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Health: Trust me, I'm a witch doctor

It's the success story of the Nineties - but complementary medicine could damage your health.
The British Medical Association (BMA) is calling for the regulation of complementary and alternative medicines such as acupuncture, homoeopathy and herbalism. At present, virtually anyone is free to practise, irrespective of his or her training, and the BMA says that a regulating body needs to be established for each such therapy, to protect the patient from unskilled, unscrupulous and potentially dangerous practitioners.

One in three people now uses alternative medicine, according to Which?, but it appears that some complementary therapists should carry a health warning. Simon Baker, a 36-year-old systems administrator from west London, would vouch for this, after having had a Thai massage while on holiday in Thailand. He says: "I went to a place recommended by the in-flight magazine. I was massaged in the open air by a man who looked about 100 years old and didn't speak a word of English. There was a lot of manipulation and clicking of my joints and at one point he tied me up in a knot. He also did some massage with his feet - putting his foot on my shoulders and stretching and pulling my arms out of their sockets.

"Afterwards, I felt a bit weird but I thought it was because I was very relaxed. The next day, I flew to Sydney and started feeling sick and dizzy, and thought I had food poisoning. My neck started to seize up and I was in a great deal of pain. At that point I suspected it might be something to do with the massage so I went to a chiropractor, who said that one of the vertebrae in my neck had been pulled out of line. He said that sometimes happened with manipulative massage. He tried to correct it with chiropractic and ultrasound.

"I subsequently had to visit a chiropractor at each stage of my trip, making it a world tour of chiropractors. It probably cost me about pounds 300; I visited experts in Australia, New Zealand and the States. Now, if I see an advertisement for Thai massage in London, I wince."

Professor Edzard Ernst, director of the department of complementary medicine at Exeter University, and author of Complementary Medicine: an Objective Appraisal (Butterworth-Heinemann, pounds 18.99), warns: "There is no effective complementary treatment without risk; it is just a question of how big the risk is. Not all massage therapists know the limits of their treatment and if you apply a high level of force you can fracture bones."

Professor Ernst hopes the BMA's proposals this week will protect patients. "In absence of regulation it is virtually impossible for people to be sure they are getting a good practitioner." He also warns of infection and inadequate patient care. "Acupuncturists claim the problem has been solved because they only use disposable needles," he says, "but even disposables are no longer sterile if you touch them when taking them out of the packet."

Michelle Saunders, a 32-year-old copywriter from Oxford, ended up in a worse state after a session with an acupuncturist: "I was suffering from neck pain and headaches and I was recommended an acupuncturist. In his clinic he had lots of certificates, albeit in Chinese, dotted over his wall, so I felt safe.

"When he started sticking pins in me it really hurt. It felt as if he were drawing blood. When he stuck pins in my head I told him it was really painful, but he said there was a lot of pain that needed releasing and that it had to hurt to get better. But it was agony. He said it would get better, and it was blocked energy. So I stuck with it, thinking it was going to make me better. The next day I was in even more pain, all over my body. I'll certainly never go back there. What worries me now is whether the needles were sterile."

But what if your health is not affected adversely, but you end up parting with large sums of cash? Paula Davies, a 34-year-old secretary from south London, spent pounds 80 on a visit to a homoeopath hoping to find relief from digestive problems and allergies. She says: "The homeopath prescribed me a huge list of things - vitamin pills and homoeopathic potions - saying I was out of balance. She was very convincing and quite a forceful character.

"I was feeling unwell and vulnerable, so I spent nearly pounds 200 on remedies that would last 90 days. I took it all and it did absolutely nothing - it was just a waste of money."

Professor Ernst urges caution when seeking alternative medicine: "If a practitioner offers something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true."

His advice is: "Consult a professional body, talk to your GP, go on the recommendation of someone you trust - preferably a medical person. Don't just go and see anybody."