Millions of Americans use complementary health approaches. Like any decision concerning your health, decisions about whether to use complementary approaches are important. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has developed this fact sheet to assist you in your decision making about complementary health products and practices.
“Complementary and alternative medicine,” “complementary medicine,” “alternative medicine,” “integrative medicine”—you may have seen these terms on the Internet and in marketing, but what do they really mean? While the terms are often used to mean the array of health care approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people.
The terms complementary and integrative refer to the use of non-mainstream approaches together with conventional medical approaches.
Alternative health approaches refer to the use of non-mainstream products or practices in place of conventional medicine. NCCIH advises against using any product or practice that has not been proven safe and effective as a substitute for conventional medical treatment or as a reason to postpone seeing your health care provider about any health problem. In some instances, stopping—or not starting—conventional treatment can have serious consequences. Before making a decision not to use a proven conventional treatment, talk to your health care providers.
It’s important to learn what scientific studies have discovered about the complementary health approach you’re considering. Evidence from research studies is stronger and more reliable than something you’ve seen in an advertisement or on a website, or something someone told you about that worked for them. (For tips on how to evaluate website information, see the NCCIH fact sheet Finding and Evaluating Online Resources on Complementary Health Approaches.)
Understanding a product’s or practice’s potential benefits, risks, and scientific evidence is critical to your health and safety. Scientific research on many complementary health approaches is relatively new, so this kind of information may not be available for each one. However, many studies are under way, including those that NCCIH supports, and knowledge and understanding of complementary approaches are increasing all the time. Here are some ways to find reliable information:
As with any medical product or treatment, there can be risks with complementary approaches. These risks depend on the specific product or practice. Each needs to be considered on its own. However, if you’re considering a specific product or practice, the following general suggestions can help you think about safety and minimize risks.
Before you begin using a complementary health approach, it’s a good idea to ask the following questions:
If you’re visiting a health website for the first time, these five quick questions can help you decide whether the site is a helpful resource.
Who? Who runs the website? Can you trust them?
What? What does the site say? Do its claims seem too good to be true?
When? When was the information posted or reviewed? Is it up-to-date?
Where? Where did the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
Why? Why does the site exist? Is it selling something?
While scientific evidence now exists regarding the effectiveness and safety of some complementary health approaches, there remain many yet-to-be-answered questions about whether others are safe, whether they work for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are promoted, and how those approaches with health benefits may work. As the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on health interventions, practices, products, and disciplines that originate from outside mainstream medicine, NCCIH supports scientific research to answer these questions and determine who might benefit most from the use of specific approaches.
NCCIH does not provide treatment or referrals to complementary health practitioners. NCCIH’s mission is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary health approaches and their roles in improving health and health care.
NCCIH supports clinical trials on complementary health approaches. These trials are taking place in many locations, and study participants are needed. To learn more or to find trials that are recruiting participants, visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov, and other resources and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants.
If you don’t have access to the Internet, contact the NCCIH Clearinghouse for information.
The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
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NCCIH and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide tools to help you understand the basics and terminology of scientific research so you can make well-informed decisions about your health. Know the Science features a variety of materials, including interactive modules, quizzes, and videos, as well as links to informative content from Federal resources designed to help consumers make sense of health information.
ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications (such as Dietary Supplements: What You Need To Know) and fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements).
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To provide resources that help answer health questions, MedlinePlus (a service of the National Library of Medicine) brings together authoritative information from the National Institutes of Health as well as other Government agencies and health-related organizations.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a website, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, to help people learn about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov and other resources, and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants. Clinical trials are necessary to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases.
A service of the National Library of Medicine, PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. For guidance from NCCIH on using PubMed, see How To Find Information About Complementary Health Approaches on PubMed.
The FDA oversees the safety of many products, such as foods, medicines, dietary supplements, medical devices, and cosmetics. See its webpage on Dietary Supplements.
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This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.
NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.
Last Updated: September 2016
The articles on this site are not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition.
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