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Alternative Medicine

December 10, 2007

So-called “alternative” medical therapies and treatments promise relief from chronic illness when conventional medicine fails. But do the claims hold up to science?


Alternative medicine’s placebo effect. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Millions of people turn to complementary and alternative medicine when modern medicine fails to improve their health. But do these therapies really work? Biostatistician Barker Bausell, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, recently put them to the test. He systematically analyzed the evidence from high quality, controlled studies of these therapies to see if they were any better at relieving peoples’ symptoms than placebos. Placebos are inactive substances or sham treatments given to one group in a study to control for any improvement not due to the therapy itself.

DR. BARKER BAUSELL (University of Maryland, Baltimore):
The results, were, I think, quite definitive. I think complementary and alternative medical therapies are nothing more than cleverly packaged placebos.

He says that like placebos, some of these treatments work temporarily, but don’t have lasting effects. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.