Don’t “Complement” Me, I’m Alternative!

Don’t “Complement” Me, I’m Alternative!

Anyone who knows somebody diagnosed with a serious illness may be familiar with complementary and alternative medicine. How do they differ?

Imagine two neighbors both go to the same acupuncturist for similar back conditions and receive similar care. Neighbor A defines his treatment as alternative medicine. On the other hand, neighbor B says he receives complementary healthcare from the acupuncturist. Which neighbor is right?

Complementary vs. Alternative Medicine

Assuming they’re using the terms correctly, both patients are right. The terms “alternative” and “complementary” can both refer to healthcare systems outside the mainstream Western medicine model. However, the words represent very different concepts.

  • When non-mainstream practices are used in conjunction with conventional medicine, it’s viewed as “complementary.”
  • When non-mainstream practices are used instead of conventional medicine, it’s called “alternative.”

So, if neighbor A is seeing an acupuncturist instead of an MD and is using no other conventional methods to treat his condition—such as prescription painkillers—he is indeed receiving alternative healthcare. And if neighbor B was evaluated by a medical doctor, has received diagnostic tests such as an x-ray or MRI, is using prescription medication, and is also receiving acupuncture treatments, he’s correct to say he’s getting complementary medical care.

The Rise of Alternative Medicine

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, alternative medicine is rising in popularity. Why is this so? In his article, The Triumph of New Age Medicine in The Atlantic, David H. Freedman states that the medical circle are starting to open their minds to the possibilities of the application of alternative medicine.

Medicine has long decried acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like as dangerous nonsense that preys on the gullible. Again and again, carefully controlled studies have shown alternative medicine to work no better than a placebo. But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well, and at a much lower cost, than mainstream care—and they’re trying to learn from it.

In the middle of this generation with modern medicine, the challenge of curing diseases lies in the prevention and slowing down the onset of diseases. And the most effective ways to do that are the following: regular exercise, healthy diet, and less exposure to stress.

Integrative Medicine: The New Normal

Over 30 percent of adults in America use non-mainstream health approaches at some point. And that number may be far higher depending on what falls as non-mainstream. Everything from taking vitamin supplements or homeopathic cold medicines to chiropractic care, massage, or meditation are non-conventional healthcare. Because of the rising use of and interest in complementary medicine, many healthcare providers are adopting a more integrative approach—blending proven techniques from many traditions to give patients the best possible overall care.

Doctors and medical centers offering integrative medicine are becoming more common across the US. Medical researchers are exploring the benefits of integrative healthcare to promote healthy behaviors, to relieve pain, and other symptoms in cancer patients, and in pain management for veterans and active military personnel.

The more we learn about the potential of non-invasive and non-pharmaceutical treatments, the more “conventional” integrative medicine becomes.