What Are Alternative Therapies?

common alternative therapies

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

Alternative therapies refer to any medical treatments that are not traditional medicine techniques. Alternative therapies could either be used alongside conventional medicine or instead of it. The term is often used interchangeably with "complementary medicine." In medical spaces, the practice is referred to as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) does make a distinction between complementary and alternative medicine. According to them, when it's used alongside traditional medicine, it's complementary, but if it's used in place of conventional medicine, then it's considered alternative. However, most people are likely to use these therapies alongside traditional medicine.

When a licensed healthcare provider uses both alternative therapies and conventional medicine, then it's called integrative medicine. A doctor or healthcare provider who uses integrative medicine uses all therapeutic methods to ensure their patients are healthy.  

In this article, you'll learn about the most popular forms of alternative therapies and how they are practiced. 

Alternative Therapy Categorization

There are many types of alternative therapies. Over the years, many of these therapies have shifted into conventional medicine. Alternative therapies can be classified into many categories. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health classifies complementary and alternative therapies into:

  • Nutritional approach: This includes any diets, dietary supplements, probiotics and herbs used in alternative and complementary therapies.  
  • Physiological approach: This includes alternative therapy practices like meditation and hypnosis.
  • Physical approaches: This includes practices like acupuncture and massages. 
  • Combination of physiological and physical: These are therapies that affect the mind and body simultaneously. They include yoga, tai-chi, dance therapy, and a host of others. 

Most forms of alternative therapies fall under one of those categories. Some of the most widely practiced are discussed below.


Ayurveda focuses on using specific herbs, massages, and diet techniques to treat conditions. It's an ancient Indian practice and has been in use for thousands of years.

Ayurveda treatments typically involve a purification process, herbal remedies, special diets, yoga, massage, and meditation. Research shows that Ayurvedic medicine can help with conditions such as osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, and colitis (an inflamed colon).


The practice of meditation has been used for many centuries. There are many types of meditation, but the primary aim of meditation practice is to help you focus your attention and achieve a state of calm and relaxation. This, in turn, can help you cope with certain disorders and improve your overall health and well-being. 

Meditation effectively treats symptoms of mental health conditions such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.


Homeopathy involves using very watered-down substances to treat a host of ailments from asthma to high blood pressure. It's based on the principle that a substance that causes symptoms can also treat those symptoms.

Homeopaths, that is, people who practice homeopathy, believe that the more a substance is diluted, the more power it has to treat symptoms of a condition. There's a lot of skepticism around the practice of homeopathy in traditional medicine circles.

In 2017, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK recommended that healthcare providers stop providing homeopathy as no evidence supports its use.


Hypnotherapy makes use of hypnosis to treat certain conditions. The hypnosis process involves being guided into a deeply relaxed state, where a hypnotherapist will access your subconscious thoughts and beliefs.

A hypnotherapist will give you suggestions to help encourage behavioral change or relieve your symptoms when you are in this state. For instance, hypnotherapy can be used to help treat addiction or stress management.

Contrary to popular belief, you remain in total control of your thoughts and behaviors when under hypnosis and can reject any suggestions from your hypnotherapist. 


Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves sticking finely pointed needles in areas of your body known as acupuncture points. This practice has historically been used as a natural pain-relieving technique. It's believed that the needles stimulate specific nerves and muscles, which in turn release natural pain-relieving hormones in your body.

In a 2016 study, researchers found that acupuncture was somewhat effective in treating tension and chronic headaches.


Although some might consider yoga simply a form of exercise, yoga has been used for centuries as a healing technique. This ancient Indian practice has been proven to improve the physical and mental well-being of people who practice it.

Yoga has also proven to help relieve stress, manage anxiety, and pain management. Yoga is relatively safe; however, it's advisable to practice with a certified instructor to avoid any sprains or strains if you are new to it.


You are most likely already familiar with massages. You might not just consider it as a treatment option. Massages are more focused on helping to treat physical symptoms like pain in certain body parts. They are done by kneading the soft tissues of your body until you feel relief. There are different types of massages, and the kind you get typically depends on the goal you seek to achieve with it.

Herbal Medicine

With herbal medicine, parts of a plant such as its leaves, seeds, or roots are processed into treatment for conditions like chronic pain and allergies. Herbal medicine can come in different forms, from tea to lotions or pills and powders.

There's some controversy around the use of herbal medicine, as some of them could be harmful or react dangerously with conventional medication. Before trying out any herbal medicine it’s important to inform your doctor.

Some common herbal treatments include: 

  • St John’s Wort, for treating mild symptoms of depression 
  • Green tea to help with weight loss and lower cholesterol 
  • Gingko biloba for poor circulation 
  • Saw palmetto to treat enlarged prostates

Chiropractic Medicine

Chiropractic medicine is practiced by a person called a chiropractor. This form of alternative therapy aims to ease any pain you have and improve the way your body functions. It uses specific techniques to manipulate your spine, joints, and skeletal system and helps align your body.

Chiropractic medicine is similar to traditional medicine because chiropractors review your medical history, conduct both tests and interviews, and provide an official diagnosis before drawing up a treatment plan.


Reiki is an ancient Japanese form of alternative therapy. It's based on the belief that you have a "life force energy" flowing within your body. When this energy is low, you become sick.

Reiki aims to restore this energy by laying hands on different parts of the body. Doing so helps with any physical or psychological problems you have. It's a form of energy therapy.

Uses of Alternative Therapies

About 30% of adults and 12% of children have used complementary and alternative therapies in the United States.

Alternative therapies have been either alongside or instead of traditional medicine to treat a host of conditions that affect you.

Alternative therapies like yoga, acupuncture, meditation, massage, and herbal remedies have been used to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, hypertension, and chronic pain.

Before starting an alternative therapy, speak to your doctor to ensure it doesn’t interfere with any of your current traditional medicine plans.

Are Alternative Therapies Safe and Effective? 

More research needs to be done on the safety and effectiveness of alternative therapies. While some such as meditation, yoga, and massages have been used for years and are widely accepted in traditional medicine circles, others like homeopathy and Reiki are still met with skepticism.

In regard to safety, many alternative therapies have been used for centuries with little or no safety concerns.

A Word From Verywell 

It’s also essential to do extensive research into the safety and effectiveness of specific alternative therapies before opting for them.

It’s also essential to do extensive research into the safety and effectiveness of specific alternative therapies before opting for them. Some alternative therapies like meditation, yoga, and acupuncture have been used for years and are considered safe and beneficial.

Even though your doctor is more likely to suggest conventional medicine for you, it doesn’t hurt to get their opinion on an alternative therapy you want to try, before you do so. 

16 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what’s in a name?.

  2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth.

  3. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth.

  4. NHS UK. Homeopathy.

  5. Vickers A, Zollman C. Hypnosis and relaxation therapies. BMJ. 1999;319(7221):1346-1349.

  6. Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for the prevention of tension-type headache. Cochrane Pain, Palliative and Supportive Care Group, ed. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

  7. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Yoga: What You Need To Know.

  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Massage Therapy: What You Need To Know.

  9. US National Library of Medicine. Herbal Medicine.

  10. John Hopkins Medicine. Herbal Medicine

  11. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Chiropractic: In Depth.

  12. Cancer Research UK. Complementary and Alternative Therapy.

  13. John Hopkins Medicine. Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

  14. Cleveland Clinic. Depression: Alternative Therapies.

  15. MSD Manual Professional Edition. Overview of integrative, complementary, and alternative medicine - special subjects.

  16. National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.