Conventional, Complementary and Alternative, and Integrative Medicines—A Brief Guide to the Different Methods of Healthcare Practice

It is important to stay informed about the different types of healthcare in order to make the best decisions for your health. Here, we give a brief overview on different methods of healthcare and their potential benefits.

Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine is a system of medical care wherein healthcare professionals, such as medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, nurses, and pharmacists, utilize treatment methods based on scientific research in order to treat symptoms and diseases. Examples of conventional medicine include pharmaceutical medication, radiation therapy, and surgery.1,2

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

As the name suggests, alternative medicine is practiced in place of conventional medicine. Homeopathy, naturopathy, and acupuncture are examples of alternative medicine. Many forms of alternative medicine lack rigorous scientific evidence supporting their efficacy or safety in treating medical conditions.1,3,4 According to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of adults in the United States (US) have used alternative medicine in lieu of conventional medicine.3 

Complementary medicine is the use of alternative medicine alongside conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is often used to relieve side effects of conventional medicine, such as cancer treatment, and might improve well-being and quality of life.1,5 Twenty-nine percent of US adults reported using complementary medicine in 2017.3

The National Cancer Institute divides complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into five categories: mind-body therapies, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based practices, energy healing, and whole medical systems.1

Mind-body therapy. Mind-body therapies use a combination of mental focus, breathing, and body movement to induce relaxation of the body and mind.1,6 Some of the most well-known forms of mind-body therapy include yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi. The 2017 National Interview Health Survey showed that yoga and meditation were practiced by 14.3 and 14.2 percent of US adults, respectively.7 Meditation utilizes techniques that revolve around maintaining mental focus using specific techniques, such as breathing, repeating a mantra, and maintaining a mental image. It can also involve mindfulness, which is the practice of focusing on the present moment without making judgments.1,8 Yoga is a practice that aims to balance the mind and body through poses, stretches, meditation, and breathing techniques.1,9 Tai Chi combines slow, gentle movements and poses with meditation and controlled breathing.1,10 

Various studies on meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi have shown them to have beneficial effects on a number of different health conditions, including stress, anxiety, depression, acute and chronic pain, and hypertension, but results are mixed, and more high-quality studies need to be done in order to fully understand the role of these practices in certain health conditions.8–10 The American College of Physicians recommends yoga, Tai Chi, and mindfulness-based stress reduction as first-line treatment for chronic low back pain, but also notes that there is moderate-quality evidence supporting the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and low-quality evidence supporting the use of yoga and Tai Chi.11 

Other examples of mind-body treatments include biofeedback, hypnosis, and music therapy.1,6

Biologically based practices. Biologically based treatments are products, such as vitamins, dietary supplements, and botanicals, that include substances found in nature.1,6 In a 2020 mini-review,12 researchers found that patients with cancer used biologically based CAMs to improve well-being; alleviate symptoms such as nausea, insomnia, and vomiting; treat cancer; and improve the immune system. However, there is little long-term data supporting the use of such products in patients with cancer. Some studies have shown the potential for certain biologically based CAMs to be used in cancer treatment and prevention. For example, antioxidants, ginseng, and green tea might have the potential to decrease the risk of developing certain cancers. Ultimately, the lack of long-term, controlled human trials makes it inadvisable to recommend these treatments.12

One crucial aspect to note about biologically based CAMs is the lack of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight on these products. According to FDA guidelines, biologically based CAMs, depending on the product’s intended use and composition, may be labeled as drugs, cosmetics, foods, or dietary supplements.13 When a product is labeled as a food rather than a drug, it does not need to undergo the same FDA testing or approval, allowing for some products to be sold without knowing of their safety or efficacy.1,6 Some natural therapies might not be safe if taken in large doses, by themselves, or alongside certain medications. For example, the herb kava kava might cause liver damage,1 and antioxidants have the potential to interfere with radiation and certain types of chemotherapy.12

Manipulative and body-based practices. These practices involve moving/manipulating one or more parts of the body. Examples include massage therapy, chiropractic treatment, and reflexology.1,6 In massage therapy, soft tissues are manipulated to relieve pain and tension in the body. Multiple techniques exist, focusing on utilizing varying amounts of pressure and targeting different areas of the body.14,15 Chiropractic treatment includes spinal manipulation, wherein a practitioner applies a controlled thrust to a joint of the spine, moving the joint more than it would on its own, and spinal mobilization, which is less forceful and is performed within the joint’s normal range of motion.16,17 Research has shown weak-to-moderate benefits of massage therapy and chiropractic treatments on neck and low-back pain, and more research is needed to understand their effects on other conditions.14–17 Reflexology is similar to massage therapy, in that pressure is applied to specific areas of the feet or hands that are believed to correspond to organs and systems of the body. Reflexology might improve pain, stress, and sleep.18

