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Supplements and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (SCAM)

When I was about six years old, I climbed onto the back of my dad’s truck when the tailgate suddenly opened. I went flying backward and onto the ground. I remember feeling like I had broken every bone in my back. Looking back, the incident must have given me whiplash because I remember being incredibly stiff for days. In an effort to help me heal, dad took me to a “healer” up in Chihuahua City.

The man asked me to lay on a table (much like a massage table), and he started rubbing my back. Suddenly, he pressed down on it and popped my back joints. The pain was still there, but I remember feeling a little better. This went on for a few times in the following weeks. By the time summer was over and I returned to school, my back was good as new.

A few years after that, tired from all the bouts of Strep throat that I endured when I was younger, dad asked a man he knew to “break” my tonsils. The man took my hair, wrapped it around his fingers and tugged hard. I heard a popping sound which he claimed was my tonsils breaking. Sure, I had bouts of Strep after that, but they were less and less as time went by.

Okay, one more…

When I was in high school, I developed asthma after I had a bout of what must have been the flu. After several visits to the emergency room from uncontrolled asthma attacks (the ER then was our primary care provider), it fell again in my dad to take me to a homeopath. He did so at the insistence of my mother, by the way. Now, the homeopath was no regular homeopath. He was “Dr. Woge” (pronounced “Vo-geh”), a very well-known homeopath who had lines of people waiting to see him every day. We had to get there really early to get a number. His consult consisted of asking me questions only. Afterward, we walked downstairs to pick up the remedies he prescribed.

The other reason why Dr. Woge was big in our family was because he had treated my maternal grandfather as my grandfather was dying from diffuse prostate cancer. Dr. Woge had also treated other members of my family (on both sides) for different ailments. Also, I didn’t know about the “magic” that homeopaths sell. In fact, I think that all those people waiting to see Dr. Woge, and all those other times that my mom or dad had taken me to an “alternative” or “traditional” healer, were all the result of just not knowing stuff.

One thing that my parents did as I was growing up was to encourage me to learn. They bought me books and encyclopedias. They bought me microscopes and allowed me to expand my knowledge in many different ways. They did not discourage me from learning even when some of that learning was seen as heretical by the church groups we attended. And it was in that knowledge that I realized that SCAM is mostly a scam.

I write “mostly” because there is some SCAM that does do something for some people. I’m not going to deny that the placebo effect exists, and that people who suffer from some (mostly psychogenic) conditions feel relief from feeling that someone is doing something for them, even if that something is nothing short of just plain magic. I’m also well aware of the other things in life that influence how we see the world. For example, I got less and less Strep throat incidents because I got older. Many people grow out of them without medical intervention beyond antibiotics. (My maternal grandmother, by the way, injected me with penicillin each and every single time I had Strep, and I got better shortly afterward.) My back got better after a few weeks because I didn’t injure myself that bad. And the asthma got better as I went years without major respiratory infections (which are rightfully attributed to getting my flu vaccine each year starting in college.)

When I see advertisements and social media postings about things like Reiki or massage therapy, homeopathy and herbal supplements, I shake my head not because I don’t believe in them. (I don’t.) I shake my head because of the outlandish claims they make. From curing infectious diseases to curing cancer, there is almost nothing that people selling SCAM won’t claim. That’s where I have a problem. That’s where my blood gets boiling.

In an ideal world, agencies at each level of government would be allowed to tell peddlers of SCAM to stop making such outlandish claims. Not only do those claims get people hurt, they can also get people killed. In an ideal world, this would be the radio commercial for “Ren’s Casa de Massage”:

See? Simple, with no outrageous claims. I wouldn’t sell you snake oil because, well, snake oil doesn’t work, and I care enough about public health to want to improve it and not leave it in darkness. I wish others would do the same.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? We live in a world where people will do almost anything for money and fame. Brilliant neurosurgeons will sell their souls to the devil if it means becoming the leader of the free world. Other surgeons will forgo common decency if it means better ratings for their television show. All the while, the real healers, the real physicians and healthcare providers  — the real heroes in the story of man versus disease — get bombed from on high in Afghanistan, Syria and other places around the world. They get vilified because of doctored videos. They are bullied away from using science and evidence to heal because science and evidence are not magical to most people… People who want a quick fix, people who need to feel special.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

1 reply

  1. Well, I’ve experienced much of what you did, although not as a patient.
    I’ve also learned from special forces medical training and witnessed the efficacy of treatments of seriously underdeveloped nations “witch doctor” herbal medicine.
    It wasn’t up to snuff for our medicine, but where medicines were unavailable, they had some effects that ranged from modest to major in efficacy.
    Indeed, pharmaceutical companies have been studying those concoctions, with an occasional marketable drug ensuing.

    But, whenever anything from a minor headache through a hurricane or anything slightly less is promised, it’s bullshit.


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