Apr 21, 2014

Alternative Medicine

Last year I read the fantastic 'Trick or Treatment', by doctor and researcher Edzard Ernst and science writer Simon Singh. It is a scientific examination of alternative medicine. It does not debunk all alternative medicine - indeed some are shown to be (moderately) effective. Rather it is an examination of alternative therapies with evidence for and against, and some surprising results.

In recent years we have thankfully seen a resurgence in respect for science and more questioning and rejection of some of the more outlandish beliefs that have been popular for years. The social acceptance of atheism and the explosion in popular science writing online and in magazines and best-selling books have all been part of this.

But there has also been an impact the other way. The more strident the science fans and atheists become, the more many people are irked and even suspicious. Perhaps it makes more people cling to 'alternative' worldviews, seeing the scientists and writers as part of a bullying conspiracy.

I am angered by anti-vaccination groups and I struggle to empathise with and understand parents who don't vaccinate - but then I remember my own scepticism (due to lack of knowledge) when an anti-swine flu vaccine was developed so quickly, and when some batches of seasonal flu vaccine created adverse reactions in young children in 2010 (the problem was limited to a couple of bad batches and was not due to the vaccine itself, which is safe).

I thoroughly reject astrology, reiki, therapeutic touch and homeopathy, but I have been open minded (to some degree) on chiropractic, acupuncture and reflexology, as these at least seem to have some level of biological plausibility.


I saw a chiropractor fix my husband when his back went out some years ago. He woke up with his back having spasmed and 'stuck' and he was white and almost vomiting from pain. At that time I didn't realize chiropractic was alternative medicine. I thought it was a medical specialty, or an accepted therapy like physiotherapy. So I took him to a chiropractor. She showed me how he was all seized up on one side of his back, manipulated him a little, and he was fixed.

Of course I am sure a physiotherapist could have achieved the same result. But the chiropractor was still effective.

However, chiropractic for anything other than muscular-skeletal pain is completely implausible.
When my kids were babies in 2006 it became popular to take babies to chiropractors for 'colic'. I was appalled and amazed that anyone would take a baby to have its spine manipulated, or that any ethical practitioner would do such a thing, for a therapy that makes no sense at all.


When M had horrible reflux and screamed in pain, before the problem was diagnosed I bought a 'natural' medicine for 'colic' from a pharmacist. Only when I examined the bottle at home did I realise, amazed, that this popular medicine sold by a professional chemist was in fact a homeopathic waste of time and money.  I tried it, but it did nothing, of course.


Acupuncture and reflexology have always made sense to me for the purposes of pain relief and nerve-related problems, because we know nerves are connected. You know that thing where you scratch your leg and feel a twinge somewhere else?

But acupuncture for weight loss, infertility, quitting smoking or anything else makes no sense at all.

In fact, the authors of 'Trick or Treatment' show how neither therapy is that effective, despite seeming plausible. Acupuncture seems to make sense because of its seeming relation to the nervous system, and this is how I had assumed it worked. But in fact the 'meridians' used by acupuncturists bear no relation to the actual nervous system, and needles are only inserted under the skin, not in nerve points. This was a surprise to me and I was a bit sad to read all this about acupuncture. The ideas of ancient Chinese wisdom and 4000 years of history are so nice it is hard to give them up.

Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks) 


Reiki and therapeutic touch were debunked by a 12-year-old for an American school science fair project some years ago.

I have a friend who practices reiki, and without really discussing it we agree to disagree on such therapies. What I can say is my friend is a caring, empathetic and ethical person who does truly help people. She is gifted and intuitive in her reading of people and their ailments, and she never professes to be able to fix anything outside of her remit. She is also a qualified reflexologist and masseuse, and I can attest from experience she is very good at these therapies.

