What is CAM?

CAM is an acronym that stands for “Complementary and Alternative Medicine”.  It is a blanket term covering all versions of medical practice outside of conventional medicine in the United States.  “Complementary” refers to any therapies used in conjunction with conventional medicine and “alternative” refers to any therapies used in place of conventional medicine. Within the fairly small (but growing!) group of scientists and physicians involved in this field, the term “CAM” is still somewhat controversial and difficult to accurately define, a major problem because scientists love nothing more than precise definitions.  The main point of contention is where to draw the line between conventional medicine and CAM.  For example, should acupuncture be classified as “CAM” if it is performed by an M.D. (as it often is nowadays)?  The answer is still unresolved.

It is impossible to draw any useful conclusions about the safety and efficacy of CAM as a whole because it encompasses so many different medical systems and practices.  Each treatment must be looked at and evaluated individually, since some have far more scientific evidence than others.  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has divided CAM into the following five main categories:  1) Whole Medical Systems, 2)  Mind-Body Intervention, 3) Biologically Based Therapy, 4)  Manipulation and Body-Based Methods, and 5)  Energy Therapy.  Each of these, in turn, also has a number of sub-categories.

Historically, the relationship between conventional medicine and CAM in the United States has been rocky (to say the least), and while it has improved to some extent in recent years prejudice still exists on both sides.  Part of the issue is that most medical schools simply don’t include any exposure to CAM in their curricula, and consequently their graduates are not really in a position to guide patients when it comes to CAM practices unless they take the initiative to learn about the field on their own.  The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that about 38% of adults and 12% of children in the United States had used CAM in the previous year; it is likely that these percentages are even higher now since CAM use is steadily increasing.  Hopefully, these statistics will motivate physicians to familiarize themselves with this field in order to better advise their patients.

The field of CAM is constantly changing as new scientific studies are conducted.  Be sure to regularly check out the most recent research so that you are making informed health decisions.  Keep an eye on The Zeneration Blog for discussion and analysis of some of the latest updates in CAM.  For more information about specific CAM modalities, please explore the contents of this website and the additional resources listed below.


DISCLAIMER:  This article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice.  You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making decisions about therapies and/or health conditions.



1.  National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: The Use of CAM in the United States

2.  Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Fourth Edition by Marc S. Micozzi for more detailed information.  Published by Saunders Elsevier, St. Louis, Missouri 2011.

3.  Integrative Medicine Second Edition by David Rakel for more detailed information on usage for specific conditions.  Copyright 2007, 2003 by Elsevier Inc.  Published by Saunders Elsevier, Philadelphia, PA 2007.

4.  From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine Second Edition by John Duffy.  Published by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1993.

5.  Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America by James C. Whorton.  Published by Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2002.

6.  National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine http://nccam.nih.gov/ NCCAM is an NIH-funded research center for CAM and their website offers a great deal of free information.

7.  Natural Standard http://naturalstandard.com/  This website requires membership and compiles information on various CAM modalities from the available scientific literature.

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