Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Healing Modalities

Worldwide, approximately 65 to 80 percent of the world’s population use healing modalities that were developed outside of the conventional practice of medicine. In the USA, these non-conventional healing modalities are called “complementary”, “alternative” and “integrative”.

The National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in Bethesda, Maryland is the U.S. federal government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary, alternative and integrative approaches to health and healing. According to the NCCIH, more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children in the USA use non-conventional health and healing modalities.

People in the USA often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably when describing non-conventional healing modalities, but these terms refer to two different concepts:

  • If a non-conventional healing modality is used together with conventional medical modalities, the non-conventional modality is considered “complementary”
  • If a non-conventional healing modality is used in place of conventional medical modalities, the non-conventional modality is considered “alternative”

The term “integrative” health care is used in a variety of ways, but all of them involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. The use of integrative approaches to health and healing is growing across the United States. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative modalities in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, cancer symptom relief and health promotion.

Types of Complementary Health Approaches

Most complementary health approaches fall into one of two subgroups: natural products or mind and body practices.

Natural Products

This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements.

According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, 17.7 percent of American adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year. These products were the most popular complementary health approach in the survey. (See chart below.) The most commonly used natural product was fish oil.

The ten most common complementary health approaches among adults in 2012.


While there are indications that some natural products may be helpful, more needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the human body and about their safety and potential interactions with other natural products and with medications.

Mind and Body Practices

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. The 2012 NHIS showed that deep breathing, yoga, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, meditation, and massage therapy are among the most popular mind and body practices used by adults. The popularity of yoga has grown dramatically in recent years, with almost twice as many U.S. adults practicing yoga in 2012 as in 2002.

Other mind and body practices include acupuncture, relaxation techniques (such as guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation), tai chi, qi gong, healing touch, hypnotherapy and movement therapies (such as Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration and Trager psychophysical integration).

The amount of research on mind and body approaches varies widely depending on the practice. For example, researchers have done many studies on acupuncture, yoga, spinal manipulation and meditation, but there have been fewer studies on some other practices.

Other Complementary Health Approaches

The two broad areas discussed above—natural products and mind and body practices—capture most complementary health approaches. However, some approaches may not neatly fit into either of these groups—for example, the practices of traditional healers, Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy.

10 most common complementary approaches


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