Are You Considering a Complementary Health Approach?
Millions of Americans use complementary health approaches. Like any decision concerning your health, decisions about whether to use complementary approaches are important. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has developed this fact sheet to assist you in your decision making about complementary health products and practices.
Take Charge of Your Health
- Be an informed consumer. Find out and consider what scientific studies have been done on the safety and effectiveness of any health approach that is recommended to or interests you.
- Discuss the information and your interests with your health care providers before making a decision.
- Choose a complementary health practitioner, such as an acupuncturist, as carefully as you would choose a conventional health care provider.
- Before using any dietary supplement or herbal product, make sure you find out about potential side effects or interactions with medications you may be taking.
- Only use treatments for your condition that have been proven safe. Do not use a product or practice that has not been proven to be effective to postpone seeing your health care provider for your condition.
- Tell all your health care providers—complementary and conventional—about all the health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
What do “complementary,” alternative,” and “integrative” mean?
“Complementary and alternative medicine,” “complementary medicine,” “alternative medicine,” “integrative medicine”—you may have seen these terms on the Internet and in marketing, but what do they really mean? While the terms are often used to mean the array of health care approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people.
The terms complementary and integrative refer to the use of non-mainstream approaches together with conventional medical approaches.
Alternative health approaches refer to the use of non-mainstream products or practices in place of conventional medicine. NCCIH advises against using any product or practice that has not been proven safe and effective as a substitute for conventional medical treatment or as a reason to postpone seeing your health care provider about any health problem. In some instances, stopping—or not starting—conventional treatment can have serious consequences. Before making a decision not to use a proven conventional treatment, talk to your health care providers.
How can I get reliable information about a complementary health approach?
It’s important to learn what scientific studies have discovered about the complementary health approach you’re considering. Evidence from research studies is stronger and more reliable than something you’ve seen in an advertisement or on a website, or something someone told you about that worked for them. (For tips on how to evaluate website information, see the NCCIH fact sheet Finding and Evaluating Online Resources on Complementary Health Approaches.)
Understanding a product’s or practice’s potential benefits, risks, and scientific evidence is critical to your health and safety. Scientific research on many complementary health approaches is relatively new, so this kind of information may not be available for each one. However, many studies are under way, including those that NCCIH supports, and knowledge and understanding of complementary approaches are increasing all the time. Here are some ways to find reliable information:
- Talk with your health care providers. Tell them about the complementary health approach you’re considering and ask any questions you may have about safety, effectiveness, or interactions with medications (prescription or nonprescription) or dietary supplements.
- Visit the NCCIH website (nccih.nih.gov). The “Health Information