patient choice

Guest post by Ken McLeod

Readers will have no trouble recalling that crank ‘naturopath’ Barbara O’Neill has graced these pages several times. She is subject to a Permanent Prohibition Order by the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission. It goes like this:

“The Commission is satisfied that Mrs O’Neill poses a risk to the health and safety of members of the public and therefore makes the following prohibition order:

“Mrs O’Neill is permanently prohibited from providing any health services, as defined in s4 Of the Health Care Complaints Act 1993, whether in a paid or voluntary capacity.’ 1

Evidently Ms O’Neill has scrambled her chakras or muddled her meridians because she continues to forget the Order. For example;

O’Neill did a video interview concerning the Prohibition Order and that has been posted online at YouTube.2 The video was posted ‘1 year ago,’ has had 323,000 views and had 1,598 comments. She goes into great detail what she regards as the appalling treatment at the hands of the HCCC.

In the video she admits that she has continued to travel the world spreading her lies and misrepresentations. Some of the lies are that she is a naturopath, and was a nurse, and ‘I used to work in the Operating Theatre as a psychiatric nurse….’

In the video at 53:20 in the video she refers to an aboriginal man ‘Dan’ who works at her Misty Mountain Lifestyle Retreat, (note the present tense), who is in his 50s was obese and recently had a heart attack, ‘was on a lot of medications,’ ‘was a bit scared of coming off medications,’ ‘I said Dan, I think it’s time to stop your blood pressure medications, you’re going too low, you’re a 100 over 60,’ ‘three days later his blood pressure was 100 over 75,….’ 3

Call me a cynic, but that strikes me as rather dangerous advice, worthy of an investigation by the HCCC. Meanwhile, there is no sign of ‘Dan ‘ in Misty Mountain’s ‘About page.’ Dan’s brother Dave appears, but no Dan.4 Could it be that O’Neill’s advice led to some incapacity? Tips are welcome.

Meanwhile, readers could learn much more about Barbara O’Neill at Wikipedia.5


This article first appeared in the June issue of the Australian Skeptic Magazine,6 reprinted with kind permission.




3 This was dangerous and reckless advice. The full transcript is here




There is widespread agreement amongst clinicians that people with non-specific low back pain (NSLBP) comprise a heterogeneous group and that their management should be individually tailored. One treatment known by its tailored design is the McKenzie method (e.g. an individualized program of exercises based on clinical clues observed during assessment) used mostly but not exclusively by physiotherapists.

A recent Cochrane review evaluated the effectiveness of the McKenzie method in people with (sub)acute non-specific low back pain. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) investigating the effectiveness of the McKenzie method in adults with (sub)acute (less than 12 weeks) NSLBP.

Five RCTs were included with a total of 563 participants recruited from primary or tertiary care. Three trials were conducted in the USA, one in Australia, and one in Scotland. Three trials received financial support from non-commercial funders and two did not provide information on funding sources. All trials were at high risk of performance and detection bias. None of the included trials measured adverse events.

McKenzie method versus minimal intervention (educational booklet; McKenzie method as a supplement to other intervention – main comparison) There is low-certainty evidence that the McKenzie method may result in a slight reduction in pain in the short term (MD -7.3, 95% CI -12.0 to -2.56; 2 trials, 377 participants) but not in the intermediate term (MD -5.0, 95% CI -14.3 to 4.3; 1 trial, 180 participants). There is low-certainty evidence that the McKenzie method may not reduce disability in the short term (MD -2.5, 95% CI -7.5 to 2.0; 2 trials, 328 participants) nor in the intermediate term (MD -0.9, 95% CI -7.3 to 5.6; 1 trial, 180 participants).

McKenzie method versus manual therapy There is low-certainty evidence that the McKenzie method may not reduce pain in the short term (MD -8.7, 95% CI -27.4 to 10.0; 3 trials, 298 participants) and may result in a slight increase in pain in the intermediate term (MD 7.0, 95% CI 0.7 to 13.3; 1 trial, 235 participants). There is low-certainty evidence that the McKenzie method may not reduce disability in the short term (MD -5.0, 95% CI -15.0 to 5.0; 3 trials, 298 participants) nor in the intermediate term (MD 4.3, 95% CI -0.7 to 9.3; 1 trial, 235 participants).

