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All You Need to Know About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Types

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Various healing modalities have been used across the world throughout its long history. Some have been proven to be ineffective and even outright dangerous, while others have stood the test of time and the rigorous trials of modern science. In the West, we have only relatively recently started to re-discover many of these healing modalities. 

In this article, we will discuss the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) types that have demonstrated their effectiveness in treating many illnesses and symptoms, from infertility to musculoskeletal pain. You will learn about six CAM therapies, how they function, and what the benefits of each are. But before we get to that, let’s quickly take a step back and define complementary and alternative therapies. 

What Are Alternative and Complementary Therapies?

Alternative therapies are classified as practices that are used instead of conventional Western medical treatments. They encompass various approaches, from acupuncture and cupping to herbal medicine and chiropractic care. For instance, if you did not want to take antidepressants or pain medication to deal with premenstrual syndrome symptoms but instead treated it with acupuncture for PMS, then acupuncture would be classified as an alternative therapy.

Complementary therapies, on the other hand, are used alongside conventional medical treatments to improve the effectiveness or alleviate side effects. To use acupuncture as an example again, if you were suffering from severe anxiety and treated it with psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medication, while you also went to acupuncture for anxiety treatments to improve the effectiveness, then acupuncture would be classified as a complementary therapy. 

In short, complementary therapies are integrated into a patient’s overall treatment plan to improve their well-being and quality of life, while alternative therapies are used as the primary treatment. As you can see from the examples, the distinction between complementary and alternative therapies is not based on the type of therapy, but on how it is applied. This is why non-conventional therapies are commonly grouped together as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Now that we have cleared that up, let us talk about CAM types that have proven to be effective.

6 Effective CAM Types

1. Acupuncture 

Acupuncture is one of the oldest and most well-studied of all CAM types; medical studies have definitively shown that the effects of acupuncture are not based on placebo, that it can be effective as both a primary and complementary treatment, and the potential side-effects of acupuncture are minimal. It is the practice of stimulating specific points on your body, called acupoints, by inserting and manipulating specialized thin needles.

From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, stimulating acupoints helps your vital energy, your Qi, to flow freely; according to conventional medicine, acupuncture stimulates the production of beneficial chemicals while it balances the production of stress-inducing hormones, improves blood flow and circulation, and relaxes your muscles.

All of this means that the benefits of acupuncture are many –  it can help manage acute and chronic musculoskeletal pain, mitigate severe PMS symptoms, help with certain mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression, and can even help with fertility issues for both men and women. However, and this is true of all CAM types and their respective practitioners, acupuncture should only be performed by trained acupuncturists.     

2. Cupping 

Cupping is the practice of using specialized cups that can create a vacuum/suction effect and placing them on the skin in specific positions. The vacuum was traditionally created by placing and lighting a flammable substance inside the cup, while more modern techniques include the use of suction devices. The purpose of this vacuum/suction effect is to relieve the pressure that accumulates within your muscles, connective tissue, and skin and to improve blood flow and stimulate the nervous system in the affected area. 

The benefits of cupping partially overlap with those of acupuncture and these two CAM types are often used in conjunction to maximize the effects. Cupping is primarily used for targeted pain relief, to reduce inflammation, and to promote healing. In recent years, cupping has also become a popular method amongst athletes to treat muscle soreness. Cupping is also a viable alternative to acupuncture for people with bleeding or other disorders that prevent them from undergoing acupuncture treatments, although the effects of cupping on its own are lesser. 

3. Herbal Therapy

Flowers in a mortar as preparation for creating herbal remedies.

Herbal therapy is one of the oldest CAM types in existence. At its core, herbal therapy is nothing more than utilizing the active ingredients from plants to benefit your body, so you could even consider an action as simple as drinking chamomile tea a type of herbal therapy. However, for experienced practitioners, it is much more. Herbal therapy draws upon centuries of traditional knowledge and modern scientific research to maximize the healing properties of plants. 

From chamomile tea to complex herbal formulations prescribed by herbalists, this practice encompasses a wide range of applications. Herbs are blended to create tailored remedies to address specific health concerns, emphasizing the holistic approach of treating the root cause rather than just symptoms. 

