5 Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine comes in a broad range of forms. Here's a look at five widely practiced types of complementary and alternative medicine.

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Natural Products

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the most commonly used complementary medicine approaches in the U.S. fall into one of two subgroups: natural products or mind-body practices.

Often sold in dietary supplement form, natural products may include herbs, probiotics, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, chemicals such as glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate (two supplements said to aid in the treatment of osteoarthritis), and a variety of other substances.

In the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (or NHIS, a report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics), researchers determined that 17.7 percent of American adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year. The most commonly used natural product was fish oil, an omega-3-rich substance said to protect against conditions such as heart disease.

Mind-Body Therapies

The second category of most commonly practiced complementary medicine approaches, according to the NCCIH, mind-body therapies typically involve using specific techniques to boost the mind's capacity to influence bodily function and enhance health.

Hypnotherapy is a popular type of mind-body therapy. Also known as hypnosis, it's been found to promote weight loss, alleviate back pain, and aid in smoking cessation in some scientific studies.

A practice long used to promote calm, meditation is a mind-body therapy that shows promise as an approach to achieving healthier blood pressure and sounder sleep. There's also some evidence that meditation may benefit people struggling with chronic pain, anxiety, fears, and depression.

Although yoga is often practiced as a form of exercise and a means of reducing stress, it's also used as a mind-body therapy. Indeed, some research indicates that yoga may help manage conditions like anxiety, insomnia, migraines, and depression.

The NCCIH notes that yoga's popularity has significantly increased in recent years, with almost twice as many U.S. adults practicing yoga in 2012 as in 2002.

Other types of mind-body therapies include biofeedback, guided imagery, and music therapy.

Alternative Medical Systems

Many proponents of complementary and alternative medicine use therapies and healing practices from alternative medical systems, such as homeopathy and naturopathic medicine.

Alternative medical systems also include traditional medical systems from other countries, such as Ayurveda (a form of alternative medicine that originated in India) and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Within TCM are a number of therapies frequently used in the U.S. today, including acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal medicine.

Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

This type of complementary and alternative medicine is based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body.

In some cases, manipulative and body-based methods involve participating in classes or individual sessions with the aim of changing your movement habits. For example, the Alexander Technique involves relearning basic movements (such as standing and sitting) in order to reduce muscle tension, while the Feldenkrais Method involves creating new patterns of movement in order to improve physical function and overall wellbeing.

Other types of manipulative and body-based methods used in complementary and alternative medicine focus on applying specific treatments to address health issues. These methods include reflexology, osteopathy, and rolfing.

Two of the most popular and well-researched types of manipulative and body-based methods are chiropractic and massage therapy.

Energy Therapies

Another type of complementary and alternative medicine, energy therapies are generally based on the idea that energy fields surround and penetrate the human body. Practitioners of energy therapies often aim to manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or placing the hands in or through these energy fields.

While the existence of such energy fields has not been scientifically proven, there's some evidence that certain energy therapies may have beneficial effects.

For instance, 2011 research has shown that performing qigong—a Traditional Chinese practice of movement—may help control chronic pain and lower blood pressure while Therapeutic Touch may help soothe osteoarthritis pain. In addition, there's some evidence that Reiki may help lessen pain, promote healthy sleep, and reduce anxiety.

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