Evidence-Based Therapies Used in Integrative Medicine

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Inspired by the growing use of a more natural and holistic medicine by many individuals as they care for their own well-being—and further moved by the influx of medical practices from around the world that immigrants, travelers and global communication have brought to the US, in the past 20 years—scientists, researchers, and healthcare practitioners have begun to investigate in earnest the efficacy of many health practices not considered "mainstream" or conventional.

In 1992, the US government founded what is now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) with the express purpose of exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science.  Because of this NIH-funded research conducted in leading medical schools across the country—and research by many other prestigious organizations such as the American Heart Association, the National Cancer Institute, and National Academy of Sciences—many therapies once thought to be "fringe" are now proving to be both effective and safe.

In 1998, John Astin, PhD, published a study demonstrating that patients' wishes for integrative treatment were not entirely derived from dissatisfaction with the healthcare system.  Instead, these wishes were motivated by the desire to have a holistic approach to healthcare, one that included indigenous healing systems and a more natural approach.

"Examples of such practices include acupuncture, Ayurveda and Native American traditions to name a few," explains Roberta Lee, MD, of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing.  "Our Center includes practitioners who represent some of these systems and we have created a collaborative electronic network to facilitate a team dialogue. There is an unconscious and pervasive mindset in physicians to define a patient by disease. The perspective of a practitioner trained in other healing arts provides a great balance in clinical diagnosis as the significance of symptoms and clinical diagnosis is completely different. So how does this benefit the patient? The environment of multidisciplinary dialogue generated by this integrated system provides insight for physicians in explaining to patients what they may be experiencing. Sometimes patients feel ill but conventional clinical data and exams will be unrevealing. We see this most commonly in chronic conditions like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue. The inclusion of other healing systems may provide an explanation and treatment unavailable in biomedicine. Suddenly, from patients' perspective, a situation fraught with frustration becomes one imbued with hope."

While each integrative medicine clinic or center offers its own unique selection of therapies, the below list comprises those most often used in the course of standard patient care.


Acupuncture is a treatment within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a system of healing that dates back thousands of years. At the core of TCM is the notion that the life force qi flows through energetic pathways (meridians) in the body. The proper flow of qi is thought to create health. An imbalance of qi (too much, too little, or a blocked flow) results in disease. Acupuncture needles are inserted at points along the meridians to restore balance to the qi.


Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants for healing purposes. The oils are typically inhaled or absorbed through the skin as a treatment for infections and stress.


Considered the oldest healing science, Ayurveda—which in Sanskrit means the science of life—has been practiced in India for more than 5,000 years. The basic principle of Ayurveda is to prevent illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind, and spirit through proper drinking, diet, and lifestyle habits. A chief aim of Ayurveda, which is designed to help people live long and healthy lives, is to cleanse the body of substances that cause disease.


Biofeedback is a technique that involves training the mind so that a person can improve his or her health by learning to control certain internal bodily processes that normally occur involuntarily, such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature. These activities can be measured with electrodes and displayed on a monitor, providing feedback to the participant about the internal workings of his or her body. The person is then taught techniques to gain control over "involuntary" activities.


Chiropractic is a form of diagnosing and treating illnesses that affect the nerves, muscles, bones, and joints of the body through spinal manipulation. One of the oldest healing practices, spinal manipulation was first described by Hippocrates in ancient Greece. More recently, Daniel David Palmer founded the current field of chiropractic in 1895 when he cured a man of deafness and acute back pain by realigning a displaced vertebra in his back. Although the practice of contemporary chiropractic now includes other interventions, spinal manipulation remains the essence of chiropractic.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a well-studied psychotherapy that treats anxiety, depression, and many medical conditions, such as persistent pain, stress-related illness, chronic fatigue, and rheumatoid arthritis, among others. Considered one of the principal mind-body modalities, it focuses on how positive thinking and proactive action engenders health.

Energy Medicine

Therapies involving "energy fields"—such as Healing Touch and Reiki—are based on the concept that human beings are infused with a subtle form of energy. This vital energy or life force is known under different names in different cultures, such as qi in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), mana in Hawaiian medicine, ki in the Japanese Kampo system, and prana in Ayurvedic medicine.  Practitioners of energy medicine believe that illness results from disturbances of these subtle energies.

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine, refers to the use of any plant's seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. There is a rich heritage of herbal medicine in healing systems throughout the world. In addition, important drugs used in Western medicine, such as digitalis, the cancer chemotherapy drug vincristine, and ephedrine have been developed through research on medicinal herbs.


Hypnosis uses an altered, relaxed state of mind resembling sleep, but one in which a person can still concentrate, to help people change their awareness and intentions. Hypnotherapy is often used to help people learn to control bad habits, pain, and stress.

Massage Therapy

Massage has been practiced as a healing therapy for centuries in nearly every culture around the world. It helps relieve muscle tension, reduce stress, and evoke feelings of calmness by using touch to influence the activity of the musculoskeletal, circulatory, lymphatic, and nervous systems.

Mind-Body Medicine

Mind-body medicine is an approach to healing that uses the power of thoughts and emotions to positively influence physical health. As Hippocrates once wrote, "The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well."


Meditation, which has always been part of both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, refers to a myriad of practices that relax the body and calm the mind.  In particular, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an approach based on a Buddhist meditation practice, is now used widely to relieve stress and enhance wellbeing.


Nutrition is the study of the relationship between food and physical health.  More specifically, it is the science of nutrients and how they are digested, absorbed, transported, metabolized, stored, and discharged by the body. Clinical nutrition also includes the study of how the environment affects the quality and safety of foods and how these factors influence health and disease.


Osteopathic medicine is a complete system of medical care. Its underlying philosophy is to treat the whole person, not just the person's symptoms. Osteopathy emphasizes the interrelationships of structure and function, and the appreciation of the body's ability to heal itself. Osteopathic manipulation is one of the major components of this medical system.

Qi gong

Qi gong is a Chinese practice that uses movement, affirmations, breathwork, visualizations and meditation to improve the flow of qi or life force and to restore both external and internal harmony.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are helpful tools for coping with stress and promoting long-term health by regulating the body's autonomic nervous system and quieting the mind. Techniques that are used to induce relaxation, or used in conjunction with relaxation techniques, include meditation, guided imagery, yoga, breathing exercises, hypnosis and others. Used daily, these practices can, over time, lead to a healthier response to stress.


Spirituality has been defined as belief in a power operating in the universe that is greater than oneself; a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures; and an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life.  Medical systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Native American medicine include the development of increased spirituality as part of their health-promoting strategies. Recently, the power of prayer and other spiritual practices have been explored in medical settings.

Tai Chi

Tai chi, which is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is a gentle exercise program derived from the martial arts. Tai chi is composed of slow, deliberate movements, meditation, and deep breathing, which enhance physical health and emotional wellbeing.

Touch Therapies

Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch are forms of healing that use an ancient practice called "laying on of hands" to correct or balance energy fields. These therapies are based on the theory that the body, mind, and emotions form a complex energy field. According to Therapeutic Touch, health is an indication of a balanced energy field and illness represents imbalance.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complete medical system that has been used to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses for more than 2,000 years. TCM is based on a belief in yin and yang or opposing energies, such as male and female, winter and summer, and happiness and sadness. When yin and yang are in balance, a person is energized. Out of balance, however, yin and yang negatively affect health and wellbeing. In TCM, this state of balance is achieved through the use of multiple approaches including herbal medicines, acupuncture, and qi gong.


Yoga is a spiritual practice that uses physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to improve overall health and wellbeing. Yoga began nearly 6,000 years ago in India as part of the classical healing science known as Ayurveda.

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