Doctors Weigh in on the Benefits of 16 “Alternative” Therapies

Should you try ear candling, colonics and acupuncture?

By The Editors
March 31, 2016 9:00 am
Doctors Weigh in on the Benefits of 16 “Alternative” Therapies
Justina Mintz/AMC

There are two types of people in this world, they say.

Mayo v. mustard; Biggie v. Tupac; people who correct your spelling on social media v. people with social lives.

But when it comes to Eastern v. Western medical practices, the line in the sand gets muddled. You’ll always need your tetanus shot, but do you need Qigong?

To assist, we tried every alternative therapy we could get our hands on. And then we got an opinion — and second opinion — from medical professionals.

Ergo: alternative practices, decoded, as told by your humble editor, Dr. Christopher Calapai D.O. and medical editor Laurie Thomas.


What is it? You standing naked in a freezing cold chamber (-150 to -290 degrees Fahrenheit) for about three minutes.
What We Thought: It was invigorating. I thought it would be painful; it wasn’t. And I experienced sudden bursts of energy for days to come.
What Calapai Thought: It’s probably too early for research to clearly define risks or benefits for Cryotherapy.
What Thomas Thought: A Cochrane review warns that there is not enough evidence to show whether whole-body cryotherapy is effective or safe for improving recovery after exercise.

Vitamin IV Drips

What Is It? Concentrated vitamins delivered via IV
What We Thought: Truth be told, I only got one to cure a severe hangover on a day that required mental acuity. It made me feel 80% less like hell in a handbag.
What Calapai Thought: Vitamin drips are terrific. They replace deficiencies of vitamins and are great for viral syndromes and infections. I’ve been administering them for 30 years, so I wholeheartedly believe in vitamin drips. Just make sure you have this done by a qualified doctor.
What Thomas Thought: The only cure for this problem is time. If you are dehydrated, then drinking water or Pedialyte or even getting some intravenous fluid might make you feel a little better. Hangovers are not due to vitamin deficiency, so vitamin supplements are unlikely to cure one.

Ear Candling

What Is It? A tapered end of an ear candle is placed in a person’s ear while the other end of the candle is lit.
What We Thought: I used to do this when I was surfing to help with swimmer’s ear and sand caught up in there. It helped.
What Calapai Thought: It can help dry up excess liquid or fluid inside the ear, but I am not sure we have enough double-blind research to back up ear candling.
What Thomas Thought: Ear candling sounds like fun, but it does nothing to clean your ears and it can cause burns. For most people, the best way to remove built-up earwax is to soften the earwax with eardrops and then rinse the ear with lukewarm water from a bulb syringe.


What Is It? A method of gently cleansing the large intestine or colon
What We Thought: Despite the discomfort of willingly letting a stranger put a tube up my, ahem, arse, it wasn’t that bad. Seemed to hit the refresh button on my digestive system, though I didn’t come into the session with any issues to tackle, per se.
What Calapai Thought: Colonics may be useful in detoxifying and cleansing the body. If they are done too often, however, they can weaken the normal muscular bowel functions. It’s best to do this once or twice a month at most.
What Thomas Thought: Poses risks without providing any clear benefits. A better approach is simply to eat the kind of diet that nature intended: a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet.


What Is It? Precise pressure applied to specific points on the body.
What We Thought: Doesn’t feel good. Gets the job done.
What Calapai Thought: Acupressure can certainly be beneficial, as either massaging or applying pressure to areas of nerve flow can help relax spasms and strain.
What Thomas Thought: There is little evidence that acupressure provides significant medical benefits.


What Is It? Tiny needles lightly inserted into the skin on specific points on the body
What We Thought: Helped me regain sensation after nerve damage so fast that my surgeon’s head spun. Helped my sister get pregnant. I’m a believer.
What Calapai Thought: Helps to reset abnormal electrical flow through nerve channels called meridians. It’s also useful for pain syndromes and musculoskeletal disorders.
What Thomas Thought: Some scientists think that acupuncture might relieve pain by boosting the production of the body’s natural painkillers. Others think that the results of acupuncture are due to a placebo effect, rather than the effect of the needles. Potential risks include bleeding, infection or even pneumothorax (punctured lung).


What Is It? The use of aromatic plant extracts in oils, lotions, diffusers, etc.
What We Thought: My mother used to put lavender on my sheets to chill me out. It works. And a little eucalyptus in the steam room peps me up.
What Calapai Thought: A great technique used for relaxation. Combined with massages and saunas, this will greatly help to de-stress the individual. Helps to improve the mood and mindset.
What Thomas Thought: There is no scientific evidence that aromatherapy has any medical benefits, and some of the essential oils or other products that are used in aromatherapy could trigger allergic reactions or skin irritation. Nevertheless, nice fragrances can be pleasant and relaxing.


