Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine


Denise Millstine

, MD, Mayo Clinic

Last full review/revision Feb 2019| Content last modified Feb 2019
Click here for the Professional Version
Topic Resources

Complementary or 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 Complementary and 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 insomnia or psychologic trauma

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

Meditation, including mindfulness

Intentionally regulating attention or systematically focusing on particular aspects of 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

Botanical medicine and natural products

Uses substances that occur naturally in plants or animals to treat symptoms or disease (such as cartilage used to treat joint pain)

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 the macrobiotic, Paleo, low carbohydrate, or Mediterranean diet) to treat or prevent a specific disease, to generally promote wellness, or to detoxify the body

Manipulative and body-based practices

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

Based on the belief that the body in balance will improve certain symptoms 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

Uses heated cups, inverted and placed on the skin to create vacuum that sucks the skin partway into the cup, which may be left in place for several minutes

Considered a form of massage that increases blood flow to targeted regions in an effort to alter inflammation and certain conditions

Involves manipulating muscles and other tissues to reduce pain and muscle spasm and to reduce stress and enhance relaxation

Uses dried moxa herb (a mugwort) that is burned usually just above but sometimes directly on the skin over acupuncture points

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

Scraping (for example, coining, spooning)

Involves rubbing a dull implement across skin, usually on the back, neck, or extremities

Considered a form of massage, also called gua sha

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 and throughout the universe

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

Qi gong

A gentle movement practice in traditional Chinese medicine using postures, breathing, and meditation to improve healing

An energy therapy involving placing magnets on the body to reduce pain or enhance healing

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

An energy therapy using 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 measurable molecules of the active ingredient.

RDA = recommended daily allowances.

Whole Medical Systems

Whole medical systems are complete systems that include a defined philosophy and explanation of disease, diagnosis, and therapy. They include the following:

Mind-Body Medicine

Mind-body techniques are based on the theory that mental and emotional factors can influence physical health. Behavioral, psychologic, social, and spiritual methods are used to preserve health and prevent or cure disease.

Because of the abundance of scientific evidence backing the benefits of mind-body techniques, many of the approaches are now considered mainstream. For example, the following techniques are used in the treatment of chronic pain, coronary artery disease, headaches, insomnia, and as aids during childbirth:

These techniques are also used to help people cope with disease-related and treatment-related symptoms of cancer and to prepare them for surgery. 

Biologically Based Therapies

Biologically based therapies use naturally occurring substances to affect health. These practices include the following:

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

Manipulative and body-based therapies treat various conditions through bodily manipulation. These therapies include

These therapies are based on the belief that the body can regulate and heal itself and that its parts are interdependent. Acupuncture is also sometimes considered a manipulative therapy.

Some of these therapies (cupping, scraping, and moxibustion) result in lesions that may be mistaken for signs of trauma or abuse. These therapies are thought to stimulate the body’s energy and to enable toxins to leave the body. However, very little high quality research has measured how effective they are.

Energy Therapies

Energy therapies focus on the energy fields thought to exist in and around the body (biofields). These therapies also encompass the use of external energy sources (electromagnetic fields) to influence health and healing. Energy therapies are based on a core belief in the existence of a universal life force or subtle energy that resides in and around the body (vitalism). Limited scientific evidence supports the existence of such a universal life force, which is inherently hard to measure.

Energy therapies include the following:

Practitioners of energy therapies typically place their hands on or near the body and use their energy to affect the energy field of the person.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
Others also read

Test your knowledge

In chiropractic, the relationship between the structure of the spine and the function of the nervous system is seen as key to maintaining or restoring health. For which of the following conditions have past clinical trials shown chiropractic treatment to be effective?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest

Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID