Merck Manual

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Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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

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

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

Involves rubbing a dull implement such as a coin or a spoon 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.