Complementary and alternative therapies

What are complementary and alternative therapies?

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are treatments that fall outside of mainstream healthcare.

These medicines and treatments range from acupuncture and homeopathy, to aromatherapy, meditation and colonic irrigation. There is no universally agreed definition of CAMs. Although ‘complementary and alternative’ is often used as a single category, it can be useful to make a distinction between the two terms.

The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) uses this distinction:

  • When a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered ‘complementary’
  • When a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, it’s considered ‘alternative’.

There can be overlap between these two categories. For example, aromatherapy may sometimes be used as a complementary treatment, and in other circumstances is used as an alternative treatment. A number of complementary and alternative treatments are typically used with the intention of treating and alternative treatments are typically used with the intention of treating or curing a health condition.


CAMs are not routinely commissioned as stand-alone therapies or as complementary therapies and include, but not exclusively the following interventions found in this leaflet.

Not normally funded treatment or procedure

CAMs covers a wide range of therapies. An evidence review undertaken on behalf of Birmingham and Solihull CCG, showed a lack of clinical evidence to support the clinical effectiveness of a variety of complementary and alternative therapies.

The Birmingham and Solihull CCG decision is supported by the inclusion of Homeopathy and Herbal Treatments in the NHS England Guidance to CCGs on Items which should not be routinely prescribed in Primary Care. Therefore, CAMs are not routinely commissioned due to a lack of evidence to support clinical effectiveness.

Acupuncture falls outside of this clinical review and is covered under a separate policy: ‘Acupuncture for Indications Other than Back Pain’. This means (for patients who DO NOT meet the above criteria) the CCG will only fund the treatment if an Individual Funding Request (IFR) application proves exceptional clinical need and that is supported by the CCG.

Advice and further guidance

  • For more information, search for ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ at 
  • Choosing Wisely UK is part of a global initiative aimed at improving conversations between patients and their doctors and nurses.

Treatment policy for patients covered by NHS Birmingham and Solihull CCG

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