Alternative medicine, also known as integrative or complementary medicine, is defined as any healing practice that does not fit within the confines of conventional medicine. Integrative medicine modalities incorporate diverse methodologies and histories from around the world including spirituality, traditional remedies, folk medicine, and holistic approaches. In general, alternative medicine treats the patient as a composite of his or her interconnected parts – in other words, while treatments are individualized, they take into account the patient as a whole, striving to strike balanced wellness.
True to its name, complementary healing practices often supplement conventional medicine: the two go hand-in-hand, each strengthening the other to create a superior result. In fact, a 2002 survey conducted by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine interviewed U.S. adults aged 18+ and found that 62.1% of citizens had used alternative medicines within the last 12 months, and 74.6% – almost 225 million Americans – had done so at least once in their lifetimes.
Biological therapies work to boost the body's immune system and internal functions, often through the use of herbs, nutritional supplements and vitamins. Most people have taken daily multivitamins or downed chamomile tea to combat stress, but biological therapies can also treat the severely ill. For example, the National Cancer Institute recommends the use of cancer vaccines, or biological therapy "cocktails" that help fight cancer and alleviate side effects associated with conventional therapies like chemotherapy.
There are several schools of energy medicine, among them spiritual healing, contact healing, biofield energy healing, and therapeutic touch. These therapies all have one tenet in common: the belief that the practitioner is able to impart healing energies to the patient. Energy therapies may or may not include touch, and the practitioner can even be distant from the patient, as is often the case with intercessory prayer (praying for others) – the world's most popular form of energy therapy. Other popular methods are qigong (pronounced chee-gung), which is the practice of structured breathing, movements and meditation; reiki, a spiritual art that seeks to transfer healing energy through the palms; and kinesiology, an umbrella term that incorporates physical therapy, orthopedics and other energy therapies that are today also part of conventional medicinal practices.
One of the most popular – and most pleasurable – forms of alternative medicine, manipulative therapies employ physical treatments to relieve pain and disability. Osteopaths (D.O., not M.D.), physiotherapists and chiropractors are practitioners of manual therapy, utilizing massage, reflexology, body work, rolfing, acupuncture, lymphatic drainage, and acupressure to treat patient symptoms. Manipulative therapies always involve direct contact with the body's soft tissues, and seek to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, improve strength and stability, and promote relaxation.
Also known as mind-body interventions, this type of alternative healing contends that the mind can affect the body's performance and well-being. A common example of mind-body therapy is exercise – how many people proclaim the restorative or relaxing qualities of a long run or hard workout? This branch of alternative medicine also encompasses meditation and hypnotherapy, which use the mind to affect change. Biofeedback and sound therapy are more participatory, encouraging participants to use sound waves to promote healing, while music therapy seeks to touch patients emotionally, physically and spiritually in order to promote healing.
Whole medicine, or whole medical systems, integrates complete systems of medical theory and practice. These holistic approaches often combine therapies from across genres to create a new approach to alternative medicine. Homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicines, and India's Ayurveda are prime examples of whole medicine.