Complimentary Health Approaches

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 30 percent of American adults use some type of complimentary health care approach. The NIH defines complimentary health care as a practice used together with conventional medicine. If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine it is considered alternative medicine.

Most people take a complimentary or integrative health approach rather than relying on alternative medicine. Integrative health takes into account a whole person, including all aspects of a patient’s lifestyle. It emphasizes a therapeutic relationship between a health care provider and patient.

Older adults often seek some type of non-traditional approach to help  manage common conditions which often appear with advancing age. This includes seeking relief for: chronic pain conditions; headache/migraine; neurological conditions; rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders; osteoarthritis; gastrointestinal issues; cancer treatment; cardiovascular disease; and depression.


Common Complimentary Health Approaches

  • Yoga
  • Chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation
  • Meditation
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Relaxation techniques (breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation)
  • Tai chi
  • Qi gong
  • Reiki (a Japanese technique using healing touch)
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Movement Therapies
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Dietary supplements
  • Special diet eliminating certain food groups


Keep in mind that Medicare does not pay for most complimentary health approaches.



A review, conducted in 2016 by scientists from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) part of the NIH, shows some of the most popular complementary health approaches (yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture) appear to show modest effectiveness in helping manage chronic pain conditions. The review focused on trial results on non traditional practices and included:

  • Acupuncture and yoga for back pain;
  • Acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee;
  • Massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit;
  • Relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine.


The evidence on the effectiveness of complimentary health approaches is preliminary but does show promise and potential benefit particularly for pain relief.



There can be risks with complementary health approaches. These risks depend on the specific product or practice and each needs to be considered on its own. The NCCIH suggests the following guidelines when considering a complimentary health approach:

  • Individuals respond differently to health products and practices, whether conventional or complementary. You may not receive the same results as a friend or family member did. How you respond depends on many factors. This includes state of your health, how you use the product, and your belief in the product or practice.
  • Natural  does not necessarily mean safe. (Think of mushrooms that grow in the wild: some are safe to eat, while others are not.) If you decide to use a dietary supplement, such as an herbal product, be aware that some products may interact in harmful ways with medications (prescription or over-the-counter) or other dietary supplements, and some may have side effects on their own. (To learn more, see the NCCIH fact sheet Using Dietary Supplements Wisely.)
  • Learn about factors that affect safety. For a practice that is administered by a practitioner, such as chiropractic, these factors include the training, skill, and experience of the practitioner. For a product such as a dietary supplement, the specific ingredients and the quality of the manufacturing process are important factors.
  • If you decide to use a practice provided by a complementary health practitioner, choose the practitioner as carefully as you would your primary health care provider. (To learn more, see NCCIH’s 6 Things To Know When Selecting a Complementary Health Practitioner.)
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.



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