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Take the razor of science to alternative medicine

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 26, 2011 at 2:13 pm with 6 Comments »
December 23, 2011 6:16 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

So-called “alternative medicine” screams out for scientific study. Scientific, as in skeptical.

The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month that an obscure federal agency, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has spent $1.4 billion over the last 12 years studying such folk remedies as coffee enemas, acupuncture and ginkgo biloba.

Some critics say much of the money has been misspent looking at cures so obviously ridiculous that no research should be necessary. The coffee enemas – purported to treat pancreatic cancer – are an example.

Actually, the money may be well-spent – but only to the degree it subjects outside-the-mainstream therapies to rigorous, skeptical review. Tens of millions of Americans dump $34 billion a year into alternative medicine, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Not all of the money is wasted. “Alternative medicine” is an overbroad label that covers just about any treatment that doesn’t originate in a physician’s office or hospital. Some of those treatments do work: Chiropractic, for example, is demonstrably effective in relieving certain forms of back pain. Yoga can be a powerful stress-reliever.

But many of those billions of dollars wind up in the pockets of people peddling dubious nostrums. The United States may lead the rest of the world in Nobel prizes, but legions of Americans are suspicious of “Western medicine” and suckers for cures rooted in ludicrous notions – think homeopathy – or outright mysticism.

Remedies from China – herbal mixtures and manipulations of mysterious energy flows – seem especially alluring to the credulous. Alternative medicine can be harmful as well as a waste of money. Some Chinese potions, for example, have been shown to be toxic.

More often, the danger comes from diverting patients from maligned conventional treatments that might heal them or save their lives. The “alternative” notion that vaccines are dangerous, for example, exposes children to life-threatening diseases.

The Chicago Tribune report suggests that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has done a creditable job debunking a number of popular cures, such as energy healing and those coffee enemas. But the center also continues to spend money researching acupuncture – another Chinese remedy – despite multiple studies that suggest it works no better than tricking patients into thinking they’re getting acupuncture.

An important difference between science and mysticism is that a scientific hypothesis can potentially be proven false while mysticism is impervious to skepticism.

People are entitled to believe what they will, but scarce federal research money shouldn’t be spent chasing magic elixirs with properties beyond the reach of mere Western science.

Leave a comment Comments → 6
  1. mizusugimura says:

    There appears that there might be an inadvertent error in the third paragraph from the bottom where the word “acupuncture” is used twice in the same sentence. Perhaps the writer wished to refer to “acupressure?” While this may have been corrected in your print edition – it appears somebody missed doing so on-line. Tried to comment at the on-line published side and could not. So came over here to the “draft” side. Hope everyone is having a happy holiday!

  2. lauriej1 says:

    Are you trying to tell us that “skeptical review” is science? Hardly.
    Medicine falls under the category of Health Technology. Science is a method. Medicine is not science. Skeptical review is opinion.
    Real scientific investigation is neutral.
    This opinion-piece is not only unbalanced and biased, it’s completely dismissable.
    There have been many positive studies verifying the efficacy of Acupuncture and TCM. Posturing that one inconclusive study sums it all up is misleading in the extreme.
    Those of us who prefer a more balanced approach will read a variety of studies and draw our own conclusions.
    This type of “reporting” is a complete turn off.

  3. rivitman says:

    What a lousy attitude to have TNT.

    After years of fail on the part of conventional medicine, a program diet, supplements, homeopathic remedy, and the services of two wonderful naturopaths and one skilled acupuncturist, I’m healthy, well, and improving.

    The MD’s gave up. The ND’s didn’t.

    There is no ‘diversion’ going on here. I’ll use conventional medicine if I need too. But to lower alternative medicine to the level of voodoo rattles and chicken bones speaks of total, utter, and complete ignorance.

    You can reserve all that dough for big pharma if you wish, but your dismissive and insulting attitude makes me well….sick.

