Does cupping therapy really help patients recover? How about Acupuncture? Homeopathy? Reflexology? Reiki?
On the one hand, scientists say there is no evidence that these alternative therapies heal patients, however there are plenty of patients who claim that these treatments are beneficial. How can this conflict be explained?
Our bodies are prone to cope with diseases and so for every disease there is a chance that the body will successfully cope and recover by itself, without any medical intervention. Some diseases are low risk infections, such as colds, and some diseases are more dangerous and have high mortality rates. Thus, as in a gambler’s dice game, statistically there is always a chance the body copes with a disease and alternative therapy has a chance of working when the body can heal itself. Other times, medical treatments provided in parallel to alternative therapy are the explanation for curing a diseased body.
To find out if alternative therapy is more helpful than the chance of self-healing, scientists conducted a simple experiment. They took a group of patients and divided it into 2 similar groups. One group received an alternative treatment, and the other group (called a control group) did not receive treatment. The results of the groups were then analyzed. If the alternative treatment group fared better and patients recovered, the treatment is declared a success. As Tim Minchin says: “Alternative medicine that has been confirmed is called medicine.” So, a treatment that has been tested against a control group and found to be successful ceases being an alternative treatment and becomes a scientific treatment.
Another reason that leads to the illusion that alternative therapies are beneficial is a regression to the mean or to the average. Basically, it means that extreme results do not last and most variables when measured several times will be closer to the average.
For example, suppose there is an average quality of movies. A film is released and is rated as exceptional in its uniqueness. It is very successful for many reasons, such as its filming, the crew, the time of the film’s release, and many other elements that enabled it to excel. It is very likely that the movie’s sequel will be less good because the chance of exceeding the average once again is low. And the sequel regresses to the average.
How does this relate to alternative treatments?
People who suffer from various ailments, try many medical treatments. When dealing with the ailment’s associated pain, there will be periods when the pain is unbearable, periods during which there is no pain, and most of the time the pain will be at an average level. What usually happens is that people in times of unbearable pain, want to do something about it. No matter what. They then willingly subscribe to any form of alternative medicine. Naturally, at some point the pain averages and people associate the withdrawal of pain as the treatment’s successful result.
The efficacy of a drug provided as treatment can also be tested. As described earlier, a group of patients is divided equally, one group receives the drug treatment and the other receives a placebo treatment (using a simulated drug), which is lacking in active substances. In the case of homeopathic medicine, the drug treatment will be some sort of water-soluble solution versus a placebo treatment that can simply be water from the tap with a sweetened flavor.
Volumes can be written on the placebo effect. This is a fascinating subject. It turns out that there are different levels of psychological effect of the placebo. For example, a large pill made of flour will affect more than a small flour pill. If the flour is painted in color, the psychological effect increases. A dummy injection affects more than a pill, and a sham surgery affects more than an injection. But the effect itself is only psychological, it is not a real cure.
The patient feels better, it is the care that was provided that makes the patient feel better. This raises another key question. Does the very fact that a person feels better mean that the person has really recovered?
In an experiment conducted by scientists, a group of asthmatics in a state of seizure was chosen. They were divided into three subgroups. One group received an inhaler with an active substance. A second group received an inhaler without active substances, and a third group received a sham treatment of acupuncture, in which a needle penetrates a cylinder tube and gives the illusion that the needle is penetrating the body. There is no known medical effect of the procedure.
As for the results, all the patients reported an improvement in how they felt. Can we conclude that the real inhaler does not really work? When the patients’ blood oxygen levels were examined only the patients who used the real inhaler showed an improvement in oxygen levels!
Feeling better does not mean any healing has been performed.
Feeling good, however, can definitely strengthen the body and improve the chances of recovery. Such is the case of medical clowns. Clowns brought to hospitals to entertain the patients can elevate their spirits, take them out of depression, and provide a better overall feeling. Positive thinking can definitely improve your chances of healing. But it is not a substitute for actual medical treatment. An amusing clown is not a substitute for antibiotics or heart surgery. I am quite certain that no one would want the medical clown to put a catheter on a patient.