Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Different (fast post)

There is a growing market for an amorphous group of activities and people sometimes referred to Alternative Medicine. Drek has asked on a couple of occasions why people turn to a type of medicine that often offers little scientific support for its claims. I'd like to talk about that for a bit, and kick in some open doors.

Personally, I don't believe that alternative medicine is necessarily a good thing, and it certainly is a mixed bag. I do, however, understand why people turn to it and have done so myself on quite a few occasions, though not regularly. When people come into contact with medicine, their first thought is not science. Their first thought is of whatever ails them, for obvious reasons. Whatever the scientific research is, most of us are not especially interested, nor, for that matter, would most of our doctors judge us fit to evaluate it.

A friend of mine summarises it well - she says that conventional medicine is good at dealing with things that are going to kill you fast. Cancer, broken legs, appendicitis - conventional medicine is where you want to be. However - sometimes more specialist knowledge is not a good thing. That sounds stupid, doesn't it? Told you I didn't have a good mind. But let me illustrate. One of my genetic fortune cookies is asthma - my dad has it, and while none of us quite has it, we all have miscellaneous, fairly minor allergy and respiratory issues. With one thing and another I ended up in the office of a lung specialist, who asked me questions without any interest in the answers, and tested me for common allergies, and prescribed five types of medication. No follow-up was scheduled, and my GP crossed three of these off the list. The other two did me absolutely no good (antihistamines never worked for me back then. at all). The point I am making here is that the person with the smaller amount of specialised knowledge, but better knowledge of me, my GP, very obviously made the better judgement call. No worries, I have no alternative medicine miracle story - I went to one person, and that didn't help, athough she gave me the most useful piece of advice of anyone - to cut down on the dairy. I was fifteen and did not listen, but it turns out that eating less dairy certainly helps.

Cut to another issue of mine. Ever since I was twelve I have suffered from excruciatingly painful periods. When I was fourteen, my doctor tried to put me on the pill. I refused, feeling like it was a very drastic solution to the problem. It was also the only thing on offer, so I went on with painkillers. Years and years later I ended up in a doctor's office in Houston, Texas, with some very strange muscle pains. The doctor there asked some very perceptive questions and told me two things: that this was related to my cycle, and that I should stop drinking coffee, and see a doctor in the UK (where I was living at the time). Good advice - the muscle pains went, and when I finally saw that British doctor, she told me to take oil of evening primrose. Meanwhile, my doctor back home told that there was no relationship between the coffee and my pain, and that the pill was the only thing that was going to help. Now, I'll stick to what works, and came to the conclusion that between avoiding coffee and taking oil of evening primrose, I was off my half package of ibuprofen every month. Oil of evening primrose is accepted as an effective way of treating PMS and cramps in the UK; but not, it seems, anywhere else. Oil of evening primrose is a precursor to our natural anti-inflammatories, and can also help treat arthritis. If there are side effects then I have not found them. I can't even begin to tell how big an impact it has had on my life to not be practically crippled for two to four days every month.

One more story - one day when I was living in Hungary I ended up in the ER at 4 am with acute abdominal pain. They ran every test they had, misdiagnosed me about five times, then misdiagnosed me with a back injury, and sent me home the next day for ten days. The pain treatment worked to some extent, but I nonetheless ended up in yet another hospital, with more tests, no information at all, no explanations at all. They sent me home with another test to go, a test which turned up some possible reasons, but on which they did not follow up. The only thing that kept me from going crazy during this time, other than my friends, was a visit to a chiropractor/accupuncturist - they had told me I had a back problem, right? He told me that I did, in all likelihood, have a back problem. He was exceedingly patient, attentive, and thorough, and relieved any remaining pain.

Still no miraculous healings through alternative medicine? Not really, no. I have seen a few happen, yes, but that is not my point. My point is that what alternative medicine tackles is not so much the lack of knowledge of conventional medicine, but its attitude problem. No chiropractor, reiki healer, accupuncturist or herbalist has ever refused to talk, or listen to me. Many (about four) specialised MD's have. In terms of treating such issues as the ones I cite above, conventional medicine has proved, for me, to be as much of a mixed bag as any other kind of treatment. The single most effective thing I found, oil of evening primrose, is recommended by doctors and herbalists in the UK, but only by herbalists in the US. With so much science being a subject of debate, and with experience yielding such mixed results, it becomes hard to choose who to trust, and I find it hard to blame people for choosing the gentler, friendlier branch, the branch which, for example, didn't tell them twice, on both occasions without any real evidence, that they might end up having cancer (and were proved to be wrong)*.

It pays to think for yourself, right? While I have come to the point where I trust neither alternative nor conventional medicine, I am pleased to give credit to the alternatives I experienced for not inflicting harm on me; for being honest; for being clear; for listening. I can't tell you how much I wish that I could say the same about the doctors**.

*a lovely anecdote which I will spare you
**maybe I should say specialist, because generally the GPs have been better

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