Lt. Col. Michele Spencer leads a free yoga class at Gaffney Fitness Center at Fort Meade.
Lt. Col. Michele Spencer leads a free yoga class at Gaffney Fitness Center at Fort Meade. The Army uses yoga to treat pain and PTSD. / Photo: (cc)

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

By OBOS Navigating Health Care Contributors | October 1, 2011
Last Revised on Dec 10, 2013

Women have long used massage, herbal medicine, and other methods to heal, soothe, assist birth, and care for the ill. Many women continue to use traditional healing methods, ranging from ginger tea for a cold to entire medical systems –such as traditional Chinese medicine and ayurvedic medicine — that have their own diagnostic techniques and treatments.

These healing methods are diverse, yet most are rooted in the following principles:

  • Health is not merely the absence of disease but a state of well-being in which the body, mind and spirit are balanced.
  • Disease and treatment affect the whole body, not just one part.
  • Human energy flow (variously called chi or qi, prana, life force, or vital energy) can be affected by disease or treatment.
  • Each person has a great capacity for self-healing.

In North America, these diverse health care practices are sometimes called complementary and alternative medicine, often referred to as CAM.

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CAM health practices include both practitioner-administered therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic and massage, and self-care practices such as meditation and visualization. Integrative medicine is the practice of combining both Western and CAM approaches to care.

People may be drawn to alternative therapies because they seem safer than conventional medical or surgical approaches, appeal to the desire to use natural methods to manage health, align with cultural values, or counteract the side effects of other treatments.

Until recently, there was little scientific evidence about the safety and effectiveness of many complementary health practices. In recent years, this has begun to change, and agencies such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine now provide research-based information on treatments such as acupuncture, yoga, herbs, and dietary supplements.

As more and better research is done, we will have a clearer idea of what complementary therapies are helpful and safe to use. In the meantime, it is important to remember that a therapy described as “natural” or “herbal” is not necessarily safe or effective, and may have adverse effects or interactions with medications or other treatments.

Complementary health practitioners work in a range of settings, including clinics, private offices, health spas, and homes. To find a practitioner, ask for referrals from a health care provider or your friends and family, or seek local referrals from national organizations.

Alternative modes of healing may seem to promise a richer way of practicing health care than the standard drugs and surgery used in conventional Western medicine. However, holistic practices and practitioners can have some of the same weaknesses, as well as additional problems of their own.

The tips below can help you choose and evaluate a provider or treatment.

Check licensure information: Many states require licenses for practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, reflexology, or other therapies. While a license does not guarantee safety or efficacy, it is a good first step in evaluating a provider. You can find out if someone is licensed by visiting your state department of health website.

Competence matters: National certification exams exist for some complementary therapies; however, no piece of paper guarantees a person’s ability to heal — nor does the lack of a recognized credential mean that a person isn’t skillful or knowledgeable. Expect practitioners to be able to describe their training and experience in relation to the treatment they provide and ask about their experience in cases similar to yours. Be wary of practitioners who have no indicators of their qualifications.

Seek practitioners who listen carefully: Your practitioner should be willing to consider different approaches and to teach you skills to improve your health. Ask for personal referrals, interview several practitioners, and trust your intuition. If you are not comfortable with a practitioner for any reason, or a practitioner is willing to consider only one specific kind of treatment, go to someone else.

Look for practitioners who are willing to be part of a team of providers: A practitioner should not discourage you from pursuing other kinds of therapy because it may undermine your treatment, or refuse to communicate with your other health care providers. Steer clear of practitioners who insist that you not see anyone else.

Clarify how many appointments you will need: Be wary of providers who try to get you to commit to a long series of treatments before you begin.

If a treatment isn’t helping after a reasonable time, stop: Most CAM methods should lead to benefits within a month or two, or after three or four treatments.

Avoid practitioners who insist you need to purchase expensive equipment or remedies, especially if they sell these from their office.

Beware of miracle cures: Don’t trust sweeping claims about curing cancer, AIDS, or other serious diseases.

Ask about the costs: If you have health insurance, check to see whether the treatment is covered. If you are unable to pay the full rate, ask if the provider will accept a reduced payment.

Beware of alternative diagnostics: This includes iridology (which claims to diagnose disease through examination of the iris), muscle testing, and machines that purport to detect energy fields. Alternative laboratory tests are almost always a waste of money and generally are not regulated by the federal government.

Explore the politics of the method you want to use: Ask yourself, “Who profits from this mode of healing?” Complementary and alternative healers can also be profiteers or use shamanic, Native American, and other traditional practices in exploitive ways — for example, to add a veneer of mysticism to what they do.

Avoid practitioners who blame you for your health problems: Trusting our capacity for self-healing is not the same thing as blaming ourselves for illness. Some alternative practitioners may suggest that wrong thinking, lack of will, a driven or meek personality, or insufficient faith in the practitioner is the real root of illness. This blame-the-victim mentality is both cruel and inappropriate.