What Does “Alternative” Mean?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) utilizes a wide array of therapies outside of conventional medicine. While there have been scientific studies done for some remedies, in large part questions remain about the majority of the therapies designed to treat diseases or medical conditions. Alternative treatments include the use of herbs, massage, medical philosophy substances, and techniques from other cultures, such as Hindu and Chinese medicine, massage, yoga, and meditation.

Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medicine. Integrative medicine joins both conventional medicine and CAM therapies, which have scientific evidence of usefulness and safety. An example of complementary medicine is using aromatherapy to help lessen a patient's distress after surgery. An example of alternative therapy is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. According to the National Institute of Health there are five “domains” of complementary and alternative medicine.

Alternative Medical Systems and Practitioners

Alternative medical systems are based upon theory and practice. Many of these systems were begun thousands of years before the onset of medical practice. Examples of alternative medicine that developed in Western cultures include homeopathic and naturopathic medicine, which are holistic healing philosophies and use certain substances to treat a variety of ills. Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda were developed in non-Western cultures.

But who are the alternative practitioners? While a number of conventional physicians have been investigating the positive properties of alternative medicine, and recommending them to their patients, it's still a slow go because Western medicine is just beginning to seriously try to incorporate and benefit from the healing wisdom of ancient therapeutics. In the main, the practitioners of the various remedies in alternative medicine are not M.D.s; however, they are usually members of industry associations, which lay down specific guidelines and requirements that their members consent to follow. A consumer seeking an alternative treatment for a problem would be wise to use practitioners who are so allied.


The National Institute of Health reports that mind-body interventions constitute a major portion of the overall use of CAM by the public. In 2002, five relaxation techniques and imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis, taken together, were used by more than 30 percent of the adult U.S. population. Prayer was used by more than 50 percent of the population.

Biologically Based Remedies

Biologically based remedies use materials found in nature, such as herbs and food. For example, it is said that the Five Flower Remedy from Bach Flower Essences gives quick relief from acute anxiety, kava kava, and St. John's wort have calming properties to placate anxiety and stress, certain oils when used in baths, massaged on the body, or diffused by sprays in your home act as relaxants or mild stimulants.

Mind-Body Medicine and Body-Centered Therapies

Mind-body medicine uses techniques to try to influence the mind's ability to influence bodily function and symptoms by using such methods as meditation, prayer, mental healing, and dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other botanicals). It may be that the brain and central nervous system influence immune, endocrine, and autonomic functioning, which is known to have an impact on health. There is ample evidence that mind-body interventions have positive effects on psychological functioning and quality of life, and may be helpful for patients coping with chronic illness.

Body-centered therapies include skilled use of hands, as in palpitation, chiropractic, which manipulates the spine, or osteopathic manipulation and massage. There are numerous types of massage including Swedish, shiatsu, and sports massage; each with its own theory on healing and soothing the body.

Energy Therapies

Energy therapies comprise the use of energy fields. There are two types: The first is biofield therapies, which apply pressure and/or manipulation to the body by running the hands in, or through, these fields. Examples include Reiki, therapeutic touch, qi gong. It has yet to be determined if these fields exist. The second type is bioelectro-magnetic-based therapies that make use of pulsed fields, magnetic fields, and alternating-current or direct-current fields. These are invisible forces that surround all electrical apparatus. These therapies must be further studied to arrive at an understanding of if and how they work on the human mind and body.

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