Image courtesy of Tomas Fano via Flickr.
Alternative medicine: some call it quackery, but others praise the power of healing, no matter how far it strays from conventional science.
By definition, alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in several respects:
- It is not founded on evidence based on the scientific method
- It has yet to be proven through large scale clinical trials, or has been disproven completely
- It is often based on an underlying belief system inconsistent with science, or on traditional cultural practices
Perhaps Australian comedian and poet Tim Minchin puts it best when he says, albeit bluntly, that there’s a name for alternative medicine that works: it’s called medicine.
That may seem a bit crude for those that have faith in the lesser-known. Because in reality, there is a lot of nuance to alternative medicine, a $34 billion-a-year industry used by half of Americans.
To illustrate how these range from unproven but plausible, to completely unfounded, we’ve compiled a list of popular alternative treatments and what, if anything, science has to say about their credibility.
What it is: Originally a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture stimulates points on the body with thin needles to correct the flow of “qi” through channels called meridians.
What science says: Research on the efficacy of Acupuncture is variable and inconsistent.
- It has been shown to alleviate some, but not all kinds of pain.
- It has been evidenced to improve pain and joint function, a benefit that decreases over time.
- Performed properly, it has been found to be in cases to be more effective in reducing chronic pain than improperly executed acupuncture, or none at all.
- Many studies have suggested that the placebo effect is the main cause of relief, and clinical research has yet to prove otherwise
- Research found very little difference in results based on where needles were placed, which defies the practice’s premise.
What it is: Chiropractic is a form of alternative medicine focused on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and nervous system, treated through manual adjustment of bones and joints.
What science says: Opinions differ on the level of efficacy.
- Spinal manipulation has been found in some cases to be effective for those suffering lower back pain, equivalent or superior to exercise and other types of therapy and treatment
- Chiropractic has evolved over time from beliefs in curing deafness to a complementary practice scientifically consistent with that of physical therapy and standard medical care
- It is cost-effective for treating lower back pain, especially in conjunction with other treatment approaches.
- Various studies have failed to prove any definite benefit of spinal manipulation and other chiropractic practices, and no benefits at all besides relieving back pain
- Once again, it is difficult for science to rule out the placebo effect
- Various adverse effects such as headaches, nausea, or even strokes exist, but are underreported
What it is: The use of plants for medical purposes, and the study of such usage
What science says: There is no evidence that herbalism can treat, prevent, or cure cancer, but plants do have medical benefits, as evidenced by their inclusion in conventional drugs.
- Approximately 25 percent of modern drugs in America are derived from plants, which have proven medicinal quality
- Herbal remedies can be grown at home, making them less expensive and more accessible for people that can’t afford medicine
- Herbal remedies are often put on the market, but not regulated
- Many have adverse effects, but have yet to be clinically trialed
- Standardization of purity and dosage are not mandated in the United States
What it is: The idea of homeopathy supposes that if a substance causes a symptom, it will treat an ailment characterized by that symptom.
For example, if an onion causes a runny nose, strongly diluted onion will ease a cold. Homeopathy claims that serially diluting substances, the remedies are rendered more potent.
What science says: There is no scientific evidence behind homeopathy’s premises; in fact, they defy very basic chemistry
- Despite a lack of causality, homeopathy has offered positive health changes to a substantial amount of patients with chronic illnesses
- No homeopathic remedies have clinically proven to yield results convincingly different from a placebo.
- Research demonstrates that it may be the act of homeopathic consultation rather the remedies themselves that help yield positive results
- Attempting to replace conventional treatment with homeopathy is dangerous and harmful
5. Energy medicine
What it is: The channeling of healing energy into a patient to cure or treat, either through distance, close contact, or touch.
Science says: There is no evidence of clinical efficacy.
- Early research on the topic saw that 57 percent of “distance healing” showed a positive effect.
- Numerous studies have called the practice “biologically implausible,” yielding no evidence of improved health, quality of life, mood, or sleep quality.
- It’s supposed that positive reports may be cases of selection and publication bias, psychological manipulation, or methodological flaws.
It’s true that even science has room to grow, and can’t explain quite everything — not yet, anyway.
Even so, it is helpful to look at practices aiming to heal with a very skeptical eye; whether they are alternative or conventional, knowledge and trust is key.
Critics warn that because alternative medicines in particular lack in proof, those considering them should consult their doctor first, especially if the ailment is otherwise preventable or severe.