reviewed 11/2/2018

Alternative medicine: True or false?

It's estimated that about 1/3 of American adults use healthcare therapies that come from outside mainstream, conventional medicine. How much do you know about these treatments?

True or false: Alternative medicine and complementary medicine are the same thing.

False. When a nonconventional therapy is used instead of mainstream medicine, it's considered alternative. But when nonconventional therapy is used together with mainstream medicine, it's considered complementary. In the U.S., most people who use nonconventional therapies do so to complement conventional care.

True or false: Dietary supplements, like herbs and probiotics, are considered complementary medicine.

True. These products are the most commonly used complementary therapies in the U.S. However, it's good to keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not test dietary supplements or require proof that they are beneficial before they are sold.

True or false: If a product is natural, it's safe.

False. Many natural products can be unsafe. For instance, two herbs—comfrey and kava—can damage the liver. Some supplements—such as St. John's wort—can interfere with other medications you're taking, such as antidepressants or birth control pills. That's why you always want to let your doctor know what supplements you use.

True or false: Acupuncture has been tested and approved as an effective treatment for chronic pain.

False. While research is ongoing, experts currently disagree about whether this treatment works better than a placebo. And there are no federal laws governing the testing, licensing or regulation of acupuncture.

True or false: Giving a dose of coffee to someone with insomnia is an example of homeopathy.

True. Homeopathy is based on the idea that a diluted substance that causes certain symptoms in a healthy person can cure those symptoms in an ill person. No homeopathic remedy has been found to be effective.

Before trying an alternative or complementary medicine, check with your doctor. He or she can advise you on whether it might be a beneficial or risky therapy.

Get the basics on alternative medicine

Sources: American Cancer Society; National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

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