Why alternative care seems to work

People sort of want to try alternative care.  They’re working up to it, but then they read more about it; they read about the theory and they say, “No I don’t believe that theory.  That can’t possibly work.  There’s nothing to it. I’m not going to do it.”  But, the problem is that the theory of why something works or the explanation is not necessary related to the effect of how things actually work.

Here’s a simple example. Suppose I believe that light is a liquid, and it travels in pipes in the wall.  And I believe that when you turn on the light switch, the light travels up the pipes in the wall, over the ceiling, and comes out of the light bulb and radiates/evaporates light into the air.  Is that true? Is that a good explanation of light? Probably not!  But that doesn’t mean that the light switch doesn’t work for me.  If I turn on a light switch it’s going to work no matter what I believe about how the light comes out of the fixture in the ceiling.

And so let’s think about alternative care that way, and let’s just take two common examples. Chiropractic:  Many, many millions of people use chiropractic and are happy with it. The explanations for chiropractic are originally related to vertebral subluxations (which can’t be noticed on xray) that somehow interfere with nervous transmission in the body causing all kinds of problems.

You don’t have to believe that necessarily to go a chiropractor and get help for your back pain.  In fact, many people don’t even care about the explanation; they just go to the chiropractors and get help.  So, the explanation and the effect are not the same or not necessarily even related.

The same is true, I think, of acupuncture, which is another common modality — increasingly common in the western world — that was really developed in ancient China in a prescientific era.  The Chinese developed these theories of energy flow (or Ch’i) in the body, along channels related to meridians; and all of that define the practice of acupuncture.

There’s no scientific basis for any that.  None of it can be measured as far as we know, in our scientific world today.  That’s a totally separate question than, “Will the practice of acupunc­ture help my pain get better?” or help me feel better, or help me with my problem.  And many, many people are accepting that acupuncture works for them.  It doesn’t mean necessarily that it works in the way that it has been traditionally explained for thou­sands of years.

So this is kind of what I’m talking about.  Don’t get so hung up on the explanation that you don’t believe in, that you’re unwilling to try a practice that might actually help you.  Just keep an open mind.  You don’t have to know everything about how things work; you just have to know that they work. Just like, do I really understand electricity or do I just know that if I turn the light switch, the light comes on?

A good example, I think from western medicine is this drug Lunesta.  You’re probably familiar with it.  It’s the little butterfly that flies around on the commercial while the lady is trying to get a good night sleep and the commercial talks about how Lunesta can help you sleep.  And at the very end of the commercial, the very very end, there’s this little statement, something like, “The mechanism of action of Lunesta is unknown” or “How Lunesta actually works is unknown.”

Or, “We just don’t know how this stuff works basically.”  So, this is a widely prescribed drug, market leading drug, many many doctors are writing for it, the drug company is making it, the FDA has approved it, and no one knows how it really works!  We just know it helps people sleeps.  That’s okay.

Transfer that theory into alternative care.  We don’t know how all those practices work either but they seem to work to help people. So free up your mind a little bit. Don’t get hung up by explanations that don’t make sense to you.  If you think the practices are safe and they might help you, open your mind a little bit give them a try. Leave the explanation behind and do what works for you.

Peter J. Weiss is an internal medicine physician and former health plan CEO.  He is author of More Health Less Care and can be reached at More Health, Less Care: Building America’s Wellness System.

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