Biostatistician R. Barker Bausell tried acupuncture once, for a chronic backache. The needle pricks and the warmth from the heat lamp aimed at his sore back felt good at the time, he recalls. They didn’t do a thing for his underlying pain.
But when the acupuncturist asked if the treatment had helped, Bausell said yes. “What could I say? I worked with the guy all the time,” says the scientist, who was then director of research at a center for complementary medicine at the University of Maryland.
Today, Bausell is saying plenty about his five years in the world of complementary and alternative medicine (also known as CAM). He has written a book called Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Oxford University Press).
In it, he uses a broad brush to paint doubt over therapies that include acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy, chiropractic treatment, hypnosis and energy healing, among others. An obvious criticism is that he lumps together very different approaches.
But he argues that the differences aren’t as important as what they share: an ability to make people feel better — if patients believe they will. In short, Bausell writes: “CAM recipients feel better because of the placebo effect.”
Can that be universally true? If it is, then the National Institutes of Health is spending $121 million a year to study the placebo effect at its National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. And many leading medical centers are offering alternative treatments too, thanks, in part, to that federal research money — and huge patient demand.
That demand is stoked by groaning shelves of books promoting CAM. Bausell offers a different perspective, one not shared by all scientists. But whether his broad condemnation is fair, his description of factors that might underlie and augment the placebo effect (the ability of sham treatments to relieve symptoms) is thought-provoking.
Kim Painter, USA Today Feb 04, 2008