Is Alternative Medicine Effective?

Is alternative medicine effective? Welcome to the Wild West!

Like any new frontier, the world of Alternative Medicine offers amazing opportunities. But it can also be uncharted territory. Is it actually just “quackery”? Or, worse, could it be dangerous? Well, let’s dive into the question, “is alternative medicine effective?”

The truth

Alternative medicine can be extremely effective, but it depends on the modality (type of treatment), the illness (set of symptoms), the person offering it (practitioner) and the person receiving it (patient).

So, if you are looking for ‘proof’ that it works, you will find opinions and research to support that. If you are looking for ‘proof’ that it is ineffective or even dangerous, you will also find articles to support that view.

Which of those views is correct? The answer: both…and…neither.

Let me introduce you to the concept of Partial Truth.

What is partial truth?

This is the idea that “truth” is rather like a jigsaw puzzle. Many different people each hold a single piece of the puzzle. If you want to see the whole picture, you need to gather all the pieces and put them together correctly.

You may come across someone with an opinion which is partly true. Example: “The Encyclopaedia Britannica holds the answers to all my questions.”

It is true that the Encyclopaedia Britannica holds answers to questions. It is not true that it holds the answers to ALL questions.

You may also come across someone whose opinion is entirely true, but is only a part of the whole story. Example: “The Northern Lights are caused by solar storms.”

Yes, that is true. But it is not a full explanation of what causes the Northern Lights. The solar particles released in the storm have to interact with the earth’s magnetic field to create the light phenomenon we see.

“Truth is rather like a jigsaw puzzle. Many different people each hold a piece of the puzzle. If you want to see the whole picture, you need to gather all the pieces and put them together correctly.”

Katie Dean

Why does this happen?

Am I saying that people deliberately lie, or don’t bother to find out all their facts? Yes, this can be the case. But partial truths can also come about through completely innocent reasons.

Things like misunderstanding and bias can cause problems.

Bias can be conscious. In other words, you know that the opinion you are voicing is only partly true. This type of bias can be caused by the desire to mislead. Someone might also choose to voice a certain opinion because it would be dangerous for them to do otherwise. Example: if I don’t say this thing in this exact way, I will lose my job.

But you may also be unconsciously biased. Example: if you were born after 1990 you will never have experienced a world without the internet. You will make all sorts of assumptions about how we shop, find information, get entertainment because of that experience. And, if you never talk to anyone who grew up before the internet existed, you will never realise you have that bias. So, you will hold and express all sorts of opinions that are informed by that innocent bias.

Why does this matter?

If you are truly looking to answer the question, “is alternative medicine effective?”, you need to be aware that the people and places to which you turn for answers are all going to hold partial truth.

Sometimes they may be aware of this and wanting to deliberately steer you in a particular direction. Other times, they may not even be aware that they are missing some important information.

So, it is up to you to research more than one point of view and to think about how each viewpoint may be biased.

How to apply these ideas to the question, “is alternative medicine effective?”

Let’s take a look at a very common situation. Many people find themselves in this position. So, let’s examine two questions:

If you were to follow just one person’s opinion, where would that lead you?

If you were to look at multiple opinions, how would you decide which to follow?

The problem…

Let’s imagine this scenario. You have been diagnosed, by your conventional medical doctor, with a health condition. Perhaps your doctor has then told you (s)he has no treatment available to cure that condition. Or, perhaps that doctor has a treatment that can help you manage the symptoms so that life becomes more bearable.

Alternatively, you may have been using a treatment and it hasn’t really helped your symptoms in the way you hoped. Or worse, the treatment seems to have helped the initial symptoms, but you now have new problems cropping up.

None of these options feels great.

Now imagine you are chatting to your friend and happen to mention your health. Your friend says, “oh, my sister-in-law had that and she used this alternative treatment, and now she’s completely better.” Does that pique your interest? Do you dive right in and find a practitioner and try the treatment? Or do you ask your doctor about it, only to be told that it’s “quackery”?

Perhaps, on the other hand, this amazing treatment wasn’t recommended by a friend. Instead, you read about it on the internet. But, doing a little more research, you found other people saying it was a waste of time.

