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Facts About Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Back to 2003 Curriculum. 

What is CAM?

Complementary and alternative medicine, as defined by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.

Common philosophies and themes related to CAM

  • Emphasis on wholeness

  • Relation between the mind, body, and spirit

  • Focus on causation both internal and external rather than treating the signs and symptoms Emphasis on self healing

  • Belief in "Life Force"

High use of CAM by the public

  • Four out of every ten Americans use CAM

  • Use has increased by over 47% in a seven-year period

  • More visits to CAM providers (629 million) than all primary care providers combined

  • Only 1/5 of users tell their physicians

  • $27 billion spent on CAM in '97 (includes in and out-of-network medical services, accessories, vitamins, health services, and the like)

Who is using complementary medicine?

In general, people using CAM are more highly educated. Additionally, they have a poorer health status, a holistic orientation to health, health problems including anxiety, chronic pain, and urinary tract, and have had a transformational experience that changed his or her worldview. Reference: Astin, J.A. (1998). Why patients use alternative medicine: Results of a national survey. JAMA, 279, 1548-1553.

What conditions are causing people to use CAM?

  • Value whole person emphasis
  • Orthodox treatment did not work
  • Adverse effects of orthodox medicine
  • Poor doctor communication

What conditions are people using CAM for?

  • Back pain
  • Chronic disorders
  • Neck pain
  • Respiratory problems
  • Shoulder pain
  • Ear, nose & throat problems
  • Headaches
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Anxiety stress
  • Chronic pain
  • Cancer pain

Types of CAM treatments

  • Herbal medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Mind/body interventions
  • Herbs
  • Dietary therapy
  • Neutraceuticals
  • Homeopathy
  • Manipulation/laying of the hands


Family of procedures inducing stimulation of anatomical locations on the skin. Thin, solid metallic needles penetrate the skin at specific, predetermined points.

Clinical uses of acupuncture  

  • Addiction
  • Respiratory System
  • Eye Disorders
  • Mouth Disorders
  • Gastrointestinal
  • Neurologic Disorders
  • Musculoskeletal Disorder
  • Gynecologic Conditions

Mind/body interventions

Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some techniques that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream - for example, patient support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Other mind-body techniques are still considered CAM - including meditation, prayer, mental healing, and therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music or dance.

Clinical uses of mind/body interventions 

  • Pain
  • Insomnia
  • Stress & anxiety
  • Adjunctive cancer therapy
  • Raynaud's syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Musculoskeletal disorders


  • St. John's Wort for depression
  • Ginkgo for Alzheimer's type dementia
  • Chinese herbs for irritable bowel syndrome & eczema
  • Saw Palmetto for benign prostatic hyperplasia
  • Echinacea for colds/flu