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Alternative Medicine

Have you ever seen a post go across your Facebook, and you thought “Wow, I want to reshare that and comment on it, but I’ve got too much to say”? That’s what this post is.

Dennis Moser shared this really good article about the business of alternative/integrative/complementary medicine. Go read it. I’ll wait.

And, having recently been a patient of an “integrative medicine” practitioner—two, actually—I had some thoughts. One practitioner is a doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND), and one is a myofascial therapist. And although I am no longer seeing either of them (possibly temporarily, in the case of the myofascial guy), I kind of wanted to talk about the pros and cons of my experience—and why it leads me to agree with the article that, yes, this is big business, and this industry has some potential positives but desperately needs regulation. (That’s right, folks! Anecdata time!)

I should start by saying, if I hadn’t gone to the naturopath, I would probably not have had the blood test that told me I was sensitive to my three favorite food categories (gluten, dairy, and eggs [even duck eggs]). In helping me deal with those sensitivities and givingselling me supplements to help make up for the vitamin deficiencies they’d left me with, the naturopath improved my quality of life tremendously. So I’ll say this: when there’s “something weird going on” with large, seemingly unrelated parts of your body, maybe visiting a naturopath (a full ND, not just a chiropractor who likes herbs) is worthwhile.

I kept her as my primary care provider, though, and maybe that was a mistake. When my right foot started hurting, she gave me both good and bad advice, and the good outweighed the bad; it got better. When the left foot started hurting (look, guys, it’s been a rough year), she started to do the same thing… but it was totally unclear what was wrong or how to fix it. And she gave me the choice between a chiropractor and a podiatrist, with an emphasis on the chiropractor. I picked the podiatrist, but the one she referred me to was awful. She gave me a new referral, to a better one, when I complained. (I don’t believe for an instant that she meant to send me to a bad podiatrist, but I suspect she hasn’t had a lot of patients go against her preferences, when given the choice.) And then when my hips and thighs and lower back and eventually neck and right arm all started hurting, she referred me to the myofascial therapist. I think this was the right call; however, since the foot problem that caused all of the myofascial problems remains unresolved, I’ve kind of stopped going. I don’t see the point in fixing something I’m going to keep breaking.

The thing that made me stop seeing her wasn’t the foot. And it wasn’t their shady-ass billing department. It was when I realized that Traumeel, something she’d been telling me to use (and I’d been using) for over six months, had no actual ingredients in it.

Side note on homeopathy — this is a rant, with strong language

just water

In the specific case of Traumeel, I had read the ingredients, and I misread “Arnica montana 3X 1.5g” as meaning “1.5g of Arnica montana.” I’d skipped right over the 3X. If I’d considered it, I guess it was to assume it meant some kind of purification or something. But no. That notation refers to dilution. 3X means, if I read this right, that they took 1.5g (already a small amount) of Arnica, diluted it in 10 times as much water, took 1.5g of that, diluted it in 10 times as much water, and repeated the process one more time. Then they put that little bit of nothing (and a bunch of other little bits of nothing) into a 100g tube of otherwise inactive ingredients.

Now, I more or less understand the homeopathic theory of putting a tiny bit of something really bad for you into your system. That’s how allergy shots work, in essence, and allergy shots work. So, while there’s not much (any?) scientific support for doing that to treat other problems besides allergies, I can step back and say “I don’t think that’s going to work, but I guess knock yourself out?”

But why the fuck would any reasonable human being expect putting a minuscule amount—so little that measuring it is nearly impossible—of something good for you into your body would make any difference at all? Never mind that science says “no better than placebo!” Lots of people ignore science and go with their gut, for whatever reason. But even if you’re a gut-follower, how is this fucking logical at all? Wouldn’t it be more logical to use a measurable amount of something good for you to improve your health?!?

I’m not the first to rant about homeopathy—and certainly not the best. Tim Minchin has a fantastic rant that touches on homeopathy and a number of other topics, and it has been animated for your viewing pleasure.


