Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Americans are increasingly using treatments outside traditional Western medical care to address medical and emotional conditions. Generally, these treatments are referred to as complementary medicine when used in addition to more standard treatment and as alternative medicine when used instead of traditional medical care. Collectively, they are referred to as complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. Many individuals with life-threatening conditions use one or more CAM therapies to help manage the discomfort of their illness, the side effects of therapy, or feelings of depression, anxiety, and grief.

Types of CAM
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) identifies five major domains of CAM:

  • Alternative medical systems are frequently traditional systems of medicine practiced by other cultures. One common therapy today is acupuncture, part of traditional Eastern medicine.
  • Mind-body interventions are techniques based on the mind's capacity to affect the physical body. These interventions include meditation, prayer, music, dance, and art therapy.
  • Biologically based treatments include herbal medicine, special dietary regimens, and individual biological therapies.
  • Manipulative and body-based methods include chiropractic care and massage therapy.
  • Energy therapies are techniques based on theories regarding energy fields from internal or external sources.

Additional information can be found on the NCCAM website (see Resources, below).


Questions to Ask When Considering Use of CAM
While research on CAM has increased in recent years, most of these therapies have not yet had rigorous clinical studies of their safety and effectiveness. If you are considering using a CAM therapy, you should investigate the proposed treatment carefully. Some questions to ask are:

  • Is there research on its safety and effectiveness, especially as it relates to your specific medical condition? Are there potential side effects or interactions with other medications or treatments?
  • Is there any regulation or other oversight of the therapy's practices, products, and/or providers, such as approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration or state provider licensure?
  • How much will it cost and are these costs covered by health insurance? Most CAM therapies are not, although there are some exceptions.

It is important to talk with your physician and other members of your health care team if you are considering using any CAM therapy.

If you are interested in reviewing research reports for yourself, please visit the website for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is an institute of the National Institute of Health. The NCCAM is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices through rigorous scientific research, training of complementary and alternative medicine
(CAM) researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. The web address is provided below with other pertinent resources.


Oversight of CAM in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, the Board of Registration in Medicine oversees the training, licensure, and practice of acupuncturists. The Board of Registration of Chiropractors regulates chiropractic care, including licensing chiropractors.


Additional information can be found through the resources listed below and in our blog on Complementary Therapies and End-of-Life Care.

For more information:

American Massage Therapy Association

American Music Therapy Association, Inc.
8455 Colesville Road, Suite 1000
Silver Springs, Maryland 20910
Phone: 301-589-3300

Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine
Acupuncture Unit
560 Harrison Avenue , Suite G-4
Boston, Massachusetts 02118
Phone: 617-654-9800

Massachusetts Board of Registration of Chiropractors
239 Causeway Street, Suite 500
Boston, MA 02114
Phone: 617-727-3093

National Center on Complementary and Alternative Therapies
National Institutes of Health
NCCAM Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 7923
Gaithersburg, MD 20898
Phone: 888-644-6226
TTY: 866-464-3615

Office of Dietary Supplements
National Institutes of Health
Suite 3801 – MSC 7517
6100 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, Maryland 20892-2086
Phone: 301-435-2920

The Longwood Herbal Task Force
Center For Integrative Therapies in Pharmaceutical Care
Mass College of Pharmacy
179 Longwood Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-355-2576



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