McKenzie method versus other interventions (massage and advice) There is very low-certainty evidence that the McKenzie method may not reduce disability in the short term (MD 4.0, 95% CI -15.4 to 23.4; 1 trial, 30 participants) nor in the intermediate term (MD 10.0, 95% CI -8.9 to 28.9; 1 trial, 30 participants).

The authors concluded that, based on low- to very low-certainty evidence, the treatment effects for pain and disability found in our review were not clinically important. Thus, we can conclude that the McKenzie method is not an effective treatment for (sub)acute NSLBP.

 The hallmark of the McKenzie method for back pain involves the identification and classification of nonspecific spinal pain into homogenous subgroups. These subgroups are based on the similar responses of a patient’s symptoms when subjected to mechanical forces. The subgroups include postural syndrome, dysfunction syndrome, derangement syndrome, or “other,” with treatment plans directed to each subgroup. The McKenzie method emphasizes the centralization phenomenon in the assessment and treatment of spinal pain, in which pain originating from the spine refers distally, and through targeted repetitive movements the pain migrates back toward the spine. The clinician will then use the information obtained from this assessment to prescribe specific exercises and advise on which postures to adopt or avoid. Through an individualized treatment program, the patient will perform specific exercises at home approximately ten times per day, as opposed to 1 or 2 physical therapy visits per week. According to the McKenzie method, if there is no restoration of normal function, tissue healing will not occur, and the problem will persist.


The postural syndrome is pain caused by mechanical deformation of soft tissue or vasculature arising from prolonged postural stresses. These may affect the joint surfaces, muscles, or tendons, and can occur in sitting, standing, or lying. Pain may be reproducible when such individuals maintain positions or postures for sustained periods. Repeated movements should not affect symptoms, and relief of pain typically occurs immediately following the correction of abnormal posture.

The dysfunction syndrome is pain caused by the mechanical deformation of structurally impaired soft tissue; this may be due to traumatic, inflammatory, or degenerative processes, causing tissue contraction, scarring, adhesion, or adaptive shortening. The hallmark is a loss of movement and pain at the end range of motion. Dysfunction has subsyndromes based upon the end-range direction that elicits this pain: flexion, extension, side-glide, multidirectional, adherent nerve root, and nerve root entrapment subsyndromes. Successful treatment focuses on patient education and mobilization exercises that focus on the direction of the dysfunction/direction of pain. The goal is on tissue remodeling which can be a prolonged process.

The derangement syndrome is the most commonly encountered pain syndrome, reported in one study to have a prevalence as high as 78% of patients classified by the McKenzie method. It is caused by an internal dislocation of articular tissue, causing a disturbance in the normal position of affected joint surfaces, deforming the capsule, and periarticular supportive ligaments. This derangement will both generate pain and obstruct movement in the direction of the displacement. There are seven different subsyndromes which are classified by the location of pain and the presence, or absence, of deformities. Pain is typically elicited by provocative assessment movements, such as flexion or extension of the spine. The centralization and peripheralization of symptoms can only occur in the derangement syndrome. Thus the treatment for derangement syndrome focuses on repeated movement in a single direction that causes a gradual reduction in pain. Studies have shown approximately anywhere between 58% to 91% prevalence of centralization of lower back pain. Studies have also shown that between 67% to 85% of centralizers displayed the directional preference for a spinal extension. This preference may partially explain why the McKenzie method has become synonymous with spinal extension exercises. However, care must be taken to accurately diagnose the direction of pain, as one randomized controlled study has shown that giving the ‘wrong’ direction of exercises can actually lead to poorer outcomes.

Other or Nonmechanical syndrome refers to any symptom that does not fit in with the other mechanical syndromes, but exhibits signs and symptoms of other known pathology; Some of these examples include spinal stenosis, sacroiliac disorders, hip disorders, zygapophyseal disorders, post-surgical complications, low back pain secondary to pregnancy, spondylolysis, and spondylolisthesis.


