The Rise of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the U.S.

Watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it seemed almost unfathomable that, up until Nixon's historic trip in 1971, China had essentially been closed to the outside world.

In the early 1970s, China was just coming out of its Cultural Revolution, and the U.S. was in the throes of our own with the Vietnam War. One of the reporters covering Nixon's trip, James Reston, became ill when in China and needed emergency surgery. This single event—and the subsequent article describing his experience, published in the New York Times on July 26, 19711—was the tipping point that sparked a sweeping transformation for American health care.

James Reston was treated for appendicitis in a Beijing hospital according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the major medical system used in China. Specifically, he was treated using acupuncture.

The U.S. was, in some ways, ripe for alternative medicine. Homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine, Naturopathic Medicine, Chiropractic Medicine, herbal medicine, massage therapy, and other types of complementary medical care were available. However, most were not legal nor in any way considered "legitimate." In order to access such therapies, one had to be both knowledgeable and relentless in finding a practitioner. Once you located a practitioner, the quality of care could be questionable.

Fast forward 38 years: In 1998, the National Institute of Health (NIH) established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). It since has received millions of dollars in funding to study the efficacy of acupuncture, meditation, massage, energy healing, and other types of nontraditional medicine.

Major medical centers across the country also have established integrative medicine departments. Acupuncture, massage, and meditation are integral therapies in most cancer treatment programs across the country. Almost every women's fertility clinic has at least one acupuncturist or doctor of Oriental medicine on staff.  Herb and supplement companies are multibillion dollar industries, as is the natural food market. Nontraditional medicine seems to have become much more of an American tradition.

NCCAM:  An Invaluable Resource
One of the great things about the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is its distinguished lectures in the science of complementary and alternative medicine. For an overview from the former director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), click here to watch the video lecture.

If you are interested in a more comprehensive introduction to alternative medicine and its five major categories, which are:

  • Alternative medical systems
  • Mind-body interventions
  • Biologically based therapies
  • Manipulative and body-based therapies
  • Energy therapies

Watch part or all of the online course by clicking here. The lectures are very informative.

Learn the basics about alternative medicine therapies
The University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, through a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH), produced a fabulous series of online learning alternative medicine modules. You can view an overview of therapies by clicking here.

The University of Minnesota website also offers learning modules on:

  • Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)
  • Botanical medicine
  • Osteopathy
  • Chiropractic
  • Massage
  • Cranio-sacral therapy
  • Clinical aromatherapy
  • Reiki
  • Healing touch

The Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Alternative Medicine website and the Mayo Clinic's Tools for Healthier Living website are both very good resources with blogs, podcasts, and RSS feeds.  The Cleveland Clinic also has a fantastic online resource for nontraditional health and wellness information. Click here to view their collection of health videos, webcasts, podcasts, and RSS feeds.


1 "Now, About my Operation in Peking", James Reston, New York Times, July 25, 1971,

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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