Topic updated: October 2012

Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Many Americans use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in pursuit of health and well-being. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey of CAM use by Americans, showed that approximately 38 percent of adults use CAM. This fact sheet presents an overview of CAM, types of CAM, summary information on safety and regulation, the mission of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and additional resources.

Defining CAM

  • Defining CAM is difficult, because the field is very broad and constantly changing. NCCAM defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine (also called Western or allopathic medicine) is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degrees and by allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. The boundaries between CAM and conventional medicine are not absolute, and specific CAM practices may, over time, become widely accepted.

    "Complementary medicine" refers to use of CAM together with conventional medicine, such as using acupuncture in addition to usual care to help lessen pain. Most use of CAM by Americans is complementary. "Alternative medicine" refers to use of CAM in place of conventional medicine. "Integrative medicine" combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high-quality evidence of safety and effectiveness. It is also called integrated medicine.

Types of CAM

CAM practices are often grouped into broad categories, such as natural products, mind and body medicine, and manipulative and body-based practices. Although these categories are not formally defined, they are useful for discussing CAM practices. Some CAM practices may fit into more than one category.

A Note About Safety and Effectiveness

Rigorous, well-designed clinical trials for many CAM therapies are often lacking; therefore, the safety and effectiveness of many CAM therapies are uncertain. NCCAM is sponsoring research designed to fill this knowledge gap by building a scientific evidence base about CAM therapies—whether they are safe; and whether they work for the conditions for which people use them and, if so, how they work.

As with any medical treatment, there can be risks with CAM therapies. These general precautions can help to minimize risks:

  • Select CAM practitioners with care. Find out about the practitioner's training and experience.
  • Be aware that some dietary supplements may interact with medications or other supplements, may have side effects of their own, or may contain potentially harmful ingredients not listed on the label. Also keep in mind that most supplements have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

For tips about talking with your health care providers about CAM, see NCCAM's Time to Talk campaign.

Are complementary and alternative medicine therapies safe? How can I minimize risks in using complementary and alternative medicine therapies?

As with any medical treatment, there can be risks with CAM therapies. These risks depend on the specific therapy. Each CAM therapy needs to be considered on its own. However, if you are considering a CAM therapy, the following general suggestions can help you think about safety and minimize risks.

  • Take charge of your health by being an informed consumer. Find out what the scientific evidence is about any therapy's safety and whether it works.
  • Be aware that individuals respond differently to treatments, whether conventional or CAM. How a person might respond to a CAM therapy depends on many things, including the person's state of health, how the therapy is used, or the person's belief in the therapy.
  • Keep in mind that "natural" does not necessarily mean "safe." (Think of mushrooms that grow in the wild: some are safe to eat, while others are not.)
  • Learn about factors that affect safety. For a CAM therapy that is administered by a practitioner, these factors include the training, skill, and experience of the practitioner. For a CAM product such as a dietary supplement, the specific ingredients and the quality of the manufacturing process are important factors.
  • If you decide to use a CAM therapy that would be given by a practitioner, choose the practitioner carefully.
  • If you decide to use a dietary supplement, such as an herbal product, be aware that some products may interact with medications (prescription or over-the-counter) or other dietary supplements, and some may have side effects on their own. (To learn more, see the NCCAM fact sheet Using Dietary Supplements Wisely.)
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care. For tips about talking with your health care providers about CAM, see NCCAM's Time To Talk campaign.

Read more from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Accupuncture needles in a woman's neck

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