I read recently that about 70% of New Zealanders use ‘alternative’ medicines (NZ Medical Journal, 2007) – more than in many countries, and very common among the people I see who have longterm pain. (As an aside, have you ever wondered at the irony of someone who refuses to put nasty chemicals into their body, prefer ‘natural’ medicine, but smoke both tobacco and marijuana?!)
Among the ‘alternative’ options, one woman I’m seeing at the moment is wearing copper bracelets, several hematite pieces of jewellery, drinks no carbonated drinks ‘because it excites the nerves’, has regular healing touch massage with aromatherapy, and ingests a variety of homeopathic concoctions. She was horrified to hear that the magnetic underlay she bought has no known effectiveness, but was still considering whether she should ask a health agency if they would buy her a massage chair…
The amount of money that is spent by people desperate to find something to fix their pain is incredible!
Which leads me to a book I’m thoroughly enjoying at the moment. It’s called ‘Trick or Treatment’ and is written by Professor Edzard Ernest, Professor of complementary medicine and Dr Simon Singh, science writer, and is published by Bantam Press.
It’s a very readable book, and the chapter I’m loving the most is actually the first – a wander through the history of the double blind, placebo-controlled, randomised clinical trial – and includes blood-letting, Florence Nightingale, scurvy and early research into smoking! The authors argue that the most significant contribution to modern medicine is evidence-based medicine (although some of my colleagues still argue that it’s all very well, but there just isn’t enough evidence yet…). One quote from Hippocrates stays in my mind “There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” Oh if only more basic scientific principles were taught in schools, we would have so much less opinionated nonsense!!
Other chapters cover the evidence for acupuncture, homoeopathy, chiropractic, herbal medicine – and the final chapter ‘Does the truth matter?’. I haven’t got there yet (I’m still half-way through acupuncture!), but a quick flick right to the end Appendix ‘Rapid Guide to Alternative Therapies’ shows a long list of locally popular remedies including colonic irrigation (why would you?!), magnet therapy, orthomolecular therapy (wha..????), Reiki – well you’ve probably got the idea now!!
Recommended reading for all of us who work with patients who are likely to have thought about or tried at least some of these approaches, this book is well-written, somewhat simplistic but having said that, is attempting to summarise hundreds of studies into lay language. Enjoy.