The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals. Sir William Osler (1925).

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. From ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K. Jerome (1889).

I shall not attempt in this article to critique the whole field of quack medicine – such an undertaking would require a whole book – but by discussing a few egregious examples of such treatments currently on offer in the UK and elsewhere, I hope readers will view the claims of modern-day snake oil salesmen with the scepticism they deserve.

When I was a young man, before entering medical school I spent some time hitch-hiking in India and once was intrigued to come across a sign in a city street declaring: ‘Dr —’s Clinic: Guaranteed Cure of All Diseases!’ At least the good Indian doctor had got it the right way around: disease, or diagnosis, first; then treatment.

Growth hormone treatment
These days some clinics in the UK tout the treatment first, then proffer reasons why you might need it.

For example, Ghosh Medical, as it’s called, starts by undermining the confidence you may have in your NHS general practitioner:

  • Have you ever been to your NHS GP and wanted to ask more but couldn’t?
  • Have you ever been to your doctor and wanted to ask, ‘Doctor… just one more thing?’
  • Have you felt your doctor has not taken your concerns seriously?
  • Have you felt your GP won’t refer you but you want a test or scan?

Then, as well as inviting patients for a second opinion they offer a multiplicity of services of which I’ll mention just two: growth hormone and ‘medical cannabis’. Of the former, they say this (paraphrased and emphasis added):

Growth hormone treatment can improve health and wellbeing. Adults without the right level of growth hormone risk conditions such as osteoporosis and problems with their metabolism of glucose and cholesterol which can have serious health implications, so it is essential to seek medical advice if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Fatigue and brain fog
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Low energy levels

(Growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland, a small structure at the base of the brain, and is essential for normal growth in children. It can be given by injection to those deficient in this hormone who would otherwise suffer from abnormally short stature or dwarfism, and to adults who are similarly deficient. Its use for other purposes is controversial.)

It would be less objectionable if this clinic were simply to invite patients for consultations who are suffering from weight gain, fatigue, brain fog (whatever that means), anxiety and depression, etc. These are very common complaints which have many different causes, but unless a patient has a history of a pituitary gland disorder, growth hormone deficiency in childhood, or a traumatic brain injury, in which case they would usually already be under medical care, new onset of adult growth hormone deficiency would not normally be considered.

On the other hand, to suggest that these symptoms might be alleviated by administering growth hormone may result in patients turning up and demanding such treatment. Of course, they would be assessed by a doctor first, but I wonder in what proportion of patients who present themselves expecting or hoping for growth hormone treatment is a diagnostic need established. I wrote and asked Ghosh Medical about this; there was no reply.

Medical cannabis
Now let’s look at the controversial matter of medical cannabis (similar to marijuana or hashish), about which the NHS website has this to say:

It is only likely to be prescribed for the following conditions:

  • children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilesy
  • adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy
  • people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS)

The NHS also rightly warns:

Depending on the type of medical cannabis you take, it’s possible to develop side effects such as:

  • decreased appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling sick
  • weakness
  • a behavioural or mood change
  • dizziness
  • feeling very tired
  • feeling high
  • hallucinations
  • suicidal thoughts

Ghosh Medical nonetheless suggests that medical cannabis may be helpful for the following long list of conditions:

Cancer-related pain, chronic pain, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic regional pain syndrome, migraines, cluster headache, neuropathic pain, cancer-related appetite loss, cancer-related anxiety and depression, palliative care, Chrohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, autistic spectrum disorder, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, insomnia, agoraphobia, depression.

Is there anything they’ve left out? They do say ‘Treatment with medical cannabis can be considered after conventional therapy,’ though it’s not clear that they mean to echo the NHS which cautions:

A prescription for medical cannabis would only be given when it was believed to be in your best interests, and when other treatments had not worked or were not suitable.

Another clinic touting medical cannabis, Sapphire Medical, in a badly written sentence makes two interesting Freudian slips:

All of our doctors have been through an intense [sic] training program to equip them with the skills required to prescribe this very complex and variable [sic] medicine.

Ozone therapy
First, note this:

Ozone is a toxic gas with no known useful medical application in specific, adjunctive, or preventive therapy.

So says the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a detailed warning.

Nonetheless, London Natural Therapies, for a mere £4,000 ($4,500), offers this very thing! They claim:

Ozone is a highly active and reactive form of oxygen that can restore optimum oxygen levels in the body. We offer a superior treatment using the latest technology ozone device that gently extracts your blood and passes it through an oxidation chamber. Here it is combined with an equal volume of ozone at a high concentration before being passed back into your body. We offer 10-pass treatments – considered to be the optimum number for powerful and effective ozone therapy.

Highly active, restore optimum oxygen levels, superior treatment, powerful and effective…Wow! It reminds me of an advertisement for the household disinfectant known as Domestos: ‘Kills all known germs – dead.’