“Internationally researched” and found to be ineffective!

A German paper reported the following horrific story about a Heilpraktiker, an alternative practitioner without a medical degree:

Starting July 7, Torben K. (46) from Solingen will have to answer to the Wuppertal Regional Court. The Heilpraktiker is said to have injected silicone oil into the penis and testicles of a man († 32) at his request. Shortly thereafter, the patient developed health problems and later died.

The prosecution accuses the Heilpraktiker from Solingen of bodily injury resulting in death and violation of the Heilpraktikergesetz.

According to the report, the victim had traveled to Solingen in June 2019, where the defendant had given him the injection in his apartment.

Back home, the 32-year-old patient suddenly developed shortness of breath, had to be hospitalized, then transferred to the university hospital in Giessen. Seven months after the injection, he is dead. According to the indictment, the patient suffered multiple organ failure as a result of blood poisoning.

Three days of trial are scheduled. The defendant faces up to 15 years in prison.


I had never heard of intra-testicular injections. So, I did a Medline search and found just two papers of the procedure in human patients:

No 1

Blunt trauma is the most common mechanism of injury to the scrotum and testicle. Surgical exploration with primary repair, hematoma evacuation, and de-torsion are common surgical interventions. A 20-year-old male with no previous medical history presented after a high-speed motor vehicle collision. Ultrasonography demonstrated heterogeneous changes of the tunica albuginea and decreased arterial flow to bilateral testicles. He was subsequently taken to the operating room for surgical exploration, which revealed bilateral mottled testes with questionable viability. Papaverine was injected into each testicle, which resulted in visibly increased perfusion and subsequent preservation of the testicles. Conclusion: Current evidence on the use of papaverine is isolated to testicular torsion. Additional research should be conducted on the use of papaverine in blunt testicular trauma. Papaverine injection may be a valuable treatment option when inadequate perfusion is observed intra-operatively.

No 2:

Purpose: We describe a simple technique to deliver local anaesthetic for percutaneous testis biopsies.

Materials and methods: With the testis held firmly, a 25 gage needle is used to inject lidocaine, without epinephrine, into the skin and dartos superficial to the testis, then the needle is advanced through the tunica albuginea and 0.5 mL to 1.0 mL of lidocaine is injected directly into the testis. The testis becomes slightly more turgid with the injection. A percutaneous biopsy is then immediately performed.

Results: Intra-testicular lidocaine, (without the need of a cord block or any sedation) was used on a total of 45 consecutive patients having percutaneous testicular biopsies. Procedure time was short (averages less than 5 minutes) and anaesthesia was profound. There was no change in the number of seminiferous tubules for evaluation compared to biopsies on men using a cord block. Only 1/45 men had a post-procedure testicular hematoma (this resolved in 4 weeks).

Conclusions: Intra-testicular lidocaine appears to be a simple, rapid and safe method to provide anaesthesia for a percutaneous testis biopsy.

All the other papers on intra-testicular injections were about animal experiments, mostly for exploring means of castration. This renders the above case even more unusual. The Heilpraktiker’s defense might stress that the patient wanted the treatment. That may be so but is it a valid excuse? No, of course not. In my view – and I am just a medic, not a lawyer – the Heilpraktiker is responsible for the treatment regardless of how much the patient insisted on it.

I missed this paper when it first came out in 2022. Yet, it seems potentially quite important and I, therefore, feel like discussing it here:

President of the UNESCO Committee on Bioethics Stefan Semplici called on the governments of all countries to ensure free and wider access of their citizens to alternative medicine and pay for this therapy through health insurance. Alternative medicine based on tradition – traditional medicine, in many poor countries is the only treatment option for the population. In developed countries, and especially in China and India, it enjoys well-deserved prestige (for example, acupuncture and herbal medicine) and is often integrated into the public health system.

The International Committee on Bioethics of UNESCO announced the recognition of these alternative therapies as an option for medical practice and, at the same time, as part of the identity of the cultural traditions of various nations. The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights includes the right to the highest attainable standard of health (Article 14), the right to respect for pluralism and cultural diversity (Article 12) and traditional knowledge (Article 17). The purpose of this document is to establish criteria for the respect and acceptability of different types of medicine without compromising the assurance of quality and patient safety that is essential in all treatments.

