List of terms and concepts used in alternative medicine

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Terms and concepts in alternative medicine is a glossary on alternative medicine.

This list provides brief and to the point definitions of important terms and concepts unique to alternative medicine (CAM).

Terms and concepts in alternative medicine
This article is part of the CAM series of articles.
CAM Article Index




Acupuncture is the practice of inserting very thin needles in specific acupuncture points or combinations of points on the body to improve health and well-being. "There are over 1,000 acupoints that can be stimulated through the insertion of needles. Acupuncture has been used to treat health problems and conditions ranging from the common cold to addiction and chronic fatigue syndrome." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)


The term "allopathy" was coined by Samuel Hahnemann. The term "allopathic medicine" is used most frequently in the context of critiques of conventional medicine.

Alternative medical systems

Alternative medical systems is the precise name of a NCCAM classification for those forms of alternative medicine that are built upon a complete system of theory and practice.

Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine is a broad term for any diagnostic method, method of treatment or therapy whose theoretical bases and techniques diverge from generally accepted medical methods. Alternatively defined in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary as: a wide range of treatments for medical conditions that people use instead of or with western medicine: Alternative medicine includes treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathy and hypnotherapy.

Index of articles on alternative medicine


Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils and other aromatic compounds from plants to affect someone's mood or health.


Asklepios, (Latinate spelling Asclepius) the Greek god of medicine treated the sick with the help of his daughters, Hygeia and Panacea.


Ayurveda: "This comprehensive system of medicine, developed in India over 2,000 years ago, places equal emphasis on body, mind, and spirit. The goal is to restore the natural harmony of the individual. An Ayurvedic doctor identifies an individual's constitution or overall health profile by ascertaining the patient's metabolic body type (Vata, Pitta, or Kapha) through a series of personal history questions. The patient's constitution then becomes the foundation of a specific treatment plan designed to guide the individual back into harmony with his or her environment. This plan may include dietary changes, exercise, yoga, meditation, massage, herbal tonics, and other remedies." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)


Bates Method

The Bates Method is an alternative approach to eyesight improvement and maintenance.


Biofeedback links the mind with the body through high-technology devices that allows the mind to control certain bodily functions. In this treatment method, an individual is hooked up to monitoring devices which provides an indication of how brain waves, breathing patterns, muscle activity, sweat gland function, pulse, skin temperature, and blood pressure are responding to relaxation techniques, such as meditation. "Biofeedback has been used to reduce stress, eliminate headaches, recondition injured muscles, control asthmatic attacks, and relieve pain." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)

Biologically based therapies

Biologically based therapies, is the precise name of a NCCAM classification, for alternative treatments that use substances found in nature and/or some other natural therapy.

Biomedical model

The Biomedical model of health is a conceptual model of illness that excludes psychological and social factors and includes only biological factors in an attempt to understand a person's illness.

Biopsychosocial model

The Biopsychosocial model of health sees health, illness and healing as resulting from the interacting effects of events of very different types, including biological, psychological, and social factors.

Body work

Body work is the preferred name for massage treatments because this health profession is trying to disassociate itself from the sex industry. Body work "involves pressing, rubbing, and otherwise manipulating muscles and other soft tissues of the body, causing them to relax and lengthen and allowing pain relieving oxygen and blood to flow to the affected area. Using their hands and sometimes feet, elbows, and forearms, massage therapists may use over 75 different methods, such as Swedish message, deep-tissue massage, neuromuscular massage, and manual lymph drainage. Massage is considered effective for relieving any type of pain in the body's soft tissue, including back, neck, and shoulder pain, headaches, bursitis, and tendonitis. (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)

Breathing meditation

"Deep breathing involves slow, deep inhalation through the nose, usually for a count of 10, followed by slow and complete exhalation for a similar count. To help quiet the mind, one generally concentrates fully on breathing and counting through each cycle. The process may be repeated 5 to 10 times, several times a day." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)



CAM is an acronym for complementary and alternative medicine. It also includes the recent addition of integrative medicine. CAM is about alternative positions on health, healing, and illness. Complementary and alternative medicine covers a very broad range of areas from self-help to professional care and from the sensible and worthwhile to the ridiculous.

