Monday, January 14, 2008

Observable vs. Intangible, and Alternative Medicine

I am sometimes caught between two ways of looking at the world; one observable, and the other intangible. Anyone with a science (me, applied physics) or engineering (Harmony, polymer engineering) degree should have learned to place a heavy emphasis on observation. A scientific breakthrough, radar signal, or a voltage measurement cannot be verified if it cannot be observed. For the scientific community, lack of observable evidence means your findings are almost completely invalid. And so Harmony and I are tempted to scoff at some alternative medicines, whose claims are sometimes debunked by clinical trials, sometimes not.

On the other hand, while we are scientists by education, we are also Christians who fully believe that there is more to the universe than what our senses can perceive. There is more to the universe than what science can confirm. So logically, we cannot automatically dismiss alternative methods or placebo treatments just because science cannot confirm their efficacy. We might inadvertently be dismissing our faith as well. Of course, I do not consider alternative medicine and God to be on equal ground, so I do not place as much faith on the former.

I recently had my first-ever chiropractic visit. See bottom of post for optional info regarding that. Since the first visit, I’ve been thinking about various alternative medicines and practices out there, such as chiropractic, homeopathy, and naturopathy. All have their share of controversy, with studies purportedly showing that they have no real effect…or something. Yet they are still around, because apparently there is still some demand for them. Contrast with fields such as phrenology, which have fallen out of vogue. Do these alternative medicines really work, or is it just a large-scale application of the placebo effect?

Who Cares?
If they work for you, who cares whether or not it's a placebo effect? Several alternative methods make use of the body's purported ability to heal itself (in my opinion, a veiled reference to the placebo effect). Some might say that the healing effects of alternative methods are "all in your head." Perhaps it is. But you might sit there all day trying to think your problem away, and you might not feel any better at the day's end. Your problem might be that you don't believe yourself. My point is that your body might need an outside authority's coaxing and convincing before it got started on its job of healing itself.

I find it interesting that a placebo will probably not work without the faith of the recipient. If you tell the recipient that he is receiving a sugar pill, I would postulate that the pill would have no effect. However, if you tell that same patient “This has been shown to help,” that same sugar pill could have dramatic effects because the patient believed it would work.

A homeopathic practitioner might tell you "Drink this 10000x diluted mixture, it will help you feel better." If that $45-mixture-which-is-mostly-water does indeed help you feel better more quickly or stay better, I'd say that's money well spent, whether or not the treatment method is scientifically verifiable. If you can convince yourself to feel better, then you are in luck, because you are one of your own doctors. For you who cannot convince yourself, go to a chiropractor who will tell you that your halitosis and hemorrhoids are being caused by your misaligned 3rd lumbar and 5th thoracic vertebrae (respectively), and that this (*crack*) alignment should fix the problem.

(coincidentally or not, my torso is now straight, and the lower back pain has almost completely subsided. Perhaps the spinal adjustment helped, or perhaps my back just needed some time.)

All that said, don't think of me as a complete hippie yet. I am not 100% sold on any alternative medicine, but make efforts to keep an open mind ;) I like the idea of using food as preventative medicine and food to heal tolerable-but-still-unpleasant ailments, neither of which I believe are that alternative anyways.

So I ask you: what are your thoughts on alternative medicine? How have your experiences been? Is it all quack? Or do you think it actually had positive effects?

Optional background information:
While my parents were here over the 2007 holidays, I re-hurt my lower back while putting together some IKEA furniture that they had bought us. Re-hurt meaning that my lower back had been infrequently bothering me since 2001...laying dormant only to flare up at certain points in my life. Usually I just waited for it to go away, but this time I noticed that my torso was noticeably crooked. This had never happened before, so it was time for my first-ever visit to a chiropractor.

This was, of course, wildly different than any other "medical" type visit I've ever had. The venue looked more like an artsy coffee house than a doctor's office. New age music played while we sat on a comfortable couch and perused a book on homeopathic veterinary medicine (there was a bookshelf full of these types of books). We chose this slightly-more-alternative-than-normal(?) chiropractor because she had a very affordable fee. This was doubly important, as chiropractic coverage is not covered by our health insurance (I can sort of see why).

End optional background information.

Related Posts:

6 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Alan

    If there is "alternative medicine," one might reasonably ask, "alternative to what?" In other words, if this is the alternative, what is the default?

    The default could be called commercial-scientific medicine. For-profit medical research develops and then sells drugs to treat various diseases. Rarely if ever will conventional doctors prescribe a medication that does not come from commercial pharmacology. OTOH vitamins, herbs, and other food-based treatments are prominent parts of traditional eastern medicine. And in some cases scientific research supports the effectiveness of these treatments.