I’m tapering off the supplements she suggested. I still feel better when I take B vitamins than when I don’t, so I do that. The fish oil has had a visible effect on my blood work (and the P.A. I’m seeing now suggests I keep doing it), so I’ll keep taking that. I keep taking multivitamins (P.A. agrees). And the “cortisol manager” she suggested really does help me get over anxiety and sleep, so I’ll keep taking that when I need it. Magnesium, too. But she had me on some other stuff of less clear value, and I’ll probably take what’s left of it (over time) and not buy more.

I guess here’s the flip side. I’m in a different kind of medical hell, now. I have a really great physician’s assistant (who works closely with a physician), a pretty good podiatrist, and I need to make an appointment with a hand therapist. The podiatrist told me to use a wheelchair, because every step I take slows the healing of my foot—he put it more strongly, actually. The hand therapist is—I will put money on this bet—going to tell me to stop using the wheelchair, because it’s hurting my hand. (And that is the truth. It is. The problem was originally a sprain in the joint of my right thumb, and it has not cleared up. But now—especially on days when I use the chair—my whole hand aches.) What’s extra funny is that my hips still hurt, so I can’t imagine one of those knee scooters is going to be a realistic option for me. If I were going somewhere “holistic,” I might stand a chance of getting one good recommendation, but I’m going to two specialists and a generalist, and I’m going to get 100% conflicting advice. There will be no right answer.

(Also, I’m going to write a post about being in a wheelchair. I have lots to say. And I want to do more research to see if this is my hangup or something normal for the differently-abled, but I find it incredibly disempowering to be pushed in my chair, depending on the person and the context. It doesn’t bother me to be pushed by Dale (husband) or by my best friend. It didn’t bother me when a nurse did it, after surgery, one time. But I get really deeply uncomfortable and stressed out at the thought of a coworker pushing my chair—at least, beyond a quick shove in the direction I wanted to go, which one coworker did, once, and it didn’t really bother me. This is all to say that I don’t consider “get pushed in my chair at work” to be an option.)

So I guess my point is, maybe there’s room for both medicine-medicine and “alternative medicine.” But I will keep looking at the scientific studies behind every supplement I take, just as I do for every drug, and I hope that all of you will subject your supplements to similar scrutiny! If you’re not already aware of it, I recommend checking out Snake Oil, from the Information is Beautiful folks, who have done a lot of this work for you. Pay careful attention to the “worth it line,” and be sure to mouse over anything that shows up to see what it has actually been proven to treat.

To good health!

Published inon a personal note


  1. Liz

    Have you thought about getting re-tested for food sensitivities by a non-naturopath? I mention this only because I did a lot of research when I was feeling like total crud earlier this year and a nutritionist advised this food sensitivity test. When I did a whole bunch of research it turns out that the test, while popular among alternative and complementary medicine adherents, is not trusted by many mainstream doctors because it causes a lot of false positives. I don’t know if it’s the same test, but I thought I’d mention. For the record, my problem turned out to be a mild case of lactose intolerance and a severe vitamin D deficiency. (I was at 10! Normal is 25-100.)

    And yes, those feelings are common among those with decreased mobility. You don’t mind Dale helping because you don’t mind giving up some of your autonomy to him. But letting someone else do it takes away a lot of your agency as an individual. This is particularly challenging for someone who has never had a disability or dealt with a (non-elderly) family member’s mobility issues.

    • So there is a test that’s reliable? Or none of the tests are considered reliable?

      The naturopath did warn me that the test wasn’t entirely conclusive.

      They found my vitamin D and B12 deficiencies, with that test (or another one at the same time), too.

      It’s good to know my feelings are normal. Are they also normal for people who have been disabled for a longer time?

  2. […] I felt seriously pressured, with some of the advice (which included a couple of branches of alternative medicine), to the point that it got really awkward. I’m not sure I can put my finger on how to do all […]

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