Complementary Medicine

Topic Overview

What is complementary medicine?

The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is treatment and medicine that you use in addition to your doctor's standard care.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry, but it may not be standard if used to treat cancer.

Other examples of complementary medicine include:

  • Yoga
  • Massage therapy
  • Herbal remedies
  • Naturopathic medicine

Is research being done on it?

Many complementary treatments and medicines have not yet been studied to see how safe they are or how well they work. Some treatments, such as prayer or music therapy, are hard to study.

In the U.S. the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was formed within the National Institutes of Health to test the safety and effectiveness of these treatments. The center has guidelines to help you choose safe treatments that are right for you.

Should you use complementary medicine?

Before you decide to use this type of treatment, think about these questions:

  • Why are you considering this treatment? People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term health problems or to stay healthy. But if you are looking for a "cure-all," you may be disappointed. Before you begin to use it, make sure that you learn how well it is likely to work.
  • What are you comfortable with? Part of the philosophy of some forms of complementary medicine is to listen to and touch people in a healing way. Some people find great comfort in this. Others may be bothered by it.

Many complementary treatments are covered by insurance plans. But check to see what your plan covers.

What are the risks?

The greatest risk is that you may use these treatments instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.

Sometimes complementary medicines can be dangerous when they are combined with another medicine you are taking. Always talk to your doctor before you use any new medicines. Diet supplements, for example, are complementary. And they can vary widely in how strong they are and in how they react to other medicines.

Also, complementary medicine isn't controlled as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. Sellers or people who practice complementary medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:

  • Require large payments up-front.
  • Promise quick results or miracle cures.
  • Warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits?

One benefit is that many people who practice complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the treatment, the person giving the treatment itself, and the condition.

In some cases, this type of medicine works as well as standard medicine. For example, research shows that St. John's wort works as well for depression as a common antidepressant and causes fewer side effects. Also, these treatments often cost less and have fewer side effects than standard treatment.

Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most of complementary medicine looks at the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like the focus on overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about complementary medicine:

Alternative medical systems:

Mind-body interventions:

Biologically based therapies:

Manipulative and body-based methods:

Energy therapies:

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  Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Alternative Medical Systems

An alternative medical system is a set of practices based on a philosophy different from Western biomedicine. Most of these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional biomedical medical system used in the United States.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Mind-Body Interventions

These techniques develop the mind's ability to help the body to heal or keep itself well. Some of these techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, were in the past considered complementary medicine and are now a part of conventional medicine in the United States.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

These therapies involve the movement or realignment of parts of the body.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Energy Therapies

There are two types of energy therapies, both of which involve the use of energy fields. Biofield therapies are used to affect energy fields in and around the human body. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies use electromagnetic fields to affect the body, such as those from magnets or electrical current.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Other Places To Get Help


American Chiropractic Association
1701 Clarendon Boulevard
Arlington, VA  22209
Phone: 1-800-986-4636
Fax: (703) 243-2593
Web Address:

The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) is a professional organization representing doctors of chiropractic. Its mission is to preserve, protect, improve, and promote the chiropractic profession and the services of doctors of chiropractic for the benefit of patients they serve. This organization can help you locate a chiropractor in your area.

American Massage Therapy Association
500 Davis Street
Suite 900
Evanston, IL  60201-4695
Phone: (877) 905-2700
(847) 864-0123
Fax: (847) 864-1178
Web Address:

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) is a professional organization that certifies massage therapists and works to advance the profession of massage therapy. Members agree to follow a basic code of ethics and abide by AMTA's standards of practice. The association can help you locate a therapist in your area who is an AMTA member.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 7923
Gaithersburg, MD  20898
Phone: 1-888-644-6226
(301) 519-3153 for international calls
Fax: 1-866-464-3616 toll-free
TDD: 1-866-464-3615 toll-free
Web Address: (or for live help online)

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explores complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, trains complementary and alternative medicine researchers, and gives out authoritative information. Send all requests for information and questions about NCCAM to the NCCAM Clearinghouse.

Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
6100 Executive Blvd., Room 3B01, MSC 7517
Bethesda, MD  20892-7517
Phone: (301) 435-2920
Fax: (301) 480-1845
Web Address:

The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) supports research and disseminates research results in the area of dietary supplements. The ODS also provides advice to other federal agencies regarding research results related to dietary supplements.


Other Works Consulted

  • DeSmet P (2002). Herbal remedies. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(25): 2046–2056.
  • Fontanarosa PB, ed. (2000). Alternative Medicine: An Objective Assessment. Chicago: American Medical Association.
  • Jonas WB, Levin JS, eds. (1999). Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Micozzi MS (2006). Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 3rd ed. St. Louis: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Pizzorno JE, Murray MT, eds. (2006). Textbook of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed. St. Louis: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Spencer JW, Jacobs JJ (2003). Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. St. Louis: Mosby.


Author Eileen Ellig
Author Jeannette Curtis
Editor Maria Essig
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD - Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Last Updated June 30, 2009

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