  4. dancherkin says:

    The main problem with the original Chicago Tribune report, which is mirrored in the TNT article, is the implication that our government is wasting money on quack treatments. While small but unfortunate investments were made in funding questionnable studies of alternative therapies when NIH was first requested by Congress to fund research in this new area, this is no longer the case. In fact, unlike the first directors of the Office of Alternative Medicine, the past two directors of the subsequently established National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)have been higly respected NIH insiders. As a result, the type of research funded by NCCAM for the past decade at least has been well-focused on funding high quality research on topics that Americans consider of great importance. For example, much of the NCCAM-funded research is on chronic pain–something that afflicts milions of Americans and for which conventional medical treatments have been of limited value, sometimes harmful, and extremely expensive (and often paid for by taxpayers). The NIH has been criticized recently by an Institute of Medicine report on pain in America, for spending only 0.6% of its budget on one of the most common, costly, and expensive causes of suffering in our country, pain. Just as complementary and alternative medical practitioners have filled the void in effective medical treatments for back pain by offering alternative approaches to relieving suffering, NCCAM has stepped up to fill the void within NIH to fund studies of the effectiveness of alternative and complementary treatments for chronic pain conditions. Some of these treatments have been found effective while others have not. This is the whole point of conducting research and hardly a waste of taxpayers money. The real challenge is trying to explain why some of these treatments work. A treatment that is safe, relatively inexpensive and relieves suffering, has real value to Americans, even if the reasons for its effectiveness are unknown or “only a placebo.” I think taxpayers would be better served if our growing understanding of the potency of patient beliefs and other non-specific effects was channeled into understanding how we can make all medical care more healing and capable of relieving suffering. This is the point of the patient-centered care movement which is based on an understanding that for many conditions (such as back pain) the specific effects of conventional medical as well as alternative treatments are often smaller than the non-specific (or placebo) effects. NCCAM is providing leadership within NIH in funding innovative research that is helping to clarify more effective approaches to relieving suffering in America.

  5. notSpicoli says:

    Thanks to Dr. Dan Cherkin for taking the time to write a reasoned and knowledgeable response.

  6. GodComplexNovel says:

    I enjoyed reading the intelligent comments above. I’d like to add a few points.

    First, I want to address this comment, “Some Chinese potions, for example, have been shown to be toxic.”

    **a)** From 1991 through 2001, the FDA pulled 16 drugs from the shelves that produced ‘toxic’ side effects ranging from heart disease to death. These are all products that passed through clinical trials and FDA scrutiny. Don’t you find it curious that such ‘vetted’ products failed? I would guess the profit motive has something to do with this. I also think that there are limitations to the linearity of the ‘scientific method’. The human condition is dynamic … our bodies are always changing. You are different today than a year ago. As often happens, doctors prescribe drugs for periods that greatly exceed the clinical trial test periods. When you do this, you increase the risk for adverse side-effects. It’s easy to point the finger at others, but not at ourselves. I’d be interested to know if you can find 16+ different herbs for which there have been warnings b/c too many people were getting sick by consuming them.

    **b)** The author of the article should know that 25% of drugs on the market have been derived from herbs … many of which were discovered and tested by alt med practitioners, such as Chinese medical doctors over thousands of years. Some might call this the longest running clinical trial. When people die from toxic herbal remedies, it’s often because they are self-prescribing herbs. These herbs are not meant to be taken individually, but rather in combination with other herbs. That’s why it’s important to consult a trained professional.

    **c)** Most importantly, the third leading cause of death in the United States is the Western medical system. For that, I’ll cite Barbara Starfield’s article (pdf): She is a Western medical doctor.

    You seem very concerned about alternative medicine poisoning people. Read Barbara’s article and you’ll see that Western medicine is doing a very good job of that all on its own. I believe in integrative medicine. The West is incredible with acute care – trauma, injury, reconstructive surgery, etc. When it comes to diagnosing more vague or disparate clusters of symptoms, they cannot do it effectively. They lack the lens through which to see these symptoms. This is in part due to specializing. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a screw driver, everything looks like a screw. If a screw is stuck in your foot and you see a hammer-doc, he’ll only pound it in further, or yank it out and tear you open with the screw’s threading.

    Second, it is important for readers to recognize that not all acupuncture is the same. Similar to the many styles of martial arts, there are also many styles of acupuncture. In a recent survey conducted by, the more experienced and successful practitioners cited their use of non-traditional styles such as Tom Tam’s Tong Ren, Kiiko method, and the Tan Balance Method. When non-traditional practitioners read clinical test results that compare traditional Chinese acupuncture against ‘sham’ acupuncture, I imagine they are thinking “Wonderful! All they’ve proven is that two ‘ineffective’ treatments are equivalent.”

    I found traditional Chinese acupuncture worked for some conditions, but it wasn’t the most effective style for me. I thought the difference between non-traditional styles and traditional Chinese acupuncture was night and day. And, this is why I think the clinical tests are often inconclusive for many conditions. The medical community first needs to test the variety of styles to determine the most effective … then test it against ‘sham’.

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