Complementary Health: What You Need to Know

Understanding complementary health approaches and how they can impact care

(RxWiki News) "Complementary health approach" — you've probably heard this phrase, but you might not know exactly what it is. Read on to find out.

Countless people in the United States and elsewhere use complementary health approaches, and it seems like there is an endless list of types of these treatments and methods. But are these approaches to care safe? Do they work?

It's always extremely important to discuss any new therapy, treatment or supplement with your health care provider before you start. Meanwhile, you can get more information on complementary health approaches in the FAQ below.

What Is Complementary Health?

You'll often hear the words "complementary," "integrative" and "alternative" used interchangeably when discussing non-mainstream approaches to health care. While the terms are similar, there is a key difference. An "alternative" approach is used instead of the mainstream medical approach to care for a condition. An "integrative" or "complementary" approach is used alongside the mainstream (conventional) medical approach.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health recommends against the use of a product or practice that has not been proven safe or effective as a replacement. 

The problem with using an unproven alternative approach is that it can delay conventional, proven treatment. And that can make a condition worse.

Complementary approaches, on the other hand, can work together with mainstream approaches to improve overall care, but your health care provider's approval and cooperation is always necessary.

Some common complementary health approaches include the following:

  • Acupuncture
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Ayurveda
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Dietary supplements and herbal medicine

Are Complementary Health Approaches Effective and Safe?

Because complementary health approaches can vary so widely, it's difficult to say which ones are definitely safe. Not all of these methods are safe, and many have not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other health officials.

With that said, you can take some proactive steps to help you assess the safety and effectiveness of a complementary health approach. Consider the following tips from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health:

  • Ask your health care provider about the approach you're considering. They will know more about your specific case.
  • Look up research studies on the practice or substance you're considering. Peer-reviewed studies provide more reliable information than advertisements.
  • Remember that something isn't automatically safe just because it is labeled as "natural."
  • Ask your local pharmacist about any possible interactions between your medications and a supplement you're thinking about starting.
  • Always tell your health care providers about all supplements, methods and health approaches you use.

How Should I Choose a Complementary Health Practitioner?

Choose a complementary health practitioner with the same level of care you would use to choose your primary care doctor or local pharmacist. You want someone who has completed the necessary training and received the required qualifications, although these specific criteria will change based on the type of complementary health approach you are considering.

First, ask your primary care provider for a recommendation. They may know someone who they trust and know does good work. Also, make sure any complementary health practitioner you are considering is willing to work alongside your other health care providers. 

If you are ever concerned with something a complementary health practitioner has done or suggested, check with your primary health care provider.

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Review Date: 
March 2, 2020