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Bad Medicine, Bad Advice

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Late last night my eldest daughter came downstairs complaining of a great deal of pain from an earache that just would not let her sleep. I could tell right away that this wasn’t a trivial complaint, plus she’d been congested for a week, so it was reasonable to assume that some of the congestion had moved into her ear and possibly become infected.

Concerned about what I could do to lessen her pain so that she could sleep and hopefully get up in the morning feeling better, I called our HMO’s health center to talk to a 24 hour nurse about the best way to treat the problem. Now, this is a nice service that the HMO offers. It’s a lot better to have a nurse to call than to get panicked and go to the emergency room or just tough it out until the next day and go in and see a doctor. A lot of problems can be solved with a little good advice over the phone and it keeps costs down for everyone. Basically a great feature for an HMO to have.

That is, of course, assuming the information the nurse gives you is useful, correct and medically valid. So I get hold of the nurse and run down my daughter’s symptoms and get some advice, including giving her decongestants (I already had) and ibubprofen (I already had) and a recommendation of a position for her to sleep in – different from the one I thought would be good, so definitely some help. Then out came the suggestion that gave us some hope for a modern, medical way to deal with the problem – over the counter anaesthetic eardrops. Yay! Something I could go to the store and pick up and give my daughter and say “here’s some medicine, you’ll feel better soon.”

As a parent I know perfectly well that there’s not an awful lot that can be done for an earache in a 12 year old. It’s going to hurt, then it’s going to get better and that’s the way of it. The doctor will want to throw antibiotics at it, but they won’t do anything for it until well after it clears up on its own, but something to lessen the pain until it clears up, now that’s appealing, especially because you don’t really want to tell the suffering kid to “suck it up” and live with the pain until it eventually goes away. So all excited, I hopped in the car for the 20 minute drive to the nearest 24 hour drugstore to get some Similsan.

I guess maybe the name should have tipped me off – ‘simil’ implying similarity to medicine rather than actual medicine. And that’s what I discovered at the drug store. Similsan isn’t over the counter anaesthetic ear drops – something that does exist if you have a prescription – it’s homeopathic, meaning that it has virtually no actual medicine in it, it’s just water which someone basically waved some medicine at and the water is supposed to ‘remember’ the medicinal qualities. To make Similsan eardrops even more exciting, the ‘ingredients’ aren’t even anaesthetic or curative of anything even if they were present in measurable quantities. Chamomile and Sulfur have no known topical anaesthetic qualities. So it was another 20 minutes drive back home to tell my daughter that the ‘medicine’ the ‘nurse’ recommended was statistically no more effective than warm tap water for her affliction. In fact, I could make a better anaesthetic eardrop with things I have sitting around the house like aspirin or menthol or the bull nettles growing in the back yard, all which do actually have some topical efficacy.

Of course, by the time I got home the decongestant and pain killers had kicked in – actual medicine that works – so it wasn’t as pressing an issue as it had been. I’d just wasted about an hour of my day on the recommendation of some lady who claimed to be a nurse who I had thought would be trustworthy because she worked for our doctor’s clinic. What actually bothers me here is that a medical professional should be recommending a homeopathic remedy and that a reputable nationwide pharmacy chain should be selling the useless garbage. I realize that there are a huge number of gullible people who believe that homeopathy works, but as a medical treatment it repeatedly fails the test of both scientific analysis and plain common sense.

There’s a great article on homeopathy in the Free NewMexican. The teacher in this article has a book out on the subject which is available from Amazon. John Stossel did an outstanding expose about it on 20/20 in 2002. I’d give the link, but you have to pay a ridiculous amount for a transcript. There’s also a really good, comprehensive history and explanation of homeopathy on the Skeptic’s Dictionary website. Extensive studies have been done on all sorts of homeopathic remedies, and the results invariably show that their effectiveness is within a statistical margin of variation of placebos. Homeopathy is a classic example of magical thinking, where a scientifically valid idea – the basic concept of vaccines – has been extended beyond the point where it actually works. It sounds good to the gullible, but doesn’t stand up to any scientific or logical test. I’d just as soon put my faith in a gris gris, a magical amulet or a prayer wheel, and they’d be just as effective.

The scary thing is that homeopathy is a $200 million business and an awful lot of gullible people believe in it. The pharmacy I went to actually wanted $9.95 for what was in effect 4 ounces of pure water. The good news is that since there’s not actually anything in the homeopathic medicines they at least aren’t dangerous, unlike many of the unregulated herbal remedies on the market. Nonetheless, I’d really rather not have supposedly trained representatives of our medical system encouraging the use of magically contaminated water when I go to them for help. It tends to degrade my confidence in healthcare professionals as a group and make me wonder what we’re paying all this insurance money for. I half expect my next visit to the doctor to include diagnostic chicken feet, phrenology and the extraction of elfshot.

Dave

About Dave Nalle

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    So, you didn’t try it, and have no proof that it would not have worked. Yet you think (or believe) that it is ‘garbage’.

