Herbs and Acupuncture: “Real” Medicine?

Sometimes when a parent is talking about her sick child, I hear about things they have already tried to make the kid better.   Usually these are the regular things like pain medicines or hot compresses.  Sometimes parents try things that sound wacky- blowing cigarette smoke in the child’s ear for ear pain, taking the child to a traiteur, or rolling hot coins on the child’s back (for chest congestion).  Many parents are afraid to tell their doctors about such “alternative medicine” practices, for fear that the doctors will fuss at them for not sticking to ”traditional,” science-based medicine.

I try not to be judgemental when parents tell me such things (except for the cigarette smoke- c’mon!).  First, I want parents to feel safe that they can tell me everything I could use to figure out what’s wrong.  Some experts say that as many as one third of all patients use some alternative medicine along with traditional medicine, and I want to hear about it. 

Secondly, I can’t be too judgemental because much of traditional medicine has not actually been tested in a scientific way.  Science examines medicines and therapies by “blinding” the people being treated and the doctors giving the treatment.  In other words, neither doctor nor patient know who is getting the true medicine, or a placebo (fake medicine).  Thus their biases and feelings about whether something will work or not will not sway the results.  Experts figure that only about one third of traditional treatments, medicines, and surgeries have been tested scientifically!

Fortunately, nowadays modern medicine is cleaning house.  A movement  called “evidence-based medicine” is testing all current practices, tossing out those that truly don’t help, and promoting those that do.  Some traditional medicines are being thrown out, like cold medicines.  Other medicine’s uses are being modified, like careful use of antibiotics.  Surgical techniques are being discarded or improved with a more scientific knowledge of their usefulness.

Scientific medicine is also starting to test alternative medicines and practices  like herbs, acupuncture, and chiropracty.  (By the way, many modern medicines are herb-derived, like digoxin (foxglove) and aspirin (willow bark), so what is really traditional versus alternative?)  There is now some evidence that treatments like acupuncture and probiotics may have value.  Other treatments, like St. John’s wort, have been shown to have bad side effects.   Good studies of alternative medicine are just getting started, so stay tuned.

In the mean time, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about all treatments you have tried.  Your doctor should be up on the latest about alternative medicine, and be able to guide you about what is safe and effective, what is not, and what we don’t know yet.  One thing is absolutely for certain- cigarette smoke is really, really bad.  Please leave that off your child’s treatment plan!

5/16 Addendum: Red Lerille cornered me today at the gym and asked jokingly, “Hey, what’s wrong with traiteurs?”  I answered, “Absolutely nothing, they can only help!”   I believe in the power of prayer.  In fact, scientists have actually done studies to see if prayer helps make people get better.  The answer: they can’t be certain yet, but maybe!

2 thoughts on “Herbs and Acupuncture: “Real” Medicine?

    • Certainly there is no harm going to a traiteur, whose main therapy is prayer! However, your point is well taken. The whatstheharm website catalogs individual incidents of harm with unregulated alternative treatments, like someone getting HIV from an acupuncture needle. That is the reason why we need serious studies of these practices: Which truly help? Which are harmless? Which are dangerous?

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