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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What are they?

  • A complementary therapy is one that can be used in addition to, or instead of, conventional western medicine.
  • An alternative therapy often 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. Some of them use an understanding of the working of the body which is not studied by practitioners of conventional medicine, based on Eastern understandings of energy meridians and fields.

Usually such treatments are tailored to the individual, and do not use a 'one size fits all' approach. This means that they are rarely tested by conventional randomised controlled trials, and therefore are not regarded as 'evidence-based', and so few of them are recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) or available on the NHS.

However, many people choose to use them and find them helpful. Most treatments are non-invasive and they rarely cause the unpleasant or long-lasting side effects that can be associated with medication. The practitioner commits more time to the client than a GP is usually able to do.

We cannot endorse any of these therapies, but we know that many people who have mental health problems consider trying them and would like to know more about them. This page includes information about some of the therapies that are available; there are many others.

We suggest that you seek the advice of a professional trained in the therapy you are are considering, and a person involved in your care if you are thinking about changing or starting a treatment. 

This information was published in November 2016.

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