Alternative medicine: What is it and does it work?

Chiropractic, homeopathic, naturopathic... What is certain is there are alternatives, but their effectiveness is not so certain. Photo: Acupuncture

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2013 - “I have been studying alternative medicine for years. This is not ‘alternative medicine.’ We are inducing a fever as though we were giving the patient malaria or a bad case of the flu!”- Dr. Joan Bull

Those who ‘practice’ what seems to be known as pseudo (apparent rather than actual; also spurious or fake) sciences known as complimentary or ‘alternative medicine’ (CAM) are often heard belching “Doctors and pharmaceutical companies conspire to increase diagnostic criteria and invent new illnesses so pill manufacturers and doctors make more money. The pills can kill you!”

This is the equivalent to declaring car manufacturers make cars go faster to create accidents so people buy new cars and insurance companies have an excuse to increase rates. CAM practitioners will have you believe when a medical residency is complete, a doctor then sits down with a pharmaceutical representative to conspire to make money.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)-National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine clearly states such “Providers of CAM make claims that sound promising” but “Researchers do not know how safe or how well they work.” Clearly, CAM is not supported by American Medical Association (AMA) criteria for CAM as evidence based science.

Additionally, there seems to be no established accepted, coherent and consistent definition of what CAM is or what it is supposed to do. Some folks who practice CAM call their clinics “Wellness Centers,” an ambiguous and nebulous title. They often use this moniker as a means to market and sell their own health products and re-labeled vitamins and minerals.

 Let’s look at some CAM:

Homeopathy: Four centuries of this CAM resulted, for example, in putting pus from an infection in water and diluting the water so the molecules of the pus no longer exist. However, the water has ‘memory’ and ‘vibrations’ of the pus and upon ingesting the water, a ‘cure’ is well on its way. Another ‘cure’ is to write down the problem on pieces of paper and putting the pieces in your pockets.

Homeopathy claims to blend body, mind and spirit and eschews pharmaceuticals.

This CAM is considered unethical, ineffective and the AMA calls this CAM a “quackery.” One might be better off wearing a hat of duck feathers and bark at the moon.

Holistic: A form of medicine that considers the whole person, that all people have innate powers of healing, that steps are taken to fix the cause of the condition, not just alleviating the symptoms and any imbalance of one’s health systems affect other systems.

Holistic medicine claims to blend body, mind and spirit and eschews pharmaceuticals.

The ‘balance’ holistic medicine refers to is called ‘homeostasis’ in biology and is an integral part of modern AMA accepted medical practice. All doctors treat causes as well as symptoms in a standard treatment dichotomy and modern doctors are trained in encouraging one’s body and mind to utilize innate healing measures. Modern science is well aware of the immunity system. Nothing new here.

Naturopathy: A ‘special energy or vital force’ guides one to cure via ‘natural healing’ and ‘intuitive and vitalistic’ approaches to better health using vital energy fields, brainwave entrainment, colonic enemas, color therapy, ozone therapy and many other practices many feel respectable scientific communities would not accept as anything other than what a matador may step in.

Naturopathy claims to blend body, mind and spirit and eschews pharmaceuticals.

Osteopathy: Claims the body has an innate ability heal itself. Really? Structure and functionality are reciprocally interrelated whereby physical manipulation of the body is used as therapy to improve physiological function. However, there is scant evidence this therapy is effective in areas other than back, thoracic and neck pain and does not come close physical therapy for efficacy.

Osteopathy claims to blend body, mind and spirit and eschews pharmaceuticals.

Chiropractic: The most popular CAM and the most discussed was founded by Daniel Palmer in 1895. A fan of metaphysical approach to health care, practicing skull size as a means of determining character and intellect and magnetic healing, claimed a spiritualist told him spinal misalignment was the source of all disease. A person’s “vitality” (here is this word again) is essential to chiropractic medicine.

Those who practice chiropractic alternative medicine claim a process called subluxation, or adjusting vertebrae that correspond neurobiologically with vital organs, affect ‘nerve flow’ and that spinal adjustments also reach into our organic viscera and can heal disease.

Chiropractic pseudo-science is in flux, disarray and conflict. There are the so-called ‘straight’ practitioners who adhere to the origins of this CAM and the ‘mixers’ who incorporate almost any modality into the fray. Some say only the “Atlas” needs adjusting and others say the other end of the spine, the sacral area. Even others claim both methods are essential.

