Thursday, 9 June 2011

Alternative medicine is very silly - except, of course, when it works

[A warning: this post contains a lot more personal medical information than you probably feel is strictly necessary.]  Last week saw the publication of a report from NHS Choices, entitledSupplements: Who needs them?, which basically says that people who stuff their face with vitamin tablets are wasting their time, as there’s no proof they do any good at all.  

Last year, the doctors’ union, the BMA, issued one its regular fatwahsagainst homeopathic medicine. They compared it to witchcraft.

I hate to disagree with the saints and geniuses of the medical establishment  – but they’re wrong. 

Twice in my life I’ve had medical problems which conventional medicine couldn’t solve. Neither was life-threatening, but both were debilitating. The first, over quarter of a century ago, took the form of a nasty, persistent infection that just wouldn’t clear up, even after a full-scale operation under anaesthetic. When the infection returned within a few weeks, it was worse than ever. The hospital shrugged its shoulders and my GP recommended repeating the treatment which had failed to cure me in the first place. 

Soon afterwards, I found oneself, one wintry morning, in the front room of a large semi-detached house in Golders Green, talking to a nice, sensible, chubby, mumsy homeopathist. For the life of me, I can’t remember what made me consider homeopathy or how I found her in those pre-Internet days. I must have been desperate. The doctor examined my surgeon’s handiwork and said, “You poor thing!” and “What a butcher!” Then, for half an hour, she asked me all sorts of odd questions, including “What’s your girlfriend like?” and “What’s your favourite season?” By this stage I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake. What the hell did my preference for winter have to do with medicine? The sceptics were obviously right about all this hippy-dippy New Age nonsense.

Then she busied herself opening and closing the drawers of an ancient apothecary’s cabinet on the wall behind her desk, like some tweedy alchemist, and eventually handed me lots of little orange plastic bottles, full of what looked like crudely-made Tic-Tacs, and powder in twists of white paper. Some of the pills contained Belladonna and the powder supposedly contained traces of sulphur. Hmm. 

I made out a largish cheque and asked when she’d like me to return (although I had no intention of doing so). She said there’d be no need – I’d be fine. As she saw me off at the door, she clasped both my hands in hers and repeated, “You’ll be fine!” 

Jeez, I thought - a Jedi!

For the next month I took the weird little pills and swallowed the sweet-tasting powder – feeling bloody silly, I can tell you. By the end of that period, the infection (which had blighted my life for nearly two years) had disappeared, never to return. Feel the force, indeed!

The other condition medical science couldn’t deal with first afflicted me three years ago. I began suffering a series of three or four-day bouts of utter exhaustion, followed by a day or two of feeling okay. It was like having the kind of hangover you’d get from a combination of port, brandy, beer, wine and forty fags the night before. I’d had these annoying attacks for many years, but only now and then, and only for a day at most.  

As I was feeling exceptionally cheerful at the time, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, psychological. After about seven weeks, it all stopped, and I was fine again – but the condition returned at the start of this year. I assumed it would eventually lift, but, bored with it after seven weeks, I visited my GP, and got seen by a locum. After a lengthy chat, she announced there was no point sending me back to the hospital. Given how many times I’d already been poked and prodded and X-rayed and scanned, without an answer emerging, and given that I evidently wasn’t suffering from depression, she concluded that medical science wasn’t going to come up trumps. Rather conspiratorially, she suggested a course of multivits, and told me which brand to buy. “They work for my Mum,” she said, “and if I’m not feeling 100%, I pop a couple myself.” “Should I make another appointment?” I asked. “Not much point, really.”

I started on the vitamins the next day, suffered a one day attack the day after that… and, since then, I’ve been fine.  I’m still taking the tablets (which taste vaguely agricultural), and have no intention of stopping, even if the BMA reclassifies vitamin supplements as Class A drugs. 

Don’t get me wrong – if I break a leg or need my appendix removed, I won’t be consulting an acupuncturist (although the doctor did say that might be the next port of call). I don’t believe in the healing power of crystals, and I have nothing against conventional medicine. And I have considered the possibility that homeopathic medicine and vitamins had nothing to do with my recovery on those two occasions – it might just have been a question of timing. Or psychology.  (Maybe all doctors should tell their patients not to bother coming back). But then again, so what if my own mind was responsible for making me well? For whatever reason, the Ju-Ju medicines just damn well worked.
No doubt many alternative medicine types are greedy, unscrupulous snake-oil salesmen peddling rubbish to gullible fools. But I’m buggered if the BMA or the NHS is going to tell me what I can or can’t take to rid myself of persistent physical ailments that they’ve failed to cure. 

Supplements: Who need them? Well, me, for a start.

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