Posted October 11, 2015


Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?massage.jpg

More than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed a National Center for Complimentary and Integrative health to research some of these approaches and find out which ones may actually have a positive impact on your health.

Complementary Versus Alternative

People often confuse the terms, “alternative” medicine and “Complementary” medicine interchangeably, but they actually refer to different concepts. Complementary Medicine refers to a non-mainstream practice used together with conventional medicine. Alternative Medicine, however, is a non-mainstream practice used in place of conventional medicine.

Integrative Medicine

While there are many definitions of integrative health care, they all involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together to coordinate care and provide better relief for patients suffering from a variety of symptoms. Much research is being done in the area of integrative medicine to explore the potential benefits in a variety of situations.

*Integrative Approaches for Pain Management : The NCCIH has funded studies the effects of adding mindfulness meditation, self-hypnosis, or other complementary approaches to pain management programs for veterans. The goal being to help patients feel and function better and reduce their need for pain medicines that can have serious side effects.

*Integrative Approaches for Symptom Management in Cancer Patients and Survivors: Cancer treatment centers with integrative health care programs offer programs and services such as acupuncture and meditation to help manage symptoms and side effects for patients receiving conventional cancer treatment. The NCCIH funded research has suggested that these patients receiving integrative therapies have less pain and anxiety, Massage therapy may lead to short-term improvements in pain as well as mood in patients with advanced cancer, and Yoga may relieve the persistent fatigue that some women experience after breast cancer treatment.

*Integrative Approaches and Health-Related Behaviors: Engaging in healthy behaviors can reduce people risks for developing serious diseases. Can integrative approaches help to promote these behaviors? Behaviors such as eating right, getting enough physical activity and not smoking?  Researchers are working on the answer to this question. Preliminary research suggests that yoga and meditation based therapies may help smokers quit, and there is current research aimed at testing whether adding mindfulness based approaches to weight control programs will help people lose weight more successfully.

Complimentary Health Approaches

There are two main subgroups of complementary health approaches; Natural products or mind and body practices

Natural products are things such as herbs/botanicals, vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. Also called nutritional supplements. One of the most common supplements used today is fish oil.


Mind and body practices are a diverse group of procedures or techniques taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. The 2012 NHIS showed that yoga, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, meditation, and massage therapy are among the most popular mind and body practices used by adults. The popularity of yoga has grown dramatically in recent years, with almost twice as many U.S. adults practicing yoga in 2012 as in 2002. Other mind and body practices include accupuncture, relaxation techniques (such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation), tai chi, gi qong, healing touch, hypnotherapy, and movement therapies.

NCCIH’s vision is that scientific evidence will inform decision making by the public, by health care professionals, and by health policymakers regarding the use and integration of complementary and integrative health approaches.

Being aware that these practices exist is a start to making positive changes in our daily routines. Maybe it is time for all of us to start thinking of ways to help improve our own physical, mental or  emotional situation by applying some of these various techniques in our daily lives. 


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