Fear, False Hope and Irregular Medicine…..

One of the most pernicious, and most universal, aspects of so-called alternative medicine is the offering up of false hope. This often occurs in the setting of benign conditions such as lower back pain (benign only when you aren’t suffering from it) or self-limited viral infections, where time alone is usually sufficient to bring about resolution of symptoms. So the unproven remedy being offered, as long as it isn’t dangerous in itself, may lead to a perception of benefit due to various placebo effects. A very different scenario tends to play out in the setting of more serious illness, such as cancer or HIV. Every day, victims of false hope based on unscientific ramblings waste time and money on cures that have no basis in reality.

This phenomenon certainly isn’t unique to the United States, where chiropractors treat infants with asthma, homeopaths tout 90-year-old anecdotes as proof of effectiveness against the flu and droves of us cross the border into Mexico to seek out bogus stem cell treatments and various other claims of miracle cures. Every country has more than their fair share. Two weeks ago, an online New York Times article discussed the growing (sorry, had to be done) trend of concerned South Korean parents bringing their children to “growth clinics” in order to add inches to their height.

These clinics, one of which has 50 branches operating across South Korea, prey upon the popular bias against short people in a country of, well, short people. But not that short. Data from 2006 reveals that the average height of 18-year-old men and women in South Korea were 5 ft 8.5 inches and 5 ft 3.5 inches respectively. The average height of American men is only about two inches higher. But according to the article there is a commonly held belief that taller people are more successful and find better husbands or wives. Because of this belief, parents are subjecting their little little ones to a variety of unproven, and potentially harmful, methods of increasing the length of their limbs. These methods appear to be primarily traditional in nature, including acupuncture, herbal tonics containing deer antler of course (sympathetic magic is at the root of much of alternative medicine) and aromatherapy. These, which are likely safe if not environmentally sound depending on just what animal parts are being used, are balanced with a version of a torture rack for toddlers and growth hormone injections.

These clinics appear to also focus on good nutrition, something which has been proven to help maximize the genetic potential for height in an individual, but what they consider good nutrition is left up to the imagination. But considering the cost of these clinics, which according to the article can cost nearly $400 dollars a month for one child, I don’t think that lack of access to food is a problem in these families. And as for the other offered therapies, there simply isn’t any evidence that they are effective. They are, in fact, with the exception of growth hormone injections, based on pre-scientific and highly implausible notions such as the stagnation of mystical and undetectable “human energies”.

The ultimate height achieved by any individual is based on  multiple variables, with genetics being the largest determinant. Short parents don’t often have tall kids, regardless of how many times they crank the ratchet on their basement Rackomatic Jr. 3000. Human growth hormone, which regulates bone lengthening and stimulates release of another important growth factor by the liver, can be given to children via injections in order to increase growth. Unfortunately, it only helps in deficiency states and it doesn’t work very well. But I guess if parents think that their child will magically by transformed from pauper to prince by going from 5-2 to 5-3.5, they might be more willing to accept the risk.

I would love to know what kind of informed consent goes on in these clinics. I doubt very much that the proprietors give a guarantee of success without an escape clause. That isn’t how these things typically work. There is usually something added to the mix that is effort dependent, such as a strict exercise regimen or hard to follow diet. That way when the child doesn’t grow to the expectations of their parents, the clinic can blame their not following the recommendations perfectly. Or, if all else fails, they can simply express regret that the child wasn’t brought in sooner, when the treatments would have been sure to work. Either way, the parents are left with the burden of guilt and the pusher of false hope, even if a well-intentioned true believer, merely calls out next.

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