In order to adapt the traditions of traditional therapies to advances in medicine, this international organization calls on governments and the scientific community to collaborate with practitioners of alternative therapies to evaluate their effectiveness and safety and develop therapeutic standards and protocols for integrating traditional medicine into healthcare system. The UNESCO International Bioethics Committee believes that these methods should be seen as complementary to modern medicine, and not just an alternative to it.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences, and culture. UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) is a body of 36 independent experts that follows progress in the life sciences and its applications in order to ensure respect for human dignity and freedom.

I have to say that I rarely have seen an announcement in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that is more confusing and less well thought through. The UNESCO Committee on Bioethics wants:

  • alternative therapies as an option for medical practice,
  • the highest attainable standard of health,
  • to collaborate with practitioners of alternative therapies to evaluate their effectiveness and safety.

When I first read these lines, I asked myself: who on earth wrote such nonsense? It was certainly not written by someone who understands healthcare, SCAM, and evidence-based medicine.

As discussed almost permanently on this blog, most forms of SCAM have not been shown to generate more good than harm. This means that employing them ‘as an option in medical practice’ cannot possibly produce ‘the highest attainable standards of health’. In fact, the UNESCO plan would lead to lower not higher standards. How can a committee on bioethics not realize that this is profoundly unethical?

Collaboration with practitioners of alternative therapies to evaluate SCAM’s effectiveness and safety sounds a bit more reasonable. It ignores, however, that tons of evidence already exist but fail to be positive. Why do these experts in bioethics not advocate to first make a sober assessment of the published literature?

I must say that the initiative of the UNESCO Committee on Bioethics puzzles me a lot and disturbs me even more.

I’d be keen to learn what you think of it.


The current secondary analysis based on the WHO database (VigiBase) of individual case safety reports (ICSRs) focuses on the suspected cutaneous adverse drug reactions (ADRs) linked to traditional medicines (TMs).

All the ICSRs reported between 1st January 2016 and 30th June 2021 from the UN Asia region in VigiBase where at least one TM was suspected to cause cutaneous ADRs were included in the study. Data regarding demographic details, suspected drug, adverse reaction as per MedDRA term, the seriousness of the reaction, de-challenge, re-challenge, and clinical outcome for suspected cutaneous ADRs associated with TM were obtained from VigiBase and analyzed for frequency of reported events and suspected medicines.

A total of 3,523 ICSRs with 5,761 ADRs related to “skin and subcutaneous tissue disorders” were included in the analysis. Amongst these, 6.8% of ICSRs were reported as serious.

The most common ADRs were:

  • pruritus (29.6%),
  • rash (20.3%),
  • urticaria (18.9%),
  • hyperhidrosis (3.3%).

Artemisia argyi H.Lév. and Vaniot. (14.9%), Ginkgo biloba L. (5.1%), Vitis vinifera L. (4%), Vitex agnus-castus L. (3.8%), Silybum marianum (L.), Gaertn (3.5%), and Viscus album L. (2.7%) were some commonly suspected TMs for cutaneous ADRs. There were 46 cases of Stevens-Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrolysis reported with TMs during the study period. Death was reported in 5 ICSRs.

The authors concluded that TMs are linked with various cutaneous ADRS ranging from pruritus to toxic epidermal necrolysis which may have serious consequences. TMs listed as suspected offending agents in this analysis, should be kept in mind while dealing with suspected cutaneous ADRs. Clinicians should be more vigilant in detecting and reporting events associated with TMs.

Herbal remedies have a reputation for being time-tested, gentle, harmless, and benign. Reports such as this one might make us doubt this cliche. More importantly, they should force us to ask whether the remedy we are tempted to try truly does generate more good than harm. In most instances, I fear, the answer is not positive.

