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Types of Complementary Medicine

As we move through the 21st century, the medical profession is becoming more and more holistic and inclusive. Many traditionally educated doctors are now open to recommending complementary medicine to their patients or integrating it into their practice.


Physiatry Combines Complementary and Traditional Medicine

Some physicians have been at the forefront of using complementary medicine along with traditional therapies. A large number of these are physiatrists. Physiatry, first conceptualized in the 1920s, is a medical discipline focused on nonsurgical pain relief and restoration of function of spinal and musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. Gradually, the methods of physiatry have been incorporated into treatment regimens used by many other kinds of physicians. 


The Three Basic Types of Complementary Medicine

The three basic types of complementary medicine are: nutritional, psychological, and physical. Physiatrists often recommend and/or offer all three. One of the benefits of such therapies is that there is such a wide variety of options that there are a great many pathways to health.


alternative medicine

Physical Complementary Medicine

Moving your body provides pleasure while stretching your muscles, building your core strength, releasing tension, and otherwise improving your health and stamina. Having a trained professional manipulate and guide your movements can also have a positive effect. Engaging in the following physical complementary techniques, many of which are rooted in Eastern medicine, is good for both body and mind:


  • Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical treatment. Though it involves having a skilled practitioner insert tiny needles into the skin, the process is extremely relaxing, allowing the uninterrupted flow of energy (Qi) through the body to reduce pain and inflammation and stimulate healing.

  • Yoga is a Hindu discipline in which you relax, breathe rhythmically, and assume postures designed to make you calm, improve your balance, and restore your health.

  • Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movements.

  • Reiki is a treatment in which a practitioner’s hands deliver energy to your body, improving its flow and balance to support healing.

  • Massage is a procedure during which the practitioner rubs and kneads your muscles and joints to relieve tension and pain.

  • Dance therapy encourages new ways of dancing to free the body so it moves in healthy, life-affirming ways.


You may already find exercising by running, bicycling, swimming or playing sports a positive experience. Adding one of the above types of physical complementary medicine to your routine may give you a new sense of freedom and peace. It may also be a wonderful substitute for your typical exercise regimen while you are injured or ill.


Psychological Complementary Medicine

Medical scientists have proven that we can use thoughts to help us heal from any number of maladies. Just as stress is known to result in or contribute to palpitations, breathing difficulties, headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, sexual dysfunction, and weakened immune systems, relaxation can assist in improving these and a host of other medical problems.


In addition to individual or group psychotherapy, the following can provide impressive results in calming the mind and relieving a broad range of symptoms, especially in combination with more traditional treatments.


  • Meditation in which you concentrate on your breathing with the help of a mantra to reach a heightened level of spiritual awareness

  • Biofeedback, in which you learn to control some of your body’s functions, such as your heart rate, by using electrical sensors that give you immediate feedback about your mind’s effect on your body.

  • Hypnosis to help you uncover buried causes of distress

  • Spirituality in which prayer or other practices help you find a peaceful mental space 

  • Art therapies (painting, sculpting, music, poetry) in which an artistic medium enables you to express your feelings while maintaining a sense of satisfaction and control

  • Counseling in which you are advised and guided by a trained therapist to improve your mental health by changing your thinking and behavior

  • Mindfulness in which you learn to maintain awareness of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings and remain in the present

  • Visual imaging in which you picture, for example, your cells being nourished or fighting off an invasive infection, or your bones knitting after a fracture

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in which you learn to channel your thoughts and behavior in healthier ways

  • Support groups for eating disorders, gambling or substance abuse, returning veterans, survivors of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, etc.

  • Autogenic training to master the art of self-hypnosis to relieve stress

While all of these methods of psychological complementary medicine have a common goal, most likely some will appeal to you more than others or be easier to work into your schedule. Besides, you always have the option of trying more than one.


Nutritional Complementary Medicine

For thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of years, humans throughout the world have used natural substances like herbs, bark, and flowers to relieve symptoms and enhance quality of life. Many are still (or again!) used to heal problems and promote physical and mental health. Below is a list of some of the most commonly used forms of nutritional complementary medicine that may be available as teas, ointments, lotions, edibles, oils, pills or inhalants: 


  • Aloe for relief of burns, psoriasis, and other irritations of the skin

  • Probiotics to maintain digestive health and counteract the side effects of antibiotics

  • Melatonin for insomnia

  • Ginko for forgetfulness and tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

  • Chamomile for sleeplessness, anxiety, digestive issues, and allergies

  • Echinacea to fight cold and flu symptoms

  • Glucosamine and chondroitin for osteoarthritis

  • Flaxseed to lower cholesterol and increase fiber intake

  • Peppermint oil to treat digestive problems 

  • Green tea for weight loss and to reduce the risk of certain illnesses (e.g. diabetes)

  • Soy to treat menopausal symptoms, memory problems, and high cholesterol 

  • St. John’s wort to treat depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders

  • Tea tree oil to treat acne, athlete’s foot, nail fungus, thrush, cold sores, and dandruff

  • Medical marijuana for HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy, severe chronic pain, muscle spasms, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease

nutritional complementary medicine

Although these substances are extremely helpful to many, any organic material that can effect a cure can also cause side effects, especially when taken in combination with another medication. For this reason, it is important to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking supplements to make sure they don’t conflict with an existing condition, allergy, or medication you are already taking.


The Takeaway

Integrating complementary medicine into traditional practices is of great benefit to doctors and patients alike. The former because they now have more tools in their treatment toolbox and the latter because they now have a nod of approval for many methods they wish to try or have already tried with success. 


If you are troubled by spinal or musculoskeletal pain or dysfunction, consider visiting a physiastrist for integrated healthcare. If you have another type of medical problem, consider seeing a doctor who is open to the beneficial potential of complementary medicine. 


  • Jason Lipetz

    Prior to founding Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, Dr. Lipetz served as the Director of the Center for Spine Rehabilitation for the North Shore Long Island Jewish healthcare system from 1999-2006. Dr. Lipetz received his specialized and interventional spine medicine training during a fellowship year at the internationally recognized Penn Spine Center of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

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