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Complementary medicine

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Complementary therapy is known by many different terms, including alternative medicine, holistic medicine and traditional medicine.

A wide range of treatments exists under the umbrella term of ‘complementary medicine’, which makes it difficult to offer a blanket definition. Complementary therapies are ones used alongside conventional medical treatments. 

Some therapies or modalities are based on principles that are not recognised by conventional medicine, but have an established evidence base and have been proven to work for a limited number of health conditions. 

Alternative therapies are treatments that are used in place of conventional medicines or treatments. There is no scientific or medical evidence for many of these therapies, and they may be unsafe or cause harmful side effects.

Complementary therapies and conventional medicine

Conventional medicine is based on rigorous science and evaluation. Traditionally this has not been the case for complementary therapies, but in more recent times there has been a move to apply science to better understand how many complementary therapies work.

You don’t have to choose between conventional medicine and your preferred complementary therapy. They can often work well alongside each other. However, it is important to tell your doctor and your complementary therapist of all drugs, treatments and remedies you take or use. Herbs can sometimes interact with prescription drugs and cause side effects. 

Never stop taking prescribed medications, or change the dose, without first discussing the matter with your doctor. 

Use of complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are often based on traditional knowledge, which is one reason why there is less scientific evidence available about their safety and effectiveness. 

However, the increasing use of complementary therapies has begun to trigger scientific research and some complementary therapies now have some scientific evidence about their safety and effectiveness, in addition to their history of traditional use. 

Sometimes, complementary therapies are less invasive and more cost-effective than conventional medical treatments. Nonetheless, it’s still important to ask your healthcare professional about the potential benefits and harms of any complementary therapy before using it.

Many natural and complementary medicines are readily available and can mistakenly be considered safe because they are natural products. However, they can still cause strong negative effects in some people, including severe allergic reactions. 

Many complementary medicines have a range of active ingredients to be aware of that people may not recognise, and cases of contamination have been reported. For these reasons, it’s important to consider seeking advice from a qualified health professional before using a complementary medicine or therapy. 

In general, do not use herbal medications in children and if you are pregnant, attempting to become pregnant, or breastfeeding. 

Philosophies of complementary therapies

Complementary therapies tend to share a few core beliefs, including: 

  • Illness occurs if the body is out of balance.
  • The body can heal itself and maintain a healthy state if given the right conditions.
  • The whole person should be treated, not just the disease or the symptoms.
  • The gentlest therapies must be tried first before harsher ones.
  • There is no quick fix, since healing and balance take time.
  • Natural products are preferable to synthetic ones.

Examples of complementary therapies

Some of the more popular complementary therapies include: 

Why people use complementary therapies

People may have more than one reason for choosing a complementary therapy and they may use other strategies at the same time to enhance their health. Some of the reasons for using complementary therapies include: 

  • achieving and maintaining good health
  • as an aid to the performance of everyday tasks 
  • dissatisfaction with conventional medical practices
  • unsatisfactory doctor–patient relationships
  • the desire to take charge of your own health and medical problems
  • the increase in easy-to-access consumer health information, including health information on the internet
  • evidence of the benefits and safety of some complementary medicines and therapies
  • dissatisfaction with limited success rates or adverse side effects of prescription medicines
  • the desire to receive healthcare that treats the whole person and not just their symptoms (it’s worth noting that both complementary healthcare practitioners and some conventional health professionals actively endorse holistic care).

Studies show that the most frequent users of complementary therapies include well educated women, high-income earners and people with chronic conditions. They also show that many people use complementary therapies and medicines because of their cultural traditions and beliefs.

Glossary of complementary & integrative medicine

A family of procedures involving stimulation of anatomical points on the body by a variety of techniques. American practices of acupuncture incorporate medical traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries. The acupuncture technique that has been most scientifically studied involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation.

A medical system that originated in India several thousand years ago. Ayurveda is based on theories of health and illness, and on ways to prevent, manage, or treat health problems. Ayurveda aims to integrate and balance the body, mind, and spirit (thus, some view it as “holistic”). This balance is believed to lead to contentment and health and to help prevent illness. A chief aim of Ayurvedic practices is to cleanse the body of substances that can cause disease, and this is believed to help reestablish harmony and balance.

