How to Tell If Complementary and Alternative Medicine Is Right for You

How to Tell If Complementary and Alternative Medicine Is Right for You

1000 562 Jennifer Nelson

You’re sleeping soundly, you don’t have any weird aches or pains and your job doesn’t stress you out whatsoever. Does this sound familiar?

Probably not. Even if your doctor gives you the OK, at least one little symptom or trouble may stick around to bother you. There’s no doubt that if you have a serious health concern, your primary care physician is your go-to, but taking a holistic approach to health care with the help of complementary and alternative medicine (also known as CAM) can help take some of those little health complaints — and maybe even a few of your bigger ones — off of your plate.

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

There’s nothing mystical about CAM. It’s just an approach to health care that sometimes falls outside of conventional medicine or has origins beyond Western practices. Most CAM treatments take a holistic view and treat the “whole” person, including habits, lifestyle, diet and mood. Think treatments in the realm of chiropractic care, massage, yoga and herbal dietary supplements.

CAM typically comes into play alongside conventional treatment. When you have an aching shoulder and follow your cortisone shots up with a few rounds of acupuncture, that’s complementary medicine — you’re letting conventional and alternative medicine complement each other. Now, if you stick to just the acupuncture, that’s considered alternative medicine, since you’re using the treatment as an alternative to conventional treatment entirely.

Who Is CAM Right For?

Today, almost 4 in 10 Americans explore CAM treatments for a range of issues, from pain management to sports injuries, insomnia, depression, migraines and even cancer. You might think about complementary or alternative medicine if you’re not having good results with a conventional treatment or just because you’d like to try a more a “natural” approach to your health.

Just because most CAM treatments don’t come with a prescription doesn’t mean you have an excuse to keep your doctor out of the loop, though. Get your doctor’s take on what kind of services might benefit you the most. You choose a practitioner the same way you choose your doctor — through referrals and recommendations from others.

Will My Insurance Cover It?

According to the National Institutes of Health, health insurance plans are starting to cover some of the most popular complementary and alternative medicine treatments, at least in part. When CAM treatments are covered, insurers may limit the number of treatments they’ll cover and require a statement of medical necessity from your doctor.

If you have a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA), check with your administrator to see if some alternative treatments are reimbursable. That said, many people choose to pay for these out of pocket, just like they would with a gym membership or yoga classes.

What Else Should I Know?

CAM treatments tend to bring out a lot of strong opinions. Many people consider them to be beneficial and effective. Detractors, though, say there’s a lack of peer-reviewed medical literature for many CAM treatments. While the medical community does research CAM treatments, according to the Mayo Clinic, funding for these studies is often limited.
What does this mean for you? That’s easy — it’s your body in question, so if your judgment tells you not to do it, then you shouldn’t.

Mayo recommends doing your homework before diving into anything new. Understand that “natural” doesn’t always mean safe and that some treatments may be controversial. Be open, but stay skeptical of claims that sound too good to be true, like guarantees and cure-alls. Check potential providers’ credentials, and update your doctor on what you’re doing.

Complementary and alternative medicine is just another way of supporting your health goals. Keep your expectations at a reasonable level and work with your doctor to make sure you’re on the right track.

Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer Nelson is an award winning health, health IT, and personal finance writer.

All stories by:Jennifer Nelson