Aug 11 2010

Wacky Medical Treatments

Check out this photo gallery of strange medical treatments (the title says “unorthodox cures” which is begging the question – do they cure anything). Seeing a photo of a treatment being given has more impact than just reading a description.

My favorite is the woman with smoking sticks jammed in her ears. This is a form of moxibustion, often mixed with acupuncture. I couldn’t find an explanation for the walnut in the eye.

I have covered bee venom therapy before.

I was also very interested in the cupping picture from Hebron. This is a good example of modern bloodletting, which I have also written about recently. This one pictures conveys a few interesting points. The first is that bloodletting is alive and well – it did not disappear with the advent of science-based medicine in the West. Further, it shows that bloodletting was not isolated to Western cultures. It spread through the Mideast and into the far east, including China and Japan.

The picture also illustrates that the practice of cupping was originally used as a form of bloodletting – small incisions are made and then the vacuum made by heating the cup was used to draw out the blood (as is happening in the photo). Cupping is still practiced as an “alternative” treatment but the justification for the intervention has completely changed – now the cupping is said to draw out toxins from the body through the skin.

This is a good example of a traditional practice that survives by adapting to whatever the prevailing belief-system is. When the humoral theory prevailed, cupping was used to draw off blood. Now that “detox” is all the rage, cupping is used to draw off toxins. But there are still remnants that attest to its blood-letting past.

The first picture, of a man having his psoriasis treated by “doctor fish”, is interesting. It actually seems reasonable to have small fish who eat dead skin cells feed off of the psoriasis lesions (which involves a scaly build up of dead skin cells). The further claim that the fish or the salt water alters the course of psoriasis is without much plausibility, and any published evidence as far as I can see. But if someone want to have fish eat off their dead skin cells for a cosmetic effect, that is reasonable.

The mud baths seem pretty benign as well, as long as people don’t rely upon them to cure their cancer. But that is always the rub – what claims are being made for such treatments.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Wacky Medical Treatments”

  1. stompsfrogson 11 Aug 2010 at 10:26 am

    Dr Fish: reasonable but ineffective, unsanitary, and Illegal in 14 states

  2. Adam_Yon 11 Aug 2010 at 10:57 am

    Dr Fish: reasonable but ineffective, unsanitary, and Illegal in 14 states

    One has to love this quote:

    Cosmetology regulations generally mandate that tools need to be discarded or sanitized after each use. But epidermis-eating fish are too expensive to throw away. “And there’s no way to sanitize them unless you bake them for 20 minutes at 350 degrees,” says Lynda Elliott, an official with the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics. The board outlawed fish pedicures in November.

  3. HHCon 11 Aug 2010 at 11:48 am

    I have interviewed state hospital staff and researched the records in western Iowa on the use of electric cattle prods on the mentally retarded/mentally ill. The treatment team actually recorded their votes to use the prod in the clients’ records. They figured if it was good enough on their farm cattle…

  4. daedalus2uon 11 Aug 2010 at 1:45 pm

    There are some potential therapeutic mechanisms that involve nitric oxide and the bacteria I am working with, the autotrophic ammonia oxidizing bacteria. They are very common in the environment and are extremely likely to be present in all of the different muds, soils and sands being used for treatments.

    They must be present in the fish environment or the fish would quickly die from ammonia toxicity. If the fish consume dead skin, they must deaminate the proteins to oxidize the amino acids for energy. That releases ammonia, at least one molecule per molecule of amino acid oxidized.

    I had heard that one salon was getting around the sanitation regulations by having individual fish populations for each individual client, but that was some time ago, the regulations may have been rewritten to specifically exclude their use.

    Hot springs do have ammonia oxidizing bacteria, I have seen reference to them living at temperatures as high as 65 C. I think that the use of spas as therapies is to re-inoculate oneself with the bacteria I am working with. They are motile, and so would swim up the ammonia concentration gradient and perhaps colonize the pores. Typically these are done under conditions that elicit sweating, so there is ammonia release from the pores.

