Complementary and alternative medicine

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are treatments that fall outside of mainstream healthcare.

These medicines and treatments range from acupuncture and homeopathy, to aromatherapy, meditation and colonic irrigation.

This page covers:

Defining complementary and alternative medicines

Deciding to use a complementary or alternative medicine

Availability on the NHS

Finding a CAM practitioner

Defining CAMs

There is no universally agreed definition of CAMs.

Although "complementary and alternative" is often used as a single category, it can be useful to make a distinction between the two terms.

The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) uses this distinction:

  • When a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it's considered "complementary".
  • When a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, it's considered "alternative".

There can be overlap between these two categories. For example, aromatherapy may sometimes be used as a complementary treatment, and in other circumstances is used as an alternative treatment.

A number of complementary and alternative treatments are typically used with the intention of treating or curing a health condition.

Examples include:

Deciding to use complementary or alternative treatments

To understand whether a treatment is safe and effective, we need to check the evidence for it.

You can learn more about the evidence for particular CAMs by reading about individual types of treatment – see our index for a list of all conditions and treatments covered by NHS Choices.

Some complementary and alternative medicines or treatments are based on principles and an evidence base that are not recognised by the majority of independent scientists.

Others have been proven to work for a limited number of health conditions. For example, there is evidence that osteopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture are effective for treating lower back pain.

When a person uses any health treatment – including a CAM – and experiences an improvement, this may be due to the placebo effect. Find out more about the placebo effect .

CAMs and the NHS

The availability of complementary and alternative treatments on the NHS is limited, and in most cases the NHS will not offer such treatments.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidance to the NHS on effective good-value treatments. NICE has recommended the use of CAMs in a limited number of circumstances.

For example:

  • the Alexander technique for Parkinson's disease
  • ginger and acupressure for reducing morning sickness
  • acupuncture and manual therapy for lower back pain

Finding a CAM practitioner

If you think you may have a health condition, first see your GP. Don't visit a CAM practitioner instead of seeing your GP.

It's particularly important to talk to your GP if you have a pre-existing health condition or are pregnant. Some CAMs may interact with medicines that you are taking.

CAM and regulation

The practice of conventional medicine is regulated by laws that ensure that practitioners are properly qualified, and adhere to certain standards or codes of practice. This is called statutory professional regulation.

Professionals of two complementary and alternative treatments – osteopathy and chiropractic – are regulated in the same way.

There is no statutory professional regulation of any other CAM practitioners.

Finding an osteopath or chiropractor

Osteopathy and chiropractic are regulated in the same way as conventional medicine.

  • All osteopaths must be registered with the General Osteopathic Council. You can use the General Osteopathic Council website to find a registered osteopath near you, or check if someone offering osteopathic services is registered.
  • All chiropractors must be registered with the General Chiropractic Council. You can use the General Chiropractic Council website to find a registered chiropractor near you, or to check if someone offering chiropractic services is registered.

Finding other CAM practitioners

Apart from osteopathy and chiropractic, there is currently no professional statutory regulation of complementary and alternative treatments in the UK.

This means:

  • it is legal for anyone to practise the treatment, even if they have no or limited formal qualifications or experience
  • these practitioners are not legally required to adhere to any standards of practice or to join an association or register

If you decide to use a CAM, it's up to you to find a practitioner who will carry out the treatment in a way that is acceptable to you.

Professional bodies and voluntary registers can help you to do this. See below.

Some regulated healthcare professionals – such as GPs – also practise unregulated CAMs. In these instances, the CAM practice is not regulated by the organisation that regulates the healthcare professional – such as the General Medical Council – but these organisations will investigate complaints that relate to the professional conduct of their member.

Professional associations and voluntary registers for CAMs

Many CAMs have voluntary registers (some of which are approved by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) for Health and Social Care) or professional associations, that practitioners can join if they choose.

Usually, these associations or registers demand that practitioners hold certain qualifications, and agree to practise to a certain standard.

Organisations with PSA-accredited voluntary registers include:

Examples of professional associations that hold registers of practitioners of specific CAMs include:

You can find more professional associations for a particular treatment on pages about individual types of treatment.

Questions to ask before starting a treatment

Once you've found a practitioner, it's a good idea to ask them some questions to help you decide if you want to go ahead with treatment. 

You could ask for:

  • the cost of treatment
  • how long the treatment will last
  • are there any people who should not use this treatment
  • what side effects might the treatment cause
  • is there anything you should do to prepare for treatment
  • what system does the practitioner have for dealing with complaints about their treatment or service
  • documentary proof of their qualifications
  • documentary proof that they are a member of their professional association or voluntary register
  • documentary proof that they are insured
  • written references

Page last reviewed: 04/02/2016

Next review due: 04/02/2018

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 68 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

Comments

A guide to tai chi

All you need to know about tai chi, including health benefits, different styles and getting started

A guide to yoga

How to get started with yoga, including the health benefits, yoga styles for beginners, and finding a class

Vitamins, minerals and supplements

How to get all the nutrients you need, and safety advice about supplements

How to get NHS help for long-term pain

Find out how to get help from your GP or local hospital if you have persistent pain

Why am I tired all the time?

Feeling exhausted is so common that it has its own acronym, TATT, which stands for 'tired all the time'