All about complementary and alternative medicine

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

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

There is no universally agreed definition of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

The information that tells whether a healthcare treatment is safe and effective is called evidence. You can use evidence to help you decide whether you want to use a CAM. Detailed information on many complementary and alternative treatments can be found listed alphabetically in the Health A-Z index.

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.

The availability of complementary and alternative treatments on the NHS is limited. Some, such as acupuncture, may be offered by the NHS in some circumstances.

'Alternative' and 'complementary' defined

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

This distinction is about two different ways of using these treatments:

  • Treatments are sometimes used to provide an experience that is pleasant in itself. This can include use alongside conventional treatments, to help a patient cope with a health condition. When used this way the treatment is not intended as an alternative to conventional treatment. The US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says that use of treatments in this way can be called complementary medicine.
  • Treatments are sometimes used instead of conventional medicine, with the intention of treating or curing a health condition. The NCCAM says that use of treatments in this way can be called alternative medicine.

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:

  • homeopathy
  • acupuncture
  • osteopathy
  • chiropractic
  • herbalism

Evidence and complementary or alternative treatments

Given the extremely wide range of complementary and alternative medicines on offer, how can we decide whether to use one of these treatments?

To make such a decision, we need evidence on whether a treatment is safe and effective. You can learn more about how evidence is obtained, why it is important, and how to use it, by reading What is evidence?.

You can learn more about the evidence for particular CAMs by reading about that CAM in Health A-Z.

We also need to find out whether there is a suitable practitioner available to administer it. You can learn more in Choosing a CAM practitioner.

It’s important to remember that when a person uses any health treatment – including a complementary or alternative medicine – and experiences an improvement, this may be due to the placebo effect. You can learn more about the placebo effect by reading What is the placebo effect?.

In a few cases, certain complementary and alternative treatments have been proven to work for a limited number of health conditions. For example, there is good evidence that osteopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture work to treat persistent low back pain. These treatments are named in the NICE guidance on treatment of persistent low back pain.

Complementary and alternative medicine and the NHS

In most cases the NHS does not offer patients complementary or alternative treatments.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidance to the NHS on the clinical and cost effective use of treatments and care of patients. NICE has recommended the use of complementary and alternative medicines 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, including spinal manipulation, spinal mobilisation and massage for persistent low back pain

NICE bases its recommendations on the available scientific evidence for the clinical and cost-effectiveness of treatments.

Find a CAM practitioner

If you do decide to use a complementary or alternative treatment, you’ll often need to find a practitioner.

Apart from osteopathy and chiropractic, there is currently no professional statutory regulation of complementary and alternative treatments in the UK. That means it is legal for anyone to practise the treatment, even if they have no or limited formal qualifications or experience. Learn more in How CAM is regulated.

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, though these organisations will investigate complaints that relate to the professional conduct of their member.

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 other organisations can help you to do this. You can learn more by reading Finding a CAM practitioner.

Page last reviewed: 23/11/2012

Next review due: 23/11/2014

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