Sunday, March 15, 2009

Alternative Medicine isn't

A recent trip to my local pharmacy shocked me out of my writers block and left me contemplating a change of pharmacist. While waiting for my prescription to be filled I was browsing the shelves and saw something really disturbing – they were selling Colloidal Silver! Now I’ve managed to grudgingly accept the fact that my pharmacy sells homeopathic “medicine” because at least these “remedies” won’t actually do anything to you (except lighten your wallet). Colloidal Silver on the other hand can actually do something to you. Long term use can cause argyria, a condition that turns you permanently and irreversibly blue! That’s right, blue. Forever. Behold Paul Karason:

It boggles my mind that people would still seek “alternative medicine” in an age where modern medicine is doing things that are nothing short of miraculous! Why do people choose pseudoscience from the dark ages over science based medicine that actually works?

I think a big factor is the fact that these alternative therapies are a lot less intimidating than modern medicine. Hospitals are scary places, operations are invasive and painful and some treatments (like chemo) make you feel a lot worse before it makes you better. I completely understand this. I had to get 2 surgeries and radiation to treat my cancer and I would have loved to instead be treated by something soothing and non-invasive. However, thanks to those unpleasant treatments I have my health back today. Attempting to avoid discomfort might have cost me my life. Unfortunately it is human nature to choose things that are comfortable yet ineffective over things that work well but are unpleasant.

Supporters of Alternative medicine often claim that it is just as effective as normal medical treatments. This is however demonstrably false. The only evidence for the effectiveness of alternative medicine is anecdotal evidence and as the saying goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “proof”. To date no clinical trail has ever shown it to work better than a placebo which supports the conclusion that (when it works at all) alternative medicine only works due to the placebo effect. Call me crazy but I prefer medicine that works whether I believe in it or not! A recent study for instance found that acupuncture was effective at relieving back pain. However the same study found that there was no difference in relief gained between “real” and “fake” acupuncture. In other words there is no difference between someone who spent years learning about “chi” and memorizing the various “energy pathways” of the body and a drunken chimp randomly jabbing needles into someone. Yet another nail in the coffin of alternative medicine is the book “Trick or Treatment : The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine” by Simon Singh, a physicist and journalist and Edzard Ernst. Ernst is a medical doctor who has practiced alternative medicine including homeopathy and the world's first professor of complementary medicine. He is also a scientist whose research group has spent the last 15 years vigorously seeking scientific evidence to decide which alternative treatments work and which don't – how is that for credibility? He wanted to find good evidence for alternative medicine and he couldn't. His conclusions?
•Homeopathy is a bogus industry that offers patients nothing but a fantasy.
•Acupuncture “might” be effective but only for some cases of pain and nausea, its underlying concepts are meaningless.
•Chiropractic is unbelievable, risky and only as useful as physical therapy for back pain.
•Some herbal remedies are interesting but more are unproven, disproven and downright dangerous.
•From aromatherapy to reflexology, alternative treatments fail the test of science.

Those who choose alternative medicine often claim that it is because alternative medicine uses natural ingredients where science based medicine uses artificial, synthetic products for treatments. This mindset that natural equals better is complete horsecrap (a 100% natural product btw). Lots of “100% natural” things are in fact very bad for you like Arsenic, Cyanide and Uranium and Ebola! Of course I don’t deny that certain plants and herbs have healing properties – and neither does scientific medicine. When something works, science looks at why it works and tries to find ways to make it work as well as possible with as little risk as possible. As Dr Harriet Hall explains here, a good example of this would be Foxglove: "Foxglove was a folk remedy for heart disease. It clearly worked. The effects were robust and consistent, not marginal and erratic like so many alternative remedies today. It was promising enough to warrant proper scientific testing. It was analyzed, purified, and a standardized product was developed. It had side effects and the therapeutic dose was dangerously close to the lethal dose, so scientists developed a synthetic variant that was safer. Today we can buy a Digoxin pill with a precise dose instead of crushing a foxglove leaf and taking potluck. While herbal products may work fine, the synthetic counterpart is usually just more effective and safer."

