Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM): What Is It, and Should I Be Interested?

Patient Expert

Yoga. Acupuncture. Meditation. If you've been treated for breast cancer, you've probably heard words like these mentioned. Maybe your local hospital offers therapeutic massage to chemo patients, or Reiki treatments to women heading into surgery. All of these terms come under a single heading: complementary and alternative medicine.

Now, you may already be skeptically shaking your head, thinking, "No way am I going to send away to Ecuador for some kind of weird herbs, or let some strange person wave their hands over me. Give me the surgery, chemo, and radiation; I'm sticking to straight science."

But hold on: there's a strong line drawn between alternative therapies and complementary therapies.

Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine; people who choose not to have the doctor-recommended surgery, chemo, or drug therapies may choose an alternative they think will help.

Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. The patient does just what the doctor orders, then complements it with a cafeteria-array of other treatments. Alternative says "I don't believe conventional medicine will help me." Complementary counters with "I believe conventional medicine will help me, AND I can help myself by adding these other treatments, therapies that won't interfere with (and may enhance) the conventional treatment I'm getting." Big difference; so think twice before dismissing both types of non-traditional treatment out of hand.

Personally, I've rejected alternative therapies, but embraced complementary. I have total faith in the medical establishment and the treatment it offers. I also believe strongly that there's more to healing than drugs and surgery; that there's a spiritual element at work in any health-threatening situation, and that physical and spiritual methods of treatment together are much more effective than either alone.

So, what specifically falls under the heading of CAM? The aforementioned yoga, acupuncture, meditation, therapeutic massage, and Reiki, among many, many others-too many to examine in complete detail. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, recognizes five types of CAM. All fall under the heading of integrative medicine: a combination of conventional medical and CAM therapies for which exists "high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness." In other words, these methods of treatment have been proven to work. Let's look at NCCAM's five broad categories of CAM:

Alternative medical systems: These are complete medical systems that have evolved independent of the approach usually taken in this country. European naturopathy and homeopathy are good examples, as are traditional Chinese medicine, and India's Ayurveda, which integrates body, mind and spirit through herbs, massage, and yoga.

Mind-body interventions: This is based on the premise that your mind can help your body to feel better. An example of this is support groups: while simply being in a support group doesn't cure your cancer, studies have proven that those in support groups tend to be more content with their lives. Other examples include meditation, prayer, dance and art therapy" anything focusing on your mind, rather than your body.

Biologically based therapies: Mainly, things you eat to prevent or fight off disease. Think St. John's wort and Black cohosh. Taking extra vitamin C to prevent a cold. Eating tofu to prevent breast cancer recurrence, or enjoying dark chocolate for its antioxidants (and its taste, of course). Functional foods (green tea, blueberries, nuts, etc.) also fall into this category.
Manipulative and body-based methods: Here's where the treatments from your chiropractor come in. Osteopathic doctors fall under this heading, as does your massage therapist. Reflexology and rolfing are here, too. Up to 16% of American adults visit the chiropractor in a given year, while up to 14% undergo massage therapy; a full 50% of visits to CAM practitioners in this country are to the chiropractor. So this is a form of CAM that's gained great acceptance in the U.S.

Energy therapies: This broad field includes a range of therapies, from Reiki with its "universal life force," to Chinese qi gong, to acupressure. They involve "veritable energies" (energies that can be measured, like light, magnetism, and laser beams); and "putative energies," energies that can't be measured by any known scientific method.

Putative energies, also called biofields, are said to be energy fields infusing and surrounding the body; when they're disturbed, the body becomes ill. Putative energy is probably the most controversial form of complementary medicine in this country, yet conversely, it's also one of the fastest growing. Healing touch, Reiki, and acupuncture are all gaining credence within the traditional medical community, and many medical centers now offer these treatments, along with more conventional therapies.