5 Alternative Medicine Treatments that Work?

CNN suggests there are 5 (count them 5) alternative medicine treatments that actually work! How pathetic is it for altie-meds that the article is presented this way. You know, 5 altie-med therapies that work versus, well, all real pharmaceuticals that actually have proven medical effects. As many have pointed out, if it works, it ceases to be “alternative” and then becomes evidence-based medicine. But let’s not take this for granted, let’s go over this list presented by altie-quack Andrew Weil.

1. Acupuncture for pain

Hands, down, this was the No. 1 recommendation from our panel of experts. They also recommended acupuncture for other problems, including nausea after surgery and chemotherapy.

Well, as Orac has pointed out, the evidence is that acupuncture – the ancient Chinese technique of using needles to beneficially re-direct qi – does not work. Sham acupuncture works as well as “real” acupuncture. So acupuncture doesn’t work, randomly sticking needles into people helps though.

2. Calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B6 for PMS

When pre-menstrual syndrome rears its ugly head, gynecologist Dr. Tracy Gaudet encourages her patients to take these dietary supplements. “They can have a huge impact on moodiness, bloating, and on heavy periods,” says Gaudet, who’s the executive director of Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University Medical School.

Hmmm, again, I think the evidence for this is weak. The papers I found on B6 calcium etc. (1 2 3 4 5 6) did not show anything consistent or profound for B6 or Magnesium although Calcium has shown a small effect in the Nurses Health Study (abstract). But we must remember John Ioannidis’ work and remember this is a correlative result. A study such as the Nurses’ Health Study is likely to generate many false-positive significant effects simply because they study so many variables, and this needs to be confirmed with more direct studies of calcium supplementation. I think the statement that these supplements can have a “huge impact” is unwarranted and incorrect.

3. St. John’s Wort for depression

The studies are a bit mixed on this one, but our panel of experts agreed this herb — once thought to rid the body of evil spirits – is definitely promising. “It’s worth a try for mild to moderate depression,” says Weil, founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “Remember it will take six to eight weeks to see an effect.” Remember, too, that St. John’s wort can interfere with some medicines; the University of Maryland Medical Center has a list.

That St. John’s wort can “interfere” with some medicines sounds kind of benign – after all you’re not on any medication, just the pill right? Next month you find out your birth control didn’t take and you’ve got an extra reason to be depressed. A systematic review from Cochrane suggests there is some evidence for efficacy of St. John’s Wort for depression, but it’s pretty poor, varies greatly between studies, and is “not fully convincing”. Not the kind of results you try to hang your hat on when it comes to treating a dangerous illness when there are other drugs that do not have the same risks of drug interaction and are consistently more effective.

4. Guided imagery for pain and anxiety

“Go to your happy place” has become a cliché, but our experts say it really works. The technique, of course, is more complicated than that. “In guided imagery we invite you to relax and focus on breathing and transport you mentally to a different place,” says Mary Jo Kreitzer, Ph.D., R.N., founder and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.

There is a great deal of evidence for the efficacy of guided imagery for a great number of problems from pain management to stress headaches. It’s silly to describe something that has been proven to work effectively as “alternative medicine”, this is evidence-based medicine.

5. Glucosamine for joint pain

“It’s safe, and it looks like it’s effective,” says Dr. Frederick Hecht, director of research at the University of San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. “It may be the first thing that actually reverses cartilage loss in osteoarthritis.”

Fail. Real studies of glucosamine and glucosamine/Chondroitin as well as systematic reviews suggest little effect on pain and standard therapy with anti-inflammatory drugs are better. Long term studies show it might slow cartilage loss, however, it’s not clear it’s the glucosamine as much as the sulfate moiety as the substance is rapidly metabolized upon administration.

So, to summarize, we have 1 treatment which works but that should not really be considered “alternative” as it is widely recognized as efficacious evidenced based medicine. One which works, but has nothing to do with the mechanism the alties believe. The other 3 are the typical examples of medications with proof of efficacy in small, poorly-controlled studies that disappears with more thorough analysis. At best, they may have some modest effect, but for the most part, they are remarkable only for their mediocrity as treatments for any disease.

The best part might be the final advice though, it’s hysterical.

All our experts warn that since alternative medicine is financially lucrative, a lot of charlatans have gotten into the business. They have these tips for being a savvy shopper:

A lot of charlatans? How do they tell the difference between one quack pushing unproven therapy and another? They’re either charlatans pushing unproven treatments, or they’re using real medicine that isn’t alternative. It’s pretty simple.

What continues to astonish me is that the altie-med types are able to pass their nonsense off as some anti-corporate, power to the people campaign, when these supplements and herbs are just as much big business as the pharmaceutical companies. So I have to ask, who is the more evil corporation. The one that may undersell dangers and pushes its product onto people who might not need it – but the drug works – or the one that does the same only the drugs demonstrably lack or have no proven efficacy?