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I Visited a Chickasaw Healer and All I Got Was an Elk Sinew and Buffalo Horn Bracelet

Which headline is real?

  • I Visited a Alchemist. As American alternative chemistry grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional transmutation of metals.
  • I Visited an Astrologer. As American alternative astronomy grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional stargazing.
  • I Visited a Bloodletter. As American alternative medicine grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional treatment.
  • I Visited a Chickasaw Healer. As American alternative medicine grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional treatment.

Difficult? They are similar in that alchemy, astrology, bloodletting and (as we will see) Chickasaw healing are not based on reality. Bloodletting, as best I can determine, is not offered in the US, at least based on the notion of an imbalance of the 4 humors. I have no doubts that a reader will find a practitioner, likely with Hepatitis B and C, somewhere in the US. Probably in Sunnydale.

It was the final option, from The Atlantic. Given their medical reporting in the past, I would not be surprised if any of the above headlines originated in that magazine. This gets to an issue I have with all media. There are two things about which I have expertise: infectious diseases and SCAM. So often the media get both wrong, although I probably notice more when they get it wrong in the areas of my expertise. If they get it so wrong in areas about which I know something, how can I trust the veracity of reporting in all the areas where I have no knowledge?

Still, The Atlantic is perhaps unique among major periodicals in how often they offer up blogging material for me. After setting the stage of the treatment rooms the author, well, embarrasses himself. Watch in amazement as a single paragraph contains perhaps a world record’s amount of fertilizer by a writer who evidently isn’t particularly interested in, well, let’s say completeness:

…alternative medicine has reached an all-time high among ailing Americans. And it’s not just hippies on podunk ashrams–the government, too, has taken note. U.S. taxpayers have devoted $1.5 billion to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health, a center that researches techniques like acupuncture, yoga, and tai-chi. The University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine has received $25 million from the NIH for research and offers a treatment in which a healer floats his hands over a patient’s body, as my medicine man did.

…alternative medicine has reached an all-time high among ailing Americans.” Not referenced, of course, but the only way alternative medicine gets to an all-time high is by defining interventions like diet and exercise as alternative. From 2002 to 2007, according the NCCAM, CAM use went from 36% to 38%, but what CAM was being used?

When you look at the breakdown of the 10 most used therapies it is mostly supplements and exercise. Therapies divorced from reality like energy therapy and acupuncture are not on the list, with the only wackaloon therapy being homeopathy at 1.8%. Most of the popularity in CAM is the due to broad definitions as to what constitutes ‘alternative’. But as has been pointed out CAM is a brand, not a definition.

U.S. taxpayers have devoted $1.5 billion to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health, a center that researches techniques like acupuncture, yoga, and tai-chi.

Note the $1.5 billion is money wasted. Not a single effective intervention has been found by the NCCAM.

Mielczarek and Engler[16] examined the grants and awards funded by NCCAM from 2000 to 2011, which cost a total of $1.3 billion. Their study showed no discoveries in complementary and alternative medicine that would justify the existence of this center. They argued that, after 20 years and an expenditure of $20 billion, the failure of NCCAM is evidenced by the lack of publications and the failure to report clinical trials in peer-reviewed scientific medical journals. They recommended NCCAM be defunded or abolished, and the concepts of funding alternative medicine be discontinued.

There was a link on The Atlantic site to another article, “America’s Shame: Our Ketchup Packets“. The Atlantic got it wrong again. It’s not ketchup packets, it’s the NCCAM. Note that yoga and tai chi, forms of exercise, that are somehow magically transformed into complementary and alternative medicine. Huh. Who would have suspected?

The University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine has received $25 million from the NIH for research and offers a treatment in which a healer floats his hands over a patient’s body, as my medicine man did.

That NIH grant may rank as one of the most appalling I have ever seen. They are going to use reiki and acupuncture, placebos with no plausible mechanism of action, on shock trauma patients to help with pain management. I cover ID patients in our local Level One trauma center. I see how guns and cars and falls can shred a human. To use these worthless therapies on those patients is horrible. I have to wonder if the University of Maryland uses the same IRB as the Burzynski Clinic. And as I think about it, the Grant announcement was from 2007. Shouldn’t there be results by now? Or is that another $25 million flushed down the toilet?

