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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why You Need to Be Cautious When Shopping for Homeopathic Medications

I’m all for natural (homeopathic) treatment of health care problems if there is scientific evidence that it is effective.  As in the old days, people still rely on word of mouth recommendations from friends and family, casual review of non-scientific literature, and the advice of someone selling homeopathic products  to decide what medications to take to treat their ailments. These days, people have the added option of searching for such medication on the internet. No prescription is needed and the consumer proceeds at his/her own risk since the Food and Drug Administration does  not require that homeopathic medications undergo testing for safety and effectiveness.  

Many people are not aware of this and simply assume that since the medications are contained in a fancy looking bottle with scientific words, have stated indications for use, and/ or are sold on a website that looks legitimate, that they are safe and effective. While ineffective homeopathic medications may not directly cause harm, they can indirectly cause harm if the person fails substitutes an unproven treatment with a scientifically proven treatment. In some cases, this choice can mean the difference between life and death. A good example is How Fruits and Vegetables Killed Steve Jobs.

In perusing the internet tonight, I can across an advertisement for  oxydendrum arboreum (pictured above), also known as the sourwood or sorrel tree.  The ad states that it Is used for the following: “A remedy for dropsy - ascites and anasarca. Urine suppressed. Deranged portal circulation. Prostatic enlargement. Vesical calculi. Irritation of neck of bladder. Great difficulty of breathing. Tincture. Compare: Cerefolius (dropsy, Bright’s disease, cystitis).”

Let’s go through some of these terms. If you are not in the medical field, you may not realize that although this sounds fancy, that dropsy is an outdated term for edema or swelling. Ascities means fluid build-up in the space between layers that line the belly. Anasarca is extreme generalized edema. Suppression of urine output is obvious, as is difficulty breathing, prostate enlargement, and neck/bladder irritation. Vesical calculi is another terms for a bladder stone. Tincture refers to an herbal tincture, which is an alcoholic extraction of plant material by combining it with a liquid, typically alcohol. In other words, the medication is available in liquid form. It was also available in tablet form. On the last line, the ad compares the medication to another homeopathic treatment (Cerefolius) used to treat dropsy, cystitis (bladder inflammation), and Bright’s disease. Bright’s disease is an obsolete term used to describe acute or chronic kidney inflammation.

The use of obsolete words such as dropsy and Bright’s disease on a modern medical ad made me suspicious, so I did some more research and found this old advertisement from 1908:


Lo and behold what do we see?  Terms such as Bright’s disease, dropsical effusions (a reference to dropsy), anasarca, ascites, and edema as conditions that can be treated by a medication known as oxydendrine. Oxydendrine’s first ingredient is listed as oxydendrum, the plant being sold above on the internet today. Oxydendrine was the trade name for a medication that combined oxydendrum with other plant treatments including iris, sambucus,  and scilla (squill).  In 1908, it was being recommended that when used to treat dropsy due to heart disease, that the medication be taken with each meal and at bed time. For most people that is four times a day, which is a lot of pills. In fact, in severe cases, up to 8 pills a day were suggested. More pills equals more money. 

It does not seem that Oxydendrine was around long based on my own research into the topic, although I am happy to be provided any information to the contrary on that.  I can confirm that it was in use between 1907 and 1908. There is no scientific literature available in PubMed (repository of peer reviewed scientific research studies) that support the use of Oxydendrine or the primary ingredient, oxydendrum, for any medical treatments.  It seems like it was yet another type of patent medication such as Pink Pills for Pale People, which purported to treat various ailments without proof of safety or effectiveness.

 It also seems that information about Oxydendrine was taken from medical ads from over 100 years ago and used as the basis for a modern ad for a homeopathic treatment on the internet. While oxydendrum may indeed have some unknown medical properties, buyers beware when purchasing this substance or others that you have not properly vetted scientifically. If you need suggestions on how to do that, see my Five Ways for Evaluating Suspicious Medical Treatment Claims.

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