Energy healing. Energy healing stems from the belief that energy flows through the body, and this energy flow must be balanced. Therapeutic/healing touch involves moving hands over the energy fields of the body or gently touching the body. In reiki therapy, a practitioner will “channel energy” into a person to enhance their healing response.1,6,19 No high-quality evidence exists to support these practices, although some researchers believe it may work due to providing a placebo effect.19

Whole medical systems. Whole medical systems (sometimes referred to as ancient or traditional medical systems) include healing systems that have developed in different cultures. Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy are all considered whole medical systems.1,6

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the belief that illnesses and diseases are caused by imbalances in one’s vital life force, or qi. Treatment methods include acupuncture, massage, cupping, herbal remedies, moxibustion, and Tai Chi.20

Originating in India, Ayurvedic medicine aims to restore balance between the mind, body, and spirit to prevent or treat diseases, increase energy, and decrease stress. It involves the diet, herbal medicine, meditation, breathing, and physical therapy, among other treatment methods.1,21

The two main beliefs of homeopathy are that like cures like, or that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in a healthy individual, and that medications with lower doses are more effective at treating diseases. Homeopathic products are often so diluted, the original substance is barely or no longer present, and remedies are highly individualized. No high-quality, scientific evidence suggests that homeopathy is beneficial.22,23

Naturopathic practitioners believe in using a variety of lifestyle changes and natural remedies (e.g. nutrition, homeopathy, herbal remedies), but not drugs or surgery, to help the body heal itself.1,6 Although certain treatment approaches, such as improving nutrition, has been shown through research to be beneficial, on the whole, there is not sufficient scientific evidence to support the use of naturopathic medicine in the treatment of disease.24–26

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is the combination of conventional and complementary medicines, with a focus on treating the whole person, as opposed to just focusing on a disease or illness. It involves the coordination of different healthcare providers, such as physicians, acupuncturists, nutritionists, and chiropractors, among others.7,27

Bottom Line

Making well-informed decisions about your health is a crucial aspect to any long-term healthcare plan. Be sure to consult with a qualified healthcare professional to see what treatments methods may be right for you.


  1. National Cancer Institute. Complementary and alternative medicine. Updated 21 21 Mar 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  2. Cronkleton E. Conventional vs. complementary medicine: differences. Medical News Today. 29 Jun 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  3. Pew Research Center. 2. Americans’ health care behaviors and use of conventional and alternative medicine. 2 Feb 2017. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  4. American Cancer Society. What is alternative medicine? Revised 31 Aug 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  5. American Cancer Society. What are complementary and integrative methods? Revised 25 Aug 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  6. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Types of complementary therapies. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  7. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what’s in a name? Updated Apr 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation and mindfulness: what you need to know. Updated Jun 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  9. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Yoga: what you need to know. Updated Apr 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  10. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Tai Chi: what you need to know. Updated Mar 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  11. Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, et al. Noninvasive treatments for acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166:514–530.
  12. Knecht K, Kinder D, Stockert A. Biologically-based complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use in cancer patients: the good, the bad, the misunderstood. Front Nutr. 2020;6:196. 
  13. United States Food and Drug Administration. Complementary and alternative medicine products and their regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. Feb 2007. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  14. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Massage therapy: what you need to know. Updated May 2019. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  15. Cleveland Clinic. Everything you need to know about massage therapy. 11 Nov 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  16. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Spinal manipulation: what you need to know. Updated Sep 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  17. Morris R. What is spinal manipulation? Healthline. Updated 15 Mar 2016. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  18. Bauer BA. What is reflexology? Can it relieve stress? Mayo Clinic. 15 Dec 2020. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  19. Atkins A. Will exercise, meditation or reiki help if you can’t find a therapist? Washington Post. 29 May 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  20. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chinese medicine. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  21. Cancer Research UK. Ayurvedic medicine. Reviewed 14 Jun 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  22. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Homeopathy: what you need to know. Updated Apr 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  23. National Health Service. Homeopathy. Reviewed 7 Apr 2021. Accessed 29 Sep 2022.
  24. Caulfield T, Rachul C. Supported by science?: what Canadian naturopaths advertise to the public. All Asth Clin Immun. 2011;7:14.
  25. Murdoch B, Carr S, Caulfield T. Selling falsehoods? A cross-sectional study of Canadian naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture clinic website claims relating to allergy and asthma. BMJ Open. 2016;6(12):e014028. 
  26. Canadian Cancer Society. Naturopathic medicine. Accessed 30 Sep 2022.
  27. Cleveland Clinic. Integrative medicine. Reviewed 7 Aug 2022. Accessed 30 Sep 2022.   

By NHR Staff

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