* This is the Professional Version. *
Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine
(see also Dietary Supplements.)
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to healing approaches and therapies that are not based on principles of mainstream, conventional medicine.
Complementary medicine refers to unconventional practices used with mainstream medicine.
Alternative medicine refers to unconventional practices used instead of mainstream medicine.
Integrative medicine is health care that uses all appropriate therapeutic approaches—conventional and alternative—within a framework that focuses on the therapeutic relationship and the whole person.
CAM has been widely used in the US for decades. Almost 40% of adults use some form of CAM, most often to treat pain or anxiety or to modify cholesterol levels. Use is also common among patients with chronic pain, cancer, hepatitis C, or other intractable conditions. The most frequently used therapies include medicinal herbs (see Dietary Supplements) and other plant-derived supplements (botanicals), mind-body practices, and massage therapy.
Some CAM therapies are now offered in hospitals and are sometimes reimbursed by insurance companies. Some traditional medical schools, including 45 North American medical schools in the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, provide education about CAM and integrative medicine.
Broad, philosophic differences distinguish conventional and alternative approaches to healing (see Differences Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine).
Because patients worry about being criticized, they do not always volunteer information about their use of CAM to physicians. Therefore, it is very important for physicians to specifically ask their patients about CAM use in an open, nonjudgmental way. Learning about patients’ use of CAM can strengthen rapport, build trust, and provide an opportunity to discuss CAM’s benefits and risks. Physicians may also identify and avoid potentially harmful interactions between drugs and CAM therapies or nutritional supplements, monitor patient progress, guide patients to certified or licensed CAM practitioners, and learn from patients’ experiences with CAM.
Differences Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine
In 1992, the Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was formed to study the efficacy and safety of alternative therapies. In 1998, this office became the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM; see www.nccam.nih.gov/ ). Other NIH offices (eg, National Cancer Institute) also fund some CAM research.
There are 3 types of support for CAM therapies:
A substantial amount of information about CAM is available in peer-reviewed publications, evidence-based reviews, expert panel consensus documents, and authoritative textbooks; much of it has been published in languages other than English (eg, German, Chinese). However, most CAM therapies have not been tested in definitive clinical trials and probably will not be for the following reasons:
Thus, the FDA allows marketing of dietary supplements and use of CAM devices but significantly restricts efficacy claims. Generally, manufacturers of dietary supplements can claim benefit to the body’s structure or function (eg, improves cardiovascular health) but not benefit for treating disease (eg, treats hypertension).
Designing studies of CAM therapies poses challenges beyond those faced by researchers of conventional therapies:
Therapies may not be standardized. For example, there are different systems of acupuncture, and the contents and biologic activity of extracts made from the same plant species vary widely (chemical identification and standardization of active ingredients is not considered part of CAM).
Diagnoses may not be standardized; use of many CAM therapies (eg, traditional herbal medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture) is based on the patient’s unique characteristics rather than on a specific disease or disorder.
Double- or single-blinding is often difficult or impossible. For example, patients cannot be blinded as to whether they are practicing meditation. Reiki practitioners cannot be blinded as to whether or not they are using energy healing.
Outcomes are difficult to standardize because they are often specific to the individual rather than objective and uniform (as mean arterial pressure, Hb A 1c level, and mortality are).
Placebos may be difficult to devise because identifying the effective component of a CAM therapy may be difficult. For example, in massage, the effective component could be touching, the specific area of the body massaged, the particular massage technique used, or time spent with the patient.
From a conventional research perspective, use of a placebo control is particularly important when subjective outcomes (eg, pain, nausea, indigestion) are used and when disorders that are intermittent, self-limited, or both (eg, headaches) are being studied; such end points and disorders are often the targets of CAM therapies. However, CAM systems interpret placebo effects as nonspecific healing effects that arise out of the therapeutic interaction and are inseparable from specific treatments. In practice, alternative therapies are intended to optimize the patient’s capacity for self-healing (placebo response) as well as treatment-specific effects. Thus, many CAM practitioners strive to enhance the quality of the healing environment and therapeutic relationship. Studying the effective components of a CAM therapy without undermining the integrity of that therapy in a research setting remains a methodologic challenge.
Although the safety of most CAM therapies has not been studied in clinical trials, many of these therapies have a good safety record. Many CAM therapies (eg, nontoxic botanicals, mind-body techniques such as meditation and yoga, body-based practices such as massage) have been used for thousands of years with no evidence of harm, and many seem to have no potential for harm. However, there are some safety considerations, including the following:
Use of an alternative approach to treat a life-threatening disorder that can be effectively treated conventionally (eg, meningitis, diabetic ketoacidosis, acute leukemia)—perhaps the greatest risk of CAM, rather than the risk of direct harm from a CAM therapy
Toxicity from certain herbal preparations (eg, hepatotoxicity from pyrrolizidine alkaloids, Atractylis gummifera , chaparral, germander, greater celandine, Jin Bu Huan, kava, pennyroyal, or others; nephrotoxicity from Aristolochia ; adrenergic stimulation from ephedra)
Contamination (eg, heavy metal contamination of some Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal preparations; contamination of other products, such as PC-SPES and some Chinese herbs, with other drugs)
Interactions between CAM therapies (eg, botanicals, micronutrients, other dietary supplements) and other drugs (eg, induction of cytochrome P-450 [CYP3A4] enzymes by St. John’s wort, resulting in reduced activity of antiretrovirals, immunosuppressants, and other drugs), particularly when the drug has a narrow therapeutic index
As with any physical manipulation of the body (including mainstream techniques such as physical therapy), injury (eg, nerve or cord damage due to spinal manipulation in patients at risk, bruising in patients with bleeding disorders)
Current alerts about harmful dietary supplements are available at the FDA web site ( http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/Alerts/default.htm ). Historically, the FDA did not tightly regulate the production of dietary supplements. However, new FDA regulations now require compliance with manufacturing practices that guarantee quality and safety of supplements.
To help prevent injuries due to physical manipulations, patients should look for CAM practitioners who graduated from accredited schools and are professionally licensed. Rates of complications are very low when chiropractic or acupuncture is provided by practitioners with full credentials.
Five categories of alternative medicine are generally recognized (see Types of Alternative Medicine):
The name of many therapies only partially describes their components.
Types of Alternative Medicine
* This is a professional Version *