Conventional medicine is the most common type of medicine in the Western world. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for treatments that are not part of mainstream healthcare.

Many types of complementary medicine have been around for hundreds of years. However, it is only over the last few decades that doctors have started to use complementary medicines alongside conventional treatments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that whereas people use alternative treatments in place of standard treatments, they use complementary treatments alongside them.

This article provides more information on conventional and complementary medicines, including the types, benefits, and risks. It also covers the differences and similarities between these two types of medicine.

Selection of medicinal herbsShare on Pinterest
Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Conventional medicine, also called Western medicine or modern medicine, is when healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses, and therapists use scientific research to diagnose and treat symptoms and conditions.

Examples of conventional medicine include:

Complementary medicine refers to treatments that people use in addition to conventional medicine. These treatments are not part of standard medicine.

Examples of common types of complementary medicine include:

Additional types of complementary medicine include:

People use conventional medicine to prevent, diagnose, and treat symptoms and conditions.

Doctors may use complementary treatments to alleviate the side effects of conventional medicine and improve the person’s overall quality of life. For example, a person may use complementary treatments to reduce stress, balance emotions, and alleviate fatigue while undergoing chemotherapy.

A 2020 study investigated the use of CAM treatments for people with fibromyalgia. Two-thirds of the participants used CAM treatments, with the most common therapies being:

The researchers found that people who used CAM treatments alongside pharmacological treatments had a significantly higher quality of life than those who used only the conventional approach.

The authors of a 2020 review conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for cancer-related fatigue and may help improve the quality of life of those who have survived the disease.

A coordinated treatment approach that combines conventional and complementary medicine is known as integrative health. Integrative health aims to heal each person and maximize their quality of life by treating their physical, mental, and emotional health. Individual needs will determine the best combination of therapies.

Traditional healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and therapists, can work with complementary therapists to create a treatment plan. This plan can treat all aspects of a person instead of focusing on one area of the body.

Conventional and complementary treatments have benefits and drawbacks to consider. Each case is different, so a person should talk with a healthcare professional to determine whether they are a suitable candidate for complementary therapies.

Conventional treatments

As the law demands, experts have put conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, through rigorous scientific testing to demonstrate their safety and effectiveness.

However, there are some possible drawbacks to conventional medicine. One example is the use of antibiotics, which doctors prescribe to treat bacterial infections.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in response to the use of these medications. The misuse and overuse of antibiotics increase resistance, limiting infection prevention and control.

Complementary treatments

As research has demonstrated, many complementary treatments — including acupuncture and various supplements — are safe and can be effective. The costs vary depending on the specific therapy, but some may be cheaper than conventional treatment.

However, there is no scientific or medical evidence to show that complementary treatments can help treat or cure conditions such as cancer.

Also, complementary therapies may interact with conventional treatments, potentially causing them to work less effectively or produce more severe side effects.

For this reason, it is important to discuss any complementary treatments with a healthcare professional before taking them alongside conventional treatments.

An integrative healthcare approach combines conventional and complementary treatments. A person should consult a doctor to learn about the potential benefits, risks, and side effects of different treatments and how they affect each other.

A person can work with a doctor and complementary therapist to create a suitable and effective treatment plan. Regular checkups will allow these professionals to modify the treatment plan if necessary.