What Is Complementary Medicine?

We uncover a wide range of therapies and their uses. Complementary medicine covers a wide range of therapies. Sometimes the terms ‘alternative’ medicine, or CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) are used.

The Treatments

The five main complementary therapies are acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy and herbal medicine. Other well-known therapies include naturopathy,

nutritional medicine, aromatherapy and massage, while lesser-known therapies include kinesiology, crystal healing and different types of energy medicine.

Some therapies are part of complete medical systems from other cultures, such as traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India.
How is it different?

Complementary medicine focuses on the whole person, with lifestyle, environment, diet and mental, emotional and spiritual health often being considered alongside physical symptoms. Diagnosis aims to identify the root cause of these symptoms; treatment is then designed not only to relieve the ailment or disease but also to restore health and promote general wellbeing. There’s also a strong emphasis on prevention.

Many complementary therapies are based on the idea that the body naturally strives to maintain a state of balance, known as homeostasis. Treatments aim to stimulate this natural healing ability in the body.

Taking responsibility for one’s own health is regarded as an important part of healing, so patients are often actively involved in their treatment.
Who uses it?

Recent surveys have suggested that around one in five people in the UK has tried at least one form of complementary therapy and that one in ten GPs is actively involved in complementary and alternative medicine.

Women use complementary therapies more than men and favour treatments such as aromatherapy and massage. Men are most likely to turn to complementary therapies for specific physical problems such as sports injuries or back pain.
What is it good for?

Complementary medicine is used in the treatment and prevention of a wide range of ailments, as well as for pain management and general health promotion. It can be helpful both for chronic ailments, such as arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome, and for certain acute conditions, such as cystitis.

Research is beginning to show that certain therapies work particularly well for different types of ailments. Homeopathy, for example, has been found to be effective for hay fever, while Chinese herbal medicine is often beneficial for eczema and asthma. The World Health Organisation has published lists of many ailments that may be helped by acupuncture and traditional herbal medicine. These include asthma, eczema, digestive disorders and headaches, among others.

Complementary therapies are increasingly being used alongside conventional medicine. For example, many cancer clinics now incorporate these therapies to enhance quality of life and several research trials have shown that acupressure can help to reduce the nausea associated with chemotherapy. Acupuncture and osteopathy are also often used to good effect in pain clinics.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.