Many of the following terms for healthcare systems are interchangeable and therapies can fall under more than one term.
Here we give a brief definition of the terms and some of the therapies available. Use the tabs above to navigate through the definitions.
Alternative medicine is a system of treatment for an ailment or condition that is used instead of traditional western/conventional medicine. Therefore, any therapy utilised for healing or wellness is an ‘alternative’ treatment rather than working alongside or instead of conventional medicine.
The term alternative medicine is probably best used when describing medical systems such as Ayurveda or Chinese Medicine (but of course we already know that in Eastern cultures they are anything but ‘alternative’).
Alternative therapy is the term used to describe the therapy utilised within alternative medicine. The chosen therapy is used in place of a conventional treatment. For example, somebody might choose a nutritional therapy diet to overcome cancer rather than have chemotherapy or surgery.
Popular alternative therapies include:
Ayurveda (Ayurvedic medicine)
Chinese Herbal Medicine (part of TCM)
Complementary medicine encompasses therapies that are used alongside conventional medicine. Western medicine education typically doesn’t teach complementary medicine disciplines and the term covers numerous practices and healthcare systems.
Many of these therapies and systems haven’t been adopted into conventional healthcare due to clinical scientific reasons or because of social, cultural or economic reasons (NHS budgets cannot stretch beyond conventional care despite calls for more complementary therapies to be used within hospitals).
Common uses of complementary medicine include post-surgery care in which a therapy can ease a patient’s discomfort. Working with conventional medicine, complementary methods use the body’s own healing mechanism to assist healing and ease symptoms of pain. More chronic conditions such as arthritis, psychological problems (depression etc.) and musculo-skeletal damage can be treated using complementary medicine methods.
Complementary therapies are those practices utilised within complementary medicine and include:
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
CAM is a term used in modern healthcare parlance as both alternative medicine and complementary medicine systems perform similar roles within modern treatment choices. The majority of treatments deemed to be non-conventional typically come under the banner of ‘Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ or CAM.
Trying to define CAM and the therapies that fall within the term isn’t easy and some therapists prefer one definition to another. If you are unsure which term your therapist refers themselves within, ask them to clarify their position.
Integrated / Integrative Medicine
This term is a recent addition and is used by some healthcare professionals as a way to refer to a system in which conventional and complementary therapy become integrated within a health institution or practice.
A holistic approach to health means addressing the needs of the mind, body and soul. Practitioners and therapists working holistically will look at your wellness by examining your physical, emotional and mental well-being.
Within western medicine, medical healthcare professionals tend to only treat the body and leave mental health professionals to treat the mind. Both address only the one aspect that is relevant to their training and both tend to ignore the spiritual needs of the individual. Essentially, conventional medicine looks to treat the symptoms using drugs, surgery or physical manipulation rather than attempt to address the cause of the symptom itself.
Holistic health encompasses all the various elements that come under alternative medicine, complementary medicine and natural health depending on what field you are dealing with. Alternative, complementary and natural health treatments don’t necessarily have to be holistic, however most of these approaches to treatment can be considered under the holistic health term.
Holistic treatments are tailored towards the individual’s needs. They can be dependent on lifestyle, diet, environment, medical history, emotional state and mental health. The approach to a holistic health plan is done as a partnership with your therapist rather than a generic approach found in conventional care.
Practitioners and therapists that utilise the holistic health approach include:
Holistic health should be healthy and non-toxic. It is a natural approach to wellbeing that encourages the individual to participate in their treatment rather than allowing the therapist to provide the care alone.
Natural health encompasses any methods or practices that use nature to provide answers for treatment or prevention of disease and illness. Natural health will use forms of alternative medicine healthcare that encourage natural healing methods and preventative interventions to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This can include nutrition, physical exercise (Yoga, Pilates etc.) and stress management (hypnosis, NLP).
To use the exact definition of natural medicine would be to call it naturopathic medicine, or naturopathy. Natural medicine falls within the complementary and alternative umbrella term as it uses the body’s own ability to heal and maintain itself. Naturopathic medicine uses remedies made from herbs and herbal extracts as opposed to pharmaceutical drugs.
A number of therapies fall under the natural medicine term and practitioners will use a holistic approach to treatment. Natural medicine therapists such as naturopaths, homeopaths and herbalists will also recommend conventional healthcare to work alongside their treatment if necessary.