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Viewpoint: Pseudoscience, real money

BY BARRY BELMONT

Published November 14, 2012

A recent study by a team of Michigan State University researchers has been making its rounds through the news circuit with some variation of the headline, “Reflexology eases cancer symptoms.” Currently heralded by the researchers and various news outlets as a safe and effective treatment based on this study, reflexology is a form of alternative medicine based on the idea that mechanical stimulation of specific points on the surface of the feet will relieve stress, reduce pain and restore one’s “energy balance” via undiscovered pathways that run throughout all major organs in the body.

For this particular study, nearly 400 patients with advanced-stage breast cancer were divided into three groups and received one of three therapies, in addition to their chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy: a specialized reflexology treatment, a foot massage by a caregiver or conventional nursing care. Based on interviews conducted during the weeks before and after treatment, the researchers found that dyspnea — shortness of breath — and overall physical functioning of the reflexology group were improved more than the conventional care group.

What has been left out of all reports of this story thus far are the other results the authors found which included no significant differences in health-related quality of life, symptoms of depression or anxiety, pain and nausea relief. Furthermore, the group of women that received a regular foot massage showed a significant improvement in fatigue relief that was not matched by the group that received reflexology techniques. These irregular findings are typical of reflexology and, in fact, systematic reviews of the entire field have shown that it’s not an effective treatment for any medical condition.

This is also true of complementary and alternative medicines as a whole, where evidence of effectiveness is nonexistent, inconsistent or unable to perform better than a placebo. Yet many of these practices, including acupuncture, chiropractic practices, herbal supplementation and homeopathy seem to be increasingly sought out by people to cure what ails them, typically as a desire to cure the “whole” individual (mind, body and soul) through “ancient” and “natural” remedies.

It’s easy to understand the line of reasoning that might lead to such a desire: if it’s been around for a long time, there must be something to it; if it’s natural, it must not be harmful; if it cures the whole individual, it will fix me, not my disease.

But the reason such therapies are able to thrive is because our modern society is such an amazingly safe place. Everything from level roads and clean drinking water to the mass availability of good food and medicine has ensured that more and more of us will die age-related deaths. This is wonderful news — we’re living as long as humans can possibly live. Added to the fact that alternative medicines are generally so impotent as to not be harmful, the use of the placebo-effective medicine will continue to rise.

Though a case could be made for the administration of placebos, what is inexcusable is pretending that such treatments work because of meridians, chakras, toxin removal or bioenergy. It’s all nonsense.

While we should commend the researchers of this study for their desire to help people, their poor methodology and reliance on a disproven theoretical structure don’t do any good. Touching someone’s feet has been a sign of charity, humility and love for millennia. We don’t need to embellish these gestures with mystical language or pseudoscientific claims to treat those around us with the care they deserve.

Barry Belmont is an editorial board member.