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Health Ministry says homeopathic medicine little more than a placebo

"No scientific proof" that natural remedies work beyond psychological impact

Acupuncture can be effective in addressing some of the side effects of chemotherapy, but there is no evidence that it helps with quitting smoking or losing weight.

Research into homeopathy suggests a placebo effect rather than any real impact on illness, while physiotherapy and osteopathy can help with some health issues, concludes a new report by the Health Ministry into natural and alternative medicines and therapies, commissioned by Congress.

The report, ordered in 2007 by the lower house with a view to regulating the alternative medicine sector, was carried out in conjunction with the Carlos III Health Institute and the support of some regional governments.

After carrying out clinical trials on 139 different treatments, it concludes that there is no scientific evidence that such treatments work other than to make patients feel better about themselves.

Treatments are considered "safe" because doses are so heavily diluted

Some are applying alternative therapies "with no professional qualification"

Acupuncture comes out best in the report. Clinical trials carried out by the Health Ministry's researchers show that the ancient Chinese needle treatment can help to reduce the nausea and vomiting often produced by chemotherapy. It can also be "useful" for patients with migraine and chronic lower back pain.

But the report also warns that tests showed that incorrectly applied acupuncture treatment produced similar effects to correct treatment, suggesting a strong placebo aspect.

The report suggests that further research be carried out into the use of acupuncture in treating fibromyalgia, arthritis, insomnia, and back pain, noting "positive" first indicators. It adds in acupuncture's favor that, as with most alternative therapies, there are no negative side effects.

Regarding homeopathy, the report cites nine scientific studies in dealing with a wide range of health problems from flu to cancer, dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as osteoarthritis, birth induction, asthma, dementia, depression, and lactation colic. It says the results are "contradictory" and point to "a placebo effect." That said, homeopathy treatments carried out by professionals are "safe," above all because doses tend to be heavily diluted to the point that patients are often taking in little more than water.

The report also looked at the effectiveness of physiotherapy and other forms of body manipulation, typically based on massage. The Health Ministry's researchers concluded that there were some benefits to such treatments in certain cases, for example, lower back pain, "particularly when combined with exercises."

Again, the report says that further research is necessary to determine the impact of physiotherapy over the long term. It noted that spinal massage was of no use in treating headaches, but that massage can have beneficial psychological effects on cancer patients.

An important part of the research was to inform Congress about how best to regulate the alternative medicine sector.

At present there is no specific legislation, although a law passed in 2003 dealing with health centers and medical services generally recognizes "unconventional therapies." The current law defines them as "assistance during which the medic is responsible for carrying out treatments for illnesses by means of natural or homeopathic remedies or through peripheral stimulation techniques with needles or other devices that demonstrate their efficacy or safety."

The region with the most authorized alternative medicine centers is Andalusia, with 59, followed by the Basque Country with 37. So far only Catalonia has passed legislation specifically covering alternative medicine. Most of the regional governments consulted by the Health Ministry's team said they were in favor of regulating the sector.

The report points out the problems in registering practitioners of alternative medicine. "It is not easy to clearly identify professionals working with natural therapies because of the myriad terms used to describe the same processes or medicines," says the report. It estimates that there are around 9,000 doctors that regularly prescribe homeopathic medicines.

In theory, practitioners of homeopathic medicine must hold a higher education qualification in Health Sciences. At present it is not possible to gain a qualification at technical college level. But the report concludes that there are people applying alternative therapies "with no professional qualification."

"Despite not being regulated by law, universities, private centers, sector associations, and other bodies are training health and other professionals," warns the report.