National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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One of the 27 research and funding units of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is charged with:

  • Exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science.
  • Training complementary and alternative medicine researchers.
  • Providing authoritative information to the public and professionals.

NCCAM does this through funding and conducting research, using scientific method, to study complementary and alternative medicine. In understanding their rule, it is useful to note that they differentiate between the two. According to NCCAM, complementary medical techniques are used in conjunction with conventional medicine. One example would be using aromatherapy with pleasant, and healing in aromatherapy doctrine, essential oils inhaled by surgical patients. If the aromatherapy is truly complementary, there will be improvements in the postoperative course of patients that receive the aromatherapy, as opposed to a control group. In this case, a placebo control would be appropriate in a clinical trial, since there is no accepted conventional method of achieving this complementary effect.

Alternative medicine, however, is used in place of conventional medicine. "An example of an alternative therapy is using a special diet to treat cancer" rather than surgical, radiation, or drug therapy prescribed by a conventionally trained physician. In this case, an randomized controlled trial would, under principles of informed consent, use the accepted medical treatment

Areas of activity

NCCAM has funded over 1,200 research projects. They train new researchers in both the CAM therapies and in accepted methods of valid clinical research, as well as encouraging established researchers to examine CAM.

NCCAM is an information resource, using a website and printed factsheets for general informatio, continuing medical education, a Distinguished Lecture Series, and a database of professional publications. When a CAM method has been proven safe and effective, NCCAM works to help both the public and healthcare professionals know of the successes and their applicability.

Organizing CAM knowledge and research

NCCAM groups CAM practices into whole medical systems, and four domains that can be complementary to conventional medicine, or part of whole alternative medical systems.

Major field and Description Subfield Subfield
Whole Medical Systems comprise complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical approach used in the United States. These are usually alternative rather than complementary. Western systems include homeopathy and naturopathy Non-western systems include traditional Chinese medicine and ayurveda
Mind-Body Medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some of the "still considered CAM" techniques are more and more accepted. Accepted as mainstream (not strictly CAM) include patient support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy Still considered CAM include meditation, visualization, and relaxation (physiology) techniques; eye motion desensitization reprocessing; healing prayer, mental healing, and creative outlets such as art therapy, music therapy and dance
Biologically based practices in CAM use substances found in nature, such as medicinal herbs, therapeutic diet, pharmacologic doses of vitamins, essential oils, and dietary supplements. An example of an unproven method is using shark cartilage to treat cancer.
Manipulative and Body-Based Practices involve the controlled use of force against parts of the body, or maneuvers that move body parts out of their usual range of motion. These may be used as whole systems or as complementary methods. They include osteopathic manipulation, massage therapy, chiropractic, and methods involving movement or posture instruction.
Energy Medicine breaks into therapies that use forces that are, and are not, detectable with conventional scientific instrumentation. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating-current or direct-current fields. Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. These include qigong (part of traditional Chinese medicine), reiki, and therapeutic touch