Complementary and alternative therapy

Explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, how they are used, and how to find a therapist.

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Different therapies


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 ill-health 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 Care Excellence) as a treatment for lower back pain.

  • British Medical Acupuncture Society
    01606 786782 or 020 7713 9437
    Encourages the use and scientific understanding of acupuncture. List of practitioners.
  • British Acupuncture Council
    020 8735 0400
    Largest body of professional acupuncturists. List of practitioners.
  • National Acupunture Detoxification Association
    Focus on ear acupuncture for drug and alcohol addiction and trauma.


Aromatherapy is the systematic use of essential oils to improve physical and emotional well-being. Essential oils, extracted from plants, are thought to possess distinctive therapeutic properties.

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.

Bowen technique

Bowen is a contact therapy, but is not massage, nor manipulation. It uses a very light touch at certain points on the skin, and can be done through light clothing. It can help both physical and emotional problems.

Herbal remedies

Herbal medicine uses plants, in many forms, to promote good health and to treat ill health. The main types of herbal medicine are Western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic.

Some people turn to herbal medicines because they feel plants are more natural than medication and believe herbs are likely to have fewer side effects. Many medications 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 in a similar manner to conventional medicine, but the herbal practitioner will usually take a holistic, rather than an illness-focused, approach. 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
    0845 680 1134
    Information about herbal medicine
  • National Institute of Medical Herbalists
    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
    Information and list of practitioners

Chinese herbal medicine

See information below on Traditional Chinese Medicine.


Massage uses touch in a sensitive and respectful way, taking  account of physical symptoms, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, and your lifestyle. 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


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
    Information and list of practitioners
  • British Reflexology Association
    Information and list of practitioners


Traditional Japanese massage which,  like acupuncture, works 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
    0845 130 4560
    Information and list of practitioners

Nutritional therapy

Nutritional therapy uses the science of nutrition and diet to promote good health. It may help alleviate a wide range of conditions and assist in recovery. 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.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been the main medical system used in China for more than 2,000 years. It is based on a different understanding of the body from conventional western medicine, and aims to rebalance the body’s energy systems.

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
    Information and list of practitioners

Yoga and meditation

Yoga and mediation practices may include: posture work, breath work, reflection, use of sound and short supportive phrases, and visualisation.

Yoga, in its most general sense, it is a spiritual practice designed to increase awareness and self-knowledge, so that you can be freed from old behaviour patterns. 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.

This information was published in November 2016.

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