Shady medical therapies are seemingly everywhere, especially when it comes to discussions about cancer treatment. These therapies pose under the guise of the term “alternative,” or “complementary” medicine, which is currently practiced — or at least, somewhat tolerated — alongside mainstream medicine in the United States. The harm from alternative medicine occurs when people pursue it in place of effective and proven medical treatments. What do we call “alternative” medicine that works? Simply “medicine,” although there will probably always be no shortage of modern snake oil salesmen to argue otherwise. Of the hundreds of quack therapies out there, here are five that stand out.
Known as “touch” or “hands on” therapy, this has been promoted by none other than Dr Oz on his popular television talk show. Though practitioners proclaim its ancient roots, Reiki has a more modern origin in early 20th century Japan, developed by Buddhist Mikao Usui. Reiki advocates claim it channels a pervasive “universal energy,” healing the patient through touch therapy. Many Westerners are familiar with the concept of the traditional Asian belief in a universal life force, chi or qi. However, most medical professionals thoroughly reject the belief that a Reiki practitioner can take this life force into their palms and use it as a healing force. As with many other questionable alternative therapies, those who claim Reiki works are likely experiencing a placebo effect.
The idea is really not much more than a formalized-sounding version of massage therapy, and is similar to another alternative medicine practice, known as therapeutic touch. Less intrusive than acupuncture — itself a dubious form of treatment with a much longer history — many patients may see Reiki as an attractive and less painful alternative. Although a massage may sooth aching muscles, it won’t cure illness or disease. Some Reiki-based saunas are now even advertising infrared therapy, which is laughable from a scientific perspective, as infrared energy is merely known as “heat.”
4. Whole-Body Cryotherapy
A new form of alternative medicine coming into vogue, whole body cryotherapy involves encapsulation in a “cryo-sauna” and exposure to cold, dry air at -250 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s colder than the freezing point of carbon dioxide — for several minutes. This should not be confused with conventional medical cryotherapy, which is used to target, freeze and destroy specific tissue. Many use whole-body cryotherapy for weight loss, and while it’s true you burn more calories during periods of extended activity in the cold, cryotherapy exposures are too limited to have any measurable effect on calorie or fat burning. Deaths due to hypothermia have occurred during cryotherapy sessions as well: one patient was found dead in October 2015 at a Nevada-based cryotherapy center when she entered a tank the evening before without supervision. Like other fringe alternative medical practices such as urine drinking, we suspect the painful and repulsive process of submitting the human body to sub-zero temps is a passing fad. Perhaps it’s better to simply slap an ice pack on those sore muscles, or spend a little extra time on the treadmill to lose that weight.
3. Coffee Enemas
Otherwise known as a Gerson therapy method, we’ll spare you the explicit details of how these are performed. The central tenet of Gerson therapy, as espoused by founder Max Gerson in the early 20th century, holds that disease is caused by a build up of toxins, which can be purged using everything from orange juice to castor oil. Gerson proposed that, since coffee stimulates metabolism, coffee introduced into the body rectally would purge the liver of bile and toxins. But not only are coffee enemas ineffective, they’re potentially dangerous. Deaths have resulted from this practice due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and hyponatremia, or low sodium levels in the blood leading to heart, liver and kidney failure. The FDA has warned patients about the dangers of coffee enemas, though many Americans still head to Gerson therapy centers in Mexico for treatment. Frankly, we can think of a much better orifice in which to insert caffeine.
2. Magnet Therapy
Powerful magnets are used in mainstream medicine in MRI machines, and electromagnetic fields remain a controversial method for cancer tumor treatment. The idea behind magnet therapy as an alternative treatment is that, if iron is present in blood, shouldn’t wearing permanent magnet bracelets have an effect? Turns out, iron in hemoglobin is only weakly magnetic, which is why your blood vessels don’t explode inside a powerful MRI machine. Unfortunately, celebrities and even athletes sometimes buy into this one, and can often be seen wearing magnetic bracelets extolling their virtues in treating arthritis, stiffness and other ailments.
So if science has not shown magnet therapy as effective, why do so many people accept it as a viable treatment? Certainly, some people who claimed to have been helped (likely through the placebo effect) share their “cure” with family and friends. But as with other dubious forms of alternative medicine, an entire industry has formed around promoting magnet therapy; by some estimates, the sale of magnets for treatment each year in the U.S. is a $500 million business. With that kind of money at stake, there will be plenty of people quite willing to peddle false hope to make money.
A No. 1 target of alternative medicine skeptics, homeopathy is based on the idea that “like treats like,” and that dilutions of a toxin will treat an infection caused by the same. If you have a cold, for example, a dilution of the virus might cure it. The problem is, the dilutions quoted by homeopathic remedies are well below the molar limit: most likely, there isn’t a single molecule of the “active agent” in a given bottle of homeopathic medicine.
Some of the listed homeopathic treatments found online are hilarious and frightening at the same time, claiming to treat everything from syphilis to Ebola. Skeptics have not only exposed homeopathy, but highlighted its ineffectiveness by staging mock suicides using homeopathic sleeping pills. Homeopathy has its roots in the medieval idea that the human body has specific “humors” that must be balanced. Like the use of leeches and bloodletting, homeopathic medicine is best left in the history books.
One More: Alternative Cancer Treatments
What’s the harm? When it comes to cancer, people are often desperate, and will try anything in the hopes of a miracle cure … and certainly, chemo and radiation treatments are scary prospects, making promises of a easy cure much more attractive. The harm comes when con men take desperate patients for a ride, promising fake cures. Certainly, it’s difficult to watch family members undergo cancer treatments, and even harder to watch them pin there hopes (and savings) on ineffective or even dangerous treatments. Even the most intelligent people can fall prey to these mistakes; Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs held off medical treatment of his pancreatic cancer in favor of alternative medicine, and later admitted his error. Thankfully, science has led us out of the Dark Ages, and we no longer need to rely on medieval and ineffective forms of treatment.