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The Case Against Alternative Medicine

Updated on January 3, 2016

What Is Alternative Medicine?

The term "alternative medicine" includes any healing methods not part of traditional medical treatment. Acupuncture, massage therapy, or herbal medicine, are typical examples. Some, like acupuncture, are based on ancient Chinese methods while others emphasize mind, body and spirit techniques like Yoga.

Eastern countries have long taught alternative medicine. However, until recently, most Western medical schools didn’t. But, it seems this attitude may be changing. Many Western medical schools are starting to teach some of these methods and even combine them with conventional medical care. The term Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is used to describe this practice.

CAM focuses on treating the whole person and is less invasive, meaning they don't require surgery or conventional medications. Many CAM remedies are proven by scientific research. Others, however, need further investigation.

People often resort to CAM in desperation when chronic problems haven’t been resolved by conventional medicine. They may even use it as a preventative measure such as in Yoga which can improve overall well being. The downside is insurance rarely covers alternative medicine treatments, so people have to pay for them out of their own pockets.

Sometimes Medication Is Required

Alternative healing measures in many cases can’t solve a problem. Medication is required in such cases as infections where antibiotics are needed. It’s advisable to consult a physician as certain herbal supplements can interfere with prescription drugs. Examples would be diabetes treatments or birth-control pills.

In one case a patient failed to mention they had been taking a "natural" remedy before an operation, which happened to be a powerful anticoagulant. The patient almost bled to death.

Sometimes Dangerous

Alternative medicines that are biologically active can also be dangerous when used together with conventional medicine. Some examples would include immuno-augmentation therapy, shark cartilage, bioresonance therapy, oxygen and ozone therapies, and insulin potentiation therapy. In addition, some herbal remedies may interact with chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy or anesthetics during surgery.

Medical doctors are licensed. But not all CAM practitioners are. So, beware of unscrupulous or unqualified practitioners. However, some states have licensing requirements for some specialists, like acupuncturists and massage therapists.Mind, body, and spirit healing is also classified as “holistic health”, and can be considered alternative or complementary.

Unknowingly, many people use a type of alternative medicine when taking vitamins or herbal supplements. These are usually classified as nutritional supplements and not medication. Therefore, they are not subjected to testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA.) The manufacturers of these supplements may claim results, but they don’t have to be proven in clinical trials.

Supporters of alternative medicine point to the fact the FDA sometimes endorse something as “approved” and later found it to have serious side effects and has even resulted in death. There have been many cases of the FDA approving drugs without adequate testing.

The nature of various alternative therapies and wide variety of claims practitioners make, have made the subject a source of dynamic debate.

Modern pharmaceuticals are strictly regulated to ensure medicines contain a standardized quantity of active ingredients, free from contamination. Alternative medicinal products are not. This means alternative health products are vulnerable to tampering and contamination. And since different countries have different regulations it can be difficult to properly evaluate risks and quality of the products.

Another setback for alternative medicine is most treatments are not patentable…which means less research and funding. Skeptics, on the other hand, may attribute any positive results gained by use of alternative medicine to simply a placebo effect. It can be difficult to test effectiveness of alternative medicines in clinical trials.

Alternative treatments in most cases are not subjected to any testing at all. Proponents of “natural” treatment, mistakenly assume "that which is natural cannot be harmful".

However, another term, “homeopathy” was instituted by the FDA. These have been regulated to some extent, although in several different ways. Homeopathic “remedies” are extremely diluted, almost to the point virtually any of the original ingredient remains. Therefore, they are considered safe but these products are still exempt from expiration dating and strength testing. Alcohol concentration may be much higher than allowed in conventional drugs.

Why is alternative medicine so popular, then? Some blame providers and doctors whose neglect of products and services make them less than desirable. This often leaves consumers open to sometimes outrageous lies promoted by unscrupulous alternative medicine hustlers. And some people are gullible. Gullibility is a necessity for these schemes to succeed.


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    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 2 years ago from New York

      'Alternative' medicine is scary, even I bought into it. There is no such thing as alternative or complementary medicine, if it works, it is just medicine, and when it is unproven and likely ineffective, it receives such a ridiculous title.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I was much like your brother Cats. I studied to be a surgical tech, and had great faith in doctors and the medical system. But, later began seeing things a little differently.

    • Lucky Cats profile image

      Kathy 6 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      John, I find this one extremely interesting on many levels. First of all, let me tell you that my older brother is a Medical Doctor and a skeptic at large. He has always been a traditionalist and has never supported the idea in theory or fact...about alternative, holistic, naturopathic or other approaches to medicine and healing....until now. This amazes me and surprises me greatly. He now practices a form of homeopathy...along w/his formal medical training and expertise. That he has even considered this is amazing, at least; particularly to those who know him well. I respect his new attitude; he's a very intelligent and successful Physician who has several specialities including internal and emergency medicine.

      I find myself in agreement with you on just about every count; most alternative methods are not certified or passed by the FDA and are not properly tested. Substances and generics which originate from overseas; in laboratories which are not FDA approved nor inspected and where the content is not tested for purity or truth in labeling; are a constant concern for American consumers. The worse case scenario, as you pointed out, is when a patient, whose last medical resort seems to have been exhausted, looks to alternative medicine for a cure. Sadly, it has happened that, in doing so, this person looses everything.

      Throughout history, it has been a system of discovery and testing. As you've stated here, some of the present day pharmaceuticals which have been tested still turn to be detrimental and/or have unexpected contraindications. Kinds and means of testing are suspect; but that's another hub.

      I appreciate this one greatly. You've covered so much in such a well written, easy to follow article; with examples and information for everyone. It cannot be overstated; the effect of our supplements on important aspects of our health...again, examples you've given here..where the use of these might actually jeopardize prescribed medications or act in ways to threaten life. (anticoagulant)

      You've really outdone yourself with this one, John. Should be a must read for every person who questions the restrictions or lack of FDA approval of some of these alternative attempts at healing. Thank you. UP Awesome Useful Interesting!!!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      It takes all kinds don't it?

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      I have some close friends who use alternative medicines. He will shake his hand over a package of hamburg at the store and it will tell him if the meat is good or spoiled. I don't believe a word of it.

      An interesting hub.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you vocal for being a fan. I try hard to know what I'm writing about.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      This is a fantastic and well researched hub. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thank you for offering such an informative and well-presented piece! I am a fan...:)