5 Bizarre Alternative Medicine Practices

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Think that snake-oil salesmen are a thing of the past? Nowhere is pseudoscience more pervasive than in the world of sham medicine. In desperation, people will often pay big money for dubious treatments, or forgo rigorous but proven medical regimens such as chemotherapy for simple-sounding mock treatments. And although medical science has disproven many of these treatments time and again, they keep cropping up as genuine. Medical pseudoscience even made the news once again this summer, as many Olympic athletes, including U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, were spotted with red welts all over their bodies. The cause: They had all undergone an ancient Chinese technique known as cupping. But placing hot cups on your skin won’t get you the gold. Here are a few medical pseudoscience treatments that just won’t die.


5. Chromotherapy: Colors Balance ‘Vibrational Energy’

Chromotherapy proponents claim that treatment with colored lights can return a person’s “vibrational energy” to balance. Credit: Pinterest

Chromotherapy, or color therapy, claims that exposure to colored light can help balance the “vibrational energy” in the body. Proponents of color therapy believe that certain colors are linked to seven “chakras” on the body. Supposedly, if these chakras become imbalanced, disease and other maladies will result. This concept dates back thousands of years to Indian Ayurvedic medicine. But using chromotherapy really gained traction in the modern era when Dinshah Ghadiali published The Spectro Chromemetry Encyclopedia in 1933. It’s important to note that color therapy differs from light therapy, which is used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and certain types of depression and sleep disorders. Exposure to ultraviolet light is another separate but proven technique used to combat acne and other skin disorders.

Infrared light therapy is another form of dubious alternative medicine that has gained popularity in recent years. There’s another common name for infrared energy in science, simply known as “heat.” Ironically, many believers in IR treatments fear using microwaves to heat food. Like color therapy, this one’s right up there with “no-touch massage” for pure wackiness.


4. Iridology: Your Iris Holds the Secrets of Your Health

Iridologists believe that studying a person’s iris gives information on their overall health.

Known as iridology, this is the idea that nearly anything can be diagnosed simply by examining flecks in the patient’s eye. Modern iridology can be traced back to Swedish doctor Nils Liljequist, who published a chart supposedly linking various regions of the eye with parts of the body. Iridology became popular in the United States in the 1950s, mostly due to the work of chiropractor Bernard Jensen. Although a few real medical afflictions, such as jaundice, do cause noticeable changes in the color of the eye, the iris and lens of the eye is one of the few structures of the human body that isn’t renewed, and simply wears down over time.

Scientific studies of iridology have failed to prove any link between a patient’s eye and a medical diagnosis. In fact, several studies have found that Iridologists could not tell any difference between patients with diseases and healthy individuals. The Internet has helped iridology gain credence, just as other forms of alternative medicine have also thrived online. But you can find the facts online, too. For example, Quackwatch.com helpfully notes that, “If you encounter anyone practicing iridology, please complain to your state attorney general.”


3. Rolfing: Align Your Body With Gravity, Feel Better

Feeling out of alignment with Earth’s gravitational field? A little Rolfing therapy might help you. © WTH/Shutterstock.com

Like many pseudosciences, the concept of Rolfing is a smorgasbord of other older sham ideas, bundled up and presented as something new. Developed as a form of “structural integration” in the 1940s and ’50s by biochemist Ida Rolf, Rolfing posits that maladies stem from the energy field of the body and its misalignment with the gravitational field of the Earth. OK, the range of spinal issues suffered by modern humans is the evolutionary price we pay for bipedal locomotion, but you can “realign yourself” with the Earth’s gravitational field simply by lying down — no pricey treatments needed. Rolfing practitioners rely instead on what is termed “the recipe,” or a series of 10 sessions of massage-like tissue manipulations and body-movement training.

A number of pseudosciences, including Rolfing, have undergone a resurgence thanks to The Dr. Oz Show. By the way, Rolfing® is a registered trademark. And it is certainly not to be confused with the proven frat-party technique known as “ralphing,” or throwing up to expel a toxic substance such as alcohol from the body.


2. Earthing: Just Go Barefoot and You’ll Be Fine

Earthing proponents believe going barefoot can help balance your electrons with the Earth. © Lorenz Kerscher

Is modern life causing our bodies to lose equilibrium with the planet itself? Followers of the New Age craze of Earthing certainly think so, as they shove their feet into the sand or soil and seek to regain balance with the Earth. The concept of Earthing is loosely formed around the idea of static discharge, and returning the body to a natural state of electron charge. While the safety importance of, say, grounding yourself while handling explosives or gasoline cannot be emphasized enough, most of us have little need to routinely do this in our everyday lives. Earthing proponents claim that the practice reduces blood viscosity by generating or relieving additional charge on red blood cells, although no study to date has proven that any such benefit exists.

Earthing seems to have exploded in popularity in recent years, appealing to the same “back-to-nature” message espoused by the Paleo diet and the barefoot running movement. This works off of what’s known as the “naturalistic fallacy,” or the idea that anything natural, such as walking barefoot (a good way to get ringworm, by the way) is automatically healthy.


1. Psychic Surgery: Pretend Surgery Is Outright Fraud

Starting in the 1960s, psychics operating mainly in the Philippines and Brazil claimed they could remove malignant tumors and fix other health problems using their bare hands. These fraudsters were performing a simple magic trick, palming a sheep’s liver or bloody intestines to later produce as proof that “surgery” was performed. (Check out the strange video above, in which magician and skeptic The Amazing Randi debunks psychic surgery on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.) Many celebrities, including comedian Andy Kaufman, have fallen for the psychic surgery scam. Kaufman underwent psychic surgery in a desperate attempt to beat the cancer that eventually killed him, an incident depicted in the 1999 film Man on the Moon.

While psychic surgery had its heyday in the 1980s, the scam lives on in various guises, such as “therapeutic touch.” And for those afraid to go under the dentist’s drill, there are plenty of shills offering “psychic dentistry” for the gullible. The lesson in all this: Before you embrace an alternative medicine, be sure to do your homework.

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Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.