A big selling point offered by alternative medicine gurus is that their treatments are based on ancient wisdom. This is patently absurd. Firstly, the fact that it has been around for centuries should count against it, for what has it been able to cure so far? In just a hundred years, science based medicine has completely destroyed diseases like smallpox, scarlet fever and polio and is well on its way to permanently rid us of measles and mumps (or at least until the anti-vaccination wackjobs started undoing this). It has taken cancer from a certain death to a treatable ailment, given children to infertile couples, given sight and hearing to the blind and deaf and enabled us to replace failing organs with healthy ones. Those who suffer from epilepsy, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders would once have been shunned as demon possessed but thanks to modern medicine can lead perfectly normal lives. What has alternative medicine done in all the centuries that it existed that remotely compares? Secondly this ancient wisdom is really not very wise and understandably so. It dates to a time when there was little to no knowledge of human physiology and anatomy and medical treatments had to rely on guesswork as to how the human body worked. Even a cursory glance will show you just how wrong these guesses were. Human energy fields and Therapeutic touch therapy for instance was thoroughly debunked by a 9 year old girl for a science fair project. Yet people still buy into treatments like chiropractics while completely oblivious as to the non-science it is based on. Here is a video clip explaining the principles of Homeopathy, anyone who can still think of it as science based or wise after watching this would have to be gullible on an Oprah level!

Many argue that alternative medicine is not so bad because it’s harmless. Sadly, that is also untrue. At best it does harm because it keeps people from seeking proper medical treatment. At worst it actively harms the health and well being of those who trust in it. For a laundry list of the dangers of quackery, look no further than the website – it gives details of the physical and financial damage some of these "alternatives" can do. Also, while preparing for this post I found something interesting - did you know that chiropractic neck adjustments can cause strokes?

I think that some who turn to alternative “medicine” sometimes do so after having a bad experience with the medical profession. Unfortunately it is a fact that not all doctors are equally good and the medical system is far from perfect. Doctors are not shamans though and they don’t claim to be supernaturally aided. They are human and they will occasionally fail. The correct response to this is not to turn to quackery instead but rather to find another doctor! Lance Armstrong is a great example of this – the first oncologist he saw wanted to treat his cancer so aggressively that it would have completely wrecked his lungs and future athletic prospects. The second doctor he saw offered a different treatment option that allowed him to return to racing after his recovery. The rest, as they say, is history.

In conclusion all I can say is that alternative medicine is a misnomer, there really is no such thing. Any treatment that works reliably ends up as medicine. Those treatments that do not end up as “alternatives”. Its not like we tolerate “alternatives” in any other industry, there are no “alternative airports” that specialize in “alternative flight” nor is there such a thing as “alternative engineering”. We use things that work, we discard what does not – except when it comes to our health. Why is that? I realize I cannot do much to change the minds of those who have faith in alternative medicine, they will continue to believe in it no matter how little proof exist. However I literally owe my life to modern medicine and I simply cannot let quackery go unchallenged.

For some good information on the subject, go to:
The Skepdoc
Science based medicine
What's the harm?


jesmith said...

Colloidal silver should be used as an anti-septic - if you have a long term septic condition - yes you will turn blue - its called death!
2 million people have serious side effects each year in the US from prescribed (scientifically proven) licensed medicines - get a perspective - john

Lawrence said...

Well said, Eugene.

Re: jesmith

Colloidal silver was prescribed as an anti-septic until shortly after the Victorian days. Even back then when it was prescribed, there was no known evidence for its claimed cure-all properties.

Today, -unlike then- we have the benefit of antibiotics which are cheap and effective, are have been proven in uncountable extensive tests, and don't have the danger of turning you permanently blue.

Eugene said...

I appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective John. Here is my perspective.

Firstly, the fact that prescribed medicine has possible harmful side effects is not some dark secret of the medical world, it's common knowledge. All scientifically tested drugs have all possible side effects provided in writing included with the medicine along with definite guidelines for safe dosages and warnings to stop using it should certain symptoms appear.

