What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?

Purvi K. Shah, MD
Internal Medicine

According to the NIH, defining CAM is difficult, because the field is very broad and constantly changing. NCCAM defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. Medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degrees and by their allied health professionals such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses.. Conventional medicine (also called Western or allopathic medicine) is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) are fully licensed physicians. They provide a full range of services, from prescribing drugs to performing surgery, and employ a "whole person" approach to health care. DOs focus special attention on the musculoskeletal system, a system of bones and muscles that makes up about two-thirds of the body's mass. They may use osteopathic manipulative treatment, a system of manual therapy, to treat mechanical strains affecting all aspects of the anatomy, relieve pain, and improve physiologic function.) degrees and by allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. The boundaries between CAM and conventional medicine are not absolute, and specific CAM practices may, over time, become widely accepted.

"Complementary medicine" refers to use of CAM together with conventional medicine, such as using acupuncture. A family of procedures that originated in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body by a variety of techniques, including the insertion of thin metal needles though the skin. It is intended to remove blockages in the flow of qi and restore and maintain health. in addition to usual care to help lessen pain. Most use of CAM by Americans is complementary. "Alternative medicine" refers to use of CAM in place of conventional medicine. "Integrative medicine" combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high-quality evidence of safety and effectiveness. It is also called integrated medicine.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of healthcare systems, practices and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. As many as 38% of adults in the United States use some form of CAM, most often in conjunction with conventional medicine, rather than in place of it. Researchers have separated CAM into four broad categories: 
  • Alternative and mind-body medicine: including meditation, yoga and tai chi
  • Manipulative practices: including massage, chiropractic and osteopathic treatments
  • Other CAM practices: including acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy
  • Natural products: including non-vitamin and non-mineral supplements, particularly those used for insomnia treatment, such as melatonin and valerian
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Marc B. Garnick, MD
Hematology & Oncology
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health, defines alternative medicine as therapies used in place of conventional medicine, while complementary medicine consists of therapies used together with conventional medicine. Although the term integrative medicine is becoming popular with physicians and patients who want to combine conventional and complementary practices, we use the term complementary to mean any nonconventional therapy.

Another new field of medicine is “contemplative medicine,” in which meditation plays an integral part in health maintenance. Emerging scientific data supports some beneficial effects of meditation.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
The term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to a broad group of medical practices that are used either alongside or instead of conventional therapies. Natural products -- including botanicals, minerals, vitamins, and other supplements from natural sources -- form a major part of CAM.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.