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Terms Related to Complementary and Integrative Health

Note: The following terms and definitions are excerpted from Clarke TC, Black LI, Stussman BJ, Barnes PM, Nahin RL. Trends in the use of complementary health approaches among adults: United States, 2002–2012. National health statistics reports; no 79. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015. The National Center for Health Statistics is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This list is intended to provide a brief introduction to common complementary and integrative health terminology and does not in any way reflect an endorsement of these practices by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).


A family of procedures involving stimulation of anatomical points on the body by a variety of techniques. American practices of acupuncture incorporate medical traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries. The acupuncture technique that has been most scientifically studied involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation.


A medical system that originated in India several thousand years ago. Ayurveda is based on theories of health and illness, and on ways to prevent, manage, or treat health problems. Ayurveda aims to integrate and balance the body, mind, and spirit (thus, some view it as “holistic”). This balance is believed to lead to contentment and health and to help prevent illness. A chief aim of Ayurvedic practices is to cleanse the body of substances that can cause disease, and this is believed to help reestablish harmony and balance.


A technique that uses simple electronic devices to teach clients how to consciously regulate bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, to improve overall health. Biofeedback is used to reduce stress, eliminate headaches, recondition injured muscles, control asthma attacks, and relieve pain.

Chiropractic manipulation

A form of health care that focuses on the relationship between the body’s structure, primarily the spine, and its function.

Deep breathing exercises

An active process that involves conscious control over breathing in and out. This may involve controlling the way in which air is drawn in (for example, through the mouth or nostrils), the rate (for example, quickly or over a length of time), the depth (for example, shallow or deep), and the control of other body parts (for example, relaxation of the stomach).

Energy healing therapy

A technique that involves channeling healing energy through the hands of a practitioner into the client’s body to restore a normal energy balance and, therefore, health. Energy healing therapy has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments and health problems, and it is often used with other alternative and conventional medical treatments.

Folk medicine

Systems of healing (such as Curanderismo and Native American healing) that have persisted since the beginning of human culture and flourished long before the development of conventional medicine. Folk healers usually participate in a training regimen of observation and imitation, with healing often considered a gift passed down through several family generations. Folk healers may employ a range of remedies, including prayer, healing touch or laying on of hands, charms, herbal teas or tinctures, and magic rituals, among other techniques. Folk healers are found in all cultures and operate under a variety of names and labels.

Guided imagery

A practice used for healing or health maintenance that involves a series of relaxation techniques followed by the visualization of detailed images, usually calm and peaceful in nature. If used for treatment, persons will visualize their bodies free of the specific problem or condition. Sessions are typically 20 to 30 minutes in length and may be practiced several times a week.

Homeopathic treatment

A system of medical practices based on the theory that any substance that can produce symptoms of disease or illness in a healthy person can cure those symptoms in a sick person.


An altered state of consciousness characterized by increased responsiveness to suggestion. This hypnotic state is attained by first relaxing the body, then shifting attention toward a narrow range of objects or ideas as suggested by the hypnotist or hypnotherapist. The procedure is used to effect positive changes and to treat numerous health conditions including ulcers, chronic pain, respiratory ailments, stress, and headaches.


A group of techniques, most of which started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions. In meditation, individuals learn to focus their attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater physical relaxation, mental calmness, and psychological balance. Practicing meditation can change how a person relates to the flow of emotions and thoughts in the mind.

Mindfulness meditation

A type of meditation based on the concept of being mindful, or having increased awareness, of the present. It uses breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress. It is also known as mindfulness relaxation and mindfulness-based stress reduction.


An alternative medical approach based on the belief that there is a healing power in the body that establishes, maintains, and restores health. Practitioners work with the patient with a goal of supporting this power through treatments such as nutrition and lifestyle counseling, dietary supplements, medicinal plants, exercise, homeopathy, and treatments from traditional Chinese medicine.

Nonvitamin, nonmineral, dietary supplements

Herbs or other nonvitamin supplements such as pills, capsules, tablets, or liquids that have been labeled as dietary supplements. This category did not include vitamin or mineral supplements, homeopathic treatments, or drinking herbal or green teas.

Osteopathic manipulation

A full-body system of hands-on techniques to alleviate pain, restore function, and promote health and wellbeing.

Progressive relaxation

A technique used to relieve tension and stress by systematically tensing and relaxing successive muscle groups.

Qi gong

An ancient Chinese discipline combining the use of gentle physical movements, mental focus, and deep breathing directed toward specific parts of the body. Performed in repetitions, the exercises are normally performed two times or more a week for 30 minutes at a time.

Spiritual meditation

Meditation techniques performed according to the practices of one of the major religions or within a spiritual tradition. The techniques used may be the same as in other types of meditation (for example, Transcendental Meditation), but the focus is on spirituality (such as repeating a spiritual, meditative phrase).

Tai chi

A mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art. Individuals doing tai chi move their bodies slowly and gently, while breathing deeply and meditating (tai chi is sometimes called moving meditation). Many practitioners believe that tai chi helps the flow throughout the body of a proposed vital energy called “qi.” Individuals practicing tai chi move their bodies in a slow, relaxed, and graceful series of movements. One can practice alone or in a group. The movements make up what are called forms (or routines).

Traditional healer

Someone who employs any one of a number of ancient medical practices that are based on indigenous theories, beliefs, and experiences handed down from generation to generation, often orally. The methods employed by each type of traditional healer have evolved to reflect the different philosophical backgrounds and cultural origins of the healer.


A combination of breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation used to calm the nervous system and balance the body, mind, and spirit.