Complimentary Therapies

Complementary Therapies 

May 5, 2019 / Reid M. Jacobs, APHSW-C, MSW

Complementary therapies have become quite popular in recent years, but what exactly are they? Conventional medicine, especially the American medical system, focuses on treating illness, disease, injury, and symptoms using medications and medical interventions, like surgery and physical therapy. These interventions are regulated and approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Complementary therapies are provided in addition to or alongside these conventional medicine. For example, a person with cancer may receive chemotherapy or radiation as well as acupuncture to help with symptoms and side effects. 

Sometimes, the term alternative medicine is used interchangeably with complementary therapy. This substitution of terms is not quite accurate though. Although alternative medicine may include some of the some of the same interventions as complementary therapy, alternative medicine is provided instead of conventional therapies. Imagine the previous cancer patient foregoing chemotherapy and instead choosing to only treat the cancer with an herbal tea. Still, the distinction gets confusing, especially when someone is in the terminal phase of illness and no longer seeking curative treatment. Because of this, complementary and alternative medicine are sometimes referred to collectively as CAM.  Some medical clinics actively integrate complementary therapies into their treatment plans; these are often referred to has integrative health clinics. 

Conventional medicine is based on rigorous scientific research before being approved by the FDA. Some CAM interventions have scientific support, but many do not have the same level of research to ensure that they work and are safe. Lacking research doesn’t necessarily mean that an intervention isn’t effective, there just isn’t enough evidence to know for sure. It’s also important to remember that natural does not mean safe. Some natural remedies can make chemotherapy less effective. Even safe substance can become harmful at high doses or with other drugs. 

The Mayo Clinic has found the following CAM interventions to be safe and beneficial.

– Acupuncture
– Aromatherapy
– Biofeedback
– Massage
– Meditation and mindfulness
– Music therapy
– Yoga

Other common, tough less researched CAM interventions include

– Acupressure
– Herbal therapies
– Homeopathy
– Hypnotherapy
– Reflexology
– Reiki and other energy therapies
– Special diets and dietary supplements
– Tai Chi and Chi Gung

Hospice and palliative care focus on supporting people on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Hospice and palliative care also have a strong focus on managing symptoms, making CAM a good fit because it tends to have a similar approach. Many CAM interventions are great at managing symptoms like pain, anxiety, stress, and breathlessness. CAM is also great for patients who want to avoid opioids and other medications to manage their symptoms, though they are often used together. 

We encourage our patients to let us know if they are using or would like to use CAM as part of their treatment and symptom management. First, we are dedicated to providing the type of care that the patient wants; so letting us know is the first step to ensuring your wishes are honored. Second, doctors may need to make adjustments to the medications they prescribe to avoid harmful interactions with CAM. Our team can also help you evaluate information that you may find online about CAM or specific interventions. There is a lot of information available, but not all of it is accurate or reliable.

For more information on CAM, visit the website for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at: