the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

Alternative Medicine w/o the Air Quotes

In healthcare on May 30, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Turns out that there is a physiological mechanism behind the pain relief benefits of acupuncture. An article published in Nature Neuroscience links the release of Adenosine—one of our body’s more important anti-inflammatory chemical signals (less inflammation = less pain, without getting too science-y)—to the ancient Chinese practice of sticking needles in your body to “improv[e] the flow of ‘qi energy’ along ‘meridians.'”

A question: Wouldn’t it make sense to start removing air quotes (ie, “qi energy”) from the discussion of Alternative/Integrative Medicine practices? As more peer-reviewed studies on acupuncture, natural birthing, etc are released, it becomes increasingly clear that sections of the biomedical community are trying to delegitimize these practices because the physiological basis for their own specialized treatments isn’t so solid in comparison.

Still, Alternative Medicine supporters need to embrace  more scientific scrutiny of their practices. Why? Because it pays—if the NEJM were to publish a comparison trial, say Acupuncture and Shock Treatment (which is covered by a lot of insurers) for alleviation of back pain, that demonstrates the “Alternative” practice is more effective, consumers will demand that this service be covered by their insurer.

*This is the part where I get all philosophical and shit (feel free to skip)…

The classic text on medical history taking, the Bates Guide, calls on med students to present the “chief complaint” to their attending in “the patient’s own words.” It frustrates me to see fellow students use the air quotes when talking about their patients’ issues—not b/c the whole finger symbol thing was so last decade, but rather b/c the words within those air quotes describe what’s actually being experienced by our patients, what their suffering from. The words are not symbolic placeholders for biomedical mechanisms, they are completely and wholly lived pains and frustrations.  And our cure or treatment is pointless if it only addresses a disrupted physiological pathway.

Alternative Medicine tells us to eschew air quotes in both our description and treatment of disease. The biomedical research community  is slowly realizing the significance of this simple truth.

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