Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) | When To Consider Alternative Therapies

Updated October 1, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Today, it seems that there are more medicine and treatment options than ever before as we benefit from choosing between accepted Western conventional medicine and natural Eastern therapies, as well as online therapy treatment or in-person treatment. CAM therapies are other types of therapies besides those accepted by Western medicine. Though they might not be the standard practices used by your doctor or therapist, some find them effective and may be worth considering as an addition to Western care.

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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

What are CAM therapies? CAM stands for 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine.' These approaches are not mainstream medicine or treatments, but many of them have been evaluated in research studies that show they are considered safe for certain conditions or symptoms. Evidence proves they help as different options while more research shows their overall efficacy.

Mainstream Medicine

Mainstream or traditional medicine refers to treatments approved by more health care providers and therapists than not. These treatments have typically gone through a research phase with clinical trials and have been introduced slowly into clinical practice before being widely accepted. Thus, mainstream medicine is a term with a meaning that changes from year to year. For example, there was a time when cognitive behavioral therapy was not yet accepted as a mainstream therapy before more research was preformed. However, now, the product of popular acceptance of this type of therapy is that it has become perhaps the most common single mental health therapy of all and is considered mainstream.

Western Approach

Western medicine is a term that's similar to mainstream medicine. The two terms are usually considered synonymous. The difference is that mainstream refers to what is most common, while Western medicine refers to a specific type of medicine. In Western medicine, healthcare professionals treat patients with drugs, surgery, or radiation.

Complementary therapies are approaches that are used along with mainstream Western treatments. In many cases, your doctor, nurse, or therapist will suggest and supervise these complementary therapies. Some people do complement their mainstream treatments with other methods on their own. One example is a person who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer but also taking herbal remedies to help with the side effects on their body and organs of the mainstream treatment. Another example is using herbal remedies and allergy medications to balance out seasonal allergies. 

Alternative Therapeutic Approaches

While complementary medicine therapies are done in addition to mainstream treatments, many alternative therapies are done instead of them. If your psychiatrist suggests you take an antidepressant and you choose to take herbs like St. John's Wort instead or you choose to use an herbal remedy instead of a pain killer for your joints, that's an alternative therapy. Some doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists are willing to work with you even if you choose this approach. However, many are not as accepting of anything that differs from traditional medicine. Herbalists and other natural healers may take the lead in personalized treatment instead of alternative therapies.

Integrative Methods

Integrative therapies offer the best of all worlds, combining the best therapies for a person based on the complete person and what is needed to get better. Rather than focusing on one type of therapy for every problem, the integrative therapist or doctor uses what seems best for the individual under specific circumstances. They may use new, standard, old, or ancient medical treatments and ingredients or therapy methods in any combination that is best for the disorder. The best part about integrative therapies is that they can be used alongside conventional medical techniques.

Examples

Complementary and alternative medicine can be used for any medical or mental health condition, although alternative medicine may not be as effective in some cases. People who have a life-threatening illness may try complementary and alternative medicine treatments such as healing plants if they don't want to face the side effects of the drugs or other treatments offered to them. They may also choose complementary and alternative medicine when nothing else has worked. These approaches aren't just for the critically ill. Many people with stubborn nuisance problems use complementary and alternative therapies rather than put out the time, effort, and pay to go to their doctor. Plus, the more a substance, like Prozac or Xanax, is used to treat a condition, the higher your tolerance to this traditional medication will become. Research suggests that alternative therapies are one way to avoid this problem.

So, what types of alternative and complementary therapies are there? Complementary and alternative medicine for medical problems and health problems include treatments from the following systems as well as others.

  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Ancient Indian practice
  • Ayurveda and ayurvedic medicine

What about specific examples? There are many different complementary and integrative health practices that can be used to help physical pain, chronic pain, and treat conditions or symptoms. The following are just a few of the different CAM approaches to consider, while a lot are not listed:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Chiropractic
  • Herbal medicines
  • Hypnosis
  • Magnet therapy
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Osteopathic manipulative therapy
  • Qi gong
  • Reflexology
  • Reiki
  • Special Diets
  • Spiritual healing
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Mental Health

Complementary and alternative therapies in the mental health field include many therapies that aren't yet proven effective. Many psychological treatments that were once considered alternative or CAM are now in mainstream use. Support groups were once considered complementary and alternative approaches. Now, they are considered a necessary part of treatment strongly suggested by mental health practitioners, especially in the treatment of addictions. This is because they provide one with a hands on support system and people to hold one accountable.

Any of the alternative medicine therapies listed above might feasibly be used for mental disorders. Also, psychologists often refer patients to other therapists or work with people who are using or want to use the above CAM treatments as well as the following therapies and others:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Prayer
  • Dance therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Regression therapy
  • Animal-assisted therapy
  • Light therapy (for the seasonal affective disorder)

Using An Alternative Approach

Since complementary therapies are used along with conventional treatments, your doctor must be informed about what you're doing. In many cases, the doctor will follow your complimentary therapies personally, but in any case, they always need to be kept up to date on them.

But, what about alternative therapies? Your doctor probably either disapproves of them or has a more mainstream option in mind for your treatment. So, should you even tell them? More than that, do you even need to see a doctor about your condition if you've already decided to use one of these approaches? Before you do it alone, consider the following points.

CAM Safety

The question of whether alternative therapies are safe has two parts. First, it's important to know if the therapy will cause harm by doing it. Second, it's important to know whether the condition or potential disease will get worse while waiting for the alternative therapy to work when it might not prove effective at all. It is also important to note that you should do thorough content research before giving children any new herbal remedies. 

