CAM Confusion: What is complementary and alternative medicine?

You may have seen the words “complementary medicine” or “alternative medicine.” Lately “integrative medicine” has also become popular. But what do these words really mean and how to they affect your healthcare treatment options?


According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, more than 30% of adults and 12% of children in the U.S. use non-traditional or non-conventional Western medical treatment. Sometimes these treatments are called “complementary” or “alternative.” These are actually two different types of treatments: Complementary medicine is used along with conventional medicine, while alternative medicine is that used in place of conventional medicine. Most people using alternative treatments still rely on some form conventional medicine. “Integrative medicine” approaches try to incorporate complementary medicine into mainstream health care.

So what are some examples of complementary and alternative medicine? Typically these are either some form of natural product, or a type of mind-body practice. Natural products include herbs, vitamins and minerals, probiotics, or other dietary supplements. Mind-body practices range anywhere from deep breathing, meditation, yoga, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, massage therapy, tai chi, and a host of others.


Complementary and alternative medicines have a bad reputation because of the outrageous (and often false) claims made by some as to the efficacy of such treatments.  The internet is full of websites promising to cure cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses with a magic pill (or workout DVD, or elixir, etc.).

The thing to remember about complementary and alternative treatments is that they are not always regulated and/or proven safe. The National Cancer Institute reminds patients that, in particular when dealing with supplements, “natural” does not equate to “safe.” Supplements, for example, are not regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration before they are sold to consumers. If you are thinking about using a supplement, always read labels carefully, do your research, and discuss with your doctor and/or pharmacist.


Some forms of treatment, including mind-body therapies, could interfere with a patient’s treatment and could be harmful. Always talk to your healthcare provider before embarking on a complementary or alternative treatment. Remember: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

If you are interested in this topic, be sure to come to our BYOL Lunch & Learn today, January 19, from noon-1pm in COM 211. We’ll be talking about how to find health information online and how to evaluate health websites, including those mentioned above (emu oil, anyone?).

For more information on complementary, alternative, and integrative medicines, check out the following resources, or stop by to see one of our librarians. We can point you to the most reliable resources.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

National Cancer Institute

Office of Dietary Supplements 



One thought on “CAM Confusion: What is complementary and alternative medicine?

  1. I will only go for alternative medicine if conventional ones can’t help me anymore. But, as long as the mainstream ones are still working for me, it’s a wiser choice to stick with them.


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