Complementary (alternative) medicine: everything there is to know!

Published 5 Aug 2023 • By Candice Salomé

The term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is used by the NHS to designate practices that can be used in addition to so-called conventional, or mainstream, healthcare, with the aim of contributing to patients' well-being. Osteopathy, chiropractic, hypnosis, mesotherapy, auriculotherapy, acupuncture... There are many types of non-conventional medicine, and it can be difficult to find one's way around them and choose what is best for patients in different situations.

So what can we use non-conventional medicine for? For whom are they recommended?

We explain it all in our article!

Complementary (alternative) medicine: everything there is to know!

What is complementary and alternative medicine? 

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is unconventional, non-mainstream therapy. It encompasses several hundred different therapeutic practices. The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists over 400 of them.

Their effectiveness has only recently become the subject of scientific studies or recognised clinical trials, unlike so-called conventional practices, whose effectiveness has long been established.

The WHO (World Health Organisation) distinguishes between four types of alternative medicine:

  • Biological therapies, which use natural products derived from plants, minerals or animals, such as phytotherapy and aromatherapy,
  • Manual therapies such as osteopathy, chiropractic and reflexology,
  • Systems based on their own theoretical foundations, such as acupuncture or homeopathy.

Unconventional treatments that do not require the use of drugs or chemical molecules. In this sense, they are distinguished from allopathic (traditional) medicine by the treatments they offer, often based on manipulation and the use of natural products.

What can we use complementary and alternative medicine for? 

Conventional medicine focuses more on the consequences of illness than on its causes. The logic behind it is the following: if there is a problem, solve it; if there is an illness, treat it. Conventional medicine focuses on the symptoms it is trying to treat. Following a precise diagnosis, a treatment is prescribed, the dosage of which is regulated and adjusted depending on the situation.

Conventional and unconventional medicine are therefore both separate and complementary.

These two forms of medicine offer a global approach to treating health conditions. Conventional medicine establishes a diagnosis, based on science, whereas non-conventional medicine tends to place the patient in a holistic context (the environment, nature, energy, etc.). Symptoms are then treated in their entirety: causes and consequences. It is therefore important to never turn away from traditional medicine to the detriment of alternative medicine.

Alternative approach covers a wide range of conditions. It can treat headaches, stress, anxiety, phobias, stomach aches, allergies, skin problems, back pain, addiction, insomnia, etc.

Nevertheless, proving the efficacy of these unconventional treatments remains a complicated task. For medical science, it is more difficult to evaluate a complementary medicine than a conventional drug. Drugs are industrial products and they all contain the same molecules, whereas two hypnotherapists, for example, will not work with hypnosis in the same way.

How can you add alternative medicine to your treatment plan?

Although the effectiveness of some complementary therapies has yet to be proven, others, such as chiropractic, are recognised by the public health authorities and are quite popular.

Acupuncture is useful for patients suffering from chronic pain such as migraine, osteoarthritis, neck pain, etc. Acupuncture has also been shown to be beneficial for patients suffering from vomiting and nausea after chemotherapy or surgery. When acupuncture is integrated into an overall treatment process, it can be rather effective.

Similarly, osteopathy sessions after surgery can help patients get back into shape more quickly, especially if the operation involves the back or the intestines.

Hypnosis is proving highly effective for managing pain and stress, and for avoiding general anaesthesia during surface operations. The term "hypnoanalgesia" is used to replace anaesthesia, "hypnosedation" can be a solution to reduce stress and pain during invasive medical examinations or childbirth. Hypnosis is also increasingly used in medicine and psychotherapy to treat addictions, phobias, depression, etc.

In all cases, unconventional medicine should be used with caution.

Is complementary and alternative medicine covered by health insurance?

There is a very limited number of complementary and alternative (CAM) treatments on the NHS, recommended for a very limited number of situations, therefore you should keep in mind that using such treatments will have a certain cost.

Moreover, the practice of non-conventional medicine (apart from chiropractic) is not regulated by laws, contrary to conventional medicine. This means that anyone can practice alternative treatments, without any obligation to possess necessary qualifications.

That is why you should always see your GP first for any health problem you may have, before turning to a CAM practitioner. Some healthcare professionals, like GPs, are also CAM practitioners. If you decide to follow an alternative treatment, make sure you ask your practitioner some important questions as to the cost and the length of the treatment, the possible side effects, but also about your practitioner's qualifications and whether he or she is part of any professional register.

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Scotty 2
on 12/08/2023

Walking became an effort, pain was keeping me awake at night. Transpires I have 3 herniated disks and a trapped nerve. No possibility of surgery, only given strong painkillers. Quality of life was slipping away. I turned to a chiropractor, He had a very good reputation and told me after my first consultation that he could not cure me but that he could help. That gave me faith in him and after three months I am now only having treatment every month. Shortly he thinks I should just call him if the pain returns..

The improvement I have had is incredibly, I still get niggles, hardly need pain killers and can sleep at night. I can do small jobs. Even vacuuming one room - anyone with back problems will know the consequences of doing that little job.

I am happy that I can afford the £68 a session. Getting rid of the pain was worth every penny, but not everyone can afford this extra cost.

robjmckinney • Ambassador
on 12/08/2023

I am always wary of this quackery, it cost my brother his life going to the chiropractor, claiming he could cure his pain for years. He died in argony from cancer that was normally treatable if he had seen a professional Doctor. For me I tried several so called chiropractors over the years and listened to their thoughts on my bad back with three herniated discs. It was clear they had no idea what they were talking about but if you feel it works for you then enjoy.

Scotty 2
on 13/08/2023

Hello Rob. Chiropractors, like any other profession have some good and some mediocre. I took my MRI scan results to mine. Spinal stenosis, three herniated discs, a trapped nerve and bone loss. NHS said in-operable. When the chiropractor said I can not cure you but I can help. That sent all the right signals to me. Now the pain is less so he wants to see me less often. Works for me. The question to ask seems to be "how much improvement can I expect?

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