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Alternative medicine is a term used to describe many different kinds of health care including herbs, supplements, acupuncture, and relaxation exercises. The term complementary medicine means that alternative medicine is used alongside regular (or conventional) medicine. An example of this is when a person with back pain does yoga and takes prescription medication.

alternative medicine

People use complementary and alternative medicine for lots of reasons, such as to:

  1. Control pain caused by arthritis or injuries.
  2. De-stress, find inner peace, and feel better all around, using therapeutic massage, aromatherapy, and relaxation exercises.
  3. Help make difficult changes, like quitting smoking.

Here are examples of complementary and alternative medicine practices:

Effectiveness and Safety

It's important to be careful when using complementary and alternative medicine. Just because something is used by many people, or has been used for many years, doesn't mean that it's safe or effective. Some complementary and alternative medicine practices may work for some health conditions, but not for others. Some have not been shown to work at all, and some simply haven't been studied enough to know whether they work or not.

CAUTION: Do not give treatments or supplements to children, or take supplements if you are pregnant or nursing, without talking to your doctor first. To learn about dietary supplement use in pregnancy, review the Mayo clinic's article on supplement safety during pregnancy.

See our webpage on safe use of dietary supplements.

Here are some steps you can take to use complementary and alternative medicine more safely:

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  1. Do your research

    When searching for health information online, make sure you know how to find reliable health information.

    • Check the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health A-Z index or the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
    • Look for information about safety —including side effects and cautions—on this National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health safety webpage.
    • Beware of scams,"miracle cures", or claims that a treatment promises to cure an illness or incurable condition. Ask questions, and learn how to spot a scam. Remember, if a treatment or product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  2. Talk to your doctor

    If you have symptoms, consider getting them checked out by a doctor.
    If you are considering using complementary or alternative medicine, ask your doctor about its safety for you:

    • Is it safe for me to take?
    • Will it interfere with my other treatments or medicines?
    Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. They will need a complete picture of what you do to manage your health. You can keep track of all the medicines, supplements and treatments you are using on this medicine record.

  3. Select a reliable complementary health practitioner

    • Learn how to choose a complementary health practitioner by reading this guide and list of helpful tips from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

      • If you want to find a doctor, or other health care professional, formally trained in integrative medicine, visit the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine’s webpage
    • Check a health practitioner’s license and certification.

      doctor notepad

    • For LA Residents

      Wellness Center

      If you are an LA County resident, consider a visit to The Wellness Center on the campus of LAC+USC Medical Center. The center's free services include acupuncture for pain management

  4. Consider other ways to improve your health

    Engage in a healthy lifestyle. Your everyday choices can impact your health. Here are some things to remember:

    • Regular exercise has been proven to provide a wide variety of health benefits. Exercise boosts the immune system and helps prevent diseases such as heart disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

      • Visit the the American Heart Association website for ideas on how you and your family can incorporate exercise into your day.
      • Find an exercise program that works for you. Search here for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation's free and low cost exercise classes and tips on getting started.
    • Healthy eating affects our health, body, and mind.

    • If you are an LA County resident, consider a visit to The Wellness Center. Multi-lingual "Wellness Navigators" guide individuals and families to various free services, including:

      • Diabetes counseling
      • Fitness classes
      • Programs for seniors and maternal and child health
      • Legal assistance
      • Integrative Medicine such as Acupuncture for pain management
      • Cancer support

For more information about how physical activity and healthy eating can affect your overall health, visit the LAC DPH Nutrition and Physical Activity Program webpage or Cardiovascular and School Health webpage.


Public Health has made reasonable efforts to provide accurate translation. However, no computerized translation is perfect and is not intended to replace traditional translation methods. If questions arise concerning the accuracy of the information, please refer to the English edition of the website, which is the official version.
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