Background This paper aims to remedy a gap in the knowledge by presenting the first critical review of the literature on major themes relating to medical students perceptions and attitudes towards the exponentially growing field of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). MethodsAfter a comprehensive database search of the literature, 21 papers were chosen as suitable for the review. The results from these papers were tabled and discussed. ResultsThe results indicated that medical students lacked knowledge of CAM and are generally positive towards CAM education (especially in the preclinical years, if it provided evidence of efficacy and post-placement). Medical students thought that CAM should generally be incorporated into the medical curriculum mainly so they can confidently undertake referral to CAM practitioners. Being able to communicate with future patients about their CAM use was a major motivation for medical students to learn about CAM and a factor for medical student support of further incorporation of CAM content in the medical curricula. Educational exposure to CAM in many forms and in many papers was shown to significantly affect medical student attitudes to CAM. This may be reflective of the fact that, outside direct CAM training, there may be limited accessible opportunities for medical students and if integration is to occur, educational exposure is most important. ConclusionsThe rise of CAM as a social and clinical phenomenon necessitates consideration of further inclusion of these topics in the medical curriculum, if future physicians are to be able to fully discharge their role as care providers in an increasingly medically pluralistic world. However, the inclusion of CAM needs to be done in an objective and critical manner, which is relevant to the learner.