Complementary and alternative medicine, as defined by NCCAM, is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. While some scientific evidence exists regarding some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies--questions such as whether these therapies are safe and whether they work for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are used. Many CAM therapies are considered to be pseudoscience, based on magical thinking rather than evidence.

The list of what is considered to be CAM changes continually, as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health care and as new approaches to health care emerge.


Chelation therapy

Chelation therapy is the use of chelating agents such as EDTA to remove heavy metals from the body. While in conventional medicine, chelation therapy is used only to treat heavy metal poisoning, some alternative practitioners advocate the use of chelation therapy to treat coronary artery disease.

Chinese medicine

The group of philosophies embodied by Chinese medicine are, more accurately, referred to as Oriental Medicine with roots in many different Asian countries. This millennia-old Asian medical tradition works to bring balance to the body through acupuncture, massage, Eastern herbalism, diet; and lifestyle changes such as martial arts and meditation.

Chiropractic medicine

Chiropractic is a popular form of alternative medicine whose physical mode of action is spinal manipulations that allegedly unblock nerve signals sent by the brain so that the body can heal itself. "It is primarily used to treat back problems, headaches, nerve inflammation, muscle spasms, and other injuries and traumas." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)

Christian Science

Christian Science is small denomination that teaches that Christian healing as practiced by Jesus of Nazareth and his followers for several centuries after him, was in fact not a short-term dispensation to induce faith but had an underlying principle (specifically God) and method. While its practice is regarded within the denomination as incompatible with medical care, it also respects the philanthropy of the medical faculty and is uncondemningly non-compulsory. Resort to Christian Science may be private or involve the care of a Christian Science practitioner. See the entry on Christian Science for greater detail.

Complementary medicine

Complementary medicine refers to alternative treatments that are used alongside conventional medicine, especially as palliative care.

Conditions often targeted by alternative treatments

Also see this list of medical symptoms, many if not all would also be targeted by various alterternative treatments.


Diet-based therapy

Diet-based therapy uses a variety of diets in order to improve health and longevity, to control weight, as well as to treat specific health conditions like high cholesterol.

A survey released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine focused on who used complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), what was used, and why it was used in the United States by adults age 18 years and over during 2002. According to this recent survey, Diet-based therapy as a form of CAM was to treat 3.5% of the adult population in the United States during 2002 (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below, table 1 on page 8).

Disease models

Disease models are how people who have studied diseases try to explain them.

Doctrine of Signatures

The Doctrine of Signatures was developed around 1500 and claims that a plant's physical appearance reveals its medical value. The Doctrine of Signatures is often associated with Western herbalism.


Eclectic medicine

Eclectic medicine was a nineteenth-century system of medicine used in North America that treated diseases by the application of single herbal remedies to effect specific cures of certain signs and symptoms.

Energy therapies

Energy therapies is the precise name of a NCCAM classification, for alternative treatments that involve the use of energy fields.

Exercise-based therapy

Exercise-based therapy uses a variety of traditional forms of physical exercise in order to improve health and longevity, to increase muscle mass, as well as to treat specific health conditions and to relieve stress.


Flower essence therapy

Flower essence therapy is a sub-category of homeopathy which uses homeopathic dilutions of flowers. This practice was begun by Edward Bach with the Bach flower remedies but is now practiced much more widely, utilizing flowers all over the world. There are numerous makers of flower essences, using the flowers that are local to their region.

Folk medicine

Folk medicine is the collection of procedures traditionally used for treatment of illness and injury, aid to childbirth, and maintenance of wellness.


Golden Age of Quackery

Eighteenth-century England is remembered as the Golden Age of Quackery, since Queen Anne patronized and gave credibility to myriad swindlers and frauds.


