What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

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Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be a part of conventional medicine. People use CAM therapies in a variety of ways. CAM therapies used alone are often referred to as "alternative." When used in addition to conventional medicine, they are often referred to as "complementary." 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 health care and as new approaches to health care emerge. For more about these terms, see the NCCAM fact sheet "What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?"

How can I get reliable information about a Complementary and Alternative Medicine therapy?

It is important to learn what scientific studies have discovered about the therapy in which you are interested. It is not a good idea to use a CAM therapy simply because of something you have seen in an advertisement or on a Web site or because someone has told you that it worked for them. (See sidebar for some tips on evaluating the information you see on a Web site.) Understanding a treatment's risks, potential benefits, and scientific evidence is critical to your health and safety. Scientific research on many CAM therapies is relatively new, so this kind of information may not be available for every therapy. However, many studies on CAM treatments are under way, including those that NCCAM supports, and our knowledge and understanding of CAM is increasing all the time. Here are some ways to find scientifically based information:

  • Talk to your health care practitioner(s). Tell them about the therapy you are considering and ask any questions you may have about safety, effectiveness, or interactions with medications (prescription or non-prescription). They may know about the therapy and be able to advise you on its safety and use. If your practitioner cannot answer your questions, he may be able to refer you to someone who can. Your practitioner may also be able to help you interpret the results of scientific articles you have found.

  • Use the Internet to search medical libraries and databases for information. One database called CAM on PubMed (see "For More Information"), developed by NCCAM and the National Library of Medicine (NLM), gives citations or abstracts (brief summaries) of the results of scientific studies on CAM. In some cases, it provides links to publishers' Web sites where you may be able to view or obtain the full articles. The articles cited in CAM on PubMed are peer-reviewed--that is, other scientists in the same field have reviewed the article, the data, and the conclusions, and judged them to be accurate and important to the field. Another database, International Bibliographic Information on Dietary Supplements, is useful for searching the scientific literature on dietary supplements (see "For More Information").

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  • If you do not have access to the Internet, contact the NCCAM Clearinghouse (see "For More Information"). The staff is available to discuss your needs with you and assist you in searching the peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature.

  • Visit your local library or a medical library to see if there are books or publications that contain scientific articles discussing CAM in general or the treatment in which you are interested. Thousands of articles on health issues and CAM are published in books and scientific journals every year. A reference librarian can help you search for those on the therapy that interests you.

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For more information on Alternative Medicine visit the source of this release http://nccam.nih.gov

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