Created by the Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows.

What Are Healing Practices?

Bill is convinced that complementary therapies help him stay healthy. Susan swears by the alternative medicine she uses to maintain her health. When they sit down to talk, they find they are doing the same things-they just have different words for it.

Alternative medicine, complementary therapies, natural healthcare, integrative medicine--these are a few of the terms used nowadays to describe a wide array of healing practices that fall outside purely pharmaceutical or surgical treatments. Some examples are massage, meditation, and acupuncture.

woman getting massage A few years ago, complementary and alternative medicine was defined as therapies that were not taught in medical school or offered in mainstream hospitals. But this no longer applies. Many complementary and alternative therapies are now offered in clinics and hospitals around the country and their use and acceptance is growing rapidly. This is reflected in a new name used in many healthcare settings: "integrative therapies."

But whether you say integrative therapies or alternative medicine, or something else, it refers to the same thing-a wide array of healing practices that fall outside purely pharmaceutical or surgical treatments.

How can these healing practices complement my healthcare?

A person could use these practices and therapies instead of conventional medicine, as an alternative. However, this is less common and may pose risks. It is not a good idea, for example, to abandon conventional cancer treatment for a "miracle" botanical medicine. But it might make sense to see a massage or healing touch therapist while undergoing chemotherapy to help your body recuperate.

Thus we see these healing practices as complementary to conventional care and a key part of integrative healthcare.

How do I get the best of both worlds?

We believe that the goal is to move toward integrative healthcare-where the best of both conventional therapies and healing practices are available to all, and providers from both work together for the best patient outcome.

This is already happening-many physicians and nurse practitioners now recommend botanical medicines or chiropractic, for instance. And it will continue to grow as informed healthcare consumers demand the best of both worlds.

What are some specific healing practices?

There are literally hundreds of types of healing practices, with new therapies or variations emerging continuously. This can make it a little overwhelming when you are first starting out.

Luckily, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has grouped most of these therapies into five categories. Understanding the categories can help you identify the key characteristics of a particular practice or therapy.

  1. Alternative Medical Systems are complete systems that developed outside of the Western biomedical approach. Examples are Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
  2. Mind-Body Interventions include behavioral, psychological, social, and spiritual approaches. Examples are cancer support groups and relaxation classes.
  3. Biologically-Based Therapies use plant or other biological materials. Examples include herbal medicines and aromatherapy.
  4. Manipulative and Body-Based Methods use manipulation, touch, or movement of the physical body. Examples include massage therapy and chiropractic.
  5. Energy Therapies involve some form of energy to heal, including electromagnetic, ultrasonic, thermal, or subtle energy. Examples include healing touch and Reiki.

Is integrative healthcare safe & effective?

It is very important to evaluate every part of an integrative healthcare plan, whether complementary or conventional, to determine if it is safe and effective.

  • Safe generally means that the therapy will not cause harm or be detrimental to your health and wellbeing.
  • Effective means that the therapy works in the way that it is intended to work.

In reality, it is nearly impossible to determine with 100% certainty whether any treatment or therapy is safe or effective for all people. So another way to look at this question is to examine the risks, benefits, and evidence. Ask the following questions and do some research to find good answers.

Risk: Is the therapy harmful? Just because something is natural does not mean that it is safe. There are many natural substances that are poisonous. A therapy may also put you at risk if it interferes with another treatment that you are receiving.

For example, people who have had organ transplants are required to take medicines that suppress their immune system for the rest of their life. St. John's Wort may interfere with these immunosuppressive drugs, thus putting the person at risk for rejecting their transplanted organ.

Benefit: What will the therapy or treatment do? Does it work? Will it be effective? How will it contribute to my overall health and wellbeing?

Evidence: How much evidence is there that a given treatment is safe (with little or no risk) and effective? Note that there is much debate about what constitutes evidence. Start by looking to see if there are rigorous scientific studies that have been conducted on the therapy for the proposed use.

Note also if there is anecdotal evidence accumulated because a treatment has been used for more than 5,000 years. Stories or anecdotes are generally not given the same weight as scientifically conducted studies, but experience and accumulated wisdom should not be ignored.

It is important for you to evaluate all three-risk, benefit, and evidence-and then determine if the therapy is right for you.

Expert Contributor: 
Mary Jo Kreitzer, RN, PhD

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