Faculty Editor: Dr. Heather Olins

Recently, alternative medicines, those not-widely accepted by the mainstream medical community, have come back into vogue. People are resurrecting traditional, sometimes archaic treatments, such as aromatherapy, homeopathy, and chiropractic medicine. This has resulted in frequent and often vicious debates over the benefits and the dangers associated with such unorthodox therapies. To resolve some of the uncertainty, it is necessary to understand the associated histories, benefits, and drawbacks; only then can they be understood and evaluated fairly. Perhaps, as some say, there is no use for such practices in the modern field of medicine, but perhaps there is. Ultimately, the National Institutes of Health, which investigates ways to improve people’s well-being, believe by understanding these unconventional medical theories, the “horizons of healthcare” will be broadened (NIH, 2017). 

One of the most popular remedies, aromatherapy, recommends using smells and essential oils to treat psychological issues, like stress and fatigue, but also diseases, like cancer (Boehm et al., 2012). According to some of its proponents, the aroma molecules remove pathogens from the air, boost the immune system, and provide a feeling of relief by stimulating the brain to release hormones (Ali, 2015). The practice of using special smells and oils in medicine dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia but ceased widely in the 1800s (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). In its recent reemergence, aromatherapy’s supporters cite studies declaring that it has the power to treat conditions ranging from dandruff to insomnia (Ali et al., 2015). Moreover, proponents believe these compounds have the ability to act as anti-cancer drugs, due to their “selective and cytotoxic” properties that enable them to target and destroy only cancer cells (Oliviera et al., 2015). Consequently, aromatherapy often finds itself at the center of controversies and debates. Using aromatherapy in the treatment of cancer is not accepted by medical authorities, in fact, many professionals warn of serious consequences that can result from the usage or misuage of these oils. For instance, if swallowed, camphor and eucalyptus oil can result in seizures (Soloway, n.d.). Additionally, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that recurrent exposure to lavender and/or tea tree oil in certain products can stimulate the growth of breast tissue in prepubescent boys (NIH, 2007). Finally, as with most alternative medicines, it is unclear whether the power of the medicine results from the placebo effect, as many of the proposed advantages of essential oils resemble common reactions to placebos. In the end, perhaps aromatherapy has some legitimacy, but at this point, it’s impossible to know. Furthermore, the myriad dangers linked to certain essential oils make it hard for anyone to legitimately endorse aromatherapy as an alternative to traditional medicine. 

The next unusual therapy, homeopathy, is a system of treatments based on two pseudoscientific principles. First, homeopaths have concluded that drugs should create symptoms similar to what is ailing the patient. Second, in the ‘law of dilutions,’ they state that the lower the dose of a medication, the more powerful its effect (NIH, 2018). Developed in the late 1700s by Samuel Hahneman, homeopathy has generally fallen out of favor (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). However, its advocates still proudly endorse this odd form of medicine. According to a National Health Interview survey conducted in 2012, roughly 2.1% of Americans said they used homeopathic treatments within the last year (Dossett et al., 2016). Some doctors even recommend these treatments to their patients, asserting they “lead to improved outcomes, improved patient satisfaction, and improved treatment cost/effectiveness” (Bellavite, 2015).  Advocates also believe that homeopathy can provide individual approaches that modern medicine is unable to administer (Bellavite, 2015). On the other hand, homeopathy has generally been dismissed as nonsense by scientists, and studies attempting to show the effectiveness of homeopathic treatments are typically overturned after further review (Aversa et al., 2016). Even the rules governing homeopathy, like the law of dilution, do not align with modern science. An incredibly diluted medication is not concentrated enough to yield a noticeable effect on a patient. In addition, the placebo effect could play a role in the supposed potency of homeopathy. In short, homeopathy appears to be entirely unscientific, and for that reason, it lacks any merit as a medical system.

Chiropractic medicine, the last treatment in this investigation, is the most modern in origin. In 1895, the founder of chiropractic medicine, D.D. Palmer, claimed to have cured a patient’s deafness by correcting issues with his spine, an event that seems quite unlikely (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). This discipline centers around physical therapy and the manipulation of the body to alleviate problems, like improper spinal alignment and pain (Medline Plus, n.d.). There is evidence that chiropractic care can mitigate pain in the back and neck, which makes perfect sense. Chiropractic medicine emphasizes massaging and realigning the back, a practice that can certainly relieve stress and pain in the back. On the other hand, advocates claim it is a useful treatment for conditions varying from asthma and fibromyalgia to carpal tunnel syndrome, but there is simply not enough evidence to support those statements (Salehi et al., 2015). Moreover, complications have been connected to chiropractic manipulation, including herniated disks, and a certain kind of stroke (Mayo Clinic, 2018). As a result, many experts generally accept that the risks outweigh the often dubious benefits (Ernst, 2002). Those benefits, as with the rest of the alternative approaches to medicine, might originate from the placebo effect. Knowing all of this, it really seems like chiropractic does not qualify as a worthwhile alternative to standard medicine. 

After considering each of these treatments, it does not appear that any of them have true medical value. All three have serious failings, and their claims are largely unsubstantiated. Regardless, other alternate theories cannot be discounted simply because these three did not pass muster. The most important takeaway from this investigation is that unorthodox theories should be treated with a reasonable amount of skepticism. 

Yet, there are other alternative medical systems, like traditional Chinese medicine or acupuncture, that could help a patient find relief. Furthermore, unorthodox treatments exist on a spectrum, with some being more valuable than others. For instance, homeopathy has no real worth, but chiropractic could help an individual suffering from severe lower back pain. Still, it is important to keep in mind that any alternate theory could bring about deleterious consequences or fail to actually alleviate any suffering. Nonetheless, with medicine searching for new, untested treatments, and with health costs rising, it is important to understand the potential of alternative medicine. A healthy level of apprehension must be applied, but an open-minded analysis discussing both the pros and cons should be contemplated. By seriously considering alternatives to modern medical practices, we can advance the field, and truly broaden our horizons.


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