nutritional supplements”. Only a very small percentage of these have been shown to have any efficacy, and there is little regulation as to standards and safety of their contents. This may include use of known toxic substances, such as use of the poison lead in traditional Chinese medicine.
A chiropractor adjusting the spine manipulative and body-based practices feature the manipulation or movement of body parts, such as is done in bodywork and chiropractic manipulation. Osteopathic manipulative medicine, also known as osteopathic manipulative treatment, is a core set of techniques of osteopathy and osteopathic medicine distinguishing these fields from mainstream medicine.
Religion, faith healing, and prayer
Religion based healing practices, such as use of prayer and the laying of hands in Christian faith healing, and shamanism, rely on belief in divine or spiritual intervention for healing.
Shamanism is a practice of many cultures around the world, in which a practitioner reaches altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world or channel supernatural energies in the belief they can heal.
Choosing a CAM practitioner
- If you are seeking a CAM practitioner, speak with your primary health care provider(s) or someone you believe to be knowledgeable about CAM regarding the therapy in which you are interested. Ask if they have a recommendation for the type of CAM practitioner you are seeking.
- Make a list of CAM practitioners and gather information about each before making your first visit. Ask basic questions about their credentials and practice. Where did they receive their training? What licenses or certifications do they have? How much will the treatment cost?