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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

If it quacks like a duck

The idea of quack medicine has been on my mind lately, particularly after hearing about how thousands of people were scrambling to buy up iodine pills on the US West Coast in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster. In hopes of counteracting any possible radiation from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, dozens of pharmacies have been selling out of the pills, and there already is a shortage of them anyway.

I started thinking back on a time period in US history where x-rays and radioactive products - sold over the counter and with little, if any, warning label - were all the rage. People would regularly go to shoe stores to have their feet x-rayed, supposedly in an effort to get a "proper fit," and some people recounted tales of how, while waiting for mother to finish her shopping, they would leisurely sit and x-ray their feet over and over again while waiting.

In the 20s and 30s, use of radioactive products containing radium, an element discovered by Marie Curie (that would ultimately cause her untimely death due to overexposure) was extremely popular. People would use radioactive toothpaste - "for that healthy glow!" - the thought is just horrifying. The Radium Girls - who worked in a factory painting the dials on watches and instruments, would soften the tips of their brushes by putting them in their mouths - sometimes painting the stuff on their nails and teeth for some glow-in-the-dark fun.

Of course, the big-wigs at the company knew of the dangers of it; they just conveniently forgot to tell those who were working the closest to the material. Funny how that slips your mind ... (To read more about the "Radium Girls" and the horrific consequences of their work, click here.)

As if the toothpaste wasn't enough, radium face cream was also on the market, complete with a very authoritative looking label and a brief mention of "Dr. Curie," whoever he was. No doubt there was no such person, but hey - it sounded good. How could you go wrong?

Even the ad portrays a creepily-lit woman, with some fantastical wonder cream that you're supposed to put on your face and neck - the very area that absorbs radiation - the thyroid. I cringed. How could anyone possibly think this was a good idea? Truth be told, even scientists who worked with these materials knew little of how dangerous they would eventually be - the notebooks of Marie Curie herself, who had worked extensively with radioactive elements, are still highly radioactive to this day.

The authenticity of these products, and the deadly hazards they posed to unsuspecting customers, is why the FDA came into existence: initially, at least, to protect the consumer. (Some would argue about that part today.)

Most of us today would probably say, "How could people possibly fall for that stuff?" I think it's easy, because they still do. I'm sure the FDA has little power to stop people from marketing all kinds of whacked out concoctions and other things, under the guise of being "natural" and healthy.

My mom is retired, but spends probably hundreds per year on various herbal supplements and other items. While herbs in and of themselves do have some merit, depending on what they are and how they're used, sometimes while reading the labels of her bottles I silently freak out a little bit inside. Bovine thyroid extract? I quickly panic and immediately think "Mad Cow Disease!" Of course, so much of what we use, apparently, comes from cow - so if there was a potentially life-threatening risk, we'd probably (I hope) see it in our population by now. A quick internet search reveals a million sites that are either on the fence or in opposition or favor of it - meaning, you may not be able to get any real, solid information.

Hello - scorched
eardrums, anyone?
Another one that used to really get me was ear candling. My mom did that, too, and excitedly brought home a disgusting bag of flaky-looking "wax." I was immediately skeptical, and while I'm no physics expert, can't even begin to think that would be remotely possible, or necessary. Something about creating "negative pressure" - which essentially means, a vacuum - is achieved while holding a lit candle in a person's ear, as the wax drips onto a plate underneath. Apparently people have been seriously burned (gasp!) while doing this, and I can't think of anything that could create more immeasurable pain than having hot wax dripped in your ear canal. Lovely.

Not much of the remains of ear candling even look like ear wax. As a mom who single-handedly wages a war on boogers and ear wax removal with each of my children, I can tell you (from my experience) that ear wax is usually dark and sticky. And that it will eventually, if left alone, work itself out of the canal. Itself. (Did you hear that part?) Not only that, but if you created a vacuum that strong, you'd probably be in such pain from having pressure applied to the ear canal that you'd likely pass out.

Ear wax is good - we know that. Your body produces it for a reason. Some people, like my kids, produce a lot of it, but in order to produce that much it would probably equal the amount two or three dozen people produce: there is no way that much ear wax comes from one person. If it did, it would be so impacted that it would probably be lodged somewhere inside your brain, and the ear drum would be completely covered. But that's just a guess.

And lastly, one practice in alternative medicine that leaves me skeptical is muscle testing. I had no idea what it was (and still am not totally sure, but my BS Detector goes off whenever I hear about it) until a speaker came to our church to talk to us about it.

Yeah, that probably sounds weird. But his story was even weirder.

His wife was suffering from a dairy allergy or some other similarly uncomfortable issues, and they were urged to go to a "specialist" for muscle testing. At first skeptical, they decided to give it a try. Apparently, it worked.

Muscle testing, from what I can understand, is somehow supposed to tell you what substances your body cannot tolerate, for example, or generally evaluate health by applying force to a particular muscle or group of muscles. The idea is that the patient must resist the force that the practitioner is applying, and the differences in muscle response indicate a "weakness" or "imbalance" in the body.

I agree that your body can "talk" to you - by sending you directly to the bathroom if you've had something with dairy in it that you can't tolerate. If you're allergic to something, you will likely know it by breaking out into hives, throwing up, stomach upset or any number of responses. How is, say, holding down someone's arm going to indicate that she's allergic to milk?

The speaker at our church talked about how his wife made miraculous improvement after having this testing done. She could eat at restaurants again, free of embarrassment! She felt great, physically, at least for awhile. Then something changed.

This normally happy couple began to argue. They slammed doors, he said, fighting on their way to church. Something was happening, and they didn't know what - but whatever it was, it wasn't good.

Somewhere along the line they perceived that muscle testing, and seeking out alternative medicine to cure ailments and what not, was negatively altering their relationship with each other, and, the speaker said, with God.

While that sounds like crapola to a lot of people, I've known plenty of people who didn't believe in God or hold any religious beliefs whatsoever to be very aware of an evil presence. Something doesn't feel right, a voice is telling you not to do something because you think something bad might happen, an omen, whatever you want to call it: just a feeling, or a presence. For as much as people like to discount such feelings in their lives, I knew what this guy was talking about - because I felt much the same way about some of the stuff my mom has been into for years.

Her first foray into alternative medicine left me feeling strange - a negative, heavy presence sort of hung over my head every time she gushed about this that and the other. Having her palm read, seeing a "healer," whatever it was - it left me angry and confused every time. Finally I just rejected it outright and said, if this is what she wants to do, fine - but I don't want any part of it. I couldn't even explain it, but it just felt wrong, and shook me deeply to my core. Was I perhaps, even as a teenager, tuning into something more sinister? Was my mom being used by some negative energy, as she likes to call it, presenting itself as good?

Who knows. Definitely something to consider.

I think it's good to accept that medical technology has given us some wonderful advancements in improving our health. Decades ago my sole treatment for my ulcerative colitis probably would have been steroids, and I'm so thankful there are a host of medications I could take, if needed, that would help me. But I don't think it's safe or wise to become a "Pill Nation" like we have, where we think a pill should be used to treat everything. That mind-body connection is important in our understanding that something in our body doesn't feel right, but it can also be very swayed by the power of suggestion. A good dose of skepticism, in either direction, probably wouldn't hurt.

More reading:
Cosmetics and Skin - A Glowing Complexion
The Radium Girls, Radium Jaw
Eben Byers - died after drinking radium water on a regular basis, for "health benefits"
FDA Takes a Stand Against Ear Candling

6 comments:

Dana @ WhatWereWeThinking? said...

Interesting post. I was completely unaware of the radioactive snake oil products.

I see where you are coming from about finding balance between allopathy & naturopathy. I don't believe anything that claims to be a cure-all, magic solution to whatever ails ya' but I'm willing to try things as long as I *know* at worst, it will do nothing.

For instance, my son wears an amber teething necklace. Some people swear by them. I'm not one of them. At best, it provides him some relief; at worst, I spent $12 on a cute necklace for my little long-haired hippie baby.

The Deranged Housewife said...

Is it ever possible for an overzealous teether to get a bead off the necklace and choke on it? I've never really examined these things closely - they do look cute, though.

Dana @ WhatWereWeThinking? said...

I suppose it's possible but the beads are small enough to swallow without choking, imo. They are also individually knotted & (at least the one I bought) are made to break off easily so the kid won't choke himself.

Stephanie said...

I love this post! of course I am kind of in the opposite direction, my BS alarm goes off anytime I get near a Hospital or Regular Doctor.
I believe in Gods great power to heal and I believe he meant for us to put our faith in him and the natural things he gave us. I don't believe he ever meant for us to havve the Blind faith some do in the medical estabilshment.
I am the only 33 yr.old that I know that is not on some kind of daily medicine, it is just not needed.
... and my younest is 5 months old and is also wearing a 12 Amber neacklace! it has cured her colic, and is much safer that the ( proton pump ihibitors and acid buffers) the doctors wanted her on :)

The Deranged Housewife said...

Stephanie, when you say "colic" - what were her symptoms? Could she have had a possible dairy intolerance that she might have outgrown? Just a thought.

Anyway, I agree with that, too - there is a lot of me that's skeptical of doctors and hospitals, and my experiences have left me somewhat detached and defensive, which I'm not sure is a good idea, either.

Have you ever read Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent? In it she describes seeing a patient - with a huge belly, but who is not pregnant - to verify that the woman could go into a hospice-type situation. Her stomach was actually full of tumors and she died not long after ... Peggy immediately suspected the woman was a Christian Scientist, and the woman confirmed her suspicion. I'm not saying that's what you're referring to - but there's another tangent that some go off on that is really bizarre. God put these people in our paths to help us, and that woman probably could have been saved from a very early death as a result.

TracyKM said...

It can be hard to find a balance, esp. if you're open minded and not already convinced on one side (or the other) of the God vs medicine ideology. I approach this sort of stuff the same way I approach price comparisons...throw out the lowest and highest and stick with the middle. LOL.
It's not just the west coast that is out of iodine pills. I live in southern Ontario, between two nuclear plants. Within 24 hours of the earthquake, all the pharmacies around were out of the pills. With my luck, even if I had them, I wouldn't be where they are at the time of a nuclear emergancy (I'd head to the nearest school as they have them on stock if the premier declares an emergancy; we have to sign approval forms at the start of the year, but really....do I want to wait for the premier, then the secretary to pull all the files and start going through them....).