The only time I’ve had a worse headache was the time I sauntered into a low-lying steel beam. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, but I’m convinced I got the worst of the head-steel beam matchup.
This latest headache came and went, usually throbbing in the morning, with flares throughout the day. Some days were almost symptom free, others were tough to get through. The worst pain came about 36 hours before my doctor’s appointment. But within 12 hours, the pain was completely gone. Owing to the headache’s cyclical nature, I kept the appointment. The relief could have been just a lull, the eye of my headache hurricane. My physician recommended a prescription medication. Partly because I thought the headache was probably over and partly because I’m cheap, I decided to eschew picking up the prescription and waited to see if the pain came roaring back.
The headache stayed away. Had the appointment been 24 hours earlier, I would have picked up the prescription and been amazed at the medicine’s power. Similarly, this is how alternative medicine treatments can seem wonderful.
Pain usually fluctuates, and people are more apt to try unorthodox treatments when its gets unbearable. The pain then goes away, as it might have naturally, and the person becomes a committed user. Compounding this are similar stories from fellow believers. Now, couldn’t one say the same thing about legitimate medicine, such as my-never-picked-up prescription? Perhaps, but with a substantial caveat. Such medicines have been subjected to randomized, reproducible, double blind studies. Post hoc reasoning can result, but only infrequently. By contrast, alternative medicines are seldom put to a scientific test, instead resting on testimonies and communal reinforcement.
Once metadata of double blind studies confirms a product’s effectiveness, it is no longer alternative medicine. It is simply medicine. Another reason it is no longer “alternative medicine” is that it loses its appeal among those in that community who distrust modern healthcare.
Before going further, let’s define the term. Alternative medicine refers to treatments or practices that are unproven (probably even untested), and that are based on no known science. The ideas may even be unscientific.
Sometimes, it is labeled complementary and is used in conjunction with real medicine. When this is done, there is no way to test the effectiveness of the alternative product, or know if it’s any better than using the medicine by itself.
There are scores of alternative medicine practices, but some of the more well-known include acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractors, most herbs, homeopathy, and reflexology. These practices are not backed by randomized, double blind, reproducible tests. There are thousands of glowing testimonials, but as James Randi notes, the plural of anecdote is not data. The reason science prefers double blind studies is because they eliminate biases, pressures, and selective memories.
We will now look at the warning signs that one is dealing with alternative medicine. This is my duty as a member of both the sheeple and Big Pharma Shill communities:
• It is labeled completely safe. Almost all medicine is going to have some risk, however slight. These dangers are often negligible, or at least manageable, and the reward may greatly outweigh the risk. But if it comes without a warning label, it is not medicine. By contrast, Reiki.org boasts, “Reiki can never do harm. One never need worry about whether to give Reiki or not. It is always helpful.” Meanwhile, the hawkers of the Miracle Diabetes Cure write, “Our program works on a completely natural basis without any side effects and without damaging the body.”
• The product is advertised as a quick-acting panacea. Remember that alien-inducing headache of mine? Young Living Essential Oils recommends its peppermint concoction for such a condition. However, this same product is also touted as a treatment for indigestion, nausea, arthritis, bruises, congestion, bug bites, poison oak, and fever. A legitimate medical product is only going claim to treat a specific condition, and this assertion will be backed by empirical data.
Young Living claims its lemon oil can zap varicose veins and detoxify (which is by itself another alternative medicine red flag. The only detoxification treatment verified by science are the liver and kidneys). Young Living also attributes to its lemon product the ability to cure acne and relieve anxiety. I guess you’d have less to worry about if your zits were gone. Lemon oil improves not just your health, but your house, as ads tout its ability to clean countertops and freshen the air.
• They trumpet unverified, miraculous results. On the Center for Reiki Wellness website, anonymous persons credit the practice with permanently curing pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, scoliosis, infertility, and panic attacks.
The promoters may also insist their product is a scientific breakthrough or contains secret ingredients. The Diabetes Miracle Cure claims to permanently keep the disease in check. Extravagant claims like this are a giveaway, as is the fact that it appears in an advertisement rather than a peer-reviewed journal. Someone who cured diabetes would be accepting a Nobel Prize, not hawking the product on a rudimentary website.
