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Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine


Denise Millstine

, MD, Mayo Clinic

Last full review/revision Feb 2019| Content last modified Feb 2019
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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.


Whole Medical Systems

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

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 Acupuncture Acupuncture, a therapy within traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most widely accepted CAM therapies in the Western world. Licensed practitioners do not necessarily have a medical degree... read more 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.

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