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What are complementary therapies and do they work?

Have you seen or read about a complementary or alternative remedy that claims to cure a health niggle and wonder if it might work for you?

If so, our guide can help you understand more about what complementary therapies are, and more importantly, if they work.


  • Complementary and alternative medicine Complementary and alternative medicine

    Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) aren’t considered part of conventional medicine. As their names suggest, complementary medicine is generally used alongside conventional medicine and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. However, there can be some overlap; with certain treatments used as a complementary therapy or an alternative therapy.

    Let’s take a look at five common CAMs and what benefits, if any, they can provide.

  • Aromatherapy Aromatherapy

    Aromatherapy uses essential oils from fragrant plants, such as peppermint, to help improve your wellbeing and quality of life. It’s often used to treat stress, depression, insomnia, or simply for relaxation. Essential oils are usually applied through gentle massage and occasionally used in baths or diffusers. Unfortunately, there’s no scientific evidence to show that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of disease. However, some research suggests it may help with anxiety and back pain, as well as improving quality of life of people with cancer.

  • Acupuncture Acupuncture

    Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine that uses needles to pierce your skin and stimulate specific ‘acupuncture points’. The needles are usually left in your skin for 20 to 30 minutes before being removed. If you have low back pain, your physiotherapist may recommend acupuncture alongside physiotherapy. It may also help relieve tension-type headaches. There’s currently not enough scientific evidence to suggest that acupuncture works for conditions such as asthma and depression or if it helps with pain related to cancer.

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  • St John's wort St John's wort

    St John’s wort is a plant with yellow flowers that grows in the wild, and has been used for centuries for health purposes. Some studies have shown that St John’s wort may help to reduce mild or moderate depression. However, combining St John’s wort with certain other medicines can be very unsafe. It can also limit the effectiveness of many other prescription medicines, such as antidepressants. If you’re taking medicines and you take St John’s wort, or are considering it, speak to your GP.

  • Homeopathy Homeopathy

    Homeopathy is a popular CAM. It’s based on the theory that ‘like treats like’. This means that a substance that causes certain symptoms can be diluted and used to relieve those symptoms. Homeopathy is regularly used by homeopaths to try to treat lots of conditions, including asthma, hay fever, depression and multiple sclerosis. However, there isn’t enough quality evidence to suggest that homeopathy works as a treatment for any specific condition.

  • Massage therapy Massage therapy

    There are many different types of massage therapy that range from gentle to vigorous. The type you have will depend on your reason for having a massage and also your own physical condition. The aim is to increase the amount of oxygen getting to your muscles and other soft tissues by improving your circulation.

    Although there’s lots of conflicting scientific evidence about how effective massage therapy is, it’s thought that it may help improve quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS and improve the symptoms of depression and musculoskeletal pain. The effects may not last that long though, so you may need to keep getting massages for the benefits to continue.

  • Next steps Next steps

    Given the wide range of complementary therapies on offer, it can be a tough decision whether to try one of these treatments or not. We’ve got three tips to help you make that decision.

    • Know your stuff – do your research about the therapy so you know if there are any risks or possible side-effects. These tips about what makes good health information will help.
    • Speak to your GP – it’s always worth talking over your treatment options with someone else. Here's some questions you may find useful.
    • Find a suitable CAM practitioner - most good practitioners will be happy to answer your questions about their qualifications and experience. The NCCAM has some great advice about how to choose a CAM practitioner.
  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Ernst E, Pittler MH, Wider, Boddy K. Oxford handbook of complementary medicine. New York: Oxford University Press; 2008
    • Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: What’s in a name? National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine., reviewed May 2013
    • What is acupuncture? Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists., accessed 5 March 2014
    • What is homeopathy? British Homeopathic Association., accessed 5 March 2014
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