What Are the Major Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Reviewed on 1/26/2021

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Whole medical systems, mind-body techniques, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based therapies, and energy therapies. Many practices across these disciplines have very little scientific proof of effectiveness and some may be harmful. Other practices show real promise and may be  integrated into care regimens for certain conditions.
Alternative medicine involves whole medical systems, mind-body techniques, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based therapies, and energy therapies. Many practices across these disciplines have very little scientific proof of effectiveness and some may be harmful. Other practices show real promise and may be  integrated into care regimens for certain conditions.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes a range of healing approaches and therapies that are not always included in conventional Western medicine. 

  • Complementary medicine refers to non-conventional practices used along with conventional (mainstream) medicine.
  • Alternative medicine refers to non-conventional practices used instead of conventional medicine.

Studies on complementary and alternative medicines don’t always meet the strictest criteria for efficacy and safety. While some CAM therapies have been found to be effective in treating specific conditions, many studies of CAM therapies have shown them to be ineffective or inconsistent. In addition, because many therapies are not well-studied or unproven, they may be harmful (for example, use of certain herbal supplements). 

Talk to your doctor before using any complementary or alternative medicine. 

What Are the Major Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Complementary or alternative medicines are often classified into five major categories of practice:

  • Whole medical systems
  • Mind-body techniques
  • Biologically based practices
  • Manipulative and body-based therapies
  • Energy therapies

Whole medical systems

Whole medical systems are complete systems that have a defined philosophy and explanation of disease, diagnosis, and therapy

  • Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India, originating more than 4,000 years ago
    • Based on the theory that illness results from imbalance of the body's life force (prana)
    • Ayurveda uses diet, herbs, massage, meditation, yoga, and internal cleansing
  • Homeopathy was developed in Germany in the late 1700s, based on the principle that like cures like (thus the name homeo [Greek for “like”] and patho [Greek for “disease”])
    • Based on the belief that substances in large doses that cause illness can cure the same illness when given in very small doses, which are thought to stimulate the body’s healing mechanisms
  • Naturopathy is founded on the notion of the healing power of nature, and emphasizes the following:
    • Prevention and treatment of disease through a healthy lifestyle
    • Treatment of the whole person
    • Use of the body's natural healing abilities
    • Focuses on finding the cause of disease rather than just treating symptoms
    • Uses a combination of therapies, including:
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
    • Originated in China several millennia ago, based on the theory that illness results from the imbalance of the life force (qi, pronounced chee) through the body
    • Qi is restored by balancing the opposing forces of yin (dark, feminine, negative forces) and yang (bright, masculine, positive forces), which manifest in the body as cold and heat, internal and external, and deficiency and excess
    • Practices commonly used are:

Mind-body techniques

Mind-body techniques are based on the theory that mental and emotional factors can influence physical health. Some of these approaches are considered mainstream because there is scientific evidence that has demonstrated the benefits of these approaches

  • Biofeedback 
    • A method of bringing unconscious biologic processes under conscious control
    • Electronic devices are used to measure and report information about unconscious processes (such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension) to the conscious mind
    • With the assistance of a therapist or with training, people can learn how to regulate these functions, and potentially reduce the effects of conditions such as pain, stress, insomnia, and headaches
  • Guided imagery
    • Involves the use of mental images to promote relaxation and wellness, reduce pain, or facilitate healing of a particular condition, such as cancer or psychological trauma
    • Images can involve any of the senses and may be self-directed or guided by a practitioner
  • Hypnotherapy (hypnosis)
    • People are guided into a progressive state of relaxation and heightened attention and become absorbed in images suggested by a hypnotherapist and are able to suspend disbelief
    • Due to the focused attention, patients are more open to suggestion, which can help people change behaviors and ultimately improve their health
  • Meditation, including mindfulness
    • People regulate their attention or systematically focus on particular aspects of inner or outer experience
    • Meditation may involve sitting or resting quietly, often with the eyes closed or gaze cast downward, or it may involve repeating a phrase (mantra) to help the person focus
  • Relaxation techniques
    • Practices are specifically designed to relieve tension and stress
    • Techniques may be used to:
      • Control the stress response (via the sympathetic nervous system)
      • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
      • Ease muscle tension
      • Alter brain wave activity