    It is plausible that the disorders reported to be treated by the fish, mud and soil exposure; acne, rheumatism, sexual weakness, joint pain would be improved by exposure to the bacteria I am working with. If that is the mechanism, then they are doing it wrong. The best site for NO/NOx absorption is the scalp, the picture shows people not getting mud in their hair. This is wrong, they should get it in their hair, and then not wash it out.

  5. Enzoon 11 Aug 2010 at 3:03 pm



    What does ammonia metabolizing bacteria have anything to do with the therapeutic plausibility of fish and mud on the conditions being described? It’s such a far stretch.

    Fish, like any living organism, generate ammonia as a by-product of protein catabolism. Though I believe, unlike us, they secrete ammonia rather than make urea out of it. And there are bacteria that eat ammonia. So what?

    And then you are saying we get colonized by ammonia eating bacteria from the mud. We have plenty of ways of dealing with the ammonia our metabolism produces. And even if there was a “new” excess of bacteria eating our excreted urea and secreting NO species the complexity of that system feeding back into our physiology is just a mess. Too far of a stretch.

  6. daedalus2uon 11 Aug 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Enzo, when humans evolved in Africa, they never bathed. They couldn’t because they didn’t have running water, and because natural sources of water had parasites and predators.

    In the absence of bathing a biofilm of ammonia oxidizing bacteria is stable on the external skin. These bacteria take ammonia excreted as sweat and turn it into NO/NOx which is promptly absorbed. These bacteria are everywhere in the environment. It would be impossible for human ancestors living in the wild do not have a biofilm of these bacteria on their surface. Over evolutionary time they would have evolved to utilize that source of NO/NOx to set the basal NO/NOx level.

    The therapeutic effects are not from reduced ammonia, they are from increased NO/NOx.

    One of the effects of low NO is increased androgens. NO inhibits the enzyme that is the rate limiting step in testosterone synthesis. High androgens cause the increased growth of hair, which expands the niche that these bacteria grow in.

    This is how our physiology already is. Removing the biofilm is what disrupts normal physiology and you are correct; with the comlexity of the NO system, disrupting it does make a mess.

  7. Enzoon 11 Aug 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Is this pure speculation?

    Considering even small amounts of NO can have significant physiological changes, I would think something like this is just not in place. NO absorption through the skin following perspiration? And therapeutically useful? I’ll have to look into that.

  8. jonoon 11 Aug 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I work with special needs children, and if I burried one of them in sand, I would, quite rightly, be fired. I find this image deeply disturbing.
    People choosing to undergo the humilliation, discomfort or danger of psuedo scientific treatments is sad enough, but to inflict them upon others, those unable to make an informed decision, is terrible. To clarify I wouldn’t necessarily lay blame on the parent, of course they may be uninformed and influenced by nonsense-pedlers, but someone is responsible here.
    Well done to Steve and the skeptic movement for combatting quack therapies, they are a danger to the health and diginity of the innocent and through the spread of reason they will be irradicated.

  9. daedalus2uon 11 Aug 2010 at 6:32 pm

    A useful place to start is here

    Whitlock DR, Feelisch M. Soil Bacteria, Nitrite, and the Skin. In: The Hygiene Hypothesis and Darwinian
    Medicine (Rook GAW, ed.), Birkhaeuser Publishing, Basel, 2009,+Nitrite,+and+the+Skin.&source=bl&ots=EldYWaYG_s&sig=s_rZm7Sa2LP402cWni-jh6ooi18&hl=en&ei=KyRjTNLsA8HflgfDw8G0Cg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=Soil%20Bacteria%2C%20Nitrite%2C%20and%20the%20Skin.&f=false

  10. rumpuson 12 Aug 2010 at 2:27 am

    “Is this pure speculation?”

    To quote article above p. 111

    “Our hypothesis is based on numerous assumptions the validity of which need to be experimentally tested”.

    It has yet to be demonstrated by the proponent, let alone subjected to independent corroboration.

    This assertion seems bizarre:

    “when humans evolved in Africa, they never bathed. They couldn’t because they didn’t have running water, and because natural sources of water had parasites and predators.”