What is London Natural Therapies all about? They boast:

Established in 2013, the London Natural [as opposed, presumably, to unnatural] Therapies is an international [as opposed to local, presumably] wellness clinic recognised [by whom?] for sophisticated diagnostic and treatment options [would you want unsophisticated ones?] for acute and chronic conditions [what other sorts of conditions are there?] that help your body to regain optimal health [you wouldn’t want sub-optimal health, of course] on all levels [as opposed, presumably, to only on one or some levels].

The only qualification you need to set up a clinic in the Harley Street area is the ability to pay the rent. Actually, they’re not in Harley Street but in nearby Weymouth Street. Apart from that, if we take out the meaningless waffle and correct the fib we’re left with a simple statement:

Established in 2013, London Natural Therapies is located in Weymouth Street and offers diagnoses and treatments for a range of medical conditions.

Why not be a bit more modest?

The Black Box is back!
Another offering from this establishment is called Bioresonance Therapy. This is derived from a pseudoscientific device invented by an American with the curious name of Dr Royal Rife, 100 years ago. It’s sometimes referred to as radionics or black box treatment. Such studies as have been done with these devices have found no beneficial effect in cancer or any other disease. Nonetheless, this is what London Natural Therapies claims for their Sensitiv [sic] Imago Bioresonance Therapy machine:

It uses electromagnetic frequencies to detect pathologies, bacteria, viruses and parasites as well as toxins and other harmful substances. It can be used to reliably detect food intolerances, allergies of all kinds, to help with detoxification and is incredibly potent for treatments of addiction…combines the latest technology with incredible accuracy and efficiency of treatment…Bioresonance is the medicine of the future…has the ability to detect changes on a cellular level…making it into an excellent preventative tool.

The Sensitiv Imago highly sophisticated, state-of-the-art Bioresonance machine…can be as effective as 20-30 different specialist doctor visits…while you sit comfortably holding an electrode and with headphones.

Further comment is superfluous.

Cryotherapy (extreme cold air exposure)
Once again, we’ll start with the orthodox view as set out by the highly reputable Cochrane Library:

There is insufficient evidence to determine whether whole‐body cryotherapy reduces self‐reported muscle soreness or improves subjective recovery after exercise…There is no evidence on the use of this intervention in females or elite athletes. The lack of evidence on adverse events is important given that the exposure to extreme temperature presents a potential hazard.

Yet an establishment in east London, Harpal Clinic, claims:

Cryotherapy is a great recovery tool for athletes and fitness fanatics. It triggers the release of endorphins, increases production of collagen and accelerates the metabolic rate which shortens the body’s recovery process, speeding up recovery between workouts, after events or post-injury. The increased endorphins also help reduce inflammation and can lessen pain.

But the benefits don’t end there – by exposing the body to extreme temperatures, the skin signals the brain to send more blood to the centre of the body. As the blood rushes through to your core, it is enriched with more oxygen and nutrients, and toxins are eliminated.

Oh yes.

Low dose naltrexone
This treatment may have a place in opioid use disorder (such as heroin addiction) but now, according to the dumbed down nonsense put out by the same Harpal Clinic, new wonders for it have been discovered:

Low Dose Naltrexone is a treatment that encourages the body to produce its own feel-good transmitters like endorphins through a negative feedback mechanism.

These endorphins are able to either help boost the immune system where it is low, like in cancers or HIV; or it modulates the immune system where it is hyper-reactive like in autoimmune conditions including gut issues. This means that the body now has enough of the right kind of ‘soldiers’ to target and solve health issues using its own innate intelligence. Low dose naltrexone has been used for a wide range of health concerns in patients with autoimmune diseases, cancers, HIV, MS, SLE, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis amongst others.

Whilst this is not strictly necessary, we prefer to work with your main doctors as low dose naltrexone treatment is still in its infancy. (My emphasis.)

Why, then, do they offer this experimental and unproven intervention?

Vitamin drips for healthy people
I discuss this potentially harmful absurdity in two previous blogs; they can be accessed here and here, respectively.

How to stay healthy
For most people this is simple: don’t smoke, drink in moderation if at all, eat a healthy diet, control your weight, and take regular exercise.

If you feel ill, however, as a rule you should trust the advice of your NHS general practitioner, orthodox private doctor, or qualified ancillary staff. Of course, I’m only too aware that patients with complicated medical problems may in desperation turn to lay practitioners of all stripes or to doctors who make exaggerated, unproven, or false claims some of which are mentioned above.

Miraculous cures, however, are seldom to be found and ultimately we all have to accept the fact of our own mortality. In the meantime, I would suggest that you don’t waste your money by falling for the blandishments of modern day snake oil salesmen.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

Picture credit: The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs.