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Definition: alternative medicine from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1977) : any of various systems of healing or treating disease (as chiropractic, homeopathy, or faith healing) not included in the traditional medical curricula of the U.S. and Britain

Summary Article: Alternative Medicine
From Encyclopedia of Global Health

Alternative medicine uses therapeutic approaches not considered part of traditional medicine, including physical treatments and spiritual and mental approaches to healing. Alternative medicine is distinct from complementary medicine, which is used along with conventional medicine approaches. Complementary and alternative medicine, as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), are a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.

Alternative medicine originated at least 6,000 years ago. Its most researched sources are traditional naturalistic Hindu medicine (also known as ayurvedic medicine), traditional Chinese medicine, and ancient Roman medicine. These therapies derive from strong beliefs in the healing power of nature. In traditional Hindu medicine, health is based on the balance of three fundamental body elements: breath (vayu or prana), bile (pitta), and phlegm (kapha or slesman) and the treatment of disease is based on restoring the equilibrium of these elements. Traditional Chinese medicine considers disease a result of dissonance between external and internal environments; treatments consist of herbal medicine, acupuncture, and massage. Therapeutic approaches of Chinese medicine are based on principles derived from Eastern philosophy and theories such as yin–yang, qi, and the five elements. Ancient Roman alternative medicine mainly used herbal remedies and marginalized the role of contemporary medicine and physicians.


Statistics show that significant percentages of the populations of developed countries use complementary and alternative medicine. In the United States, according to a 2004 National Institutes of Health survey, 36 percent of Americans used complementary and alternative medicine as a form of therapy (praying for health reasons was not included in these statistics). Women are more likely than men to use complementary and alternative medicine.

The trend toward using complementary and alternative medicine and natural compounds has significantly increased in past decades. An important reason for this trend is the belief that these therapies will have fewer side effects. Another important factor is a vision of health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease. In contrast to conventional medicine, which treats the body like a machine, alternative medicine emphasizes the importance of the balance of mental, physical, and spiritual aspects. Simplicity, availability, and lower prices compared to modern medications also contribute to the use of alternative medicine.

There is serious skepticism about the efficacy and safety of alternative medicine compared to conventional medicine. Many previous studies of it were poorly designed and had observer bias. Some skeptics of alternative medicine point to the placebo effect or relief of symptoms based on natural recovery from an illness. There are reports of death based on discontinuing conventional medicine in favor of alternative medicine.


NCCAM classifies complementary and alternative medicine therapies into five categories: alternative medical systems, mind–body interventions, biologically based therapies, manipulative and body-based methods, and energy therapies.

Acupuncture originated in China more than 2,000 years ago and is one of the oldest and most commonly used medical procedures in the world. Acupuncture involves procedures that stimulate anatomical points on the body by using a variety of techniques. Penetrating the skin with fine needles is the most common technique. Acupuncture, in its original form, was based on beliefs about the circulation of a vital force or energy along specific pathways (meridians) in the human body. Disease is the inappropriate flow of this energy through the meridians. This inappropriateness can be in strength, quality, or direction of the energy. Acupuncture points are located along these channels and stimulation of them will change the flow of energy in the body. These acupuncture points are seen to correspond to anatomical structures such as peripheral nerve systems.

Aromatherapy uses essential oils and water-based colloids extracted from flowers, herbs, and trees to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual health and balance. It dates back 6,000 years and is defined as the controlled use of plant essences for therapeutic purposes. The medieval Persian physician Avicenna is credited with determining the methods for extracting essential oils from plants. Gattefosse was the first person to use the term aromatherapy to describe the practice. Universal reactions to the chemical properties of certain essential oil scents can evoke calmness or joy, energize or relieve stress, or impact emotions in other ways. From an aromatherapy point of view, the aromas of oils are not in themselves therapeutic; it is the essence of oils and their chemical properties that give them their therapeutic value.

