Understanding the Difference Between Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The field of health care has a lot of new players these days – and many of them have little or nothing to do with conventional medicine. There’s complementary medicine, alternative medicine, whole medical systems, mind-body medicine, integrative medicine, etc. These fields are inundated with New Age practitioners, so it’s a good idea to learn what they are and what to watch out for.

The National Institutes of Health explain that there are major differences between complementary and alternative medicine (often referred to as CAM).

Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. For example, some forms of complementary therapy are used along with pharmaceuticals to help ease pain such as hypnosis and acupuncture, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine and herbal remedies. It’s important to be aware that complementary medicine is not taught in Western medical schools or hospitals for a variety of cultural, social, economic or scientific reasons, which prevent them from being adopted by mainstream Western medicine.

Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is used in place of conventional medicine. For instance, a special diet may be used to treat cancer instead of chemo. Examples include dietary supplements, juicing, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, massage therapy, magnet therapy, and spiritual healing. These practices are also not recognized by the Western medical community.

To follow are descriptions of several major types of complementary and alternative medicine:

Integrative medicine combines treatments from conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine for which there is evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Whole Medical Systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice, many of which evolved apart from, and earlier than, conventional Western medicine. Examples would be Ayurvedic and various forms of traditional Chinese medicine (i.e., qi gong, acupuncture) as well as homeopathic and naturopathic remedies.

Mind-Body Medicine employs a variety of techniques based on the notion of the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some of these techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, have become part of mainstream medicine, while others, such as biofeedback, autogenic training, etc. remain in the realm of CAM.

Biologically-Based Practices use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods and vitamins to treat the body. These include dietary supplements and herbal products and using foods such as shark cartilage to treat cancer.

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices are based on manipulation or movement of select body parts, such as chiropractics, osteopathic manipulations, and massage.

Energy Medicine. Energy therapies generally involve the use of one of two types of energy fields:

1) Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that allegedly surround or penetrate the human body (known as chi, ki, prana, life force, etc.). The existence of these forms of energy have never been scientifically proven. Hundreds of practices are associated with this type of therapy such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, tai chi, yoga, the martial arts, etc.

2) Bioelectromagnetic based therapies involve the unconventional use of electro-magnetic fields, such as pulsed, magnetic, alternating or direct current fields. An example would be magnetic therapy.

To follow is a partial list of some of the most common forms of CAM:

Alexander technique,
Ayurveda (Ayurvedic medicine),
chiropractic medicine,
diet therapy,
holistic nursing,
massage therapy,
nutritional therapy,
osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT),
Qi gong (internal and external Qiging),
spiritual healing,
Tai Chi,
traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and

Many of these practices involve religious beliefs and practices that are not compatible with Christianity, such as all forms of medicine that are based on alleged energy forces, including Tao-based traditional Chinese medicine and the Hindu-based yoga and Ayurvedic medicine.

As far as Catholics using CAM, we also need to be concerned about straying into the realm of superstitious medicine.  This happens when we resort to CAM instead of “ordinary means” (i.e., established conventional medicine) to treat an ailment.

“Catholic moral teaching requires that we use ordinary means to save a life or to treat a malady,” writes Kevin G. Rickert, Ph.D. in Homiletics and Pastoral Review. “When a person is confronted with a life threatening condition, or some less serious illness (especially a communicable disease), which can be easily treated by ordinary means, there is a moral obligation to do so. Extraordinary means, on the other hand, are never required but instead remain optional.

“Unscientific medical cures are neither ordinary nor extraordinary, because they are not real means at all. As such, they are neither required nor permitted. The main problem with these kinds of “cures” is that they don’t really work; they are irrational, and as such they are contrary to the natural law.”

The problem is that many New Age healers refuse to submit to unbiased evidence-based science to determine if their methods are efficacious and instead cling to these theories either because their livelihood depends upon it or because “many who are ignorant of the scientific method actually believe that their unscientific method works,” Dr. Rickert says.

This is what is called “superstitious medicine,” and if one puts their full faith in it to treat a serious illness such as diabetes or heart disease, while refusing the best science of the day, they fall into the trap of deception and error.

As Dr. Rickert explains, “In this case, I subject my mind to deception, and at the same time, I neglect my obligation to employ ordinary means; in so doing, I subject my body to illness and my loved ones to potential hardships.”


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