The ‘American Heart Association News’ recently reported the case of a 33-year-old woman who suffered a stroke after consulting a chiropractor. I take the liberty of reproducing sections of this article:

Kate Adamson liked exercising so much, her goal was to become a fitness trainer. She grew up in New Zealand playing golf and later, living in California, she worked out often while raising her two young daughters. Although she was healthy and ate well, she had occasional migraines. At age 33, they were getting worse and more frequent. One week, she had the worst headache of her life. It went on for days. She wasn’t sleeping well and got up early to take a shower. She felt a wave of dizziness. Her left side seemed to collapse. Adamson made her way down to the edge of the tub to rest. She was able to return to bed, where she woke up her husband, Steven Klugman. “I need help now,” she said.

Her next memory was seeing paramedics rushing into the house while her 3-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was in the arms of a neighbor. Rachel, her other daughter, then 18 months old, was still asleep. When she woke up in the hospital, Adamson found herself surrounded by doctors. Klugman was by her side. She could see them, hear them and understand them. But she could not move or react.

Doctors told Klugman that his wife had experienced a massive brain stem stroke. It was later thought to be related to neck manipulations she had received from a chiropractor for the migraines. The stroke resulted in what’s known as locked-in syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system. She was paralyzed except for the muscles that control eye movement. Adamson realized she could answer yes-or-no questions by blinking her eyes.

Klugman was told that Adamson had a very minimal chance of recovery. She was put on a ventilator to breathe, given nutrition through a feeding tube, and had to use a catheter. She learned to coordinate eye movements to an alphabet chart. This enabled her to make short sentences. “Am I going to die?” she asked one of her doctors. “No, we’re going to get you into rehab,” he said.

Adamson stayed in the ICU on life support for 70 days before being transferred to an acute rehabilitation facility. She could barely move a finger, but that small bit of progress gave her hope. In rehab, she slowly started to regain use of her right side; her left side remained paralyzed. Therapists taught her to swallow and to speak. She had to relearn to blow her nose, use the toilet and tie her shoes.

She was particularly fond of a social worker named Amy who would incorporate therapy exercises into visits with her children, such as bubble blowing to help her breathing. Amy, who Adamson became friends with, also helped the children adjust to seeing their mother in a wheelchair.

Adamson changed her dream job from fitness trainer to hospital social worker. She left rehab three and a half months later, still in a wheelchair but able to breathe, eat and use the toilet on her own. She continued outpatient rehab for another year. She assumed her left side would improve as her right side did. But it remained paralyzed. She would need to use a brace on her left leg to walk and couldn’t use her left arm and hand. Still, two years after the stroke, which happened in 1995, Adamson was able to drive with a few equipment modifications…

In 2018, Adamson reached another milestone. She graduated with a master’s degree in social work; she’d started college in 2011 at age 49. “It wasn’t easy going to school. I just had to take it a day at a time, a semester at a time,” she said. “The stroke has taught me I can walk through anything.” …

Now 60, she works with renal transplant and pulmonary patients, helping coordinate their services and care with the rest of the medical team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Knowing that you’re making a difference in somebody’s life is very satisfying. It takes me back to when I was a patient – I’m always looking at how I would want to be treated,” she said. “I’ve really come full circle.”

Adamson has adapted to doing things one-handed in a two-handed world, such as cooking and tying her shoes. She also walks with a cane. To stay in shape, she works with a trainer doing functional exercises and strength training. She has a special glove that pulls her left hand into a fist, allowing her to use a rowing machine and stationary bike….

Adamson is especially determined when it comes to helping her patients. “I work really hard to be an example to them, to show that we are all capable of going through difficult life challenges while still maintaining a positive attitude and making a difference in the world.”


What can we learn from this story?

Mainly two things, in my view:

  1. We probably should avoid chiropractors and certainly not allow them to manipulate our necks. I know, chiros will say that the case proves nothing. I agree, it does not prove anything, but the mere suspicion that the lock-in syndrome was caused by a stroke that, in turn, was due to upper spinal manipulation plus the plethora of cases where causality is much clearer are, I think, enough to issue that caution.
  2. Having been in rehab medicine for much of my early career, I feel it is good to occasionally point out how important this sector often neglected part of healthcare can be. Rehab medicine has been a sensible form of multidisciplinary, integrative healthcare long before the enthusiasts of so-called alternative medicine jumped on the integrative bandwagon.

