Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Health Fads Part II: Trick of Treatment

I recently read Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine (Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst MD, 2008). Each chapter is about a different alternative medicine, its history, its uses, and all the information the authors could gather from large reputable studies about their effectiveness.
Usually when drugs or treatments are tested, some studies show that they work and other studies show that the same treatment does not work. There may be problems with the studies that the researchers do not realize. Before the scientific community comes to a consensus on something, a lot of studies have to be done. Then researchers do mega-analysis of those studies to come out with a verdict.

A problem arises when the media reports as fact the results of a single study which has not been supported by further research and is not unlikely to be overturned later. So if you read in Glamor magazine that one study at The University of Oregon showed that eating half a cup a chocolate pudding a day reduced the risk of breast cancer, don’t rush out and buy the pudding just yet.
Trick or Treatment also contains an appendix that goes through more than twenty other alternative treatments and quickly gives the scientific communities’ verdict on them. I have gone a step further than the book by venturing a categorical system for what is a trick and what is an effective treatment.
The first category is herbal medicine. Some herbal treatments have been proven to be helpful for certain things. Among those are garlic for high cholesterol, echinacea for treatment and prevention of colds, ginkgo for dementia, and St. John’s Wort for mild depression.
Herbal supplements are not necessarily safe. Many have side effects, and a common side effect of quit a few common herbal supplements is interference with other drugs including birth control pills. Many herbal supplements have been well tested but have failed to show any change in patients’ symptoms beyond placebos.
The next category is comprised of alternative treatments that have been show in studies to have some helpful effects which are probably due to patient relaxation. A mind/body connection is not the hocus pocus it may sound like. After all, the mind, your thoughts and emotions, have been shown by neuroscience to correspond to electronic impulses in the brain. In that sense, the mind is the body.
Similarly, many ailments like hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and headaches can sometimes be treated by anything that relaxes. These treatments include aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, massage therapy, meditation, and osteopathy.
The next category is comprised of entire-lifestyle schools of medicine. They may have some elements that are beneficial such as sound diet and exercises and recommendations and the use of effective herbal remedies and relaxation techniques. They also have elements that have not been show to be effective and make claims for which there is no scientific evidence. These include the Ayurveda Tradition, Naturopathy and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The final category is for placebos and scams. These treatments often claim to work in ways that have no scientific meaning, like channeling energies in the body. But whether or not they sound like they could work, treatments are placed in this category because they have continuously failed to show in scientific trials that they do work. These include:
Anthroposophic Medicine
Bach Flower Remedies
Cellular Therapy
Chelation Therapy
Colonic Irrigation
Craniosacral Therapy
Crystal Therapy
Ear Candles
Feng Shui
Leech Therapy
Magnet Therapy
Neural Therapy
Orthomolecular Therapy
Oxygen Therapy
Spiritual Healing
When it comes to alternative treatments, do your homework. Look for sound placebo-controlled scientific studies from reputable sources. Compare their effectiveness to the effectiveness of any traditional treatments available, and compare safety, side effects, and cost.

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