The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), defines complementary and alternative medicine as diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently part of conventional medicine. Some scientific evidence exists regarding complementary and alternative therapies, but for most there are many questions in need of answers through well-designed scientific studies.

What’s the Difference?

Complementary medicine is used along with conventional medicine such as using massage and drug therapy to reduce the discomfort of fibromyalgia.

Alternative medicine replaces conventional medicine such as using a special diet to treat cancer instead of conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Integrative medicine combines mainstream medical therapies with complementary and alternative therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Categories of Alternative Therapies

According to NCCIH, complementary and alternative medicine practices are often grouped into broad categories, including:

  • Whole medical systems
  • Mind-body therapies
  • Biologically-based therapies
  • Manipulative or body-based methods
  • Energy therapies
  • Whole Medical Systems

    Whole medical systems are comprehensive approaches to healing and health based on an individuals fundamental views of nature and the healing process. Practitioners of these systems diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses. The approaches include:

    Traditional Chinese Medicine

    Traditional Chinese medicine includes a number of therapies. Those that are more common in the United States include:

    Qi gong: Qi gong is a practice used to improve circulation and enhance immune function by balancing the flow of energy, known as qi (pronounced "chee"), through movement, meditation, and regulation of breathing.

    Acupuncture: Acupuncture is based on the premise that qi flows in organized patterns near the surface of the body. Illness results when this energy becomes blocked or depleted. The acupuncturist inserts thin needles at specific points on the energy pathways, which can bring the qi back into balance and restore the patient to health.

    Acupressure: Acupressure is similar to acupuncture but, rather than using needles, the practitioner or patient uses his or her fingers to press key points on the surface of the skin.


    Ayurveda is an ancient health practice from India that focuses on the body, mind, and spirit in the prevention and treatment of disease. Herbs, massage, and specialized diets are all used to treat and prevent illness.

    Manipulative and Body-Based Methods