Which way will you go?

You are facing a BIG problem. On the one hand, you have some annoying symptoms that are getting in the way of your life, and your doctor can’t seem to help you get rid of them. On the other hand, some people are saying that there is a solution to your problem, but you won’t find it recommended by your doctor.

Who do you follow?

…The doctor who spent years training at medical school, who society has taught you to trust because they are a doctor with all that training, but who has no solution for you…

…Or the friend, or article, or practitioner who says they have experienced an alternative treatment that cured your symptoms?

Do you want to accept your suffering? Or do you want to look for answers outside the “conventional” wisdom?

If you decide you want to look for answers, then here you are in the Wild West, where we started. As you search for articles about each treatment, or clinic, you will find some that claim it’s amazing, and some that claim it’s “quackery”. So, how do you know what’s true?

Image of Denali, Alaska, the last frontier. Taken from the blog post, is alternative medicine effective?

Is alternative medicine effective: who is giving you helpful advice?

You want to be aware of who wrote the article. Is it appearing in a scientific journal, or on a random blog? Who runs the blog or journal? Most importantly, who pays for it? Could the person or funding body have a vested interest in a particular viewpoint?

And, think about things like this: where do you weight the importance of the point of view? Let’s say the article was written by someone with no medical experience, but who had a particular set of symptoms and who recovered after having a treatment. They are talking about their real-life experience.

Is that more or less important to you than an article written by a medical doctor who has not experienced the symptoms or the treatment, but who does understand the science?

To be clear: I am not trying to provide you with an answer to that question. Personally, I would argue that both views have potential benefits and potential bias.

The importance of asking the right question(s)

Even more importantly, think about the question you are asking. In actual fact, the question, “is alternative medicine effective?”, is fairly unhelpful. What you really want to know is, “is alternative medicine effective for me?”

Even that is still too unspecific. Your question should really be about whether a specific type of alternative medicine could be effective for your specific symptoms.

Once you start asking those more specific questions, you will narrow down the “evidence” and stand more chance of arriving at a helpful answer.

However, the real answer is, you can’t know for sure whether anything is going to be effective for you, until you try it. Even the most talented, qualified, experienced medical doctor, operating in conventional medicine, cannot know whether a surgery or drug is going to be effective on an individual patient. Their knowledge and experience may give them a good hunch, but any good doctor will tell you, patient outcomes are never guaranteed.

The two most important questions to ask…about any treatment

I would also argue that there are two sides to every coin. So, if you are asking, “is alternative medicine effective?”, you should also be asking about what harm it can do. Could the treatment kill you, or give you more symptoms? You might also consider less obvious “harms”, such as wasting your time or money, or giving you false hope.

And, you should be asking the same two questions about the treatment being offered by your conventional doctor. What are the possible side-effects of the treatment, and what percentage of people experience them? And, let me be provocative here: if your doctor can’t answer those questions, why should you blindly follow their recommendation?

Really, this is basic common sense in any decision-making process. What are the potential benefits? What are the potential harms? How likely is it that I will receive those benefits? And how likely is it that I will suffer those harms?

How do you make the right decision?

Once you have that information, you base your decision on how much you desire the benefits, versus your willingness to tolerate the potential harm. And there is no right or wrong answer there. Think of it this way: if you love jumping out of planes, you know that the potential risk is your own death. Yes, you do what you can to avoid that risk, but at the end of the day, you are willing to take the risk because the buzz you get from the experience makes you feel alive.

I have no wish to argue that everyone should be using alternative medicine. Or that everyone should avoid conventional medicine – or vice versa. In fact, we are beginning to live in a society where the terms “conventional” and “alternative” are becoming irrelevant. More and more practitioners from both sides of the “divide” are beginning to look for ways in which the two approaches can work together to support one another.

After all, don’t we all have the same common aim: to relieve suffering? So, rather than getting lost in the debate of who is right and who is wrong, let’s focus on researching what really works and what is a ‘nice idea’, but sadly ineffective.

If you want to delve deeper and explore what constitutes ‘solid research’ versus ‘pseudo-science’, then follow this link.


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