When people talk about "alternative therapies" or "alternative medicine" they are talking about kinds of treatment that are different from the medicines or surgery usually prescribed by MDs and other mainstream health professionals. Some people even define alternative medicine as treatments that aren't taught in U.S. medical schools and aren't available at U.S. hospitals. Conventional American health professionals are becoming more interested in these treatments, however.

Some alternative therapies have long histories in other parts of the world and some are recent developments. What they have in common is that the safety and effectiveness of most of them have not been proven by well-designed scientific studies. Some of them may be very helpful, but they must be chosen and used with care.

The list of alternative therapies changes over time as new approaches emerge and others are proven safe and effective and become part of conventional health care. In epilepsy, for instance, the ketogenic diet began as an alternative therapy but has been scientifically tested and is rapidly being accepted as a conventional therapy for certain kinds of patients.

Precisely defined, alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. In actual practice, however, most people who use so-called alternative therapies also receive conventional treatments from a physician. In this situation, better terms might be "complementary" or "integrative" medicine.

Are alternative therapies the same as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?

Another popular term for these therapies is "complementary and alternative medicine" (often shortened to CAM). When two things are complementary, they work together, with each one making up for the shortcomings of the other. Complementary therapies, therefore, are used in addition to conventional therapies to try to improve results or quality of life. For instance, people with epilepsy who are taking seizure medicines prescribed by their doctor may also use CAM to try to achieve better seizure control or to reduce side effects.

Therapies listed as CAM are generally the same ones indicated by the term "alternative therapies." The difference lies in whether the person also uses conventional therapies.

What is integrative medicine?

Some people who are interested in CAM, including many doctors, want to emphasize that complementary and alternative therapies can be a valuable addition to conventional medical care. They use the term "integrative medicine" to emphasize that both types of treatment are combined (integrated) in the patient's care. Practitioners of integrative medicine generally emphasize those CAM therapies that have been the most thoroughly tested.

Where can I find out more?

The United States government has had an agency working in the area of alternative therapies since 1993. The current name of this agency (which is part of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health) is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The NCCAM website is a reliable source of up-to-date information and links to other resources.