What are Complementary and Alternative Medicines?

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) consist of systems, practices, and products that are an alternative to the “standard of care” as defined by conventional medical practice in the US. Broken down further, “alternative” refers to the replacement of conventional medicine with non-conventional medicine, while “complementary” and “integrative” refers to the use of non-conventional medicine in conjunction with conventional medicine.

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicines

According to a 2007 national health survey, an estimated 38% of adults use some type of CAM. CAM therapies can be loosely classified into several categories. Natural/herbal supplements including vitamins, minerals, and probiotics (live organisms) are very popular. 
Another popular method is mind-body medicine that focuses on using the mind to affect the body; this category includes meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and more. Prayer is sometimes considered CAM as welland finally it can include energy therapy including magnetic therapy, light therapy, and others.

Conditions Related To Complementary and Alternative Medicines

CAM is most frequently used to treat musculoskeletal conditions including back, neck, and joint pain. CAM has been touted as beneficial for many conditions, however evidence is often mixed; many treatments require further investigation. In particular, studies have found no evidence supporting CAM for conditions such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.


With time, scientific evidence will grow as CAM practices become widely accepted and incorporated into the standard of care, it is important for patients to be informed and to minimize risk before using CAM therapy. They can select practitioners with care based on proper training and experience and be aware of interactions between supplements and other medications, as well as side effects. Patients should also notify primary care physicians when undergoing CAM therapy. Research CAM before undergoing treatments can show how it works, the effectiveness, dosages, and costs.
With careful care and consideration, CAM therapies may prove an effective means for managing pain and other specific medical conditions.

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