Alternative medicine on campus

There is a centre on the main floor of the Student Union Building (SUB) that offers appointments for, amongst other things, acupuncture and chiropractic. Jill Cooper, who works at the centre, forwarded me an email she received from Eileen Seto, the resident acupuncturist. Seto said that with regard to acupuncture, “I treat all kinds of conditions with acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies; whether it’s acute or chronic pain, or an internal medicine condition (such as stress, insomnia, GI disturbances, acne, low energy, etc., etc.): basically anything that is non-emergency.”

With any medicine, there are a couple of things to consider. One is the placebo effect. The placebo effect is the body healing itself, primarily through the patient’s belief that the medicine is real and will work, regardless of any real efficacy. This may happens naturally in up to one third of all medical cases. So for someone to say a treatment worked for them and they would swear by it would not necessarily be a rational or accurate statement, because the placebo effect could have been in play. The second thing we need to consider is that if this effect is possible, we need to use a rigorous, scientific process, to separate any actual effects the treatment may have, as being separate from the placebo effect.

According to the NYU Langone Medical Center, which has compiled a database on studies involving Chinese herbal medicine, “. . . Finally, many of these studies were performed in China, and, up to the time of this writing, research on Chinese medicine conducted in China generally falls far short of modern scientific standards of rigour.” Most of the studies they were looking at were open trials, which had no placebo checks or double blinding for accurate comparison.

For acupuncture, there have been double-blind trials; however, the results are mixed. For the disorders mentioned by Seto, the Cochrane medical review committee has only done reviews on pain, and gastro-intestinal disturbances. Though they do list acupuncture as a treatment for other matters, including mental health. Of the disorders Seto treats, there is support for acupuncture working beyond the placebo effect for tension-related headaches; however, for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the committee made no recommendation, as the studies done were considered unsound. For acne, stress, insomnia, etc., a World Health Organization resource says that further proof is needed, despite therapeutic effects shown in these areas.

Now, the question is, what are the risks? Acupuncture appointments will cost you $22 to $24 for an initial appointment, and $15 to $18 for a follow-up (note that this is after you are reimbursed by student medical coverage). A USA Today article from 2004 reported that 1144 patients had to be checked for HIV or Hepatitis B after a Quebec acupuncturist did not sterilize his needles, but the risk of that kind of infection is very low.

As for chiropractic, on the other hand, there are some actual health risks. According to a study from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine out of the U.K., spinal manipulation can cause stroke in some cases, various mild to moderate adverse effects, vertebral artery dissection, and other adverse risks. Granted, it still only costs you $10 for an initial appointment and $8 for a follow-up appointment, both after you’ve been reimbursed by student insurance, but considering that there are health risks associated with it, it would be advisable to check with your doctor prior to going for chiropractic.

So what does this all mean for the average student? Well, it does mean a small amount of money out of pocket for what in some cases could be a placebo, and for chiropractic, it does mean some possibly severe health risks; however, the question we should really ask is whether not fully proven, and possibly dangerous, alternative medical therapies should be on campus, especially as they would be hitting students in the pocketbook and, in some cases, potentially causing real harm to the student going for treatment. In my opinion, the UVSS should get students to ask hard questions before going for these treatments.

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