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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.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry, but it may not be standard if used to treat cancer.

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 Alternative Medicine 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.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 23, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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