Complementary medicine
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 so long.

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 conventional healthcare.

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 and Ayurveda.

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.

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