Glossary of Alternative Medicine



Acupuncture is an ancient alternative medicine technique that is designed to help stimulate certain important points along the body. This is achieved most commonly through the application of small needles in the upper layers of the skin. This practice originated in China over 2,000 years ago, but eventually spread throughout other parts of Asia, such as Korea and Japan. In modern times, acupuncture has become much more common in the West, and it’s estimated that in the United States alone over 8 million people have tried it at least once in their life.



Acupressure is a traditional form of Chinese medicine that is closely related to the practice of acupuncture. Unlike acupuncture, acupressure does not utilize needles; instead, acupressure therapists use massage to help stimulate the flow of vital energy throughout the body. This is a good form of alternative medicine for those who have avoided acupuncture due to a fear of needles.


Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique is an educational program whose aim is to teach individuals how to lessen their muscular and mental tension during everyday activities. This type of treatment has shown great results for helping manage back pain and Parkinson’s disease. Unlike many forms of corrective exercise, the Alexander technique does not boast any sort of “correct” positioning for everyday activities—instead proper form is created by taking into account the type of activity being performed and the unique physiological makeup of the person performing the task.



Aromatherapy is a specific practice within herbal medicine that involves the inhalation of essential oils from herbs and other types of plants. The patient’s limbic system is stimulated through the inhalation of these oils, and this can help regulate everything from hormonal levels to heart rate and stress levels. Aromatherapy is widely popular in the Western world and is present in a wide range of products—from candles to massage oils.



Ayurveda is an ancient medicinal practice that was developed on the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. One of the main goals of Ayurveda is the holistic treatment of a person—that is, treatment that touches the body, mind, and soul. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that the body is composed of three primary elements: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, which, when not balanced correctly can lead to a host of physical and emotional problems. Despite the rise of modern medicine, Ayurveda still maintains a large following—it’s estimated that up to 80 percent of Indian citizens still rely on this practice in some form or another.



Biofeedback refers to a therapy used to teach patients how to produce the relaxation response in their body consciously. The treatment uses electrodes which monitor the body’s measurable signs of stress/relaxation including heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and muscle tension. The most common therapies utilize electromyography to measure tension in the muscles, thermal biofeedback to measure the temperature of the skin and electroencephalography to measure brain waves. This technique is used to help alleviate stress in patients suffering from tension headaches, migraine headaches, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and even labor.



Bodywork refers to a wide range of practices that aims to improve the function of the body and reduce physical pain. This type of alternative medicine is very hands on, and it includes practices such as massage, acupressure, and deep tissue manipulation. Bodywork has several different purposes including treating muscle soreness, circulation problems, or lymphatic system problems.


Color puncture

Color puncture is a form of treatment that is focused on stimulating acupuncture points along the body with light. The philosophy behind color puncture is that humans experience sickness and pain due to a straying from the path that our lives should take. By using color puncture as a treatment, people are able to release their emotional blockages that prevent them from getting on the right path. In color puncture, different colors are used for different purposes—with red, orange, and yellow representing warm colors and an increase in energy, while green, violet, and blue represent cool colors and a decrease in energy.


Complementary and Alternative Medicine

This term is used to identify medical practices, products and systems that are outside of the conventional medicine realm. While complementary medicine is the practice of combining conventional medicine with alternative medicine, alternative medicine is completely separate from conventional medicine. Alternative medical practices are not recognized as standard by the medical community holding M.D. or D.O. degrees or those other therapists, nurses and psychologists who accompany them. Examples of therapies considered alternative are acupuncture, herbal remedies, meditation and spiritual healing.


Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is a technique used to help patients dealing with stress, anxiety, or even respiratory issues. While there are many different approaches to deep breathing, they most commonly include patients inhaling deeply through their nose for a certain number of counts and exhaling for the same amount of time. It’s not uncommon for practitioners to include alternate nostril breathing in their deep breathing sessions.


