Alternative Medicine Studies

Alternative Medicine Studies

As an evidence-based website, Berkeley Wellness depends on studies. For every topic we discuss, we pull together the relevant research and evaluate it. It’s great to find convincing, well-designed studies that truly help resolve the questions at hand (Is this drug or supplement worth taking? Is it healthier to eat X or Y?). Unfortunately, many studies are seriously flawed and just muddy the waters.

Over the years, I’ve been dismayed, in particular, by much of the research funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), set up in the late 1990s as part of the National Institutes of Health. Yes, it has funded some good studies— for instance, on massage for back pain, saw palmetto for prostate problems, glucosamine for arthritis, ginkgo for dementia and echinacea for colds—which we’ve reported on. But more often the studies have been poorly designed or else not worth doing at all (coffee enemas for cancer? prayer to heal AIDS?). The price tag: more than $125 million a year in taxpayer money, at a time when public funds are shrinking and lots of good research goes unfunded.

So I was pleased to see Stephen Barrett, M.D., highlight some NCCAM follies on his website and then to read a detailed exposé about them in the Chicago Tribune.

Especially questionable has been NCCAM-funded research on “energy medicine” such as Reiki and healing touch, which supposedly use nonmeasurable energy fields to treat countless ailments. A recent review published in Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies looked at five of these studies. The two well-designed ones found no benefits, while the three suggesting possible benefits were so poorly designed or biased that the reviewers concluded they were meaningless. In any case, the treatments are totally implausible from a scientific point of view.

What use are such studies? If the results are negative, scientists will say “why even bother to study such nonsense.” Meanwhile, proponents won’t accept the findings, often claiming that such therapies can’t be investigated by the scientific methods of Western medicine.

It’s tempting to think that by studying these therapies we’ll be able to disprove the nonsensical ones and figure out whether the more plausible ones help or not. But it rarely works that way. Bad studies settle nothing. And good studies, which have usually produced negative results (like the ones NCCAM funded about glucosamine, echinacea, ginkgo and saw palmetto), change few minds. The disproven products and therapies are still widely promoted and used.

Why do the studies if people won’t follow the science? At least let the proponents, not taxpayers, fund the studies—provided the studies are well designed and independently verified.

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