Ayurveda is an approach that has been practiced in the Indian subcontinent for more then 5,000 years. Ayurvedic healing includes use of herbs, nutrition, panchakarma cleansing to remove accumulated waste in body and mind, acupressure and oil massage, yoga, sanskrit, and jyotish (vedic astrology).

The chiropractic system focuses on the balance between body structure (mainly the spine) and function. It is concerned with the relationship between bone structure function and overall health. The main tool in chiropractic medicine is manipulative treatment.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, a dietary supplement is defined as a product taken by mouth that contains ingredients intended to supplement the diet. Dietary supplements are considered foods, not drugs. In order for an ingredient of a dietary supplement to be a “dietary ingredient,” it must be one or any combination of the following substances: a vitamin; a mineral; an herb or other botanical; an amino acid; a dietary substance for use by humans to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake, such as enzymes or tissues from organs or glands; or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract.

Herbal medicine uses plants for healing purposes, rather than as dietary supplements. It involves either oral or topical use of plant extractions. Chinese herbal medicine is the most prevalent ancient herbal tradition currently used. It is based on the yin (cooling) and yang (stimulating) qualities of herbs. Combinations of herbs are used according to the lack or excess of these qualities in the patient. Unlike in conventional drugs, in herbal medicine whole plants are used. It is believed that these combinations of different components are synergistic, so the effect of the whole herb is greater than the effect of its components when used separately in modern drugs. Also, it is believed that toxicity is reduced when using whole plants, though more data is needed to verify this concept.

Electric and magnetic fields are part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that extends from static electric and magnetic fields, through radiofrequency and infrared radiation, to X-rays. Magnetic therapy is based on the metaphysical assumption that all illnesses are due to some sort of imbalance or disharmony in energy. The balance or flow of electromagnetic energy must be restored to restore health, and magnets are thought to be able to do this. Another common belief is the effect of magnetic therapy in increasing blood circulation, which has yet to be confirmed.

The main principle of the homeopathic doctrine is similia similibus curantur (like shall be cured by like). This principle was mentioned in the writings of Hippocrates, Paracelsus, and other ancient Greek philosophers. According to Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy, all diseases can be actively cured by the introduction of the second diseased state. In essence, small, highly diluted quantities of medicinal substances are given to cure symptoms. The same substances, if given in higher or more concentrated doses, would actually cause the disease.

Massage therapies work muscle and connective tissue to promote relaxation and well-being by enhancing the function of those tissues. In almost all cultures massage therapies are separate parts of complementary and alternative medicine. Massage therapies are used in not only improving blood circulation, but also in psychological and spiritual aspects of health. Different techniques used in massage therapies include effleurage, or soft massage along the length of muscles; petrissage, or pressure applied across the width of muscles; friction, or deep massage applied by circular motions of the thumbs and fingertips; kneading, or squeezing across the width of muscle; and hacking, such as light slaps or karate chops.

Naturopathic medicine is a system of medicine that assists in the restoration of health by following a set of specific rules. A basic assumption is that nature is orderly, and this orderliness is designed to result in ongoing life and well-being. This dependable orderliness is believed to be guided by a kind of inner wisdom or inner power that everyone has. This power guiding internal physical processes that lead to health or disease can be assisted by naturopathic treatments that encompass various aspects of alternative medicine such as nutrition and lifestyle counseling, dietary supplements, herbal medicine, exercise, homeopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Osteopathic medicine is considered a part of conventional medicine. One of the key concepts of osteopathic medicine is that structure influences function. If there is a problem in one part of the body’s structure, function in that area, and possibly in other areas, may be affected. Another integral part of osteopathic medicine is emphasis on the body’s innate ability to heal itself. Many of osteopathic medicine’s manipulative techniques are aimed at reducing or eliminating the impediments to proper structure and function, so the self-healing mechanism can assume its role in restoring the person’s health. This system of hands-on techniques helps alleviate pain, restores motion, supports the body’s natural functions, and influences the body’s structure to help it function more efficiently.

