Have you ever wondered if snake oil was a real medicine?
The Erabu, pictured above, is a Chinese water snake whose oil is an anti-inflammatory rich in prostaglandins and Omega-3 fatty acids that can soothe sore muscles and aching joints. Charlatans in nineteenth century America did not have access to real Erabu oil so they used rattlesnake oil instead. They claimed it could cure everything from goiters to cancer. The term “snake oil” became known as the classic fake treatment even though it may have originally been effective for specific types of pain.
This website is about what alternative medicines really are and what they actually do. It is also about what they are not. Some alternative treatments do one thing but are claimed to do other things and some have not received enough study to be sure. Other treatments are pharmacologically inert but can still work through the placebo effect.
Of course, mainstream treatments work for scientifically proven reasons but outcomes in real patients can still be maximized by paying attention to the new neuroscience of the placebo effect.
Everything a physician does and says in the doctor-patient relationship can have a placebo effect. It can also have a nocebo effect. In other words, how the doctor treats you can help make you better or worse to some degree. We have known this for years but what we have discovered recently is that this effect involves real changes in brain chemistry. These changes trigger compensatory mechanisms that can relieve pain, nausea, psychosomatic illness, major depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and potentially any condition that is helped by increasing or decreasing an endogenous neurotransmitter (brain chemical).
Pharmacologically inert treatments such as the doctor-patient relationship and psychotherapy work in part by maximizing this effect.
We are finally understanding the neuroscience of the “art” of medicine. If we can re-integrate it into mainstream medicine patients are sure to benefit.
Dr. Levy does speaking engagements to both professional and non-professional groups on a sliding scale. Read his bio and contact him at: Morgan L. Levy, MD
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