Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shut-Up Stupid Sunday: Alt-Meds

Alternative Medicine, or Alt-Meds, is a tough subject because the field is so wide. It covers everything from the use of herbs with mild sedative properties to deal with anxiety to using weak magnets to somehow cure people.

To give Alt-Meds credit some things that were covered under Alt-Meds did point out where there were gaps in Medical Science and started research into those gaps, but those gaps are becoming fewer.

On the legitimate side of Alt-Meds, using nutrition and the natural source of common over the counter drugs can help low-level medical problems. Drinking herbal tea with a mild sedative while having a cat sit on your lap can reduce anxiety in a normal person, leading to a healthier life.

It’s when people claim it can do more that the problem comes in. Although using Alt-Meds can relieve mild anxiety in a normal person it is not going to have an effect on a person that has full-blown panic attacks. Those people need to see a doctor who can customize a treatment for them.

It’s the same with vitamin C and citrus for a common cold, it helps the body recover faster but using it for Swine Flu is pointless.

These herbal remedies (the legitimate ones) are like putting a towel down in front of the door to keep water out when it rains, it will work for normal storms but it’s not going to save you from a hurricane like Katrina.

The other legitimate Alt-Med is homeopathy, treating the whole body instead of the symptoms. There is a legitimate science that does this it is called nutritional medicine. Nutritional Medicine studies the effect of diet on a person’s health. Good homeopathic treatments are just amateur attempts at this science. Bad homeopathic treatments are either missing the science or an attempt to make a quick buck.

So people who claim that alt-meds can do anything better than over the counter drugs and a healthy lifestyle are either being delusional or are making money off the dysfunctional healthcare system we have.

Other Alt-Meds are down right scams, like magnetic therapy where you put low-level magnets on your clothes (so weak a magnetic force that you can’t pick up a paperclip with a sock over the magnet). These cures do absolutely nothing.

So with Alt-Meds like herbal treatments, homeopathy, massage therapy and petting a cat do your own research into using them for normal problems that aren’t severe enough to see a doctor for. Remembering that they probably aren’t as effective as over the counter drugs but the side effects are probably weaker as well. Just don’t use them to skip a trip to your doctor.

And to the people who tout Alt-Meds as cures for cancer, AIDS, severe mental illnesses and the like, I say, “Shut-up Stupid” if there is a legitimate scientific basis behind the claims of an Alt-Med treatment it will be studied and marketed through the legitimate healthcare system, if there’s not it will be studied and debunked.


Stephanie B said...

I'm not going to be too quick to condemn. There are some "alternative medicines" that have been used for centuries and, perhaps, for good reason.

I tend to be less dismissive, not because I'm an advocate but because biology is an inexact field and because I think the human mind is a powerful tool in health care.

That being said, I'm not an advocate for using them to replace real medicines. I think those that think chiropracty can replace vaccines are dangerous individuals indeed, or those that think everything can be cured with big pills of one kind or the other. Accupuncture might be very effective in treating some forms of headaches (I know a few people who were "cured" of chronic headaches), but it's not a cure for cancer nor will it work for every person.

If you don't give your kid insulin and instead pray over them, you're a cretin and shouldn't be given the opportunity to kill your own child.(Judgemental, I know. Sue me.) Ditto, if you refuse to treat your child when treatments are readily available or refuse to vaccinate your child from deadly diseases.

Note, of course, that the sometimes doesn't work is true of standard medicine as well. No matter how successful a drug or treatment is, there will always be people who don't respond well, whose bones don't knit or whose reactions to a drug are life-threatening.

Biology is something of a crap shoot and there are always lucky rolls. But, given we're talking about life or death, best to stack the odds in your favor and the house always has the best odds. By all means, use nutrition or meditation or herbs (if you understand them well enough to do so safely) if you want to, but don't turn your back on useful treatments in the meantime. Believe me, those old time doctors in China would have used surgery or penicillin instead of just acupuncture if they'd had it.

Project Savior said...

Debunking alt-meds is a tough thing because of the noise to fact ratio. Things like acupuncture do have a scientific basis in that the low level pain of acupuncture can push the body into producing more endorphines blocking out pain and in a few areas it is a good alternative to pain killers. But there are more sham acupuncture places than legitimate ones out there.
As far as history of medical practices, just because something was used for a long time doesn't mean it works.
George Washington died because doctors slit his wrists to get rid of the "bad blood". A practice that was done for centuries.

Stephanie B said...

I don't disagree with you.

My point, and I may have made it poorly, is that, when biology is involved, I think it's less than black and white. I just read an article on hormone treatment for post-menapausal women that sounded a lot like alt medicine.

However, I'm entirely on board with exercising some form of common sense. Needles aren't going to replace insulin or kill tumors. Herbology is a poor substitute for good general nutrition or antibiotics. Some things can only be cured by surgery.

One thing that makes this issue so challenging (and why I don't want to use a broad brush on all alt meds) is that some things can work in a specific situation for some people. Yet, because alt meds aren't regulated like regular medicine, or subject to the same scrutiny or scientific rigor, the opportunity for scams and scalawags, people touting something as a miracle cure with no basis, is high.

Sad. We've become far too blase about "regular" folks making claims that can be readily disproven. People just aren't responsible for their actions any more. Nor, sadly, patients aren't responsible for exercising a little common sense.