  11. treptoon 12 Aug 2010 at 8:26 am

    *sigh* It’s way too early for this level of bunk. I found it disheartening how many comments on the original article mentioned legitimate schools and hospitals that have added SCAM treatments and interpreted their doing so as an endorsement of the practices. I also found it mildly amusing (and a good “wake up” exercise) to track the progression of logical fallacies: can I get a tu quoque?

    As far as the walnut goes, I suppose it could be intended to reduce eye puffiness? Unless it’s been recently removed from the husk, though, I wouldn’t think that applying a whole walnut would do much. It seems like the tannins in the outer husk (the spongy part that surrounds the shell when it first drops from the tree) might work in a similar manner to tea bags. There might be a similar effect from a halved walnut, as there are also tannins in the membranes inside the shell, but an entire walnut as shown in the picture would be unlikely provide any benefit.

    Oh, wait… that sort of assumes that plausibility is what they’re going for. My mistake.

  12. titmouseon 12 Aug 2010 at 10:00 am

    I have a back-burner rage going over the fact that Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of NCCAM, is presently attending the naturopath’s national convention in Portland. My tax dollars shouldn’t be used to support cargo-cult pseudoscience.

    Seeing the pic of cupping using animal horns brought my slow simmer to a boil.

  13. Pinkyon 12 Aug 2010 at 10:17 am

    I have psoriasis (with the other 4% of the population) and UVB treatment is the way to go. My first serious bout at 23yo was really intense, thick scaly rash over my entire body. Three days into UVB it was practically gone. Semi-regular exposure to sun (not tanning or burning but small doses) is enough to keep my skin happy.

    Here’s some happy snaps from near the start of the issue! It was never itchy for me (common symptom) and I’m look forward to my next hit at 40ish years old.

  14. daedalus2uon 12 Aug 2010 at 10:34 am

    Rumpus, what is the frequency of bathing of non-human primates living in the wild? What is the frequency of bathing of non-primates living in the wild?

    Do you have a basis for suggesting that the frequency of bathing of human ancestors was somehow higher than that of non-human primates and non-primates?

  15. banyanon 13 Aug 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Wow, I just sent a message to SGU asking you to discuss bee venom therapy on the show while I was away with my family this past week… I hope I sent it before you made this blog post, otherwise I’ll look a bit silly saying I read Neurologica and hadn’t heard of it right after you posted saying you had talked about it before!

  16. Carlon 13 Aug 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Daedalus2u, the frequency of bathing varies tremendously across animals, even within groups. Tigers bathe regularly, lions avoid water.

    Among higher primates it’s highly culture-bound. One group of chimps has adopted bathing as a regular custom, most other groups never bathe at all.

    There is no simple answer to your question, IOW.

  17. rumpuson 14 Aug 2010 at 2:38 am

    # daedalus2u
    You are asking me for a basis for a claim I did not make.

    The opinion I expressed is that the following are bizarre assertions made without any “basis” as you call it:

    1: “they never bathed” Never. Not one. Never.
    2: “they didn’t have running water”. No rain, no creeks, no rivers, no gravity perhaps to make water run downhill.
    3: “They couldn’t because they didn’t have running water” They needed running water. They could not bath in a pool or a lake. Why not?
    4: “and because natural sources of water had parasites and predators” Of course, on land, there were no parasites or predators.

  18. kijibajion 14 Aug 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Considering that what babies can hear in the womb is low pass filtered, those high frequency dolphin sounds don’t stand much of a chance…

  19. HHCon 15 Aug 2010 at 2:39 pm

    About two years ago, we lost a young male friend because he was mowing the lawn at his residence in the midwest, and he was stung by a swarm of bees in his yard. He died from the 50 bee stings, even though hospital care was available. Apparently, the stings were quite toxic and lethal. I would strongly recommend that anyone with allergies to bee venom not engage in this risky behavior, unless you are suicidal.

  20. RickKon 08 Aug 2016 at 7:00 pm

    Just bumping this one up now that cupping is in the news. The photo gallery link above is still working (and still weird).

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