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What’s In A Name?

Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative…

“Complementary and alternative medicine,” “complementary medicine,” “alternative medicine,” “integrative medicine”-we have all seen these terms on the Internet and in marketing, but what do they really mean? While the terms are often used to mean the array of health care approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people. Here’s a look into these terms to help us understand them better.

Complementary Versus Alternative – Many Americans, nearly 40 percent, use health care approaches for their pets developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine for specific conditions or overall well-being. When describing health approaches with non-mainstream roots, people often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts: “Complementary” generally refers to using a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine. “Alternative” refers to using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine.

True alternative medicine is not common. Most people use non-mainstream approaches along with conventional treatments. And the boundaries between complementary and conventional medicine overlap and change with time. For example, guided imagery and massage, both once considered complementary or alternative, are used regularly in some veterinary hospitals to help with pain management.

Integrative Medicine – This array of non-mainstream health care approaches may also be considered part of integrative medicine or integrative health care. For example, cancer treatment centers with integrative health care programs may offer services such as acupuncture and meditation to help manage a pet’s symptoms and side effects for patients who are receiving conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. There are various definitions for “integrative health care,” but several facts about this growing health trend are clear:
It’s happening now. Many individuals, health care providers, and health care systems are integrating various practices with origins outside of mainstream medicine into treatment and health promotion.
The integrative trend is growing among providers and health care systems. Driving factors include marketing of integrative care by health care providers to consumers who perceive benefits to health or well-being, and emerging evidence that some of the perceived benefits are real or meaningful.

The scientific evidence is limited. In many instances, a lack of reliable data makes it difficult for people to make informed decisions about using integrative health care.

Natural Products – This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements. Interest in and use of natural products have grown considerably in the past few decades. Some of these products have been studied in large, placebo-controlled trials, many of which have failed to show anticipated effects. Research on others to determine whether they are effective and safe is ongoing. While there are indications that some may be helpful, more needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the animal body and about their safety and potential interactions with medicines and with other natural products.

Mind and Body Practices – Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher.

For example,

  • Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body-most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.
  • Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners manually manipulate the soft tissues of the body.
  • The various styles of yoga (in the pet world this is known as doga) including Doga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.

Other examples of mind and body practices include healing touch and hypnotherapy. The amount of research on mind and body approaches varies widely depending on the practice. For example, acupuncture, yoga, spinal manipulation, and meditation have had many studies, and some of these practices appear to hold promise in pain management, whereas other practices have had little research to date.


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