The “healer floats hands over a patient’s body” links to an ‘about us‘ page for a therapeutic touch clinic in Edmond, Oklahoma. Weird. Maybe the author likes the graphic or maybe The Atlantic web page editor is as facile with links as I am with spelling.

That being said, there is no human energy field. If we can pick up the Voyager broadcasting with the power of refrigerator light bulb, 23 watts, from over 10 billion miles from earth, than we should be able to find a human energy field. But pseudo-medicine proponents do not use the term energy in a way that is defined or associated with physics. As Dr. Mielczarek has pointed out at the Society for Science-Based Medicine (sfsbm.org, nice site, check it out):

The fields generated by physical processes associated with human physiology are of the order of 0.004 milligauss. There is no evidence that these fields can be manipulated or tuned to affect human biochemistry for healing purposes. Furthermore there is no evidence to support claims that certain individuals can emit fields large enough for healing purposes. The postulate of an unsubstantiated biomagnetic medically healing energy field, of 2 milligauss which can only be generated by certain individuals, (Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, Qiqong, practitioners) fails all tests of science. This misconception, that an unsubstantiated, biomagnetic energy field which eludes all science based investigation but nevertheless transmits energies large enough to create healing flies in the face of all scientific reasoning and the laws of physics. Thus the Division of Biological Physics of the American Physical Society deplores attempts to mislead the public based on claims by practitioners of Therapeutic Touch, Reiki or Qiqong that they can generate fields which are sources of healing energy. This claim has no basis in physical theory or experiment.

Then The Atlantic asks:

But is this all pure snake oil?

Well, if he had a bit of understanding of reality he could have saved himself some time and money. The answer is yes. Snake oil.

I wanted to find out if there’s some truth to a therapy that doesn’t rely on traditional biological mechanisms.

Traditional biologic mechanisms. You mean fantasy-based mechanisms since there are no human energy fields?

What then occurs is a healing ritual. And healing rituals are important and do have effects. They do not alter any important physiologic parameters but they do make you feel better. The best example is the NEJM asthma/placebo study, where placebo interactions with the medical-industrial improved subjective, but not objective, aspects of asthma.

The author relaxed while

lying on a massage table draped in Native American quilts

while being massaged.

It is a form of social grooming with a side of mysticism . Monkeys do it although they do not get charged 50 bucks for doing it.

Primates provide perhaps the best example of this activity. Primatologists have called grooming the social cement of the primate world. The trust and bonding it builds is critical to group cooperation. Among primates, social grooming plays an important role in establishing and maintaining alliances and dominance hierarchies, for building coalitions, and for reconciliation after conflicts…Primates groom socially in moments of boredom as well, and the act has been shown to reduce tension and stress. It is often associated with observed periods of relaxed behaviour, and primates have been known to fall asleep while receiving grooming.

So many of the alternative therapies appear to be a ritual of relaxation combined with touch, tarted up with spiritual or pseudo-scientific nonsense. In this case it was:

energy of an eagle (from above, with opportunity for perspective) or a bear (on my level, with greater confrontation).

and the author recognizes:

there is a certain mind-cleansing element to abandoning yourself to the motions of this ritual.

If I spend an hour relaxing on a soft table with a massage and hypnotic noise in the background, I would be the better for it, all a more likely outcome for The Atlantic author who admittedly:

come(s) from a nervous people and suffer from bouts of chronic hypochondria.

I have wondered if these rituals tend to have more effects on a fanasy-prone or suggestible person. I would be interesting to do a study of the effects of a Chickasaw medicine man on a selection of the audience at TAM and compare it to The Atlantic contributors. I suspect the latter would have a more profound response. The author, in his reaction to the experience, seems a bit suggestible:

the shaman lightly touched my feet, hitting pressure points such that I felt his touch in the grooves of my cranium…I felt extreme shivers and then, when he palmed my shoulder blades, flowing warmth…I stepped on the buffalo hide rug he had on the floor and was told to absorb the energy up through my feet into my body. I crouched and strained: it was basically like taking a reverse dump.

I can see why he is a hypochondriac; he appears excellent at paying attention to every bodily twinge. And not unsurprisingly after a relaxing ritual:

…wouldn’t you know, that night I had one of the best sleeps of my life. My ear opened up and I felt a remarkable physical and mental equilibrium.

Another Atlantic article: sloppy incomplete reporting about common experience, discussed as if it were rooted in a mystical non-traditional biological mechanism.

But I am now incensed about ketchup packets, so I too am better for the experience.

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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