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Under the Scope: Alternative medicine captures the North American imagination

Scientists question the validity of medicine lacking strong evidence

Imagine yourself in a doctor’s office. You’ve come in with a complaint of persistent migraines, and you’re awaiting the doctor’s diagnosis. He examines you thoroughly, then announces that your body’s patterns of balance are out of place and that in order to cure you, he will insert balloons into your nostrils and inflate them.

Surprisingly, this is not a joke. This procedure, called NeuroCranial Restructuring (NCR), is one of the many techniques considered as “alternative medicine.” In some places, alternative medicine is officially recognized as a legitimate health profession. Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec, as well as an estimated 48 U.S. states, have legislation in place allowing practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and/or acupuncture to operate their own regulatory colleges. In short, this could lead to practitioners of these techniques earning the right to use the title “doctor.”

A basic definition of alternative medicine is “every available approach to healing that does not fall within the realm of conventional medicine.” Alternative medicine practices are growing in popularity in developed countries, and a 2002 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 74.1 per cent of U.S. adults over 18 years of age had used some form of complementary or alternative medicine. Unfortunately, any scientific benefits of alternative medicine are called into question by the very nature of its definition. Due to the all-encompassing definition of alternative medicine, treatments with possible medical merit are grouped into the same category as methods as improbable as NCR.

So what decides whether or not a practice is deemed “conventional” or “alternative”? According to Professor Schwarcz of the McGill Office for Science and Society, it’s scientific evidence.

“Alternative medicine is defined as practices that are not generally taught, because there’s not enough evidence to validate them,” he said. “When you can prove that something works, we’ll teach it,” he added.

Much support for alternative practices comes from anecdotal evidence or improperly conducted studies. Without double-blind randomized control trials – the bare minimum of the scientific method – such studies are next to worthless.

Proponents of alternative medicine often promote their cause by claiming high success rates. Such statistical claims are dubious in part because they aren’t supported by scientific experiment. Yet apparently high success rates can largely be attributed to subtleties of the problem of finding cures for illness. The human body has an amazing defense mechanism of its own, and its recovery is often attributed to alternative methods by practitioners, even though it may have healed independently.

Further, many diseases are cyclical, meaning they frequently go into remission. Without control trials, these remissions may be attributed to the alternative remedy rather than the natural course of the disease. Finally, a huge part of the success of alternative medicine is the placebo effect. Patients who believe that a particular treatment will work often experience measurable improvements simply because they believe they will improve. Without scientific study, navigating these complexities among others is very difficult.

With such inadequate testing in an area so important to the wellbeing of millions of people, one might think that alternative medicine would be currently suffering a rapid decline in popularity. However, the opposite is true. André Roi, a massage therapist at RITMA (Regroupement des Intervenants et Thérapeutes en Médecine Alternative), explained that alternative medicine is “much more popular now than it was 20 years ago.” What’s more, according to Schwarcz, more dollars are spent yearly on alternative medicine than on mainstream practices.

The ratification of alternative medicine is promoted through the use of evasive language. Deemed “outright quackery” by a judge in 1983, NCR was watered-down in a 1998 report as merely “risky.” The surgeons behind this report added that the procedure “highlights the wide range of treatment options available to patients.” Procedures once denounced as fraud are now more gently termed “unconventional health care practices.”

However, language use is not the only thing inciting people to choose alternative medicine over conventional techniques. Roi claims that a large part of the decision is stress. “People don’t want to wait two or three hours to see someone at a hospital.” Instead, he maintained that many of their problems can be solved through alternative techniques, such as massage therapy.

Schwarcz adds that with all the incredible accomplishments of modern society – such as creating computers and putting man on the moon – people “have a hard time accepting that we haven’t made as big steps towards something like curing cancer.” What they fail to realize, he explained, is that “going to the moon is child’s play compared to curing cancer.”