There’s a common misconception that flies about whenever you talk about alternative medicines. Most people seem to think that these treatments were invented hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, a belief that is strongly encouraged by the practitioners. Partly this is because these beliefs are so common, but it also makes for a great marketing pitch: “My treatment has been used traditionally for THOUSANDS of years!”.
The interesting thing is that, while there may be aspects of these supposedly “traditional” medicines that have been used for a long time, most alternative treatments are surprisingly new.
Here are five that are usually advertised as ancient, but are actually very modern.
First and foremost: the oldest of our traditional methodologies. Many people think that homeopathy is an ancient practice, despite the well-documented fact that it was invented at the end of the 18th century in Germany.
The brief history is that a man named Samuel Hahnemann was infuriated by what he saw doctors doing. This was not surprising, as what constituted conventional treatment at the time was mostly bleeding people until they either got better, or didn’t.
Then, goes the story, Hahnemann took some cinchona bark — from which the malarial treatment quinine is derived — and experienced symptoms similar to malaria. From this, he developed the “Law of Similars”, which essentially boils down to the idea that you can cure something using a small amount of something that causes the illness/similar symptoms.
And thus, homeopathy was born. While it’s by far the oldest methodology on this list, it is hardly traditional at a mere ~200 years old.
Beating out a couple of the other treatments on this list by only a few years, naturopathy is usually dated as beginning in the 1880s. It is an umbrella term that usually covers practitioners who embrace a range of alternative methodologies, but until the term was coined in 1895, naturopaths had a wide variety of names, for example “Hygienic Medicine” practitioners.
Many naturopaths will claim that the origins of their practice are in ancient Greece, but this is a bit misleading. It’s a bit like saying that, since we still use Hippocrates’ words — the Hippocratic Oath — for doctors, that modern medicine is in fact “traditional”. Modern naturopathy is about as similar to ancient Greek medicine as your average hospital.
Not very similar at all.
So naturopathy clocks in at ~140 years old. What’s next?
Chiropractic is another treatment methodology that is often described as traditional despite being much more modern than you’d think. While massage generally has been used for centuries, chiropractic manipulation — the sudden jolting of the spine that is aimed at fixing “subluxations” — was invented by a man called D. D. Palmer in 1895.
Not that long ago, really.
Palmer claimed to have cured a man of his deafness by manipulating his spine, which gave him the idea that all illness was caused by problems with “vital energy” flow through the spine, and could be cured through spinal manipulation. However, this is a bit suspect, as only a decade earlier a man called Andrew Still had published a book on a theraputic modality called osteopathy, which was virtually identical to Palmer’s chiropractic.
Regardless of who invented the practice, there is no doubt that before the late 1800s no one thought that cracking your spine could cure disease*, making chiropractic our third oldest therapy at a sprightly 123 years old!
Reflexology is the practice of gently pressing on certain external parts of the body to elicit a response elsewhere. Reflexologists will often massage body parts such as the hands or feet to try and heal diseases of the lungs and liver.
There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that this is effective.
Of all the modalities on this list, reflexology has the greatest claim to being traditional. There is good evidence that ancient Egyptians and Chinese civilisations had some systems of medicine that included pressing on specific areas of the body to alleviate health problems, but how this relates to modern reflexology is, at best, unclear.
What we do know is that in the early 20th century, a doctor called William Fitzgerald started using what he called “Zone Therapy” to anaesthetize patients for surgery. It is perhaps plausible that he drew his inspiration from the ancient Egyptians/Chinese in some way, but so far there is no evidence that he did.
At a measly ~100 years old, reflexology is a comparative youngster. But our last traditional methodology is actually even younger.
The youngest of the bunch, Reiki was invented in Japan in the 1920s by a man named Mikao Usui. Often called “hands-on-healing” or the “laying on of hands”, Reiki involves the practitioner placing their hands near or on the person receiving the treatment. This supposedly affects their universal energy, which — despite never having been demonstrated to exist — is connected to virtually all health complaints in the mythos of the practice.
Basically, you put your hands near someone, and make them better.
As with all of these treatments, there is no reason to believe that it works.
With Reiki’s inception being in the 1920s, it just scrapes past reflexology as our youngest “traditional” therapy, at just under 100 years old.
What Does This Mean?
You might well ask: who cares? What does it matter if therapies are presented as 10, 100, or 1,000 years old? What we should really care about is whether or not they work!
Which is precisely the point.
Of the above therapies, there is very little evidence that any of them actually work*.
But people still use them. Sometimes because conventional medicine hasn’t worked for them. Sometimes out of a distrust of doctors and the establishment. But all too often, it’s because these therapies are sold so very well as “ancient” and “traditional”. If the Egyptians were doing it thousands of years ago, why shouldn’t it work for us? It’s a great marketing pitch, but the truth is that what the ancient Egyptians did was wildly different from any modern therapies.
Don’t believe the claims.
The simple fact is that the vast majority of therapies marketed to us as “traditional” are, in fact, barely more than a century old.
*Note: yes, I’m aware that there is some evidence that chiropractic may be better than placebo for back pain. Naturopathy also may occasionally provide some theraputic benefit, because many herbs do have biological effects. But the central tenets of all of these theraputic modalities are similarly flawed, so the fact that they may be marginally better than nothing for a limited number of conditions is not really evidence that they “work”. As for homeopathy, reiki, and reflexology — there is strong, consistent and robust evidence that they are ineffective for anything.