Alternative Medicine: Exploring Your Treatment Options
from the book How to Have a Baby:
by Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, MD and Dr. Anjali Malpani, MD.
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There is no doubt that modern medicine inspires awe. IVF laboratories and
sophisticated ultrasound scanning machines appear very impressive and reassuring
when you are infertile. However, paradoxically, even though the effectiveness of
reproductive technology has improved dramatically, more infertile patients than
ever before have become dissatisfied with their medical care today. This
situation has resulted in a move towards 'alternative' medicine, which has
become increasingly popular all over the world. Even in the United States of
America (the bastion of high-tech scientific medicine), more than 20 per cent of
infertile couples have consulted an alternative medicine practitioner, mainly
because they were unhappy with modern medical care.
There are many reasons for this unhappiness with modern medicine. Patients
increasingly feel that medicine has become too commercial and that doctors are
too busy to spend time with them. They are unhappy with the impersonal nature of
modern medicine, especially when the doctor spends more time looking at their
lab reports and ultrasound scans, rather than with them. While it is true that
patients need technology, they also need tender, loving care; after all, doctors
need to look after not only their medical problems, but also their emotional
Alternative medicine, on the other hand, offers a markedly different
perspective. Rather than focussing on the infertility in isolation, alternative
medicine treats the patient as a whole; hence the popular term, holistic
medicine. Doctors practicing alternative medicine sit down and talk to the
patient; they touch and feel him and ask many questions. And such attention
feels good, in refreshing contrast to the modern doctor who rarely has even 15
minutes to spend with the patient. (Often, tender loving care and personal
attention are all that alternative medicine practitioners have to offer, but
they offer it very well indeed!) There is no doubt of the efficacy of the
placebo effect, and even the simple act of touching the patient, can have a
therapeutic effect. Also, alternative medicine doctors are very good at
reassuring patients, as contrasted with the coldly scientific approach of
Many patients (usually those with unexplained infertility or with ovulatory
disorders) do conceive when they use alternative medicine. However, the practice
of alternative medicine in India today leaves a lot to be desired. For one, such
medicine does not have a universally accepted scientific basis; hence, it is
difficult to rigorously analyze its claims. Since there is no need for formal
publication or peer review in alternative systems of medicine, there is little
scientific documentation available about their efficacy or side-effects, so that
it becomes difficult to confirm claims or dispute them. Consequently, one has to
blindly trust the doctor. Authoritative journals or texts are difficult to find;
and most publications use little scientific rigour, being based mostly on
anecdotal case reports, with little documentation or proof. Moreover, since
there is no official monitoring of the practitioners of alternative medicine,
anyone can make tall claims and get away with them! Also, since there are few
formal training requirements, anyone can practice alternative medicine, with
minimal skills or qualifications. Unfortunately, unscrupulous practitioners have
mushroomed, who are out to make a quick buck, and malpractices and quackery
flourish, which is why most infertility specialists distrust alternative
medicine practitioners today.
How can you protect yourself from quacks ? Remember that quackery is not an
all-or-nothing phenomenon. Some products can be useful for some purposes, but
worthless for others. For example, while certain ayurvedic herbs can be very
useful, often the mass-manufactured ayurvedic medicines available in chemists’
shops are completely useless, because they do not contain what they are supposed
to! While there is no doubt that homoeopathic medicines can be helpful, the
concept of a standard homoeopathic remedy for common illnesses such as headaches
and colds flouts a basic homoeopathic principle, which states that remedies need
to be tailor made for a particular person and only a skilled homoeopathic
physician can identify the required medicines properly.
Unproven methods are not necessarily quackery. Those consistent with
scientific concepts may be considered to be experimental, but legitimate
practitioners do not go around promoting unproven procedures in the marketplace.
Instead, they engage in responsible, properly designed research studies to prove
or disprove their claims.
Quackery can harm individuals in many ways. First, is the loss of a
tremendous amount of money which patients invest in pursuing this treatment, and
many unscrupulous practitioners can bleed patients and their relatives dry — a
little at a time. Also, many of the quack therapies can cause direct harm. It is
a common misconception that ‘natural medicines’ have no harmful side-
effects — but anything which can have an effect, by definition, also has the
potential to cause harmful effects (after all, the desired effects of a medicine
are what we call its therapeutic action and undesirable effects are labeled ‘side-effects’!).
The indirect harm they cause can also be enormous: for example, patients may
pursue ‘alternative medicine’ for treating their infertility and may deprive
themselves of the opportunity of getting effective state-of-the-art medical
Quackery flourishes even in the USA where people are much more sophisticated,
and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides effective policing.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that in India this menace is rampant, and
there are far more quacks than regular medical practitioners. Faith healing, for
example, is an integral part of Indian traditions, especially in villages where
educated priests take advantage of people’s ignorance and blind faith.
How can you save yourself from being quacked? Here are some useful pointers
by Dr. Stephen Barrett from his Quackwatch Web site (at http://www.quackwatch.com.)
