Are “Alternative” Treatments an Alternative Approach?

By CareerSmart Learning Contributor, Sept 1, 2017, as published by Healthcare Hot Spot


alternative medicine

Yoga classes are a common occurrence at nearly every gym across the country, so when does it stop being seen as “alternative”?  When nearly a third of American adults and a tenth of American children use some type of non-traditional treatment, are these treatments still “alternative” (NCCIH, 2012)? 

The first step in normalizing these non-traditional treatments is understanding and utilizing the correct terminology.  Truly “alternative” medicine is actually quite rare in the United States because it denotes when traditional or Western medicine is rejected and non-traditional medicine is the sole treatment.  “Complementary” medicine is common because traditional medicine is used in conjunction with non-traditional techniques.  This is often seen when people experience pain and either traditional pain medicine is ineffective or the patient wants to find a different way to treat or cure the pain.  The last category is “integrative” medicine, when a non-traditional technique has been found to be scientifically be effective and beneficial and is utilized as part of the traditional medical model (NCCIH, 2012).

The differentiation of integrative medicine from alternative and complementary medicine is interesting because it has led to the development of an agency under the National Institutes of Health known as The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).  This agency, founded in 1998, researches the efficacy and safety of new and frequently used complementary and alternative medicines (CAM).  NCCIH has found that approximately 19.4 million Americans use chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation to relieve mild to moderate low back pain and headaches.  And while over 50% of people using chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation do so for general wellness, over 65% use it to treat a health condition.  So while many people engage in CAM as part of their wellness plan, many people also use CAM to treat specific health issues, ranging from pain to stress (NCCIH, 2012). 

Many CAM options have become so mainstream and commonplace that many insurance plans cover a certain number of acupuncture and chiropractor visits.  But even though insurance companies will now cover acupuncture and chiropractors, what treatments does NCCIH still consider to be CAM and continue to research?  NCCIH continues to research “mind and body practices,” such as yoga, massage therapy, deep breathing, acupuncture, and guided meditation.  Under its “natural products” category, NCCIH researches non-vitamin supplements, the most popular being fish oil, glucosamine, probiotics, melatonin, Echinacea, and cranberry (NCCIH, 2012).  Interestingly, people are often prescribed or advised to take these supplements by their physicians. 

Regardless of whether certain CAM treatments have been found beneficial and effective on their own, NCCIH found that some CAM treatments have additional secondary benefits.  NCCIH’s research found that people who practiced yoga for health and wellness also improved their sleep and diets, consumed less alcohol, exercised with increased regularity, reduced or stopped smoking, and decreased their stress levels (NCCIH, 2012).  Whether or not yoga improves illnesses or health conditions, for millions of people it leads to healthier habits and lifestyles, and for many people, it leads to less pain.

Pain is a common theme for the 25 million Americans who report suffering from pain on a daily basis (NCCIH, 2012).  With the current state of opioid use and the increasing rates of overdose, it makes sense that people are exploring different avenues to relieve their pain and suffering.  In traditional medicine, sufferers of chronic back pain are often given opioids and referred for surgery; conversely, users of CAM may elect to use a combination of herbal remedies, acupuncture, chiropractic, Tai Chi and/or other meditation techniques in lieu of pain management and spine restoration approaches. 

Many Americans who are utilizing CAM treatments are looking for different holistic or less-invasive options to address health issues, pain, and general wellness. That’s not to say that all CAM treatments are safe as some are known to negatively interact with traditional medications. Communicating treatment plans with all parties, traditional and non-traditional providers, along with using NCCIH as a resource can help create a safe and effective integrative health plan.  And for people utilizing CAM treatments, know that millions of people around the country do as well, because many of these alternative treatments are now part of a common healthcare discussion.  Thus, they really aren’t that “alternative” anymore.


National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2012). Use of Complementary Health Approaches in the U.S.: National Health Interview Study.  Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2012

September 1, 2017

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