Complementary and alternative therapy
Explains what complementary and alternative therapy is, what it is for, what happens during therapy and how to find a therapist.
What are they?
- A complementary therapy is one that can be used in addition to, or instead of, conventional western medicine.
- An alternative therapy claims to be a complete system, which can be used instead of conventional western medicine.
Complementary and alternative approaches share a belief in the body's ability to heal itself. Many treatments are non-invasive and they rarely cause the sort of unpleasant or long-lasting side effects associated with medication. The practitioner commits more time to the client than a GP is usually able to do.
Some people who have mental health problems choose to use complementary or alternative therapies. While we cannot endorse any of these therapies, they have been shown to help in some cases.
We suggest that you seek the advice of a trained professional or the person involved in your care if you are thinking about changing or starting a treatment.
- Arts therapies
- Bowen technique
- Herbal remedies
- Nutritional therapy
- Traditional chinese medicine (TCM)
- Yoga, meditation and relaxation
The underlying principle of treatment is that illness and pain occur when the body's qi, or vital energy, cannot flow freely. There can be many reasons for this; emotional and physical stress, poor nutrition, infection or injury are among the most common. Mental Illness is equally viewed as one way in which imbalance can exist within the body. By inserting ultra-fine sterile needles into specific acupuncture points, a traditional acupuncturist seeks to re-establish the free flow of qi to restore balance and trigger the body's natural healing response. Acupuncture is approved by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) as a treatment for lower back pain.
- British Medical Acupuncture Society
tel: 01606 786782 or 020 7713 9437
Encourages the use and scientific understanding of acupuncture. List of practitioners.
- British Acupuncture Council
tel: 020 8735 0400
Largest body of professional acupuncturists
Aromatherapy is the systematic use of essential oils in holistic treatments that seeks to improve physical and emotional well-being. Essential oils, extracted from plants, are thought to possess distinctive therapeutic properties, which may be utilised to improve health and prevent disease.
The oils can be applied though creams, inhalation, massage or by adding drops to a warm bath. Aromatherapy massage involves a gentle massage, using essential oils diluted with a nut or vegetable oil, such as almond.
- Aromatherapy council
Has a list of practitioners
- Aromatherapy Trade Council
tel/fax: 01473 603630
- International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists
Arts therapies refers to the use of arts – for example, music, painting, clay work, dance, voice or drama – in a therapeutic environment with a trained therapist. The therapist helps their clients to express themselves and to make sense of what they have created in the context of their life experience and their state of mind.
Arts therapists are skilled in whichever medium. they use and have undergone intensive training as therapists. They work with clients to use their creativity in a psychotherapeutic way, containing what is expressed in the therapy room in a way that is safe for all concerned whilst maintaining professional boundaries and acting within the code of practice of their chosen therapy. See art therapy for more information.
- British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT)
tel: 020 7686 4216
- British Association for Music Therapy (APMT)
tel: 020 7837 6100
- British Association of Dramatherapists (BADth)
tel: 01242 23 55 15
- The Association for Dance Movement Psychotherapy UK (ADMPUK)
32 Meadfoot Lane, Torquay, TQ1 2BW
Bowen is a holistic therapy which encourages the body to heal itself. It is not massage, nor manipulation, but uses a very light touch on the skin, and can help both physical and emotional issues.
- The Bowen Association UK
Herbal medicine uses plants, in many forms, to promote good health and to treat ill health. There are different types of therapies which use plants as remedies such as Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western herbal medicine.
Some people turn to herbal medicines because they feel plants are more natural than pharmaceuticals and believe herbs are likely to have fewer side effects, or because they prefer the holistic approach. Others choose them when conventional medicine has not helped, or because they want to relieve the side effects caused by the prescription medication they need to take. Many pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, and it is important to remember than some herbs can be very poisonous, including some that are the basis of medicines.
Herbal medicine (western)
Western herbal medicines can be used to treat health problems that are short-lived (acute) or firmly established (chronic), in a similar manner to conventional medicine, but the herbal practitioner will usually take a holistic rather than an illness-focused approach, as outlined above. While many herbal medicines are commercially available and registered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, many practitioners will make their own preparations from fresh or dried plants.
