The Difference Between Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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Although the terms "complementary medicine" and "alternative medicine" are often used interchangeably, it's important to distinguish between these two types of approaches to medical care.

Complementary medicine generally refers to non-mainstream therapies and practices used along with conventional medicine in the treatment of a specific condition or health issue. On the other hand, alternative medicine refers to non-mainstream therapies and practices used in place of conventional medicine.

Despite this distinction, it's rare for patients to forgo conventional medicine and pursue treatment solely with alternative medicine. Indeed, many treatments used by alternative medicine practitioners are essentially used as complementary therapies. To that end, the majority of alternative medicine practitioners aim to develop a working relationship with a client's primary care physician, with the client's health as their shared goal.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine vs. Integrative Medicine

In recent decades, a medical approach known as integrative medicine has become more widely practiced in the U.S. and other countries. Integrative medicine involves combining treatments from conventional medicine with forms of complementary and alternative medicine whose use is supported by high-quality evidence for their safety and effectiveness.

As the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) points out, scientists are presently looking at the possible benefits of integrative medicine in a range of circumstances, such as pain management for military personnel and relief of symptoms in cancer patients.

Why Do People Use Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

More than 30 percent of U.S. adults and about 12 percent of children use complementary and alternative medicine, according to the NCCIH.

For a report published in the Ochsner Journal in 2012, researchers analyzed 16 previously published studies on the use of complementary and alternative medicine and found that back pain, depression, insomnia, headaches, migraines, and stomach illnesses were among the conditions most commonly treated by these approaches.

In some cases, complementary and alternative therapies are used to treat the side effects associated with conventional medical treatments. For example, there's some evidence that therapies such as acupuncture and massage therapy may be helpful to people undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy in treatment of cancer.

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

For the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (or NHIS, a report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics), investigators determined the most commonly used forms of complementary and alternative medicine in the U.S. Here's a look at some of their findings:

1) Natural Products

According to NHIS, natural products make up the most widely used form of complementary and alternative medicine among Americans. In fact, the survey found that 17.7 percent of U.S. adults had used a dietary supplement (other than vitamins and minerals) in the past year. These products may include herbal remedies, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and other types of nutritional supplements.

2) Movement-Based Therapies

Movement-based mind-body techniques such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong are another frequently practiced form of complementary and alternative medicine. Some research suggests that such techniques may aid in the treatment of pain-causing conditions like arthritis.

3) Chiropractic or Osteopathic Manipulation

Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation was used by 8.4 percent of NHIS respondents. Both treatments have been found to alleviate conditions such as back pain.

4) Meditation

Practiced by 8 percent of NHIS respondents, meditation has been found to aid in the management of issues like insomnia and anxiety in some scientific research.

5) Massage

Often used to reduce stress, massage shows promise in the treatment of conditions like depression and high blood pressure.

You can learn about types of massage and their potential health benefits here.

Using Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Including complementary and alternative medicine in your health care may have a number of benefits. For help in achieving optimal health, make sure to talk to all of your doctors and practitioners about each of the different types of treatments you use.


Bishop FL1, Yardley L, Lewith GT. "Why consumers maintain complementary and alternative medicine use: a qualitative study." J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Feb;16(2):175-82.

Frass M, Strassl RP, Friehs H, Müllner M, Kundi M, Kaye AD. "Use and acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine among the general population and medical personnel: a systematic review." Ochsner J. 2012 Spring;12(1):45-56.

Garcia MK1, McQuade J, Haddad R, Patel S, Lee R, Yang P, Palmer JL, Cohen L. "Systematic review of acupuncture in cancer care: a synthesis of the evidence." J Clin Oncol. 2013 Mar 1;31(7):952-60.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. "What Is Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Health?" NCCIH Pub No.: D347. March 2015.

National Institutes of Health. "Complementary and Integrative Medicine." May 2014.

Russell NC1, Sumler SS, Beinhorn CM, Frenkel MA. "Role of massage therapy in cancer care." J Altern Complement Med. 2008 Mar;14(2):209-14.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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