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The search for health includes many beliefs and practices that are outside conventional medicine. Physicians are important sources for information and guidance about health matters, but our patients also rely on a wide range of other sources including family and friends, cultural traditions, alternative practitioners, and increasingly the Internet, popular media, and advertising. It is essential for physicians to understand what patients are doing to seek health, as this understanding is important to harness potential benefits and to help patients avoid harm.


The phrase complementary and alternative medicine is used to describe a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that have historic origins outside mainstream medicine. Most of these practices are used together with conventional therapies and therefore have been called complementary to distinguish them from alternative practices, those used as a substitute for standard care. Use of dietary supplements; mind-body practices such as acupuncture, massage, meditation, and hypnosis; and care from a traditional healer all fall under this umbrella. Brief definitions for some of the common complementary and alternative health practices are provided in Table 14e-1. Although some complementary health practices are implemented by a complementary health care provider such as a chiropractor, acupuncturist, or naturopathic practitioner, or by a physician, many of these practices are undertaken as “self-care.” Most are paid for out of pocket.

TABLE 14e-1Terminology of Complementary and Alternative Medical Practices

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