ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE FOR DUMMIES, by James Dillard and Terra Diane Ziporyn. Hungry Minds, Inc.

These books are all subtitled “A Reference for the Rest of Us!”. Perhaps I’m prejudiced but as far as I’m concerned, dummies is a better term for anyone who uses alternative medicine. Having said that, this book, written by a chiropractor and a science writer with a PhD in the history of medicine and science, is not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

I couldn’t be bothered grinding my way through the lot, but I did read the introduction, the chapter on chiropractic (because of the author) and those on homoeopathy and naturopathy. I then skimmed through various other chapters on Chinese and Indian traditional medicines, acupuncture, osteopathy, and aromatherapy. I guess the main problem with this book is that as part of a series, the objective is to sell books rather than to inform. In an effort to avoid offending anyone, including so-called conventional medical practitioners, it has a bob each way on just about everything.

The introduction is probably the worst example of this. Controlled, randomised, double-blind clinical trials are described as the “gold standard” of evidence. It makes the point that often alternative studies rely on anecdotal evidence or other less than perfect techniques. This is repeated in all the chapters that I studied, with the caution that if you have a serious physical illness, you should see an MD. Good sensible advice, which is then undercut in almost every chapter by saying that if you haven’t got a serious physical illness by all means go with what feels good, and that double-blind trials are not the be-all and end-all of medical evidence. Of course they’re not, necessarily, but in the section on acupuncture for instance; little evidence is offered other than the idea that “2500 years of History Can’t Be All Wrong”.

The section on chiropractic is the most interesting because one of the authors is both an MD and a chiropractor. It completely avoids the wild claims made in the past, explaining that it is only good for back pain and related problems, and then only for non-chronic types.

It goes on to explain that most back pain goes away no matter what you do, and that chiropractic is good for back pain largely because patients get “satisfaction” from it. (This satisfaction seems to be a major reason for indulging in almost any alternative therapy according to these authors, and in my mind shows one of the problems with conventional medicine, that perhaps not enough attention is paid to the emotional state of the patient.) Almost every treatment has a small section on possible complications, and in this case these are glossed over in that the problems associated with rapid neck twisting are not mentioned at all.

The authors are a little harder on most other types of treatment, for instance homoeopathy is called a science — in inverted commas. The points are made that it may delay or prevent treatment for serious illness, and that you are in fact taking nothing. To avoid offending the homeopaths too much, however, a couple of meta-analyses from the Lancet and British Medical Journal are thrown in which allegedly show effects more powerful than a placebo.

Naturopathy fares equally badly. To be fair though, the lifestyle changes promoted by naturopaths are represented as safe and good for you, and of course a healthy diet and regular exercise probably are.

One thing I do like about this book is that it invariably recommends seeing a conventional physician first to rule out a serious condition before you see an alternative medical practitioner. Alternative medicine in these cases is used as complementary therapy, and just involves extra expense.

Readers are also told to make sure they tell their physicians and their complementary therapists just what treatment they are receiving from each to avoid complications. Again sensible advice, but one wonders if it is done out of the sense of conviction or just to avoid litigation from the American market if someone reads the book, takes the advice, and has something horrible happen to them afterwards.

I must admit to being in two minds about this sort of book. On the one hand this is a series with some clout, I myself have used some of their sister publications, particularly those on computing, and I feel that this association gives it an authority it possibly doesn’t deserve. On the other hand it’s nice to see the book written by people who obviously support alternative treatments being relatively objective about them, and if I knew any dummies who were determined to seek out alternative therapies I would prefer them to read this book rather than any other.

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