Alternative Therapies: To Qi or Not to Qi?

The other day I came across an acquaintance’s Facebook post – he was questioning alternative medicine, specifically referring to an article by an ex-naturopath whose goal was to de-bunk naturopathy and expose its’ shortcomings (her former boss was giving patients illegal injections, you can read the article here: The number of comments on this post were astounding, with a good majority of people sticking up for their alternative therapy of choice. Through this particular post I was also introduced to, which is an incredibly thorough resource written by a former massage therapist, Paul Ingraham, who “studies the science of aches and pains and injuries” (He boosts 2300+ scientific paper citations, and the site is the same length as a Game of Thrones novel!). He has scientific reviews for every treatment and therapy out there, plus a ton of other interesting articles.

The world of alternative medicine is fascinating to me because of the divide: science says a lot of it does not work, yet so many people swear by X or Y. For certain treatments like massage, it can be difficult to measure because there is no way to do a control group, since it is difficult to give someone a “fake” massage or a fake chiropractic adjustment. Acupuncture is an interesting case because there have been legitimate studies using “sham acupuncture” where the needles do not actually go far enough below the skin to have any real benefit, compared with real acupuncture. The crazy results were that both the sham and real acupuncture had better results (on low back pain) than conventional physical drugs, physical therapy, or exercise, BUT that the real acupuncture was no better than the sham (See full blog post from PainScience here:

But who cares what science says, right? If someone feels like their treatment is helping them, and even if it is just placebo effect, isn’t that good enough? It can feel incredibly empowering and motivating to just do something and be proactive, regardless of the method. I am totally 100% on board with people doing whatever treatment works for them – be it crystals or chiropractics. Where I feel like it gets murky is that there are so many different treatments, and they all seem fairly unclear in terms of what actually works or not, so how can someone who is in pain (physical, mental, or emotional) get clear information and make informed decisions?

Many people seeking treatment are going to be at their most vulnerable, perhaps desperate to find something that takes their symptoms away. These treatments are expensive, some are covered by insurance but some are not (and many people do not even have insurance and pay out of pocket). The practitioner giving the service better believe in what they are practicing, so they are most likely going to tell you that they can help you heal whatever is ailing you. At the end of the day, these are businesses that are trying to make money, and just like in any business, there are good practitioners and not so good ones. Pain is a very complex area, and there is a lot that has yet to be figured out by researchers, doctors, and therapists. In my experience the really excellent practitioners will not try to give false hope but rather will talk realistically about the expectations and help you navigate the world of alternative therapies. 

In the past 5 years for muscular imbalance/pain issues I have done:
Massage, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractor, cranial sacral therapy, Kinesis Myofascial Integration (similar to Rolfing), physiotherapy, sports therapy.

Honestly, I don’t know if I would swear by any of these therapies for long-term effects (although I did feel noticeably better throughout and after my 12-sessions of KMI, but there are numerous factors that could have also been contributing to this physical improvement. If you want me to tell you my further opinions on any of these treatments, just ask!). But what they have done is made me more aware of how my mind and body work and interact and my specific areas of imbalance, so that I am better equipped to understand what I am feeling and deal with it on my own. I can say that I feel in a much better physical place than I did five years ago when I made my first trip to a physiotherapist, but I think a lot of that has to do with my own understanding of my body and the stresses I put on it. I can also say that I no longer think there is one "magic treatment" and that being in any profession where there is stress on your body (which includes most professions) requires a lot of hard work to keep your body happy. It is not just about the treatments you seek but about what you do on your own, in between the treatments.

I categorize myself somewhere in the middle between the hard scientist disbeliever and the person with the chakra-healing crystals. I am willing to listen to both sides of the debate with a healthy dose of hopefulness and skepticism. This year I started attending a regular Qi Gong class, which I absolutely love! “Qi” is supposed to be an energy or life force that supposedly runs through meridians in the body, according to Chinese philosophy. As someone on neither side of the “believer” fence, I sometimes find it hard to know how to discuss these concepts. Paul Ingraham (the painscience guy) puts it quite nicely in a quote:

“When I practice qi gong or T’ai qi, I do not trouble myself with whether or not the qi is “real”. Qi gong is an art. I practice it in a beautiful way… To do a thing in a beautiful way, to move gracefully, is to experience qi…I am quite content to think of qi as a complex and beautiful metaphor… To live is a miracle; to live well, to be full of life …is a beautiful miracle – a miracle full of qi. Perhaps the idea of qi is a condense, Taoist way of saying “I am more than a sum of my parts” (Paul Ingraham,

Happy Holidays!