If there's a silver lining in the continued popularity of non-scientific healing techniques, it's the fact that the scientific community is at long last putting these so-called treatments and potions through vigorous testing. And one by one they fail to live up to their purported benefits.
Here are five alternative therapies that were debunked or denounced in 2009.
Reiki is a spiritual practice developed in Japan in the early 20th century that, in the hands of Westerners, has evolved into a new-age healing practice. Popular in Hawaii and California by the 1970s, reiki has since become a staple at health spas and in granola-loving cities across the United States.
Reiki involves a practitioner (that is, someone who has taken a couple days of training) who places her hands on or just above a patient's body to transmit healing energy — the "ki" or reiki, better known as qi in Chinese traditional medicine. Reiki has all the trappings of new-age healing: restoring balance and instilling life energy through mysticism and/or vibrational energy. Akin to a hands-off massage, reiki is said to relieve stress, fatigue and depression and promote self-healing for just about any disease, including cancer.
The two largest scientific reviews of reiki, published last year in International Journal of Clinical Practice and in November 2009 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, reveal that reiki is not an effective treatment for any condition. Also in 2009, the U.S. Catholic Church weighed in, stating at a March meeting of bishops that, "since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for... Catholic health care facilities... to provide support for Reiki therapy."
Reiki is not an outright scam; the practitioners seem to believe in what they are doing. In the end the soft music and whispery speech of the practitioners during the reiki sessions merely helps one relax.
Reflexology or zone therapy
What's the connection between the center of the ball of the left foot and the heart? Apparently nothing, according to systematic reviews of reflexology, or zone therapy, the practice of massaging the feet and sometimes hands or ears to cure disease.
Maybe you've seen the charts. The toes are somehow connected to the head and sinuses. There's a spot in the middle of the foot that can help control diabetes, and next to that is the fresh-breath button. Foot massages sure do feel great. But "feel great" and "cure halitosis" are two different things.
As summed up in a study of over 250 adults, published in November-December 2009 issue of the journal Heart & Lung, reflexology and other massage techniques had no effect for heart surgery patients on postoperative mood, pain, anxiety, hospital stay and several other measures. (Actually, anxiety was lower in the group not getting the foot massage.)
This study follows systematic reviews published in September 2009 in the Medical Journal of Australia and in June 2008 by Taiwanese researchers in the Journal of Advanced Nursing finding no evidence that reflexology helps any condition.
Homeopathy is the use of physically impossible or implausible dilutions of medicines — or, poisons, actually, for homeopathy's main tenet is "like kills like" — to cure just about anything. Numerous studies in 2009 found homeopathy to be either useless or marginally better than a placebo. But results tilt towards the "useless" side when the studies are bigger and the diseases are more serious.
In April in the journal Intervention Review, British researchers reported that there's no evidence to support the use of homeopathy to treat the adverse effects of cancer treatment. In June in the journal Primary Care, a systematic review found homeopathy to be ineffective for weight loss. In October in the Annals of Oncology, more researchers reported no benefit from homeopathy in cancer treatment. And a medical perspective in JAMA in October detailed the lack of oversight for homeopathic products. (Maybe that's why they don't work.)
Also, in August 2009, the World Health Organization felt the need to make an official statement warning against the use of homeopathy for serious diseases, such as HIV, TB and malaria, after word spread that homeopathy was being promoted in some developing countries.
To be fair, the Faculty of Homeopathy, a UK-based professional society, lists numerous randomized, controlled trials on its website from previous years demonstrating the efficacy of homeopathy. If you want lots of positive results, you can always subscribe to the journal Homeopathy. And so the debate continues.
Unlike many alternative therapies that come with ample amounts of good intentions, magnetic therapy seems like an outright scam. Most manufacturers know the magnets have no proven benefit for health, and yet magnets are added to everything from headbands to back braces to shoe inserts.
The basic premise, that magnets somehow improve blood flow, defies physics. The iron in your blood is bound to hemoglobin and is not attracted to magnets of any strength. This is a good thing. Otherwise you'd blow up in an MRI machine, with magnets thousands of times more powerful than your shoe insert.
Also, the magnets in most magnetic therapeutic devices are far too weak to penetrate the skin, particularly through clothing such as socks. Simply cover a magnetic shoe insert with a sock and try to attract something as light as a paper clip.
Nevertheless, some people swear by them, and some researchers still have the stamina to test these despite decades of negative results. And so, as published in August 2009 in Rheumatology International Clinical and Experimental Investigations, magnetic therapy did not improve the chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia.
The deathblow to magnet therapy should have been the large, randomized, double-blinded study on pain published in 2007 in Anesthesia & Analgesia. Yet sales of therapeutic magnets remain legal.
Herbs hold great healing promise. Many common drugs, such as aspirin and digitalin, were either once or continue to be synthesized from botanical herbs. Yet herbs can be deadly, too. Kava is one such herb, taken for relaxation. When mixed with alcohol, it can kill you. This is likely not the level of relaxation you are after. Also, the leaves and stems (but not the roots) can be toxic to the liver. Kava is indeed banned in many countries through Europe, where herbal medicine is otherwise popular.
In systematic reviews of kava and other herbals published in September 2009 in the journal Drugs and in Integrative Cancer Therapies, researchers found kava to be more trouble than it is worth, because it interferes with real medicines for cancer and other diseases.
Kava is not without its merits. Kava root is mixed into a drink in many South Pacific countries with few adverse effects, other than those that mimic alcohol abuse. Some studies have shown kava's value in treating anxiety and depression from a specially prepared root extract. But despite the availability of kava on supermarket shelves, because of potential toxicity and drug interference, it is best to check with a doctor before self-prescribing this herb.
Big bad mainstream medicine
Mainstream medicine has its faults and its critics. But consider how HIV/AIDS has transitioned from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease in about a decade, with a cure surely on the horizon.
Advances in the treatment of HIV did not involve understanding its qi or lack of qi or vibrational energy or the imbalance it causes in some holistic manner. The search for a cure has entailed isolating the cause (a retrovirus) and then building upon previous knowledge of DNA, RNA, enzymes, transcription and the inner workings of the cell (all Nobel-prize winning efforts) to create antiretroviral treatments that employ nucleoside analogue and non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors and protease inhibitors.
Sound complicated? It is. People go to school for a long time to learn how this works. And the medicine does have nasty side effects. But it works better than a foot massage.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.