    Most allopathic treatment consists of throwing a bunch of chemicals at a problem and expecting one or more to do SOMETHING, good or ill in the long term be dammed.

    We could have a rational discussion about homeopathy, but since you are already biased/convinced, it probably won’t help.

    I’m glad yr daughter’s earache got better. Here is an FAQ on Similasan if you’d like for next time.

    Incidentally, Chamomilla is well-known for pain relief, not only in homeopathic medicines.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    >>So, you didn’t try it, and have no proof that it would not have worked. Yet you think (or believe) that it is ‘garbage’. < <

    Having already read up extensively on Homeopathy and why it's a complete scam I have absolute confidence in its ineffectiveness. Any help it would have been could have been achieved by any warm liquid poured in the ear.

    >>We could have a rational discussion about homeopathy, but since you are already biased/convinced, it probably won’t help. < <

    Yep, my opinion is all tainted by fact and science. You don't want to get into a discussion with me.

    >>Incidentally, Chamomilla is well-known for pain relief, not only in homeopathic medicines.<<

    At one part in 10 million? I think not.

    Dave

  • Sissy

    …and germs don’t exist because we can’t see them?

    Just because the medicinal part of a homeopathic remedy is “small” is a ridiculous reason to say it can’t work.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    >>Just because the medicinal part of a homeopathic remedy is “small” is a ridiculous reason to say it can’t work.<<

    Did you make it through high school science? Are you familiar with a molecule? If there’s one molecule of medicine in a swimming pool full of water and homeopathic ‘medicine’ is bottled from that swimming pool full of liquid, how many bottles can the one molecule of actual medicine end up in?

    Let me give you a hint…the answer is smaller than your total number of feet.

    Dave

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Homeopathic medicine does have a measurable benificial effect on those who use it – it’s called the placebo effect.

    My grandmother had a sovereign remedy for earache. She would make a pot of chamomile tea (there’s your Chamomilla, Aaman), let it cool to drinking temperature, take a big gulp and hold it in her mouth, swallow, then blow in the child’s ear for a few minutes.

    Repeating this until the cup of tea was gone usually had the desired effect. If not, she would pour another cup from the pot, and start again.

    This application put more of the aromatics of chamomile in the affected area than a pharmacy counter full of Simulsan. (It worked, too – very comforting as a child to put your head in Grandma’s lap and have her full attention for 20 mintes.)

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    That’s it in a nutshell, Dr.Pat. But I’m not convinced that it’s right to prescribe that as a medicine.

    Dave

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    But Grandma was an RN! And she had a really soft lap…

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Starting to sound a bit twisted there, Dr. Pat. You may have enjoyed her lap just a bit too much…

    Dave

  • http://www.sagfob4.blogspot.com/ zach

    according to my science class with Jay Shelton, homeopaths believe that the more dilute a remedy is, the more powerful it is. of course, from a scientific viewpoint, it’s all garbage. I believe it’s at 21X and 12C when there are no original molecules left. However, these potencies (or lackthereof) are actually sold.
    Of course the placebo effect plays a major role.
    unfortunately, it’s really hard to see if homeopathic remedies do work because they can’t be patented and therefore it costs mucho bucks to do a test.

    I read some pages from Jay’s book and found it a bit hard to get through. Jay does know a lot about homeopathy, though.

  • http://www.sagfob4.blogspot.com/ zach

    ” Just because the medicinal part of a homeopathic remedy is “small” is a ridiculous reason to say it can’t work.”
    I’m sorry, that’s just weird. That’s just like saying if you lick the left over packaging from a tylenol pack, your headache could still go away.

    there have to be certain amounts of medecines taken before they work.

  • http://ideasfrommexico.blogspot.com francisco68

    I am someone who has survived almost 11 years with congestive heart failure and other heart-felt games which is way over the predictions. The treatments mostly have been based on modern medicine(and diet, exercise, etc). There have been angioplasties, radiation therapy, stents, a bypass,two “pacing devices”, and there is a box of many stong, “real” medicines I take religiously every 12 hours, a nitrate in a holster on my belt for surprises. Up with modern medicine. It helps for some miseries that are acceptable and proper.

    Also from one who knows: feeling chest pain, fatique, sweaty — symptoms of heart attack or those of stroke. Don’t take homeopathics or deny it. Call 911!
    .
    However, I have used homeopathics for tension, for healing sore muscles, for gum problems. I drink herbal teas on occasion for tension or as a sleep inducer and I have boiled valerian (awful smelling base for Valium) for tension. Many of them have worked, too. If death is looming large, I surely recommend the best doctor and hospital to be found. If nothing else works or it is something that doesn’t need a $200 visit to a doctor and that can be treated as things have been treated for generations or millenia; give them a try. Some are placebos, fraud or just plain useless. Some work.

    The English queen is said to be a firm believer in homeopathics, whatever that means.

    When I was 12 and suffering a horrible ear ache the local doctor took what appeared to be a turkey baster and blasted the ear with warm water, cleaning out the infection. So that 4 ounces of water just might have helped.

