Snake Oil

Someone asked about one of the items in my meme during Invisible Illness Awareness Week:

Meme:  “11. Regarding alternative treatments, I:  don’t look too favorably on snake oil salesmen
email:  What do you call snake oil?  Doctors don’t know everything.  Alternative treatments can work when nothing else does.

I’ll respond to all three statements here.  In reverse order:

Is it true that alternative treatments can work when nothing else does?

Many people consider any alternate to a doctor’s visit to be alternative treatment.  It is therefore crucial to define the terms being used.  (Wow! Definitions two days in a row. Sorry about that)

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between alternative treatments and home treatments.  Home treatments are things like feeding chicken soup to your kids when they’re sick, or taking Tylenol for a fever.  I’m looking forward to the day that an MD writes a book titled something like Doctor Recommended & Approved Home Treatments That Really Work.  Treatment at home, instead of bothering the doctor about self-resolving symptoms, can be a good thing.  Doctors advise using home treatments.

Home treatments are NOT alternative treatments.  “Alternative medicine” is not simply an alternate medicial approach to treatment; it is trying something that science shows to be ineffective instead of medical treatment.

Say (hypothetically) that your six year old son still wets the bed.  You take him to the doctor and ask for advice.  The MD explains that it’s really not that uncommon and you should give your son time to grow out of it.  At age seven, the MD still recommends giving him more time.  Finally, in desperation, you see a naturopath who is happy to sell you a homeopathic remedy.  You dutifully give your son a little tablet to dissolve under his tongue daily until the bedwetting stops.

The alternative treatment gets credit for a cure, but did the alternative remedy really help?  Maybe the dissolving tablets did absolutely nothing, and the bedwetting stopped because your son finally outgrew it.  Waiting, as recommended by the MD, might have resulted in the exact same outcome. (hypothetically)

The fact is that the vast majority of ailments get better on their own.  Read #1 Dino’s Laws of the Dinosaur (they’re in the sidebar on that blog).  Law #1: The art of medicine consists of entertaining the patient while nature takes its course.

Then there’s the placebo affect.  Sometimes treatments help because the patient thinks it’s going to help.  That’s the whole idea behind double-blind clinical trials.  Figure out what really works, and what’s just placebo.

So to say, “alternative treatments can work when nothing else does” is, I believe, not a true representation of reality.  Most of the time, no treatment at all is needed.  It often doesn’t matter what treatment is used because all that’s really needed is time.

Still with me?

Then you’re left with those relatively rare health issues that aren’t cured by time.  When you’re sick, you’ll try everything that traditional medicine has to offer.  If traditional medicine has no cure, do you give up?  A drowning person will take whatever help is offered.  Sometimes you’re willing to try anything.  I’ve been there.  I sympathize.

I’ll admit to trying some alternate treatments in the past.  Food allergies and sensitivities are difficult to deal with.  When a friend told of treatments she was trying for her kids, my husband and I did a minimal amount of research.  I asked my PCP.  He didn’t think it would help, but said that it wasn’t likely to be harmful, either.  We found an RN who was also an ND and was listed on our insurance.  The whole thing sounded a bit suspicious to me (which was the reason I’d asked our PCP about it first), but I figured that if insurance would cover it, that lent a certain amount of credibility.  We had weekly treatments for months.  For a while I thought maybe it was helping, but that turned out to be false hope.  It’s pretty hard for someone to fake an allergic reaction, and babies aren’t subject to the placebo affect.  I had to take a big step back and re-evaluate what was going on the day the ND said that my insurance wouldn’t cover the treatments that she was using for us, so she had to employ creative billing to get things paid.  I think “creative billing” means “insurance fraud” and “documenting lies and nonsense in my medical record.”

No FactsWhen the government taxes hardworking citizens, then uses our money to establish an agency with the explicit goal of validating the merits of complementary and alternative medicine’s claims, it is significant that all the research was unable to substantiate any worth in CAM.  Instead of congressmen getting mad about the results, maybe we need to believe the results of the research.

Doctors don’t know everything

Doctors are scientists.  They know they don’t know everything, but they strive to find answers.  Solid, reliable answers.  There is a difference between saying doctors don’t know everything, but they look for answers and revise their theories based on the facts, and saying doctors don’t know everything, so there’s no point in searching for facts.

What do you call snake oil?

If something is sold as a cure when it really isn’t a cure, I call that snake oil.

The worst of my contempt goes to unscrupulous cretins who prey on innocent victims of disease.  These ruthless individuals are deceitful con-men, defrauding sick people out of their hard-earned money while knowing full-well that there is no chance of cure or symptom relief.

I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt, though, and say that most CAM practitioners aren’t intentionally devious.  In all likelihood, many of them are simply deluded, thinking that they’re doing the right thing.  They believe that they are helping people who have been failed by traditional medicine.

Believing something doesn’t mean it’s true; people used to believe that the earth is flat.  Believing that they’re helping people does not equate to actually helping people.  The only help that CAM offers is hope.  It is unconscionably deceitful to tell people you’re selling them a cure, when what they’re really buying is hope.

On the off-chance that anyone is still reading, and in case my opinion here isn’t clear enough, here’s what I think of CAM practitioners:

MDs try to help sick and injured people.  Often they succeed.  They help even when it takes extra time.  They help even though sometimes they won’t get paid for their efforts.  They volunteer at free/reduced-fee clinics.  They help patients find a way to qualify for treatment that the patients wouldn’t be able to afford.  Nobody ever says that about those in the CAM field.  CAM practitioners are known for helping if you have enough money to buy what they’re selling.

For one doctor’s take on alternative “medicine,” read Dr. Rob’s The Trusted Ones.  Usually Dr. Rob’s posts are entertaining or educational  — often funny and educational — but this is his only post that ever made me cry.

For further reading, check out:  What’s The Harm?

The above does not apply to herbs, which I’ve written about separately.


6 thoughts on “Snake Oil

  1. Thank you for posting this. Your straightforward approach to CAM is helpful to me and hopefully others who may search out answers on the web. I’m amazed at how convinced persons who live on snake oil are that they are doing the right thing. I must admit that when I hear about snake oil salesmen who can “heal” it tears at my heart. I want to heal and be healed more than just about anything. No wonder they can find people to believe.

  2. This is a good post, and timely for me. I’ve been starting to wonder if I should give more thought to “alternative” treatments – I think it’s very tempting to think this way when things aren’t going well with traditional meds. (Sometimes I even want to try the gin-soaked raisins!) But my history should tell me something different. Before I got my RA diagnosis, I went through eight months of different “alternative” treatments for the mysterious problems that were plaguing me. One practitioner even suggested that my pain was a physical manifestation of my doubt about my upcoming wedding, and said that maybe I should call it off! (Boy, am I glad I didn’t listen!) After I found out that it was RA, I did a complete turnaround and went entirely for traditional meds, and I’m still pretty angry that none of my “alternative” practitioners got the diagnosis right.

    Now I’m thinking I might need to find a balance someplace in the middle. I would like to start paying more attention to my general health and do some things like Tai Chi, acupuncture, massage, etc. These things would be in addition to my meds, though – not alternatives to them. Thank you for reminding me that I shouldn’t go searching for a “cure” in any of these things, and that I should make sure to steer clear of snake oil peddlers.

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