“Chronic tonic” (Alternative medicine dangers for the chronically ill)


When I began this blog, I envisioned profiling those who hunt ghosts, imaginary animals, and aliens, as well as addressing the likes of geocentrists. While all this has happened, I surprisingly found that my most frequent topic was alternative medicine.

One reason is because there are so many forms of it and they just keep coming. We seldom hear of new crypto critters to chase; ghosts are usually haunting the 17th Century castle in which they dwelt; aliens seem to have deemed return trips too risky since Roswell; and a couple of thorough posts on geocentrists suffice since they are not exactly churning out a redwood’s worth of peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals that need to be perused and refuted.

But alt-med has always flourished because people get sick and people hate to see their loved ones suffer. They want to feel that they are doing something about it and are making a difference so they are vulnerable to being preyed upon.

This can afflict persons of all classifications. Those with little formal education and money can embrace a witch doctor or voodoo, while the affluent are all about Goop and detox cleanses.

Consider two persons, 50 percent of whom are still on my Facebook Friends list. One has little understanding of science and is something of a dullard in general. He embraces Yongevity scams, the naturalistic fallacy, and seems to be a nascent anti-vaxxer. The other works as a medical doctor.

With the first guy, I tried patiently to explain chemistry, biology, and medicine to him, only to have him unfriend me before upgrading this to a block. By then he had grown paranoid and may have considered me part of a Big Pharma plot whose oxymoronic goal was to fatally poison a populace it would use to further enrich its coffers. At the other end of the medical knowledge spectrum was the physician. But even she wrote that a lingering illness had reduced her to seeking out essential oils. She admitted feeling a tad silly about this and noted this wasn’t something she had been taught in medical school. About a half dozen enthusiastic oil users encouraged her to go for it, each of them recommending a different oil for her condition.

That right there shows the stuff doesn’t work. With a headache, someone might suggest Excedrin, but you won’t have a second person recommend cough syrup and a third poster mention their success with adhesive bandages. I toyed with the idea of sending per a PM, but decided against it. Again, she was a medical doctor and it would be superfluous if not presumptuous for me to send a missive containing phrases like double-blind studies, Germ Theory, and the plural of anecdote not being data. I’m sure she knows all of that but her condition had gotten so rough that she was desperate. That’s when many persons try an unorthodox approach, and combined with the fluctuating nature of many illnesses and pains, can cause someone to give a product undeserved credit.

That is among the reasons alternative medicine approaches will sometimes seem to work. But when they fail, the blame often falls not on the product or the practice, but on the patient. That was the focus of a post by blogger Emily Coday, who details her travails as a sufferer of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). In one poignant post, she detailed how alternative medicine harms those with chronic conditions.

She wrote that she had been advised to seek relief through prayer, biofeedback, grounding, crystals, supplements, and more, but nothing worked and she was always made to feel guilty for this. “When it was biofeedback, I wasn’t trying hard enough or practicing enough. When it was acupuncture, I wasn’t trying to relax hard enough. With supplements, I just hadn’t waited long enough for the benefits, no matter how long I waited.”

She needed only to take longer, deeper breaths, hold her visual imagery longer, or be more flexible when being attended to by the applied kinesiologist. Yet no one blames the cancer patient when chemotherapy fails.

Another problem is the danger alt-med products can pose. Anti-medicine types will gleefully list all the side effects slapped on an OTC or prescription bottle. However, these lists must include anything that could befall any user, even once. Six billion people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and medical conditions must be considered. An active ingredient, by definition, is going to have some impact on the body. The idea is to match a patient with the right product so that the change the active ingredient is causing will be positive. There are varying amounts of risk involved, and that amount, combined with the seriousness of the condition, direct the doctor and patient to the best treatment plan. In most cases, the risk is minuscule, but it is accounted for and there is no Big Pharma conspiracy to keep it quiet.

The irony is that the same persons who list the possible side effects of a drug, along with a lengthy string of its polysyllabic ingredients that are supposed to prove the product is hazardous, will hastily indulge in bark, branches, clovers, leaves, stems, or roots that have been subject to no testing. Nor do these people have any idea what active ingredients the plant might contain or in what amount. You could hand them what you describe as “a natural flowering plant from western Asia,” and they would gladly ingest hemlock. They will condemn the profits made by Big Pharma, as if the proprietors at Natural News, Green Med Info, and mercola.com are giving away their “treatments.”

