What are ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ medicines?

Complementary and alternative medicines are treatments that fall outside of mainstream healthcare. They take a holistic approach to your physical and mental health, meaning that they consider all aspects of your physical and emotional wellbeing as a whole instead of treating particular symptoms separately. For example, some complementary therapies focus on the mind, body and spirit or on the flow of energy through your body.

Complementary and alternative medicines and treatments can range from acupuncture, chiropractic and homeopathy, to aromatherapy and meditation. Whilst NHS treatment models are largely based on clinical evidence and academic research, many complementary and alternative therapies have their roots in ancient Eastern philosophies of health or traditional healing methods used before the development of the treatment models currently used by the NHS.

What’s the difference between ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ therapies?

Whilst there is no universally agreed definition of these terms, it can be useful to make a distinction between the two terms. The most commonly agreed upon distinction is:

Complementary – therapies that may be used alongside treatments offered by your doctor (such as yoga, massage and meditation).

Alternative – describes approaches which are meant as a replacement to the treatments offered by your doctor (such as traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine)

How can I find out more information?

For more information consider having a look at these websites:

The NHS webpage on complementary and alternative medicines

Mind UK website, including a downloadable PDF outlining a number of complementary and alternative therapies.


Before considering starting any new treatment it is a good idea to talk through any safety concerns with your doctor and the treatment provider. There may be times when a certain therapy may carry higher risks for you, and would not be recommended. Examples include, but are not limited to, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding; if you are receiving any other treatments that could interfere with the therapy; or if you have a physical or mental health problem that could be made worse by the therapy.