A technique that uses simple electronic devices to teach clients how to consciously regulate bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, to improve overall health. Biofeedback is used to reduce stress, eliminate headaches, recondition injured muscles, control asthma attacks, and relieve pain.

A form of health care that focuses on the relationship between the body’s structure, primarily the spine, and its function.

An active process that involves conscious control over breathing in and out. This may involve controlling the way in which air is drawn in (for example, through the mouth or nostrils), the rate (for example, quickly or over a length of time), the depth (for example, shallow or deep), and the control of other body parts (for example, relaxation of the stomach).

A technique that involves channeling healing energy through the hands of a practitioner into the client’s body to restore a normal energy balance and, therefore, health. Energy healing therapy has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments and health problems, and it is often used with other alternative and conventional medical treatments.

Systems of healing (such as Curanderismo and Native American healing) that have persisted since the beginning of human culture and flourished long before the development of conventional medicine. Folk healers usually participate in a training regimen of observation and imitation, with healing often considered a gift passed down through several family generations. Folk healers may employ a range of remedies, including prayer, healing touch or laying on of hands, charms, herbal teas or tinctures, and magic rituals, among other techniques. Folk healers are found in all cultures and operate under a variety of names and labels.

A practice used for healing or health maintenance that involves a series of relaxation techniques followed by the visualization of detailed images, usually calm and peaceful in nature. If used for treatment, persons will visualize their bodies free of the specific problem or condition. Sessions are typically 20 to 30 minutes in length and may be practiced several times a week.

A system of medical practices based on the theory that any substance that can produce symptoms of disease or illness in a healthy person can cure those symptoms in a sick person.

An altered state of consciousness characterized by increased responsiveness to suggestion. This hypnotic state is attained by first relaxing the body, then shifting attention toward a narrow range of objects or ideas as suggested by the hypnotist or hypnotherapist. The procedure is used to effect positive changes and to treat numerous health conditions including ulcers, chronic pain, respiratory ailments, stress, and headaches.

A group of techniques, most of which started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions. In meditation, individuals learn to focus their attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater physical relaxation, mental calmness, and psychological balance. Practicing meditation can change how a person relates to the flow of emotions and thoughts in the mind.

A type of meditation based on the concept of being mindful, or having increased awareness, of the present. It uses breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress. It is also known as mindfulness relaxation and mindfulness-based stress reduction.

An alternative medical approach based on the belief that there is a healing power in the body that establishes, maintains, and restores health. Practitioners work with the patient with a goal of supporting this power through treatments such as nutrition and lifestyle counseling, dietary supplements, medicinal plants, exercise, homeopathy, and treatments from traditional Chinese medicine.

Herbs or other nonvitamin supplements such as pills, capsules, tablets, or liquids that have been labeled as dietary supplements. This category did not include vitamin or mineral supplements, homeopathic treatments, or drinking herbal or green teas.

A full-body system of hands-on techniques to alleviate pain, restore function, and promote health and wellbeing.

A technique used to relieve tension and stress by systematically tensing and relaxing successive muscle groups.

An ancient Chinese discipline combining the use of gentle physical movements, mental focus, and deep breathing directed toward specific parts of the body. Performed in repetitions, the exercises are normally performed two times or more a week for 30 minutes at a time.

Meditation techniques performed according to the practices of one of the major religions or within a spiritual tradition. The techniques used may be the same as in other types of meditation (for example, Transcendental Meditation), but the focus is on spirituality (such as repeating a spiritual, meditative phrase).

A mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art. Individuals doing tai chi move their bodies slowly and gently, while breathing deeply and meditating (tai chi is sometimes called moving meditation). Many practitioners believe that tai chi helps the flow throughout the body of a proposed vital energy called “qi.” Individuals practicing tai chi move their bodies in a slow, relaxed, and graceful series of movements. One can practice alone or in a group. The movements make up what are called forms (or routines).

Someone who employs any one of a number of ancient medical practices that are based on indigenous theories, beliefs, and experiences handed down from generation to generation, often orally. The methods employed by each type of traditional healer have evolved to reflect the different philosophical backgrounds and cultural origins of the healer.

A combination of breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation used to calm the nervous system and balance the body, mind, and spirit.

Also see

Dictionary of complementary and alternative medicine | Alternative medicines | Herbs | Supplements

External - A-Z Index of Alternative Medicine Topics

# | A | B C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X |Y| Z


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