What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Large selection of drugs and natural remedies used in complementary medicine, view from above
Alternative and complementary medicine. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a broad term that covers a range of healing therapies, such as:

One of the most widely accepted definitions of complementary and alternative medicine comes from David Eisenberg, MD, director of Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Harvard University:

"Complementary and alternative medicine are those practices explicitly used for medical intervention, health promotion, or disease prevention which are not routinely taught at American medical schools, nor routinely underwritten by third-party payers within the existing United States health care system."

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines complementary and alternative medicine in a similar way, as "a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine."

These definitions of complementary and alternative medicine don't address how the underlying philosophy of these approaches are different from conventional medicine.

Generally, complementary and alternative therapies follow these basic principles:

  • Complementary and alternative therapies are based on the body’s innate ability to heal itself.
  • Natural methods first. Complementary and alternative medicine do not rely on prescription drugs, surgery, and other conventional medical procedures. However, they don't discount the benefits that these procedures can provide when necessary.
  • An individualized, comprehensive approach. Complementary and alternative medicine looks at the underlying cause of the problem and addresses the whole person (mind, body, emotions, spirit) without just masking the symptoms.
  • The goal is to create optimum health. Complementary and alternative medicine focus on preventing disease and helping someone feel the best they can as much as treating disease.

Other terms for complementary and alternative medicine are: alternative medicine, CAM, integrative medicine, holistic medicine, holistic medicine, complementary medicine, and natural medicine.


Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. The Burton Goldberg Group. Tiburon: Future Medical Publishing, 1997.

Eisenberg DM et al. "Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997: results of a follow-up national survey". JAMA. 280.18 (1998):1569-75.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "What is complementary and alternative medicine?" 2002 NCCAM 3 August 2006 <http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/>.

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.