What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Complementary and alternative medicine is the term used to describe a broad domain of healing resources. These therapies encompass a wide variety of health practices that exist outside of the regularly accepted health system. Interest in CAM therapies is widespread, with studies indicating that more than one-third of American adults have used at least one form of CAM within the last year. CAM is popular among adults with cancer.

What are CAM therapies?
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NCCAM is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. CAM therapies are categorized by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Alternative medical systems refer to complete systems of theory and practice such as:
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Ayurvedic medicine

Mind body medicine includes techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. These include:
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Mental healing
  • Art
  • Music
  • Dance

Biological-based therapies are based on substances found in nature. These include:
  • Dietary supplements
  • Herbal products
  • Other “natural” but as yet scientifically unproven therapies

Manipulative and body-based methods involve manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body:
  • Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation
  • Massage

Energy therapies are intended to affect energy fields that claim to surround and penetrate the human body. Examples of these include:
  • Qi gong
  • Reiki
  • Therapeutic touch

Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields such as:
  • Pulsed fields
  • Magnetic fields
  • Alternating current or direct current fields


-Kara Kelly, MD, Columbia Presbyterian College of Physicians and Surgeons
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