The history of alternative medicine refers to the history of a group of diverse medical practices that were collectively promoted as "alternative medicine" beginning in the 1970s, to the collection of individual histories of members of that group, or to the history of western medical practices that were labeled "irregular practices" by the western medical establishment. It includes the histories of complementary medicine and of integrative medicine. "Alternative medicine" is a loosely defined and very diverse set of products, practices, and theories that are perceived by its users to have the healing effects of medicine, but do not originate from evidence gathered using the scientific method,:Ch 14E, p. 1 are not part of biomedicine, or are contradicted by scientific evidence or established science. "Biomedicine" is that part of medical science that applies principles of anatomy, physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, and other natural sciences to clinical practice, using scientific methods to establish the effectiveness of that practice.
Much of what is now categorized as alternative medicine was developed as independent, complete medical systems, was developed long before biomedicine and use of scientific methods, and was developed in relatively isolated regions of the world where there was little or no medical contact with pre-scientific western medicine, or with each other's systems. Examples are Traditional Chinese medicine, European humoral theory and the Ayurvedic medicine of India. Other alternative medicine practices, such as homeopathy, were developed in western Europe and in opposition to western medicine, at a time when western medicine was based on unscientific theories that were dogmatically imposed by western religious authorities. Homeopathy was developed prior to discovery of the basic principles of chemistry, which proved homeopathic remedies contained nothing but water. But homeopathy, with its remedies made of water, was harmless compared to the unscientific and dangerous orthodox western medicine practiced at that time, which included use of toxins and draining of blood, often resulting in permanent disfigurement or death. Other alternative practices such as chiropractic and osteopathic manipulative medicine, were developed in the United States at a time that western medicine was beginning to incorporate scientific methods and theories, but the biomedical model was not yet totally dominant. Practices such as chiropractic and osteopathic, each considered to be irregular by the medical establishment, also opposed each other, both rhetorically and politically with licensing legislation. Osteopathic practitioners added the courses and training of biomedicine to their licensing, and licensed Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine holders began diminishing use of the unscientific origins of the field, and without the original practices and theories, is now considered the same as biomedicine.
Until the 1970s, western practitioners that were not part of the medical establishment were referred to "irregular practitioners", and were dismissed by the medical establishment as unscientific or quackery. Irregular practice became increasingly marginalized as quackery and fraud, as western medicine increasingly incorporated scientific methods and discoveries, and had a corresponding increase in success of its treatments. In the 1970s, irregular practices were grouped with traditional practices of nonwestern cultures and with other unproven or disproven practices that were not part of biomedicine, with the group promoted as being "alternative medicine". Following the counterculture movement of the 1960s, misleading marketing campaigns promoting "alternative medicine" as being an effective "alternative" to biomedicine, and with changing social attitudes about not using chemicals, challenging the establishment and authority of any kind, sensitivity to giving equal measure to values and beliefs of other cultures and their practices through cultural relativism, adding postmodernism and deconstructivism to ways of thinking about science and its deficiencies, and with growing frustration and desperation by patients about limitations and side effects of science-based medicine, use of alternative medicine in the west began to rise, then had explosive growth beginning in the 1990s, when senior level political figures began promoting alternative medicine, and began diverting government medical research funds into research of alternative, complementary, and integrative medicine.