What is complementary medicine?
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 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about complementary medicine:
Alternative health approaches:
Mind and body practices: