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."

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.

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 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.

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.

These methods use human touch to move or manipulate a specific part of your body. They include chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation and massage.

Some CAM practitioners believe an invisible energy force flows through your body, and when this energy flow is blocked or unbalanced you can become sick. Different traditions call this energy by different names, such as chi, prana and life force. The goal of these therapies is to unblock or re-balance your energy force. Energy therapies include qi gong, therapeutic touch, reiki and magnet therapy.

Many conventional doctors practicing today didn't receive training in CAM or integrative medicine, so they may not feel comfortable making recommendations or addressing questions in this area. Doctors also have good reason to be cautious when it comes to some CAM. Conventional medicine values therapies that have been demonstrated through research and testing to be safe and effective. While scientific evidence exists for some CAM therapies, for many there are key questions that are yet to be answered.

In addition, some CAM practitioners make exaggerated claims about curing diseases, and some ask you to forgo treatment from your conventional doctor. For these reasons, many doctors are cautious about recommending these therapies.

One reason for the lack of research in alternative treatments is that large, carefully controlled medical studies are costly. Trials for conventional therapies are often funded by big companies that develop and sell drugs. Fewer resources are available to support trials of CAM therapies. That's why NCCAM was established — to foster research into CAM and make the findings available to the public.

Work with your conventional medical doctor to help you make informed decisions regarding CAM treatments. Even if your doctor can't recommend a specific practitioner, he or she can help you understand possible risks and benefits before you try a treatment.

It's especially important to involve your doctor if you are pregnant, have medical problems or take prescription medicine. And don't stop or change your conventional treatment — such as the dose of your prescription medications — without talking to your doctor first. Finally, be sure to keep your doctor updated on any alternative therapies you're using, including herbal and dietary supplements.

Oct. 18, 2014