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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Q: Which of the following are types of complementary or alternative medicine?

a. St. John’s Wort
b. Echinacea
c. Tai Chi
d. Chiropractic Procedures
e. All of the above

A: If you answered “E” to the question above, you already have an idea of what complementary and alternative medicine is.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a blanket term for treatments and practices which fall outside conventional medicine as practiced in the United States. Complementary medicine and alternative medicine are not two terms for the same thing. If you’re using complementary medicine, then you are using natural remedies and treatments in addition to conventional medicine; if you’re using alternative medicine, then you are using natural remedies and treatments instead of conventional medicine. Another term which you might have heard is integrative medicine which combines conventional medicine with CAM, which has been shown to be safe and effective. There is a wide range of CAM types from Ayurveda and Chinese medicine to art therapies, herbal products, chiropractic manipulation, and energy medicine.

According to a survey from 2007 by the National Center for Health Statistics, most people who use CAM are 40-70 years old and are from many backgrounds and educational levels. The most common health conditions treated with CAM are back or joint pain, colds, or anxiety.

Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of scientific evidence for the safety and effectiveness of CAM treatments so it can be confusing to know what is going to work and what will not. There are some important concerns with the use of CAM such as the potentially harmful effects which result from combining CAM with prescribed or over-the-counter medication without medical advice. If you are considering CAM for a health condition, it is very important that you look for the most authoritative information which includes talking with your healthcare provider. There are a lot of differing views on the effectiveness of CAM; make sure that you have the best advice to help you decide. Talk with your healthcare provider to understand what the benefits or negative effects of CAM might be for you before starting any treatment and make sure to let them know if you’re using any CAM remedies.

To help you find more information on CAM, take a look at some of these resources.

In the Library

Alternative Cures That Really Work: for the Savvy Health Consumer -- A Must-Have Guide to More Than 100 Food Remedies, Herbs, Supplements, and Healing Techniques by Ronald Hoffman and Barry Fox
“Rates each treatment for effectiveness, based on cutting edge scientific research. Provides essential information on forms, dosages, and potential side effects. Organized A to Z by condition for ease of use!”

Healthy Child, Whole Child: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Alternative Medicine to Keep Your Kids Healthy by Stuart H. Ditchek, Russell H. Greenfield with Lynn Murray Willeford; foreword by Andrew Weil
For parents interested in the safety and effectiveness of CAM remedies for their children, this book provides a look at the benefits of CAM for children. The authors combined the best of complementary and conventional medicine to create this resource for the use of CAM in children.

Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine by R. Barker Bausell
"Is any complementary and alternative medical therapy more effective than a placebo?" This is the question that Bausell set out to answer by analyzing numerous studies and researching the history of complementary and alternative medicine. Bausell presents a good argument and points out the value of good medical research.

Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst
This book provides a reasoned examination of the research on CAM therapies such as acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal medicine etc. Some of the treatments studied in this book are found to be effective; others are not.

The Gale Health and Wellness Resource Center database has a section on Alternative Medicine and Drugs & Herbal Remedies. You can use this resource in the library or from your home computer with your library barcode number.

On the Internet

MedlinePlus: Complementary and Alternative Medicine (National Library of Medicine)
Brief article from the National Library of Medicine explaining what complementary and alternative medicine is. The article provides additional online resources for further information.

NCCAM: Health Information (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
This resource from the National Institutes of Health combines all the current research information available on CAM and will help you understand what’s available. Don’t miss their section on evaluating CAM web resources and talking to your healthcare provider about using CAM.

Videos on CAM Topics (NIH SeniorHealth)
Videos illustrating some CAM practices such as yoga and Tai Chi. The videos are less than 4 minutes and a transcript is available for downloading.

HerbMed Top 20 (Alternative Medicine Foundation)
This interactive, herbal database provides scientific data which explains the use of herbs for treating health conditions. The site gives free access to information on 20 of the most popular herbs in the United States.