National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

NCCIH – National Center of Supplemental and Integrative Health is the leading organization of the United States federal government for scientific research on complementary and integrated health approaches.

Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Health:

We’ve all seen the words “complementary,” “alternative,” and “integrative,” but what do they really mean?

This fact sheet looks into these terms to help you understand them better and gives you a brief picture of NCCIH’s mission and role in this area of research.

Complementary and Alternative

Many Americans—more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children—use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine. When describing these approaches, people often use “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts:

  • If a non-mainstream practice is used together withconventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
  • If a non-mainstream practice is used in place ofconventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”

True alternative medicine is uncommon. Most people who use non-mainstream approaches use them along with conventional treatments.

Integrative Medicine

There are many definitions of “integrative” health care, but all involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. The use of integrative approaches to health and wellness has grown within care settings across the United States. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors, and programs to promote healthy behaviors.

So, What Terms Does NCCIH Use?

NCCIH generally uses the term “complementary health approaches” when we discuss practices and products of non-mainstream origin. We use “integrative health” when we talk about incorporating complementary approaches into mainstream health care.

Types of Complementary Health Approaches

Most complementary health approaches fall into one of two subgroups—natural products or mind and body practices.

Natural Products

This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics.

 

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. The 2012 NHIS showed that yogachiropractic and osteopathic manipulationmeditation, and massage therapy are among the most popular mind and body practices used by adults. The popularity of yoga has grown dramatically in recent years, with almost twice as many U.S. adults practicing yoga in 2012 as in 2002.

Other mind and body practices include acupuncturerelaxation techniques (such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation), tai chiqigonghealing touchhypnotherapy, and movement therapies (such as Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration).

The amount of research on mind and body approaches varies widely depending on the practice. For example, researchers have done many studies on acupuncture, yoga, spinal manipulation, and meditation, but there have been fewer studies on some other practices.

Other Complementary Health Approaches

Ayurveda medicine, Traditional Chinese medicineHomeopathy, and Naturopathy.

NCCIH’s Mission and Vision

The mission of NCCIH is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.

NCCIH’s vision is that scientific evidence will inform decision making by the public, by health care professionals, and by health policymakers regarding the use and integration of complementary and integrative health approaches.

To learn more, visit the NCCIH Facts-at-a-Glance and Mission page.

Web sitenccih.nih.gov