Crossing the threshold
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is making inroads in
mainstream healthcare as an increasing body of scientific research helps
integrate proven CAM therapies into allopathic medicine and overcome
medical skepticism which has hampered the evolution of CAM science for
As CAM steadily gains more credibility, so more money is pumped into
research and the whole process of validation snowballs. It is only the
beginning, but it appears CAM has finally crossed the threshold as major
organisations in the United States and Europe embark on multi-million
dollar CAM research initiatives.
Perhaps, in part this has been driven by patients, as up to “one in
three persons served by Western medical systems seek some form of
unorthodox medical care each year”, David Reilly writes in the Journal
of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Comments on Complementary and
Alternative Medicine in Europe, 2001). He points out that the demand for
CAM therapies is so strong that CAM has become the second biggest growth
industry in Europe.
What is CAM?
There are many terms used to describe approaches to healthcare that are
outside the realm of conventional medicine. The United Statesbased
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
defines complementary and alternative medicine succinctly: “CAM is a
group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products
that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.
While some scientific evidence exists regarding some CAM therapies, for
most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through
welldesigned scientific studies – questions such as whether these
therapies are safe and whether they work for the diseases or medical
conditions for which they are used.”
The list of what is considered to be CAM changes continually, as those
therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into
Complementary medicine and alternative medicine are different.
Complementary medicine is used with conventional medicine. An example of
a complementary therapy is using aromatherapy to help lessen a patient's
discomfort following surgery.
Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. An
example of an alternative therapy is using a special diet to treat
cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy that
has been recommended by a conventional doctor.
NCCAM classifies CAM therapies into five domains:
1. Alternative medical systems
Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory
and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier
than the conventional or orthodox medicine. Examples of alternative
medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include
homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine. Examples of systems that
have developed in Oriental cultures include traditional Chinese medicine
2. Mind-body interventions
Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the
mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some techniques
that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream (for
example, patient support groups and cognitive- behavioral therapy).
Other mind-body techniques are still considered CAM, including
meditation, prayer, mental healing, and therapies that use creative
outlets such as art, music, or dance.
3. Biologically based therapies
Biologically based therapies in CAM use substances found in nature, such
as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some examples include dietary
supplements, herbal products and the use of other so-called natural, but
as yet scientifically unproven, therapies (for example, using shark
cartilage to treat cancer).
4. Manipulative and bodybased methods
Manipulative and body-based methods in CAM are based on manipulation
and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include
chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage.
5. Energy therapies
Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields.
They are of two types:
- Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that
purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such
fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy
therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or manipulating
the body by placing the hands in, or through, these fields. Examples
include qi gong, Reiki, and reflexology.
- Bioelectromagnetic based therapies involve the unconventional use of
electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or
alternating-current or direct-current fields.