Bronze-level articleAlternative medicine

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Against allopathy

Alternative medicine

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Unproven articles
"By definition", I begin
"Alternative Medicine", I continue
"Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.

You know what they call alternative medicine
That’s been proved to work?

Tim Minchin, Storm[1]

Alternative medicine is any medical treatment that is not part of conventional evidence-based medicine, such as one would learn in medical school, nursing school or even paramedic training. Much, if not most of the "alternative medicine" world lacks any scientific proof of its effectiveness, and that which does have real effectiveness, tends to be palliative[2] rather than curative.

Alternative medicines or therapies range from being scientifically provable to scientifically disproven, and can be benign (and often ridiculous) all the way to downright dangerous. Medical science has only recently started to do quality and quantity research into alternative medicine. With the exception of some surprising and exciting treatments that have true medical potential, the vast majority of the therapies do little if anything beyond the placebo effect. Even when the treatment actually does something, the reasons given by practitioners for why the treatment is effective are almost never based on correct scientific information. Benign treatments have the advantage of not directly injuring a patient, other than money and at worst precious time going out the window. The ridiculous cannot possibly have any medical effects (beyond that of the placebo effect at the least), or may be actively dangerous to the patient.

Alternative medicine includes "traditional medicines" (i.e. "medical" systems developed prior to or outside of "Western Medicine", such as traditional Native American remedies, or traditional Chinese medicine), "folk remedies" (e.g., herbalism, tinctures, and rubs that were common place "treatments" often passed around via urban legend), and an ever growing class of "religious" or "spiritual" treatments that have their sources in Eastern Religions, but are filtered through a pay-as-you-go, for-profit (see "New Age" mindset. The term "alternative medicine" is also a common term for medical marijuana).

All alternative medicine, even the "effective" therapies have the danger of convincing an unwell person to forgo actual medical treatments because they think they are getting better (which can happen with palliative remedies and placebos) or they choose to trust their alternative practitioner who is offering a "cure". For example, a person with cancer may convince himself to try a homeopathic remedy. Also, many herbal remedies can actually interfere with prescription drugs, lessening their effect or even causing dangerous side-effects. Since almost all alternative medicines are unproven; many advocates (known to some as "alties") tend to appeal to "health freedom," rather than actually try to prove that their nostrums work.

Often, alternative medicine practitioners claim that, unlike "allopathy", they help the body's natural self-healing powers. Yet many of them will describe anecdote after anecdote showcasing medical recoveries (involving such transitory things as colds) while seemingly refusing to believe that the disease could ever have gone away on its own. These recoveries must be due to whatever remedy they used. So on the one hand, they extol the healing powers of the human body, while at the same time denying that illnesses could ever go away by themselves – or in other words, that the body could actually heal itself.


[edit] Problems with alternative medicines

[edit] False hope

Many practitioners exploit vulnerable patients. They give false hope to people who are incurably sick and frequently charge high prices for useless treatments. The belief that alternative medicines are somehow "less risky" or "less harsh" than conventional medicine has led some to take alternative medicine over conventional medicine. While this may often be true (though don't say that to someone who's lost skin or body parts to black salves sometimes used for skin cancers), the potential health risks of not taking conventional medicine for an illness far outweigh the risks from the side effects of these medicines.

[edit] Lack of regulation

Taste the pain: a scarificator - a 19th century spring-powered bloodletting instrument creating multiple cuts in the skin at once. For some reason, this is a less fashionable alternative treatment but still goes on in Unani, Ayurvedic, and traditional Chinese medicine.

When a student wants to become a physician, he or she must attend a certified medical school, pass rigorous medical exams, and participate in carefully monitored and regulated internships all regulated by the governmental bodies who license the doctor. For the majority of alternative medicine, no such regulation is in place. For a few specific alternative therapies like chiropractic work and massage therapy, regulatory bodies do exist. However, pretty much every other field of alternative medicine has no regulation at all. Call yourself a color therapist, and lo and behold, you are one.

There is also a lack of regulation in the products sold as "alternative" or "herbal" medicines. You cannot, for example, know what is in a "sleep healing tea", how much of each ingredient, how potent the pills are, or even whether it contains the listed ingredient(s) at all (some herbal products, in fact, do not contain the herb(s) listed on the label).[3] Also, as there is little scientific research, "doses" are always a guess. "Try one pill. If that doesn't work, take two."

[edit] Kinds of alternative medicine

You can't neatly brush it all into the quack corner. Some of them work, but not all of them.

