Complementary and alternative medicine

What's considered an alternative therapy is a moving target. Get the facts about what CAM means and its changing role in health care.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Complementary and alternative medicine has never been more popular. Nearly 40 percent of adults report using complementary and alternative medicine, also called CAM for short. Doctors are embracing CAM therapies, too, often combining them with mainstream medical therapies — spawning the term "integrative medicine."

What are some examples of CAM therapies?

Exactly what's considered alternative medicine changes constantly as treatments undergo testing and move into the mainstream. To make sense of the many therapies available, it helps to look at how they're classified by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):

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

Keep in mind that the distinctions between therapies aren't always clear-cut, and some systems use techniques from more than one category.

Whole medical systems

A system isn't just a single practice or remedy — such as massage — but many practices that center on a philosophy, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in your body. Examples of whole medical systems include:

  • Ancient healing systems. These healing systems arose long before conventional Western medicine and include ayurveda from India and traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Homeopathy. This approach uses minute doses of a substance that cause symptoms to stimulate the body's self-healing response.
  • Naturopathy. This approach focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing and uses a variety of practices, such as massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.

Mind-body medicine

Mind-body techniques strengthen the communication between your mind and your body. CAM practitioners say these two systems must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. Examples of mind-body connection techniques include meditation, prayer, relaxation and art therapies.

Biologically based practices

Examples include dietary supplements and herbal remedies. These treatments use ingredients found in nature. Examples of herbs include ginseng, ginkgo and echinacea; examples of other dietary supplements include selenium, glucosamine sulfate and SAMe. Herbs and supplements can be taken as teas, oils, syrups, powders, tablets or capsules.

Oct. 18, 2014 See more In-depth