Complementary vs. Alternative Medicine: What's the Difference?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on April 29, 2023
3 min read

Many people take “complementary medicine” and “alternative medicine” to mean the same thing. And, although they are often grouped together under the umbrella of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), they’re actually different.

Both terms refer to treatments, like herbs or acupuncture that are out of the medical mainstream. But complementary medicine is when these therapies are used along with traditional Western medicine. Alternative medicine is when these approaches are used instead of traditional medicine.

Examples of non-mainstream medicine include yoga, chiropractic medicine, meditation, and massage therapy.

Few people use alternative medicine, and experts recommend against it. But more and more traditional doctors are accepting complementary medicine. In many cases, the two health systems actually overlap. For instance, many traditional medical doctors also practice acupuncture. And many major medical centers offer complementary approaches. Some of them are even covered by insurance.

In theory, anyone. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick or healthy. Every person will respond differently to each product or practice. It’s also important to know that some complementary approaches have been studied more than others.

For example, research shows that acupuncture may be helpful in fighting chronic pain, including that of the lower back and neck. It’s also been proven effective in treating pain from arthritis and different types of headaches.

Yoga may help with pain, too. It can also reduce depression and anxiety, as well as blood pressure and heart rate.

Some complementary therapies like acupuncture can help with fatigue, nausea, and other side effects of cancer treatment.

Yes. That’s the case for all types of medicine, traditional Western included. But alternative medicine can be very dangerous if it’s used in place of traditional treatments. It can even be life-threatening. That’s partly because you’re not getting proven treatments for your condition.

But many forms of complementary medicine -- like meditation -- don’t have many side effects and can be used safely.

Some herbs, supplements, and vitamins also have potential side effects These substances aren’t regulated by the government in the same way that drugs are. And, although many claim to be “natural,” this doesn’t always mean they’re safe. Ingredients, dosing, and manufacturing processes can vary widely from product to product.

Here are some specific dangers linked with natural products:

  • St. John’s Wort. This herb is used to treat depression. But it can reduce how effective some drugs are. Among these are certain cancer medications, immunosuppressants, and antiretrovirals.
  • Kava Kava. Some people use this herb to ease anxiety. But it may cause liver damage.
  • Vitamin C. If you take this in high doses, it could affect how well chemotherapy and radiation work in treating cancer.
  • Herbal Products Used in Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine. Some of these may contain heavy metals, like lead or arsenic.
  • Dietary Supplements. These can interfere with different cancer treatments. For instance, some of them might cause your skin to become sensitive if you take them while getting radiation. This is one reason why oncologists usually tell you to avoid taking them if you’re undergoing treatment.
  • Chiropractic Treatment. In very rare cases where this natural therapy has been used on the spine, it’s ended in a stroke. More common side effects, like headaches, are mild and don’t last long.

Always talk to your doctor before making a decision. They’ll help you to make the best choice for you. And they may be able to direct you to a certified and licensed practitioner. Your risk of complications is lower if you have a provider who has the required training and experience.

You should also tell both your doctor and complementary medical provider what mainstream treatments you’re getting. This’ll help you get the best of both worlds.