The allure of alternative medicine = the limitations of conventional medicine

The authors of 'Trick or Treatment' paint a very good picture of the allure of alternative therapies. Conventional doctors are often busy and not always good at listening, the appointments are only 15 minutes and specialists can be brusque and have limited knowledge outside their specialties. In contrast a homeopath, naturopath or hypnotherapist will spend much more time with the patient, listen empathetically, and will prescribe a holistic treatment specifically tailored for that person. If nothing else, the placebo effect is triggered and the patient also feels well looked after.

A couple of years ago my father found himself with severe, ongoing back pain. He already has a terminal illness and has had periods of pain, so his doctors - even his very good specialist - were somewhat dismissive. I do believe due to his age and underlying illness, his doctors did not give the same consideration to his pain that they would have given a younger, healthy patient. His pain was chronic. It altered his voice and his personality and often he could barely move.

I kept telling him he should ask for an x-ray. I thought he might have a slipped disc. He asked his doctor who said no, it was just muscular. I couldn't believe it. For the next few months every time I spoke to my dad I told him he needed an x-ray.

Who finally raised the alarm (apart from me)?  An acupuncturist. She was feeling around his back and told him he had something strange sticking out of his spine, and said he needed an x-ray.  He told his doctor who finally ordered an x-ray, and the problem was diagnosed: a large tumor on the spine that needed major surgery and months of physiotherapy afterward.

In this case, although acupuncture itself was no help, the acupuncturist certainly was.


  1. I am not against vaccinations for children, however if I had a newborn today, I would not want a dose of multiple vaccinations all delivered at once. I do not see why they can not be spaced out over a greater period of time. It worries me to apply doses of multiple vaccines to young developing brains and bodies. I know "studies show", but studies also show that studies often reach conclusions that the studiers want studies to show. I don't think holding back on the vaccines over a longer period of time is dangerous to anyone.

    1. I think the object is to get the vaccinations done as soon as possible so babies are immunized as early as it's safe to do, hence multiple doses at once. As a parent I'd prefer 1 injection to 3 or 4, but I get your point.

  2. Jackie , In my opinion alternative medicine definitely helps but in my country is not as popular as traditional medicine.

  3. Chiropractic is alternative? I did not know that. I went to a chiropractor once because of neck stiffness and pain, he did some "gentle" ha ha, manipulation and I could hardly move for a week after. Never went back. Had an k-ray for the pain a few months later and found out I have arthritis there. Over the counter pain relief takes care of the pain. Panadol and deep heat cream.
    I believe in vaccinations, even my kitten is getting vaccinations.

  4. Gosia: yes, I think here conventional is more popular too, but a lot of people like the alternative therapies as they believe them to be gentler or more natural, which is not always the case.

    River: good illustration of the dangers of some of these therapies, because they are not regulated as well as doctors. Like you I believe in Panadol and Deep Heat cream, and vaccinations! Kind of wish pets could be vaccinated for life though instead of every year - it's a bit expensive!

  5. When I was having multiple, severe nosebleeds and went to the doctor he did nothing for me but dismissed me and my problem...my homeopath took my blood pressure reading....something the doctor did not.
    When I was having pain in my hip and leg the doctor again dismissed me, saying it was probably a ham string pull and I should just stay off my feet for a few days. My chiropractor had her suspicions and gave me an xray which showed signs of osteo arthritis. She told me to go back to the doctor with her xray and demand attention.
    When I developed recurring episodes of gout I found a homeopathic remedy that could stave off the attacks if taken soon enough.
    I have fought off the onset of colds and flu with vitamin C, ecchinacea (sp?) and zinc lozonges.
    I guess you can tell from these few examples that I am a believer in SOME of the alternative medicines. After all, modern medicine evolved from the old ways.

    1. These are good examples of complementary medicine as your therapists worked with an X-ray and blood pressure reading and referred you to your doctor for treatment beyond their remit, which is good.
      Yes, some herbs are effective and what works gets brought into conventional medicine (citrus for scurvy, vitamin D for rickets). And in science/medicine what is found not to work gets jettisoned (leeches).
      There was research awhile ago saying echinacea and vitamin c did nothing for colds, but other research (and this book) say they are moderately effective. Research and testing will eventually settle the question I guess.

