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The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) puts common CAM practices into 5 groups.

Alternative medical systems.

These are complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have been used in other countries for centuries. They can be very different from mainstream medicine used in the U.S.

  1. Ayurveda (“ah-yur-VAY-dah”). This system of diagnosis and treatment has been used in India for more than 5,000 years. It includes yoga, meditation, herbs, massage, specific diets, and controlled breathing.

  2. Homeopathy. This method is based on the idea that “like cures like.” Things that cause certain symptoms in a healthy person can also cure those symptoms in someone who is sick. They must be given in small, highly diluted amounts.

  3. Naturopathy. This uses methods to allow the body to heal itself rather than treat disease. It uses diet, herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, body manipulation, etc.

Biological-based methods.

These use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Other “natural,” but unproven therapies are in this group, too. An example is using shark cartilage to treat cancer.

  1. Aromatherapy. This uses essential oils from plants for relaxation and for symptom relief.

  2. Herbal therapies. These use chemicals from herbs, plants, or plant parts that act upon the body in a therapeutic way.

  3. Dietary supplements. These include vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, organ tissues, and metabolites. Forms they come in include extracts, concentrates, tablets, capsules, gel caps, liquids, and powders. Dietary supplements are called foods, not drugs. They do not need FDA approval before they are sold. The company that makes them is required to give honest label information that does not mislead the public. For more information on dietary supplements, access the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at www.fda.gov/FOOD or 888.SAFE.FOOD (723.3366).

Energy therapies.

These focus on energy fields that start within the body (biofields) or ones from other sources (electromagnetic fields).

  1. Electromagnetic fields. These are used to manage pain and migraine headaches and to treat asthma or cancer.

  2. Qi gong (“chee-GUNG”). This is part of traditional Chinese medicine. It uses movement, meditation, and controlled breathing to enhance the flow of “qi” in the body. (Qi is an ancient term for vital energy.)

  3. Reiki (“RAY-kee”). This Japanese word stands for Universal Life Energy. With Reiki, spiritual energy is channeled through a Reiki practitioner to heal a patient’s spirit. Healing the spirit heals the physical body.

  4. Therapeutic touch. This comes from an ancient technique called laying-on of hands. It believes that the healing force of the therapist affects the patient’s recovery. Healing is promoted when the body’s energies are in balance. By passing their hands over the patient, healers can identify energy imbalances.

Manipulative and body-based methods.

These are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more body parts. Examples are:

  1. Acupressure. This applies pressure to certain places (acupoints) on the body by pressing on them with fingers or hands.

  2. Acupuncture. This uses needles that are inserted into the skin at certain sites (acupoints).

  3. Chiropractic. This seeks to put the body into balance through manual realignment of the spine and other joints and muscles.

  4. Massage. This uses touching and rubbing techniques mostly on the muscles.

Mind-body medicine methods.

These enhance the mind’s ability to affect symptoms and how the body functions. These include meditation, prayer, mental healing, yoga, tai chi, and therapies that use creative outlets, such as art, music, or dance.


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of many different health care systems, practices, and products. These are not yet a part of mainstream medicine. In general, they are not used in hospitals. They are not taught widely in medical schools. They are not usually paid for by health insurance plans.

Complementary medicine is used with mainstream medicine. Alternative medicine is used in place of it. A survey done by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine (NCCAM) found that 36% of adults in the U.S. use some form of CAM. This figure did not include the use of prayer and megavitamin therapy for health reasons. When it did, 62% of adults said they used CAM. Doctors may advise the use of some forms of CAM for patients.