Dr. Edzard Ernst, an academic physician and researcher, specialized in CAM and was the professor of CAM at Exeter University and served as chairman of Physical Medicine at the University of Vienna but left to set up the department of CAM at the Exeter University. He serves as the editor-chief with the CAM publication Focus on Complementary and Alternative Therapies.

Ernst claims chiropractic medicine is not based on solid science and its therapeutic value has not been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. Ernst cites a study by American neurosurgeons that have asserted spinal manipulation in chiropractic medicine has caused strokes in over 500 well documented cases and death in some. Patients who stroked and survived did so with surgery and contemporary medication.

Incidents like these drew conclusions from American neurosurgeons in a recent paper to read: “Chiropractic stimulation of the cranial and cervical spine can produce dissections of the cranial and cervical segments of the vertebrae and carotid arteries.” There seems to be substantial concern that vertebral subluxation can negatively affect general health by altering the neurological communication between the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system.

Ernst summary of chiropractic medicine is: “The core concepts of chiropractic subluxation and spinal manipulation are not based on sound science.” The reported benefit of chiropractic medicine is via patient statement and anecdotal sources.

The World Federation of Chiropractic is at odds with the Association of Chiropractic Colleges over acceptable treatments and overstating efficacy causing Dr. William Jarvis to conclude in a report (with 15 industry references) that chiropractic theory lacks validity and clinical reliability.

In 2009, a study by four scholarly chiropractors titled “An epidemiological examination of the subluxation construct using Hill’s criteria of causation” reported in Chiropractic and Osteopathy, concluded: “No supported evidence is found for the chiropractic subluxation being associated with any disease process or of creating suboptimal health conditions requiring intervention. Regardless of popular appeal, this leaves the subluxation construct in the realm of unsupported speculation” and “has no valid applicability.”

Another article written by six respected folks in the field of chiropractic therapy authored a 2008 article in Chiropractic & Manual Therapies “Abuse and quackery which are more prevalent in our profession than any other healthcare profession.”

In the past, the AMA considered chiropractic medicine “Quackery” but let up in 1976 after chiropractic industry lawyers assailed the AMA for ‘loss of trade and commerce,” not for insisting chiropractic therapy is valid and should be recognized by the AMA. Perhaps it was about the money.

Chiropractic medicine claims to blend body and mind (stress) and eschews pharmaceuticals.

All the listed CAMs seem to serve the body, mind, and spirit and all deny the efficacy of modern pharmaceuticals. Perhaps the so-called ‘doctors’ (not medical or PhD) in these fields eschew pharmaceuticals because they are forbidden by law to prescribe them. Worse yet, in some CAMs, a practitioner is legally allowed to call themselves doctors or physicians without formal training, like Dr. Pepper.

A big focus for CAM is to drive home the benefits of good diet, weight management and exercise, concepts not lost on modern AMA approved treatment. Some chiropractic practitioners advertise they perform blood analysis with discount coupons. Gee, golly, gosh! Perhaps the AMA should be alerted to this concept of blood analysis.

Many CAM practitioners routinely discredit psychology, psychiatry and modern medicine. In view of such progress with diseases as Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (children’s) which had a death rate of 95%, is now reduced by 85%, heart disease having a 63% drop in mortality rate and AIDS, which killed in months but today is not a death sentence in most cases, are not advances in medicine and health made by CAM.  

Mental health issues are the leading cause of disability in the world surpassing cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive diseases. CAM will probably not be a part of solutions. It is difficult to image an emergent patient trying to obtain emergency healthcare within the ‘golden hour’ exclaiming “Rush me to my chiropractor!”

As for pharmaceuticals, they cure, extend life and serve to avoid surgery. Millions of dollars are spent in research, testing and re-testing before a drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) then passed on to mainstream medicine.

Repeat business seems part and parcel of CAM therapy. Maybe it is about the money but this is an unknown. Chiropractic medicine may be better served and gain greater respect if practitioners narrow their assertions to being beneficial to musculoskeletal regions and discontinue the claim that ‘adjustments’ can restore a vital organs to health and discontinue the absurd notion that modern medicine and big pharms are evil.

All CAM methods seem to rely on ambiguous language such as vitality, wellness, adjustment, mind, body and spirit, channels, innate healing, big pharm, healing forces and other non-specific terms. Perhaps the term ‘alternative’ means to subvert science.

Until the facts are clear, most of us do feel better after a good massage, a glass of vibrating water and color therapy, especially where the color is green on federal government minted paper and passed over to the so-called ‘therapist.’


Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and a member of the American Psychological Association and he Association for Psychological Science.


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