Qigong is a component of traditional Chinese medicine. In Chinese, the word qigong is composed of two characters, qi and gong. Qi means life energy and gong means daily effort. Everyone is born with qi and has the potential to use qi for many purposes. However, the skill to use qi is acquired through training. Once a person is trained, he or she can use qi for medical self-healing. Qigong practice combines movement, meditation, and breathing techniques to enhance the flow of qi in the body, improve blood circulation, and improve immune functions.

Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through every person and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s life force energy is low, then one is more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, one is more capable of being happy and healthy. The word reiki is made of two Japanese words: rei, which means “God’s wisdom or the higher power” and ki, which means “life force energy.” Reiki treats the whole person including body, emotions, mind, and spirit, creating beneficial effects that include relaxation and feelings of peace, security, and well-being.

A 2004 survey found that 36 percent of Americans used complementary and alternative medicine as a form of therapy.

Therapeutic touch is a type of medicine in which a therapist moves his or her hands over the patient’s “energy field,” directing the flow of energy, so that the patient can heal. It is based on the belief that each living thing has a “life energy field” that extends beyond the surface of the body and generates an aura. This energy field can become unbalanced, misaligned, obstructed, or out of tune. The basic premise is that this energy field can be felt and manipulated by making movements that resemble massaging the air a few inches above the surface of the patient’s body. Energy healers also feel that they can transfer some of their own life energy to the patient. These techniques are believed to restore the energy field to a state of balance and proper alignment. The restoration of integrity to the field is thought to make it possible for the body to heal itself. Therapeutic touch was created in the early 1970s by Dolores Krieger, a nurse and a faculty member at New York University. She was convinced that the palms are chakras and can channel healing energy. Therapeutic touch is also being practiced worldwide by all kinds of alternative healers and laypeople.

Color therapy is another approach to healing that aims to stimulate the patient’s inner resources to aid in the recovery of health. Treatment with color was probably first practiced by ancient Egyptians and was later adapted in ancient Greece, India, and China. It was also practiced in Central America by the Mayans and in North America by Native Americans. In the 20th century, the philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) developed some theories of color therapy, which lately have become widely accepted. Although studies have demonstrated that colors have profound effects on the emotional and physical behavior of human beings, many of the theories are still scientifically unproven.

In horticultural therapy, plants are utilized as tools for an activity therapy to improve or expand a person’s physical and/or mental well-being. Most of the studies on the benefits of gardening have been supportive to horticultural therapy. Although gardening has been common in many countries throughout history, the first serious research on horticultural therapy was done by Leonard Meager in 1699. His advice was to “spend time in the garden, either digging, setting out, or weeding—there is no better way to preserve your health.”

Hypnosis is the induction of a deeply relaxed state, with increased suggestibility and suspension of critical faculties. Patients in this state are given suggestions to encourage changes in behavior or relief of symptoms. The rationale for this method is that in the hypnotized state, the conscious mind presents fewer barriers, so it is more susceptible to successful psychotherapy.

Additional methods used in alternative medicine include acupressure, Alexander technique, applied kinesiology, anthroposophic medicine, autogenic training, yoga, and meditation.

  • Acupuncture; Chinese Medicine, Traditional.

  • P. M. Barnes, et al., Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use among Adults: United States 2002 (National Center for Health Statistics, 2004).
  • P. Prioreschi, “Alternative Medicine in Ancient and Medieval History,” Medical Hypotheses (v.55/4, 2000).
  • R. Rawlings, Healing Gardens (Willow Creek Press, 2001).
  • D. V. Thomas, “Aromatherapy: Mythical, Magical, or Medicinal?” Holistic Nursing Practice (v.17/1, 2002).
  • R. L. Train, The Effect of Horticultural Therapy in Maintaining the Life Satisfaction of Geriatrics (Kansas State University Press, 1974).
  • A. Vickers; C. Zollman, “ABC of Complementary Medicine ‘Massage Therapies,’” British Medical Journal (v.319, 1999).
  • Seyed Ali Mohammadi Rad
    Michigan Radiological Society
    Mohammad Gharipour
    Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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