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Complementary Medicine: Should I Use Complementary Medicine?
Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the facts

Your options

  • Add complementary medicine to your treatment or wellness plan.
  • Use only standard medical treatment.

Key points to remember

  • Many forms of complementary, or nonstandard, medicine have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. But there is not much evidence on how safe they are or how well they work. Always talk to your doctor before you use any kind of treatment.
  • People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term health problems or to stay healthy. But if you are looking for a "cure-all," you will probably be disappointed. Before you use complementary medicine, make sure that you learn how well it is likely to work.
  • When you get complementary treatment, be prepared to answer personal questions. You should also be comfortable with being touched. Part of the philosophy of much complementary medicine is to listen to and touch people in a healing way. Some people find great comfort in touch. Others may not like it.
  • Your insurance may not cover the cost of some treatments.

What is complementary medicine?

The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is any treatment that you use in addition to your doctor's standard care.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in the United States.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry, but it may not be standard when it's used in the treatment of cancer.

Is research being done on complementary medicine?

Many treatments have not yet been studied to see how safe they are or how well they work. Some treatments, such as prayer or music therapy, are hard to study.

In the U.S., the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was formed within the National Institutes of Health to test how safe treatments are and how well they work. The center has guidelines to help you choose safe treatments that are right for you.

What are the risks of complementary medicine?

  • The greatest risk is that you use complementary treatment instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.
  • Some diet supplements and herbal medicines can be dangerous if you are taking another medicine. Always talk to your doctor before you use any herbal medicines or supplements. They can vary widely in how strong they are and in how they might react to other medicines.
  • Complementary medicine isn't regulated as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. People who sell or practice nonstandard medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:
    • Require large payments up-front.
    • Promise quick and miraculous results.
    • Warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits of complementary medicine?

  • Many people who provide complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the practitioner, the treatment, and the condition.
  • In some cases complementary medicine works as well as standard medicine.
  • Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most nonstandard medicine emphasizes the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.

2. Compare your options

Use complementary medicine Use only standard treatment
What is usually involved?
  • You try any of a wide number of things, such as:
    • Taking diet supplements.
    • Getting a regular massage.
    • Taking a yoga class.
  • You still see your regular doctor.
  • You get diagnosis and treatment only at your regular doctor's office.
What are the benefits?
  • You may feel more in control of your health.
  • You may feel better if you are working toward overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.
  • Some complementary treatments work as well as standard treatments with fewer side effects.
  • Standard treatment is based on scientific evidence with proven results.
  • Regular medicines are tested and regulated by laws. What's on the label is what you get.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • Your health may suffer if you don't also see your regular doctor.
  • Some diet supplements may cause harm if you take them while you are taking certain other medicines.
  • You could become a victim of fraud.
  • Some treatments cost a lot and aren't covered by insurance.
  • Governments don't regulate diet supplements the way they regulate medicines. So what's on the label may not be what's in the bottle.
  • You may not feel as good about your health because you are not trying everything there is to try.
  • Regular treatment sometimes causes side effects when a complementary treatment would not.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about complementary medicine

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"I am overweight and have high blood pressure. I looked into some herbal diet remedies that were supposed to help speed up my metabolism and help me lose weight. When I did some research, I found out that people with high blood pressure should not take certain herbs—like the one I was considering. I did not want to risk making my high blood pressure worse or, worse yet, put my life in danger by taking the herb. I decided to work on my diet and struggle through weight loss the old-fashioned way."

— Sara, age 28

"I prefer to use complementary therapies whenever they are available. They are my first choice in most cases. But I do see my doctor who supports my use of complementary therapies but suggests a "standard" treatment when he feels it's necessary—like when I had a small skin cancer surgically removed. It was clear to me that this tried-and-true and possibly lifesaving treatment was best. For everyday health and wellness, though, I use a variety of complementary therapies—everything from tea tree oil for fungal nail infections; to aloe vera, straight off the plant, for mild burns; to acupuncture for low back pain."

— Jeneane, age 36

"I have had great success keeping my cancer in remission using conventional cancer treatments. At this point, I don't want to upset the apple cart. If it ain't broke, I'm not going to try to fix it."

— Charles, age 42

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to use complementary medicine

Reasons not to use complementary medicine

I want a more personal, whole-person approach to my health care.

I'm satisfied with the treatment I'm getting from my regular doctor.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the lack of much research on complementary medicine.

I'm very worried about the lack of research.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about interactions between complementary medicine and my standard medical treatment.

I'm very worried about the chance of having dangerous interactions.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Using complementary medicine

NOT using complementary medicine

Leaning toward
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. There's a lot of evidence to support my use of complementary treatments.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Many complementary treatments have not yet been scientifically studied to see how safe they are or how well they work.

2. If I'm not comfortable being touched, I may not like some types of complementary medicine.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Part of the philosophy of complementary medicine is to listen to and touch people in a healing way. While some people find great comfort in touch, others may be uncomfortable.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

  • Yes
  • No

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

  • Yes
  • No

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

  • Yes
  • No


1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.

3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

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