The Score on Medical Quackery
[Last Modified on 2006.12.03]
It seems that there has been a surge of support for medical quackery in the recent past. More and more people seem to be turning to nonsense remedies to cure what are sometimes serious medical conditions, and unscrupulous practitioners are more than willing to take a patient's money in exchange for unproven treatments. If this was the extent of the problem, it wouldn't be so bad. However, there is more to it.
For one thing, these treatments usually employ questionable medical standards. This means that diagnosis and specific treatment may differ widely from one practitioner to the next, even within the same genre of bullshit medicine. While one acupuncturist may see your problem as too little chi in your ass and therefore insert five needles into the fifth vertebra, another may decide that it is the extra chi in your left elbow causing the problems, and therefore insert three needles into your heel and two into your second vertebra. The lack of good standards also means an increased risk of injury. A check into chiropractic mishaps unearths back problems arising as a result of adjustments, and an increased risk of stroke associated with bad adjustments. Finally, these bullshit treatments may cause legitimately sick people to put off or ignore actual scientific treatments, and this can further endanger their health, and sometimes their lives.
To clearly state our position, we do not blindly hate alternative medicine (nor do we blindly hate anything else for that matter). However, we do have a problem when untested, unproven, potentially dangerous practices are set loose on an unsuspecting public without so much as a warning. This can be complicated further when a respected institution endorses such an unproven practice, thereby validating it for people who — wrongly or rightly — count on such institutions to do their homework for them. If and when the scientific method is applied to alternative medicine, the Two Percent Company will be eagerly awaiting the results, and if any tests actually pass muster in their design and execution and prove that some aspect of alternative medicine is effective, we will be here to announce it. Don't hold your breath, though; countless studies have been conducted across numerous fields of alternative medicine, and to date, we haven't seen even one that has both shown a significant positive result and has been conducted using sound scientific methodology.
The bottom line for all of this is that these treatments don't do what they promise to do. If anyone claims that these treatments work, then it is the placebo effect in action, and nothing more.
The folks over at Quackwatch have done a fantastic job of running through all of the quackery out there, including the false claims, the risks, and the current state of regulation, if any. We highly recommend a lengthy visit to their site. We reference a few of the more popular examples of medical quackery below for a quick reference guide.
- Acupuncture is the practice of sticking needles into various parts of the body to cure ailments ranging from diarrhea to impotence by redirecting chi. This is total crap. As far as we can see, the primary way that acupuncture might have an effect on a person is due to the placebo effect.
- Aromatherapy encompasses the idea that certain scents have certain physiological effects, ranging from promoting circulation to eliminating toxins. While it is certainly true that scents may trigger pleasant memories and/or bring about general relaxation, the claims of more biological effects are pure bullshit.
- Chiropractic adjustments are an interesting breed of quackery. While we certainly agree that this form of treatment can improve bone, joint, and muscle issues in a manner similar to physical therapy, the claims around the benefits of chiropractic medicine made by some practitioners are utter bullshit, and the risks are often glossed over. These are the practitioners who claim that up to 95% of ailments can be solved by chiropractic adjustments which affect a "subluxated vertabrae"; an imaginary term coined about a hundred years ago by a grocer/magnetic healer. This particular breed of quack chiropractor claims that adjustments can cure such diverse problems as allergies, high blood pressure, phobias, and a host of other ailments, by adjusting these subluxations. This is simply not true. In addition, any chiropractic adjustment — even one that does not claim to be a medical panacea — comes with the danger of moderate to severe physical injury, or even strokes. Our advice — if your back hurts, go to a physical therapist.
- Homeopathy is the use of almost infinitely small portions of some substance in a solution of water to cure ailments. We can't even list all of the problems that homeopathic remedies claim to cure, but they range from the common cold to cancer. In fact, if you listen closely to commercials, or read the box, you will find that Cold-Eeze, a popular over the counter cold remedy, is in fact a homeopathic medicine, by their own admission. This is one of the problems with homeopathic medicines — they are not well regulated in the US by the FDA. But let's cut to the chase — homeopathic medicines are nothing more than placebos. Literally. Most remedies today are diluted in the range of one part per million to one part per 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (for those keeping track, that's one nonillion — or a quintillion for those across the Atlantic). Forget the fact that the "active" substance is usually some bullshit that, taken in high doses, would have no effect or a negative effect — the dilution makes it absolutely useless. So, if you want to waste your time and money, take a homeopathic medicine. If you want the same effect for free, just stick your mouth under the tap in your kitchen.
- Fad diets come and go. Right now, the Atkins Low Carbohydrate diet is all the rage. However, the simple truth is that in order to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. Period. Nothing else will work in the long run. This means that you either must exercise more, or eat fewer calories, or both. Many fad diets work for the short term, but will fail in the long run, either due to the dieter's inability to stick with the program, or the fact that the short term weight loss is based on water weight dropping, or some other short-lived impact. In fact, many fad diets are unhealthy, and if someone did stick with them, the detrimental health impact would be disastrous.
- Magnet Therapy claims that applying magnets and magnetic fields to your body will cure a range of ailments, from joint pain to disease treatment. This is utter nonsense. We're not really sure what else to say on this — we're just shocked that people believe it.
- Massage Therapy needs some explanation. While massages in general certainly can promote relaxation and help to relieve muscle and joint pain, there are some practitioners that just can't help making ridiculous claims. So, we will focus on the quacks here and not the honest massage therapists whose work we personally enjoy thoroughly. There are many types of massage that employ bullshit methodologies — reflexology which claims that manipulating the feet will cure problems in a way that is similar to acupuncture, aromatherapy massage which combines a legitimate massage with aromatic oils with supposed medical benefits, and shiatsu, which is another form of massage which is much like acupuncture in theory. Don't get us wrong — if your feet are killing you, a reflexology massage might really hit the spot. Just don't expect that massage to cure your headaches, or to lower your blood sugar.
- Naturopathy is a form of bullshit based on assisting the body by increasing its vital force to treat ailments of all sorts. This can entail substituting so-called natural remedies for actual medication, as well as inane herbal concoctions. An example of how this can be incredibly harmful is noted on James Randi's site, where he recounts a story about a diabetic twelve year old whose mother decided to follow naturopathic advice to stop her daughter's insulin shots and instead feed her cane sugar. The girl died three days after beginning this "treatment," and the naturopath has been convicted of manslaughter. There is nothing scientific about naturopathy, and it won't help to relieve you of anything except your money — and in this girl's case, her life.
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[ Filed under: % Bullshit ]