Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

“What’s the Harm”? It’s another question that often comes up from supporters of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Is it not the case that most people attending alternative practitioners can expect to happily live long, chaotic and unexpected lives just as much as the next person?

Yes, but. There’s always a “but”. In fact, there are quite a few “buts”.

Let’s tackle the extreme cases first. There are many cases of people foregoing proper medical care in favour of CAM, thus prolonging pain and suffering for longer than is strictly necessary. In the worst situations, this can be life-threatening. There are many examples of people foregoing medical care for ineffective practices, much to their detriment. So, if you are really sick, go to a doctor. That also applies to your kids.

Other cases exist where semi-medical interventions are being performed, using acupuncture needles without gloves, performing chiropractic manipulation near the neck region, using actual medicines in homeopathic treatments, adding heavy metals to Ayurvedic treatments, triggering asthma attacks during salt therapy. While rare, such treatments have lead to medical complications because, by their nature, they border on real medical intervention, with all its attendant risks.

And then there’s just stupid, avoidable stuff that could have huge negative consequences if the practitioner gets it wrong. Ear Candling, I’m looking at you.

These are the easy ones. But, let’s say it’s not acute or life threatening, and the intervention appears totally safe. There’s no harm then, right?

I looked at the phenomenon of “It Worked For Me” in a previous entry, where I examined what might be going on for people who reported marked improvements in their condition after having CAM treatment. What this implies is, while people often report improvement, there is no actual improvement taking place. They may temporarily report improvement, but only until the condition reappears again sometime later.

If it doesn’t work, it might require another visit. Then another visit. Then another. Or multiple visits to different therapists in search of a cure. The problem may eventually get better, but that may have nothing much to do with the treatment. It’s just your body getting better naturally, as it would have done anyway, without any CAM intervention whatsoever. That’s a lot of money spent on nothing.

Many people take regular visits to alternative therapists, any time they feel poorly, or tired, or in pain. Given that most alternative treatments have been shown to work no better than placebo, it’s all a very effective way of spending a big portion of your income on something that could have been better spent on a holiday, or a new car, or saving for college, or whatever.

It’s also a great way of spreading nonsense. Some CAM practitioners feel themselves to be in competition with proper doctors, and so are not unfamiliar with spreading negative propaganda about the so-called “allopathic” medical profession. It’s not to say that the health service is perfect, but neither is it the bogeyman they often make it out to be. At the worst, the propaganda engenders a disproportionate sense of distrust in science-based medicine. Completely preventable diseases have been making a comeback because anti-vaccine nonsense continues to be perpetuated by some CAM practitioners and consequently, their clients. Children are referred to dangerous quacks because of a conviction by some that doctors are part of a conspiracy to hide cures from the general public.  So, while there appears to be no harm to you, you may be putting others at risk, simply by passing on bad advice.

Another way harm is spread is simply by perpetuating false hope. Sadly, there are some conditions and diseases where cures still evade us. People can be driven to their wits’ end, trying to find a cure or a treatment that will work. While doctors are expected to be honest with their patients in such cases, the CAM profession has far less qualms, and so clients are sent on distressing wild goose chases when perhaps they should be moving on towards more palliative measures. These are difficult, heartbreaking situations, but one thing is clear: nobody should be capitalising from such tribulations.

A question you might be asking is this: don’t medical treatments sometimes cause harm? Yes, but medicine usually looks beyond placebo into actual interventions, the bulk of whom have a great deal of evidence to back them up. These interventions can be harmful, but this is balanced against an improved outcome for the patient. Most alternative therapies are placebo at the best of times, so if little improvement can be expected, then neither should there be much harm in the intervention.

So, while active harm is rare, there are more indirect kinds of harm. Harm can be caused through inaction, or through spreading misleading information to others, or through the perpetuation of false hope. We shouldn’t look at alternative medicine as having no downsides. In the end, it’s never the best when people are forced to seek out solutions that don’t exist.

More thoughts on this issue from Science Based Medicine.

WhatsTheHarm.net – a database of alternative therapies going wrong.