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What is complementary and alternative therapy?

What is considered complementary and alternative therapy in one country may be considered conventional medicine in another. The Cochrane Collaboration defines complementary and alternative therapy as a ‘broad domain of healing resources that encompasses all health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health systems of a particular society or culture in a given historical period’.

These practices: promote health, prevent and treat illness, complement conventional medicine by contributing to a common whole, satisfy a demand not met by conventional medicine, and diversify the conceptual framework of medicine. Examples of complementary and alternative therapies are listed.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine which is a department of the National Institutes of Health established by the Congress of the United States of America, classifies complementary and alternative therapies into five categories or domains:

Alternative medical systems

Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than conventional medicine in the West. Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine. Examples of systems that have developed in non-western cultures include Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine.

Mind–body interventions

Mind–body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. These techniques include meditation, prayer, mental healing and therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music or dance.

Biologically based therapies

Biologically based therapies in complementary and alternative therapy use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods and vitamins. Some examples include dietary supplements or herbal products.

Manipulative and body-based methods

Manipulative and body-based methods in complementary and alternative therapy are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation and massage.

Energy therapies

Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. Biofield therapies are intended to affect the energy fields that surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by placing the hands in or through these fields. Pressure or manipulation may be applied to the body. Examples include qi gong, reiki and therapeutic touch. Bioelectromagneticbased therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, alternating current fields or direct current fields.

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