A regional court in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt has sentenced a natural healing practitioner, i.e. Heilpraktiker, and her supplier to jail for fraud. The pair were found to have deceived patients suffering from terminal cancer to put their faith in a remedy that they touted as a miracle cure. The practitioner was jailed for three years for her part in the scam, while the supplier was sentenced to six years and nine months.

The defendants in the case were a 57-year-old Heilpraktiker from the town of Schrobenhausen and a 68-year-old businessman from Ingolstadt who supplied the preparation. Both defendants were said to have promoted the remedy BG-Mun, saying that it could quickly cure cancer without any evidence of this being the case.

The court heard that patients paid up to €6,000 for the remedy. According to the court, the practitioner had boasted of “great successes” with one patient, Sabine H., who had acquired the remedy and stopped her course of chemotherapy at the defendant’s advice. The court was told that the pair would have known at this point that the substance would have no effect. A drug researcher from the University of Bremen had described the defendants’ actions as “profiteering” from the suffering of desperate patients. “Ultimately, it is a hustle against those who really are clutching at straws when it comes to their illness,” he said.

Even after the death of former patients, the defendants continued to promote their bogus remedy, the prosecutor emphasized. The Heilpraktiker advised several patients to rely exclusively on BG-Mun for their treatment and to discontinue the chemotherapy advised by orthodox medicine.

The defense lawyers demanded a comprehensive acquittal for both clients. The central argument: Both the Heilpraktiker and the entrepreneur had tried BG-Mun on themselves, found it helpful and therefore believed in its effect. The two had therefore acted without any intention to deceive. Without an intention to deceive, however, there is no fraud. In addition, BG-Mun had only ever been advertised as a “component in an overall therapy” and never as a sole medicine. According to the defense lawyers, BG-Mun is a means of alternative medicine and “therefore does not belong to evidence-based medicine”. In the opinion of the lawyers, empirical effectiveness, therefore, does not have to be proven. The public prosecutor, on the other hand, quoted experts who say that BG-Mun is a protein solution that has no effect whatsoever against cancer and is also not approved as a medicine.

Elsewhere it had been reported that the court also dealt with the charge of misuse of title, specifically with the fact that the Heilpraktiker used the title of professor orally and also on advertising flyers. The title of professor comes from an educational institution in the USA, which itself is not recognized as a university in the USA. The German Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs does not recognize this title in this country and calls it a “decorative certificate”.


What I find particularly fascinating about this case is that the defense lawyers claimed, that BG-Mun is a means of alternative medicine and “therefore does not belong to evidence-based medicine”. This type of argument crops up regularly when quacks go to trial. I am not a legal expert and can thus only judge it from a medical point of view. Medically speaking, I find it hard to think of an argument that is more ridiculous than this one. To me, it seems like saying: “I am a charlatan and therefore you cannot judge by by the standards of regular healthcare.”

The second argument of the defense is hardy any better: “I was convinced that it worked, therefore, my prescribing it was honest and correct.” Imagine a doctor saying such nonsense! The argument makes a mockery of evidence by replacing it with belief. I am glad that the German court did not fall for such pseudo-arguments.

This survey evaluated the attitude of healthcare professionals toward the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) to improve current care. A questionnaire on the current practice and opinions about SCAM use was sent to healthcare professionals in Amsterdam UMC, who work for the department of hematology or oncology. Oncologists, hematologists, residents, (specialized) nurses, dieticians, (hospital)pharmacists, and pharmacy technicians were asked to participate.

Among eligible healthcare professionals, 77 responded to the questionnaire (34%). Overall, 87% of healthcare
professionals indicated it is important to be aware of their patient’s SCAM use, and all find the potential of drug–herb interactions important. However, more than half of the healthcare professionals inquire about the patient’s SCAM use infrequently. In addition, only 15% of the healthcare professionals stated they had sufficient knowledge of SCAM to advise patients on their use of SCAM.

