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Defining Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Scott Olson, ND

image by Alisha Vargas (lic)Alternative medicine is the medicine of many different names. The therapies that this medicine encompasses are constantly shifting and dependent on opinion and perspective. Consider the following list: acupuncture; biofeedback training; chiropractic; exercise; energy healing; herbal remedies; homeopathic treatment; hypnosis; imagery or relaxation techniques; massage therapy; nutritional/dietary advice; spiritual healing or prayer; traditional medicine (for example, Chinese or Indian medicine); meditation, vitamin therapy, and yoga. It is difficult to coin one term, which covers this entire list of diverse practices.

Some practitioners prefer the term Natural medicine. This term, however, can be somewhat misleading. While many of the products that are used in this type of medicine come from nature, many do not. For example, S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe), a typical CAM remedy, doesn?t grow on a tree but is found circulating in our blood. However, it must be manufactured/synthesized in large quantities in a laboratory before it can be used as a natural medicine therapy. Likewise, how natural is it to supplement with vitamins and minerals, which are also manufactured products? In addition, the term ?Natural Medicine? does not capture practices such as acupuncture, massage, light therapy and many other common CAM treatments.

Other practitioners prefer the term Complementary medicine. This word suggests a type of medicine, which complements standard medical practice. This term has been combined in recent years with alternative medicine to produce another term: Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM practitioners offer treatments that are either an alternative or a complement to standard medicine.

Integrative medicine is latest term used to describe this approach. Many practitioners feel that ?integrative? more accurately describes the collaboration between standard and alternative medicine, rather than assuming one (standard) is better than the other.

Complementary and alternative medicine is probably the most accurate description of this style of practice, and is the term, which will be used throughout this article. CAM describes an approach that (at times) can stand on its own as an alternative to standard medicine, and at other times is used as an adjunct (add-on) to standard medicine. Many CAM supplements help standard medications work better or reduce their side effects.


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