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Defining alternative medicine Defining alternative medicine
Alternative medicine is defined as "any healing practice that does not fall within the realm of conventional medicine". It's basis is historical or... Defining alternative medicine

by Kimberly Allen R.N.

Alternative medicine is defined as “any healing practice that does not fall within the realm of conventional medicine”.  It’s basis is historical or cultural traditions instead of scientific evidence.  Alternative medicine is often associated with complimentary medicine.  Complimentary medicine is using the same alternative medicine systems in conjunction with conventional medicine.  These are referred to as Complimentary and Alternative medicine or CAM.

Acupuncture is one of the world's oldest alternative medicines.

Alternative  medicine is diverse and their methods are many times based upon traditional (not conventional) medicine,  spiritual beliefs, and folk knowledge.  Though different there are many common characteristics associated with the major  CAM systems.  These include “focusing on individualized treatments, treating the whole person, self promoting self care and healing, and recognizing the spiritual nature of individuals”.  There are also many characteristics of conventional or mainstream medicine like focusing on good nutrition and prevention in many CAM systems.  The major difference that separates CAM from conventional medicine is that it has little or no scientific evidence from experimental or clinical studies.  CAM has classified 5 major group of systems, some of which over lap:

1Whole medical systems,  These include Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Naturopathy,and Homeopathy.

2 Mind-Body medicine,  this system takes a holistic approach to health by using the interconnections between the mind , body, and spirit believing that the mind has an affect on”body functions and symptoms.”

3 Biology based practices this group uses natural substances such as herbs for the main component of treatment.

4 Manipulative and body-based practices: ” The use of manipulation and movement”  as seen in chiropractic and osteopathic medicines.

5 Energy Medicine,  this uses verifiable and putative energy fields: Biofield therapies believe that there are energy fields that surround and penetrate our bodies though there is no evidence that supports this belief.  Bioelectromagnetic therapies make use of verifiable electromagnetic fields in an unconventional manner.

Most people will go to their family Dr for an initial diagnosis and information, however more and more they are turning to alternative medicine or other health promoting therapies.  Recent studies show that many times people are using alternative treatments in conjunction with conventional medicine creating integrated medicine.  Leading advocates of integrated medicine believe that the principles of this practice include the appropriate use of both CAM and conventional medicine to achieve and promote health as well as the treatment of disease.  It also prefers the use of natural and minimally invasive methods.  Lastly and most importantly is patient participation.  If the patient is unwilling or unable to participate in the treatment it is unlikely that it will be successful.

In the US, more and more medical colleges are offering courses in alternative medicine as well as complimentary medicine.  An earlier study reported “there is tremendous hetergeneity and diversity in content, format, and requirements among courses in complimentary and alternative medicine at US medical schools.  Some of the common topics that are included are accupuncture, chiropractic, herbal therapies,homeopathy and mind-body techniques.  There are also an increasing number of accredited Naturopathic colleges and universities in the US and Canada.

Wether you opt to include alternative medicine in your treatment plan or not it’s always important to keep your doctor informed.  Even if you think your doctor won’t approve, it’s important to keep him/her in the loop because there is the potential for interaction between conventional medications and certain herbs and foods.

Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at