Christina Patterson: Alternative therapies just don't work

Saturday 20 July 2013 03:10

There was the man who took blood from my ear and told me to avoid aluminium saucepans. There was the couple from the Cotswolds who wired me up to a machine. There was the woman who told me to rewrite my parents' past. And then, of course, there were the herbs. Liquid herbs, powdered herbs, herbs in capsules, herbs in tinctures and the herbs that bring fear to the heart of those who have tried them, the herbs that trigger Pavlovian waves of nausea and disgust. Yup, the Chinese herbs.

If you haven't tried them, let me enlighten you. A man in a white coat for whom the English consonant remains a concept as slippery as the seaweed he so loves to pickle and preserve will look at your tongue, feel your pulse and pronounce on the inadequacy of your "river". Luckily, the answer is at hand. It's in the jars around him – in the form of dried twigs, grizzled berries and old bone. You boil it up, three times a day – sometimes even manage to keep it down – and hey presto! Your home smells like a rubber factory. Your saucepans are wrecked. Your condition is unchanged.

You could, as I did, try the little white pills which contain less than a molecule of the original agent (but which still somehow managed to bring me out in boils). You could try the no-gluten, no-sugar, no-pleasure diet, or the vats full of vitamins, or the cradling of the cranium or the pummelling of the foot. You could try the healing: the spiritual healing, the bio-resonance healing, the positive-thinking healing, the hypnosis healing, or the I-could-have-sent-a-child-to-Eton-with-the-money-I've-spent-on-this healing. You could try all of them, as I have, but I'll save you the money and tell you this. They don't work. Repeat after me: alternative therapies don't work.

Call me a nutter if you like, call me a mug, or just call me what I've been, which is desperate. Desperate people do desperate, stupid things, desperate, stupid things, which probably conflict with their rational world-view, and certainly conflict with the realities of their budget. They don't go to alternative therapists for a nice chat and a bit of extremely expensive sympathy. They go because traditional medicine has failed them, and their condition (skin disease, back pain, weird virus, whatever) is making their life a misery.

It was acupuncturist number four who sorted me out. I think we can safely say that this was not a placebo. And now NICE, the very often far from nice National Institute for Clinical Excellence, has looked at the accumulated evidence of a number of studies and given needles in meridians the thumbs up. What are meridians? Channels for your chi, apparently. Something to do with life force, and yin and yang, and heat and damp and – well, all kinds of things that would have your average medic choking over his almond croissant. And how does it work? We've no idea. Does it matter? Maybe not.

Although everyone seems to think it's NICE's job to cough up for any drug, anywhere, that anyone quite fancies, it isn't. It's NICE's job to use limited resources, provided by the taxpayer, for the greatest good of the greatest number, and therefore to select the things that work. And so, for back pain, steroid injections, MRI scans and operations (all expensive and useless) are now out. Manual therapies, acupuncture and exercise are in. Yes, exercise. Effective, according to all the studies, and dirt cheap. Personally, I'd opt for 1,000 needles over a half-hour on a treadmill, but perhaps we should all be forced to try it before we haemorrhage our money – or anyone else's – on the false promises of drug companies, or quacks.

Multi-tasking and the prime ministerial ego

We all like to see a bit of multi-tasking, particularly from that half of the human race barely able to grunt when they're clutching the remote. So hats (or headscarves) off to Prime Ministers Berlusconi and Putin for proving that men can also, in the words of a former prime minister's wife, keep "a lot of balls in the air".

And gosh, what a lot of balls there are! Berlusconi's balls include a country, a football team, three TV channels, a banking and insurance group, a massive property portfolio, an 18-year-old model and a disgruntled soon-to-be ex-wife. Putin's balls include the transition from mass communism to uber-capitalism, the odd war, a black Labrador called Koni and a portfolio of interests including painting, singing, fishing and serious-enough-to-write-a-book-about-it judo.

Both men are extremely interested in their physical appearance, but while Berlusconi is a testament to the (limited) powers of plastic surgery, Putin favours the toned torso. Berlusconi has written a you-too-can-live-the-dream celebrity memoir, Putin a column, which appears in a Russian magazine tomorrow, on how to fire people. Both men, clearly, are ruthless egotists who will do pretty much anything to keep in power. But one has managed his image as a hard man. The other appears, increasingly, to be a perma-tanned poodle who's just a (very bad) joke.

The writer who never short-changes her readers

The news that Alice Munro has won the Man Booker international prize is a triumph, of course, for a writer who is hardly a household name, but it's also a triumph for the short story. The 77-year-old Canadian, who lives quietly in Ontario, is probably the best short story writer alive. Her heart-breaking tales of small epiphanies, and small-town life, have provoked comparisons with Chekhov. But she has never written a novel, and so has been doomed to remain a "writer's writer" – adored by her fans, but not that widely read. Munro (like Raymond Carver, like Lorrie Moore and like Grace Paley) can pack more into one of her stories – more subtlety, more grace, more tender twists of the human heart – than many novelists do in a lifetime's oeuvre, but somehow the myth remains that the short story is obsolete. It's hard, in fact, to think of a better way, in our time-poor age, to keep the joys of narrative, the joys of character, and the joys of language brilliantly, vividly, electrically, alive.

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