    For example, ginger makes a great anti-nausea treatment, as well as a great blood thinner. It contains a compound very similar to aspirin (which is derived from the bark of a tree). In fact, most of our drugs are based on substances found in plants -- some of which have been used as medicines by "alternative medicine" practitioners for millennia.

    So it's not always the placebo effect. OTOH there are undoubtedly lots of worthless treatments out there. Let the buyer beware.

  • Ron and Ginny

    There are not only worthless things out there, but spiritually harmful things out there. I will not give any particulars, but I think it would be a good idea to keep that in mind while delving into these particular things. Keep your ears open to the Holy Spirit... :-D

  • Samantha

    My 70-year-old mother is a deeply religious woman, who regularly receives massage and acupuncture, and only eats whole foods. She is healthier than I am! :-) (And I'm 31!)
    I fully believe that "alternative" forms of health-care can have profoundly dramatic effects on our ailments. I think that, as you said, food is the number one medicine. But supplementing with natural forms of physical therapy, vitamins, herbs, and tinctures can also be beneficial. These remedies are older than modern medicine. They have been around since the beginning, in one form or another. I cannot even begin to imagine in what way they could be spiritually harmful.

    Great post!! :-)

  • JunkMale


    Unfortunate that most, if not all, of prescribed medicines are from for-profit sources. It seems like a bit of a conflict of interest as far as Doc is concerned. I think I remember reading about some doctor who was willing to see lots of uninsured patients because he bypassed all the insurance bureaucracy. Because he did not deal with insurance companies, he did not have to employ many (if any) office staff, and thus kept his costs somewhat affordable. I believe I read that he would suggest a lot of OTC medicines and encourage people to call him at home and whatnot. Very common sense, seems like.

    Unfortunately, I have no idea where I read/heard about this guy. It might've been Clark Howard's radio show, or Harmony might've told me about it, or it might've been neither of those. Neither do I have any hint of what to Google for, if I wanted to find the original source of this info. So for now, it's all hearsay, and for all anyone knows, I could've made all this up. But I'm pretty sure I'm not making it up.


    While I myself am not too certain about what Ginny was alluding to, she could have been referring to something else entirely.


    Of course, I will use common sense and not delve into any treatments which would somehow be contrary to my Christian convictions. Thank you for the reminder :)

    Addressed to no one in particular,
    One cool thing about this chiropractor that I saw was that she mentioned that she would be open to working with us as far as payments go. Judging by some other conversational cues, we think she might even be open to bartering for services. We appreciate that.

  • Ewokgirl

    I have a friend who sees a homeopathic MD and swears by his treatments.

    I had another friend who saw a naturopath, but I could never see any discernible difference in her from that treatment. She felt bad all the time, and she continued to feel bad while seeing the naturopath. He cured nothing.

    I've been seeing a rheumatologist for several years because I have many of the markers for lupus, but my blood tests aren't always consistent, so he hasn't officially diagnosed me as yet. But when that potential diagnosis was first mentioned, I told my bible study group, which was also attended by the 2 previously-mentioned friends. Both came to me afterwards and told me their doctors could cure me. Considering that there is no cure for lupus, I found those claims to be bogus and somewhat offensive.

    But who knows? Maybe if I'd tried their doctors, I would have seen some relief. But I doubt it.

    I've seen a chiropractor for migraine relief. It mildly helped, but never cured me, as they often claim. It definitely helped with lower back pain, though.

    Several years ago my husband was the web developer for the local chiropractic college, and as such, we could receive free chiropractic care from a student who just needed the practical hours after completing classes. The guy I saw diagnosed me with spina bifida, which is a major birth defect. There is no way that was a correct diagnosis (and it totally came out of nowhere!), so I opted not to see him again because I didn't believe he knew what he was doing.

    But truly, the most "alternative" form of healing I've ever received was simply prayer. I've been a Southern Baptist my entire life, and we tend to be a pretty sedate bunch who avoid the more charismatic leanings, such as tongues, healings, etc. But a dear friend was raised charismatic and was used to the biblical form of healing through prayer and anointing with oil. He did that with me one night when a migraine hit, with all of our friends laying hands on me and praying. It was definitely a weird experience for this Baptist girl, but... it actually worked. No medication at all, and my migraine went away. Now THAT is something I'm willing to put my faith in!

    I think sometimes I forget to go the easiest route and just pray that the Lord will heal. I realize that he doesn't always answer that prayer (my husband still has kidney disease, after all, and lots of people have been praying for him), but sometimes it's in his will to heal us if we just ask.

  • Ariin

    In reading the response of Junkmale, I remembered reading about a chiropractor that bypassed the insurance bureaucracy. Here's the link I have: