Date Published: 5 October 2003

Terminology used to describe therapies ... Alternative / Complementary / Holistic / Natural ?

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Many terms are used to refer to essentially the same concepts, different words reflecting the views and allegiances of the writer / therapist.

In many cases treatments / therapies may be accurately described by two or more (sometimes all !) of these terms. It is in such cases that the choice of language conveys more about the attitudes of the writer than about the subject being described.

The following are included in alphabetical order:-


The word 'Alternative' may be used to emphasise choice.
Presenting a therapeutic option as an "alternative" conveys the view that, in a moral and (usually) in a practical sense, each person has the option to react to a physical/mental/emotional condition in a variety of ways - including:

  • Turning to orthodox (allopathic) physicians,
  • Using other forms of treatment,
  • Trying a combination of orthodox and other treatments, or
  • Preferring no treatment(s) at all.

Therefore use of the term "alternative" generally implies tolerance and a willingness not to judge - either the type of treatment or approach, or individuals' decisions about which treatments to try, accept, or reject.

If the term "complementary" (below) implies deference to orthodox medicine, then "alternative" implies deference to the client/patient as the usual implication of this is that the patient/client has overall moral and practical control of the decision-making process and is empowered to to make his/her choice of any combination of the available alternatives.


The word 'Complementary' may be used to convey and emphasise the notion that the therapy offered is not in conflict with orthodox medicine, and is therefore appropriate for use in conjunction with whatever treatment the person is already receiving from his/her orthodox practitioner(s).

Therapists who emphasize that their treatments are "complementary - not alternative", may be presenting their treatment in this way as part of an overall approach of deferring to conventional medicine whenever possible, e.g. checking with your GP that he/she has no objection to your receiving their treatment. Doing so protects the therapist (in the event that the patient's condition deteriorates or allegations are made that the therapist caused or exacerbated a problem).

The term "complementary" is also used by those who seek favour from conventional medical institutions, perhaps for patient referrals, use of premises, "status" for the treatment method, or some other reason. For example, the term "complementary" may be used by those presenting their treatment or process as a mild, harmless, pleasant "help and support" to go with some conventional medical treatment - such that it is understood that the conventional medical treatment is the "real" source of the "cure" for the condition.


The word 'Complimentary' means "with compliments". That is, in common English usage, something that is "complimentary" is given away at no cost/charge. Although there are many "Complimentary Health Centres" advertised in the UK, we have yet to find one that does not charge for treatments, therefore:

"Complimentary" is a spelling error when it appears in this context. The word "Complementary" (above), meaning "to go with" is usually intended.


The word 'Holistic' may be used to emphasise that the treatment offered works with and to enhance all aspects of the 'whole person' - that is the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects.


The word 'Natural' may be used to emphasise that the treatment offered does not involve the use of synthetic substances, e.g. derived from genetically modified plants or the petrochemical industry.

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Source: IvyRose Article.

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