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What is complementary medicine

Complementary medicine is based on many different practices and ideas, and uses lots of different ways of looking at illness and finding ways to treat it. Some types of complementary medicine seem to work very well, while others have been labelled by the medical establishment as pure quackery. The truth may lie somewhere in between.


There are many types of complementary medicine. The most well-known and commonly-used forms include acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, herbal medicine, homeopathy, massage techniques and hypnotherapy.  Some methods are steeped in the ancient mysticism of the East, such as yoga, Reiki therapy and Shiatsu. Others, like aromatherapy and herbalism, have roots closer to home, and are more closely related to conventional medicine than many people realise.

The approaches used in complementary medicine range from using herbs and plant extracts in the form of tablets, tonics, lotions or creams, to the 'laying on of hands' in massage and manipulation. The particular therapy that works best for you depends very much on your illness or complaint, but often even more on how you feel about the different forms of complementary medicine. What works for one person may not benefit someone else.

Does complementary medicine work?

Complementary medicine is usually not the first course of action your GP will suggest when you pay a visit with a wheezy chest or an aching back. But scientific studies have shown that some techniques, like osteopathy, work as well as, if not better than orthodox medicine. Osteopathy and some other complementary therapies, including herbal medicine, acupuncture and some other less well-known techniques, are gradually being accepted as valid forms of treatment by medical science.

According to the well-respected British Medical Journal, there is nothing more 'natural' or 'holistic' about complementary medicine than conventional medicine. As the voice of the medical profession, it has called for more research to find out which types of complementary medicine work and just how well. Over the coming years, as it is studied more and regulations help protect patients from the rogue element, complementary medicine is likely to become embraced by medicine for the good health of us all – and Surgery Door will be open to keep you up to date with the latest information.

The gap between conventional and complementary medicine is narrowing

It’s not unusual these days for medical students to study complementary medicine as part of their training. In 1995, about twelve medical schools were offering courses in complementary medicine and, by 1997, that figure had grown to more than forty with another twenty schools saying they would be introducing courses within two years. Many hospitals have complementary medicine practitioners on their wards.

Some forms of complementary medicine are actually available through the NHS. Some GPs now advise patients to seek osteopathic help or to try a course of relaxation instead of writing out a conventional prescription. Some doctors may even be complementary medicine practitioners themselves – many GPs are qualified homeopaths or acupuncturists, for instance. Pharmacists too are as likely to offer a 'herbal' remedy these days instead of a standard pharmaceutical product – in fact, the likes of witchhazel and senna have been on their shelves for years.

Some precautions when using complementary medicine

There are some important things to remember if you decide to opt for complementary medicine. Firstly, it’s always best to keep your doctor informed of any alternative treatments you are taking. Secondly, it’s never a good idea to simply stop taking your prescription medicine to start a course of complementary medicine treatment. This is critical if you need drugs for asthma, high blood pressure or other serious illnesses. However, if the complementary treatment improves your symptoms, it might be worth asking your GP whether gradually reducing the dose of your conventional medicines might be safe under their supervision.

As with conventional medicine, there are risks to take into account when following a course of complementary medicine treatment. Some people taking herbal remedies have suffered side-effects worse than those due to conventional medicines.

Problems can arise because of impurities in the herbal medicine or the variability of doses in over-the-counter preparations or preparations of unknown origin. Techniques that involve bone manipulation, especially of the spine and neck, can do more harm than good if not carried out by a trained practitioner, and even then accidents can happen (most registered practitioners will be insured for this, but check first). Some forms of alternative therapy, like hypnotherapy, while very effective in many patients, can disturb some people, although this is very rare.

How do I find a reputable practitioner?

Firstly, check whether your GP can provide the complementary therapy you want. If not, they may be able to recommend a reputable practitioner. With some exceptions, such as osteopaths and chiropractors, complementary practitioners do not have to join an official register to practice, although many do. There are various professional associations for the different types of complementary medicine, and many are working towards official accreditation to protect both practitioner and patient and to make sure standards are maintained. Refer to the choices listed in our introductory page for details of relevant associations to contact for each type of complementary medicine.

Doctors and the British Medical Association have all called for the law to be changed to ensure patient safety and the effectiveness of treatments and to speed up the process of official recognition or otherwise of the various practitioner associations.

Did you know?

A survey in 1995 showed that almost two in five general practices offered some form of complementary medicine for NHS patients, although the patient had to pay for the treatment in most cases. A 1998 report said that more than 90% of hospices used complementary medicine There are currently more than 5,000 reflexologists, 2,300 osteopaths, and 1,700 acupuncturists in the UK. The biggest group of complementary medicine practitioners is the 'healers', of which there are many different forms, including Reiki, faith healing, and touch therapists.

There are now more complementary health therapists in the UK than GPs, and that does not include GPs who also practice complementary medicine. According to a study by Exeter University's Centre for Complementary Health, carried out in collaboration with the Department of Health last year, there are 36,200 family doctors and almost 40,000 complementary practitioners, and the number of complementary medicine practitioners is still growing.  

A survey in 1995 showed that almost two in five general practices offered some form of complementary medicine for NHS patients, although the patient had to pay for the treatment in most cases. A 1998 report said that more than 90% of hospices used complementary medicine.