Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

Quackery Red Flags

Beware the 3 D’s of quackery: Dubious, Dangerous and Distracting treatments for aches and pains (or anything else)

Paul Ingraham • 10m read
Picture of red flags, symbolizing the red flags that indicate quackery.

I have been studying and weighing the pros and cons of treatments for many years now — every imaginable way of helping all kinds of pain problems and chronic injuries. Always, the most important question to ask is, Does it work? But that can be hard to answer … and there are some other reasonable questions. The choice boils down to the same handful of priorities over and over again: even if it isn’t proven, does it at least make sense? Is it safe? Cheap? Reasonably convenient?

Many unproven treatments get a pass this way: they might not work any miracles, but they are still effective, safe, and/or cheap enough to be “worth a shot.”

And then there’s the ones that probably aren’t …

Treatment trouble illustrated

Many treatments are quite dubious (implausible), or particularly distracting (time consuming, costly), or somewhat dangerous… or even all of the above. This Venn diagram illustrates the intersection of these considerations.

Pain is often a tough problem, and there are no perfect treatments for it. The diagram aims to illustrate the concerns that we should juggle — not just knock everything.

The worst possible treatment would score strongly on all three Ds. Fortunately no common pain treatments are quite that bad, but my examples all have problems — at least two Ds, to some degree — that are often denied or ignored by the people selling and using them. And yet many of them are widely available, popular, packaged and promoted attractively and aggressively.1 And many of them come from giant, greedy industries. Supplements, for instance, are nearly as big an industry as pharmaceuticals, amazingly unregulated,2 and with shockingly few reputable sources of information about them. Make no mistake: selling false hope is big business.

Dubious!
Implausible & disproven, or just really underwhelming

Dubious treatments require your mind to be so open that your brains fall out. Some may be hopelessly at odds with solid science or even logic. Or they may be too good to be true, supposedly good for “all pain” and other delusions of grandeur. Many started out as “a good idea at the time,” but have simply not panned out — either don’t work at all, or not well enough to take seriously.3

Classic examples of implausible treatment

The most implausible therapies are detox scams and homeopathy,4 and the ultimate in disproven therapies are a lot of popular supplements5 and acupuncture (more about needles below).

A vintage-style amber glass bottle with a label that reads “WONDER OIL,” featuring an illustration of a shirtless muscular man with a handlebar mustache and a classic strongman pose, flexing his muscles with a proud expression. The design elements of the label have ornate detailing, common in early 20th-century product advertisements. The bottle has a round stopper and is on a shelf in the foreground. In the background, shelves stocked with similar bottles and jars, suggesting an apothecary or old-fashioned pharmacy setting.

Snake oils aren’t as easy to spot as they were in the patent medicine era.

Dangerous!
Risks of harm to body & mind

When people innocently ask “what’s the harm?” there are usually answers they’ve never thought about.6 “Natural” is not always good, and often it isn’t even safe.7 By definition, anything that actually has any effect can also have too much of an effect, and some treatments are just inherently more hazardous. Bizarrely, history is actually packed with examples of popular but extremely dangerous treatments.8 There are also serious underestimated risks in the delicate business of treating chronic pain — pain-wracked nervous systems may respond very poorly to “intense” therapies and fear and worry.9

Classic examples of harmful quackery

A variety of unusually intense manual therapies,10 such as high velocity spinal adjustments or really strong massage, like old-school Rolfing and other “deep” styles.11 Many medications involve well-known and significant risks, of course — including the most common pain-killers.12

Distracting!
Proper care neglected due to time & money spent elsewhere

Distraction is another kind of danger, but I set it apart because it’s the one people tend to forget about, and it encompasses a wide range of non-medical hazards, particularly the hazard to your wallet and your schedule. People will tell me they’ve “tried everything,” but when we break it down it turns out they’ve really only made an investment in, say, five things — three of them were expensive, dangerous and/or dubious, while the fourth actually interfered with the only good choice of the bunch, leaving the patient broke, frustrated, in more pain than ever, and believing that their problem is too difficult to treat. This is a bad situation — and tragically common. “Distraction” can be serious, even lethal.13opportunity cost14 is regarded by anti-quackery activists as the main non-obvious reason why alternative medicine is not “harmless.”

