Complementary and alternative medicine overview

Get the facts on alternative and complementary therapies, including acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic medicine, hypnotherapy, hypnotherapy, nutritional therapy, reflexology and yoga.

Complementary and alternative medicine overview

When you are unwell, you see your GP for advice and you may leave the surgery with a prescription. Your doctor – and themedication they prescribe – is considered part of conventional medicine.

If you also visit a chiropractor or acupuncturist for treatment, you’d be in the field of complementary and alternative medicine, sometimes referred to as CAM.

There are a number of alternative and complementary therapies available in the UK. Some of these treatments have been claimed to help some people alleviate the symptoms of certain illnesses.

However, other alternative therapies don’t have enough medical evidence to determine if they are effective.

Complementary and alternative therapies should not be used to replace the treatment recommended by your doctor.

Many complementary and alternative therapists are registered with theComplementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) which was set up by the government to give a degree of regulation to the sector.

Before you try CAM, read this overview.


What it is: Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the theory that vital energy called Qi circulates around the body along channels called meridians. Blockages in the flow of Qi are thought to cause ill health. The aim of acupunctureis to restore a balance of energy and good health to the body.

The evidence: Many of acupuncture’s benefits still haven’t been confirmed. That’s because more studies on acupuncture need to be performed. However, evidence suggests that acupuncture holds promise for relieving vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. Also, hospitals, hospices and clinics use acupuncture to help relieve pain.


What it is: Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils to help deal with everyday stresses and emotional well-being. The concentrated oils are extracted from plants and are usually inhaled or used for massage.

It is thought that molecules from the oils can permeate through the skin, enter theblood and affect the nervous system.

The evidence: There is no firm scientific evidence that aromatherapy works.

Various reviews of the effect of aromatherapy on conditions including painmanagement in labour, dementia and psychiatric disorders have usually concluded that more studies or better designed research is needed.

Chiropractic medicine

What it is: Chiropractors specialise in adjustments – manipulating the spine to put the body into better alignment. People typically see a chiropractor when they have pain in their lower back, shoulders and neck. Additionally, many chiropractors claim that adjustments can also improve overall health and treat a wide range of conditions including asthma, infant colic, irritable bowel syndrome and many more conditions.

The evidence: Chiropractic medicine does seem to provide some relief for lower back pain, although it may not be any better than other back pain treatments, such as painkillers, exercise and physiotherapy. However, there is no good evidence that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for any other health condition.


What it is: Hypnotherapy is a technique designed to direct a person’s imagination in a way that helps change their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

It can help as part of psychotherapy because the hypnotic state allows people to explore painful thoughts, feelings and memories that they might have hidden from their conscious minds.

People may seek help from a hypnotherapist to relieve anxiety, improve sleeping,stop smoking, address phobias or deal with issues over their weight.

The evidence: Hypnotherapy is not ‘mind control’ or ‘brainwashing’ and is only effective if the subject is committed to relaxing and has an open mind receptive to the therapist.

Although hypnosis is not considered a dangerous procedure, it does pose a risk of creating false memories – usually as a result of unintended suggestions by the therapist.

Nutritional therapy

What it is: Nutritional Therapy uses nutrition science to help promote health and peak performance.

Practitioners use a wide range of tools to assess and identify potential nutritional imbalances and understand how these may contribute to an individual’s symptoms and health concerns.

Nutritional therapy is a complementary medicine, with advice tailored to each individual.

The evidence: Anyone can call themselves a nutritional therapist. Some therapists adhere to a voluntary registration scheme through the CNHC.

According to the British Dietetic Association, nutritional therapists use treatments such as high dose vitamins, detox and food avoidance for which there is little evidence of their effectiveness.


What it is: Reflexology is based on the belief that there are reflex areas in thefeet and hands which correspond to all organs and parts of the body. Particular massage movements on these areas are thought to improve mood, aid sleep and relieve tension.

The evidence: A study in 2008 failed to find any good-quality evidence that reflexology can effectively treat any health condition.

The following year, a review of available research found that reflexology was an effective treatment for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who had bladderproblems. However, since only 53 people were involved the trial lacked enough people to achieve statistical confidence, so further research is recommended involving more people.


What it is: Yoga was developed in India and has been practised for about 5,000 years. It is a form of exercise that focuses on physical postures, breathing and meditation to boost physical and mental wellbeing.

The evidence: There have been a number of scientific trials of varying quality on the benefits of yoga. Most studies suggest that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity, especially strength, flexibility and balance. There’s some evidence that regular yoga practice may be beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, including low back pain,depression and stress.

There is also evidence to show that yoga may help prevent falls by strengtheningthe lower body.

Source: Complementary and alternative overview

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