The authors concluded that healthcare professionals are aware of the potential risks of SCAM use in combination with anti-cancer treatment. However, SCAM use is not yet discussed with every patient. This may be due to healthcare professionals’ lack of knowledge about SCAM.

This survey would in itself be fairly irrelevant; it employed only a tiny convenience sample and its findings cannot be generalized. Yet, it produced results that have been shown dozens of times before, and it might therefore be a good idea to remind ourselves of their relevance and implications.

  • Patients use SCAM whether we want it or not.
  • Contrary to what is often said, SCAM is not harmless.
  • Therefore conventional healthcare professionals need to know about their patients’ SCAM use.
  • To find out, healthcare professionals need to ask specific questions about SCAM.
  • Next, they must advise their patients responsibly (this is an ethical obligation, not a choice).
  • In order to do that they need to learn the essentials about SCAM.
  • Failing to do this means failing their patients.

Numerous qualitative studies and a few quantitative studies have linked vaccine hesitancy or refusal with the belief in the efficacy of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Yet, large-scale data on this topic are scarce. In this study, the French researchers investigated the factors associated with the coverage rates of seven childhood vaccines or vaccine groups in the ninety-six metropolitan French departments. One of the factors investigated was the local interest in SCAM. In order to assess this interest, they built an Alternative Medicine Index based on departmental internet searches regarding SCAM—internet searches being a reliable indicator of the public’s actual interest in a given topic. They then conducted multiple regression analyses, which showed that this Index is a significant explanatory factor for the departmental variance in vaccination coverage rates, exceeding in importance the effect of other relevant local sociodemographic factors.

A further recent study from France adds to the picture. It presents the results of a survey conducted in July 2021 among a representative sample of the French mainland adult population (n = 3087). Using cluster analysis, the researchers identified five profiles of SCAM attitudes and found that even among the most pro-SCAM group, very few respondents disagreed with the idea that SCAM should only be used as a complement to conventional medicine. They then compared these SCAM attitudes to vaccine attitudes. Attitudes to SCAM had a distinct impact as well as a combined effect on attitudes to different vaccines and vaccines in general. They found that:

  • attitudes to SCAM provide a very limited explanation of vaccine hesitancy;
  • among the hesitant, pro-SCAM attitudes are often combined with other traits associated with vaccine hesitancy such as distrust of health agencies, radical political preferences, and low income.

Both SCAM endorsement and vaccine hesitancy are more prevalent among the socially disadvantaged. Drawing on these results, the researchers argue that, to better understand the relationship between SCAM and vaccine hesitancy, it is necessary to look at how both can reflect a lack of access and recourse to mainstream medicine and distrust of public institutions.

The fact that the enthusiasm for SCAM is associated with vaccine hesitancy has been discussed on this blog many times before, e.g.:

What seems fairly clear to me is that a cross-correlation exists: an attitude against modern medicine and the ‘scientific establishment’ determines both the enthusiasm for SCAM and the aversion to vaccination. What is, however, far from clear to me is what we could do about it.

Yes, better education seems important – and that’s precisely what I aim at achieving with this blog. Sadly, judging from some of the comments we receive, it does not seem crowned with much success.

Any other ideas?

Semen retention is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that involves intentionally avoiding ejaculating. A person can do this by abstaining from any sexual activity, stopping before the point of ejaculation, or teaching themselves to orgasm without ejaculating.

Although this practice may seem new, this is likely only due to recent internet popularity. In fact, semen retention is an ancient practice, believed to boost male physical and spiritual energy.

Some other names for semen retention include:

  • coitus reservatus
  • seminal conservation
  • sexual continence

It is also known as or included in practices called:

  • karezza (Italian)
  • maithuna (Hindu Tantra)
  • sahaja (Hindu Yoga)
  • tantra (Hinduism and Buddhism)
  • cai Yin pu Yang and cai Yang pu Yin (Taoist)

Semen retention is said to be good for a range of things:

Mental health

  • increased motivation
  • improved energy and focus
  • more self-confidence
  • reduced anxiety
  • better memory
  • improved concentration

Physical health

  • clearer skin
  • increased testosterone
  • more weight loss
  • increased muscle mass
  • physical rejuvenation
  • a deeper voice

Spiritual health

  • a greater sense of purpose
  • stronger or deeper emotional bonds in relationships
  • a stronger sense of overall harmony


Yes, I agree, this sounds weird!

But is there any evidence?

Yes, e.g.:

Study No 1

Males of some species use mate retention behavior and investment in ejaculate quality as anti-cuckoldry tactics concurrently while others do so in a compensatory fashion. Leivers, Rhodes, and Simmons (2014) reported that men who performed mate retention less frequently produced higher-quality ejaculates, suggesting that humans use these tactics compensatorily. We conducted a conceptual replication of this research in a sample of 41 men (18-33 years; M = 23.33; SD = 3.60). By self-report, participants had not had a vasectomy and had never sought infertility treatment. We controlled for several covariates known to affect ejaculate quality (e.g., abstinence duration before providing an ejaculate) and found no statistically significant relationships between mate retention behavior and four components of ejaculate quality: sperm velocity, sperm concentration, slow motility, and ejaculate volume. The present results provide little support for the hypothesis that human males deploy mate retention behavior and ejaculate quality investment compensatorily. We discuss the limitations of this study and highlight the need for research to address questions about the nature of anti-cuckoldry tactic deployment in humans, especially concerning investment in ejaculate quality.

Study No 2

In species where females mate with multiple males, the sperm from these males must compete to fertilise available ova. Sexual selection from sperm competition is expected to favor opposing adaptations in males that function either in the avoidance of sperm competition (by guarding females from rival males) or in the engagement in sperm competition (by increased expenditure on the ejaculate). The extent to which males may adjust the relative use of these opposing tactics has been relatively neglected. Where males can successfully avoid sperm competition from rivals, one might expect a decrease in their expenditure on tactics for the engagement in sperm competition and vice versa. In this study, we examine the relationship between mate guarding and ejaculate quality using humans as an empirical model. We found that men who performed fewer mate guarding behaviors produced higher quality ejaculates, having a greater concentration of sperm, a higher percentage of motile sperm and sperm that swam faster and less erratically. These effects were found independent of lifestyle factors or factors related to male quality. Our findings suggest that male expenditure on mate guarding and on the ejaculate may represent alternative routes to paternity assurance in humans.

Study No 3

The uncritical application of western psychiatric concepts in non-western societies resulting in culturally invalid psychiatric syndromes, have been extensively documented. Such instances are considered ‘category errors’. In contrast, ‘reverse category errors’ although theoretically postulated, have never been empirically demonstrated. Diagnostic criteria of an established South Asian culture specific neurosis, Dhāt syndrome, were deployed by a psychiatrist of South Asian origin, amongst 47 white Britons in London, UK, presenting for the first time with a clinic diagnosis of ICD-9 Depressive Neurosis (Dysthymic Disroder, ICD-11). The proceedure yielded a new disorder, Semen Retention Syndrome. Based on narrative accounts and quantitative scores on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, the evidence suggests that a significant subset of white British subjects diagnosed with Dysthymic Disorder, may in fact be expressing a psychological variation of a previously unknown local White British somatisation phenomena labelled Semen Retention Syndrome. Anxiety and depressive symptoms presented by this subset of subjects were primarily attributed to a core irrational belief and a cognitive error centered around misunderstood concepts of semen physiology. Consequently, the undue focus on mood idioms by both white British patients and their health professionals, leads to a mistaken diagnosis of Mood Disorder, and results in incorrect treatment. The implications of this ethnocentric mode of reasoning raises concerns about existing concepts in psychiatric phenomenology and for official international diagnostic classificatory systems. The paper concludes by arguing that category errors in both directions are instances of cultural iatrogenesis, and underscore the importance of a culturally valid psychiatry.


I was unable to find support for any of the above-listed effects of semen retention. So, claims like “Semen Retention is life-changing, especially for men. Not only, it help you turn into a real alpha male but also offers great health benefits” need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet, it did occur to me that semen retention might have one positive outcome:

It reduces the chances of stupid people multiplying!


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