Grahamism recommended hard mattresses, open bedroom windows, chastity, cold showers, loose clothing, pure water and vigorous exercise.

Green prescription

A green prescription is a card given by a doctor or nurse to a patient, with exercise and lifestyle goals written on it.

Group modalities

Group modalities are forms of CAM that an individual must seek out and perform with a group of like minded people.



A healer is a practitioner of alternative health practices who works with, rather than against, the natural self-healing properties of the body. Healers are said to heal because all healing comes from within the body rather from external treatments.

"Healing with Animals"

Healing with Animals is a documentary about healing relationships between animals and people.


Herbalism is the practice of making or prescribing herbal remedies for medical conditions.


Herbology is the traditional Chinese medical practice of combining plants, minerals, and parts of animals for medical treatment.

Heroic medicine

Heroic medicine is any medicine or method of treatment that is aggressive or daring in a dangerously ill patient.


Holism is the study and advocacy of wholeness in health, science, politics, or any other area of life.


Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice founded on resemblances. The underlying theory is that disease are cured by remedies which produce, on a healthy person, similar effects to the symptoms of the patient's complaint. "For example, someone suffering from insomnia may be given a homeopathic dose of coffee. Administered in diluted form, homeopathic remedies are derived from many natural sources, including plants, metals, and minerals. Numbering in the thousands, these remedies have been used to treat a wide variety of ailments including seasonal allergies, asthma, influenza, headaches, and indigestion." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)


Hypnotherapy is the treatment of a symptom, disease, or addiction by means of hypnotism. Hypnosis is "an altered state of consciousness, it is characterized by increased responsiveness to suggestion. The hypnotic state is attained by first relaxing the body then shifting the client's attention toward a narrow range of objects or ideas as suggested by the hypnotist or hypnotheraptist. The procedure is used to access various levels of the mind to effect positive changes in a person's behavior and to treat numerous health conditions. For example, hypnosis has been used to lose weight, improve sleep, and reduce pain and stress." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)


Hydrotherapy is the external use of water in the medical treatment of disease.


Index of articles on CAM

Integrative medicine

Integrative medicine, as defined by NCCAM, combines conventional medical treatments and CAM alternative treatments for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of their safety and effectiveness.

"Integrative medicine is the term being used for a new movement that is being driven by the desires of consumers but that is now getting the attention of many academic health centers. Importantly, integrative medicine is not synonymous with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It has a far larger meaning and mission in that it calls for restoration of the focus of medicine on health and healing and emphasizes the centrality of the patient-physician relationship. In addition to providing the best conventional care, integrative medicine focuses on preventive maintenance of health by paying attention to all relative components of lifestyle, including diet, exercise, stress management, and emotional well-being. It insists on patients being active participants in their health care as well as on physicians viewing patients as whole persons—minds, community members, and spiritual beings, as well as physical bodies. Finally, it asks physicians to serve as guides, role models, and mentors, as well as dispensers of therapeutic aids." (Snyderman, Weil 2002)


Interventions are any attempt to modify a medical or health condition.


Iridology the study of the iris to determine health. (See also eyology and sclerology.)



Journaling is a technique for reducing stress by writing about stressful events in your life.

Kinergetics is a creative and diverse system of Kinesiology using healing energy as its only correction. It accesses the emotional and metaphysical causes of disease, and balances the body's energies to facilitate profound, lasting change. Kinergetics assists a natural path to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and helps regain innate vitality. It balances the body's energies to bring about profound lasting change. It was created in Australia to complement Touch For Health.



Lifestyle describes the particular attitudes, habits or behaviors associated with an individual.

Lifestyle diseases

Lifestyle diseases are diseases that appear to increase in frequency as countries become more industrialized and people live longer.


Manipulative and body-based methods

Manipulative and body-based methods, is the precise name of a NCCAM classification, for alternative treatments that are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body (See also Manipulative therapy).

