The erroneous assumptions of so-called alternative medicine: Root causes


Edzard Ernst
Edzard Ernst is Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at the Peninsula School of Medicine, University of Exeter. He is the author of ten books on complementary and alternative medicine.

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So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) offers an odd and heterogeneous mix of treatments that have almost nothing in common:

  • Herbal medicine is fundamentally different from acupuncture.
  • homeopathy has nothing to do with chiropractic.
  • Reflexology is different from Tai chi.
  • Etc., etc.

Despite this heterogeneity, there are a few assumptions that underly all, or at least most, of these treatments.

Root causes

Practitioners of SCAM regularly claim – often with great pride – that they treat the root causes of disease. As far as I can see, this assumption has at least four effects:

  • It distracts from (the search for) the true causes of disease, which are often multifactorial.
  • It attracts customers to SCAM.
  • It implies that conventional medicine is at best symptomatic, and thus far inferior to SCAM.
  • It encourages the patients to turn their backs on mainstream healthcare.

The notion that SCAM practitioners treat the root causes is, of course, based on the practitioners’ understanding of aetiology: if a traditional acupuncturist, for instance, becomes convinced that all disease is the expression of an imbalance of life-forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces thus restoring health, they must automatically assume that they are treating the root causes of any condition.

One acupuncturist, for example, claims on their website:

You may be surprised to find out that the root causes of all illness and disease can be summarized in a list less than ten items long.  You may also be surprised to find out that the root causes of illness and disease are the same for every form of health care… From an Oriental Medicine perspective these root or core causes of illness and disease cause disruptions in the energetic communications system of the body as well as imbalances in the vital substances of the body (qi, blood, essence, yin, and yang).  Acupuncture and herbal therapy are the two primary ways of bringing the energetic system and vital substances back into balance and thereby reducing and eliminating illness and disease.

If chiropractors believe in the gospel of their founding father, DD Palmer, that all diseases are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it must seem logical to them to assume that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever complaint their patient is suffering from. Again, an example: a chiropractor claims that he “has dedicated his life work to treating the entire person. Stepping away from traditional ‘standard of care’, by focusing on underlying root causes of disease.”

If a homeopath is convinced that all illness stems from a weakness of the ‘vital force’ and that only homeopathic remedies can revitalise it, they are likely to believe that their remedies tackle the root cause of all diseases. One such website, for instance, has an article entitled: “Homeopathic Medicines Aim To Find The Root Cause Of The Disease!”

I could go on.

The SCAM practitioners’ naïve conviction of being able to treat the root causes gets more understandable once we realise that it is a message they were taught from the very beginning of their career. There is not a SCAM course or a SCAM book that does not emphasise it. The root cause claim has long become some sort of mantra for SCAM practitioners.

Considering the ubiquity of the message, one must, of course, ask: are SCAM practitioners correct when they assume to treat the root causes of disease? The short answer to this question is a resounding “No”.

Once the root cause of a disease has been eliminated, the illness has been eradicated by its root and should thus be dead and gone. In other words, treating a root cause means that the disease is permanently cured. The above question can therefore be re-phrased as follows:

Is there any therapy in the realm of SCAM that cures any disease permanently? Again, the short answer is “No”.

In my 30 years of researching SCAM, I have been unable to identify a single therapy that would reliably bring about a permanent cure of any disease. Even demonstrably effective forms of SCAM are effective only in terms of alleviating the symptoms. The one with the best evidence is probably St John’s wort. It works fine for mild-to-moderate depression. Yet, it does not cure depression: if a patient discontinues the treatment, the depression is likely to return.

What is the conclusion from all this?

This short discussion demonstrates, I hope, that the claim of SCAM practitioners to treat the root causes of disease is erroneous. Yet, it does persist. It is hard to find a SCAM practitioner who is not convinced of it.

Why might this be?

There are two reasons, I think. Firstly, SCAM practitioners are not medically educated and thus oblivious of the complexities of the true causes of diseases. Secondly, the claim is excellent for boosting their business. Patients who are unable or unwilling to think critically are easily impressed by the promise that the cause of their suffering will be eliminated once and for all.

This seems to suggest that SCAM practitioners live to a significant extent off the credulity of the public. And, in turn, it implies that our work as sceptics in reliably informing the public about SCAM is a crucial step towards improving public health.

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