Pseudoscientific therapies actually backed by science

By Charlie Williams
Published September 3, 2020

Key Takeaways

When non-scientific hypotheses are passed off as science, we end up in the slippery world of pseudoscience. But what is pseudoscience? Any claims, ideas, theories, or hypotheses touted as being based on the scientific method when they’re not.

Sometimes the line between science and pseudoscience can get blurred. As time goes on and new hypotheses are tested by the scientific method, ideas that started as pseudoscience can make headway into the world of science.

Here are four examples of pseudosciences that are gaining scientific support.

Acupuncture for depression

Acupuncture has stood the test of time (it dates back to Ancient China around the year 100 BC), but it has repeatedly failed to stand the tests of science. Proponents argue that the practice helps them beat all sorts of ailments, including migraine. But a recent review of randomized controlled trials of acupuncture for migraine found that it didn’t produce outcomes differently than sham acupuncture.

In other areas, acupuncture is making inroads into true science. A systematic review and meta-analysis of acupuncture for the treatment of postpartum depression found that the treatment significantly reduced many patients’ scores on the Hamilton depression rating scale (HAMD), but resulted in no significant change in clinical response. Another study of the efficacy of acupuncture for treating depression-related insomnia found that patients got better sleep after receiving acupuncture, and that acupuncture combined with Western medicine had a better effect on improving depression than Western medicine alone.

Still, most studies of acupuncture are marred by uneven testing methods or low-quality evidence. For the treatment to be considered science, many more high-quality studies are needed.

Aromatherapy for sleep improvement

Research to prove the merits of aromatherapy with essential oils is limited. But like most pseudoscientific therapies, a lack of scientific evidence hasn’t stopped proponents from claiming aromatherapy can fix just about any ailment. It also hasn’t stopped them from spending tons of cash on these unsupported treatments—estimates indicate the global essential oils market could reach $11.9 billion by 2022, a compound annual growth rate of 9% from 2017.

So where does aromatherapy cross the line into the realm of science? A systematic review and meta-analysis of 12 studies found that aromatherapy improved sleep quality in many participants by up to 75%. In these studies, inhalation aromatherapy was even more effective than massage therapy at helping participants get better sleep. In a small randomized controlled trial, researchers found that aromatherapy with lavender essential oils helped patients with coronary artery disease in an intensive care unit increase the quality of their sleep and reduce their anxiety.

By and large, though, nearly all medicinal claims about aromatherapy and essential oils remain untested or unproven.

Balneotherapy for chronic low back pain

Lower back pain is the bane of many people’s existence, but scientifically proven interventions can be invasive (surgery), addictive (pain killers), or take a ton of work (physical therapy). It’s no surprise, then, that many sufferers turn to alternative methods to treat their pain, including balneotherapy (aka, spa therapy). Balneotherapy is widely prescribed by European physicians for the treatment of musculoskeletal problems and inflammatory disease. Though the available data suggest balneotherapy may be associated with improvement in several rheumatological diseases, it’s not strong enough to draw firm conclusions.

However, a review of eight randomized controlled trials published between July 2005 and December 2013 found that balneotherapy was superior to tap water therapy in relieving pain and improving function in people with lower back pain. What’s more, spa therapy that combined balneotherapy with mud pack therapy and/or exercise therapy, physiotherapy, and/or education was superior or equally effective to controls in the short- and long-term.

However, investigators found that only three of the eight studies included in the review were of good quality—more high-quality evidence is sorely needed.

Earthing therapy for sleep, fatigue, and pain

Never heard of earthing? That’s because it only recently caught the eye of the scientific community. The idea is that direct physical contact with the vast supply of electrons on the surface of the Earth is impeded by modern living (things like shoes, pavement, and floors that separate us from the ground), and that failing to connect to the Earth and allowing these electrons to pass through our bodies could be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction. In many subjective reports (that’s pseudoscience), earthing has been found to improve sleep and reduce pain, but large-scale scientific evidence is slim.

Despite the fact that earthing science is in its infancy, there’s reason to pay attention. In one small study, 12 subjects with complaints of sleep dysfunction, pain, and stress used a conductive mattress pad to sleep for 8 weeks. Eleven of 12 participants reported falling asleep more quickly and all 12 reported waking up fewer times at night. They also reported lower morning fatigue levels, greater day time energy, and reduced nighttime pain levels. In another study, 60 subjects were randomly divided to sleep on a grounded or sham-grounded mattress for one month. Grounded subjects reported significant improvements in the time it took to fall asleep, quality of sleep, muscle stiffness, back pain, and general well-being, while the sham group overwhelmingly reported that their results remained the same.

Stick to the science

If you dig deep enough, you can probably find evidence to support just about any claim. But the quality of that evidence is what matters. Has this claim stood up to the scientific method? Is it widely accepted by the scientific community? How trustworthy are the sources making this claim?

Answers to these questions can help anyone draw the line between pseudoscience and science.

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