Definition and Overview

Complementary therapy, also known as alternative medicine or simply CAM, is a field of medicine that attempts to treat various health conditions using non-conventional techniques. Instead of using commercially mass-produced drugs and surgical procedures, alternative medicine typically combines different types of therapies and herbal medicines.

The effectiveness of complementary alternative medicine is backed by research showing that this form of therapy helps in relieving pain and nausea. However, not all types of alternative therapies are backed by conclusive research. The most popular techniques used in complementary medicine are:

  • Acupuncture – This refers to an ancient Chinese medical technique that uses very thin needles to stimulate specific points all over the body. Acupuncture is based on the belief that each point in the body corresponds to a certain health condition, so by stimulating certain points, the specific condition they are associated with can be healed. Acupuncture is believed to restore the body's balance of energy, which is why it is most effective against chronic pain, nausea, confusion, and vomiting. Since it offers effective pain relief, it is widely used to treat chronic headaches, low back pain, and osteoarthritis of the knee. Acupuncture is also believed to help improve cancer symptoms.

  • Chiropractic medicine – Chiropractic medicine is the field that helps improve or restore the body's alignment. This is effective against lower back pain as well as neck and shoulder pain. By re-aligning the body, chiropractic medicine also brings several others benefits that ultimately lead to improved overall health.

  • Magnetic field therapy – An energy therapy takes advantage of the energy hidden in something as seemingly simple as a magnet. The belief that magnets contain sufficient energy to treat a wide range of diseases and health conditions, from hair baldness to gout, has come a long way. In fact, more recently, a study showed that a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation can help usher stroke survivors into full recovery.

  • Energy therapy – Energy therapy combines different types of energies to improve the body's overall health, primarily by manipulating the body's energy fields.

  • Reiki – This is a form of alternative medicine that maximizes the body's natural source of energy to speed up the healing process. This natural healing process is believed to be more effective when the body is in a state of calm, happiness, or relaxation. Reiki therapy is done simply by hovering a hand lightly over the affected body parts or placing the hands lightly on the patient's skin.

  • Therapeutic touch – Maximizing the power of touch, this form of therapy is believed to be effective in treating pain and specific diseases by directing the body's energy flow.

Aside from healing techniques, complementary therapy also involves different kinds of medications that replace the medicines used in traditional medicine. The wide range of herbal medicines on the market can be grouped into three main categories:

  • Ayurvedic – Originating in India more than 2,000 years ago, ayurvedic medicine aims to keep the balance of the mind, body, and spirit. It uses herbs that are proven effective in preventing diseases, relieving pain, and improving general health. Precautions must be taken, however, when choosing ayurvedic medicines as some reports state that they may contain lead, arsenic, and mercury.

  • Traditional – Traditional herbs such as chamomile, St. John's wort, flaxseed, peppermint oil, and cranberry, among others, are also used, more prominently in the west, to relieve specific health concerns. Chamomile, for example, is believed to be effective in relieving stomachaches, while cranberry helps prevent urinary tract infections. St. John's wort, on the other hand, is proven highly effective in treating depression, while peppermint oil is known as a remedy for heartburn.

  • Chinese – Traditional Chinese medicine contains the widest assortment of alternative medications that aim to restore the body to good health using only natural ingredients. The two most commonly used are ginkgo and ginseng. Although these medicines do not target specific diseases, they are meant to restore the body's balance, and by restoring the balance, the body can fight diseases more effectively.

Although often labeled as natural medications, complementary alternative medicines should still be taken with precaution as they may interact with other drugs you may be taking. It is best to consult a doctor before taking any herbal medication.

When should you see a complementary and alternative medicine therapist?

A professional trained in complementary therapy is called a therapist. It is usually at the discretion of the therapist whether or not to combine alternative medicine with conventional medicine when treating specific types of condition. Patients are advised to seek the help of a complementary alternative therapist if they are concerned about the safety of modern medications or are suffering from a chronic health problem that does not respond to conventional treatment.


  • American Cancer Society’s complementary and alternative cancer methods handbook. Anneke Smith, editor. American Cancer Society, 2009. 893 p. Second edition
  • Green pharmacy herbal handbook: your comprehensive reference to the best herbs for healing. James Duke. Rodale Press, 2000. 282 p. (ISBN 1-579-64184-4)
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