[edit] Proven palliative effect

  • Massage therapy — massage has real benefits such as temporary pain relief and increased circulation, but like all other woo, some less ethical therapists will sell it (and a line of smelly herbal additives) as a cure for almost anything.
  • Chiropractic — has been shown to relieve some back and joint pain and mitigate some chronic headaches. Has the disadvantage that it can damage soft tissues if done wrong.
  • Medical marijuana — Some adhere to the smokable version of this despite issues with proper dosing; some of its medicinal properties are also found (and precisely dosed) in Marinol, its synthetic version.
  • Neti pot — can help relieve symptoms of allergies, sinus infections, and colds. It should not be used more than once per day, and using unsanitary water can lead to potentially serious infections.
  • Osteopathy — In North America it is a variant of mainstream medicine, albeit one with slightly different approaches to medicinal problems. Outside of the US there appears to be a great deal more quackery involved.
  • Various meditation, music, color, and aromatherapy treatments have limited but highly successful effects for dealing with chronic pain, chronic stress, and other minor psychological side effects like sleeplessness and temper. It should be noted, this last list is specific to dealing with these issues, and not actually changing the amount of pain or stress.
  • Certain herbal remedies have beneficial effects so fall into this category.

[edit] Potentially provable

  • Herbal supplements — some are fairly effective for some conditions; others close to useless; and some potentially dangerous. Herbal medicine varies a great deal in effectiveness and quality. Lax regulation means the consumer must be very diligent about brand choice, and always takes on some degree of risk.
  • Oil pulling — does have some effect against tooth decay. Not much else, though.
  • Salt therapy — involves breathing in salt cave air.

[edit] Useless

[edit] Benign

  • Aromatherapy — smelling nice has some social advantages, may reduce anxiety and won't kill you. To cure anything other than the above, however, it's nonsensical.
  • Reflexology[4] — as a massage therapy it can reduce stress, but there is nothing it can cure.
  • "Himalayan" salt lamps — do nothing except slightly light up the room.
  • Bach flower remedies — since some of the issues these treat are psychosomatic, and some of the users are neurotics and hypochondriacs, flower remedies are perhaps the best thing for them.
  • Homeopathy — using dilute solutions with no remaining active ingredient to treat conditions.
  • Cupping — often used in conjunction with bloodletting.
  • Magnetic field therapy
  • Psychic surgery
  • Reiki

[edit] Somewhat benign, occasionally dangerous

  • Acupuncture ("Pointillism", as it is known in the art world) — like the caricature of using voodoo dolls, but practiced on the victim patient directly. Can give pain relief due to the placebo effect, but this is quite outweighed by the risks that could occur if not performed "properly".[5]
  • Chiropractic — to cure anything except back pain. Sometimes done on children and babies, which could risk breaking their spines.
  • Colloidal silver — an alleged "natural" antibiotic, its only possible use is for that very tiny segment of the population that has a burning desire to look like a smurf.
  • DMSO — an industrial solvent by-product of paper manufacture, used topically for a variety of health claims.
  • Ear candling — a silly practice alleged to draw toxins out of the ears. May be useful for removing earwax. Potential danger of hot wax burning the temples.
  • Faith healing — attempts to use raw prayer and faith to heal. Too bad practitioners don't have any. Not harmful in and of itself, but its practitioners usually encourage avoiding traditional medicine ("Don't visit the doctor, God will cure you better than any doctor can!").
  • Male enhancement capsules — to cure the desire to buy a large SUV.
  • Hypnosis — can aid with smoking addiction or weight loss in some cases. Problems arise in that false memories can be implanted and some people may not "snap out" of a trance.
  • Vaginal steaming — typically just uses warm water rather than actual steam. If steam *is* used, the scalding can be very nasty.
  • Osteopathy — should always be done by someone properly trained.

[edit] Dangerous

  • Black salve — (AKA cansema) a paste made from bloodroot that is said to "draw out" cancer cells in tumors; known for causing massive disfiguration. If chemotherapy is slash'n'burn, this stuff is a West Coast thousand-acre wildfire. [6][7]
  • Laetrile — attempting to cure cancer using cyanogen compounds found in stonefruit pits, particularly apricots.
  • Coffee enemas — as ridiculous as ear candling, but exponentially more disgusting.
  • New German Medicine — attempting to cure cancer using psychological conflict resolution.
  • Trepanation — intentionally drilling a hole in one's head.
  • Sungazing — staring at the sun cures all ills, especially chronic eyesight.
  • Bloodletting - killed Lord Byron and possibly Washington. Do not be fooled into thinking this is extinct. It isn't. (Bloodletting is still the routine treatment of iron toxicity, but in the veinal blood donating style of bloodletting, which is actually safe.)
  • Rebirthing - don't even get me started.[8]
  • Dynastic gymnastics - swing babies around. Dangerous enough to be illegal in most of the civilised world, except Russia, where it's fairly popular.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Tim Minchin's Storm, the Animated Movie
  2. Any medication or treatment that helps a patient cope with an illness and its side effects, but does not actually affect the underlying disease.
  3. DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products, Newmaster et al.
  4. claims as cure all
  7. See the photos
  8. at 18:26.
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