Alternative Medicine: 7 Things Providers Want You to Know

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Nancy LeBrun on June 1, 2021
  • alternative medicine wordcloud
    The Many Facets of Non-traditional Medicine
    Complementary and alternative medicine, sometimes called CAM, encompasses a wide range of treatments. Physicians who use both traditional approaches and CAM often refer to their practices as ‘integrative’ or ‘holistic.’ No matter what you call it, its popularity in the United States has grown rapidly over the past 40 or 50 years. Here’s what some providers say about their experience using CAM to treat patients.
  • woman getting biofeedback
    1. “Whether it’s acupuncture, tai chi, or biofeedback, you’re expanding the range of treatment options.”
    “Conventional medicine has done a great job treating certain things: acute infections, trauma, etcetera, but [for] a lot of chronic conditions—chronic pain for example—conventional medicine has not come up with a lot of great solutions. These [other] kinds of approaches can add a much bigger toolbox to approaching challenging conditions,” says Ben Kligler, MD, professor of Family and Community Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
  • preparing herbs with mortar and pestle
    2. “With so many types of CAM treatments available, it can help to think of them in three buckets.”
    Most complementary or alternative medicine therapies fall into categories. “Things people take—supplements and botanicals; who people see—like chiropractors, massage therapists, and naturopaths; and things people do—that might be prayer for healing, yoga or mindfulness, for example. Each one of those categories has their own risks and benefits,” says Amy B. Locke, MD, University of Utah Resiliency Center, University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City. “If people are looking for a provider, they’re going to have to do some legwork. Find someone who’s been [practicing] a while, somebody whose patients are crazy about them—who’s been very well trained in their field,” adds Harold Goodman, DO and surgeon in Silver Spring, Maryland who is also a homeopath and acupuncturist.
  • woman receiving acupuncture or dry needling on back
    3. “Some unconventional approaches to medical treatment, but not all, have evidence to back them up.”
    As public interest in CAM grew, physicians and researchers began to study them more closely. “For the treatment of certain pain conditions—low back pain, neck pain, headache, osteoarthritis—the evidence is at least as strong as the evidence for almost any conventional medication we use. The American College of Physicians recently put out guidelines on low back pain that included several evidence-based complementary therapies. That kind of thing wasn’t happening 10 years ago,” says Dr. Kligler. Research continues into many types of CAM.
  • physical therapist or other provider giving hands-on shoulder therapy to woman
    4. “Part of running an integrative or complementary medicine practice means spending time with people—there’s tremendous interest in this on the part of patients.”
    “People need to be listened to,” says Dr. Goodman. “I’m a licensed, fully trained physician-surgeon and I believe in offering whatever I can to support the patient.” For a recent patient, “I used the regular protocol that any well-trained physician would use, and I also gave him a homeopathic medicine that could reverse everything that’s going on in the system. I did those two things and then gave him an osteopathic treatment to get the immune system functioning better,” Goodman adds.
  • woman receiving acupuncture on her back
    5. “Take your time investigating what type of CAM is likely to help your health concern.”
    “Hypnotherapy has great potential, not for treating everything under the sun, but for treating certain conditions,” says Dr. Kligler, who has used it for phobias and insomnia. As for practices like yoga, tai chi, or meditation, “all of those have great potential for helping. With a lot of different therapies, the biggest concentration of evidence for those things is in pain and mental health conditions,” Kligler adds.
  • female patient looking at tablet with doctor
    6. “Considering chiropractic, acupuncture, herbal medicine, or something else? Talk to an experienced integrative or holistic provider.”
    “The idea behind integrative medicine is to consider what the patient needs rather than ‘these are the therapies everybody gets.’ There is a misconception that everything we do in conventional medicine has been proven without a shadow of a doubt, and that is not true. Much of what we do in conventional medicine is based on our experience—what we’ve seen [first-hand], or studies [from other providers]. You can’t suspend that [process] when you switch to thinking about yoga or massage or particular products. So, you have to help the person make a decision based on the evidence that’s available and the risk of harm,” says Dr. Locke.
  • pharmacist holding bottles of liquid medicine in hand, possibly homeopathic
    7. “Just like there are good physicians and bad physicians, the same is true for providers of CAM.”
    “If you’re looking for a provider and they are trying to sell something, that’s a red flag. If you’re talking with a provider and there’s only ‘one right way,’ that’s another big red flag,” says Dr. Locke. “People with cancer or other serious medical conditions should be especially careful in researching and choosing the practitioners they work with, as there are unfortunately many ineffective and potentially dangerous alternative approaches being offered which can do much more harm than good,” adds Dr. Kligler. Whether it’s yoga, herbal medicine, energy work, or homeopathy, be sure to tell your provider what you’re doing or taking.
Alternative Medicine: 7 Things Doctors Want You to Know
  • Professor of Family and Community Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York
  • Associate professor, Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Utah Health, Salt Lake
  • Physician, surgeon, medical acupuncturist, homeopath, in Silver Spring, MD
  1. Homeopathy. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  2. Homeopathy. American Institute of Homeopathy.
  3. Acupuncture: In Depth. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  4. Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name? National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  5. Naturopathy. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  6. Chiropractic. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  7. Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need to Know. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  8. What is Osteopathic Medicine? American Academy of Osteopathy.
  9. Yoga: What You Need to Know. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  10. Tai Chi and Qi Gong.  National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  11. Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth. National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health.
  12. Loudon I. A brief history of homeopathy. J R Soc Med. 2006 Dec; 99(12): 607–610.

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Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 1
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