This morning an article in the newspaper about alternative therapies caught my eye. Apparently, the US government has spent about 2.5 billion dollars over the last decade studying the effectiveness of several alternative therapies and herbs.
The big news was that researchers concluded that most of the herbs and therapies studied don’t work, with a few notable exceptions. Acupuncture was shown to be effective for a number of health conditions, (Score one for acupuncture!) In addition, Yoga and massage were reported to be helpful for pain relief.
The herbs studied didn’t fare much better. Echinacea, Ginko, Black Cohosh, Saw Palmetto, and the other herbs studied were not found to be effective—again, with an exception. Ginger was found to be helpful in relieving nausea.
To be fair, experts quoted in the article said that when studying alternative therapies, there are a number of factors that are difficult to control. For example, there was some discussion as to whether or not the researchers studied the healing properties of the right kind of Echinacea.
Before we write off herbs as ineffective, I’d like to point out in Chinese medicine, individual herbs are rarely prescribed. Rather, a combination of herbs, or formula, is prescribed for each patient based on their specific condition and needs. As a patient’s condition changes, the formula may be modified for maximum effectiveness. It is also important to note that many of the drugs we use today from aspirin and laxatives to antimalarial drugs are derived from seemingly effective herbs.
A similar study on the effectiveness of alternative therapies on back pain was conducted in Britain by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). In addition to determining whether or not alternative treatments worked, NICE researchers also conducted a cost benefit analysis in order to make specific recommendations. Their findings—acupuncture and manipulative therapies (massage) provided cost effective relief and did no further harm to patients. NICE also made recommendations for what not to do, including X-Rays, MRI’s, and steroid injections, unless a more serious condition was suspected.
Some doctors in the UK are in an uproar over the NICE findings, especially those who believe that steroid injections are an appropriate and cost effective treatment for back pain. I’m sure US doctors will also be skeptical about acupuncture until scientific minds can determine exactly how it works—not just that it works.