Alternative medicine

Labels like “Alternative Medicine” don’t matter. Science does.

I would say that not all of the therapies I mention here are considered complementary therapies – they are often just considered therapies. This is because they have been studied and proven to work. Too often, however, those who consider themselves proponents of alternative medicine disdain the idea that any of their treatments should be investigated. They appeal to the fact that their medicine is more natural; has been used for long periods of time; or has the support of many people in other cultures.

Of course, not so long ago all therapies could be described this way. The application of modern science has allowed us to design and conduct trials that could prove or disprove the efficacy or harm of a treatment. Many of the medicines we use today are of natural origin. Digitalis comes from foxglove, quinine from cinchona bark, penicillin from bread mold and aspirin from willow bark. Conventional medicine may have improved our ability to purify these substances, but it recognizes that many natural therapies have value.

Yet science rejects many forms of complementary medicine as ineffective. Just a few months ago, the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia published a report in which he comprehensively reviewed 225 studies on homeopathy, the practice of treating sick people with small amounts of substances that cause similar symptoms in healthy people. They found no well-designed studies showing that it performed better than a placebo or that it worked as well as conventionally approved therapies. Their conclusions echoed a previous report of Great Britain, and those found in many Cochrane systematic reviews.

My friends who believe in homeopathy don’t really care.

Those who favor conventional medicine, however, may be just as blindsided. Too often, when faced with evidence that advanced technology may not bring benefits, the medical community refuses to change its behavior. My Upshot articles are littered with examples of this, including potentially all-too-common mammography screening, advanced life support, and numerous surgeries. Proponents of Western medicine are often blind to their own biases.

Butterbur, a plant extract, has been shown in medical studies to be as effective as antihistamines in the treatment of allergic rhinitis, without the sedating side effects that conventional medications often have. Horse chestnut seed extract seems safe and effective in the short-term treatment of chronic venous insufficiency. Peppermint Oil can be used to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. I know few doctors who promote these therapies as often as prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Admittedly, this may be because it is potentially hard to be sure of the supplements you buybut there is ways to overcome these problems.

In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a topic issue on alternative medicine for common chronic medical conditions. The randomized controlled trials it contains have demonstrated that spinal manipulation did not improve tension headachesthis acupuncture and acupressure did not reduce pain from HIV-related peripheral neuropathy and that garcinia cambogia supplement did not help with weight loss. However, the same issue contained studies that showed that yoga-based interventions improved carpal tunnel syndrome more than wrist splintthat the Chinese practice of moxibustion significantly increased fetal activity and fixed breech presentations before deliveryand that Chinese herbal medicine appears to improve symptoms in some patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Although some of this research has been continued, to my knowledge neither side of medicine has changed their practices or beliefs much based on this work.

In an accompanying editorial, Phil Fontanarosa and George Lundberg, two of JAMA’s editors, wrote, “There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven medicine, evidence based, backed by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.

I would only change that by adding, “There is no conventional medicine.