It seems as though people can’t let go of their need to deviate from the standard, to be different, to be “alternative.” Whether that is in their behaviours, habits, or even the medical practices they seek.
Alternative medicine, also known as complementary medicine (though that title is debatable), accounts for medical treatments that are not practised in mainstream or standard medicine. The method’s effectiveness is not based on scientific evidence, though it generally provides patients with an alternate form of treatment for physical pain or discomfort. Since pharmaceutical medications usually come with side effects, there are patients that wish to pivot from these means and approach a more “natural” one. It has also been discussed that while standard medical procedures have a brief patient-to-doctor time, alternative medicine is open to connecting the patient to the practitioner. There are those who find preference in this additional attention, and feel better cared for. The method ranges greatly, and some examples include chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, herbal medicine, homoeopathy, hypnosis, or electromagnetic therapy. Alternative medicine’s growing popularity makes it evident that it “works” - though it should be noted how the assumption is under quotes.
It works largely due to its placebo effect - where patients unknowingly receive a sham treatment that contributes to improvements in their physical or mental symptoms - as it has no active substance that makes it effective on its own. But it’s working. So why bother discussing it?
The main issue concerning the entire field of alternative medicine is that there is no scientific method to back up its effectiveness. These treatments are not actually promoting biological health benefits to our bodies. It’s placebo; and the ethicality behind this effect is still up for debate. In addition to this, practitioners of alternative medicine do not have to be licensed doctors, meaning their knowledge is limited in concerns to healthcare. This could potentially place patients at risk of injury, which is what happened to a Hongkonger acupuncture client when an unregistered medical practitioner perforated a needle in her heart that led to her death in 2020. This of course in an extreme case, not common at all, yet reflective of the lack of professionalism in some of these treatments. The health risks of alternative medicine are rarely discussed, often obscured from patients, yet could and have caused serious accidents. The alternative medicine practices explored in this article include chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and homoeopathy, which could be considered the four most popular - and ethically dubious - forms.
Chiropractic treatment is bizarre on its own. Chiropractors use manual manipulation of the bones and muscles to relieve pain, usually in the form of spinal manipulation, moving or pulling joints and muscles, and sharp movements. The sensation is of cracking your back and neck, which usually causes popping sounds which are supposedly satisfying. What might not be as satisfying, though, is the risk of a stroke. In June 2022, Caitlin Jensen, a college graduate, went to a chiropractor to release neck pain after studying for finals. 20 minutes into the session, she suffered a stroke that led her to become paralytic, unable to move, talk, or breathe without the support of a ventilator. Now, she is in slow recovery and has been taken to a rehab facility. What happened to Jensen could have been caused by a VAD - Vertebral Artery Dissection. An artery passes through the lateral neck bones, and is highly susceptible to the bending forces inflicted upon it in a chiropractic session. When this artery is dissected, one of the layers of the artery could rupture and blood can start clotting, blocking the passage and causing a stroke. When blood starts to flow to the wrong places (to put it very simply), it could move up to the brain and disrupt motor abilities. In addition, chiropractic treatment risks spinal damage. This is caused by the compression of nerves in the lower back, which could contribute to chronic pain or permanent nerve damage.
Acupuncture has been used for centuries, dating back to ancient Chinese medicine. Through the use of thin needles, sensory nerves are stimulated and a relaxing sensation is produced throughout the body. Patients usually go for this service to release pain or stress. Despite the positive response from clients after the treatment, acupuncture does not have scientific evidence to support its effectiveness. It mainly works as a placebo, as was proven with sham acupuncture tests. A group of patients were treated with sham acupuncture, either in the form of sham needles or without any stimulant. Another group was treated with standard acupuncture. The experimenters found that the patient's satisfaction and effectiveness of the treatment had no significant differences between the groups, proving that acupuncture mainly works due to its placebo effect. This experiment had its flaws though, and it could be argued that the insertion of needles, even without stimulants, does not meet the criteria of being physically inert, and cannot be considered a control variable. Inserting needles, even without stimulation, could also stimulate C fibres in the skin and cause some kind of analgesic effect. Another controversial aspect of acupuncture is that “acupuncture points” - that is, the points of the body that needles are inserted in - are defined “energetically” rather than anatomically. This poses a risk, as needles could hit veins or arteries (causing bleeding or bruising) or in more extreme situations, vital organs. In regards to acupuncture, more of the ethicality behind its placebo effect, as the treatment is expensive, should be discussed rather than actual physical harm that it could inflict.
On a more pharmaceutical perspective, herbal medicine is a form of alternative medication with active ingredients that originate from plant parts. They’re known as “natural” forms of medication, and patients seek this treatment due to its cheaper pricing and to avoid the supposedly side effects of standard medication. Yet this is wrongfully assumed, as herbal medicine can be toxic intrinsically or in combination with other medication. When taking it, people must be aware of its chemical composition and if it is safe to take as a complement. Herbal medications have certain effects on the body similar to pharmaceuticals, but do not have to go through the testing that non natural drugs have to. They are not evaluated for purity or consistency of active compounds. In summary, they could be harmful or ineffective unknowingly.
Perhaps the most controversial, homoeopathy dilutes substances that cause a certain symptom on the body with water or alcohol to promote healing of those symptoms. It has been used since the 17th century, yet has no scientific evidence behind its effectiveness. Again, this raises the question of whether its placebo effect is ethical. Often, homoeopathy users strongly believe in its effect, and it is difficult to argue against beliefs. The real problem homoeopathy poses is its misleading propaganda. When patients have a serious condition or illness that must be treated with proven medical procedures but are convinced of the effectiveness of homoeopathy, it could cause them to avoid treatments that scientifically work and worsen. Such a case happened to Penelope Dingle in 2005, who developed rectal cancer and solely used homoeopathy to cure it under the unregistered medical advice of a homoeopath. He suggested that through the use of Vitamin C and extracts from a venus fly trap could stop the cancer from growing. This irresponsible and dangerous advice led to Dingle’s death 2 years later. Homoeopathy as well as any form of alternative medicine might contribute to a better sense of well being, yet when it is used as replacement from standard medicine, the patient’s health is put at risk.