What Are CAM Therapies?

Updated September 04, 2018

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Today, it seems that there are more treatment options for treatment than ever before - both for physical illnesses and mental health disorders. One reason that's true is that we have the benefit of choosing between accepted Western treatments, new and as yet unproven therapies, natural remedies, and ancient Eastern healing practices. CAM therapies, which are these other types of therapies besides those accepted by Western establishments, might not be the standard therapies used by your doctor or therapist. Since many of them have been effective, they're worth considering.

CAM Therapies Definitions

What are CAM therapies? The acronym stands for 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine.' These therapies are not mainstream treatments, but many of them have been evaluated in research studies and proven to help.

Mainstream Medicine

Mainstream medicine refers to treatments approved by most doctors and therapists. These treatments have typically gone through a research phase and 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. However, now, it has become perhaps the most common single mental health therapy of all and is considered mainstream.

Western Medicine

Western medicine is a term that's similar to mainstream medicine. In fact, 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.

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Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies are therapies 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 therapies on their own. One example is a person who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer but also taking herbal remedies to help with side effects of the mainstream treatment.

Alternative Therapies

While complementary therapies are done in addition to mainstream treatments, alternative therapies are done instead of them. If your psychiatrist suggests you take an antidepressant and you choose to take an herbal remedy like St. John's Wort instead, that's an alternative therapy. Some doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists are willing to work with you even if you choose alternative therapies. However, many are not. Herbalists and other natural healers may take the lead in your treatment instead if you choose alternative therapies.

Integrative Therapies

Integrative therapies offer the best of all worlds. They combine the best therapies for you based on who you are as a complete person and what you need to get better. Rather than focusing on one type of therapy for every problem, the integrative therapist or doctor uses what seems best for you under the circumstances. They may use new, standard, old or ancient medical treatments or therapy methods in any combination they feel is best for your disorder.

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Types And Examples Of CAM Therapies

CAM therapies can be used for any medical or mental health condition, although they may not be as effective in some cases. People who have a life-threatening illness may try CAM treatments if they don't want to face the side effects of the drugs or other treatments offered to them by their doctor. They may also choose CAM when nothing else has worked. These therapies aren't just for the critically ill. Many people with stubborn nuisance problems use CAM therapies rather than put out the time, effort, and copay to go to their doctor.

So, what types of CAM therapies are there? CAM therapies for medical problems include treatments from the following systems as well as others.

  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Ayurveda

What about specific examples? The following are just a few of the different CAM therapies to consider:

  • 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

CAM Therapies For Mental Health Conditions

CAM therapies in the mental health field include many therapies that aren't yet proven effective. Many psychological treatments that were once considered CAM are now in mainstream use. Support groups were once considered CAM therapy. Now, though, they are considered a necessary part of treatment strongly suggested by mental health practitioners, especially in the treatment of addictions.

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Any of the CAM 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 seasonal affective disorder)

Should I Use Alternative Therapies Without Seeking Help?

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

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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 an alternative therapy? Before you do it alone, consider the following questions.

Are Alternative Therapies Safe?

The question of whether alternative therapies are safe has two parts. First, you need to know if the therapy you want to engage in will cause harm by doing it. Second, you need to know whether your condition will get worse while you wait for a therapy to work when it might not prove effective at all.

As to the first question, you need to do some investigation before you start with alternative therapy. Some can be extremely harmful. For example, mega-doses of vitamins may sound like a good idea, but if you're taking fat-soluble vitamins, you can cause serious harm by taking too much.

Herbal medicines can cause severe reactions and serious side effects in some people. If you're also taking mainstream medications, they can cause deadly interactions. Many people take medications for common disorders, such as high blood pressure, 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 your body might interact in a harmful way. That's why it's important to run your idea about an alternative therapy past your doctor, pharmacist, or therapist.

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You also need to consider the question of whether the alternative treatment is effective enough to warrant choosing it over a proven therapy. If you aren't a fan of modern medicine, you might hesitate 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 on the subject. If they don't already know about the treatment, they know how to find out. They can also help you understand exactly how the treatments they suggest can help you.

Do I Need A Doctor's/Therapist's Supervision For Alternative Therapies?

Unless the alternative treatment you want to try uses an illegal substance, no one is going to stop you from using it unless you're a threat to your self or others. However, you need to work with a doctor or therapist if you want to have the greatest chance of overcoming your physical or mental disorder.

Your doctor/therapist might not provide the treatment themselves. In some cases, if they agree it's an acceptable option for you, they might refer you to another therapist. Suppose you are suffering PTSD after a traumatic event or situation. Your therapist might believe massage therapy would be a good option for you. However, if they provided that alternative therapy themselves, they would have to step beyond the boundaries they need to set for talk therapy. So, they might continue with your talk therapy while referring you to a massage therapist for complementary therapy.

Talking To Your Doctor/Therapist About CAM Therapies

Since CAM therapies are often controversial, you might feel hesitant to talk to your doctor or therapist about them. You can benefit greatly from this conversation, though.

  • You can learn more about how the CAM therapy works.
  • You can get a professional's opinion on the therapy you're wondering about.
  • You might find out that your doctor/therapist is qualified to do that type of therapy.
  • Your doctor/therapist may have information about the CAM treatment that you don't.
  • You may find out that your insurance will cover it.
  • Your doctor/therapist may refer you to someone who practices that form of therapy.
  • If your doctor/therapist approves the therapy, they might provide supervision of it.
  • They might make adjustments to current therapies to coordinate better with a CAM therapy they think might be helpful.

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Asking About Complementary Therapies

There's no reason at all not to ask about a CAM therapy if you feel it would be helpful. Before you ask, take some time to research the therapy and decide if you still want to pursue it. Then, go to your doctor or therapist with what you've learned and asked if they approve it and if so if they will add it to complementary therapy.

If your doctor or therapist tells you 'no,' ask them why they think it's a harmful or ineffective therapy. When you feel strongly that a CAM therapy is what you need, it's important that your doctor or therapist takes your question seriously enough to explain their reasoning.

A caring professional will make sure you understand the risks you would face and the benefits you might receive if you chose 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 doctor or therapist to get another opinion.

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You can talk to a therapist whenever and wherever you choose by going to BetterHelp.com for online therapy. There, you can select one of the hundreds of therapists available to you. Many of the therapists 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 therapies that are best suited to you and your needs!


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