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Alternative medicine is a broad term that refers to any form or approach to health care that falls outside the scope of conventional Western medicine. It comes in many different forms and is also sometimes called complementary or integrative medicine. Technically, alternative medicine refers to forms of treatment that are used in place of Western medicine, although in practice the terms "alternative," "complementary" and "integrative" medicine are often used interchangeably.


A wide variety of approaches falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine, from cutting-edge treatments to approaches to medicine that are thousands of years old. Some of the common ones include acupuncture, massage and meditation. Movement therapies like tai chi, yoga and qi gong are considered to be a form of alternative medicine in many circles, as are the spinal manipulations performed by chiropractors and osteopathic physicians. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing fit the alternative medicine category as well. And vitamins, herbs, probiotics and foods that are treated as medicine are another large category of alternative medicine.

Alternative Medicine in Practice

Though the term “alternative” technically means in place of, the reality is that the majority of people who practice alternative medicine do so as a complement to conventional or Western medicine. For example, someone might attend acupuncture and massage sessions for pain management along with seeing a medical doctor (an M.D.) Similarly, older adults might take a daily fish oil capsule to protect heart health, but then seek more direct conventional treatment if needed. And movement methods like tai chi and yoga can often be incorporated into everyday practice for overall health and well-being.

In recent decades, the appreciation and respect, as well as the validity based on scientific research, of many forms of alternative medicine have grown. Today, it’s not uncommon for many practitioners of Western medicine to accept and recommend some of these treatments to their patients as complements to their standard care.

SOURCES: U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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