A couple of months ago I developed middle-back pain (also called thoracic back pain). I’d had lower back pain before, but this was different. Different but not any better. I don’t recommend either. After suffering a few weeks hoping in vain it would go away, I finally went to an urgent-care clinic operated by the largest orthopedics clinic in the area. An exam suggested the problem was nothing really serious, most likely inflammation of some muscles, and I was prescribed an oral steroid.
Within just a couple of days I was vastly improved and not long even the residual minor twinges were gone.
And this was despite the fact that I never actually took any of the prescribed medicine!
This, I have decided, is a major advance in homeopathic treatment. If you’re wondering what I mean, keep in mind that homeopathy refers not to “natural” or “herbal” remedies as many people think but rather to a set of eccentric ideas invented by a German doctor in the 1700s that amount to a belief that the best treatment for an illness is to take extremely dilute solutions of substances known to cause the same symptoms the illness does. So if you have, say, severe abdominal pain and nausea, you would treat it with substances known to cause abdominal pain and nausea, but only after giving them a series of dilutions so aggressive that most doses contain not even one molecule of the substance in question.
Naturally defenders of homeopathy have (unproven) conjectures about how this might work, and they insist that it does work in that most people getting homeopathic remedies usually get better, which of course people tend to do anyway, thanks to the natural healing abilities of the body, as happened with my back pain. Well-conducted controlled clinical trials don’t provide much support for homeopathy, but unlike some other sorts of alternative medicine, it does have the advantage of being generally harmless (at least provided the homeopathic medicine is actually homeopathic) and most of the time reasonably cheap. (It’s often said that you can’t overdose on a homeopathic drug, to which Irish comic Dara Ó Briain memorably responds, “Well, you can feckin drown!”)
For this and other reasons — including the fact that one of the senators behind the original 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act was a homeopathic physician — regulators haven’t come down very hard on homeopathy despite the evidence that the only benefit people experience comes from the placebo effect.
But according to an article in the March/April issue of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission last November issued a statement saying that the manufacturers of over-the-counter homeopathic remedies (which drugstores sell a lot of) must start backing up any claims made with actual evidence, or else clearly state that there is no evidence that the product actually works. The FTC’s press release can be read here.
Not everyone thinks this will accomplish much. Shortly after the FTC statement was released, lan Levinovitz, wrote in the on-line magazine Slate that the new policy might well backfire:
Time and time again, studies have shown that with few exceptions, “This claim has not been approved by the FDA”–style disclaimers do little to inform consumers or change their purchasing habits. As I reported for Slate in 2014, the FDA’s own studies show this, with most disclaimers making no difference and some actually making health claims appear persuasive! The FTC’s more recent studies on homeopathic medicine disclaimers are not encouraging, with 25-45 percent of consumers reporting that homeopathic products are FDA approved — after looking at a package with a disclaimer that says they aren’t.
I highly recommend Levinovitz’s article, even though it’s a bit depressing. He’s very likely right. Late night television is full of ads for pills supposedly promoting virility, performance, and the size of certain body parts, and despite the fact that the ads clearly claim the products will prevent or cure one’s problems in that area, they flash on the screen a hard-to-read disclaimer saying, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”