Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

By: Julia Thomas

Updated November 05, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Kay Adkins, LPC

Today, it seems that there are more treatment options than ever before as we have the benefit of choosing between accepted Western treatments and natural Eastern therapies. CAM therapies are other types of therapies besides those accepted by Western establishments. 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.


Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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 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. 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. 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 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 the 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 personalized treatment instead of alternative therapies.

Integrative Therapies

Integrative therapies offer the best of all worlds. They combine the best therapies for the individual 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 or therapy methods in any combination they feel is best for the disorder.



Complementary and alternative medicine 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 complementary and alternative medicine 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 pay to go to their doctor.

So, what types of CAM therapies are there? Complementary and alternative medicine 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

Mental Health

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. Now, they are considered a necessary part of treatment strongly suggested by mental health practitioners, especially in the treatment of addictions.


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 the seasonal affective disorder)

Should I Use Alternative Therapies?

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

Is CAM Safe?

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 imperative to know whether the condition will get worse while waiting for therapy to work when it might not prove effective at all.

As to the first question, the alternative therapy should be done before being started 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, the alternative therapy can cause serious harm by taking too much.

Herbal medicines can cause severe reactions and serious side effects in some people. If 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 the body might interact in a harmful way. That's why it's important to run this idea about an alternative therapy past a doctor, pharmacist, or therapist.


It's also important to consider the question of whether the alternative treatment is effective enough 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 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?

Unless the alternative treatment uses an illegal substance, no one is going to stop someone from using it unless it's a threat to themselves or others. However, work with a doctor or therapist if to have the greatest chance of overcoming your physical or mental disorder.
Some doctors/therapists might not provide the treatment themselves. In some cases, if they agree it's an acceptable option, they might make a referral to another therapist. Suppose an individual is suffering 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 the boundaries they need for talk therapy. So, they might continue with talk therapy while referring you to a massage therapist for complementary therapy.

Talking To Your Health Professional About CAM

Since CAM therapies are often controversial, there may be some hesitation to talk to a doctor or therapist about them. However, these conversations can be beneficial, such as:
  • 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 CAM 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's been learned and ask if they approve it and if so 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 CAM is needed, the doctor or therapist 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 doctor or therapist to get another opinion.


You can talk to a therapist whenever and wherever you choose by going to 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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