Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Why Alternative Therapies Are Not Harm-Free

Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Why Alternative Therapies Are Not Harm-Free

Article excerpt

I recently had a conversation with friends about the role of the placebo effect in alternative medical "therapies" such as acupuncture, Reiki and homeopathy. My friends readily acknowledged that such therapies have no basis in science, but they did believe they had a role to play in modern medicine -- precisely because of the placebo effect.

After all, said my friends, if you feel better after, say, undergoing acupuncture or a Reiki session or after taking a homeopathy cold "remedy," who cares if it's only the placebo effect at work?

And to some extent, I agree. If you want to waste your money and time on treatments that are really nothing more than "sugar pills" and magical thinking -- and you are fully aware that that's all that they are -- then sure, go ahead and do it.

But, of course, it's not as simple as all that. For alternative therapies are not harm-free.

Some alternative medicines (yes, like conventional ones) can lead to dangerous side effects. Such therapies can also keep people from getting an accurate diagnosis and/or treatment for a medical condition that requires evidence-based care.

Avoiding hard truths

And that can be a very serious matter, as is made clear in an article on this topic that was published online last week in Wired by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University and the author of "The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat."

Writes Levinovitz:

When confronted with the possibility of a troubling diagnosis, people often prefer to avoid hard truths. [Yale University neurologist Dr. Steven] Novella tells a gut-wrenching story about one of his patients, who had ALS. After the initial diagnosis, the man left the office, unable to cope with the fact that he had an incurable degenerative disease, likely to kill him within five years. He chose to visit a naturopath instead, who had redemptive news: conventional, narrow-minded medicine had misdiagnosed him. It wasn't ALS, the naturopath said, but rather chronic Lyme disease, which could be treated with holistic, all-natural supplements.

Nearly a year later, badly degenerated, the man was back in Novella's office. He'd wasted countless hours and thousands of dollars on false hope. Now, he was willing to listen, but with far less time to prepare for the reality of what lay ahead, and a spirit broken by disappointment. Research suggests this is no mere anecdote. Studies out of Norway, Japan, and Korea have reported higher mortality rates and lower quality of life for cancer patients who pursue complementary and alternative medicine.

(A disturbing variation of this story occurs when Homeopaths Without Borders heads into undeveloped countries after natural disasters (such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) to distribute their "treatments" to unsuspecting people -- ones who may then not realize they need to seek conventional treatment for their injuries or illnesses. …

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