What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Karyn Maier

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to a body of treatment modalities generally considered outside the scope of mainstream medicine. While the term is intended to group these modalities into a single system that supports a holistic approach to health and wellness, some practitioners treat complementary and alternative medicine as two separate components. In other words, complementary medicine is any treatment used in conjunction with conventional therapies, while alternative therapies are used in place of conventional treatments. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recognizes this distinction.

One way that aromatherapy is used is to bring a more relaxed state of mind.
One way that aromatherapy is used is to bring a more relaxed state of mind.

NCCAM also positions complementary and alternative medicine into four primary fields. They are: Mind-Body Medicine, Biologically Based Practices, Manipulative and Body-Based Practices, and Energy Medicine. It also recognizes Whole Medical Systems, which are largely based on established systems of theory and practice originating prior to the advent of allopathic, or conventional Western medicine. Of course, many modalities cross these boundaries and fall under more than one field. Examples of Western-based whole medical systems include homeopathy and naturopathy, while Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine are whole systems that developed in India and China, respectively.

Traditional Chinese Medicine combines complementary and alternative medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine combines complementary and alternative medicine.

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As the name implies, complementary medicine involves the use of healing practices that complement conventional treatments. Often these therapies target an emotional response rather than a biological reaction. For example, aromatherapy is used to influence mood and induce a state of mind that is conducive to healing. This does not mean that aromatherapy doesn’t have “real” physical impact. It simply means that, as a complementary therapy, its benefits may be realized as a contributing factor to the entire scope of treatment.

Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is used instead of conventional therapies. In this model, traditional Western treatments may be bypassed in favor of a more natural and non-invasive methods. For example, the use of herbs and supplements, meditation, guided imagery, and Reiki may be used to treat cancer in place of chemotherapy.

Most people recognize that the “M.D.” after a physician’s name indicates that he is a medical doctor. However, practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine may have less familiar letters attached to their names and, in many cases, several strings of initials. One of the most common designations among CAM practitioners is “N.D.,” which stands for “Naturopathic Doctor.” Other abbreviations for licensed practitioners include D.Ac. (Doctor of Acupuncture), D.C. (Doctor of Chiropractic), and D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), among others.

As the volume of studies that establish the safety and efficacy of complementary and alternative therapies increases, the more the face of conventional health care continues to evolve. As such, many medical practitioners now consider the CAM approach to healing as being part of a bigger component of medical care—integrative medicine. This terminology helps to “integrate” complementary and alternative medicine with conventional treatments rather than separating them from each other. However, acceptance into this body of medicine is generally based on quality and consistent validation from studies and clinical trials.

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