Classic examples of distractions from proper care

Strengthening is common distraction,15 one of the more common forms of the wild goose chase to achieve postural and structural correctness — often taking a great deal of time and money that could have been much better spent.16 Stretching is another time-consuming and mostly useless approach to fixing pain problems.17 Chiropractors are legendary for selling long, expensive treatment plans.18

Vintage “electric bath”

A triple threat: dangerous, distracting & dubious! Source: olden times.

About the (imperfect) examples in the diagram

Each example represents a particularly strong combination of two of the three D’s. It’s not an exact science.

Not all of the examples are condemned as entirely useless — such treatments would belong at the heart of the diagram! I deliberately chose not to include examples that probably do belong there, because the diagram is not the answer, but the importance of the question.

The sketchiest methods will always be promoted the most aggressively.

The Salamander’s Law of Bad Therapy

Are we intuitive about our health? Hell no! On animals and the limits of self-care

Russian wellness influencer Zhanna D’Art has allegedly died from taking her own advice (August 2023): a “fully fruit-based-low-fat diet” probably caused malnutrition and infections that finally killed her.

There have been many deaths by self-help like this over the years, but they are certainly out at the edges of the bell curve. For every tragic death by self-care, how many less extreme cases are there? People feeling merely rather or somewhat unwell thanks to their misguided wellness optimizations? And then rationalizing and justifying their symptoms as part of the process, maybe a “healing crisis”?

Or, worst of all, how many misinterpret their symptoms as the reason for their efforts? “I feel awful today, so I should eat even more fruit.”

Distrust of doctors, medicine, and science is rampant, of course, and so more people than ever are trying to help themselves. Long ago, a popular blog post went viral by arguing that “animals just like you have been taking health into their own hands and paws for millions of years.” Cute, quotable, and there is some truth in that, of course … but it also rings hollow for the victims of dire medical problems and chronic pain, and countless less serious problems that just cannot be “hacked.”

Chronic pain in particular seems to inspire quixotic and reckless self-help experiments, probably because pain is damned motivating, and because there is no other kind of help to be had. And so I have witnessed many cases of people who pursued futile, expensive, and risky self-help strategies — believing themselves to be “educated” and “empowered,” when in truth they were far from it. I don’t know anyone who has died trying to treat their own pain, but I have personally known dozens who suffered more than they had to, and seen clear evidence of hundreds more examples in my correspondence and on social media.

Human animals are really not innately good at “taking health into their own hands.” Indeed, we routinely screw it up royally! We are tormented by countless afflictions utterly beyond our power to prevent or treat — with or without professional help. “And so it goes” (Vonnegut).

Whether you’re getting help, or trying to help yourself, the focus should always, relentlessly be on what is cheapest, safest, and most believable. That’s great in theory, but humans struggle greatly with these. We are rotten with magical thinking and seemingly itching to win a Darwin Award. Exhibit A (out of millions of examples):

Screen grab of a social media post showing a dangerously ignorant request for self-help advice for treating an infection, and three dangerously ignorant replies. The post reads: “Can anyone help! Hubby put a drill into his leg 3 days ago. We’ve had it covered and bandaged, also put colloidal silver on it. It has healed over the top and scabbed already but is now getting hot and red suggesting infection and not healed deeper down. What now? More colloidal silver? OR should I do the castor oil wrap?” The first reply is “AVOID TETANUS JAB!” The second is “Don’t get tetanus, unless he works directly with cow poop he doesn’t need it. Homeopathic remedies !!!! 1000% get” And the third: “Onion wrap in his socks each night will draw the nasty bacteria from his body.”

Seriously, non-human animals are way better at self-care than this. They do not, at least, actively sabotage themselves. As one commenter put it, “Hubby is going to need one less onion sock in the future.”

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:

Related Reading

What’s new in this article?

