Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

ByDenise Millstine, MD, Mayo Clinic
Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023
View Patient Education

Five categories of complementary or alternative medicine are generally recognized:

The name of many therapies only partially describes their components.

(See also Overview of Integrative, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine.)

Whole Medical Systems

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

Mind-Body Medicine

Mind-body medicine is based on the theory that mental and emotional factors regulate physical health through a system of interdependent neuronal, hormonal, and immunologic connections throughout the body. Behavioral, psychologic, social, and spiritual techniques are used to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect the body and thus to preserve health and to prevent or cure disease.

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

These techniques are also used to help patients cope with disease-related and treatment-related symptoms, especially in patients with cancer and to prepare patients for surgery.

Biologically Based Practices

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

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

Manipulative and body-based practices focus primarily on the body’s structures and systems (eg, bones, joints, soft tissues). These practices are based on the belief that the body can regulate and heal itself and that its parts are interdependent. They include

Acupuncture is also sometimes considered a manipulative therapy.

Manipulative therapy is included in osteopathy as well as chiropractic.

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, only studies of mixed quality have assessed their efficacy, and more research is needed.

Energy Medicine

Energy medicine intends to manipulate subtle energy fields (also called biofields) thought to exist in and around the body and thus affect health. All energy therapies are based on the belief that a universal life force (qi) or subtle energy resides in and around the body. Historically, a vital force was posited to explain biologic processes that were not yet understood. As biologic science progressed, this force was dismissed. Some investigators continue to explore the existence of the biofield and subtle energies.

Energy medicine is a component of several therapies, including the following:

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