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decision pointShould I use complementary medicine?

Your decision on whether to use complementary medicine will involve several issues, including the amount of research available on the treatment you are considering, the opinion of your medical doctor, and why you are considering complementary therapy. Consider the following when making your decision:

  • Although various cultures have used many forms of complementary medicine for hundreds or even thousands of years, there is limited current scientific evidence on their safety or effectiveness. You should make any decisions about using complementary medicine in consultation with your medical doctor.
  • People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term (chronic) health conditions or to enhance wellness efforts. However, if you are looking for a "cure-all," you will probably be disappointed. Have realistic expectations about the outcome of treatment with complementary medicine before you begin.
  • When you visit a practitioner of complementary medicine, be prepared to answer personal questions about yourself. You should also be comfortable with physical touch. Part of the philosophy of complementary therapy is to listen to and touch people in a healing way. While some people find great comfort in touch, others may find it uncomfortable.
  • Many insurance companies do not yet cover the costs of complementary therapies. You must evaluate whether a therapy is working for you and whether its benefits are worth the time and money.

What is complementary medicine?

Complementary medicine, or complementary therapy, is generally used to maintain or improve wellness and treat health problems. It is any health approach that is not a part of your medical doctor's conventional practice and standard clinical care. Therefore, what may be considered complementary or alternative in one culture may be considered conventional or standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but is unconventional in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry and psychology, but it may be considered alternative when used in the treatment of cancer.

Is research being done on complementary medicine?

Many complementary therapies have not yet been scientifically studied for safety or effectiveness. Traditional research techniques may not be effective or appropriate for studying certain complementary therapies, such as prayer or music therapy, whose very nature makes them difficult to evaluate.

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 complementary medical treatments. The center will develop guidelines to help you choose safe and appropriate complementary therapies.

What are the risks of complementary medicine?

The greatest risk of using complementary medicine is that you will not seek diagnosis or treatment from a practitioner of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine should enhance, or "complement," treatment from your medical doctor. Avoiding conventional treatment can mean missing important, even lifesaving, diagnosis and treatment.

There is also the potential for dangerous interactions between complementary medicine and conventional medicine. It is important that you consult your primary doctor about any complementary therapy you are considering. The FDA regulates many complementary medicines as "dietary supplements," but the potency of products may vary greatly between manufacturers.

Since there is generally less regulation of complementary medicine, you may risk becoming a victim of health fraud or quackery. Be wary of practitioners who require large payments up-front, promise quick and miraculous results, and warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits of complementary medicine?

One benefit of complementary medicine is in the holistic approach of many of its practitioners. Many of them take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background in order to get a better idea of your overall health. Most complementary medicine practitioners and many medical doctors use this "whole person" approach, which makes many people feel better about their practitioners, their treatments, and their conditions.

In some cases complementary therapies work as well as conventional therapies. For example, recent research shows St. John's wort can treat mild to moderate depression but also moderate to severe depression as effectively as a commonly prescribed antidepressant medication while causing fewer side effects.1

A person who seeks complementary medicine often feels a sense of empowerment from being more involved in maintaining his or her own health. And since most complementary medicine emphasizes the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better because they are working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from a specific condition.

If you need more information, see the topic Complementary Medicine.

Your choices are:

  • Add complementary medicine to your treatment or wellness plan.
  • Stick with traditional medical treatment only.

The decision whether to use complementary medicine takes into account your personal feelings and the medical facts.

Deciding about complementary medicine
Reasons to use complementary medicine Reasons not to use complementary medicine
  • You want a more personal, holistic approach to your health care.
  • Conventional treatment has not provided relief from your chronic condition.
  • In seeking out complementary therapy, you get a sense of empowerment from taking greater control of your health.
  • Complementary medicine offers the best option for your wellness efforts.

Are there other reasons you might want to use complementary medicine?

  • There is little scientific research on the safety and effectiveness of some complementary therapies.
  • Complementary medicine may have interactions with your conventional treatments.
  • Some complementary therapies are expensive, and many are not covered by insurance.
  • You are satisfied with the results of conventional treatments for your condition.

Are there other reasons you might not want to use complementary medicine?

These personal stories may help you make your decision.

Use this worksheet to help you make your decision. After completing it, you should have a better idea of how you feel about using complementary medicine. Discuss the worksheet with your doctor.

Circle the answer that best applies to you.

I am satisfied with the treatment I'm receiving from my primary doctor. Yes No Unsure
The wellness benefits of using complementary medicine appeal to me. Yes No Unsure
I am concerned about the relatively small amount of scientific research on complementary medicine. Yes No Unsure
I want to have greater control over my health care, and complementary therapies give me that opportunity. Yes No Unsure
The holistic approach to health care of many complementary therapies makes me feel better about getting treatment and about my health care in general. Yes No Unsure
My insurance does not yet cover most complementary therapies. Yes No Unsure
I am comfortable with physical contact with a practitioner of complementary medicine. Yes No Unsure
I am concerned about possible dangerous interactions between complementary medicine and the treatment I am already receiving from my primary doctor. Yes No Unsure

Use the following space to list any other important concerns you have about this decision.






What is your overall impression?

Your answers in the above worksheet are meant to give you a general idea of where you stand on this decision. You may have one overriding reason to use or not use complementary medicine.

Check the box below that represents your overall impression about your decision.

Leaning toward using complementary medicine


Leaning toward NOT using complementary medicine



  1. Szegedi A, et al. (2005). Acute treatment of moderate to severe depression with hypericum extract WS 5570 (St. John's wort): Randomised controlled double blind non-inferiority trial versus paroxetine. BMJ, 330(7490): 503–508.

Author Christopher Hess
Last Updated June 30, 2009

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 30, 2009
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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