Biologically based practices

  • Botanical medicine (see naturopathy, above)
  • Natural products and supplements
  • Chelation therapy
    • Chelating drugs bind with metals so they can be excreted from the body and are commonly used in conventional medicine to treat lead poisoning, iron overdose, and other heavy metal poisonings
    • Chelation therapy practitioners believe many disorders are caused by excess metal in the body even if people were not exposed to the metal and blood tests do not show high levels of the metal
  • Diet therapy
    • Uses specialized dietary regimens (such as macrobiotic, Paleo, Mediterranean, and low carbohydrate diets) to treat or prevent disease 
    • Also used to detoxify the body

Manipulative and body-based therapies

Manipulative and body-based therapies treat various conditions through bodily manipulation

  • Chiropractic
    • The relationship between the structure of the spine and the function of the nervous system is seen as key to maintaining or restoring health
    • Spinal manipulation is used to correct this relationship 
    • Chiropractors may also provide physical therapies (such as heat and cold, electrical stimulation, and rehabilitation strategies), massage, or acupressure or recommend exercises or lifestyle changes
  • Osteopathic manipulation
    • Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) is a set of hands-on techniques used by osteopathic physicians (DOs) to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury
    • DOs are physicians who receive special additional training in the musculoskeletal system, the body’s intricate system of muscles, nerves, and bones
  • Cupping
    • Used in traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is believed to increase blood flow to the area on which a cup is placed, to improve healing in that area
  • Massage
    • Massage may relieve pain, reduce swelling, and help loosen tight (contracted) tissue
  • Moxibustion
    • Used in traditional Chinese medicine
    • Dried moxa herb (a mugwort) is burned usually just above, but sometimes directly on, the skin over acupuncture points and used to treat conditions similar to those treated with acupuncture
  • Reflexology
    • A type of massage therapy based on the theory that different points on the feet, lower leg, hands, face or ears correspond with different areas of the body 
    • A reflexologist works those reflected areas on the feet to bring those areas on the body back to balance and therefore aid the body to work as well as it can
  • Scraping (for example, coining, spooning)
    • Also called gua sha, scraping involves rubbing a dull implement across skin, usually on the back, neck, or extremities
    • It is believed to increase blood flow to an area and enhance metabolism and healing
    • Scraping has become popular in athletics, particularly weight lifting 

Energy Therapies

Energy therapies focus on energy fields thought to exist in and around the body (biofields) and are based on a belief in the existence of a universal life force or subtle energy that resides in and around the body (vitalism).

Energy therapies may use external energy sources (electromagnetic fields) to influence health and healing

  • Acupuncture
    • Used in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a widely accepted CAM therapy in the Western world
    • Acupuncture involves stimulating specific points on the body, usually by inserting very fine needles into the skin and underlying tissues
    • Stimulating these specific points is believed to affect the flow of qi, the life force that permeates the body
    • Stimulating these points helps restore the balance between yin (dark, feminine, negative forces) and yang (bright, masculine, positive forces)
  • Magnets
    • Uses static magnetic fields or electromagnetic fields
    • Magnets are placed on the body to reduce pain or enhance healing
    • Magnets may or may not be connected to an electric charge
  • Qi gong and Tai chi
    • Used in traditional Chinese medicine 
    • Involves gentle postures, mindful movement, and the breath to bring the person’s energy into better balance 
  • Reiki
    • A type of energy medicine that originated in Japan
    • Practitioners manipulate energy through their hands and cause energy movement in the person’s body to promote healing
    • Practitioners either do not touch the person or only make light contact
  • Therapeutic touch
    • Also referred to as a laying on of hands
    • The philosophy behind therapeutic touch that the therapist’s healing energy (biofield) helps identify and repair imbalances in a person’s biofield
    • Therapists usually do not touch the person but instead move their hands back and forth over the person

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Reviewed on 1/26/2021