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In a nutshell, complementary and alternative medicines or CAMs are those treatments that fall outside of conventional healthcare. These types of medicines and treatments range from homeopathy and acupuncture, to colonic irrigation, aromatherapy, and meditation.

Definition of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

While complementary and alternative medicine is often used as one category, it is considered helpful to make a distinction between the two terms. The following distinctions are used by the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH):

When a non-mainstream practice is used rather than traditional medicine, it is considered “alternative.”

When a non-mainstream practice is used together to complement conventional medicine, it is classified as “complementary.”

It is possible for the two categories to overlap. For instance, while aromatherapy may be used as a complementary treatment, in other cases, it can also be used as an alternative treatment. Some complementary and alternative treatment are typically used with the intention of curing or treating a certain health condition.

Common examples include: 

  • Chiropractic
  • Acupuncture
  • Homeopathy
  • Herbal medicines
  • Osteopathy

Are CAM Approaches Safe?

Some CAM therapies have gone through thorough evaluation and have been proven to be effective and safe. However, there are also others that have been proven possibly harmful and ineffective. Also, limited information is known about CAM therapies. Research has also been slower for different reasons. For instance:

  • Funding and time issue
  • Regulatory issues
  • Issues finding cancer researchers and institutions

CAM therapies are required to be evaluated using the same careful and lengthy research process that’s used to evaluate standard treatments. Generally, standard cancer treatments have been studied for effectiveness and safety using an intense scientific process that includes clinical trials with a significant number of patients.

CAM therapies typically include a vast variety of nutritional products and botanicals such as herbal supplements, dietary supplements, and vitamins. Many of these so-called products are deemed safe because they are either produced by or present in nature.

However, it is not true in all cases. For instance, the herb St. John’s wort which some use to remedy depression may cause some anticancer drugs not to work as well as they should. 

Other herbal supplements are considered harmful when taken with other substances, in large doses, or even when taken by themselves. For example, some studies indicate that the herb kava kava that has been used to treat anxiety and stress may cause damage to the liver.

Some vitamins are also known to have unwanted side effects. For instance, certain studies indicate that high doses of vitamins (even vitamin C) has been known to affect how radiation and chemotherapy works. In essence, too much of anything, even if it’s vitamins is not considered safe, even in healthy individuals.

It is recommended that you inform your doctor if you are taking any dietary supplements, regardless of how safe you think they are. This is very important. Even if there are advertisements or claims that something has been used for years, it should not be taken as proof that it’s safe or effective.

It is important to keep in mind that supplements don’t have to be approved by the federal government before they are sold publicly. In addition, people can purchase them without prescription. With that in mind, it is generally up to the consumers to decide if it is best for them.

 

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