Medical science fiction?


As the number of people using complementary therapy increases, Seán McKernan looks at just how effective these treatments really are.

Complementary therapy has been a keen topic of debate in the medical world for the past ten years. Its popularity has increased highly, with many practitioners setting up shop in Dublin. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has also moved recently to regulate and provide complementary therapy in its practices. But is it all smoke and mirrors or does complementary therapy convey health benefits?

Complementary therapy is made up of many practices such as yoga, homeopathy and spiritual healing. Some of these therapies have been practiced for thousands of years, predating modern medicine itself. Some therapies such as yoga and acupuncture have been shown to improve a patient’s wellbeing and even improve treatment effectiveness when given in conjunction with modern medical treatment.

On the other hand some complementary treatments are based upon unscientific methods and it is therefore difficult to assess their effects. Homeopathy is an example of this, as although it has been shown improve a patient’s wellbeing there is no scientific explanation for how it works.

The methodology behind homeopathy is that if you administer the substance that makes you sick in a diluted form, it can cure you. For example if you are stung by a bee, a diluted sample of bee venom will cure you. These substances are commonly diluted to the extent that there is statistically no cure in the medicine. In fact the dilution is similar to pouring a cup of the substance into all the world’s oceans!
Some sceptics of the homeopathic effect have offered a $1 million prize if the effect can be scientifically proven. So far no evidence of the homeopathic effect has been found.

The results seen from homeopathy are believed to result from the placebo effect, whereby if a patient is given a pill they will feel better than a patient who is given nothing. This phenomenon has been tested and it has been shown that those given a larger or coloured pill will feel better than those given a small white pill even when the contents are the same.

Acupuncture is the process of inserting needles into the skin in order to unblock Qi or energy channels. It has been studied for many years but has shown conflicting results. Many reports state that it can relieve muscular pain associated with diseases.

Crystal healing is defined as pseudoscience by most scientists and is based upon the belief that crystals have the power to heal diseases. It is scientifically unproven and has even been criticised by the British Veterinary Foundation due to the number of animals living in pain as their owner’s refusal to use any other method of treatment on their pets.

In contrast to these, modern medicine is based upon evidence-based treatment. Due to the inability for complementary medicines to scientifically prove that they can work, they are largely regarded as pseudoscience by medicine.

Essentially whether you use complementary medicine or not is up to you. Over 70 per cent of Americans claim to have used it in the past. Its wide popularity among those who are terminally ill and has had a positive effect as in many cases it improves their quality of life and reduces pain.

Although there are mixed opinions, complementary therapy is becoming more accepted by those in the medical profession. Anything that increases a patient’s quality of life should be welcomed but not at the expense of treatments that have been scientifically proven to work. Although saying that next time I have a hangover I won’t be diluting my aspirin or trying to cure it with positive thought.