  6. I was going to write one word, agree. But I have some belief in acupuncture and one you did not mention, hypnotism.

    1. I am fascinated by hypnotism! I think it can be moderately helpful for some things but research is spotty.
      Research supports acupuncture as effective for some kinds of pain, but others say that's the placebo effect.
      I'd consider it for pain if I got no results from conventional medicine. I've never tried it but always been curious and open to it.

  7. I don't see reiki, chiro etc as "alternative" therapies, but "complimentary". You have a broken arm, a hernia, tumour, apendicitis etc, you see a university trained medical doctor. You have a cold, digestive issues, try the "complimentary" first - as odds on they will get you better in the same time that a Western doc will fix you - and hopefully prevent it coming back.

    Like faith and science, I see Western Medicine and Complimentary therapies as an "and" statement, not an "or" statement.

    Have seen too much, and done too much in healing work to diss either method but I do know 1) Empaths can intuit problems and will (should) hand over to the Western principles happily - like the acupunturist on your father - or me with a friend when I told her to get to a GP as there was something up with her heart - just get it checked out she was told,. GP visit the following day see what's up. She had possibly fatal blood clots on her lungs nar her heart. Don't ask me how, but the message to get her to a doctor was there and thankfully the friend is with us today. There is no reason why I should have picked this up - I was just massaging her feet when it came through.

    Secondly acredited acupuncturist, naturopaths and chiropractors do four to five years of university education. Like Western trained doctors, they get it wrong. I say accredited pratitioners. No point buying something off the shelves - like western medicine, complimentary therapies required one-on-one attention.

    No practitioner, western or complimentary should guarantee a cure, ever. I know I don't heal people - people heal themselves. WIth luck I just set them on the path...

    To me what current western practices don't give enough credit to is crappy lifestyle choices ind diet, stress and exercise have on human existence. Pills fix everything - WRONG. Case in point, my blood pressure. After being ostensibly poisoned by three lots of pharmaceuticals, the stuff the naturopath gives me is far more effective with no side effects. The naturopath also makes me take responsiblilty for my lifestyle choices (i.e. I eat cheese, expect a reading of 150/100 - don't each cheese and its back to a much more preferable 130/85.

    There is room for both systems - used responsibly with respect for both systems where it's due.

    Like faith and science - it doesn't have to be an "or" statement. Funny, I was about to blog on a similar thought.

    (Lot's of love, your nimby namby hippy dippy reflexologist friend that actively agrees to disagree with you on some, but not all of what you;ve said.)

    1. Love it! Thank you for this great response. We agree on about half of each others' statements I think :)
      You and no doubt many other complementary healers are indeed skilled - "empaths", I like that. You are certainly that.
      Totally agree that conventional medicine can't cure everything and makes mistakes - of course it does.
      You might even like parts of this book, it doesn't just debunk all alternative/complementary therapy.
      Uni education... some of those uni courses are a bit problematic, and I do think unis, health insurance co's and pharmacists need to be more ethical and professional and toss some of this stuff out instead of going after the cash/"satisfying consumer demand".
      As I say above, I don't discount chiro or acupuncture for treatment within its original remit, but take great exception to those practitioners who claim to use these therapies to treat infant colic, weight loss, infertility, smoking, etc etc.
      No, pills certainly do not fix everything. But I find it a bit bizarre how some people (not you!) eschew 'Big Pharma' pills and take herbs, when herbs were the original basis for many of the medicines we now use.
      For minor illnesses and problems, you can probably use any type of treatment - in many cases the body heals itself anyway.

      I love the comments on this post, thanks everyone x

    2. And snap! Re "faith and (not or) science", see also:

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