Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard care. Standard care is what medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and allied health professionals, such as nurses and physical therapists, practice.
Above is the standard definition of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Also called “CAM” for short. Essentially this term refers to anything that is outside standard western allopathic medicine. It encompasses everything from Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine to Naturopathic care, homeopathy, massage, reiki, shiatsu, energy medicine, ayurveda and on and on and on.
When I hear this term, Complementary and Alternative Medicine, it always makes my skin prickle a little bit. As an Acupuncturist, I don’t find it offensive per se, but I can’t help but liken it to the term “oriental” as understood by Edward Said. This sense that by the very nature of the term, we are holding CAM therapies afar and making them “other” in a way that puts them at odds with standard care, when really there is a beautiful synergy possible between these approaches.
So today I want talk about the what and why of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in hopes of dispelling this sense of “otherness.” As an Acupuncturist, my focus is on Chinese Medicine, but my hope is to help you understand that CAM therapies do not have to be “other,” “in lieu of” or opposite to standard care.
They represent a different paradigm, a different approach, a safe and successful subset of options that can add to standard care in most cases when desired. AND that by working together, standard care and Complementary Medicine (my proposed term revision!) provide the broadest and most complete healthcare solution around.
What is Considered Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
As mentioned above, CAM is this huge category for everything other than Western Allopathic Medicine. Here is a short list of “what” is considered part of this category and some basic explanations of what to expect from each:
Why Choose Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
Complementary Medicine is quite varied and has many strengths. Often times people turn to it when they feel Western Medicine has failed them, but it has so many more applications. Certainly there are many things standard care can treat that CAM therapies can treat as well just in a different or more natural way - such as pain, injury recovery, low immunity, recovering from colds and flus, menstrual irregularities, fertility, weight loss, metabolism etc - but it can ALSO serve to improve your sense of wellbeing and help you maintain a state of optimal health.
Indeed, you will note that the central and overarching similarities between the Complementary therapies listed above, is the holistic approach (mind, body, lifestyle) and the focus on health, wellness and wellbeing rather than illness and disease. While each method has its own therapies and course of treatment to heal illness and correct imbalance, the ultimate goal is reach a plateau of health and, through continued monitoring and maintenance, to keep you there.
This is certainly true of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Indeed, thousands of years ago the neighborhood doc was paid on a retainer because his job was to keep you healthy. This meant regular sessions to evaluate your body energetically and minute corrections to keep you there. I often think of Chinese Medicine as the most traditional science of wellbeing around, and certainly this is what I strive for in my practice - to help my patients achieve the state of health they want, and to support them through herbs, diet and lifestyle to keep them there.
In this way, I believe Complementary Medicine is ideally suited to Western culture and uniquely positioned to support Standard Medicine. While Standard medicine advocates for “preventative care,” a physical exam (i.e. preventative care according to standard medicine) is only covered by insurance once every 1-3 years! A lot can happen in 1-3 years. Indeed, a lot can happen to your health in 1-3 months, especially if you are under stress. Even after a health event which lands you in the hospital, after a prescribed course of follow up treatments to address disease, there is often little to no support for wellness and wellbeing thereafter in the standard care allopathic medical system.
This is where Complementary and Alternative Medicine has a perfect synergy with Standard Medicine. Just because the approach of CAM is different, doesn’t mean that it discounts standard care by any means nor that it has to be an “alternative” or other than. It simply means looking at the problem from a different angle to find the best personalized solution for you. The best solution for you may be CAM treatment only or standard care only, but for most people that are willing to broaden their view, the best solution is a combination of each based on your individual needs and health goals.
Cancer treatment is a perfect example. Breast Cancer in particular is an illness we have become rather efficient at treating now, and something that is not to be messed around with or taken lightly. By combining standard care, including removal of the tumor and chemotherapy and radiation as advised based on stage and quality of life concerns, with Acupuncture in particular to decrease post chemotherapy related nausea and pain related to tumor location and surgery, patients get better faster and can take fewer pharmaceuticals to manage symptoms in recovery. This leads to improved outcomes, improved comfort and rapid healing - a win win situation for those that choose to engage in this powerful combination of therapies
I hope I have been able to adequately convey the power of using both standard care and complementary medicine in turn, and to share with you my powerful belief that they both have an important place together!
I also hope that if you are looking to optimize your health and wellness, that you will consider looking into some “complementary medicine” options if you haven’t before. They are powerful, safe, relaxing and can truly improve wellbeing on many levels and prevent illness and injury.
Until next time, thanks for tuning in!
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.