Alternative diagnostics

Some alternative diagnostic tests aren’t all they’re quacked up to be.
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01 .Introduction

Duck with stethoscope

Feeling tired, bloated, depressed, irritable or sluggish? Worried about your body’s toxic overload? Chakras out of whack? Suffering from a general lack of wellness? Unless something’s really wrong, you won’t get much joy from your doctor. But there’s always a natural therapist who can help.

They may offer a test – or battery of tests – to find out everything that’s wrong with you, from using whizz-bang machines and prodding different body parts, to hair and finger-prick blood tests.

After the test, they’ll identify certain herbs, “remedies” or supplements that can help you with your newly discovered syndrome/s, and helpfully sell them to you while you’re booking in an extensive series of therapy sessions.

Having sat down for an hour with someone prepared to listen to the minute details of your health concerns, you’ll already be feeling better, confident your practitioner understands what’s really wrong with you – there’s always something, and rarely an “I don’t know”. 

The question is, do these tests actually work? We look at some common ones here; for more information on therapies see General Health.

Dodgy devices

Thermography for breast cancer

Women over 40 are entitled to free mammograms, and they’re recommended every two years for women 50-69 to screen for breast cancer. They’re sometimes uncomfortable or even excruciating, and there are some wild assertions they actually cause breast cancer. So when a natural therapist offers a “safe, accurate and comfortable” alternative screening for women of all ages, it’s not surprising women, particularly younger women, are interested.
Thermography, also known as thermal breast imaging, measures the temperature of skin on the breast to produce "heat pictures". Its use is based on the premise that the skin overlying a malignant breast lesion can be warmer than that of surrounding areas. However, studies have shown that the tumour has to be several centimetres in diameter before it can be detected (mammograms can pick them up at less than 2cm).

As BreastScreen Australia points out, “There is no current scientific evidence to support the use of thermography in the early detection of breast cancer and in the reduction of mortality”.

Oh, and mammography doesn’t cause breast cancer.

Live blood analysis

Live blood analysis (also called dark field microscopy, or Hemaview, after a popular make of machine) involves a drop of your blood being placed under a microscope with the image transferred to video screen. By looking at the shape, size and proportions of blood cells and other components, proponents claim they can detect all sorts of diseases and health problems, such as your digestive, eliminative and immune issues, “liver sluggishness”, the presence of bacteria, fungus and yeast, vitamin deficiencies, “amount of toxicity”, pH and mineral imbalances.

A lack of evidence has led the Therapeutic Goods Administration's (TGA) advertising complaints resolution panel to demand the withdrawal of ads suggesting live blood analysis can be used for diagnosing health problems related to immunity, nutritional deficiencies, stress and free radical damage, among other things. Or, as haematologist Professor Hatem Salem says: “The notion that one can diagnose all sorts of ailments by examining a drop of blood on a video screen is both ridiculous and plain stupid.”

Electro-dermal testing

There are a number of measurement techniques that fall into this category, including bio-impedance analysis (BIA), electro-interstitial scanning (EIS), bioresonance and Vega machines.

All of them claim they can somehow determine your internal physiological status by placing electrodes on your skin and measuring electrical resistance. These devices are widely used by naturopaths, chiropractors and other natural therapists, who claim that their machines are able to diagnose both serious and self-limiting health conditions.

Some say they’re “TGA approved”, which actually means that the device is (or was) listed with the TGA on the basis that it’s reasonably safe – not that it lives up to the grandiose claims that accompany the ad. Reputable scientific research consistently disputes any therapeutic claims made for these devices and this is backed up by expert opinion from physicists and specialists in immunology and allergies.

BIA is often and correctly used to measure body composition in terms of fat, water and lean body mass, and can be a useful tool for weight management and physical fitness programs – think body fat scales. However, some practitioners claim it can also measure cell toxicity, inflammation and energy levels, as well as determine your cellular age. But endocrinologist Professor Lesley Campbell tells us “The claim that BIA can assist in monitoring toxicity, inflammation, malnutrition and poor cellular function is unscientific and unfounded.”

EIS is based on measuring and interpreting resistance to the flow of electric current through interstitial fluid (the fluid between the cells) via six electrodes placed on the body. It’s claimed the data can be used to assess the health status of all of the major organs of your body, as well as diagnose ADHD and monitor hyperthyroidism, hypertension, atherosclerosis and depression. Dr Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch (a US-based organisation which applies scientific methods and principles to establish the validity of alternative health products and services), consulted scientific and medical literature and spoke with biochemistry experts and concluded: “Electro interstitial scans have no proven practical value and could cause large amounts of time and money to be wasted by people who believe the speculations”.

Vega testing is often used to detect allergies and food intolerances, by having one electrode placed on your finger, another on an acupuncture point on your hand or foot and introducing a sealed container of food into the circuit. Reduced electrical current means a sensitivity. However, as physicist Professor John Storey points out, “The device simply measures the electrical resistance of the patient’s skin. There is nothing in the device’s operation worth discussing, unless one has a particular fascination with the electrical resistance of a person’s skin.”


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