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Alternative medicine part 3

My last post has created some controversy and some people were not happy with what I had written. I even got a couple of e-mails asking why I was so harsh with ¨alternative medicine¨. The senders said that, in their case, they had tried ¨alternative therapy¨ and it had worked for them, whereas ¨real medicine¨ had failed. And if their problem was one that had to do with pain or some other disease that is ¨subjective¨, I believe them. Yes, that´s right I believe them, but not for the reasons they think that the alternative therapy worked. I´ll use the example of pain and I will try to explain it.

In my last post (click here) I gave an example of an experiment which demonstrated that, subjectively, everything works. There wasn´t really any difference between any of the treatments, right? Well, pain is a very subjective feeling. We can´t measure pain. Some people have a small injury and lots of pain, while other people can have a huge injury and no pain. Pain is influenced by stress, anxiety, your beliefs, attitude, and a thousand other things. That is why pain is very complex, after all, pain is in the brain (click here). Your belief in a therapy can even influence pain, so if you belief something is going to help you with your pain then it probably will! And that may be the reason why sometimes alternative therapy helps these patients.
Now, when you have a disease that can be measured, for example diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, etc. alternative therapy simply doesn´t work.  Because different trials have shown that  alternative  therapy is no better than placebo. A pill is horrible and I wish doctors would stop prescribing so many of them. But a pill is only released onto the market when it has been proven that is has a BETTER effect than placebo, while with alternative therapy that doesn´t happen. 
But not only this, if we look at the logic behind these alternative therapies we realize that there is no logic. For example, acupuncture bases itself on the principles that a ¨life force called qi flows through bodies along 12 channels or ¨meridians¨, and that illness and pain occur when qi cannot flow freely. Science cannot do a lot of things but it can measure energy, and ¨QI¨has never been found.
Homeopathy dilutes one drop of the original substance  in a hundred, thirty times over, meaning  that less than one part per million of the original solution is in the final product, but this doen´t matter because homoeopathist believe that ¨water has memory¨.
I will say, though, that most alternative therapists usually listen better to their clients, they create a greater bond than a doctor does with his client. If you are lucky the doctor will maybe give you 5 minutes and prescribes you something. I think this is horrible and something that should change. The best thing would be to combine both treatments, things that have been demonstrated to work in clinical studies, with the care and effort that alternative therapists treat their patients.
So in conclusion: I believe those patients 100% when they say that the alternative therapy worked for them… but it´s not for the reasons why they think it worked.
  1. Singh S, Ernst E. Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial. Transworld Publishers.2009
  2. Shang A, Huwiler-Müntener K, Nartey L, Jüni P, Dörig S, Sterne JA, Pewsner D, Egger M. Are the clinical effect of homeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoepathy and allopathy. Lancet.2005
  3. Ernst E. Homeopathy: what does the ¨best¨evidence tell us? Med J Aust. 2010 Apr 19;192(8):458-60.
  4. Ernst E, Lee MS, Choi TY. Acupuncture: does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews. Pain. 2011:152:755-64.
  5. Shang A, Huwiler-Müntener K, Nartey L, Jüni P, Dörig S, Sterne JA, Pewsner D, Egger M. Are the clinical effect of homeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. Lancet.2005
  6. David Colquhoun (UCL) and Steven Novella (Yale). acupuncture is a theatrical placebo. Anesthesia & Analgesia, June 2013 116:1360-63
  7. Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, M.D., and Peter C. Gøtzsche, M.D. Is the Placebo Powerless?-An analysis of clinical trials comparing Placebo with no Treatment.N Engl J Med 2001; 344:1594-1602.

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