What is complementary medicine?
The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment.
Examples of complementary medicine include:
- Alternative health approaches such as traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
- Mind and body practices like acupuncture, massage therapy, and tai chi.
- Natural products like herbs, dietary supplements, and probiotics.
Is research being done on it?
Some complementary practices have been studied and tested. But most haven't been studied with well-designed trials. That means there are still many questions about these practices. We often don't have good evidence from science about whether they are safe, when they should be used, and how well they work.
In the U.S., the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health was formed within the National Institutes of Health to test the safety and effectiveness of these treatments. The center has guidelines to help you choose safe treatments that are right for you.
Should you use complementary medicine?
People often use complementary practices along with care from their medical doctor to deal with chronic health problems, treat symptoms, or stay healthy.
Find out about the safety of any complementary product or practice you want to try. Most mind and body practices—such as acupuncture, meditation, and yoga—are very safe when used by healthy people with a well-trained professional. Choose an instructor or practitioner as carefully as you would choose a doctor.
Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.
Some of these treatments may be covered by your health insurance. But check to see what your plan covers.
What are the risks?
The greatest risk is that you may use these treatments instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.
Some natural products may be safe when you take them on their own. But they may not be safe if you have other medical problems. And they could be dangerous when they are combined with another medicine you take. To be safe, always check with your doctor before you use any new natural products or supplements.
Natural products can vary widely in how strong they are. And they may also contain harmful things not listed on the label. Your doctor or practitioner may be able to recommend a brand you can trust.
Also, complementary medicine isn't controlled as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. Sellers or people who practice complementary medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:
- Require large up-front payments.
- Promise quick results or miracle cures.
- Warn you not to trust your doctor.
What are the benefits?
One benefit is that many people who practice complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the treatment, the person giving the treatment itself, and the condition.
In some cases, this type of medicine works as well as standard medicine. Also, these treatments may cost less and have fewer side effects than standard treatment.
Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most complementary medicine looks at the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.
Alternative Health Approaches
Alternative health approaches are a set of practices based on a philosophy different from Western biomedicine. Most of these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical system used in the United States.
Mind and Body Practices
These practices develop the mind's ability to help the body to heal or keep itself well. Some of them, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, used to be considered complementary medicine. But now they are a part of conventional medicine in the United States.
Natural products are substances found in nature that are used to help treat illness or promote wellness. They include foods, vitamins, and both herbal and nonherbal dietary supplements.
- Beta-sitosterol plant extract
- Chelation therapy
- Coenzyme Q10
- Ginkgo biloba
- Glucosamine and chondroitin
- Herbal and natural supplements
- Milk thistle
- Rye grass pollen extract
- Saw palmetto
- St. John's wort
- Tea tree oil
Other Works Consulted
- Micozzi MS (2011). Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 4th ed., St. Louis: Saunders.
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2014). Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: What's in a name? National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam.
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2014). Safe use of complementary health products and practices. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/safety.
- Pizzorno JE, Murray MT (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., St. Louis: Mosby.
Current as of: March 17, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine