Homeopathy for allergies

Ah, Texas. I’ve been to Texas. Have you ever been to Texas? Texas is special in so many ways. Talk about a place where people hold on to their guns and bibles. This story comes out of Houston where:

““Spring in Houston starts in January,” said Dr. Frank Orson, with Baylor Medical Center. He said some of his clients are ditching over-the-counter medicines. “We get a lot of our clients who have been through the Claritin and other allopathic approaches and when they are not getting the result there, they come to us,” said Philip Lanham  with the Homeopathy Center of Houston.

Lanham says diluting what you’re allergic to and drinking the potion, helps your body build up a resistance. “It helps the body identify it, and how to work with it, or fight it,” he said. Lanham said there are no side effects.”

That last part, the “no side effects” part seems to be the selling point of homeopathy. For $20, they’ll give you a bottle of a solution with extremely diluted amounts of the things that you’re allergic to. In a true medical setting, the allergist would also dilute what you’re allergic to, but he or she wouldn’t dilute it to the point where you need a sphere of water the size of the solar system to find just one molecule of the allergen being diluted. It would be diluted enough to give you a mild reaction. The allergist would then keep you in the office for a little bit to make sure you don’t have a severe reaction. Over time, the allergist increases the dose. This builds up your tolerance. For your body to get through the allergies, you have to have that reaction. You have to have side-effects.

Supporters of homeopathy will probably say that their allergies went away with the “potions,” but I propose a simpler explanation. I propose that their allergies went away with the allergy season going away. After all, most allergies are seasonal… And homeopathy is a sham.

In that news article, one of the commenters mentioned this study. I found a PDF of the study in a homeopathic website, so I had a chance to read it all. You don’t have to read the whole thing to find the significant part of the conclusion. You can read the PubMed entry:

“CONCLUSION: The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.”

Read that last part again, the one I’ve highlighted in bold. And remember what I said about side-effects? This is from the results section of the PubMed entry:

“No side effects were reported during treatment.”

Of course! Why would something so diluted give you side-effects?

You might be thinking right now that I just don’t want to listen to the evidence. Oh, but I am. See, this is what they did (from the methods section of the actual paper):

“During the first exam [E1], the treating physician assessed the minimum duration it would take for the current allergic symptoms to resolve without treatment. Then, before starting treatment, the patient was asked to complete the first questionnaire.

All subjects were asked to be present at the practice for completing the second questionnaire within their period of allergic reaction, no earlier than two weeks and no later than 16 weeks after commencement (the second exam [E2] took place at the end of the follow-up period). Intermediate consultations and individual therapy modifications resulted from the course of treatment. The follow-up/treatment period of 2 to 16 weeks was based on a minimum duration of treatment necessary for allowing assessment and a maximum tolerable duration in case of treatment failure. Participation in the trial terminated after the patients had completed the second questionnaire.”

So they asked patients to complete a questionnaire about their symptoms, take the homeopathy, then report back in 2 to 16 weeks from their initial assessment to see if they had a diminishing in symptoms, if they reduced the dose of their allopathic (real) medicine, and to see if there were any side-effects to the homeopathy. Well, you can go read the paper for yourself. I did. But I was strongly encouraged to quit reading when I read that one of the medications these folks were assessed for discontinuation were antibiotics.

I’m not joking.

If they reduced their consumption of antibiotics in 2 to 16 weeks, then that was a positive endpoint. Let me just tell you this: Not a lot of people take antibiotics for more than two weeks. Only the serious things like TB and drug-resistant bugs require antibiotics for months.

Another drug they looked at was steroids. Again, you don’t use those for weeks. You’re not typically supposed to. Yet, the authors use it as a positive sign of homeopathic use that people on homeopathy discontinued the use of steroids. Sure, they write in the discussion that the benefits of homeopathy may be from the natural course of the disease, from the use of the prescribed medications, or from the seasonality of the allergies… But they go back to the whole “no side effects” part.

Listen, I wish that all medications used to treat all diseases had zero side-effects. I wish people could get rid of cancer without losing their hair or being susceptible to serious infections. I really do wish for all that. But that’s not the world we live in. Maybe in the future, but not now. Even aspirin has side-effects. Heck, the cranberry juice you might take for your urinary tract infection will have side-effects (especially if you’re diabetic). The absence of side-effects doesn’t make something “good” or “better.” Working and being proven to work under controlled situations is what makes something worth using.

But you don’t have to take my word for it…

You’re supposed to feel pain

You hear it time and time again. The patient goes in to see their provider, complaining of some ailment – or ailments – that is causing pain. The provider prescribes some sort of pain killer in order, well, kill the pain. The patient then tells the doctor that the pain killer is no good, that they’re allergic to it or something like that, and that they need something “stronger”. The provider just goes ahead and gives the patient what they ask, maybe because they don’t want to deal with the issues of a potential drug seeker.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but pain was declared a “vital sign” at some point recently. Upon being triaged, patients are now being asked to rate their pain on a scale of some sort. In my experience, the scale is 1 to 10. One is for a dull feeling, like when you get poked. Ten is the worst pain imaginable – think of having your limbs torn from your body as someone pours hot lead onto the stumps. (I think.)

Of course, people with a strained back that just won’t heal began to report their back pain as a 10, though it was clearly not that bad. Like any other vital sign, pain had to be reduced or brought under control. After all, you don’t let someone with an incredibly high blood glucose level or blood pressure walk out of your emergency department, do you? But the problem was that these folks with simple injuries being reported as a 10 had developed a tolerance to pain. So newer and stronger drugs were developed.

The problem with those newer and stronger drugs is that the human body is a wonderful piece of machinery. This wonderful machine can adapt to almost anything, pain being one of those things. The more a pain killer was administered, the more the pain receptors in the body adapted. The pain receptors became more sensitized, “scanning” more deeply for any signs of injury. Pain, after all, is how our body notifies all pertinent body systems that something has been injured and needs to be repaired.

So the person gets better and stronger pain killers and the pain receptors are still picking up pain. That, and the injury that caused the pain is not properly addressed because, hey, it just hurts too much to go to physical therapy or to have a surgery. The surgery itself may even bring about more pain. They are cutting into you, after all, and your pain receptors are cross-wired. And all this started at the beginning, when the pain from the initial injury was quickly and swiftly treated with a pill or two.

Now, many of you who are lurking this blog have claimed that I’m a shill for the pharmaceutical industry. If I am, then why am I right now stating that the medical field would be much better off if drugs for pain didn’t exist? There’s a lot of money to be lost if alternatives for drug medications were developed. Yet, no, I’m not talking about acupuncture.

I’m talking about telling someone who comes in with a busted hand from punching a wall that, yes, it’s going to hurt. It will probably hurt for a while as it heals. Tell the person in the car accident that they will be sore for a bit being as how they have just been in a car accident. Explain to the 450-lb man that his knee is not going to get better on pain medication alone until he loses, say, 5 stone.

Yes, maybe techniques such as relaxing and realizing that pain is a part of the healing process could be used instead of right off the bat dropping the opiates. Maybe some aspirin? Maybe?

Then again, I’m not a health care provider, and maybe the standard of care has evolved to the point where pain medication is always indicated for any kind of pain regardless of the place on the VERY SUBJECTIVE scale where that pain may land. It’s a scary proposition, though. The body will continue to adapt, and this arms race of sorts will continue.

No arms race ends in peace.