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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health


A Note on Complementary Medicines


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Herbal supplements, meditation, chiropractic manipulation, and acupuncture are types of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) currently being used by millions of Americans. More than a third of adults in the United States use CAM — defined as any medical system, practice, or product that is not currently considered part of standard care. Most people use CAM therapies together with conventional care, not as an alternative to conventional care.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of NIH since 1999, funds and conducts scientific research on CAM therapies. Through laboratory research, as well as studies with people, the Center has helped increase understanding of how CAM therapies work and if they are safe and effective. For example, NCCAM studies have shown that:

  • Acupuncture can provide pain relief and improve function for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. It may be useful to include acupuncture along with standard care.
  • Chiropractic provides some benefit for low back pain, however conventional and chiropractic care appear to be similar in effectiveness.
  • Glucosamine-chondroitin does not provide pain relief for all patients with knee osteoarthritis, but does help those with moderate to severe pain.

The Center continues to study a variety of CAM practices for which there is unclear evidence of therapeutic value:

  • Ginkgo biloba: to determine whether it prevents or delays the onset of dementia or related declines in cognitive (thinking) function
  • Echinacea: for the treatment of upper respiratory infections
  • Green tea: to find out if it can prevent heart disease
  • Dark chocolate: to see if it affects the way patients with hypertension (high blood pressure) respond to insulin
  • Ginger and turmeric: to see if they can reduce inflammation associated with arthritis and asthma

Whether a study result is positive or negative, NCCAM is making an important contribution to research. We not only learn about the tested therapy, but also learn more about the condition it is supposed to treat.

If you are using or considering any new therapies, it is important to tell your doctor. Some therapies can have an effect on conventional medicine. Giving your health care provider a full picture of what you do to manage your health helps you stay in control.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM); 1-888-644-6226

Winter 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 1 Page 17