Attempts have been made to catalog the various forms of alternative medicine, but a complete rundown is impractical. That’s because the field is forever adapting to the market and coining new buzzwords and ostensibly new practices. The one constant is a lack of verifiable cures and treatments.
There are three main approaches when peddling supposed medicine not backed by peer review, research, and double blind studies. Some practitioners prefer the angle of antiquity and present their procedure or pill as the product of Chinese dynasties, the Pharaohs, or as hailing from the day Hinduism was the hot new religion. The logic employed is that something wouldn’t be around for so long if it was ineffective. While the purported medicine is usually of a faux antiquity, this logic falls flat no matter how ancient or recent its roots. This thinking fails to consider communal reinforcement, post hoc reasoning, and selective memory. There is a reason why double blind studies are medicine’s gold standard and why alternative practitioners flee from them. There is another way the appeal to antiquity is used, and that’s when the cure is said to have been recently rediscovered in some lost manuscript or treasure chest.
Other alternative medicine practitioners prefer the opposite approach and advertise their product as cutting-edge. Forms of this include faster-than-light tachyons, disease-eradicating ions, and maintaining optimal health by manipulating bio-energy fields. The relative affordability of these practices, compared to long-term mainstream medical treatment, is one of the main attractions, but for those without such concerns, theta healers will rearrange and optimize your DNA for $5,000.
While some prefer to sell unlocked ancient secrets, the avant-garde crowd offers exclusive cures that have been hushed up by corrupt politicians and industry insiders. Some alt-med proponents are openly anti-science, some are more subtle about it, and still others present themselves as an extension of scientific knowledge. In any case, they all try to sound science-like by fabricating modern-sounding terms or pilfering from medical vernacular.
A third option for alternative medicine marketers is to fuse the strategies and claim that cutting-edge physics is validating the mystics and seers of yore. This is most often found when the word quantum is used.
While “quantum” is threatening to overtake it, “energy” is still the most ubiquitous term in alt-med circles. Alt-med energy is invisible, cannot be felt, has no taste, sound, or aroma, and would seem to be, well, energetic, so it is the perfect ploy for someone who is peddling nothing. Many energy medicines are touted as treatments that encourage the body to heal itself, which would make purchasing them superfluous. Other words that are usually pseudo-medicine giveaways are holistic, wellness, and integrative.
With integrative, the trick is to make the patient feel they are getting the best of both worlds. Mainstream medicine proponents don’t get along with quacks, and vice versa, but integrative medicine purports to bridge this curative gap by providing, perhaps literally, the whole pill. However, there is no eastern, alternative, complementary, or supplementary medicine. There is only medicine, which refers to techniques and products proven to cure or mitigate illnesses by the metadata of double blind studies.
The lack of agreement on even the most basic points among alt-med practitioners is a telling sign that it’s hogwash. Ask a physician how many ribs a person has, and he or she will answer 24. Ask an alternative medicine practitioner how many charkas there are and the answer may be three, seven, 12, or 300. Chakras are touted as vital to health by those promoting their maintenance, yet those doing so cannot even agree on how many there are or what they do. Back to the ribs, the physician knows their functions are to protect internal organs and to enable the lungs to expand when a person breathes. Chakras, meanwhile, can be credited with increasing energy flow, unblocking cosmic clutter, strengthening the nervous system, detoxifying the body, improving the immune system, and giving one a more pleasant personality. It is limited only by the creativity of the charlatan clinician. Alt-med has no agreed-upon standards or ways to determine the validity of research, resulting in a hodgepodge of hocus pocus. Whatever chakras do, they are in need on continual cleansing, unblocking, realignment, balancing and straightening, with again no continuity among practitioners as to how this is done.
Energy healers take patients’ money while giving them literally nothing in return. They gyrate their hands and draw imaginary shapes around the customer, then declare them healed. But the more enterprising have found a way to further enhance profit by eliminating 100 percent of office and fuel expenses through distance healing. Since practitioners of Reiki, chi gung, prana, and aura realignment never touch the patient, some have figured out they can offer the service from one’s own home via the Internet or cell phone. Perhaps the next step will be to eliminate electricity use by just sending the healing energies into the air and letting the wind carry them to the patient.
From distance healing we move to the other end of the pretend medicine spectrum, the extreme hands-on approach of osteopathy. This is a catch-all term that can’t quite catch-all since the field keeps branching off onto new tangents. But examples of osteopathy include chiropractic, craniosacral therapy, and watsu, which uses currents of warm water that are generally pleasing and lull the patient into thinking some healing is going on.
Many osteopath techniques are specific to a region: lomilomi for Hawaii, acupressure or China, shiatsu for Japan, Ayurvedic for India, nuat phaen boran for Thailand, and Rolfing for the mainland United States. These are all variants on the principle that rubbing on someone will result in undefined and broad wellness benefits.
While not yanked and pressed on quite as dramatically as those undergoing osteopathy, applied kinesiology patients get squeezed, twisted, and twirled about and get nothing from it except maybe a momentary increase in flexibility. The field assumes that allergens, toxins, viruses, and so on can be detected by pressing on the subject with varying amounts of pressure. At odds with biology and anatomy & physiology, applied kinesiology proponents contend that organ dysfunction is accompanied by a weakness in specific corresponding muscles. Once the practitioner arrives at a diagnosis through guesswork, boredom, and the Ideomotor Effect, treatment may include more joint manipulation and purported therapies centering on muscle tissue and the cranium. There may be some nutritional counseling as well, which would be the one potential health benefit, though that could be accomplished without an extensive and pointless rubdown.
As stated earlier, “energy” is the most frequent buzzword in alternative medicine, but Emotional Freedom Technique tries a relatively novel approach on this hackneyed phrase by insisting energy can heal mental problems. This is not entirely original; others have asserted that emotional baggage can be dealt with by body rubs and saltwater immersion. But this goes another mile down the Credulity Trail by offering an invisible medicine to cure the blues. Emotional Freedom Technique appeals to antiquity by pointing out the Chinese have long used acupuncture, but also says that a scientific breakthrough available only to EFT patients will give them the ability to access this power painlessly. The EFT website boasts, “This process enables you to release stuck or blocked energy by tapping on your meridian system. You have the ability to release stuck emotions and limiting beliefs simply by using your fingers.” The creator noted the technique’s beautiful simplicity by pointing out that his 4-year-old niece can do it. I noted this technique’s absurd inefficiency by pointing out that his 4-year old niece can do it.
EFT is another idea that presents itself as new and exciting, but for those who like their healing to be old and preferably wrinkled, we have shamans. Believers like to think of them as bronze-skinned, adorned with a necklace of animal bones, and wearing a multi-colored robe of natural fibers. Ideally, they reside in a bamboo hut either on a mountaintop, deep in the jungle, or a three-day canoe journey from the nearest village. In truth, most drive Beamers and live in places like Moline, Toledo, and Spokane. To their patients, they literally blow smoke, dab with ointment, chant incoherently, and possibly incorporate feathers and drums in some capacity. For maximum effect, it’s done in an ambiance featuring burning incense and R. Carlos Nakai music.
I could have easily written ten times as many words in this post, as it would probably be impossible to fully document the alternative medicine world. But at least that means I’ll never run out of topics.