Complementary and Alternative Medicine

complementary and alternative medicine

Within the shifting medical model is an emerging giant of change: complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

CAM incorporates evolving worldviews, integrated approaches, innovative products and holistic practices to promote well-being and treat illnesses.

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

With CAM, we’re talking about treatments that lie outside what’s considered conventional medicine. Some of these are familiar enough at this point that many of you may not consider them outside the norm, but they are.

Complementary and alternative medicine includes treatments like chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, massage, acupuncture, homeopathy, special diets, meditation, yoga (also tai chi and qui gong) and natural supplements.

Again, it’s likely that many of you already use at least one of these treatments and don’t think of them as alternative.

Many people take supplements, for example, as part of their every day regimen. Many people practice yoga or go to the chiropractor. While chiropractic visits may be in response to an injury, yoga may simply be a form of exercise.

Also, more and more people are incorporating special diets into their lives in attempts to avoid allergy trouble and feel better overall. Vegetarian diets have been around forever, but now there’s also vegan and paleo and alkaline, et cetera.

As far as terminology goes, the difference between complementary and alternative treatments is simply whether the treatments are in addition to conventional medicine (complementary) or in place of conventional medicine (alternative).

Growing Popularity

The research on complementary and alternative treatments’ efficacy is hit or miss, depending on which treatment we’re talking about. For some of the treatments, there are loads of studies to read. For others, hardly any. But what’s not up for debate is how many people are turning to them.

According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, 17.7 percent of American adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year. These products were the most popular complementary health approach in the survey…The most commonly used natural product was fish oil.

Researchers have done large, rigorous studies on a few natural products, but the results often showed that the products didn’t work. Research on others is in progress…

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. The 2012 NHIS showed that yoga, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, meditation, and massage therapy are among the most popular mind and body practices used by adults. The popularity of yoga has grown dramatically in recent years, with almost twice as many U.S. adults practicing yoga in 2012 as in 2002.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, National Institutes of Health

Commonalities with Conventional Medicine

When talking about complementary and alternative medicine, it’s important to remember just how varied these treatments are. In essence, we’re lumping a bunch of disparate treatments into one category.

However, there are some common threads among these disparate treatments, and those common threads run through conventional treatments as well.

Whether conventional or alternative, most of these treatments place a heavy emphasis on:

  • Whole systems
  • Strong doctor-patient relationships
  • Promotion of self-care
  • Stimulation of self-healing processes
  • Integration of mind and body
  • Spiritual nature of illness and healing
  • Prevention of illness

It’s not that complementary and alternative medicine is attempting to displace conventional medicine; it’s simply looking for more options.

The timing couldn’t be better. Medical treatments and health insurance costs are rising every day, and it’s getting harder and harder for many Americans to get the treatment they need.

Because of this, everyday health becomes more important. It’s that old adage: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Many Americans are turning to these treatments as a way to stay healthier on a daily basis and, thus, avoid trips to the doctor.

CAM Thriving in Group Practices

One place where complementary and alternative medicine is thriving is in group practices, where a holistic approach is common.

In a group practice, there are often caregivers of varying disciplines all working together to provide well-rounded treatment.

In response to the shifting paradigm in the U.S. healthcare system (i.e., rising costs, open-mindedness towards alternative medicine), many group practices are already adopting patient-centered and collaborative approaches.

The benefits can be considerable. Early detection of non-response to conventional care can result in earlier integration of CAM therapies. The practice design permits highly focused efforts as well as the clear definition of treatment protocols and outcomes.

Further, the openness to considering and applying reasonable treatment strategies may enhance practitioners’ reputations among patients and referral sources, as well as increase patients’ satisfaction. There is the potential for cross-fertilization of ideas and synergy of therapeutics in this model because of the practitioners’ proximity each other and familiarity with approaches to care.

The evolution of this model may include expanding staff to include other CAM providers (herbalist, Reiki healer, et cetera) and expanding treatment focus to other conditions/age groups. Other developments, such as the inclusion of group therapy, may help empower patients with support and information.

– University of North Carolina, The Convergence of Complementary, Alternative and Conventional Health Care

Turning to Alternative Approaches

Complementary and alternative medicine is a group of medical, healthcare and healing systems other than those included in mainstream healthcare.

CAM uses integrative theories, new modalities and holistic approaches that focus on comprehensive quality of care and strong doctor-patient relationships. While still in their infancy, these systems are growing in popularity, providing alternatives in today’s complicated healthcare environment.


By Quinn Dufurrena, DDS