Traditional Chinese Medicine on the High Seas

I’ve been on holiday in France this past week and didn’t have access to an internet connection but now I’m back. I was there with family and as usual my father provided a logical fallacy hunter’s paradise. Asides from that, as we were returning to the UK on the ferry from Calais, some of our number started to feel a little queasy. Motion sickness is an all too common affliction that is basically caused by conflicting sensory inputs. If you’re on a plane or large boat there’s a good chance you can’t easily see outside so your eyes are telling you you’re not moving but your sense of balance is telling you that you’re swaying or accelerating and so on. Your brain gets all confuzzled and you start to feel sick.

A quick search online reveals as many potential cures and remedies for motion sickness as there are grains of sand on the earth but the one provided in the ship’s shop, and chosen by my companion, was a Sea-Band acupressure wrist bracelet. She had bought this whilst I was up on deck and by the time I returned she was feeling much better therefore, as far as everyone was concerned, the bracelet had worked. The bracelet is essentially a sweatband with a bobble of plastic on the inside which apparently presses in exactly the right place to trigger a pressure point that relieves nausea.

I chose to remain silent on the topic. I couldn’t think of any good reason other than placebo as to why the bracelet would have worked. I guessed that the acupressure point involved was the same ones used in acupuncture which are all based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); in which case it’s all bull crap. I wasn’t sure though and I didn’t want to hold forth without knowing what I was talking about. Also, assuming that it was just a placebo, I didn’t want to remove it and make the poor girl feel sick again.

Now that I’m home I can give it a good going over. Looking through the Sea-bands website and everything else that a basic Google search throws up makes it all look quite reasonable and based in science. It is, indeed, all based on TCM. They don’t hide that, they play it up, even though TCM is a pre-scientific theory that has no basis in reality. They also try to fit it into modern medicine by invoking the ‘gate control theory’ of pain control. This is more accurately described as a hypothesis, it is the best idea we have so far as to some of the physical and psychological aspects of pain control but it is openly acknowledged as being incomplete, certainly, and flawed, possibly. What it doesn’t do is provide a particularly good explanation as to why these wristbands would stop someone feeling sick. If you take TCM at face value there are multiple pressure points in the wrist and it would take an expert to accurately place the wristband on the correct one. Heaven knows we wouldn’t want to accidentally make our Chi flow even worse. As for a science-based explanation, well, there isn’t one.

The Sea-bands website has a long list of studies that supposedly back up their claims. To the untrained eye these might look substantial, they have fancy names and seem to be referencing scientific journals so it’s got to be legit, right? If you work your way through the list you will find that many of them have been withdrawn, some are just letters as opposed to peer reviewed articles and some are published in ‘alternative medicine’ journals which aren’t fit to line litter trays. It’s worth noting that most are from the 80s and 90s with almost nothing from the last decade. Of those that pass that initial filter when you actually read them you quickly see that none of them have control groups which means that any effect seen cannot be distinguished from placebo. Basically, they’re junk.

For me, I would say that this product is claiming to be a medical device and should therefore be held to a very high standard of evidence. It would fail this test and then they wouldn’t be legal to be sold alongside health claims thereby protecting the consumer from pseudoscientific bull shit. Obviously this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, though. Does all this mean that I should have spoke up and told my young companion that they were being duped by a 4000 year old magic trick? That’s a discussion for another post.

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5 thoughts on “Traditional Chinese Medicine on the High Seas

  1. They do work. You ask any London Photo Walker with the LPW wrist band and im sure they will say thier Photography has improved since they got one. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jason,

    Sometimes, I find your faith in science to be refreshing, for it is usually based solidly on facts you have personally verified. However, I also find your insistence on calling certain sorts of what you call “pseudo-“, or, in this case, “pre-scientific-” knowledge unsupportable, and, easily dismiss them as not scientific, to be seriously short-sighted, in relation to all there is to know, a far greater amount than what we do know….. I would remind you of the statement by a very well respected scientist, to wit: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke Just because we don’t understand why something works, in reality, doesn’t mean there is NOT a scientific explanation. It may be due to what we DON’T know about our own physiology… which is not insignificant.

    “Pre-scientific-” knowledge should never be dismissed without examination. There are many ideas and concepts that are part of ‘TCM’ which are quite valid, which is not surprising, as they were based on many centuries of objective, and subjective observation of natural processes, the details of which were not fully understood, but, worked anyway…. Kind of like like what Bohrs said about the horseshoe over his door, “I have heard it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

    We humans have a tendency to rely too heavily on the power of our minds; we really don’t need to find out everything at once. There’s plenty of time, as long as we can avoid killing ourselves first, by progressing so fast we use up the planet before we learn how to husband its resources, or even understand how all of it works….

    Actually, I’m with you re: the wrist band; it’s too general to be effective, and I expect its effectiveness relies a lot on the placebo effect, which is NOT an insignificant therapeutic tool. Personally, I find Bonine (similar to drammamine) to be effective for the first few days, until the middle ear adjusts, & one gets their ‘sea legs’…but, that’s just me…

    Fun post….

    gigoid, the dubious

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gigoid,
      Good to hear from you. As you can probably guess, I’m going to disagree with you here. The Arthur C Clarke is a good one but not relevant here, TCM is not advanced, it’s outmoded. I don’t believe it was arrived at through objective observations and subjective observations are just that: subjective. They’re not a valid basis for medical treatments.
      Plenty of pre-scientific knowledge turned out to be reliable, but we just call that science now; it has been incorporated into the fold.
      The placebo effect certainly can be significant, but that doesn’t mean it should be confused with an effective treatment. I don’t know if you were reading me back in November but I wrote about the placebo effect then: https://skeptilogicon.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/the-placebo-effect-the-myth-and-the-reality/
      I always enjoy your comments, whether or not they’re praising me or disagreeing with me I know they have been thought out and mean well. I do feel, though, that you let your ideologies limit your embracing of the science. It seems to be a mixture of the Appeal to Nature and Argument From Antiquity fallacies and a (not altogether misplaced) distrust of big business.
      Keep them coming.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *smile*

        I always enjoy your writing, as I believe you to enjoy being pedantic as much as I do, to an extent… I won’t reopen this disagreement, for our differences are, mostly, a matter of deciding what terms mean what. Beyond that, I think we are similarly inclined. You see, I was a scientist first, for many years, from the age of five, when I first started reading, until the age of about 20 (at UC Berkeley, where I started as an astronomy major), when my mind opened yet again, to embrace that side of living which science cannot explain, or, for that matter, appreciate fully. It’s a matter of accepting the simple fact of our own place in the scheme of things, not all of which can yet be scientifically accounted for, or explained. “There’s more, Horatio….” I embrace science fully, but, I don’t place it at the apex of human thought, or experience; it is only one of the many facets our imagination is capable of manifesting as a way to deal with reality.

        Have no fear, I’ll be back. I do enjoy your breadth of interest a lot; us polymaths gotta stick together…

        gigoid, the dubious

        Liked by 1 person

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