Why ‘alternative medicine’ is a misnomer

I’ve made this observation in the comments before: There are treatments that have been shown to work and treatments that haven’t. The latter are what we call “woo”. Often, the woo-meisters accuse “allopathic” medicine of including certain treatments in the former category and excluding others because of monetary interests they hold – usually patents/licenses on drugs.

I’d like to point out a few folk-based therapies which look like woo, but apparently are not. As a result, they’re being tested and used as entirely conventional (if not yet common) therapies in the area of wound care. I’m pretty sure none of these can actually be patented, though, because they exist in nature and can be harvested by just about anyone with money and initiative.

Honey: Not the kind you likely have in your kitchen cabinet, but medical grade or Manuka honey from Australia and New Zealand. Honey can last for thousands of years without spoiling , most probably due to its antibacterial properties. Those antibacterial properties have been shown to be most impressive – effective (in vitro, at least) even against antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. Honey also makes for an airtight dressing, and one which may help stimulate healing and skin regrowth. A small Randomized controlled trial has suggested that honey is as least as effective as a type of conventional wound therapy.

Maggots: Military doctors have long noticed that soldiers whose wounds are infested with fly larvae heal better and faster than other wounds. The larvae help clear debris from the wound, aling with harmful bacteria. Here is an accessible description of the beneficial effects of maggots on hard-to-heal, infected wounds. Don’t be afraid to click, there are no yucky pictures…I suspect the “Yuck” factor is what’s preventing this particular therapy from becoming popular (not that a gaping, infected wound is that much better, mind, but still…). But perhaps maggot secretion-derived bandages may be a better way to work with maggots, if shown to be as effective.

Maggot were approved for medicinal use by the FDA in 2004, and are available by prescription.

Leeches: The saliva of the medicinal leech, Hirudo Medicinalis, contains a natural anticoagulant called Hirudin, and other compounds also possess antibacterial properties. Leech therapy has been reintroduced for a much different purpose than bleeding the patient, as seen in ancient times: because the leeches are capable to keep venous blood flowing for a long time after they bite their victim, they can be attached at areas which have undergone microsurgery and where blood flow can be tricky to maintain – e.g, fingers and toes, ears and eyelids. Leech therapy was also approved by the FDA shortly after maggot therapy.

Here’s an article from USA Today detailing the medicinal use of maggots and leeches; Another, more professional article detailing the medicinal use of honey as well can be found at Medscape (may require free registration to view).

The main difference between these therapies and your regular brand of woo is that 1) they’ve been shown (or are being shown) to work, and 2) there is a plausible mechanism that explains why they work. Which is why they are not “alternative” medicine – just good medicine.

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2 Responses

  1. I’ll admit, I don’t think I’d be willing to use leeches or maggots unless they were my only option… And even then I think I’d be tempted to bleed to death instead. lol Honey sounds perfectly acceptable to me, though.

  2. Years ago I had to put leeches on a hand wound. They are suppose to be great for swelling. It was icky. I was afraid all the leeches would escape when I wasn’t looking. And looking in the bed for the leech was a huge bummer….

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