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Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM is a common abbreviation in the USA) is a diverse set of medical and health care systems, practices, and products encompassing both complementary medicine and alternative medicine. It is presently not considered to be part of conventional medicine [1].

Alternative medicine is a broad term for any diagnostic method, method of treatment or therapy, and products whose theoretical bases and techniques diverge from generally accepted medical methods.

Complementary and
Alternative Medicine
This article is part of the CAM series of articles.
CAM Article Index

Complementary medicine uses additional or "alternative" methods and practices alongside conventional medical treatment. Integrative medicine, as defined for USA usage by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, combines conventional medical treatments and alternative treatments for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of their safety and effectiveness [2].

The definition of what is and is not 'alternative' changes with time, generally as the result of research and public acceptance. This change in status can work in either direction.

Alternative medicine is generally considered to be the most dangerous form of CAM by the scientific community because it is used in place of conventional medicine.

Contemporary use of alternative medicine

The popularity of CAM therapies is great. A survey released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine focused on who used complementary and alternative medicine, what was used, and why it was used in the United States during 2002.

According to this new survey, 36 percent of U.S. adults age 18 years and over use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). When prayer specifically for health reasons is included in the definition of CAM, the number of adults using some form of CAM in 2002 rose to 62 percent (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below, abstract on page 1).

Consistent with previous studies the present study found that the majority of individuals (i.e., 54.9%) used CAM in conjunction with conventional medicine ( page 6). "The data confirm most earlier observations that most people use CAM to treat and/or prevent musculoskeletal conditions or other conditions associated with chronic or recurring pain" (page 5). "The fact that only 14.8% of adults sought care from a licensed or certified CAM practitioner suggests that most individuals who use CAM" prefer to treat themselves (page 6). "Women were more likely than men to use CAM. The largest sex differential is seen in the use of mind-body therapies including prayer specifically for health reasons" (page 4). "Except for the groups of therapies that included prayer specifically for health reasons, use of CAM increased as education levels increased" (page 4).

Osteopathy, a medical system developed in the United States that employes the use of manipulative techniques in their treatment programmes, is considered by some to be a mix of conventional and alternative medicine. Doctors of Osteopathy (DO) in the USA are trained as medical doctors and surgeons with some different philosophical underpinings.

The top ten CAM therapies

The 10 most commonly used CAM therapies in the United States during 2002 (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below, table 1 on page 8) when use of prayer is excluded:

  1. Herbalism (18.9%)
  2. Breathing Meditation (11.6%)
  3. Meditation (7.6%)
  4. Chiropractic medicine (7.5%)
  5. Yoga (5.1%)
  6. Body work (5.0%)
  7. Diet-based therapy (3.5%)
  8. Progressive relaxation (3.0%)
  9. Mega-vitamin therapy (2.8%)
  10. Visualization (2.1%)

NCCAM classification of CAM categories, grouped by popularity (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below, table 4 on page 9 and table 1 on page 8) when the use of prayer is excluded:

  1. Biologically Based Therapy (20.6%)
  2. Mind-Body Interventions (16.9%)
    1. Herbal therapy (18.9%)
    2. Diet-based therapy (3.5%)
    3. Exercise-based therapy (not rated)
  3. Manipulative therapy (10.9%)
  4. Alternative Medical Systems (2.7%)
  5. Energy Therapy (0.5%)

In the United Kingdom, the biggest complementary / alternative healthcare professions are:

  1. Herbalism
  2. Osteopathy
  3. Homeopathy
  4. Aromatherapy
  5. Acupuncture
  6. Chiropractic

In the UK, there is an organisation that monitors CAM practioners known as British Register Of Complementary Practioners. On their site,[3], they say "The British Register of Complementary Practitioners (BRCP) is a professional register of practitioners who have proved their competence to practise by either completing an approved course or through an assessment made by the Registration Panel. They also agree to abide by a Code of Ethics and Practice and have full practitioner insurance." This helps monitor the quality of CAM in the UK and reduces the risk of quackery.


  1. Barnes P, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin R. CDC Advance Data Report #343. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults: United States, 2002. May 27, 2004. Online

Other works that discuss alternative medicine

  • Diamond, J. Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations 2001 (ISBN 0099428334), foreword by Richard Dawkins reprinted in Dawkins, R. A Devil's Chaplain 2003 (ISBN 0753817500).
  • WHERE DO AMERICANS GO FOR HEALTHCARE? by Anna Rosenfeld, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
  • Planer, Felix E. 1988 Superstition Revised ed. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books
  • Hand, Wayland D. 1980 Folk Magical Medicine and Symbolism in the West in Magical Medicine Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 305-319.
  • Phillips Stevens Jr. Nov./Dec. 2001 Magical Thinking in Complementary and Alternative Medicine Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, Nov.Dec/2001
  • Illich I. Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis: The expropriation of Health. Penguin Books, 1976.
  • Dillard, James and Terra Ziporyn. Alternative Medicine for Dummies. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 1998.
  • Mary A. Herring (Editor), Molly M. Roberts (Editor). Blackwell Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Fast Facts for Medical Practice (June 1, 2002)

External links

General information about alternative medicine

Advocacy of alternative medicine

Critiques of alternative medicine

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