Massage therapy

Massage therapy "involves pressing, rubbing, and otherwise manipulating muscles and other soft tissues of the body, causing them to relax and lengthen and allowing pain relieving oxygen and blood to flow to the affected area. Using their hands and sometimes feet, elbows, and forearms, massage therapists may use over 75 different methods, such as Swedish message, deep-tissue massage, neuromuscular massage, and manual lymph drainage. Massage is considered effective for relieving any type of pain in the body's soft tissue, including back, neck, and shoulder pain, headaches, bursitis, and tendonitis. (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)


"Mental calmness and physical relaxation is achieved [with meditation] by suspending the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind. Generally performed once or twice a day for approximately 20 minutes at a time, meditation is used to reduce stress, alter hormone levels, and elevate one's mood, In addition, a person experienced in meditation can achieve a reduction in blood pressure, adrenaline levels, heart rate, and skin temperature." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)

Mind-body connection

The mind-body connection says that the causes, development, and outcomes of an illness are determined as much from the interaction of psychological and social factors as they are due to the biological factors of health.

Mind-body interventions

Mind-body interventions, is the precise name of a NCCAM classification, that coves a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms.

Modality classifications

This is a classification by who is performing the CAM treatments.

  1. Professionalized
  2. self-care
  3. group performances


Moxa is an herbal preparation of mugwort dried and rolled into a pole which resembles a cigar. It is not smoked, but used for warming regions on the body including acupuncture points. Use of moxa is called moxibustion. It is one of the techniques of traditional Chinese medicine.


Nature cure

Nature cure is the progenitor of naturopathy in Europe. It postulates that all disease is due to violations of nature's laws, and that true healing consists in a return to natural habits.

Natural health

Natural health is an eclectic self-care system of natural therapies that purports to build and restore health by working with the natural recuperative powers of the human body.

Natural hygiene

Natural hygiene is a variation of the nature cure. Its major practices are fasting, food combining, and a raw food diet.

Naturopathic medicine

Naturopathy is the eclectic practice of Naturopathic Doctors (N.D.) using many different natural therapies as treatment. The original method of treatment of Naturopathy was the water cure.

Natural therapy

Natural therapy is the treatment method used by advocates of natural health.

NCCAM classifications

NCCAM has classified CAM therapies into five different categories, or domains.

  1. Alternative Medical Systems
  2. Mind-Body Intervention
  3. Biologically Based Therapy
  4. Manipulative Methods
  5. Energy Therapy



Orthopathy started in 1802 in the US and developed into the natural hygiene movement.


Physical education

Physical educators teach physical fitness and exercise.

Plum blossom

Plum blossom is the name of both a tool (also called "Seven Star") and a technique in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as a metaphor used by several different Chinese martial arts.

Professionalized modalities

A professional used in this context is referring to a person engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career. It is a provider-based therapy where someone who is knowledgeable about a specific alternative health therapy provides care or gives advice about its use. It refers to all doctor - patient relationships where the professional is functioning in the role of a doctor, whether licensed or not. The professional is providing some type of treatment or therapy which the patient cannot perform on themselves.

Progressive relaxation

"This therapy involves the successive tensing and relaxing of each of the 15 major muscle groups. Performed lying down, one generally begins with the head and progresses downward, tensing each muscle as tightly as possible for a count of 5 to 10 and then releasing it completely. often combined with deep breathing, progressive relaxations is particularly useful for reducing stress, relieving tension, and inducing sleep." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)



Qigong (氣功 - pinyin: qì gōng, Wade-Giles: ch'i kung) is an increasingly popular aspect of Chinese medicine. Qigong is mostly taught for health maintenance purposes, but there are also some who teach it, especially in China, for therapeutic interventions. It is also an adjunct training of many East Asian martial arts.


A quack is a person who pretends to be a physician, or sells fraudulent health care products or treatment.