Aug 4, 2023 — Added new section: “Are we intuitive about our health? Hell no! On animals and the limits of self-care.”

2012 — Publication.

Notes

  1. This is a simple, relentless fact of human nature and commerce: if scams were obvious, they wouldn’t work. The successful ones survive and thrive by being appealing and seductive … not by looking silly and pathetic.
  2. Quackwatch.org [Internet]. Barrett S. How the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 Weakened the FDA; 2012 Mar 6 [cited 12 Apr 13]. PainSci Bibliography 54412 ❐
  3. It is common for dubious therapies to claim scientific support based on scientific studies that technically had statistically significant (real) “positive” results — but when you look at the data you find evidence of an effect so trivial that the therapy is damned with faint praise. It fails to impress. See Most Pain Treatments Damned With Faint Praise: Most controversial and alternative therapies are fighting over scraps of “positive” scientific evidence that damn them with the faint praise of small effect sizes that cannot impress.
  4. Homeopathic (diluted) arnica creams for pain, such as Traumeel, are quite popular. They contain only trace amounts of the best-known ingredient, arnica. They may contain other herbs as well, some of them less extremely diluted. Scientific evidence so far strongly suggests that effects of such creams are minor at best. For more information, see Does Arnica Gel Work for Pain? A detailed review of popular homeopathic (diluted) herbal creams and gels like Traumeel, used for muscle pain, joint pain, sports injuries, bruising, and post-surgical inflammation..
  5. See Vitamins, Minerals & Supplements for Pain & Healing: Critical analysis of most popular “nutraceuticals” — food-like pseudo-medicines taken for medicinal purposes, especially glucosamine and creatine, mostly as they relate to pain, arthritis, and recovery from exercise and injury.
  6. What’s the Harm? (http://WhatsTheHarm.net)

    Alternative health care has an undeserved reputation for being harmless and wholesome. In fact alternative medicines and treatments are just as full of hazards and risks as medical care, yet with virtually no proof of efficacy or regulation. While many other skeptical websites focus on the question of efficacy, WhatsTheHarm.net is devoted to cataloguing the costs of alternative health care: the many lives ruined and even lost.

  7. Toxic contamination of barely regulated “natural” supplements is a huge problem. Marketplace exposed high levels of fecal contamination in the popular cold remedy, Cold FX: see What FX? Several studies have found outrageous levels of heavy metals in such products. Saper et al. (2004) and Saper et al. (2008) are good examples. See also Garvey et al. and Bogusz et al.
  8. The colorful history of medicine and quackery is overflowing with people who “swore by” treatments that were bizarre and dangerous. Bloodletting was popular almost until the 20th century, despite being relentlessly harmful. Some of the most lethal “cures” in history were inspired by the discovery of radiation. People happily drank metals like mercury and silver. Even drinking urine had near fad status for a while! They tried to purge disease with sulfuric acid, and stimulate their vitality (and virility) with powerful electric shocks. Women were sold Lysol as a douche … and women actually went along with it for a while. Voluntary lobotomy may be the craziest of them all: it was a popular treatment for all kinds of psychiatric disorders, and at least fifty thousand people volunteered to have their brains lanced.

    All of these terrible treatments, and many more obscure examples, had many fans and enthusiastic testimonials. People paid for them, believed in them, loved them, swore by them — that is how misleading testimonials can be. People believe what they want to believe.

