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Complementary and alternative medicine

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The treatments used by most doctors are considered conventional medicine. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) consists of a group of health care practices and products that are considered out of the mainstream.

An "out-of-the-mainstream" treatment is called complementary if you use it together with conventional medicine. For example, using aromatherapy to lessen discomfort after surgery.  A treatment is called alternative if you use it instead of conventional medicine. For example, using acupuncture as your only treatment for low-back pain.

Many studies have looked at how well CAM therapies work. Yet, there are still many unanswered questions. Key questions include: Are these therapies safe? Do they work for the diseases or medical conditions they are used for?

If you choose to try a CAM treatment, be sure to talk to your doctor first.

Consumer alert — Don’t be a victim of health scams

Living with chronic health problems can be hard. You might be willing to try just about anything to feel better. But be smart and talk to your doctor before buying a product that sounds too good to be true. Quacks — people who sell unproven remedies — target older people. Those who fall victim to their scams waste money and put their health at risk.

He or she can tell you if the therapy might be helpful. You should also ask your doctor if the therapy is safe to try with your current treatments.

It's especially important to talk to your doctor about any herbal treatments you might be using. Some CAM products, although derived from plants, can cause health problems. For instance, ephedra, a Chinese herbal product, was sold at one time in the United States to help people lose weight and to improve athletic performance. Because ephedra increased the risk of heart problems and stroke, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of ephedra.

Also, some CAM products interfere with how prescription drugs work. For instance, St. John's wort, which some people take to improve mood, can interfere with drugs for treating HIV, cancer, and other diseases. St. John's wort is also dangerous when combined with prescription antidepressants.

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More information on Complementary and alternative medicine

Explore other publications and websites

  • Age Page: Beware of Health Scams - This publication covers issues of fraudulent health care schemes and treatments, how older people may fall prey to "quacks," and how to protect yourself from health scams.
  • Complementary and Alternative Medicines (Copyright © The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging) - This publication explains what alternative therapies are and how they are used and provides information on the safety, possible side effects, and regulations for dietary supplements. It also describes alternative therapies commonly used by older adults.
  • Medicines and You: A Guide for Older Adults - This booklet provides a guide for older Americans on how to keep track of and safely use prescription and over-the-counter medications.
  • Menopausal Symptoms and CAM - Many women and their health care providers have become interested in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for menopausal symptoms. This fact sheet answers some frequently asked questions about CAM and lists resources for more information.
  • Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People With Cancer - This fact sheet introduces complementary and alternative therapies, explaining what they are and how they are used today. It explains how the National Institutes of Health evaluates alternative therapies and lists clinical trials for the study of alternative therapies. It also provides advice for patients on what to do when considering complementary and alternative therapies.
  • What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine? - This publication provides information on what complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is, the different types of CAM that exist, and what the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) does in the field of CAM. It also provides a list of resources for additional information on CAM.

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Content last updated September 19, 2013.

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