Potential market for alternative medicine left untouched

A few days ago, I had the good fortune to share lunch and ideas with David Gorski and Kimball Atwood.  Kimball was on his way from a talk at Michigan State to one at Brigham and Women’s, one of the country’s best-known teaching hospitals.  David was planning a future talk for a group in Florida.  These guys have been thinking and writing about alternative medicine for a lot longer than I, and it was great to pick their brains, toss around ideas, and just hang out on a nice fall day.

We were discussing many of the inanities of so-called alternative medicine touted for use in “real” diseases, that is, not just symptomatic care.  There have been, for example, an number of studies out of China in the last few years claiming that acupuncture helps with in-vitro fertilization. All of these studies have been terribly flawed, and the reasons for these flaws are interesting, but irrelevant beside the primary flaw:  the ideas are so implausible as to render any conclusions invalid.   It is very difficult to understand how acupuncture in any of its forms could improve chances of conception, either in vivo or in vitro.

During our visit, Kimball brought up a rather interesting analogy:  if acupuncture could increase fertility, shouldn’t it also be able to decrease it?  We have scads of alternative treatments for the common cold, back pain, headache, multiple sclerosis, diabetes—everything, really.  Why not contraception?  After all, no one likes condoms, and the pill comes with its own baggage.  Nuva rings and IUDs are convenient, but can be annoying to use, or can cause problems in certain patients.   And almost all contraception relies solely on the woman.  The only possible contribution a man can make is condom use or vasectomy.

Where is the alternative medicine community?  They are usually pretty keen on getting involved in common medical problems.  Undesired pregnancy is a common problem.  Where are the studies on acupuncture for contraception?  Homeopathy?  Chiropractic?

How would these treatments look?  Acupuncture could perhaps stimulate the qi involved with spermatogenesis, causing a feedback inhibition, right?  Homeopathy, well, if a lot of sperm heading to the egg are the cause of pregnancy, then a little bit of sperm should do the trick I’d think.  You could even put them in a lozenge. And with vertebral subluxations able to cause all manner of medical problems, shouldn’t a good chiropractor be able to shove around a vertebra, impeding sperm production or release?  Contraception is big business.  Where are these guys?

Let me very clear that I am a traditionalist when it comes to contraception, preferring those methods that have been proven safe and effective.  I don’t give medical advice online, but I might make an exception here.

Speaking of implausible, after looking at some of Kimball’s slides, I wanted to do this just for giggles.

Common cuts of beef vs. Reflexology chart

Common cuts of beef

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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21 thoughts on “Potential market for alternative medicine left untouched

  1. zeno says:


    I did ask a chiro some time ago if he could create a subluxation if he adjusted a non-sublaxated vertebra or create a different subluxation if he overshot the mark with an adjustment , but didn’t get any meaningful reply.

  2. Peter Lipson says:

    I can’t imagine why not…

  3. rwk says:

    Are you that bored that you’ll write about anything just to fill space?

  4. DBonez5150 says:

    Wow, by the looks of that reflexology chart, just walking around should either be a euphoric, hyper-relaxing/healing activity leading you to a veritable nirvana, or could very nearly end your life by disrupting every major organ and functional system within your body.

    Wait, silly me… I forgot! It takes a reflexology master with decades of experience to make any of those things work. Oh, and cash; lots of cash! Oh, just like the meat chart for the bull.

  5. Anthro says:

    Well done!

    There may not be studies dedicated to “alternative” birth control, but I know a number of “practitioners”–herbalists in this case, who “prescribe” all sorts of things for birth control–mostly yam root stuff. What you have to understand is that it really doesn’t matter if it works, as long as you BELIEVE. It’s all about belief, not medicine of any -pathy. Most of these people are so dim that they think it’s miraculous when their friend gives birth to a girl after they said it would be a girl. The 50-50 odds of this happening escape them entirely.

    It all reminds me of the thing Dawkins talks about in The God Delusion–why don’t faith healers ever do limb replacement? I mean, if god can do anything why does he never give a new limb to an amputee?

  6. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Where are the studies on acupuncture for contraception? Homeopathy? Chiropractic?

    I dare to presume that few women get pregnant while laying face-down on a chiropractor’s table. Ditto for acupuncture, provided that the pins are sharpened on both ends.

  7. Anthro, I used to work with a wonderful Korean woman who was trying to get pregnant. Her family kept telling her to eat more yams to help her fertility. :)

  8. daijiyobu says:

    sCAM is the art of surfing the ‘natural progression / course’ of conditions: they take credit on the downswing / lessening of signs and symptoms, and make even more money on the upswing / worsening.

    But you’re asking too much!!!!



  9. Calli Arcale says:

    Most of these people are so dim that they think it’s miraculous when their friend gives birth to a girl after they said it would be a girl. The 50-50 odds of this happening escape them entirely.

    Back when my dad was still delivering babies, he had this thing he liked to do. When a patient was expecting, he’d make a guess as to the baby’s gender. Then he’d write his guess down on a piece of paper and stick it into the patient’s file. When the baby came along, he was right every time! Of course, he *also* enjoyed explaining how he did it — he would guess one gender verbally and then write the other gender down on the paper, and only refer to the paper to prove it if it was the other gender. :-P

    I’d never thought of this particular line of argument against alt med. If it works, especially if the fertility treatments work, then why haven’t they made any attempts at contraception? It’s not as if there isn’t a wealth of contraceptive tradition to fall back on; people have been trying to ward off the stork for as long as they’ve been aware of a connection between sex and pregnancy. Until recently, most of these efforts have been unsuccessful* (apart from abstinence, which tends to defeat the real purpose of contraception in most people’s minds). Strangely, though they’ll happily refer to an unproven thousand-year-old remedy for constipation, they don’t seem willing to suggest thousand-year-old contraception methods other than abstinence. Hmmm.