  • http://www.sagfob4.blogspot.com/ zach

    well, herbal and homeopathic are two different things. herbal remedies have stuff in them. they are what homeopaths call a 1X remedy (or a tincture) these basically have a LOT of molecules. they DO work are are strong stuff! Homeopathic remedies vary from 2X +, so these are the ones to worry about

    that’s just my opinion

  • R. Johnson

    When I was in the US Army stationed in
    Germany I went to see a German doctor a
    couple of times. He gave me an option of
    Homeopathic,Herbal or precribed remedies
    for pain.I opted for the Codeine in that
    case, thank you Herr Doktor.

    Herbal medicines can and do work.I have
    used herbal remedies to great personal
    effect on many occasion. This makes all
    the sense in the world IMO,since many of
    the prescribed medicines on the market
    are just mimics of the healing qualities
    of the base herb that have been isolated
    then magnified & compounded artificially
    in a lab.

    Valerian as was noted IS relaxing and is
    what Valium (mo’ relaxing)is based on.
    Also many Vitamin/Herb and Mineral/Herb
    compounds have worked for me. Magnesium
    in concentrated form is excellent for
    sore legs/runners cramps.I use it often
    and it always works.But these all make
    sense as the body can become deficient
    in these areas causing problems until
    replaced. But Homeopathy… It’s big in
    the EU in certain countries, so there
    must be something to it, I don’t see it
    but… Mind over matter maybe? There are
    also many variables to consider (such as
    severity of the problem,how advanced it
    is, are you using it to heal or as a
    preventionary measure,etc.) when you are
    judging the effectiveness of Herbs and
    Homeopathic cures.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    >>Valerian as was noted IS relaxing and is
    what Valium (mo’ relaxing)is based on.
    Also many Vitamin/Herb and Mineral/Herb
    compounds have worked for me. Magnesium
    in concentrated form is excellent for
    sore legs/runners cramps.I use it often
    and it always works.But these all make
    sense as the body can become deficient
    in these areas causing problems until
    replaced. < <

    These are all herbal remedies and
    good ones. But if you dilute them to
    one part in 100,000 how useful would
    they be? That's the essence of the
    problem with homeopathy.

    >>But Homeopathy… It’s big in
    the EU in certain countries, so there
    must be something to it,< <

    Hundreds of thousands go to
    Lourdes every year to get healed too.
    Does that work? Is that rational,
    science-based medicine?

    >> I don’t see it
    but… Mind over matter maybe? <<

    Exactly, the ‘Placebo Effect’. Most
    of these minor afflictions are half
    mental anyway, and thinking you
    should get better and took medicine
    may be all it takes to turn you around.

    Dave

  • Kim

    The so-called “medicine” you used (decongestants and ibuprofren) has NO healing properties!! They merely mask the symptoms. Now, I am all for tylenol and ibuprofren and use them to alleviate pain, but they do not HEAL!! Duh!

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Only the body can heal itself, but the relief of symptoms allows us to carry on and function, and that’s really pretty important. Homeopathic remedies are both incapable of healing AND do nothing for the symptoms.

    Dave

  • James Costello

    Dave,

    Your comment caught my eye: “The doctor will want to throw antibiotics at it, but they won’t do anything for it until well after it clears up on its own…”

    As a pediatic physician’s assistant for 25 years, I would say that true ear infections can respond to antibiotics. They may not always repond but they often do.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Possibly, but most aural occlusions aren’t real ear infections, and even if they are, can the regular series antibiotics actually take them out more quickly than they’ll die out on their own?

    Dave

  • John M

    We had a rabbit with cancer. They gave it a week or two at the most.

    We took her to another vet. The Vet used a homeopathic solution to remedy the problem.

    The tumors shrank, and the rabbit lived for another five years.

    yeah…. hokus-pokus.

  • Chuck

    Maybe your rabbit was misdiagnosed? Maybe the first vet sucked? No true scientific research has ever supported homeopathy – it’s success rates are there with placebos, magic, & prayer.

  • http://winelover.bloggingfamily.com/ Kasandra Winegrove

    There is another problem I have with the scientific community and that is the latest revelations that many researchers fabricate their findings or rush their research in order to get published. Getting published means prestige as well as a chance at funding. For those with a PHD, if you don’t have papers published you fall behind your peers. Remember how bacon was bad, then it was ok then it was bad…now there is the retraction on a study that linked the use of a vaccine in children to autism…it wasn’t true…I understand your concern Dave and I now am very sceptical of those I used to follow without a thought.

  • Lolo

    My knowledge of homeopathy isn’t extensive, but I’ve studied its rationale, application and efficacy over the last 20-some years as a rank amateur. I’ve had very good results for many complaints — determining which remedy fit my symptoms AND consulting with an esteemed MD previously affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic. Most every chosen remedy has worked for me.
    And, yes, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain has her personal homeopathic physician travel with her in the UK and abroad, along with his array of remedies to meet any requirement. God Save the Queen and homeopathy!! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Thanks for “listening!”