When alternative medicine is used in tandem with science-based medical treatment, the alternative medicine is commonly referred to as complementary medicine (CM). Many proponents of this set up believe that the complementary medicine will improve the effect of the treatments.
Before embarking on a regiment of both science-based and complementary medicine, it is important to find out if there is a risk for undesirable interactions between the two. There are for instance plenty of natural herb remedies that can cause severe health problems when combined with certain science-based medicines.
The terms alternative medicine and complementary medicine didn’t become popular until the 1970s. Before that, practises that diverged from mainstream European medicine were referred to using other terms, such as “irregular practises”.
Much of what is today included in the umbrella term alternative medicine come from old medical systems that developed without employing the scientific method. Often, there is a strong tie between the medical system and the religious/spiritual sphere in which the medical system developed. This is true for alternative medicine systems such as Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.
Other systems within the field of alternative medicine have developed in the West, such as homeopathy, chiropractic and osteopathic. There are also examples of European alternative medicine methods that have their roots in the old Greek (non-scientific) humoral system that was once the foundation of mainstream medicine in Europe but is now considered obsolete by practicioners of science-based medicin.
The United States agency National Center on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has created a classification system for branches of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
This system consist of five major categories. Sometimes, a treatment can fit into more than one category.
Category 1: Whole medicial system
This category is for comprehensive medical systems, such as traditinal Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Naturopathy, and Homeopathy.
Category 2: Mind-Body interventions
This category is for medical treatments focused on the interconnection between mind, body and spirit. The main premise is that this impacts bodily functions and symptoms.
This category does not include scientifically proven mind-body connection therapy forms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, since such treatments fall outside the scope of alternatve medicine.
Category 3: “Biology”-based practises
This category is for treatments based on naturally ocuring substances, such as herbs, foods, vitamins, etc. The NCCIH also includes certain treatments based on non-biological (but naturally occuring) substances in this category, such as lead treatment.
Category 4: Manipulative and body-based practices
This category is for treatments such as chiropractic, osteopathic, bodywork and other methods focused on the physical manipulation or movement of body parts.
Category 5: Energy medicine
This category is for treatments based on putative or verifiable energy fields. It contains two sub-categories:
- Biofield: Thearpies intended to influence non-verifiable energy fields that allegedly surround and penetrate the body.
- Bioelectromagnetic: Therapies based on verifiable electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, direct-current fields and alternating-current fields.