Selling Snake Oil – The Sad State of Complementary Therapy

Misconceptions about energy

One of my clients, a professional dancer, used to come to me for sports massage and tell me he was ready for some healing. Now, both he and I knew that what he actually meant was that after an hour’s sports massage, there was an improvement in how he felt, there was an increase in his range of motion and how well his body could perform. He didn’t actually think I had healed him because, as a trained dancer, he understood his body.

In the UK, we tend to be poorly educated about how our bodies work. There is a misconception that “energy” is something other than what our cells use to function. It’s an idea appropriated from other cultures and twisted to fit into certain therapies. It’s not a Western idea and definitely has no scientific basis. The ethereal energy that therapists refer to cannot be measured, so how can it be felt or balanced? You’re taking someone’s word for it that they’re doing something for you, even though you and they have no proof anything is happening. You’re also paying for it.

I picked up a business card from a therapist who does transformational energy release body work as an example of the nonsense therapies you can find. The card has the words “the body remembers, the body knows”. There is a quack theory that when you experience trauma, it is stored in the body and by using either a certain massage technique or a “healing” therapy, you can release the memories of the trauma from that part of the body where it was stored. How can you even test for this to prove it is true. If you have experienced trauma, you should not be messed about with by someone who has no training in psychology. They may try to prompt you to relive the trauma while doing their “healing” and this can be extremely traumatic and trigger more problems for you.

It worries me that there is no regulation of therapies like this and that there are not enough therapy centres that screen out the quack therapies from the evidence based ones.

Complementary therapists are not medical professionals

Just because a therapist may wear a medical style outfit and say your body works in a particular way, doesn’t mean they are telling the truth. They may even believe it themselves. Some of the things I was taught at my massage courses weren’t true. This would be the nonsense about detoxing and lactic acid build up. Your body is actually very effective at both detoxing itself and removing lactic acid from the muscles.

Some complementary therapy courses are very short, in fact, some are only one weekend long or are made up of a few weekends or can be done online, after which the therapist receives a diploma or certificate and can practice the therapy and take money from you. Even if a course is longer, if the therapy is based on unproven or invalid theories, it’s as worthless as a one day course.

A complementary therapist is not qualified to diagnose a medical condition and should not suggest that any major lifestyle or dietary changes be followed. That’s for your GP or, for your diet, a registered dietician.

Not all GPs are easy to talk to and some don’t understand anything that isn’t a straightforward disease that they are used to treating. Waiting times for appointments can be lengthy too. However, it’s still the best route to proper science-based treatment. A complementary therapist may give you a medical sounding explanation or tell you that conventional medicine is full of harmful chemicals and you should only have their therapy or tell you your energy is unbalanced and they can cure you. Once again, these are not people qualified in medicine. If you are misdiagnosed and sold a course of treatment that harms you or does absolutely nothing for you, the setback can be dangerous to your health and your wallet.

If you have had a diagnosis from a complementary therapist, get it checked out by your GP. One client had been to a kinesiologist who told her she was lactose intolerant. I suggested she see her doctor to at least have it confirmed and, if necessary, added to her medical records. Where’s the harm in that?

Complementary therapy is a business, like banking or estate agents

Therapists need to make a living and there are a lot of therapists with more qualifying every week. It is a struggle getting enough clients because we often tend to be concentrated in the same areas. Shortly after the recession was over, my massage business was booming and then about 4 years ago, there was a sudden increase in the number of massage therapists in London and, naturally, business dropped off.

I wasn’t the only one who felt the effects of this and nowadays there are very few massage therapists who only practice massage. Most have added other therapies, some of which are decidedly unscientific and the more therapies they offer, the greater the chance of making a living. I refuse to add what I feel are dodgy therapies and instead I take on transcription typing work, which I keep totally separate from my massage practice.

