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Complementary and alternative medicine overview

When you're ill, you see your GP for advice and you may leave the surgery with a prescription. Your doctor - and the medication he prescribes - is considered part of conventional medicine.

If you also visit a chiropractor or acupuncturist for treatment, you'd be in the field of complementary and alternative medicine, sometimes referred to as CAM.

There are a number of alternative and complementary therapies available in the UK. Some of these treatments have been claimed to help some people alleviate the symptoms of certain illnesses.

However, other alternative therapies don't have enough medical evidence to determine if they are effective.

Complementary and alternative therapies should not be used to replace the treatment recommended by your doctor.

Many complementary and alternative therapists are registered with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) which was set up by the government to give a degree of regulation to the sector.

Before you try CAM, read this overview.

Acupuncture

What it is: Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the theory that vital energy called Qi circulates around the body along channels called meridians. Blockages in the flow of Qi are thought to cause ill health. The aim of acupuncture is to restore a balance of energy and good health to the body.

The evidence: Many of acupuncture's benefits still haven't been confirmed. That's because more studies on acupuncture need to be performed. However, evidence suggests that acupuncture holds promise for relieving vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. Also, hospitals, hospices and clinics use acupuncture to help relieve pain.

Aromatherapy

What it is: Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils to help deal with everyday stresses and emotional well-being. The concentrated oils are extracted from plants and are usually inhaled or used for massage.

It is thought that molecules from the oils can permeate through the skin, enter the blood and affect the nervous system.

The evidence: There is no firm scientific evidence that aromatherapy works.

Various reviews of the effect of aromatherapy on conditions including pain management in labour, dementia and psychiatric disorders have usually concluded that more studies or better designed research is needed.

Anecdotal evidence that lavender oil assists relaxation may be simply an expectation by the user that it works.

Chiropractic medicine

What it is: Chiropractors specialise in adjustments - manipulating the spine to put the body into better alignment. People typically see a chiropractor when they have pain in their lower back, shoulders and neck. Additionally, many chiropractors claim that adjustments can also improve overall health and treat a wide range of conditions including asthma, infant colic, irritable bowel syndrome and many more conditions.

The evidence: Chiropractic medicine does seem to provide some relief for lower back pain, although it may not be any better than other back pain treatments, such as painkillers, exercise and physiotherapy. However, there is no good evidence that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for any other health condition.

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