The Snake Oil Medicine Show

There’s nothing earth-shaking in the world of massage politics on my radar this week, so I’m just going to make a few observations. I know that I am about to step on more than a few toes here, but it must be said.

I’ve got a few thousand massage therapists in my social networks (FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google +). In the mornings, when I’m drinking my coffee, I visit those sites and scroll through to see what people are up to. I like to read that people are having success with their clients, enjoying their work, being active in their communities, growing their businesses, volunteering, and a lot of wonderful things that massage therapists do.

What I don’t like to see is what I call the Snake Oil Medicine Show. There’s a popular band here in NC by that name, so I’m stealing it for this blog. According to Wikipedia: The phrase snake oil is a derogatory term used to describe quackery, the promotion of fraudulent or unproven medical practices. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, the term “snake oil salesman” may be applied to someone who sells fraudulent goods, or who is a fraud himself.

There are a lot of products (and practices) out there that have no proven benefits at all, and many that have in fact been proven not to have any benefits. Massage therapists seem to be particularly gullible to falling into the trap of not only using them personally, but also promoting them and selling them to their clients. I don’t know the real reason behind this phenomenon, but I can guess at several: 1) The therapist is not interested in scientific evidence and buys into the hype on the product’s website. 2) The therapist is desperately looking for something to bring in additional income. 3) The therapist has a genuine desire to help people, and truly believes the wild claims made by whatever company is selling the product, and thinks that it’s a duty to share it with clients.

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know that I am interested in the evidence-informed practice of massage, and that I’ve been on a mission to bust the myths of massage. This problem goes beyond that; and if I tried to bust every unscrupulous product out there, I’d never have the time to write about anything else. There are a lot of “quackery” websites on the Internet that have done most of the work for me….if only people would read and believe. But the fact is, you can hit some people over the head with scientific evidence, and they’re not going to believe it.  They’re too attached to that “detox” machine, or that dietary supplement, or that special water or whatever it is that they’re selling. Paul Ingraham, one of my favorite writers on the Internet, has written about a lot of these things (see www.saveyourself.ca) Dr. Stephen Barrett has had his Quackwatch site up for years (www.quackwatch.org). Another favorite of mine is a water myth website, found at www.chem1.com/CQ/

I’m not a scientist, or a very technical-minded person. Fortunately, I have some friends and acquaintances who are. I have often asked them “Can you explain to me how ____ works?” The usual answer to this question is “It doesn’t.”

As I said at the beginning, I’m about to step on some toes here, but then again, I do that on a regular basis, so what the heck. Here are the facts on detox foot baths, and may I say, yes, I have in fact used one myself in years gone by:

There is no way an electric current passing through a part of your body can distinguish between “good” molecules and “bad” molecules (“toxins”), most of which are electrically neutral anyway.

The skin is impermeable to all but a few chemical substances; there is no evidence that any that are found inside the body can pass through the skin to the outside, with or without the help of an electric current.

All but a very few of the “toxins” produced as metabolic products are colorless— suggesting that what you see during these “treatments” is put there for show.

You can in fact put a zucchini, or nothing at all, in the foot bath, and the water will still turn color. I have personally witnessed this happening. Then we’ve got the “alkaline water” products, including a well-known MLM company that sells filters for about $4000 bucks. That’s a European vacation, folks. Not only that, but the actual components of that water filter can be purchased at any home improvement or hardware store for about $35. Here are the straight facts on that, and YES, THIS IS WRITTEN BY A CHEMIST:

“Ionized water” is nothing more than sales fiction; the term is meaningless to chemists.

Pure water (that is, water containing no dissolved ions) is too unconductive to undergo signficant electrolysis by “water ionizer” devices.
Pure water can never be alkaline or acidic, nor can it be made so by electrolysis. Alkaline water must contain metallic ions of some kind — most commonly, sodium, calcium or magnesium.

The idea that one must consume alkaline water to neutralize the effects of acidic foods is ridiculous; we get rid of excess acid by exhaling carbon dioxide.

If you do drink alkaline water, its alkalinity is quickly removed by the highly acidic gastric fluid in the stomach.

Uptake of water occurs mainly in the intestine, not in the stomach. But when stomach contents enter the intestine, they are neutralized and made alkaline by the pancreatic secretions — so all the water you drink eventually becomes alkaline anyway.

The claims about the health benefits of drinking alkaline water are not supported by credible scientific evidence.

“Ionized”/alkaline water is falsely claimed to be an anti-oxidant. It is actually an oxidizing agent, as can be seen by its ability to decolorize iodine (see video).

There is nothing wrong with drinking slightly acidic waters such as rainwater. “Body pH” is a meaningless concept; different parts of the body (and even of individual cells) can have widely different pH values. The pH of drinking water has zero effect on that of the blood or of the body’s cells.

If you really want to de-acidify your stomach (at the possible cost of interfering with protein digestion), why spend hundreds of dollars for an electrolysis device when you can take calcium-magnesium pills, Alka-Seltzer or Milk of Magnesia?

Electrolysis devices are generally worthless for treating water for health enhancement, removal of common impurities, disinfection, and scale control. Claims that “ionized” waters are antioxidants are untrue; hypochlorites (present in most such waters) are in fact oxidizing agents.

Claims that “water ionizers are approved for use in Japanese hospitals” are misleading: these “approvals” merely attest to the machines’ safety — that they will not electrocute you! My understanding is that the Japanese Health Ministry is highly critical of therapeutic claims made for alkaline water.

And yes, I have also drank alkaline water…several clients and a part-time staff member insisted on my trying it, and I did, but I can’t say it did anything for me that regular water wouldn’t have done.

What about the Chi machine? Actually, I used to house sit for a friend who had a Chi machine, and I would lie down in the floor and use it every time I was at her house. I personally found it very relaxing, and it felt good. In fact I would usually zone out and have a little nap while the machine was running. However, the big claim made about it is that it “maximizes the body’s natural absorption of oxygen.” Really? It’s shaking your ankles back and forth. How is that doing anything to maximize the absorption of oxygen? Can’t I just lie down and shake my own ankles and do the same thing without spending that $399? The websites touting the Chi machine go on about how cancer can’t survive when you’re fully oxygenated, disease can’t get you, parasites will disappear, and all illness will leave your body if you just have enough oxygen. The way I see it, I’m breathing, so I must have enough oxygen. How much more do I need? Am I going to breathe MORE if I shake my ankles every day? I don’t think so.

Shall I go on? There are so many dubious products out there, I could stop writing about the politics of massage altogether and have enough fodder to go on for years, but I’m going to stop here, for now. I’m sure those of you who sell the heck out of these machines will write in and tell me what a moron I am. Maybe ONE of you will perform a thorough scientific examination of the facts and decide that you’ve been hoodwinked into spending a few hundred, or a few thousand, dollars on something that doesn’t work, and you’ll quit trying to sell it to your clients. That would be nice.

References:

Foot bath

Alkaline Water

Chi machine

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>