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Types of Alternative Medicine

By Steven Novella, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Alternative medicine can be classified into five major categories of practice:

The category names only partially describe their components. Some approaches are understandable within the concepts of modern science, whereas other approaches are not. Many types overlap with others.

Types of Alternative Medicine



Whole medical systems

All-encompassing approaches that include philosophy, diagnosis, and treatment

Aims to restore balance within the body

Uses diet, massage, herbs, meditation, therapeutic elimination, and yoga

Based on the law of similars: A substance that causes certain symptoms when given in large doses can cure the same symptoms when it is used in minute doses*

Aims to prevent and treat disease by promoting a healthy lifestyle, treating the whole person, and using the body’s natural ability to heal itself

Uses a combination of therapies, including acupuncture, counseling, exercise therapy, guided imagery, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, medicinal herbs, natural childbirth, nutrition, physical therapies, and stress management

Aims to restore the proper flow of life force (qi) in the body by balancing the opposing forces of yin and yang within the body

Uses acupuncture, massage, medicinal herbs, and meditative exercise (qi gong)

Mind-body medicine

Use of behavioral, psychologic, social, and spiritual techniques to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect the body and thus to preserve health and prevent or cure disease

Uses electronic devices to provide people with information about biologic functions (such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension) and teaches people how to control these functions

Uses mental images to help people relax or to promote wellness or healing of a particular condition, such as cancer or psychologic trauma

Puts people into a state of relaxation and heightened attention to help them change their behavior and thus improve their health

Intentionally regulating attention or systematically focusing on particular aspects of inner or outer experience

Using techniques to slow certain body functions down (for example, by slowing the heart rate) and thus to relieve tension and stress

Biologically based practices

Use of naturally occurring substances (such as particular foods and micronutrients) to promote wellness

Biologic therapies

Uses substances that occur naturally in animals to treat disease (such as shark cartilage, used to treat cancer)

Uses a drug to bind with and remove a metal or mineral that is believed to be present in excess or toxic amounts in the body

Use specialized dietary regimens (such as Gerson therapy, a macrobiotic diet, the Ornish diet, or the Pritikin diet) to treat or prevent a specific disease, to generally promote wellness, or to detoxify the body

Uses plants and plant extracts to treat disease and promote wellness

Uses substances normally found in the body (such as vitamins, minerals, hormones, and amino acids)—often in high doses—to treat specific conditions and to maintain health

Manipulative and body-based practices

Manipulation of parts of the body (such as joints and muscles) to treat various conditions

Based on the belief that the body can regulate and heal itself and that its parts are interdependent

Involves manipulating the spine (mainly) to restore the normal relationship between the spine and nervous system

May involve physical therapy (such as heat and cold therapy and electrical stimulation), massage, acupressure, and/or exercises or lifestyle changes

Involves manipulating muscles and other tissues to promote wellness and to reduce pain and stress

Uses movement and touch to help people relearn healthy posture, move more easily, and become more aware of their body

Involves applying manual pressure to specific areas of the foot that are believed to correspond to different organs or systems of the body

Aims to reestablish bone and muscle alignment and thus restore good health by manipulating and stretching the fibrous tissues around muscles and certain organs

Energy therapies

Manipulation of energy fields thought to exist in and around the body (biofields) to maintain or restore health

Based on the belief that a universal life force or subtle energy resides in and around the body

Stimulates specific points on the body, usually by inserting very thin needles into the skin and underlying tissues to unblock the flow of qi along energy pathways and thus restore balance in the body

External qi gong

Involves master healers using the energy of their own biofield to bring a person's energy into balance

Placing magnets on the body to reduce pain or enhance healing

Pulsed electrical field

Uses magnets to produce pulsing, electrical currents (without producing heat), which can speed healing of injured body parts (such as broken bones) and possibly reduce pain

Involves practitioners channeling energy through their hands and transferring it into a person's body to promote healing

Uses the therapist’s healing energy, usually without touching the person, to identify and repair imbalances in the person's biofield

*Many solutions have been diluted so many times that they contain no molecules of the active ingredient.

RDA = recommended daily allowances.

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