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What are the Different Types of Alternative Medicine?

By Mandi Rogier
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Alternative medicine encompasses any treatment that is not considered conventional in US medical practices. As various treatment options undergo more research, some treatments once considered alternative may become a part of conventional treatments. Alternative medicine can be used with or without an accompanying conventional treatment. When an alternative treatment is used in conjunction with a conventional treatment it is known as complimentary medicine.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has categorized treatments into five major types. These include homeopathic practices that treat the whole body system, practices that focus on the mind-body connection, herbal remedies, practices that manipulate the body physically such as massage, and energy therapies such as reiki.

Whole medical systems are the most comprehensive alternative medical treatments. Rather than incorporating a single method, these practices utilize a detailed and highly advanced theory of medical practice. Some whole medical systems evolved long before modern Western medicine was even conceived.

Some of the treatments found within the whole medical systems category are found in other types of alternative medicine as well. For example, Ayurveda is considered a whole medical system. This ancient Indian practice incorporates the use of massage and herbal treatments that will also fall under subsequent “types” as defined by the NCCAM. Homeopathic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are other examples of whole medical systems.

Mind-body medicines, as the name aptly suggests, focus on the connection between the mind and the body. This connection is then used to promote physical healing through mental treatments. Meditation, visualization, and art therapy are all examples of mind-body medicine.

Herbal remedies, such as those found in the supplements section of drug stores, are considered biologically based practices. This type of treatment uses natural elements in the form of plant extracts and dietary supplements to treat illnesses. Patients seeking this type of care may go to an herbalist for recommendations specific to their needs.

Manipulative and body-based practices are those treatments which involve physical manipulation of the body. Massage is one of the best known types of body-based alternative treatments. Acupuncture and acupressure, which use the body’s many pressure points to treat various ailments, fall into this category as well.

The final type of alternative medicine, as defined by the NCCAM, is energy therapy. This type of treatment involves manipulation of the energy fields surrounding the body. Energy therapy falls into two major categories: biofield therapies and bioelectromagnetic-based therapies.

Reiki and therapeutic touch are examples of biofield therapy. In these practices, the patient’s body is not physically touched, though his surrounding energies are thought to be manipulated. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies serve the same purpose using magnets instead of the hands of a human practitioner.

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By everetra — On May 12, 2011

The thing that everyone has to understand about natural alternative medicine is that any supplements you take, herbal or otherwise, are considered drugs. They’re drugs that the FDA has not approved, but they’re still considered drugs. Most pharmaceutical drugs are developed from substances originally found in herbs—I guess that’s what makes the whole conventional versus alternative debate so ironic.

My point is that no matter how you feel about alternative medicine make sure your regular doctor knows what you’re taking. If you’re on any pharmaceutical drugs there may be drug interactions with herbal supplements. Only your doctor can tell you for sure.

By Charred — On May 11, 2011

We use a lot of herbal alternative medicine. One in particular was Valerian root. This is a funny story, but I used to get so uptight going to the dentist. This one dentist actually prescribed Valium for me once. I can’t say it didn’t work, but I was totally stoned.

Finally after doing some research I discovered Valerian root, which relaxes your muscles but doesn’t knock you out. I used that stuff and it worked like a charm. My dentist even asked if I was using the Valium and I told him I switched to Valerian root. He was quite impressed.

By SkyWhisperer — On May 09, 2011

@nony - I went to a chiropractor once, but it was not for back pain. It was for detoxification. He practiced in an alternative medicine clinic which, along with herbal therapy, put patients through a detoxification regimen to get the gunk out of their systems. His take was that most modern diseases were caused by too many toxins in the body—the body was more acidic than alkaline.

He put me on a two-week program which was a combination of a semi-vegan diet, partial fasting, drinking alkaline vegetable juices and some other powdery stuff they sold. All I can tell you is that at the end of two weeks, I felt more alert and full of energy than I ever had been in my entire life. I mean I don’t even recall having that kind of energy when I was a kid. I guess age doesn’t matter—it’s what you put into your body.

By nony — On May 08, 2011

I’m surprised that the chiropractor is not listed under specialties for alternative medicine. I’m not sure if this is because that specialty has gone mainstream and is considered standard by medical doctors or if it’ an omission in the article. Years ago I watched a TV news program that supposedly ran an inside “investigation” on the practices of the chiropractic profession. They uncovered some weird practices and had medical doctors comment on the inconsistencies—and dangers—of some of the treatments, like neck manipulation. I seem to recall that after running that special, the news program was flooded by emails from people who had been helped by going to see a chiropractor.

I think nowadays it’s considered more mainstream (at least some parts of it) and chiropractors are accepted as viable alternative medicine doctors, although there will always be skeptics.

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