    * One odd exception: I recall reading of a troop of chimpanzees (or other great ape; I’m not totally sure these were chimps — it was probably 15 or so years ago that I read this) where the females appeared to have worked out how to control their fertility. There was a particular, bitter-tasting leaf that they ate only during estruus, and those females who did so did not become pregnant. It was an observational study if memory serves, so I don’t think the leaf was ever studied to work out if it contained some sort of abortifacient or somesuch, or if the females had some kind of underlying hormonal problem which also made them crave this leaf.

  10. ConspicuousCarl says:

    The charts presented make me wonder if reflexologists eat jello.

  11. sCAM med proponents would likely say you misunderstand how their particular alt med works. You see xyz form of sCAm can only be beneficial and cannot do harm, ever, under any circumstances, which is what makes it so incredibly awesome..

    xyz sCAM only promotes the body’s own inner potential for maximum health & healing, and infertility is not part of maximum health or healing, so xyz sCAM can only promote fertility, not the reverse.

    In it’s own self defined, delusional universe, homeopathy may be able to get away with such claims, but at least with chiropracty, if you can correct a subluxation, you should be able to create one. One would think a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner should also be able to block or appropriately redirect qi/energy/vitality flow via acupuncture, reiki, therapeutic touch, etc.

  12. DugganSC says:

    Mixing acupuncture and contraception brings up some very squicky mental images…

    Funnily enough, the use of acupuncture, chiropractry, and acupressure to cause lack of fertility or lack of function is pretty common in fiction. Heck, there’s at least one set of two Chinese Wuxia movies entirely based on the protagonist being a thief who’s given a pressure point treatment by a monk that removes his fertility and he spends the rest of the movies boinking various women in a bid to restore his ability to sire a son.

  13. cervantes says:

    Actually, Wikipedia tells us, “Today, many herbs and plants sold “over the counter” are claimed to act as abortifacients, either by themselves or if taken in certain doses or mixtures.[citation needed] Examples include brewer’s yeast,[7] vitamin C, bitter melon,[8] wild carrot, blue cohosh, pennyroyal, nutmeg, mugwort, slippery elm, papaya, vervain, common rue, ergot, saffron and tansy. Animal studies have shown that pomegranate may be an effective abortifacient.[2][9]”

    Some of these might work. I believe pennyroyal and blue cohosh are considered the most plausible.

    Also, – many herbs are marketed as contraceptives. Less likely to work, IMHO, but not impossible.

    Not homeopathic or acupuncturistic, but still . . .

  14. DugganSC says:

    Regarding using superstitious “medical” methods to prevent conception, there are definitely many cases thereof although I have a hard time visualizing someone seriously trying to sell the method of jumping up and down after sex as a prevention method.

    … And now I have this absolutely horrible idea of re-packaging them as “ancient yoga secrets” and selling pamphlets for $50 each…

  15. Always Curious says:

    Maybe it’s just the woomeisters around where I live, but most of the alt-med folks I run into are busy trying to boost their fertility. But certainly some of them, somewhere must be interested in contraception. Any failures wouldn’t have to be blamed on the woman (see abstinence-only education) but could instead be blamed on a hyper-sexual cultural environment or the over-consumption of meat and/or soy. It’d be a win-win situation for them.

    On the gender determination topic, I found a pubmed article claiming that the Billings Ovulation Method could determine the gender of the resulting child: So that bit of woo is already brewing.

  16. TsuDhoNimh says:

    I was asked to write about reflexology for thyroid disease. So I lightly researched it, and spewed forth words.

    The charts don’t even agree. This makes me nervous, because the charts can’t all be right. If the reflexologist is using the wrong chart, he could be affecting your heart instead of your thyroid. Or he could be influencing your penis, if the symbols on one of the ancient Hindu footprint charts used as “evidence” of reflexology’s ancient origins are correct.

    I don’t know who to credit for this (Orac?), but it was a science blogger: “Reflexology is like predicting the weather in Portland, Oregon by seeing what the weather is in Portland, Maine, by virtue of the fact they are connected by streets and highways.”

  17. Totally anecdotal: I had an embarrassing mishap with my bike two weeks ago and bungled up my shoulder. Interestingly, I can still bike without pain if I keep my upper body fairly steady, but poling along with my skis is a nightmare. I see by the foot chart in certain stances on my bike I am unwittingly applying pressure to the “right shoulder” sweet spot. Coincidence?????

    Also, I think the fact that the “detailed” foot diagram neglected to label the clitoris reflexology analogue speaks volumes about the backwater sexual politics of the sCAM folks.

  18. drjaylee says:

    The best way to increase fertility based on my anecdotal evidence were Barry White CDs. My wife liked his voice!

  19. thatguybil81 says:

    The little Couple, a reality TV show on TLC had the surgate mother who was getting IVF have post implantation acupuncture. The IVF clinic is out on the left coast and we all know how silly those tree hugging hippies are…

    The problem is that that Female of the Little Couple is a NICU-Neonatologist and should know better then using acupuncture…

    If felt bad for them when the IVF did not take.

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