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Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

Get the facts

Your options

  • Add complementary medicine to your treatment or wellness plan.
  • Use only standard medical treatment.

Key points to remember

  • Complementary medicine is a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment. It covers alternative health approaches, mind and body practices, and natural products.
  • Many forms of complementary, or nonstandard, medicine have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. But often there is not much evidence from science on how safe they are or how well they work.
  • Some practices are thought to be safe. For example, most mind and body practices such as acupuncture, meditation, and yoga are very safe when used by healthy people with a well-trained professional.
  • People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term health problems or to stay healthy.
  • It is important to talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.
  • Your insurance may not cover the cost of some treatments.
FAQs

What is complementary medicine?

The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry. But it may not be standard when it's used in the treatment of cancer.

Examples of complementary medicine include:

  • Alternative health approaches such as traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
  • Mind and body practices like acupuncture, massage therapy, and tai chi.
  • Natural products like herbs, dietary supplements, and probiotics.

Is research being done on complementary medicine?

Some complementary practices have been studied and tested. But most haven't been studied with well-designed trials. That means there are still many questions about these practices. We often don't have good evidence from science about whether they are safe, when they should be used, and how well they work.

In the U.S., the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was formed within the National Institutes of Health to test how safe treatments are and how well they work. The center has guidelines to help you choose safe treatments that are right for you.

What are the risks of complementary medicine?

  • The greatest risk is that you use complementary treatment instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.
  • Some natural products may be safe when you take them on their own. But they may not be safe if you have other medical problems. And they could be dangerous when they are combined with another medicine you take. To be safe, always check with your doctor before you use any new natural products or supplements.
  • Natural products also can vary widely in how strong they are. And they may contain harmful things not listed on the label. Your doctor or practitioner may be able to recommend a brand you can trust.
  • Complementary medicine isn't regulated as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. People who sell or practice nonstandard medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:
    • Require large payments up-front.
    • Promise quick and miraculous results.
    • Warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits of complementary medicine?

  • Many people who provide complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the practitioner, the treatment, and the condition.
  • In some cases complementary medicine works as well as standard medicine.
  • Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most nonstandard medicine emphasizes the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.

Compare your options

Compare

What is usually involved?









What are the benefits?









What are the risks and side effects?









Use complementary medicine Use complementary medicine
  • You try any of a wide number of things. For example, you may:
    • Take a dietary supplement.
    • Get a regular massage.
    • Take a yoga class.
  • You still see your regular doctor.
  • You may feel more in control of your health.
  • You may feel better if you are working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.
  • Some complementary treatments work as well as standard treatments with fewer side effects.
  • Your health may suffer if you don't also see your regular doctor.
  • Some treatments cost a lot. Some aren't covered by insurance.
  • Governments don't regulate supplements the way they regulate medicines. So what's on the label may not be what's in the bottle.
Use only standard treatment Use only standard treatment
  • You get diagnosis and treatment only at your regular doctor's office.
  • Standard medical treatments are more likely to be based on scientific evidence.
  • Regular medicines are tested and regulated by laws. What's on the label is what you get.
  • You may miss out on trying something that may help.
  • Regular treatment sometimes causes side effects when a complementary treatment would not.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about complementary medicine

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

I am overweight and have high blood pressure. I looked into some herbal diet remedies that were supposed to help speed up my metabolism and help me lose weight. When I did some research, I found out that people with high blood pressure should not take certain herbs—like the one I was considering. I did not want to risk making my high blood pressure worse or, worse yet, put my life in danger by taking the herb. I decided to work on my diet and struggle through weight loss the old-fashioned way.

Sara, age 28

I prefer to use complementary therapies whenever they are available. They are my first choice in most cases. But I do see my doctor who supports my use of complementary therapies. He sometimes suggests a "standard" treatment when he feels it's necessary—like when I had a small skin cancer surgically removed. It was clear to me that this tried-and-true and possibly lifesaving treatment was best. For everyday health and wellness, though, I use a variety of complementary therapies. I've used everything from tea tree oil for fungal nail infections; to aloe vera, straight off the plant, for mild burns; to acupuncture for low back pain.

Jeneane, age 36

I have had great success keeping my cancer in remission using conventional cancer treatments. At this point, I don't want to upset the apple cart. If it ain't broke, I'm not going to try to fix it.

Charles, age 42

What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to use complementary medicine

Reasons not to use complementary medicine

I want a more personal, whole-person approach to my health care.

I'm satisfied with the treatment I'm getting from my regular doctor.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the lack of much research from science on complementary medicine.

I'm very worried about the lack of research.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about interactions between complementary medicine and my standard medical treatment.

I'm very worried about the chance of having dangerous interactions.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Using complementary medicine

NOT using complementary medicine

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1.

There's a lot of evidence from science to support my use of complementary treatments.

  • TrueSorry, that's wrong. Many complementary treatments have not yet been scientifically studied with well-designed trials. So we don't always know how safe they are or how well they work.
  • FalseYou're right. Many complementary treatments have not yet been scientifically studied with well-designed trials. So we don't always know how safe they are or how well they work.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Many complementary treatments have not yet been scientifically studied with well-designed trials. So we don't always know how safe they are or how well they work.
2.

It's important for me to talk to my doctor before trying complementary medicine.

  • TrueYou're right. Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.
  • FalseSorry, that's wrong. Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.

Decide what's next

1.

Do you understand the options available to you?

2.

Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3.

Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1.

How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure
3.

Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Your Summary

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

Your decision 

Next steps

Which way you're leaning

How sure you are

Your comments

Your knowledge of the facts 

Key concepts that you understood

Key concepts that may need review

Getting ready to act 

Patient choices

Credits

Credits
AuthorHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the Facts

Your options

  • Add complementary medicine to your treatment or wellness plan.
  • Use only standard medical treatment.

Key points to remember

  • Complementary medicine is a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment. It covers alternative health approaches, mind and body practices, and natural products.
  • Many forms of complementary, or nonstandard, medicine have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. But often there is not much evidence from science on how safe they are or how well they work.
  • Some practices are thought to be safe. For example, most mind and body practices such as acupuncture, meditation, and yoga are very safe when used by healthy people with a well-trained professional.
  • People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term health problems or to stay healthy.
  • It is important to talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.
  • Your insurance may not cover the cost of some treatments.
FAQs

What is complementary medicine?

The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry. But it may not be standard when it's used in the treatment of cancer.

Examples of complementary medicine include:

  • Alternative health approaches such as traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
  • Mind and body practices like acupuncture, massage therapy, and tai chi.
  • Natural products like herbs, dietary supplements, and probiotics.

Is research being done on complementary medicine?

Some complementary practices have been studied and tested. But most haven't been studied with well-designed trials. That means there are still many questions about these practices. We often don't have good evidence from science about whether they are safe, when they should be used, and how well they work.

In the U.S., the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was formed within the National Institutes of Health to test how safe treatments are and how well they work. The center has guidelines to help you choose safe treatments that are right for you.

What are the risks of complementary medicine?

  • The greatest risk is that you use complementary treatment instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.
  • Some natural products may be safe when you take them on their own. But they may not be safe if you have other medical problems. And they could be dangerous when they are combined with another medicine you take. To be safe, always check with your doctor before you use any new natural products or supplements.
  • Natural products also can vary widely in how strong they are. And they may contain harmful things not listed on the label. Your doctor or practitioner may be able to recommend a brand you can trust.
  • Complementary medicine isn't regulated as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. People who sell or practice nonstandard medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:
    • Require large payments up-front.
    • Promise quick and miraculous results.
    • Warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits of complementary medicine?

  • Many people who provide complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the practitioner, the treatment, and the condition.
  • In some cases complementary medicine works as well as standard medicine.
  • Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most nonstandard medicine emphasizes the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.

2. Compare your options

  Use complementary medicine Use only standard treatment
What is usually involved?
  • You try any of a wide number of things. For example, you may:
    • Take a dietary supplement.
    • Get a regular massage.
    • Take a yoga class.
  • You still see your regular doctor.
  • You get diagnosis and treatment only at your regular doctor's office.
What are the benefits?
  • You may feel more in control of your health.
  • You may feel better if you are working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.
  • Some complementary treatments work as well as standard treatments with fewer side effects.
  • Standard medical treatments are more likely to be based on scientific evidence.
  • Regular medicines are tested and regulated by laws. What's on the label is what you get.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • Your health may suffer if you don't also see your regular doctor.
  • Some treatments cost a lot. Some aren't covered by insurance.
  • Governments don't regulate supplements the way they regulate medicines. So what's on the label may not be what's in the bottle.
  • You may miss out on trying something that may help.
  • Regular treatment sometimes causes side effects when a complementary treatment would not.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about complementary medicine

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"I am overweight and have high blood pressure. I looked into some herbal diet remedies that were supposed to help speed up my metabolism and help me lose weight. When I did some research, I found out that people with high blood pressure should not take certain herbs—like the one I was considering. I did not want to risk making my high blood pressure worse or, worse yet, put my life in danger by taking the herb. I decided to work on my diet and struggle through weight loss the old-fashioned way."

— Sara, age 28

"I prefer to use complementary therapies whenever they are available. They are my first choice in most cases. But I do see my doctor who supports my use of complementary therapies. He sometimes suggests a "standard" treatment when he feels it's necessary—like when I had a small skin cancer surgically removed. It was clear to me that this tried-and-true and possibly lifesaving treatment was best. For everyday health and wellness, though, I use a variety of complementary therapies. I've used everything from tea tree oil for fungal nail infections; to aloe vera, straight off the plant, for mild burns; to acupuncture for low back pain."

— Jeneane, age 36

"I have had great success keeping my cancer in remission using conventional cancer treatments. At this point, I don't want to upset the apple cart. If it ain't broke, I'm not going to try to fix it."

— Charles, age 42

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to use complementary medicine

Reasons not to use complementary medicine

I want a more personal, whole-person approach to my health care.

I'm satisfied with the treatment I'm getting from my regular doctor.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the lack of much research from science on complementary medicine.

I'm very worried about the lack of research.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about interactions between complementary medicine and my standard medical treatment.

I'm very worried about the chance of having dangerous interactions.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

  
       
More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Using complementary medicine

NOT using complementary medicine

       
Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. There's a lot of evidence from science to support my use of complementary treatments.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Many complementary treatments have not yet been scientifically studied with well-designed trials. So we don't always know how safe they are or how well they work.

2. It's important for me to talk to my doctor before trying complementary medicine.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if he or she has the whole picture about your health.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

     
Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.

3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

 
Credits
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Note: The "printer friendly" document will not contain all the information available in the online document some Information (e.g. cross-references to other topics, definitions or medical illustrations) is only available in the online version.

Current as of: July 23, 2014

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