It is typically used to promote overall well-being and treat chronic conditions such as sleep issues and anxiety, but not as the primary therapy for life-threatening conditions. Herbal therapy can be administered in many forms, such as pills, powders, and teas that you injest, lotions that can be applied to the skin, and even supplements that are added to bath water.

4. Chiropractic

Chiropractic care is another prominent CAM type – it focuses on diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal disorders, particularly those related to the spine. Chiropractic is based on the belief that proper alignment of the musculoskeletal structure, particularly the spine, can enable your body to heal itself without surgery or medication. 

The foundational principle is that spinal health directly influences the overall health of a person. Chiropractic adjustments are the cornerstone of this therapy; during an adjustment, a chiropractor applies controlled force to specific joints of the spine or other parts of the body. The purpose of this type of manipulation is to restore mobility, alleviate pain, and promote natural healing. 

Most often, chiropractors treat back and neck pain, as well as other joint disorders, and headaches – medical studies have shown that chiropractic is an effective CAM type for treating these types of conditions. Chiropractic therapy can be the primary treatment method for musculoskeletal issues as a non-invasive alternative to surgery or complementary therapy when it is integrated with conventional treatments like physical therapy or medication. 

Acupuncture and chiropractic are often used in conjunction as a holistic approach to treating musculoskeletal issues. Additionally, chiropractors often emphasize lifestyle modifications, from exercise to posture correction, to support long-term health and prevent future issues. However, as with all CAM therapies, it is critical to only go to licensed and experienced practitioners; in the United States, every state has a chiropractic regulatory board that issues chiropractic licenses. 

5. Reiki Therapy

Reiki therapy is a less well-known CAM type that has not been as extensively studied in the West as the other ones we discussed. The modern form of Reiki was developed by Mikao Usui in 1922 in Japan, although there is strong evidence that suggests that modalities of healing that could be classified as Reiki have been practiced on the Japanese islands for over 2,000 years.

The modern form of Reiki is based on the belief that every person has a universal life energy that flows through them and that this energy is able to promote healing; the term Reiki is a compound of two Japanese words – rei, which means universal, and ki, which means energy. This concept of a universal life energy is similar to the belief in Qi that traditional acupuncture practitioners hold.  

In simple terms, Reiki is a type of energy healing – during a session, a Reiki practitioner places their hands lightly on or just above the patient’s body, facilitating energy transfer to areas needing balance. Reiki is used to reduce stress, alleviate pain, and enhance overall well-being by restoring energy flow. While scientific validation is limited, many people find Reiki beneficial as a complementary therapy for relaxation and emotional support.

6. Ayurveda

A woman meditating while practicing one of the oldest CAM types - Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is a type of CAM therapy and an entire alternative medicine system in itself. It is an ancient holistic healing system that originates from the Indian subcontinent, with roots dating back to at least 3,000 years ago and some evidence suggesting it was practiced even before that. 

Over the years, Ayurvedic practices have changed and evolved so it is not possible to talk about just one type of Ayurveda. However, the common aspect of all Ayurvedic practices is a focus on achieving balance and harmony within the body, mind, and spirit to promote health and prevent illness. 

One of the central Ayurvedic principles is the belief that each person is made up of a unique combination of five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and ether, known as doshas. Ayurvedic treatments consist of numerous healing modalities, including herbal remedies, dietary adjustments, yoga, meditation, and detoxification practices.

The purpose of these treatments is to rebalance the doshas, while therapy is personalized and based on a person’s dosha constitution and specific health concerns. In the United States, Ayurvedic practices started gaining in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, and according to the latest available data from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, approximately 240,000 adults in the U.S. use Ayurvedic medicine as of 2018. 

A Bit About Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is an evidence-based medical approach that combines various CAM types with conventional Western medicine. Integrative medicine takes a holistic view where your emotional and mental needs are considered alongside your physical symptoms. At BH Acuhealth Clinic, we take this type of approach to treating our patients. 

We are a licensed acupuncture clinic in Los Angeles that specializes in:

You can also get cupping therapy and we will work together with your primary healthcare providers or other CAM practitioners to give you the comprehensive treatment you deserve. Make an appointment so that we can discuss what your personalized treatment plan should look like. Dr. Mitra Daneshrad


Make an Appointment: (424) 466-8966
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