Complementary and alternative medicine are terms that are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences. Learn the differences between them here.
- The two terms are often referred to collectively as “complementary and alternative medicine,” or CAM.
- The key difference is in usage. As the names imply, complementary medicine is used alongside other approaches, while alternative medicine is used instead of other approaches.
- The words “holistic” and “integrative” are also often used interchangeably with “complementary” and “alternative” in spite of the subtle differences.
What is complementary medicine?
Complementary and alternative medicine, sometimes also called integrative medicine, are used in combination with other medical approaches, but they aren’t usually considered a standard treatment for a condition. In fact, you have probably been using complementary medicine without realizing it. If you’re watching your diet to control symptoms of a chronic condition, that’s an example of nutritional therapy, a form of complementary medicine.
In particular, complementary medicine may be used to help manage the symptoms of a condition or to treat the side effects of conventional medical approaches. One common example is acupuncture, which is often used to treat pain along with conventional, or Western, treatment approaches.
Complementary medicine is becoming increasingly popular as it becomes clear that many conditions benefit from treatment along multiple paths, especially if the CAM treatment may have other health benefits and is low-risk.
Your doctor may even have preferred complementary therapy practitioners to recommend, or they may offer advice on how to choose one.
What is alternative medicine?
While complementary therapies are most likely to be used alongside conventional treatments, alternative medicine is often used instead of Western medicine, most often for chronic conditions.
Generally, in this scenario:
- Western medicine hasn’t worked, or the patient or provider has discontinued it due to risks or side effects.
- The patient has personal or religious objections to the impact of a conventional treatment or how it is produced.
- The side effects or complications that can come with Western medicine treatment options are unacceptable to the patient.
- The condition in question isn’t life-threatening or medically urgent, and alternative treatments may better suit the patient’s personal needs.
Most alternative medicine practitioners will emphasize the “alternative” in their approach. For example, herbalists will generally recommend that patients wait until medication has been fully metabolized by the body in order to avoid potential herb-drug interactions.
Similarly, if an alternative approach is not effective, an ethical alternative medical practitioner will urge their patient to see a conventional healthcare provider. Many will work in concert with other doctors to monitor a patient’s condition.
Finally, alternative medical treatments are often used over a long period of time, with regular appointments, treatments, and lifestyle changes that may become permanent. If a condition has the potential to become life-threatening or develop urgent complications, your practitioner will need to work closely with your doctor to limit your risk.
Never substitute an alternative therapy for treatment recommended by your medical doctor without speaking with them first.
Complementary vs alternative medicine: They’re not so different
A word about terminology: As CAM therapies become more popular, the lines are blurring between what once were distinct definitions. Here are some examples:
Integrative medicine has the same meaning as complementary medicine, though many people associate it with hospitals. For example, use of CAM therapies is now widespread for cancer treatment, usually as part of a hospital’s integrative medicine department.
As this combination of treatment methods becomes more mainstream, the terms “complementary” and “integrative” are replacing the word “alternative” in some environments, particularly in hospitals.
As these non-traditional healing methods become more common, the terms are becoming more and more interchangeable.
Holistic medicine is another term that’s becoming harder to define. Strictly speaking, the word “holistic” refers to the belief that all parts of the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected and that the best way to treat disease is to treat the whole person.
Examples of holistic practices are herbology (such as Chinese herbal medicine), naturopathy, and homeopathy. But technically speaking, combinations of traditional medicine and alternative or complementary treatments could be considered a holistic approach to healing.
Functional medicine is a newer field of medicine that’s similar to integrative medicine in that it strives to treat the whole person rather than a set of symptoms. But functional medicine is more individualized, using a person’s history, biological metrics, genetics, and environment to get at the root cause of an ailment (or, more commonly, a syndrome, or collection of symptoms, like fibromyalgia or chronic pain syndrome).
Functional medicine is controversial, and there’s little scientific evidence that says it works. A 2019 study suggested that functional medicine can improve the global health of an individual, but the researchers concluded that more study is needed.
What practices are considered complementary or alternative medicine?
Generally, the following are viewed as CAM practices:
- Tai Chi
- Diet and nutrition therapy
- Massage therapy
- Osteopathic medicine
- Traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM (sometimes referred to simply as “Chinese medicine”)
- Physical therapy
- Some types of behavioral therapy
Any practice can be complementary, alternative, or both. One practice may start as complementary, and as conventional treatment ends, may continue as an alternative practice if a patient finds it more beneficial. For example, patients may begin using yoga to strengthen their backs as part of a treatment plan for chronic back pain, then continue with yoga while tapering conventional treatments over time.
In other cases, there may be a conflict between Eastern and Western treatment plans. For example, if you’re taking medication for a chronic condition, an herbalist or dietitian will be concerned about possible interactions between their treatments and a prescription drug and may recommend you avoid certain therapies or foods.
Despite a media narrative of Western versus Eastern medicine, often the recommendations of the two overlap. For example, while a medical doctor may not understand how or why a holistic treatment works, if a nutritionist tells you to eat more vegetables and reduce your refined sugar intake, your doctor is unlikely to argue.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of complementary medicine?
Benefits of complementary medicine
One of the most-cited benefits of complementary medicine is that for some people, complementary treatments can eliminate or reduce the need for prescription medication. Others prefer more natural treatment options.
The perspective of many conventional providers is that the risk is low for most holistic treatments, and if the patient feels they are benefiting, the choice should be left to the individual.
But you should always discuss a complementary technique with your doctor before using it.
Drawbacks of complementary medicine
The main drawback for complementary medicine is that not all techniques will have the same effects for all patients, just as with Western medicine. You should talk with your CAM practitioner about other medications you’re using, the symptoms you’re hoping to treat, and what you’ll consider a positive result. Practitioners will help you set reasonable expectations and develop a course of treatment.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of alternative medicine?
Benefits of alternative medicine
The main benefit of alternative treatments is that they offer people more treatment options. Many doctors will encourage trying alternative or holistic remedies if patients don’t have good options in Western medicine. In many cases, providers benefit when their patients are actively engaged in managing their treatment, as proactive patients tend to have better outcomes.
Drawbacks of alternative medicine
The main drawback with alternative therapies is that they often involve life changes that will need to be maintained over a long period of time. Many practitioners won’t agree to work with an individual until Western medical options have been completely exhausted or ruled out by doctors. Practitioners will also set clear expectations, which may disappoint some patients hoping for a “magic bullet.”
When should I use complementary medicine?
Complementary medicine can be used anytime during a Western treatment regimen as long as it won’t interfere with that regimen. Always be sure that both your holistic therapist and your doctor know about all of your treatments and all drugs and herbal supplements you’re taking.
When should I use alternative medicine?
Alternative medicine should also be used in consultation with a doctor and the practitioner, and you should carefully discuss your needs and concerns with both. Ideally, they will be in agreement that an alternative course is the best option for you, and your practitioner will set clear expectations.
Feel free to mix it up
Medicine is ultimately an individual science. Everyone’s body works differently, and many of us find that a mixture of therapies — Western, complementary, and alternative — is the best path forward.
Choosing the right complementary practitioner may feel challenging. Let Bright Belly be your ally on your way to better holistic health. Follow our blog for more information on complementary and alternative therapies, and visit our provider directory to find a practitioner near you.