Complementary and alternative medicine are of such interest to the medical community that the National Institutes of Health has an entire agency devoted to scientific research into these non-conventional treatments. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) uses scientific research to explore complementary and alternative healing practices, including natural remedies and other practices mentioned below.
The term alternative medicine refers to health care practices that are used in place of conventional medicine. For example, using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing radiation or chemotherapy is alternative medicine. Complementary medicine is not the same as alternative medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. Using dietary supplements for diabetes in addition to conventional medical treatment is an example of complementary medicine.
Complementary and alternative medicine includes a variety of medical systems. Eastern cultures have used traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and acupuncture for centuries. Homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine are newer alternative medical systems.
Mind-body medicine uses techniques such as meditation, art, mental healing, and dance to enhance the mind’s ability to affect the functioning and healing of the body. Clinical depression sometimes responds well to these techniques.
Dietary supplements, herbs, and vitamins are natural remedies used in both complementary and alternative therapies. For example, research shows that leaves and flowers of the hawthorn tree are safe and effective for treating mild heart failure. Flaxseed oil is used to treat arthritis, while ginger relieves pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting. NCCAM continues to study the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease.
Chiropractic, massage therapy, and osteopathic manipulation involve moving parts of the body to re-establish alignment, relax the body, and support healing. Energy medicine uses invisible energy fields for healing. Reiki, therapeutic touch, and the use of electromagnetic fields are examples of energy medicine. Reiki is a 20th century Japanese healing art in which the practitioner places his or her hands just above the body of the person being treated. In addition to promoting overall health and well being, Reiki can provide relief from the side effects of conventional medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
NCCAM funds research on complementary and alternative approaches to obesity. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, affecting children as well as adults. Many health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, that had previously been seen mostly in adults have now become common in children and teenagers. The complexity of obesity warrants a multi-faceted approach to prevention and treatment.
NCCAM urges people who are using complementary, alternative, and natural remedies to tell their physicians. Doctors need to know about other treatments because of possible conflicts with conventional therapies. For example, certain natural remedies interact with prescription medicines and can cause undesirable sides effects.
There is another reason to discuss complementary and alternative treatments with doctors. Increasingly, physicians trained in conventional medicine appreciate the healing power of other approaches. Many are knowledgeable about complementary and alternative therapies and willing to work with patients who are interested in using natural remedies and cures and other non-conventional avenues of healing.