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5 Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine


Updated May 22, 2014

Hands of a woman applying acupuncture needles to a man's shoulder.
Shelby Ross/Digital Vision/Getty Images

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), complementary and alternative medicine therapies can be classified into five broad categories:

1) Alternative Medical Systems

Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical approach used in the United States. Examples of alternative medical systems include:

2) 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 alternative in the past have become mainstream (for example, patient support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy).

Other mind-body techniques are still considered alternative, including:

3) Biologically-Based Therapies

Biologically based therapies in complementary and alternative medicine use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some examples include:

It also includes the use of other so-called natural but as yet scientifically unproven therapies (for example, using shark cartilage to treat cancer).

4) Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

Manipulative and body-based methods in complementary and alternative medicine are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include:

5) Energy Therapies

Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types:

Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or manipulating the body by placing the hands in, or through, these fields. Examples include:

Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as:

  • Pulsed fields
  • Magnetic fields
  • alternating-current or direct-current fields


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?" 2002 NCCAM 3 August 2006

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