An alternative medicine means that it is a system within itself and complete. For the most part one can use the alternative medical system for almost all their healthcare needs. A complementary modality works in conjunction with another medicine. Complementary medicine is in fact, not medicine, but a collection of modalities. A complementary modality completes the overall needed therapy. It doesn’t stand alone as a complete medical system.
Examples of alternative medical systems are allopathic (Western) medicine, Chinese (Oriental) medicine and ayurvedic medicine. Examples of complementary modalities would be chiropractic, physical therapy, massage, energetic healing, etc. However, the connotations of these terms, complementary medicine and alternative medicine, are different. Anything other than allopathic medicine has been classified as an alternative medicine. As a result, Chinese medicine — a complete medical system, and therefore, an alternative medicine — is placed in a category with massage, bodywork, etc., which are modalities, not medical systems, and are not complete. By placing Chinese medicine in the same category as these modalities, the depth and breadth of this ancient medicine may go unrecognized.
In actuality there is no one system that meets all health needs. However, one can choose to complement one approach with another. An example would be to opt for the necessary surgical procedure but assist the healing process with acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy. Sometimes pharmaceutical drugs are an absolute necessity but a qualified Chinese herbalist can help ameliorate the side effects of the drugs with herbal medicine.
In China, allopathic medicine and Chinese medicine work side by side in the hospitals, complementing each other and coming together as two very powerful medical systems that can meet the health needs of their patients in the most complete fashion. Hopefully, we’ll see this combination of alternative medicines working together in U.S. hospitals some day.