• The message is couched in language that is seemingly esoteric, or which uses medical and scientific jargon out of context. From Reiki.org, we have this gem: “Life force flows within the physical body though pathways called chakras, meridians and nadis. It also flows around us in a field of energy called the aura. Life force nourishes the organs and cells of the body, supporting them in their vital functions. Reiki raises the vibratory level of the energy field in and around the physical body.”
This text references bodies, cells, organs, vibrations, and other scientific terms, but misuses them. It also uses undefined new age terms. Whatever words are used, it says nothing quantifiable or testable.
• It appeals to ancient authorities, most often Egyptians, Chinese, and Indians.
• The promoter claims the government and/or health care industries are suppressing the product. The Diabetes Miracle Cure website informs us, “The reason this method isn’t well know is that pharmaceutical companies do everything they can to keep it as secret as possible.” Also frequently seen, usually in all caps and red letters, are pronouncements such as, “Dermatologists HATE this!!” or “What allergists don’t want you to know!!”
• The product is available from only one source. The Miracle Diabetes Cure includes the ominous message: “The success of the program has led to a growing number of fake Diabetes Miracle Cure websites. In order to not get ripped off, order only from our official website.” Similarly, a miracle herpes cure cautions, “There are many other rival products on the market, but none of them produce these incredible results!!” Since we’re here, multiple exclamation points are another giveaway.
• The product is labeled natural. Natural means only that it occurs in nature, a distinction that is neither good nor bad. I could have treated my killer headache with pureed clovers, but this natural drink would not have been a remedy.
A few alternative medicine treatments, such as leeches and gulping urine can be harmful. But most are harmless by themselves. The danger is when they are used in lieu of medicine, such as using a lemongrass diet to fight hemophilia.
Persons can be drawn to alternative medicine out of fear, frugality, or the New Age appeal factor.
Some alternative medicine enthusiasts will point out past medical failures, such as using menthol cigarettes to treat asthma. But medicine is a self-correcting practice that will fix itself over time. By contrast, much of alternative medicine is untestable, so it can never be disproven, and thus never improved. This is the main reason its treatments seldom change.
Despite claims to the contrary, nothing is being repressed. If a treatment proves worthwhile, it will be acknowledged. Chiropractic is mostly a racket, with its claims that the spine relates to all health issues. However, the field has value in lower back pain relief, and mainstream science and skeptics accept this. Most herbal remedies are bogus, but St. John’s Wort, garlic, and ginseng all have proven benefits. If plants contain healing properties, those properties will be extracted and made into cures.
Medicine is continually improving, which means it has flaws. There are also outrageous mistakes, such as scalpels left inside patients, anesthesia wearing off during surgery, or the wrong limb being amputated. By contrast, no one will end up in ER from a homeopathic overdose or misapplied iridology.
These facts can drive persons away from medicine, but this is a mistake. Chemotherapy is often horrible, but declining it is usually much worse. Medicine has eliminated many pains and diseases, and mitigated others. And faced with a life-threatening emergency, people summon an ambulance, not a naturopath.
The medical field will continue to search for cures and improvements, while its alternative counterpart will remain static and rely on ad hoc justifications and post hoc reasoning. Medicine is done in the lab, alternative medicine is done in chat rooms.
The vague, holistic claims of alternative medicine can be another draw. From a detached, scientific view, a tumor is either regressing, stagnating, or growing. But an alternative medicine practitioner can attack the condition with chakra cleansings, chi empowerment, immune system boosters, mind-strengthening Qi Gong, and aura field replenishment.
These treatments might seem to work, owing to the regressive fallacy and post hoc thinking. Most things fluctuate, from Apple stock to Aaron Rodgers’ QBR to your great aunt’s heartburn. People’s selective memory and tendency to credit the good and forget the bad helps to drive alternative medicine. Meanwhile, failures are explained away through ad hoc hypotheses. When Pat Paulsen died from cancer while receiving alternative medicine, his daughter blamed the fact that the treatment hadn’t started sooner, when the real culprit was that it was started at all.
In scientific medicine there will be disagreement, error, testing, change, and improvement. Meanwhile, homeopathy, reflexology, Reiki, aromatherapy, and therapeutic touch will continue using the same methods. Their practitioners will seldom challenge each other, except when claiming exclusive cures that are backed by no testing or independent confirmation. Doctors and scientists publish in journals and are subject to peer review and challenges. Alternative medicine practitioners post to their websites are hostile to criticism.
But the choice is yours. You can use proven medicine, alternative medicine, or my method of just hoping it goes away. If the latter works for you, send me $10.