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.

A substantial amount of research has been done on some complementary approaches, such as acupuncture and yoga, but there have been fewer studies on other approaches, so much less is known about them. 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

There are many definitions of “integrative” health care, but all involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. The use of integrative approaches to health and wellness has grown within care settings across the United States.

Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors, and programs to promote healthy behaviors, such as weight control and quitting smoking. Although research on integrative programs is in its early stages, some studies have had promising results.

Talk With Your Health Care Providers

If you’re using or considering any complementary health approaches, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your health care providers. They need a full picture of what you do to manage your health.

How Popular Are Complementary Health Approaches?

Many Americans use complementary health approaches. The 2012 National Health Interview Survey, a nationwide Government survey, found that 33 percent of U.S. adults reported using complementary health approaches in the previous year. The survey also showed that the most common conditions for which adults used complementary approaches were back pain, neck pain, and joint pain or stiffness.

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.