Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

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The term alternative medicine, as used in the modern western world, encompasses any healing practice "that does not fall within the realm of conventional medicine,"[1] Commonly cited examples[2] include naturopathy, chiropractic, herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, bodywork, homeopathy and diet-based therapies, in addition to a range of other practices. It is frequently grouped with complementary medicine, which generally refers to the same interventions when used in conjunction with mainstream techniques,[3][4][5] under the umbrella term complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. Some significant researchers in alternative medicine oppose this grouping, preferring to emphasize differences of approach, but nevertheless use the term CAM, which has become standard.[6][7] Alternative medicine practices are as diverse in their foundations as in their methodologies. Practices may incorporate or base themselves on traditional medicine, folk knowledge, spiritual beliefs, or newly conceived approaches to healing.


Definitions and categorizations

General terms

There is no clear and consistent definition as to the exact nature of alternative or complementary medicines.[8] In a 2005 report entitled Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States[12] the Institute of Medicine (IOM) adopted this definition:

"Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a broad domain of resources that encompasses health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the dominant health system of a particular society or culture in a given historical period. CAM includes such resources perceived by their users as associated with positive health outcomes. Boundaries within CAM and between the CAM domain and the domain of the dominant system are not always sharp or fixed."[12]

Other groups and individuals have offered various definitions and distinguishing characteristics. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines CAM as "a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products, that are not currently part of conventional medicine."[13] NCCAM has developed what the IOM calls "[o]ne of the most widely used classification structures"[12] for the branches of complementary and alternative medicine.[13] The Cochrane Complementary Medicine Field says:

"What are considered complementary or alternative practices in one country may be considered conventional medical practices in another. Therefore, our definition is broad and general: complementary medicine includes all such practices and ideas which are outside the domain of conventional medicine in several countries and defined by its users as preventing or treating illness, or promoting health and well-being. These practices complement mainstream medicine by 1) contributing to a common whole, 2) satisfying a demand not met by conventional practices, and 3) diversifying the conceptual framework of medicine."[14]

The term "alternative medicine" is generally used to describe practices used independently or in place of conventional medicine. The term "complementary medicine" is primarily used to describe practices used in conjunction with or to complement conventional medical treatments. NCCAM suggests "using aromatherapy in which the scent of essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees is inhaled in an attempt to promote health and well-being and to help lessen a patient's discomfort following surgery"[13] as an example of complementary medicine. The terms "integrative" or "integrated medicine" indicate combinations of conventional and alternative medical treatments which have some scientific proof of efficacy; such practices are viewed by advocates as the best examples of complementary medicine.[13] Ralph Snyderman and Andrew Weil go so far as to claim that "integrative medicine is not synonymous with complementary and alternative medicine. It has a far larger meaning and mission in that it calls for restoration of the focus of medicine on health and healing and emphasizes the centrality of the patient-physician relationship."[17] The combination of orthodox and complementary medicine with an emphasis on prevention and lifestyle changes is known as Integrated health.

NCCAM classifications

NCCAM classifies complementary and alternative therapies into five major groups. The classification are rather loose, and there can be some overlap.[18]

  • Whole medical systems cut across more than one of the other groups; examples include Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda .[19]
  • Mind-body medicine takes a holistic approach to health that explores the interconnection between the mind, body, and spirit. It works under the premise that the mind can affect "bodily functions and symptoms".[20]
  • Biologically based practices use substances found in nature such as herbs, foods, vitamins, and other natural substances.[21]
  • Manipulative and body-based practices feature manipulation or movement of body parts, such as is done in chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation.[22]
  • Energy medicine is a domain that deals with putative and verifiable energy fields:[23]
    • Biofield therapies are intended to influence energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the body. No empirical evidence has been found to support the existence of the "putative" energy fields on which these therapies are predicated.
    • Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies use verifiable electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, alternating-current or direct-current fields in an unconventional manner. [24]

Contemporary use of alternative medicine

Many people utilize mainstream medicine for diagnosis and basic information, while turning to alternatives for health-enhancing measures. Studies indicate that alternative approaches are often used in conjunction with conventional medicine.[25] This is referred to by NCCAM as integrative (or integrated) medicine because it "combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high-quality evidence of safety and effectiveness."[18] According to Andrew T. Weil M.D., a leading proponent of integrative medicine, the principles of integrative medicine include: appropriate use of conventional and CAM methods; patient participation; promotion of health as well as treatment of disease; and a preference for natural, minimally-invasive methods.[26] A 1997 survey found that 13.7% of respondents in the United States had sought the services of both a medical doctor and an alternative medicine practitioner. The same survey found that 96% of respondents who sought the services of an alternative medicine practitioner also sought the services of a medical doctor in the past 12 months. Medical doctors are often unaware of their patient's use of alternative medical treatments as only 38.5% of the patients alternative therapies were discussed with their medical doctor.[27]

Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia that "about half the general population in developed countries use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)."[29] Survey results released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the United States National Institutes of Health, found that in 2002 62.1% of adults in the country had used some form of CAM in the past 12 months and 75% across lifespan (though these figure drop to 36.0% and 50% if prayer specifically for health reasons is excluded); this study included yoga, meditation, herbal treatments and the Atkins diet as CAM.[25][30] Another study suggests a similar figure of 40%.[31] A British telephone survey by the BBC of 1209 adults in 1998 shows that around 20% of adults in Britain had used alternative medicine in the past 12 months.[32]