When Alternative Medicine Goes Wrong

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As the saying goes, “It’s important to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” We asked doctors and researchers from across the country—including those who use or at least approve of complementary methods—to share experiences that frustrated, saddened, or simply astounded them.

1. Any remedy can be overused

1. Any remedy can be overused
“I had a patient with migraines who didn’t want to take drugs—she wanted to deal with them by arching her back. There actually is a yoga treatment that involves arching your back to help certain kinds of headaches, but not migraines. The worse the migraines got, the more this woman arched her back. She kept doing this until her back hurt as much as her head, and she agreed to take the medication.” Loren Fishman, MD, doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation in New York City

2. Herbal products are not free

2. Herbal products are not free
“I once saw a woman come to the pharmacy counter with a bunch of herbal products while also picking up a prescription. She complained to the pharmacy tech that her co-pay had increased to $35 for her medicine—a drug that probably cost $800 million and 12 years to show it was safe and effective. At the same time, she was dumping $60 or $70 on herbs that had never been tested for effectiveness or safety.” David Kroll, PhD, a cancer researcher in Durham, North Carolina

3. You may be risking your life

3. You may be risking your life
“Back when I was a resident, I assisted in operating on a man who was orange. Literally. He had a large bleeding rectal cancer that he tried to treat for a year using a regimen that involved megadoses of carrot juice, and it turned his skin orange. He not only eliminated any chance of saving his rectum and sparing himself a colostomy bag, but he also endangered his life because the tumor was a lot larger than when he first saw the doctor.” David Gorski, MD, a surgeon at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in

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4. Piggy-backing alternatives can have major side effects

4. Piggy-backing alternatives can have major side effects
“A patient of mine was having hot flashes and feeling absolutely lousy. She didn’t want to take medication, so she went to a health food store and emptied the shelves of everything that mentioned menopause. Whatever she took did stop her hot flashes, but the remedies clearly contained estrogen because one day she came into my office with significant vaginal bleeding, and her blood estrogen level was sky-high.” Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine

5. The treatment may not really be "natural"

5. The treatment may not really be "natural"
“Patients ask my opinion all the time regarding colon cleansing. There’s nothing normal or natural about it. The bacteria in your colon are important for your health—sending a tsunami down on them is unnatural. When my patients tell me they’ve had a coffee enema, I’m not sure what to say. ‘Would you like cream with that?’” Patricia Raymond, MD, gastroenterologist in Virginia Beach, Virginia

6. Modern medicine is there to protect you

6. Modern medicine is there to protect you
“I once had a 12-year-old girl come into the emergency room with paralysis in one of her legs. We eventually diagnosed her with polio—the only patient with polio I’ve ever seen. The family had chosen not to immunize her for any of the vaccine-preventable diseases. The father was so tearful and angry. And all I could think was, You turned your back on the very thing that could have saved your daughter from this.” David Kimberlin, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

7. Don't use untested remedies on children

7. Don't use untested remedies on children
“For ear pain, some parents will insert a hollow cone or ear candle into their child’s ear and light it. The idea is that it creates a vacuum that removes debris and wax and relieves pressure. First of all, it doesn’t work. If the child has an ear infection, it can rupture his eardrum. You can also burn his ear or his skin. I’m in favor of alternative medicine, but this is one thing that’s outrageous.” Shaili Singh, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital at Scott & White in Temple,Texas

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8. If it sounds too good to be true...

8. If it sounds too good to be true...
“A 72-year-old patient needed heart surgery because a valve in his heart didn’t open fully. A friend of his had read on the Internet that strawberries can reverse it. He started buying huge bins and eating them for every meal. What he ended up with was a lot of diarrhea. Then, because of the valve problem, he passed out while driving (fortunately, no one was hurt). He finally let me do the surgery.” Jacob DeLaRosa, MD, chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey

9. Alternative medicine can harm

9. Alternative medicine can harm
“Over the years, a number of my patients have had strokes after chiropractic neck manipulation. It can cause something called vertebral artery dissection, where the main artery leading to the back of the brain actually splits. Now I tell patients, if you want to see a chiropractor, fine, but never let him touch your neck.” Peter Lipson, MD, an internist in Southfield, Michigan

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