  9. Since many dubious therapies are based on trumped up pathologization tactics, all too many pain patients end up believing that they are a “really bad case” — all the more so when hard-sold therapy fails. This can make them heart-breakingly harder to treat. For more about the role of the mind in chronic pain, see Mind Over Pain: Pain can be profoundly warped by the brain, but does that mean we can think the pain away?.
  10. “Manual therapy” refers mainly to massage, spinal adjustment, and other costly methods of using hands/tools to “fix” tissue. Although mostly the domain of massage therapists and chiropractors, physical therapists are also use many manual methods. Unfortunately, it is mostly a pseudoscientific dumpster fire based more on authority, tradition, and marketing than good research. And yet some practitioners are responsible, and and power of compassionate touch to comfort and inspire should never be underestimated. For more information, see Manual Therapy: What is it, and does it work? The science of hands-on treatments like massage and spinal manipulation to “fix” tissue.
  11. Massage therapy is safe, even strong massage, but nothing’s perfect. “Deep tissue” massage may aggravate problems, instead of helping. Some chronic pain patients may be disastrously traumatized by it. Occasionally it causes new physical injuries, usually just minor bruises and nerve lesions, but sometimes much worse (strokes and pulmonary emboli). Patients often feel sore and a bit “oogy” after massage, a phenomenon known as post-massage soreness and malaise, which may be caused by a form of injury (rhabdomyolysis), not “detoxification.” See Massage Therapy Side Effects: What could possibly go wrong with massage? The risks and side effects of massage therapy are usually mild, but “deep tissue” massage can cause trouble.
  12. Ingraham. The Science of Pain-Killers: A user’s guide to over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and more. PainScience.com. 3835 words.
  13. The classic example of literally lethal distraction is that cancer patients sometimes pursue poor alternative therapies while their cancer continues to grow, as in the much-publicized example of Steve Jobs. It’s unclear whether Jobs’s delay really increased his risk, given that he had an unusual and slow cancer. But certainly other patients have died horribly because they wasted their time on quack cancer cures that never had any promise.
  14. “In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost, or alternative cost, of making a particular choice is the value of the most valuable choice out of those that were not taken. In other words, opportunity that will require sacrifices.”
  15. Weakness is rarely the cause of musculoskeletal trouble, but overuse sure is! Well-planned rest is an extremely important recovery strategy that is almost always given short shrift in favour of time-consuming efforts to get stronger, often with a “no pain, no gain” sensibility that does more harm than good. See The Art of Rest: The finer points of resting strategy when recovering from injury and chronic pain (hint: it’s a bit trickier than you might think).
  16. “Structuralism” is the excessive focus on causes of pain like crookedness and biomechanical problems. It’s an old and inadequate view of how pain works, but it persists because it offers comforting, marketable simplicity that is the mainstay of entire styles of therapy. For more information, see Your Back Is Not Out of Alignment: Debunking the obsession with alignment, posture, and other biomechanical bogeymen as major causes of pain..
  17. Stretching is just generally over-rated. It certainly does feel good, but it’s ineffective for pretty much everything it is normally used for. See Quite a Stretch: Stretching science has shown that this extremely popular form of exercise has almost no measurable benefits.
  18. See The Chiropractic Controversies: An introduction to chiropractic controversies like aggressive billing, treating kids, and neck manipulation risks.
  19. And yet not risk free. There are cases of infections and punctured hearts and lungs, for instance. Admittedly, these are rare complications — but why take any risk if there’s no hope of therapy?
  20. It does not do anything a placebo can’t do. This has been acknowledged even by its own most credentialled proponents, as in the prominent case of the 2010 New England Journal of Medicine paper (Berman et al.). For more about that, and a thorough tour of the evidence, see Does Acupuncture Work for Pain? A review of modern acupuncture evidence and myths, focused on treatment of back pain & other common chronic pains.
  21. Nieman DC, Henson DA, Dumke CL, et al. Ibuprofen use, endotoxemia, inflammation, and plasma cytokines during ultramarathon competition. Brain Behav Immun. 2006 Nov;20(6):578–84. PubMed 16554145 ❐

    This experiment tested the effect of ibuprofen on hard-core marathoners. There were 29 ultra-marathoners on high doses of ibuprofen and 25 controls that completed the race without meds. There was no measurable difference in muscle damage or soreness between the two groups. Lead researcher David Niemen: “There is absolutely no reason for runners to be using ibuprofen.”

    For some good mainstream journalism about this research see Convincing the Public to Accept New Medical Guidelines, by Aschwanden. For a good plain language tour of the topic in a major medical journal, see Warden.

  22. See Does Ultrasound Therapy Work? Many concerns about the widespread usage of therapeutic ultrasound, especially extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT).

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