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What Do I Look For In Alternative Therapies For Arthritis?

Nov 4, 2007
Of all the medical conditions that exist, arthritis is the one that is most often treated with alternative types of therapies. That is because it is a chronic condition for which there is no cure yet. In addition, people with arthritis are in pain and therefore need relief. And, quite frankly, there is mistrust and fear when it comes to conventional treatments, particularly pharmaceuticals.

Yet, it is a mistake to assume that because a remedy is touted as being "natural" or "organic" or "an alternative to harmful drugs" that it is necessarily safe and effective.

There are certain items that should be looked for in any type of alternative or complementary therapy. (The terms "alternative" and "complementary" can be used interchangeably. An alternative therapy, when used in combination with conventional therapies is referred to as a complementary therapy.) Therapies that fall under this label are acupuncture, herbs, vitamins, massage, music therapy, etc.

First of all, look for the "warning signs". These are tip-offs that the treatment being touted may be bogus.

1. If the seller of the product accuses the medical community of a conspiracy, watch out! This is a favorite tactic of unscrupulous vendors.

2. If solid evidence is lacking. Testimonials alone should not be relied upon because it is easy to fake them.

3. If a remedy is touted as being effective for a wide range of medical problems, be very wary. Nothing works for every disease.

4. A treatment referred to as a "miracle cure" or "new discovery" or "discovery suppressed by the medical establishment" should be viewed with skepticism.

5. Jargon words such as "detoxify" or "purify" or "oxidize" should also raise red flags. These words sound impressive but unless there is scientific proof, it is probably a lot of hocus-pocus.

Check to see if the treatment is supported by well-designed clinical trials. With arthritis, the placebo response (response to a sugar pill) can be as high as 40 per cent! Therefore, it is critical to see if the treatment has been tested extensively against placebo.

If an alternative health provider is soliciting your business, make sure you look into their qualifications and credentials. National organizations should offer a means of checking to see if the person you're planning to see is certified. A note of caution... just because a provider lists an impressive sounding organization doesn't mean it is a valid one. Beware of this and look into their reputation. You can also check your state government listings for agencies that regulate and license health care providers. These agencies may list practitioners in your area and offer a way to check credentials.

Many arthritis sufferers take herbal remedies as well as vitamins and minerals. These nutritional supplements don't have to undergo the same rigorous testing and labeling process as over-the-counter and prescription medications. Some of these substances, including products claimed as "natural," have drug-like effects that can be potentially dangerous. Some supplements can cause problems during surgery such as changes in heart rate or blood pressure or increased bleeding. Others may have significant interactions with prescription drugs. Make sure you let your physician know about any nutritional supplements you are taking.

Many people with arthritis use the Internet for their medical information. While the 'net is a great place to get good information, it is also a prime source of misinformation. Beware of sites that muddy the distinction between good information and a "hard sell." of products. Make sure you know the credentials of the person making the claims.

When arthritis patients ask me about why some questionable alternative therapies seem to work, I often to refer to the wisdom of Joe Schwarcz. [Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society (www.OSS.McGill.ca)].

He writes, "If there is no efficacy in these alternative treatments, why do people flock to them? Because alternative practitioners are charismatic and often offer hope where mainstream medicine cannot. They use the placebo effect to great advantage and capitalize on the fact that many diseases are self-limiting and resolve by themselves. But when contemplating a course of treatment, it is prudent to reflect upon the words of Victor Herbert, renowned hematologist and champion of evidence-based medicine: "for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is always wrong."
About the Author
Nathan Wei, MD FACP FACR is a rheumatologist and Director of the Arthritis and Osteoporosis Center of Maryland. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. For more info: Arthritis Treatment
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