Reiki purports to be an energy healing therapy, which is claimed to help the body's ability to heal itself through the flow and focusing of healing energy (Reiki means universal healing energy). During treatment, this healing energy is said to be channeled through the hands of a practitioner into the client's body to restore a normal energy balance and health. Energy healing therapy has been used to attempt treatment of a wide variety of ailments and health problems and is often used in conjunction with other alternative and conventional medical treatments. (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)


San Jiao

The San Jiao or triple burner is an organ found only in traditional Chinese medical theory, and with no tangible existence. It is a concept of Qi flow and fluid metabolism.




Self-care modalities

Self-care modalities are forms of CAM that an individual can perform by themselves, even if they need to be trained to do so. These cover techniques that can be self-taught with the aid of books or instructional videos, or can be learned from an experienced practitioner. Although some initial training is needed, once these techniques are learned, you will need no additional outside assistance unless you want to improve your skills.



The word Tantra emphasizes the connection with the old Indian cultural background where the body is seen as the temple of the soul. The tantric Tradition used sexual rituals for spiritual development - a concept which is far away from todays experience. For example in Tantramassage as a spriritual approach to sexual blockade. Used in various groups and massage sessions

Therapeutic nihilism

Therapeutic nihilism is skepticism regarding the therapeutic value of drugs or medical treatment voiced by physicians.


A form of herbalism in use during the 19th century in the US.

Tibetan eye chart

A mandala-like chart used to improve eyesight through exercise.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient system of health care which is based on the Chinese notion of harmony and balance of qi.

Traditional Japanese medicine

Pre-Western Japanese medicine was strongly influenced by traditional Chinese medicine and is often seen as a sub-category of TCM. It includes the following practices:




Visualization, or guided imagery, "involves a series of relaxation techniques followed by the visualization of detailed images, usually calm and peaceful in nature. If used for treatment, the client may visualize his/her body as healthy, strong, and free of the specific problem or condition. Sessions, conducted in groups or one-on-one, are typically 20-30 minutes and may be practiced several times a week. Guided imagery has been advocated for a number of chronic conditions, including headaches, stress, high blood pressure, and anxiety." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)



Wellness has been used in CAM contexts since Halbert Dunn began using the phrase "high level wellness" in the fifties, based on a series of lectures at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, VA.

Wellness is generally used to mean a healthy balance of the mind-body and spirit that results in an overall feeling of well-being.


Wholeness has come to connote more than mere completeness or fullness. It implies a reality, system or truth in which all parts or aspects are present in right and healthy relationship with each other.

This right relationship—or synergy—is a major factor in the whole being "greater than the sum or its parts". From the perspective of preferential wholeness, a healthy person is more whole than an ill or injured one, and curing or fixing them is central to their healing. In contrast, from the perspective of existential wholeness, illness and injury are part of the larger wholeness of life, and real healing would entail appreciation and positive engagement with illness and injury as well as wellness. In this view a cancer patient can be healed through deepening insight and engagement with life—even when cures fail and they die.




Yoga is a "combination of breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation, practiced for over 5,000 years, calms the nervous system and balances body, mind, and spirit. It is thought to prevent specific diseases and maladies by keeping the energy meridians (see acupuncture) open and life energy (qi) flowing. Usually performed in classes, sessions are conducted at least once a week and for approximately 45 minutes. Yoga has been used to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve coordination, flexibility, concentration, sleep, and digestion. It has also been used as supplementary therapy for such diverse conditions as cancer, diabetes, asthma, and AIDS." (See CDC Advance Data Report #343 below.)



  • Barnes P, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin R. CDC Advance Data Report #343. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults: United States, 2002. May 27, 2004. PDF
    • On page 20 this report states: "All material appearing in this report is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission; citation as to source, however, is appreciated."
  • Snyderman R, Weil AT. Integrative medicine: bringing medicine back to its roots. Arch Intern Med. 2002;162:395–397. PMID 11863470.

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