Share on Pinterest
PANSFUN IMAGES / Stocksy

Think about your usual trip to your primary care physician.

You probably go into the waiting room or, these days, wait to be called in from your car. You go in, a nurse takes your vitals, and you wait for the doctor. Eventually, the doctor comes in and spends about 10 to 15 minutes with you.

These check-ups are vital to ensure you’re healthy. But do you ever feel like you spend more time waiting for your doctor than you spend with them?

Modern medicine is effective, but some people want more. That’s why the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is on the rise in the United States.

Read on to learn more about CAM treatment and whether it’s right for you.

Many treatments fall under the CAM umbrella, and it’s hard to list all of them. According to Greg Lane, DACM, LAC, and Tara Scott, MD, some of the most common modalities include:

Lane is dean of graduate faculty at Pacific College of Health and Science. Scott is the medical director of integrative health at Summa Health in Ohio and the chief medical officer and founder of Revitalize Academy.

The ailments CAM can help support are as varied as the modalities.

“Pretty much anything that anyone would see a doctor for they can see a CAM practitioner for,” says Lane.

These can include:

A 2020 report found that 62.5 percent of people under age 40 with breast cancer were using some form of CAM. A 2017 survey found 31 percent of Portuguese patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) had turned to it.

A 2017 National Health Interview Survey reported an uptick in U.S. adults using yoga, meditation, and chiropractors over a 5-year span. There are plenty of reasons why this trend is happening.

People crave more time from a practitioner

Doctors can help pick up on any potential issues you may be having in a short period. But they have to get through basics, like listening to your heart, and then get on to other patients.

Research shows that not everyone feels like they’re getting what they need from their check-ups.

A 2018 review of 169 studies involving people using CAM for musculoskeletal conditions indicated that the desire to spend more time with a practitioner was part of their decision to seek alternative treatments.

“Patients are not feeling heard,” says Scott. “Many complementary practitioners will give our patients an hour.”

People connect with their CAM providers

According to a 2018 report, patient trust in physicians is declining. That can hurt the patient-provider relationship.

Some people may be more comfortable with a CAM provider. One small focus group study of Alaskans found that a primary reason they used complementary medicine was that it was more relationship-focused.

Lane thinks part of this is that CAM providers often take a more holistic approach.

“Physicians are really good at getting microscopic information,” Lane says. “They can look at specific viruses. CAM providers… pull the lens way back, allowing us to look at the whole person — mind, body, and spirit.”

Other treatments haven’t worked

Scott often gets patients with gastrointestinal complaints who have tried conventional methods.

“Doctors put them on a medication that didn’t work,” Scott says. “They go get a colonoscopy and endoscopy. There are no problems, but they still have symptoms.”

Scott says this is common for people with chronic pain. Doctors may report that everything looks OK while the patient is still hurting.

Without a diagnosis or a medication that successfully relieves symptoms, she says people may turn to CAM approaches, like massage or acupuncture.

People want a natural remedy

Medications for physical as well as mental health can help get people back on track, but some patients experience side effects from medications.

Just a few possible side effects from medications include:

Scott adds that patients may want to start with or pivot to something natural to avoid these issues, like yoga or meditation, to see if that helps them manage their symptoms.

They’re looking for an integrative approach

Sometimes, yoga and meditation can help reduce stress enough that someone doesn’t need to take medication. Still, CAM isn’t always a replacement for biomedicine.

Sometimes biomedical approaches are still necessary, especially when it comes to serious conditions like cancer.

“If anybody in healthcare is responsible, including complementary and alternative medical practitioners, they should consider themselves part of a team,” Lane says. “You can do things that can help, but prescribing strictly a complementary and alternative medicine modality in place of an oncology visit is irresponsible.”

Still, complementary approaches like yoga can help manage side effects, and that’s where the integrative approach to medicine can benefit patients.

“Complementary therapy can be helpful,” Scott says. “Does it do anything for long-term survival for cancer patients? No. But it could help with quality of life.”

There’s a ripple effect

Scott and Lane agree that the increased use of and discussion about CAM may be sparking more people’s interest in these practices, particularly if they’re having issues with pain, infertility, stress, or undergoing treatment for a terminal illness.

“People are willing to try something that’s recommended by someone they love and trust,” Lane says, adding that he also gets cross-referrals from physicians.

Finding out about healthcare treatments through word of mouth, particularly on social media, may raise eyebrows. But CAM isn’t the Wild West.

“It’s complementary and alternative to the western biomedicine that we are used to in the United States,” says Lane. “Many of these modalities do have a lot of research and are evidence-based.”

For example, a 2018 meta-analysis of data from more than 20,000 patients indicated that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic musculoskeletal, headache, and osteoarthritis pain.

Another 2018 report linked meditation with reduced inflammation.

Still, some CAM modalities have little to no research or mixed results. A 2019 review suggested yoga and meditation were useful in treating anxiety and depression but found mixed results on tai chi and qigong.

“One of the biggest misnomers is that it doesn’t work,” says Lane, though he adds, “[Another misnomer] is that it cures all.”

The truth is, CAM success rates vary from person to person. Scott says that, as with any treatment, CAM modalities may work for some people and not others. But there’s likely no harm in trying it.

“The main goal is to help a patient feel better… if it works for you, it works for you,” Scott says.

If you’re interested in trying CAM, Scott and Lane suggest starting with a consultation. Some providers offer a first visit for free.

Take your time in finding a practitioner and set yourself up for success by doing research in advance.

“It’s important to do the research and ask questions,” Lane says. “What is the practitioner’s training? Is there a board? Certification?”

Asking these questions can help you feel more comfortable with a practitioner. Even if you establish a relationship with a CAM professional, it’s always good to evaluate any lifestyle advice they give and ask yourself if they’re qualified to give it.

“If you went to a chiropractor and they said something about your estrogen and progesterone being off, that’s not in their scope of practice, but if they said you are having headaches because of your neck, that’s in their scope,” Scott says.

Both Lane and Scott suggest speaking with your doctor about any CAM you’re doing. One problem is that many people don’t.

In the Portuguese study of patients with IBD, 59 percent of respondents said they didn’t discuss their CAM treatments with their doctors.

“They’re afraid of being judged,” Scott says.

She adds that some supplements may interfere with medications. Other times, hot yoga may not be the best idea for patients prone to fainting.

That’s why it’s important your entire team of healthcare professionals is clued in.

Some medications can interfere with CAM treatments. Be sure to inform your entire healthcare team about what modalities, treatments, and supplements you’re using. Consult with your physician about whether certain CAM treatments are right for you.

CAM is rising in popularity, and there’s evidence to support its place in healthcare.

There are several motivating factors, including the desire to have more time and a better relationship with providers. Other people want to try more natural modalities or take an integrative approach to their healthcare.

Though studies show some may be hesitant to discuss CAM with their conventional healthcare professionals, experts suggest being as open as possible so everyone is on the same page.


Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.