My advice to you is to question everything. Think for yourself. Do your research and then do it again because there’s some weird stuff on the internet written by people who have no medical or scientific qualifications. Here are some questions to ask to help you work your way through the complementary/alternative therapy minefield:

Is this person qualified, insured and a member of a professional body? Look for these details on their website and if you can’t find the information, contact them to ask. I’m proud to be a member of a professional body, which arranges my insurance and keeps copies of my qualifications. I have clients who ask me where I qualified (I have a funny accent) and I don’t mind at all.

How clear is their website about their approach and what to expect from them? It’s not hard to set up a website and it doesn’t cost as much as it did a decade ago. There’s no excuse for not being clear or not having all the relevant information.

How quickly do they respond to your questions and are the questions answered or do you get vague replies? If you email or leave a message, you should expect a reply after a few hours (unless you’re sending an email late at night or on their day off). If the answers you get aren’t clear enough, steer clear.

What is the therapist selling? Do they sell just one service? Do they also sell supplements and diagnostic testing? Some therapists suggest you need a course of all their therapies, not just the one you wanted.

Get a recommendation from a friend Someone who has been to see a therapist can give you the best idea of what to expect and if they were helpful. You could also look at online reviews, but I do know of therapists who get people to give them reviews, so I’m not convinced these are always genuine. Even sites like Treatwell (which has lists of therapists in different areas and which doesn’t check the qualifications of therapists) suggested to me that I get friends and family to give me reviews.

Can complementary therapies make you feel better?

Allowing someone else to look after you for an hour and giving them the power to do something for you can be relaxing and therapeutic. Lying still for a period of time and listening to music can help lower your blood pressure. This is fine as it’s doing you no harm.

Some nutritional therapists will suggest you avoid certain foods if you have digestive problems. This may make you feel better if you were intolerant to a food, but a nutritional therapist can’t give you a definitive diagnosis if they don’t use scientific methods. Only a medical professional (doctor/dietician) can.

Can a therapy cause harm?

If you’re told to avoid a certain food and the therapist doesn’t emphasize how important it is to replace the nutrients you would have received in the food you’ve eliminated, you may damage your health. You’re unlikely to see a therapist if there’s nothing wrong with you, so if you are told you have a medical condition that you don’t have and receive treatment for it that is unnecessary, that could exacerbate any existing conditions.

There are therapists who talk about how bad chemicals are and that conventional medical treatment makes you worse but that their treatment will cure you. Chemicals make up our world and form our bodies. Oxygen is a chemical and so is calcium. Conventional medical treatment might sometimes be tedious or less than perfect, but it has been tested and reviewed by scientists. If you are receiving treatment from a doctor, don’t stop it and change to an alternative therapy. Rather, speak to your doctor, who may even say it’s not harmful to have the therapy as well as the treatment you’re already receiving and it may help you feel better, depending on what it is.

There are some therapies used to treat mental health issues that should not be done at all, never mind by someone who has no training in counselling or psychology. The therapy I mentioned earlier where trauma is supposedly released in the body is one of these. There is another that I came across last year that claims to be able to treat PTSD. It was invented by someone who, according to the person taking the course, was trying to get the US health insurers to agree to cover it. It uses a combination of elements taken from other therapies and a specific hand movements using both hands, which is apparently very important. When I asked how a veteran who may have lost one arm would do the hand movements, I was told it could be done by proxy. I asked if that meant the patient would be watching the therapist doing the hand movement and the answer was that it could be done without them even being present. I naturally replied that you could easily say you had done the hand movements and not have done a thing. How on earth can someone doing a hand movement in their own home influence your life?

True believers

I do believe some therapists are unaware that they are doing quack therapies. They may never question what they were taught on their courses. They may have paid a lot of money for a course and convince themselves that the therapy is sound. Then there are the ones who are completely aware that they are offering nonsense therapies and are simply out to make as much money from each client that they can.

Keep asking

Humans became the dominant species partly by being curious and trying to understand how we and the world around us works. It’s your body and your right to know the truth. No matter how desperate you are, don’t be blinded by pseudo-science, real science is always the answer.

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