Feng Shui

Feng Shui is the traditional Chinese art of arranging living quarters in particular ways. Furniture is placed in specific areas of a room to better encourage the cultivation of balance and harmony. Feng Shui can be thought of as a preventative form of alternative medicine—by promoting balance in life before illness strikes, we reduce the chance of encountering illness in the future.


Flower Therapy

Flower Therapy is a subset of homeopathic medicine that focuses exclusively on the healing power of flowers. This practice was invented in the early 1900s by a homeopath from England named Edward Bach, who believed that the dew found on flower petals contained the healing capabilities of the flower itself. Bach’s flower cures were used to treat very physical problems like insomnia and stress; however, they were also utilized to treat more emotional and spiritual problems as well. Bach’s remedies continue to be a popular option when it comes to alternative medicine.


Folk Medicine

Folk medicine is not a specific practice. Rather, it refers to the sum total of healing practices found within a particular culture. As such, each societies’ form of folk medicine will differ from the other. For example, in the United States (and more largely the Western world), folk medicine focuses on the use of more natural, herbal cures. While folk medicine is often at odds with more traditional medical practices, this is not always the case, and it still holds a place of importance among the common knowledge of a particular community.


Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a technique used for relaxation that relies heavily on the user focusing their thoughts on positive, peaceful images. This practice is often used as a treatment for specific medical conditions, in which a patient will imagine their body healthy and free of whatever ailment is bothering them. A typical guided imagery session will last roughly a half hour and can take place anywhere from once to multiple times a week.



Herbalism is a form of alternative medicine that looks to utilize the medicinal and healing properties of herbs and other types of plants. Herbalism has been practiced for years among almost all cultures and continues to be a popular form of treatment, even after the advent of modern medicine. Herbalist medicine is administered in a variety of ways, including things like tinctures, herbal teas, and topical creams and lotions.


Holistic Medicine

Holistic medicine is a form of healing that focuses on fixing imbalances within the body. While these imbalances sometimes may have a physiological basis, holistic medicine also focuses much of its attention on the emotional and spiritual balances within a person. Holistic medicine operates under the assumption that symptoms of physical illness are often caused by a larger underlying problem, responsible for a whole host of other symptoms as well. There is no one set way to practice holistic medicine, but some common forms of this treatment include aromatherapy, acupuncture, eastern medicine, and homeopathic medicine.



Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that was developed in the late eighteenth century. The guiding principal behind homeopathy is that substances that make a healthy person ill can actually heal a sick person. Homeopathic medicine is delivered to the patient in an extremely diluted form, so that there are only trace remainders of the substance being used in the solution. In modern times, homeopathic medicine is often administered as a pill that has been coated with a diluted solution.



Hypnosis is a technique used by many alternative medicine practitioners that helps move patients into a trancelike and extremely suggestive state in an attempt to affect their patterns of thinking at the subconscious level. This technique is often used with patients looking to make positive changes in their life, such as beginning a healthy diet or quitting smoking. A person who practices hypnosis is known as a hypnotist, or more commonly, a hypnotherapist.


Integrated Medicine

Integrated medicine is a treatment plan that incorporates elements of both traditional medicine and alternative medicine. However, the alternative medicines used are typically only ones that have undergone extensive testing and have shown success by more traditional scientific standards. Integrative medicine is also sometimes used to refer to systems of treatment that look to help improve the emotional and spiritual health of a person along with physical health.



Kundalini is a concept that is central to the practice of Kundalini Yoga. It is conceived of as a divine spiritual energy that is found in the base of the spine. Through the practice of Kundalini Yoga, yogis are able to activate this divine energy and allow it to move upward through their chakras. This movement is thought to bring with it a sense of divine enlightenment.


Light Therapy

This therapy, also known as phototherapy, uses particular kinds of light including lasers, fluorescent lamps and UV radiation to treat health problems. Patients expose the retinas of their eyes to the light, often on a daily schedule, in order to mimic natural sunlight. This therapy is used to treat psychiatric, seasonal affective disorder, sleeping and skin disorders. Light therapy dates back to ancient cultures including the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks who have recorded histories of prescribing sunlight exposure for healing.


