Integrative, Complementary, Alternative Health – What’s it All Mean?

We have all these terms for different subfields of medicine, and especially these three: alternative, complementary and integrative, seem to be used almost interchangeably sometimes? We live in a world of buzz words and fads – even medical fads. Is this one of those cases?

Not really. However, the way people use these words colloquially gets confusing. We say colloquially because doctors don’t tend to get them confused… you kind of have to know which field of medicine you’re working in to do it well. But these sectors of medicine are worth all of us understanding, because they have the capability to help us heal in ways we previously didn’t think we could.

Complementary & Alternative Approaches to Medicine

Let’s start with alternative and complementary medicine:

  • Complementary therapies are meant to be used in tandem with mainstream medical treatments.
  • Alternative therapies are meant to be used instead of mainstream medical treatments.

Often, people use the term “complementary and alternative medicine” and shorten it to CAM, basically to use, as a shorthand, a way to describe prioritizing non-mainstream, more holistic approaches to medicine. There’s a huge overlap between what’s an alternative vs complementary therapy – the real difference is the therapy’s place within the treatment plan.

For instance; are we using yoga along with regenerative injection therapy to deal with our scoliosis? If so, yoga is a complementary therapy. But what if we’re just using yoga to treat our scoliosis? Then yoga is an alternative therapy.

Clear? Maybe?

Think of it this way: Western approaches to medicine are largely based on scientific evidence from clinical research and experimentation. CAM approaches are based on applied evidence from observable results in the course of practicing CAM therapies.

Some types of complementary and alternative therapies there’s a lot of experience and even a good bit of science behind include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurveda
  • Biofeedback
  • Chelation
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Naturopathy
  • Reflexology

None of these are fads – in fact, this entire list is comprised of widely-used alternative and complementary therapies. Acupuncture is a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine. Naturopathy has been a recognized vein of holistic medicine for over a century. And approaches like massage therapy and even chiropractic medicine are, honestly, almost mainstream. They’re common, and doctors in clinical Western medicine will often refer chronic pain patients to these types of specialists.

What’s an Integrative Approach to Medicine Mean?

Integrative medicine – you guessed it – integrates complementary therapies with mainstream Western techniques. Regenerative medicine is often used as a facet of an integrative treatment plan. For instance, that scoliosis we mentioned earlier. Say it’s severe – like, 45-degrees. An integrated approach to treating the scoliosis may include:

  • Surgery to install rods (Western approach)
  • Massage therapy to release traumatized fascia (complementary approach)
  • PRP injections to aid healing (regenerative approach)
  • Implementation of holistic diet and exercise plan post-healing (CAM approach)

And maybe for after the surgery, a doctor may prescribe low-dose opioids (Western) in tandem with medical marijuana (alternative/complementary) for pain management.

See? Nothing crazy. It’s just a way to build a more well-rounded, safe and comprehensive treatment plan with longevity in mind. Integrative medicine goes beyond healing an injury or illness and looks at how to create a lifestyle that prevents recurrence and/or further injury/illness.

Is Integrated Medicine Better than Traditional Western Medicine?

It’s not really a question of comparing integrated approaches to health vs mainstream medical theory. Instead, it’s a question of how to supplement the shortcomings of Western medicine. And behind that question of how to augment Western techniques is a focus on choosing natural, non-invasive treatments before resorting to pharmaceutical dependence and surgical intervention.

While many complementary therapies incorporated in integrated health approaches have centuries of use to support them, clinical evidence is harder to collect. This is a two-fold issue:

  • Research for CAM techniques is more difficult to get proper funding for.
  • Whole-body modalities (read: lifestyle changes) introduce so many uncontrollable variables that the cost/time/labor/etc. involved with creating a controlled study is too far a reach.

Think about it; how do you follow even 2 people over a year who are seeing an holistic nutritionist? You’d have to control for diet, activity, environmental stress, overall health, genetic predispositions – there’s just too much there to really create a clinical study that carries any veracity. Not to mention that true holistic nutrition calls for plans specifically-tailored to a person; no two people would ever have the same plan in the first place.

So, is an integrative theory of medicine better than a purely clinical one? We’d argue so. Because with scoliosis, arthritis, musician’s injuries, MS, or anything else, there’s a lot more to what’s going on than just the pain you’re feeling. You’re a whole person with countless structures and systems at work every day. It doesn’t make sense to simply treat the symptoms at a specific site when you can treat the whole person and actually remedy the cause.

It’s not like there’s any way or reason to replace the amazing things that modern clinical medicine is doing. But is it always the answer? No way! We work under a theory of integrated medicine because it’s patient-centered: how can we work with you to tailor a treatment approach

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