Monday, September 10, 2007

After many question from my patients and the general public regarding "alternative" treatments (e.g. magnets, craniosacral, dietary supplements, etc) I decided to sit down and write up an educational handout to summarize how to approach evaluating treatment options. This includes treatments in so called "Alternative Medicine" and main-stream medicine alike.

I am very concerned that many alternative treatments are blatant attempts to take advantage of persons in desperate situations. Such as end-stage cancer and progressive disease processes like arthritis.

Below are some ideas on how to approach decisions about "new" therapies to allow you to maximize your potential gains and to protect your money from those offering up only a big handful of woo.


Jason Harris, PT, DPT

Our modern internet has opened the door to a vast arena of medical advice and information. With this information, it is important to critically evaluate the information and the author’s credibility. How does one pick between credible and worthless? It can be hard, but I will outline a few rules for judging the value of the information you are reading.

I suggest you look for "Red Flags" while researching medical information on the internet. In medicine "Red Flags" are signs and/or symptoms that warrant immediate attention as they indicate a potential life threatening situation. I will use the term to indicate immediate problems with information that is being evaluated.


1. Any site that use the terms "alternative", "holistic", "integrative", "natural", and/or "miraculous" (Barrett). The vast majority of websites using these terms should replace them with “unproven” and/or “ineffective”. They also tend to push Herbs, vitamins and supplements. Do not trust a salesman to tell you the whole and complete truth. Their job is to sell you the product.

2. Claim large effect on symptoms with out side-effects. Causing a large change in body function (or dysfunction) has a cascading effect that leads to known side-effects and occasionally adverse reactions. No side effect most often indicates such low doses as to have no real effect.

3. Claim that a treatment can cure multiple problems/pathologies. Nothing can, or ever will, cure your shoulder pain and skin melanoma.

4. Claim that everyone will experience the same positive results. Humans are not all the same. Disease processes are complex and include multiple organ systems to varying degrees. Due to this, you cannot expect all to respond the same way or to the same degree. This is why well run clinical trials are essential. Which brings us to the next point…

5. The use of testimonials as sole proof that treatment works. A positive experience one person has cannot be generalized to anyone else. This is a complex topic as we rely on recommendations and advice from our neighbors to function efficiently in society and these salesmen attempt to take advantage of this.

6. Person is touted as a “Guru” with many impressive sounding “credentials”. Often claims are made that your problems can only be cured by the seller. Often it is because of some procedure or test named after them that only they can do. In the end, only they can do it because there has been no published research to support or refute it’s ability to do what it is purported to do. Also watch for the use of “Dr.” when referring to this guru and/or unusual credentials (e.g. not common known credentials such as MD, DO, PhD). The use of the doctor title is an attempt to make the person appear more authoritative then they are.

7. Must buy to see results. Any reputable treatment/product should have peer-reviewed published literature that shows it can do what it claims. You should never have to first buy something to know or experience how it works.

Medical information from the internet must be reviewed wisely and used as a supplement to the advice a trusted healthcare professional has given you. When in doubt, bring the information you have found to your MD, DO, or PT and discuss it with them. These “red flags” are a good start to filtering out the majority of bad from the good.

Works Cited

Barrett, M.D., Stephen. " How to Spot a "Quacky" Web Site." 06 September 2006. Quackwatch. 7 July 2007 .


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