From herbal supplements to acupuncture, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has become widely popular in the United States in the last decade. What is complementary and alternative medicine? Are these types of treatment methods safe and effective?
There is evidence to suggest that alternative health approaches, such as yoga and the use of certain herbs, offer therapeutic benefits for some patients. Unfortunately, there’s also quite a bit of disinformation about complementary medicine online and on television.
In part four of Florida Medical Clinic’s blog series on holistic health and wellness, Dr. Lakshmi Menezes lays out the facts about complementary and alternative medicine so that you can make more informed decisions about your health.
Back to part one: What is Holistic Medicine?
Back to part two: What is the Mind-Body Connection?
Back to part three: Alternative Treatments to Manage Chronic Pain
What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
Standard medicine is any treatment that is accepted and widely used by health care professionals, such as the use of antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection. Any treatment that is not part of standard care is considered complementary and alternative, or “CAM” for short. Common examples include:
- Botanical Medicines/Herbal Supplements
- Guided Imagery
- Massage Therapy
Complementary and alternative medicine is used with standard medicine, not in place of it. Doctors rarely recommend truly “alternative” therapies, and patients should be wary of supplements or natural remedies that claim to “completely replace” standard medicine.
That being said, there are situations where a doctor may recommend an alternative to standard care. For example, alternative pain management techniques may be recommended in place of opioids to treat chronic pain for patients at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Is there any research behind CAM?
Many of the medicines and therapies we refer to as “alternative” today were once mainstream. Thousands of years before yoga studios started popping up in American suburbs, it was being practiced in ancient India.
But just because something is very old does not mean that it is automatically safe and effective—CAM practices, like standard medicine, must be tested and studied. Peer-reviewed scientific studies help determine how and why a treatment works, and if it has any side effects.
Unfortunately, we still have more questions than answers when it comes to most complementary practices. Very few clinical trials have been conducted, and those that have tend to be flawed. This is because CAM, and holistic medicine in general, is highly individualized and complex, making it difficult for scientists to design high-quality trials.
To assist with this research, the US established what is now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, or NCCIH for short. The purpose of this government agency is to conduct research on complementary and alternative health practices and help patients make more informed decisions about their health.
The NCCIH website is a great tool for patients with questions about CAM, with simple and easy to understand information on a range of holistic health topics.
Types of CAM Therapies and Their Uses
There are many different forms of complementary and alternative medicine, and many patients use more than one at a time. CAM solutions are not one-size-fits-all, so you and your doctor should discuss what therapies will work best for you.
It’s important to consult with a licensed physician before beginning any new therapy or stopping any current medication.
What it is: Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation.
What we know: Clinical trials have found that practicing yoga regularly may help to relieve lower back pain, reduce stress, improve balance, and help patients sleep better.
What it is: An ancient Chinese medicine practice, acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles at specific places on the body, depending on the patient’s symptoms. Some believe acupuncture works by balancing a person’s qi, or life energy. Others believe it works by stimulating certain nerves and encouraging the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller.
What we know: Scientists are only beginning to understand the effects of acupuncture on the body, but the evidence we have so far suggests that it may be helpful in treating lower back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis pain.
What it is: Massage therapy is the manipulation of the body’s soft tissues (such as the skin, muscles, and connective tissue) to promote relaxation or relieve pain. Doctors may refer their patients to a licensed massage therapist to help treat certain joint and muscle conditions.
What we know: Clinical trials have found that massage therapy may help to reduce pain and anxiety. Studies focusing on fibromyalgia patients found that regular massage therapy sessions improved their overall quality of life. We also know that massage therapy is safe for most patients—but patients at higher risk of injury, such as elderly patients, should avoid intense massage styles, like deep tissue.
What it is: Herbal supplements are plant-based medicines that are used to treat a condition or to maintain one’s health. They may come in the form of a capsule, a liquid, topical cream, or may even be brewed as tea.
What we know: We know more about some herbal medicines than others. Aloe vera, for example, has been shown to help heal burns and improve skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. Other herbs commonly used medicinally, like chamomile, turmeric, and milk thistle, have not been studied thoroughly enough to say whether they are effective treatments.
Curious about the science behind a particular plant? To view a list of common herbal supplements, their uses, and the science behind them, visit the NCCIH website.
*Note: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually classifies herbal supplements as food, not medicine, so they are not regulated as strictly as prescription drugs. They’re not side-effect free either—some herbs, like St. John’s Wort, can interact with certain medicines in potentially life-threatening ways. Always consult your doctor before taking any supplements or botanical products, especially if you are on medication.
Benefits and Risks
There’s still a lot we don’t know about complementary and alternative therapies, but many patients who pursue these treatments alongside standard medicine do experience a number of health benefits.
These benefits are not guaranteed, but may include:
- Reduced pain
- Improved mental health and emotional well being
- Relief from side effects caused by standard medical treatments, such as chemotherapy
Like any medical treatment, complementary and alternative medicines also come with risks. Some treatments have little to no evidence supporting their effectiveness or safety, so it’s important to do your homework.
Even if a particular CAM treatment is safe, your health may still be at risk if you choose to self-diagnose and pursue complementary medicines instead of seeing a physician. Complementary and alternative medicine works best with standard medical care, not in place of it.
Learn more about Holistic and Integrative Medicine at Florida Medical Clinic
By combining traditional medicine with complementary and alternative practices, holistic doctors don’t just try to treat a patient’s symptoms—their goal is to treat the whole person, mind, body and spirit.
With the support of a licensed medical health professional, CAM is often a reasonable treatment option for those who want to reduce their dependence on pharmaceutical medications and have more control over their health.
To learn more about holistic and integrative medicine, schedule an appointment with internal medicine specialist Dr. Lakshmi Menezes at Florida Medical Clinic in Lutz or Wesley Chapel, Florida. Virtual appointments are also available.
Be sure to check out the other blogs in our holistic health series:
Part one: What is Holistic Medicine?
Part two: What is the Mind-Body Connection?
Part three: Alternative Treatments to Manage Chronic Pain