- British Herbal Medicine Association
tel: 0845 680 1134
- National Institute of Medical Herbalists
tel: 01392 426022
Ayurvedic medicine is based on ancient Indian theory and uses medicines made from plants and minerals aiming to restore balance in the body.
- Ayurvedic Practitioners Association
Chinese herbal medicine
See information below on traditional Chinese medicine.
Massage uses touch in a sensitive and respectful way, with the intention of promoting a sense of wellbeing in the receiver. The therapist takes account of physical symptoms, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and the circumstances under which you live your life. Understanding the context in which problems develop is as important as looking for the symptoms.
- Massage Therapy UK
information on the main types of massage available and UK directory of practitioners
- Massage Training Institute
tel: 020 7254 7227
Provides accreditation for therapists.
Reflexology is based on the principles of 'zone therapy' (similar to the meridians or energy pathways) and the theory that the body's energy field is a hologram, and every organ and system of the body has a counterpart in reflex points in the feet, hands and ears. Practitioners mainly work on the feet.
- Association of Reflexologists
- British Reflexology Association
This traditional Japanese massage works, like acupuncture, by stimulating and balancing the body's energy flow along 'meridians' or energy pathways. The practitioner uses techniques such as holding, pressing, and stretching, to balance Ki or Qi (energy) in the body.
- Shiatsu Society
tel: 0845 130 4560
A traditional massage based on Indian and Thai forms, it consists of a flowing sequence of stretching and pressing on energy pathways in the body, using hand, arm, thumb and foot pressure. The treatment includes passive yoga stretches.
- The School of Thai Yoga Massage
tel. 0845 0900 211
Nutritional therapy uses the science of nutrition and diet to enable individuals to maximise their health potential. It may help alleviate a wide range of conditions and assist in the recovery from many illnesses. Nutritional therapists recognise that each person has unique dietary and nutritional requirements. Each person’s needs may be dependent on a number of factors, from inherited weaknesses to the influence of lifestyle and environment.
In addition to dietary and nutritional advice, recommendations may include guidance on natural detoxification, methods to support digestion and absorption, and procedures to promote colon health.
- British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT)
tel: 0870 606 1284
- Nutritional Therapy Council
- Food for the Brain
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been the main medical system used in China for more than 2,000 years, treating a whole range of conditions. It is based on a different understanding of the body from conventional western medicine, and aims to rebalance the body’s energy systems, so that it can heal itself. Its long history testifies to the wealth of wisdom, knowledge and experience it can offer.
In Chinese herbal medicine, treatments are prepared from fresh and dried materials and minerals.
TCM also includes acupunture and tuina, a form of massage.
- Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Yoga, meditation and relaxation
Yoga, meditation and relaxation cover a very wide range of practices. Yoga, in its most general sense, it is a spiritual practice designed to increase awareness and self-knowledge, so that a person can be freed from old behaviour patterns and exercise more choice in his or her life. The exercises can lead to greater physical and mental freedom, and to greater control over the body and thought processes.
Meditation encourages you to be still and at rest. There are various different techniques and schools of mediation, based in different philosophies, but all aim to quieten your mind and put you into a state of calm and stillness.
Relaxation, meditation and yoga practices may include: posture work, breath work, reflection, use of sound and short supportive phrases, and visualisation.
- British Wheel of Yoga
tel: 01529 306851
- Iyengar Yoga Institute
- Laughter Yoga
- School of Meditation
Relaxation and meditation classes are provided in many local adult education centres.
The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is a government-sponsored regulator for complemetary health care. It has been set up to ensure public protection and acts in the interests of the public. Practitioners register with the CNHC and go onto a public register.
Some therapies have professional associations which are membership organisations. They provide a range of benefits and services for practitioners and act in the interests of the profession. Most have their own codes of practice and registers of professionals who work to those.
The government recommend that GPs use CHNC registered practitioners to recommend to their patients. The CHNC has a list of the therapies that are registered with them.
- Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
83 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0HW
Tel. 020 3178 2199
- The Health Professions Council (HPC)
Park House, 184 Kennington Park Road, London, SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866
Fax: 020 7820 9684
A regulator set up to protect the public. They keep a register of health professionals who meet their standards for their training, professional skills, behaviour and health.They regulate 15 health professions including arts therapists.
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