Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a broad term for many health care treatments and medicines not generally used by the traditional medical community. Complementary or Integrative therapies are applied in tandem with traditional western medicine whereas alternative therapies are adopted in place of the traditional. Integrative practices might include acupuncture and yoga for pain or nutritional supplements for post surgical recovery. Alternative practices forgo the traditional and can be harmful, such as special diets rather than chemotherapy for a cancer diagnosis.

Herbal supplements, acupuncture, various Eastern medicines and techniques, mind and body practices, meditation, Traditional Chinese or Korean medicine, Tai Chi and other exercise programs, and even chiropractic care are examples of what are considered alternative or complementary to Western traditional (also known as allopathic) medicine. 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is the new (2014) name for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and is one of the 27 institutions that comprise the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the United States Department of Health and Human Services. NCCIH is the lead agency for scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine and practices.

The National Health Interview Survey, an episodic study conducted by the National Center for health Statistics, asks tens of thousands of Americans about their health and/or illness related practices and experiences. The 2007 survey found that approximately 38% of adults and 12 percent of children use some form of complementary or alternative medicine. Questions about complementary care were added in 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017. 

Helene Langevin, the current director of NCCHI, said in a September 2020 video conference that her career as a physician focused on connections, “whole person care across multiple domains - physical, psychological, and social.” She went on to say that the NCCIH is pursuing objective research into multi-modal therapies as an approach to care. Holistic health looks at the multiple factors that can lead to disease of many organs. Poor diet, chronic stress, poor sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle cause and contribute to illness and these can both be prevented and reversed. A previous director, Josephine Briggs, stated “The 2007 NHIS provided the most current, comprehensive, and reliable source of information on Americans’ use of CAM.” She continued, “These statistics confirm that CAM practices are a frequently used component of Americans’ health care regimens, and reinforce the need for rigorous research to study the safety and effectiveness of these therapies. The data also point out the need for patients and health care providers to openly discuss CAM use to ensure safe and coordinated care.”

Americans are continuing to employ complementary care in their pursuit of good health.  The 2017 report focused mainly on yoga, meditation, and chiropractic care and found that 14% of adult Americans do yoga on a regular basis, 14.2% meditate, and 10.3% regularly see a chiropractor for a myriad of health concerns but mostly pain issues.

Commonly used CAM therapies include such products as fish oil, glucosamine, ginseng, cinnamon, chamomile, milk thistle, green tea, cranberry and many more.  Common conditions for which CAM is sought are pain syndromes; back pain, joint pain and stiffness, arthritis and chronic neck pain are all addressed by CAM therapies which are subject to as rigorous a study and investigation as are other therapies.  As information regarding usefulness is published, Americans change some practices such as a reduction in the use of CAM such as echinacea, which has been shown to be not particularly effective in reducing cold symptoms.

Due to numerous interruptions in surveys and research due to COVID, more recent statistics are difficult to ascertain.  But according to both the 2002 and the 2007 studies, 42.8% of women and 33% of men used CAM therapies.  Adults over the age of 30 use CAM therapies more than their younger peers. The greatest percentage is among those 50-59 with 44.1% of this age group using CAM.  41% of people aged 60-69 use CAM therapies. 55.4% of people with higher levels of education (masters, doctorate, or professional degrees) use CAM. People living in the west (44.6%) are more likely to use CAM.  48.1% of people who have quit smoking have used CAM. 

Complementary and alternative medicine practices can offer remedies for common problems. Many therapies are safe and effective but some may be harmful. Beware of the word “natural” as this is not synonymous with healthy (arsenic and strychnine are natural substances!). Do your homework. If you are interested in a particular therapy, look into its advantages and discuss them with your health care provider. 


Mia Smitt is a nurse practitioner with a specialty in family practice. She recently retired and settled in Tucson after two-and-a-half years living on a 40-foot sailboat exploring the world. She is originally from San Francisco.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.