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Avoiding med quacks

Here, readers is my third instalment of advice on how to find the quacks peddling so-called alternative medicine.

15. They Promise Quick, Dramatic, Miraculous Results.

Often the promises are subtle or couched in “weasel words” that create an illusion of a promise, so promoters can deny making them when the “feds” close in. False promises of cure are the quacks’ most immoral practice. They don’t seem to care how many people they break financially or in spirit – by elation over their expected good fortune followed by deep depression when the “treatment” fails.

Nor do quacks keep count – while they fill their bank accounts – of how many people they lure away from effective medical care into disability or death.

Quacks will tell you that “megavitamins” (huge doses of vitamins) can prevent or cure many different ailments, particularly emotional ones. But they won’t tell you that the “evidence” supporting such claims is unreliable because it is based on inadequate investigations, anecdotes, or testimonials. Nor do quacks inform you that mega doses may be harmful. Megavitamin therapy is nutritional roulette; and only the house makes the profit.

16. They Routinely Sell Vitamins and Other “Dietary Supplements” as Part of Their Practice.

Although vitamins are useful as therapeutic agents for certain health problems, the number of such conditions is small. Practitioners who sell supplements in their offices invariably recommend them inappropriately.

In addition, such products tend to be substantially more expensive than similar ones in drugstores – or even health-food stores. You should also disregard any publication or Web site whose editor or publisher sells dietary supplements.

17. They Use Disclaimers Couched in Pseudo medical Jargon.

Instead of promising to cure your disease, some quacks will promise to “detoxify”, “purify”, or “revitalise”, your body; “balance” its chemistry or “electromagnetic energy”; bring it in harmony with nature; “stimulate” or “strengthen” your immune system; “support” or “rejuvenate” various organs in your body; “unlock your body’s healing ability”; or stimulate your body’s power to heal itself.

Of course, they never identify or make valid before-and-after measurements of any of these processes. These disclaimers serve two purposes. First, since it is impossible to measure the processes quacks allege, it may be difficult to prove them wrong. Moreover, if a quack is not a physician, the use of nonmedical terminology may help to avoid prosecution for practising medicine without a licence — although it shouldn’t.

Some approaches to “detoxification” are based on notions that, as a result of intestinal stasis, intestinal contents putrefy, and toxins are formed and absorbed, which causes chronic poisoning of the body. This “autointoxication” theory was popular around the turn of the century but was abandoned by the scientific community during the 1930s.

No such “toxins” have ever been found, and careful observations have shown that individuals in good health can vary greatly in bowel habits.

Quacks may also suggest that faecal material collects on the lining of the intestine and causes trouble unless removed by laxatives, colonic irrigation, special diets, and/or various herbs or food supplements that “cleanse” the body. The falsity of this notion is obvious to doctors who perform intestinal surgery or peer within the large intestine with a diagnostic instrument.

Faecal material does not adhere to the intestinal lining. Colonic irrigation is done by inserting a tube into the rectum and pumping up to 20 gallons of water in and out. This type of enema is not only therapeutically worthless but can cause fatal electrolyte imbalance. Cases of death due to intestinal perforation and infection (from contaminated equipment) have also been reported.

18. They Use Anecdotes and Testimonials to Support Their Claims.

We all tend to believe what others tell us about personal experiences. But separating cause and effect from coincidence can be difficult. If people tell you that product X has cured their cancer, arthritis, or whatever, be skeptical. They may not actually have had the condition. If they did, their recovery most likely would have occurred without the help of product X.

Most single episodes of disease end with just the passage of time, and most chronic ailments have symptom-free periods. Establishing medical truths requires careful and repeated investigation — with well-designed experiments, not reports of coincidences misperceived as cause-and-effect.

That’s why testimonial evidence is forbidden in scientific articles, is usually inadmissible in court, and is not used to evaluate whether or not drugs should be legally marketable. (Imagine what would happen if the FDA decided that clinical trials were too expensive and therefore drug approval would be based on testimonial letters or interviews with a few patients.)

Never underestimate the extent to which people can be fooled by a worthless remedy. During the early 1940s, many thousands of people became convinced that “glyoxylide” could cure cancer. Yet analysis showed that it was simply distilled water! Many years before that, when arsenic was used as a “tonic,” countless numbers of people swore by it even as it slowly poisoned them.

Symptoms that are psychosomatic (bodily reactions to tension) are often relieved by anything taken with a suggestion that it will work. Tiredness and other minor aches and pains may respond to any enthusiastically recommended nostrum. For these problems, even physicians may prescribe a placebo. A placebo is a substance that has no pharmacological effect on the condition for which it is used, but is given to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine. Vitamins (such as B12 shots) are commonly used in this way.

Placebos act by suggestion. Unfortunately, some doctors swallow the advertising hype or become confused by their own observations and “believe in vitamins” beyond those supplied by a good diet. Those who share such false beliefs do so because they confuse coincidence or placebo action with cause and effect. Homeopathic believers make the same error.

19. They Claim That Sugar Is a Deadly Poison.

Many vitamin pushers would have us believe that refined (white) sugar is “the killer on the breakfast table” and is the underlying cause of everything from heart disease to hypoglycemia. The fact is, however, that when sugar is used in moderation as part of a normal, balanced diet, it is a perfectly safe source of calories and eating pleasure.

Sugar is a factor in the tooth decay process, but what counts is not merely the amount of sugar in the diet but how long any digestible carbohydrate remains in contact with the teeth. This, in turn, depends on such factors as the stickiness of the food, the type of bacteria on the teeth, and the extent of oral hygiene practised by the individual.

* To be concluded next week

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