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"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:
Other examples of complementary medicine include:
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
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.
decide to use this type of treatment, think about these questions:
Many complementary treatments are covered by insurance
plans. But check to see what your plan covers.
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.
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.
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:
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
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 complementary medicine looks at the connection
between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about complementary medicine:
Alternative medical systems:
Biologically based therapies:
Manipulative and body-based methods:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
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 medical system used in the United States.
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
These therapies use
substances found in nature to help treat illness or promote wellness. They include
foods, vitamins, and both herbal and nonherbal dietary supplements.
involve the movement or realignment of parts of the body.
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.
Other Works Consulted
Micozzi MS (2011). Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 4th ed., St. Louis: Saunders.
Pizzorno JE, Murray MT (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., St. Louis: Mosby.
Current as of:
June 4, 2014
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
To learn more, visit Healthwise.org
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