Complementary Vs Alternative Medicine

Do you know the difference between Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

When describing health approaches with non-traditional roots, people often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different treatment concepts:

  • “Complementary” generally refers to using a non-traditional approach together with conventional medicine.
  • “Alternative” refers to using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine.


True alternative medicine is not common. Most people use non-traditional approaches along with conventional treatments. And the boundaries between complementary and conventional medicine overlap and change with time. For example, guided imagery and massage, both once considered complementary or alternative, are used regularly in some hospitals to help with pain management.

So, What Term Does The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Use?

NCCAM, a division of National Institutes of Health (NIH) generally uses the term “complementary health approaches” when discussing the practices and products we study for various health conditions. When thinking about our research portfolio, we often find it useful to consider these approaches as generally falling into one of two subgroups—natural products or mind and body practices.

Natural Products

This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements. Interest in and use of natural products have grown considerably in the past few decades.

Mind and Body Practices

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. For example,

  • Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body (acupuncture points)—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.
  • Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners manually manipulate the soft tissues of the body.
  • Most meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or transcendental meditation, involve ways in which a person learns to focus attention.
  • Movement therapies include a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches; examples include Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, are designed to produce the body’s natural relaxation response.
  • Spinal manipulation is practiced by health care professionals such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, naturopathic physicians, physical therapists, and some medical doctors. Practitioners perform spinal manipulation by using their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used.
  • Tai chi and Qigong are practices from traditional Chinese medicine that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus.
  • The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.


Other examples of mind and body practices include healing touch and hypnotherapy.

Other Complementary Health Approaches

The two broad areas—natural products and mind and body practices—capture most complementary health approaches. However, some approaches may not neatly fit into either of these groups—for example, the practices of traditional healers, Ayurvedic medicine from India, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.