As to the first question, research on the alternative therapy should be done before starting. Some can be extremely harmful. For example, mega-doses of vitamins may sound like a good idea, but if taking fat-soluble vitamins, it can cause serious harm to your regulatory levels by taking too much.

Herbal medicines can cause severe reactions and serious side effects in some people. If taking a high dose of mainstream medications, they can cause deadly interactions. Many people take medications for common disorders, such as high blood pressure or to help them with sleep problems, but don't think of that medication as being relevant when they take an herbal remedy for a different condition. The truth is that any two things you put in the body might interact in a harmful way, regardless if it is alternative or mainstream. That's why it's important to run this idea about an alternative therapy past a doctor, pharmacist, or therapist before trying it at home. 

It's also important to consider if this treatment has a strong enough effect to warrant choosing it over a proven therapy. If one isn't a fan of modern medicine, it may feel awkward to talk to a doctor or therapist about alternative therapy. However, they keep up with medical and psychological studies and may provide a knowledgeable perspective. If they don't already know about a treatment, they know how to find out. They can also help you understand exactly how treatments they suggest can help you.

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Do I Need A Doctor's/Therapist's Supervision?

Unless it uses an illegal substance, no one is going to stop someone from using a treatment unless it's a threat to themselves or others. It is part of one's rights to be able to try new things as long as they are legal and safe. However, work with a doctor or therapist if to have the greatest chance of overcoming your physical or mental disorder and support your overall well-being.
Some doctors/therapists might not provide treatment themselves. In some cases, if they agree it's an acceptable option, they might make a referral. Suppose an individual is live with PTSD after a traumatic event or situation. The therapist might believe massage therapy would be a good option. However, if they provided that alternative therapy themselves, they would have to step beyond talk therapy boundaries. So, they might continue with talk therapy while referring you to a massage specialist for complementary therapy.

Talking About CAM

Since CAM therapies are often controversial, there may be some hesitation or nerves around talking to a doctor or therapist about them. You can also find more information from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. But, these conversations with your medical provider can also be beneficial for:
  • Learning more about how CAM works
  • Getting a professional's opinion on the therapy you're wondering about
  • Finding out that what doctor/therapist is qualified to do that type of therapy
  • Doctors/therapists may have information about the CAM treatment that you don't
  • Finding out what insurance will cover it
  • Doctors/therapists may refer you to someone who practices that form of therapy
  • A doctor/therapist approves the therapy, they might provide supervision of it
  • Doctors/therapists might make adjustments to current therapies to coordinate better with a CAM they think might be helpful
There's no reason at all not to ask about complementary and alternative approaches if it's believed it would be helpful. Before asking, take some time to research the therapy and decide if it's worth pursuing. Then, visit the doctor or therapist with what you've learned, asking if they approve it. You might ask if they will add it to complementary therapy.
If a doctor or therapist says 'no,' ask them why they think it's a harmful or ineffective therapy. When you feel strongly that a complementary and alternative method is needed, the professional must take these questions seriously enough to explain their reasoning.
A caring professional will make sure consumers understand the risks being faced and the benefits received if choosing that therapy. Otherwise, it's too easy to give up on therapy completely. So, if they don't listen to your suggestion at all, you might want to consider talking to another person to get a second opinion.

Conclusion

Cold feet about alternative medicine? You can talk to a therapist whenever and wherever you choose by going to the  BetterHelp.com  website for online therapy. You can select one from thousands of mental health professionals. Many also work with clients who are actively using CAM therapies. Complementary and alternative therapies come with a variety of risks and possible benefits. When you find the right therapist to help you, you can sort out the helpful from the harmful and pursue the approaches — from alternative to mainstream — that are best suited to you and your needs.

If you're still looking for more resources on CAM therapies, check out the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The National Institutes of Health is also a welcome resource for diving more into what certain studies suggest for treatment of particular conditions. 

FAQs

What is alternative therapy?

Alternative therapy is any kind of therapy that is used instead of conventional medicine or therapeutic techniques. Some examples include:

  • Self hypnosis
  • Herbal medicine including green tea, essential oils, and more
  • Breathing techniques for anxiety
  • Relaxation techniques like squeezing, then softening your muscles
  • And more

What are the 10 most common alternative approaches to medicine that adults use?

According to A Train Education, the 10 most common alternative health approaches, or integrative health techniques, that adults use are:

  1. Massage for body parts pain management of specific points, like neck pain, or back pain
  2. Special dietary supplements for heart health, weight loss, etc
  3. Natural products, including health foods or "super foods"
  4. Deep breathing to induce a deeply relaxed state
  5. Yoga or Tai Chi to improve the skeletal system health
  6. Meditation
  7. Acupuncture of the body and its soft tissues
  8. Homeopathy for mental well being
  9. Progressive relaxation
  10. Guided imagery
  11. Chiropractic manipulation
  12. Diet changes for overall health

What is alternative health care?

Alternative health care, aka complementary and integrative health, is anything that treats physical or mental health conditions and deviates from Westernized medicine in the United States. These health professionals will work directly with the patient to determine an appropriate course of treatment that caters to the patient's specific spiritual, holistic, physical, and emotional needs. For example, some cancer patients decide to treat their cancer holistically using special diets, acupuncture, and herbal medications instead of employing traditional cancer drugs or treatments. Be advised that this course of action is heavily influenced by the type of cancer that a person has and should only be completed under the guidance of health care professionals, traditional doctors included. If you're interested in learning more about the evidence behind alternative therapies for cancer, Cancer Research UK has some great resources.

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