Complementary Health Approaches

What Are Complementary Health Approaches?

Today, many people use complementary health approaches for a variety of diseases or conditions. But what exactly are these approaches, and how do they differ from standard medical care?

Complementary health approaches are medical and health care systems, practices, and products that originated outside of mainstream medicine. They include techniques performed by a practitioner (such as acupuncture, spinal manipulation, and massage therapy) and natural products (such as herbs, probiotics, and fish oil). Some approaches, including acupuncture and yoga, originated in Eastern countries such as China or India but are now used in Western countries as well.

Little research has been done on many complementary health approaches. Therefore, in many instances, it’s uncertain whether they are safe or effective. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is sponsoring research to learn more about the safety and effectiveness of complementary approaches.

Complementary vs. Alternative

When people talk about health care practices with non-mainstream origins, they often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” as though they mean the same thing, but the two words usually refer to different concepts.

  • “Complementary” refers to use of a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine.
  • “Alternative” refers to use of a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine.

True “alternative” medicine is not common. Most people who use non-mainstream approaches use them along with conventional treatments.

Integrative Medicine

Non-mainstream health care approaches may also be considered part of integrative medicine or integrative health care. For example, cancer treatment centers with integrative health care programs may offer services such as acupuncture and massage to patients who are receiving conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. These approaches may help patients manage some of the symptoms and side effects of treatment.

Integrative health care is a growing trend in the United States , but research on its potential value is in its early stages. Therefore, it’s hard for people to make informed decisions about whether to try this kind of care.

Talk With Your Health Care Providers

If you’re using or considering any complementary health approaches, tell your health care providers. They need a full picture of what you do to manage your health. Keeping them informed will help ensure that your health care is coordinated and safe.

How Popular Are Complementary Health Approaches?

Many Americans use complementary health approaches. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey, a nationwide government survey, found that 38 percent of U.S. adults reported using complementary health approaches in the previous year. The most common conditions for which people used complementary approaches were back, neck, and joint pain.

NIH Research and Information on Complementary Health Approaches

The lead agency at NIH for scientific research on complementary health approaches is the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). You can visit NCCIH’s Web site at for an introduction to complementary health approaches, statistics on their use, and information on specific approaches and health conditions.