Except in extreme cases where a moribund patient may wish to try an experimental treatment, persons should only use what has been proven effective in repeated double blind studies. For one thing, doing otherwise will be a waste of valuable time and money. Second, pumping unknown products into one’s self could be dangerous. With traditional medicine, the treatment’s benefits must outweigh the risks before it can be sold. By contrast, alt-med “supplements” are not screened and those with pre-existing conditions are often the most vulnerable to their affects.

For example, Coday pointed out that aspirin comes from willow bark. There are potential dangers from both this natural product and aspirin. But aspirin has been tested, the active ingredient has been isolated and extracted, a safe dosage has been doled out in capsule form, and explicit instructions tell how to properly take it. Meanwhile, users are on their own to guess the right amount if using the active ingredient in willow bark form. One could overdose on either aspirin or willow bark, but doing so with the latter would be much easier since the user wouldn’t know where to stop or how much would be enough to make them feel better. And a pre-existing chronic condition can make this all the worse.

Another way alternative medicine harms the chronically ill is cost. Beyond what they’ve spent and the debt they’ve incurred, the perennially ill continue to look for any treatment that seems to offer hope. This leads them to a naturopath or chiropractor who will try method after method, each offering the same false promise. Eventually an approach might seem to work if the illness fluctuates, but if the condition is chronic like POTS, the end is always disappointment and more hurt.

Coday also notes the drastic difference between an alt-med peddler and someone who finishes four years of traditional college followed by four years of med school and 90-hour weeks in a residency to earn the title “MD.” She wrote, “The human body is infinitely complex and so many things can go wrong. Doctors and pharmacists spend a large chunk of their lives in school learning how to treat patients better and minimize risks.” By contrast, if you say you’re a naturopath, you are. There is no need for any knowledge, specialized or otherwise.

David Katz of the Yale medical school gloats that by entertaining an unending string of conjured and concocted alternative treatments, he has an inexhaustible number of avenues to pursue. Katz’s glowing description to the contrary, this is not a good thing. Quartz crystals, magic wands, and energy-infused vitamin water have no place in an Ivy League medical school, nor any other locale dedicated to health.

Such treatments gives patients false hope and Coday compared trying unproven, unworkable treatments to being in the bargaining stage of grief.  “False hope hurts,” she wrote. “I was crushed by putting 50 plus hours into biofeedback that claimed to cure my POTS and getting so little out of it no matter how hard I tried.”

Such an experience can cause some patients to double down and try harder, sinking further into debt and desperation, as they don’t want it to all be a waste of time and money. Coday broke from the cycle, but many persons with chronic conditions are unable to do so.

Despite the lack of evidence of alternative medicine efficacy, those promoting these treatments make the grandest claims. Coday related her experience with this: “All the medications from true doctors only claimed to possibly manage the symptoms. However, alternative medicine practitioners claimed that they could cure my incurable illness or make all the symptoms disappear.”

This is because alternative medicine techniques and promise do not change based on the evidence of what works. Reiki has been around for 95 years and a session today would be identical to one received the day the Stock Market crashed. That would be fine if it worked, but there is yet to be a clinical trial under controlled conditions that suggest this is the case.

“Cutting out gluten, doing biofeedback nonstop, becoming vegan, yoga, walking, crystals, needles, etc. is not going to make an incurable illness curable,” Coday wrote. “Getting suggestions that indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of my incurable condition is frustrating and disheartening.”

Another problem afflicting the chronically ill is support groups. While laudable in intent, they can exacerbate the situation, as they are filled with anecdotes, wildly speculative treatments, and the dreaded exhortation that the patient put more into fixing what’s wrong with them.

All this illustrates why alternative medicine has been the surprise winner as my most frequent topic. Persons who spend time chasing alien crafts, Bigfoot, and poltergeists mostly harm only themselves and maybe make our society a little dumber. By contrast, alt-med charlatans hurt others and that damage can be significant.

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