An Inclusive Litany

4/8/02

In 1992, at the behest of Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Congress allocated $2 million for an Office of Alternative Medicine within the National Institutes of Health. (Harkin believed bee pollen cured his allergies, and wanted further study of the matter.) In 1998, the NIH established a more comprehensive National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) devoted to the rigorous scientific testing of various "alternative medicine" practices. As of 2002 its budget has grown to over $100 million. Coupled with the establishment of major academic research centers devoted to the subject at Harvard, Columbia, Duke, and the University of Arizona, the number of studies of alternative medicine therapies has been doubling every five years.

The NIH has studied not only meditation, acupuncture and herbalism, but a wide variety of lesser-known practices. For example, reflexology is based on the belief that pressing specific zones on the hands or feet can heal ailments in other parts of the body. Practitioners of therapeutic touch move their hands over a subject's entire body to decongest and balance a subject's energy field. Proponents of iridology claim they can diagnose illness by studying patterns on the iris of the human eye. Homeopathy is based on the notion that various substances used for medicinal purposes (such as belladonna, garlic, zinc and ambergris) become more powerful the more they are diluted, sometimes extremely so, and that water retains a "memory" of their presence. (Patients are thus given water as medicine.) Inserting a burning candle in the ear canal is supposed to remove impurities from the brain and sinuses. Colonic irrigation involves running a tube through a subject's rectum in order to cleanse the intestines with warm water. Magnet therapy, which merited a $1 million study, is based on the 18th-century belief that blood circulation can be improved by mounting magnets at various points on the body. Chelation involves infusing chemicals into the blood in order to purify it, supposedly curing ailments such as arteriosclerosis. Leech therapy is well known. And, based on the mistaken assumption that sharks do not get cancer, shark cartilage has been touted as an effective treatment of advanced colorectal or breast cancer, good enough for another $1 million study.

While such studies are supposed to determine, once and for all, whether these heterodox treatments have any therapeutic value, many researchers regard them as a joke, and suspect the NIH is unwilling to come to any solid conclusions and would rather call for more studies. "It's been about eight years now," says Stephen Barrett, an M.D. who runs the Quackwatch.com website. "They've never said that anything didn't work."

Chris Mooney writes in the Washington Monthly that one acupuncture practitioner he encountered during a trial of its effectiveness against carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Xiao Dong Cai of Chevy Chase, Maryland, voiced nervousness not only at the obvious prospect of the treatment's failure, but also of its success. The study required that only one of three patients have needles inserted into points which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, help balance the body's "energy." It also required that Dr. Cai not offer any individualized treatment to detect each patient's "energy field" while inserting the needles. If it turned out that all you had to know was exactly where to insert the needles, acupuncturists would be superfluous. Thus, he said the ideal outcome of the study would probably be "if the result is in between." Even studies that seemingly discredit alternative therapies are often considered inconclusive by their proponents. "When you push them against the wall," says Yale neurology professor Steven Novella, "I've had more than one say to me, 'well, it's really hard to prove something doesn't work.' "

To illustrate this difficulty, Mooney relates another story of a team of Harvard researchers who traveled to a remote mountain site in Northern India in order to verify whether a certain Tibetan monk could dramatically increase his body temperature using a technique of intensive meditation called "tumo," allowing him to perform feats such as steam-drying a freezing wet sheet draped across his back. After being wired with a web of lightweight thermistors, the tumo master set about to meditate, but nothing extraordinary happened all that time. The monk later sheepishly explained through a translator that he was unable to "turn the corner" in his meditation and so failed to achieve the "bliss consciousness" that tumo requires, all because of the invasive rectal thermometer the researchers inserted to measure the phenomenon.

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