What Is It? Treatment via bathing in mineral springs.
What We Thought: I can’t speak to whether I feel better because it’s mineral water or because I’m chilling in a pool, but I dig it.
What Calapai Thought: It’s very relaxing, but not much double-blind research supports it.
What Thomas Thought: There is some evidence that these warm baths can provide some relief from the pain of some rheumatic diseases.


What Is It? Use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.
What We Thought: I used this after an injury to control the way I was tensing up my shoulders and neck. Worked.  
What Calapai Thought: This is a good technique to help coordinate mental electrical and chemical flow, and the thought process to try to decrease pain and stress.
What Thomas Thought: Biofeedback may be useful for several kinds of problems, such as headache and urinary incontinence.

Sensory Deprivation

What Is It? Laying in a tank of water while being deprived of normal external stimuli such as sight and sound for an extended period of time.
What We Thought: Takes a while to relax, but once I did it took me to a zen state of relaxation I typically can’t reach on my own.
What Calapai Thought: This is good for relaxation, but not much double blind research supports it.
What Thomas Thought: Some people find that a short session is relaxing and conducive to meditation. However, longer sessions can cause severe anxiety, hallucinations and so on.


What Is It? A healing technique based on the principle that the therapist can channel energy (qi) into the patient by means of touch to activate the natural healing processes
What We Thought: I’ve had a lot of reiki. A lot. Never did much for me.
What Calapai Thought: A physical therapy that might be good for relaxation and decreasing stress response.
What Thomas Thought: There is no evidence that qi actually exists. Nor is there any evidence that reiki is useful for treating any medical problem.


What Is It? A system of massage used to relieve tension and treat illness based on the theory that there are reflex points on the feet, hands and head linked to every part of the body
What We Thought: Confession. At 2 AM after a night of drinking, I don’t go get pancakes. I go to Chinatown and get reflexology on my feet for 60 minutes. There have been sessions whereby my neck feels better from someone touching my feet. Can’t get enough.
What Calapai Thought: A physical therapy that might be good for relaxation and decreasing stress response.
What Thomas Thought: There is no anatomical reason to believe that this would work. Nor is there any scientific evidence that reflexology provides any benefits.

Electromagnetic Therapy

What is it? A pseudo-scientific form of alternative medicine which claims to treat disease by applying electromagnetic radiation to the body
What We Thought: I wore the magnet bracelet. Then I took it off. Same person.
What Calapai Thought: This comes in many forms. There are Electromagnetic Therapies that are used for pain syndromes and musculoskeletal disorders.
What Thomas Thought: Unchanging (static) magnetic fields produced by an ordinary magnet do not seem to be useful for any medical purpose. The use of dynamic magnetic fields (which can generate an electrical current) for treating various disorders of the brain has had mixed results.


What is it? A Chinese system of physical exercises and breathing control related to tai chi.
What We Thought: I don’t practice regularly, nor do I practice this in the park. Though I do find it relaxing and balancing.
What Calapai Thought: This is an ancient method to coordinate relaxation with slow physical activity helping to promote a completely relaxed state.
What Thomas Thought: As forms of exercise, qigong and tai chi are useful for promoting balance and flexibility, especially among the elderly. As forms of meditation, they can also be useful as a way to promote relaxation and self-discipline.


What Is It? A state of deep peace achieved by calming the mind and body.
What We Thought: When I get around to it, I dig it. Helps set a day on the right path.
What Calapai Thought: This has been used through all modalities of healing to create relaxation and to de-stress the individual. This also helps to coordinate a person’s thoughts. I highly recommend meditation.
What Thomas Thought: Meditation could help you become a better, happier person. However, it is unlikely to provide any benefits for internal medicine problems, such as cancer or diabetes.

Visualization and Guided Imagery

What Is It? Techniques used to help you imagine yourself being in a particular state.
What We Thought: Like guided meditation meets manifest destiny. Doesn’t hurt to try.
What Calapai Thought: These techniques are used to try and focus the brain on a healing response. However, they are difficult to assess by traditional medical standards.
What Thomas Thought:Cancer patients have often been urged to visualize their white blood cells attacking their cancer. There is no reason to believe that this kind of visualization would have any effect on the white blood cells, or on the cancer. However, visualization and guided imagery could help you learn to practice happier, more productive ways of thinking.

Main image via AMC

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