Alternative Therapy

Complementary and Alternative Therapy Basics

The term “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) describes a large set of healthcare practices, products, and therapies that are different and distinct from conventional medicine.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is a center within the National Institutes of Health. It defines CAM as “a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.” It interprets complementary medicine as being used together with conventional medicine. It interprets alternative medicine as used in place of conventional medicine.

As with all forms of therapy, it is important to speak to your healthcare provider BEFORE starting treatments.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

The term “massage therapy” covers a group of practices and techniques. There are over 80 types of massage therapy. In all of them, therapists press, rub, and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body, often varying pressure and movement. There appear to be few risks to massage therapy if it is used appropriately and provided by a trained massage professional. For more information, see NCCAM’s Massage Therapy: An Introduction.

Dietary Supplements
Dietary supplements are products that are taken in addition to foods and liquids that are part of a regular diet. These products contain one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, and amino acids). Dietary supplements are those intended to be taken by mouth, in the form of a tablet, capsule, powder, softgel, gelcap, or liquid.

  • Supplements can be made from plant products (herbs), minerals (zinc), vitamins (Vitamin C), or other substances (omega-3 fatty acids).
  • Some supplements are important to maintain health or prevent disease. For example, women who are planning to become pregnant, and those who are already expecting a baby, are advised to take folic acid to prevent major birth defects to their babies’ brains and spines.
  • Laws regulating dietary supplements are different from those that regulate prescription medications. Manufacturers of dietary supplements do not have to prove that their supplements are safe or effective before they sell them to the public.
  • It is important to alert your healthcare provider if you are considering taking supplements. Speak to them BEFORE taking these supplements to ensure they are beneficial and do not have ingredients that could interact in a negative way with your current medications.

For more information, see NCCAM’s About Dietary Supplements.

For additional information, see FDA’s Guidance for Industry on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Products and Their Regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.

Meditation refers to a variety of techniques or practices intended to focus attention or control the mind. These techniques have been used by many different cultures (often as part of religious practice) for thousands of years. Today, many people use meditation outside of its traditional religious or cultural settings as a form of mind-body medicine. In 2007, nearly 10% of adults in the U.S. reported using meditation as a form of CAM. For more information, see NCCAM’s Meditation.

Acupuncture is among the oldest forms of healing practice in the world. Its goal is to restore and maintain health through the stimulation of specific points on the body. The acupuncture technique that has been most often studied scientifically involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation. For more information, see NCCAM’s Acupuncture: An Introduction.

These are only a few of the available CAM options. For more information, see NCCAM’s Health Topics A-Z.

Recent Research on Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Garlic Supplements Can Impede HIV Medication (NIH–National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
Researchers have found garlic supplements can cause a potentially harmful side effect when combined with a type of medication used to treat HIV/AIDS.

Interaction Between St. John's Wort and an HIV Protease Inhibitor (NIH–National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center have demonstrated that a widely-used herbal product—St. John's wort—could significantly compromise the effectiveness of an antiviral drug often prescribed to treat HIV infection.

A Mantram Studied in Adults With HIV (NIH–National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
Research has shown that spiritual practices may help people with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) to cope with psychological distress and improve quality of life. Researchers investigated the use of one such practice—a mantram (a word or phrase with spiritual associations that is repeated silently several times throughout the day). Mantram users showed a significant decrease in anger (one of the measures of psychological distress) and a significant increase in aspects of spiritual well-being (which may improve quality of life).

Last revised: 03/27/2012