Colloidal silver on the other hand cannot make the same claim. There are a large number of completely unregulated vendors of colloidal silver (and machines/instructions to make your own) online, all promising that they have the best and safest product. So far I have not found one site that sells Colloidal silver that also lists the possible side effects, which according to the
Mayo Clinic are:

* Argyria — an irreversible blue-gray discoloration of your skin, nails and gums
* Seizures and other neurological problems
* Kidney damage
* Indigestion
* Headaches
* Fatigue
* Skin irritation
* Drug interactions with penicillamine, quinolones, tetracycline and thyroxine medications

You may only use Colloidal Silver as an anti-septic, but a quick google search will show that a great many people use it for everything from an antibiotic to a nutritional supplement. Many sites advise 3 to 4 doses every day as an immune system booster. Again the possible harmful effects of long term use is never mentioned at all.

Simply saying 2 million people in the US suffer serious side effects per year is meaningless without giving more background. What percentage of medicine users does this represent? (2 million is about 0.6% of the US pop) What led to the problematic side effects? Allergies? Overdosage? Misuse? Bad prescriptions?

Lastly the fact that a small minority suffer side effects does not negate the fact that scientifically proven medicine works really well for the vast majority. That's no reason to abandon proven medicine for dangerous and unproven alternatives.

Also if someone had a septic condition they should NOT be self medicating, they should seek urgent medical care!

Plucky said...

"Attempting to avoid discomfort might have cost me my life." - Well said and so applicable to many facets of life . . .

The thing that makes me the most uneasy about homeopathic medicine is the "homeo" part . . . Homeo's are so unnatural and I would never take their medicine . . .

Lawrence said...

I once met a guy on the train who told me cancer was actually just a fungus, and modern medicines are only as effective as the placebo effect, and that it's all a sham, and that "real medical research doctors" write these pamplets he reads this shit from.

It is important to note that this guy gave private "healing sessions" with a machine he admitted he didn't understand, admitting to charging over £60 per hour to pensioners.

I laid down some science on him, cancer is not a fungus, medicines and penicillin is far more powerful than placebo, and all his bullshit has no scientific evidence, only words someone wrote in a pamphlet which they encourage him to believe more than science, and even more yet than reader's digest. Shocking.

Eugene said...

Wow Lawrence, charging pensioners over £60 per hour for unproven "healing" sessions is daylight robbery! There should be laws against exploiting the elderly like that!

I think the saddest thing is that the guy you met wasn't the only one of his kind! What is it that causes people to actually believe that all the people who spent years of study and research and have the backing of physical evidence and reasoned logic are either all retarded or all dishonest but that the ONE GUY who claims that he has all the right answers (which the others are either wrong about or lying about) must be telling the truth??

This bad human wiring drives all followers of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, what is up with that?!

Lawrence said...

Yeah, well not only did he piss all over established medicine as being a sham - and claimed stupid things like cancer is actually just a fungus - but he admitted he didn't understand how his machine worked (he tried to "explain" to me something about electromagnetic fields, i'm a physics student so I asked questions. He then changed his tact and admitted he didn't really understand it) - but he tried telling me that he doesn't make a profit from it - when being over 60 himself gives you a nice railcard so you can go wherever you want for cheap and do your stupid therapy sessions.

I was sure to reply loud enough about the pseudobabble and the cancer-fungus claim so the other people in the train could hear nicely.

Tania said...

Well said, my friend. You know I like herbal stuff... mostly for insomnia these days (it does work for me - for whatever reason!). I had a bad experience with a homeopath that incorrectly diagnosed what later proved to be shingles - something that can be incredibly painful and leave ugly scars (and is apparantly easy to identify). Luckily for me I had a light case... When I did not get better I went to a medical doctor she could treat me. So yeah - I'm not enamoured of homeopathy anymore!

Eugene said...

Thanks Tania! Just in case it wasn't clear, its not that I think herbs have no effect. That would be a silly thing to say especially since marijuana is a herb (and cocaine and opium come from plants too) - clearly herbs can have very potent active ingredients!

