What is CAM?
There are many terms used to describe approaches to health care that are outside the realm of
conventional medicine. Medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy)
degrees and by their allied health professionals such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses.
as practiced in the United States. This fact sheet explains how the National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, defines some of the key terms used
in the field of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), a group of diverse medical and
health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.
Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of
conventional medicine.. Terms that are underlined in the text are defined at the end of this fact sheet.
What is CAM?
CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are
not generally considered to be part of conventional medicine. While scientific evidence exists regarding
some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific
studies—questions such as whether these therapies are safe and whether they work for the purposes for which they
Are complementary medicine and alternative medicine different from each other?
Yes, they are different.
Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. An example of a complementary
therapy is using aromatherapy
a therapy in which the scent of essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees is inhaled to
promote health and well-being. to help lessen a patient's discomfort following surgery.
Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. An example of an alternative therapy is
using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy that has
been recommended by a conventional doctor.
What is integrative medicine?
Integrative medicine combines treatments from
conventional medicine and CAM for which there is evidence of safety and effectiveness. It is also called integrated
medicineAn approach to medicine that combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some
high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness..
What are the major types of complementary and alternative medicine?
groups CAM practices into four domains, recognizing there can be some overlap. In addition, NCCAM studies CAM whole
medical systems, which cut across all domains.
Whole Medical Systems
Whole medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice.
Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical approach used in the United
States. Examples of whole medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include homeopathic medicine, a whole medical system
that originated in Europe. Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself by giving very small
doses of highly diluted substances that in larger doses would produce illness or symptoms (an approach called
"like cures like"). and naturopathic medicine, a whole medical
system that originated in Europe. Naturopathy aims to support the body's ability to heal itself through the use
of dietary and lifestyle changes together with CAM therapies such as herbs, massage, and joint manipulation.. Examples of
systems that have developed in non-Western cultures include traditional Chinese medicine,
a whole medical system that originated in China. It is based on the concept that disease results from
disruption in the flow of qi and imbalance in the forces of yin and yang. Practices such as herbs, meditation, massage, and acupuncture seek to aid healing by restoring the yin-yang
balance and the flow of qi. and Ayurveda, a whole medical system that
originated in India. It aims to integrate the body, mind, and spirit to prevent and treat disease. Therapies
used include herbs, massage, and yoga.
Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function
and symptoms. Some techniques that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream (for example, patient
support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy). Other mind-body techniques are still considered CAM, including
meditation, a conscious mental process using certain techniques—such as focusing attention or maintaining a
specific posture—to suspend the stream of thoughts and relax the body and mind., prayer, mental healing, and
therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music, or dance.
Biologically Based Practices
Biologically based practices in CAM use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and
vitamins. Some examples include dietary supplements, herbal products, and the use of
other so-called natural but as yet scientifically unproven therapies (for example, using shark cartilage to
Manipulative and Body-Based Practices
Manipulative and body-based practices in CAM are based on manipulationThe application of controlled
force to a joint, moving it beyond the normal range of motion in an effort to aid in restoring health. Manipulation
may be performed as a part of other therapies or whole medical systems, including chiropractic medicine, massage, and naturopathy. and/or
movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation,
a type of manipulation practiced by osteopathic physicians. It is combined with physical therapy and
instruction in proper posture, and massage, pressing, rubbing, and moving muscles and other soft tissues of the
body, primarily by using the hands and fingers. The aim is to increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the
Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types:
Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the
human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy
therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or manipulating the body by placing the hands in,
or through, these fields. Examples include qi gong, a component of traditional Chinese medicine
that combines movement, meditation, and controlled breathing. The intent is to improve blood flow and
the flow of qi., Reiki
, a therapy in which practitioners seek to
transmit a universal energy to a person, either from a distance or by placing their hands on or near
that person. The intent is to heal the spirit and thus the body, and Therapeutic Touch,
a therapy in which practitioners pass their hands over another person's body with the intent to
use their own perceived healing energy to identify energy imbalances and promote health..
Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as
pulsed fields, magnetic fields
, or alternating-current or direct-current
What is NCCAM's role in the field of CAM?
NCCAM is the Federal Government's lead agency for scientific research on CAM. . NCCAM's mission is to explore
complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, train CAM researchers, and
disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals.