September, 2010 / Author:

Where no scientific evidence  exists, questions surround many practices

Sellers of snake oil have prospered through the ages, thanks to human need, suffering and gullibility. But mainstream medicine hasn’t been immune to the lure of questionable ideas. In the last century cigarettes were marketed as a health aid and were endorsed by many doctors. They not only smoked cigarettes but believed it was good for their patients.  

Western medicine has moved away from many of the dubious claims and cures it touted in the past. But there are many people who are not comfortable with its approach or satisfied by its shortcomings. They sometimes turn to alternative healing practices, despite the controversy that surrounds them.

Make sure you go in with your eyes open

Do alternative healing practices work? For some people, the answer is yes; for many others it’s a resounding no. Jim Threadkill, who suffers with arthritis and wants to lessen the pain, tried acupuncture at $80 per half hour. It didn’t help and he remains convinced that many alternative treatments for pain are simply money-making schemes that exploit the vulnerable and desperate.”Acupuncture may have helped for an hour but then the pain returned,” he says

Recently, he spent $2,000 on a series of treatments at a pain clinic. They included stretching exercises and vitamins but he figures the money was wasted. “If you’re in a lot of pain you do get desperate for relief and will try anything,” he says.

The better known examples of alternative therapies include naturopathy, chiropractic, herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine, meditation, massage, yoga, biofeedback, reiki, imagery, acupressure, bioelectromagnetic therapy, homeopathy, hypnosis and acupuncture.

The earliest known writings about herbal medicines date back to 2800 B.C. in China.

Pick up a copy of the local journal The Aquarian – billed as being ‘for the New Millenium’– and you will find an array of alternatives such as allergy elimination using bioresonance therapy at $60 an hour. You’ll also find yoga, pranic healing, Yamuna body rolling workshops, hypnosis sessions, ‘certified brainwave optimization training’ to help you with balance and harmony, usui Reiki  workshops, lightarian Reiki attunements, rebirthing breathwork sessions, spiritual readings, a meditation group called ‘light gatherers for peace’, past life regressions, Sufism and ‘channelled readings’, chakra readings and much more.

Some swear by these therapies, though cynics say they’re just a modern form of snake oil for the gullible.  Especially pretentious are the ads for something called “reconnective healing,” which is billed as a cure-all for reconnecting to the universe:

Supporters of alternative treatments often cite anecdotal evidence of efficacy but there are some well-known believers, including Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England.

A 1998 review of studies assessing alternative medicine prevalence in 13 countries concluded that about 31 per cent of cancer patients use some form of complementary and alternative medicine. Alternative medicine also varies from country to country. In Austria and Germany it is mainly in the hands of physicians. Estimates say at least half of American alternative practitioners are also physicians. Degrees of acceptance of alternatives among traditional health practitioners clearly vary from country to country.

Government regulation and prosecution can weed out the worst of those offering fake or dangerous cures and therapies but desperate people will always provide new suckers for the unscrupulous to milk.

–Peter Carlye-Gordge is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, former producer for CBC and former Maclean’s writer. To comment on this or any other article in Outwords, write to

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