- Forget about ‘secret cures’. True scientists share their knowledge as
part of the process of scientific development. Quacks often keep their
methods secret to prevent others from decisively demonstrating that they don’t
work. No one who actually discovered a cure for infertility would have
reason to keep it secret. If a method really works, the discoverer would
gain enormous fame, fortune and personal satisfaction by sharing the
discovery with others.
- Remember that quackery often garbs itself in a cloak of pseudo-scientific
respectability and its promoters often use scientific terms and quote (or
misquote) from scientific references. Be equally wary of pseudo-medical
jargon. Instead of offering to treat your infertility, some quacks will
promise to ‘detoxify’ your body, ‘balance’ its chemistry, release
its ‘nerve energy’ or ‘bring it in harmony with nature’. The use of
concepts that are impossible to measure or quantify enables success to be
claimed even though nothing has actually been accomplished.
- Ignore any practitioner who says that infertility is caused by faulty
nutrition or can be remedied by taking supplements. Although some diseases
are related to diet, most are not. Moreover, in most cases where diet
actually is a factor in a person’s health problem, the solution is not to
take vitamins but to alter the diet.
- Be wary of catchy anecdotes and testimonials. If someone claims to have
conceived after using an unorthodox remedy, there is often a rational
explanation. Some patients with long-standing unexplained infertility do get
pregnant on their own – and they may erroneously give credit to the
treatment. Some testimonials, of course, are complete fabrications!
- Don’t let desperation cloud your judgement! It is true that infertile
couples are very susceptible to being quacked, but if you feel that your
doctor isn’t doing enough to help you, don’t stray from scientific
health care in a desperate attempt to find a solution. Instead, discuss your
feelings with your doctor and consider a consultation with a recognized
The best way you can protect yourself from being taken for a ride, is to make
sure you are well informed about your infertility. The ‘take-home message’
is simple: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t!
Unfortunately, because of widespread quackery in the field of alternative
medicine, most infertility specialists today have a poor opinion of what
alternative medicine can offer their patients. This often means that doctors end
up throwing the baby out with the bath water! There are many areas for which
Western medicine today has little to offer the patient. Examples include:
medical treatment for a low sperm count, or treatment for a thin endometrial
lining. It is possible that alternative medical systems may have effective
techniques for treating these conditions – and if we research these, and show
that they are effective, we may be able to make significant progress in our
ability to help infertile couples.
Amongst the various options available, acupuncture has become quite popular,
and the theory behind this is that it can re-balance the bioenergy of the body
that runs in the Meridian pathways, and this helps to improve tissue function.
The "scientific" explanation is that it changes levels of
neurotransmitters, the chemicals that nerve cells use to communicate. Herbalists
may recommended ginseng as a "tonic" for men and women ; and a
combination of false unicorn root (helonias) and vitex tinctures for women. This
realm of herbal practice is probably for experts only, as we still do not know
all the side effects of these herbs. In general, it's best to take as little
medication as possible when you are trying to get pregnant. Nutritionist
therapists suggest using supplements which contain arginine, beta carotene,
zinc, and Vitamin C and Vitamin E. Aromatherapists may give a clary sage oil
massage which is said to improve estrogen levels; and rosemary, tea tree,
lavendar and other anti-infective oils for an abdominal massage.
An important area to consider is the mind/body connection. There are now
clinics in the USA that claim to have good pregnancy results with meditation,
yoga, relaxation and visualization techniques. Again, solid documentation of
these results is lacking, but you may want to try these out.
For options like ayurveda and homeopathy, it is important that you go to a
reliable practitioner, because these are complex sciences, and you need expert
guidance to achieve the best results. We feel that diverse modalities such as
massage, Reiki, yoga, ayurveda, acupressure, acupuncture, hypnosis, homeopathy,
naturopathy and many others can work in conjunction with each other as part of a
unified team rather than in competition. We need to learn to combine the best of
both worlds – high technology with high touch – and this is called
integrative medicine, as pioneered by Dr Andrew Weil of the USA. Integrative
medicine neither rejects conventional medicine nor embraces alternative medicine
uncritically – just because most alternative medicine systems are ‘natural’
does not automatically make them better! The most important requirement is that
you need to find a good doctor, no matter what system of medicine you choose to
follow. It is equally important that you understand the limits and the rationale
of the system, so that you are not taken for a ride. Thus, if you have blocked
tubes, remember that it is very unlikely that herbal medicine will help you open
them. Also, do remember that infertility is a heterogeneous problem – and some
modes of therapy may be better for treating certain problems, rather than others!
A good doctor will be able to guide you, so that you are aware of the strengths
and limitations of each approach.
As a patient, you should feel free to explore all possible options –
remember that they are not competitive, and should be seen to be complementary
to each other – after all, the goal for all of them is to help you to have a
baby! Thus, if you find that Reiki helps you, you can combine Reiki treatment
with IVF if you so desire! There is no harm in going to an alternative medicine
doctor – but do let your infertility specialist know what other treatments you
are taking. The combined knowledge of both old and new healing modalities is
ultimately superior than a single-model approach – and you can learn to
combine the best of both worlds!
by Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, MD and Dr. Anjali Malpani, MD.
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