My only beef with herbs is the whole "it's better because it's natural" mindset. Its not. Also the herbal medicine industry is not nearly as well regulated as the "synthetic" medicine industry, meaning you can't always be sure exactly what you are getting with a herbal medicine.

But if what you are using is helping with your insomnia then by all means stick with it!

digapigmy said...

interesting post. this is a favorite topic of mine, as you can tell from my prodding of the anti-vaccine crowd i run with.

not vaccinating in america is relatively safe due to it's very recent emergence, i just enjoy pointing out the complete lack of logic in the reasoning and the constant allusions to "other research and findings" that are never shared with the rest of us crazy, science believing people.

in america we are lucky that it truly is almost "just a choice" without serious risk like in most other parts of the world. the worst thing about it is that the value of ignoring scientists and medical professionals gets passed down as a value and all these kids will grow up seeking out b.s. alternative medical solutions to problems modern medicine has a pretty good handle on.

Eugene said...

Thanks Diga! I agree with you completely. Since you enjoy the ridiculousness of the anti-vaccination crowd you may enjoy this article on the patron saint of the anti-vac wackaloons Jenny McCharty

Turns out that before she reinvented herself as an anti-vaccination "warrior mom" she was selling herself as an "Indigo mom". Back then, her child wasn't Autistic, he was a "Crystal child". In case you were wondering, "These are extremely powerful children, whose main purpose is to take us to the next level in our evolution, and reveal to us our inner power and divinity. They function as a group consciousness rather than as individuals, and they live by the" Law of One" or Unity Consciousness. They are a powerful force for love and peace on the planet."

Yes, lets all take medical advice from HER!! (Of course she did try to delete all traces of that but fortunately for us, its really hard to make something disappear after you put it on the internet!)

RandomSue said...

I have had very few herbal or "alternative" remedies work for me or my children, however, I have had a few work for me. It's like you say, Eugene, if it works it's medicine. Period. There is no "alternative medicine". I could say the same about Chiropractic treatments as well. I used to have a total Chiropractic addiction. I would go at least twice a week. I did this for years and it is very expensive. I was pretty pissed off when I started doing yoga and never needed another Chiropractic adjustment. It seems God made our bodies to balance themselves. Hmm, who would have thought? But I digress.
Diga, I have been reading the total scheissbrot arguments regarding immunizations on your blog as well. It's true what you say about this anti-immunization movement not being all that dangerous because it is relatively new, however, we have so many people entering our country illegally every single day from third world countries where immunizations are not being used. I think it's simple logic to see where that is going to go.

Trista said...

who are you?

micgehr said...

Last week I had a woman who knows nothing about my son's medical history suggest that she could find natural/herbal ways to "cure" him of his serious and multiple Endocrine diseases and "take him off Western medicine forever". She also suggested that the medications he takes on daily basis are "poisoning" him and that his body would "heal" itself. Does that mean that his optic nerve would magically develop? Will his Pituitary Gland mystically start working? Maybe the extra Chromosome in EVERY, SINGLE cell of his body will "go away"? Give me a break! I was polite and restrained myself from telling her to take her herbal taking, yoga doing, vegan eating, tree hugging self and .......! Well, you get my point. As far as I'm concerned there is no evidence that herbal/natural remedies aren't filled with rat shit! And the people who push them might be too! BTW..after a lengthy conversation about this blog...Sue suggested I make my feelings known. Hope you don't mind Eugene.

Hillary said...

Eugene - I went to that Jenny McCarthy link you posted and I couldn't believe the numbers. So sad! If only more people were aware...

Eugene said...

Mic - Thanks for sharing that, I don't mind at all! That is actually my biggest issue with herbal medicine, this Dark Age concept that herbs are somehow magic and can do and cure anything at all. In fact while not all practitioners would admit it, believing in magic is pretty much what alternative medicine comes down to.

Hillary - Yes, I agree completely but considering how willing Jenny's followers are to reject scientific evidence I don't know how much that would help. One can try though!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. this is a favorite topic of mine