Alternative medicine is an approach that is used to replace traditional treatment and therapy. It may include swallowing or applying herbal substances, adhering to a special diet, or a combination of approaches that are not usually recommended by a doctor who practices conventional medicine. A patient who chooses alternative medicine to treat his cancer might decide a special diet can be more useful than chemotherapy.
When we need medical treatment in the United States, we most often expect to find a doctor who practices traditional medicine, sometimes called allopathic medicine.
This traditional medicine provides for a diagnosis, then treatment using drugs or other therapies that have been developed through observation over time, and through research studies and clinical trials. Examples are pharmaceutical drugs, surgeries and others.
Eastern cultures (Chinese culture, for example) have developed medical treatments over thousands of years that are just now becoming more accepted in the United States. Those treatments and therapies are usually called complementary or alternative (CAM).
The National Institutes of Health now recognizes some alternative therapies. Alternative therapies have not been as readily embraced as complementary therapies, and have not yet been adopted by most patients or providers in Western cultures like those in the United States, Canada or Europe.