Massage Therapy

Massage Therapy can be used to help promote the relaxation response in the human body to allow for restoration. A massage therapist manipulates the tissues and muscles by applying pressure which releases tension and improve well-being. There are a variety of techniques that have been developed where therapists use their hands, elbows, feet, forearms and even stones.



Meditation is an ancient practice that spans many different philosophical and religious traditions. While the aim of meditation varies between various groups of people, it often involves focusing attention and centering the mind. In contemporary usage, meditation is often prescribed as means of stress relief and internal balance. Often meditation sessions will involve guided imagery and can last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or more.


Music Therapy

Music therapy is a form of treatment that is utilized in both traditional and alternative medicine. It is often associated with emotional health and is used to help patients better express what they’re feeling. Depending on the situation, some music therapists may ask their patients to actually compose music themselves, while others will simply ask patients to more passively listen and respond to music. The type of music used is relatively unimportant, as long as it is comforting and calming to the patient.



Naturopathy is a form of alternative medicine that is focused on healing through strictly natural means. There are two primary areas of focus when it comes to the study of naturopathy—creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle to prevent illness and using all-natural cures to treat the symptoms of illness. Like many other forms of alternative medicine, naturopathy places emphasis on treating patients holistically through a healthy balance of the mind, the body, and the soul. Naturopathy typically discourages the use of more traditional forms of medicine and surgery. A person who practices naturopathy is called a naturopath.



Reiki is an ancient Japanese healing technique that involves a practitioner laying hands on an ill person. By placing their hands near problem areas on the patient’s body, the Reiki practitioner is able to transmit an essential life-force energy known as ki.



Shiatsu is a form of massage that originated in Japan in the mid twentieth century, thanks to the research of Tokujiro Namikoshi. Literally translated, shiatsu means “finger pressure”, which is a reference to the finger and palm stretches that make up a large part of the shiatsu process. Like the many other forms of massage, shiatsu is primarily used to help relieve stress and manage muscle pain. While the practice still remains controversial in the traditional medicine world, shiatsu has nonetheless garnered a large following worldwide.


Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an ancient practice from China that involves coordinated movements and breathing. Although it does not fit the stereotypical mold, Tai Chi is actually considered a martial art. By utilizing slow, deliberate motions and deep, meditative breathing, the Tai Chi practitioner helps manipulate and support the flow of qi, a vital, life giving force.


Therapeutic Touch

The term is used to describe the affect that a therapist can have on patients due to their balanced energies that can detect imbalances in others. The therapist can proceed to help to bring their patient’s imbalances, into balance, in order to promote healing. This is sometimes referred to as “laying on of the hands.”


Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Chinese have an ancient health care system that is based on the concept of qi and keeping it in a balanced state. The qi is considered the vital energy that flows through the body and regulates the four components of a human; mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. In this system, the qi is affected by the two forces of yin and yang (negative and positive energies) which must be balanced to promote health and avoid disease. The Medicine includes herbal remedies, nutritional guidelines, acupuncture, massages and exercises for the body.


Vital Force

Vital force is a term used to describe a concept present in several different forms of alternative medicine. Some examples of vital forces include qi found in Chinese practices such as acupuncture and Tai Chi, or prana, the vital force present in Ayurvedic medicine. A vital force is seen as something that gives life to all creatures; however, there is also a distinctly spiritual element to vital forces as well.



Yoga is a set of practices that originally were developed in India over two thousand years ago. While many different practices fall under the blanket term of “yoga”, it is most commonly known as a set of physical poses accompanied by deliberate breathing. From a medical perspective, yoga is a great way to promote flexibility and reintroduce patients to physical activity after an injury. Most people also find that yoga provides many great emotional benefits that are similar to the benefits received from meditation.