Complementary and Alternative Medicine: enabling choices or selling snake oil?

Brief definition from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (US):

As a health care consumer, I find it my duty to know as much as I can about health care options that are available and the efficacy, benefits, and side effects of such. One option is practices which are considered more unconventional, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs, etc.

I’ve heard about a few studies of unconventional systems of health care, but it seems that research is still emerging in this area. So in the meantime, is this something where I should look at this as a legitimate alternate option in treatment? Is it perhaps safe to use complementary medicine, but not supplant traditional medicine completely? Is complementary/alternative medicine perhaps good for some problems, but not others? (Such as not a good option for a heart attack, but perhaps a reasonable option for mild to moderate chronic pain.)

So far I’ve dabbled in taking a few herbs and vitamins for antioxidant support and recovery from surgery and experienced no problems (and some benefits, but my skeptical side always wonders if that’s just a placebo effect), but haven’t really explored more extensive CAM such as Ayurveda or acupuncture. It would be interesting to explore additional opinions on both less and more extensive systems of CAM.

From personal experience: acupuncture works really well for many lesser problems and passably for pain relief. Homeopathy is a steaming crock of shit. If you have stress-related problems, pick up any decent recording of Bach’s Art of the Fugue and listen through it once or twice daily.

Anything more serious demands regular medical attention.

I suggest checking out QuackWatch. They back up everything they say pretty well.

A wise doper (KarlGauss, IIRC) once reminded me that there is no “complementary” or “alternative” medicine. There are only treatments and therapies that have been shown to be effective by evidence-based medical science, and those not shown to be effective.

Quackwatch can help one determine which therapies have evidence-based science backing them up.


I don’t understand why more proponenets of “alternative modalities” aren’t in jail for practising medicine without a license. I’ve seen clerks in Health Food stores with high school educations talking with customers about the values of vitamins and supplements to treat serious diseases.

It’s worth noting that many vitamin supplements (which most don’t think of as part of the “alternative” pharmacopia) have virtually zero in the way of evidence backing their healthful use for those eating a normal diet. More troubling, some higher-dose vitamin and mineral supplements (the latest scare has been E), which few have recognized as excessive until recently, and hence have been pitched to health nuts for time immemorial, may be showing significant, provable deleterious effects with chronic use, up to and including shortening of life span. Unless you have a vitamin-deficient diet, there’s essentially no good reason to take supplements of any dose, and it’s not even clear that anything above an insignificant dose is even safe.

My personal feeling is that it’s perilous enough to take the drugs we’re told have been scientifically proven to be safe; so why subject yourself to even greater risks by experimenting with supplements lacking any hard evidence of efficacy whatsoever, not to mention virtually no good data to support their safety with use of any duration? People rightly complain and are fearful about the imperfections of the regulated pharmaceutical industry. Why is it, then, that the virtually unregulated, untested, often unethical, and all-too-frequently-unhealthful supplement industry manages to be so attractive? What is it in the minds of consumers that allows them to believe blanket characterizations like “natural = safe”, or to even have faith that what they put in their bodies in their quest for “alternative” healing is even natural in the first place, much less safe or efficacious?

Snake oil was stuff that had never been tested and was sold to gullible people to make a profit.

That defines ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ medicine quite well. :rolleyes:

Not so cut and dried as that, I’m afraid. Evidence-based medical science gave us Celebrex and Vioxx as well as Aleve.

Not all FDA approved drugs are safe and effective, and not all “alternative” remedies are snake oil.

If accupuncture or ginseng or praying to Jesus or wearing a necklace of garlic works for you, would you stop just because “science” hasn’t vetted it?

There’s little doubt that the meds were effective. Further evidence just demonstrated they don’t seem to be as safe as hoped for. This is what Evidence-Based medical science is all about.

Which is why the FDA needs to rely fully on Evidence Based Medicine, not on the hodgepodge of systems they’ve used to approve or deny drugs for decades.

Hey, if it works for you, go for it. Just don’t claim that its been shown to be effective.

By law, they can’t.

Let’s see: desire for something, even if it is a placebo effect; desire to hopefully avoid unpleasant side effects, and more.

That’s my reasoning, anyway. Besides, it’s not like I’m going to consume snake oil to try to cure cancer or something.

What reason is there to believe supplements that haven’t gone through scientific testing will have less unpleasant side effects? Isn’t this just preferring the devil you don’t know to the devil you do?

There seems to be people who will believe in anything so long as it has no medical scientific evidence supporting its use, otherwise they reject it.

Of course it is, it’s an informed choice.

You can quite easily avoid taking those things that kill instantly (I know, I’m being extreme in my example, but it’s just to get the point across) because they have been studied already.

Whereas items that have not been studied may or may not kill you instantly.

Please ignore my prior post.

I mis-read the “not’s” and thought the point being made was opposite.

Or possibly I’m am having side-effects from alternative medicine!