Standard medical advice may be predictable: Eat healthy, exercise regularly, and see your doctor.
Getting that advice is usually expected, but for many people it’s not completely helpful.
For those whose conditions won’t yield to standard treatment, or for those there is no standard treatment available, the siren song of alternative medicine can be alluring.
Some of these remedies show promise. Others, not so much.
Here is just a handful of the latest out of the ordinary remedies.
Riding roller coasters to pass kidney stones
Earlier this month, a story about two doctors who took a fake kidney on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster in Disneyworld made headlines.
The doctors were testing a hypothesis proposed by some of their patients: that riding roller coasters helps pass kidney stones.
If this sounds hard to believe, it helps to keep in mind that current methods for dislodging kidney stones are already pretty unexpected.
Doctors flip patients upside down, pound them on their backs, and send sound waves through their bodies, all in an attempt to jostle stones out of the urinary tract. Riding roller coasters may just be the perfect combination of all of the above.
Although the study was far from conclusive — it tested only one fake kidney and lacked a control group — the doctors report that there might be something to this roller coaster cure, depending on where you sit, how big your stone is, and where in the kidney it’s lodged.
Dr. Judith Marcin, a family medicine doctor in Chicago, told Healthline there have been studies on whole body vibration as a treatment for a variety of conditions.
However, the manufacturers of these whole body vibration machines usually don’t recommend them for kidney stones because there are concerns that a large or undiagnosed stone could move and become lodged.
Marcin said it would make some sense that a kidney stone less than 5 millimeters could theoretically be treated with one of these machines.
This seemingly unusual therapy has been a successful treatment for stubborn Clostridium difficile infection, which was responsible for the deaths of 29,000 people in the United States in 2011.
The fecal transplant is similar, conceptually, to a blood donation. A healthy person, who is screened for infections like HIV, hepatitis, and parasites, donates material to a sick person.
But instead of blood delivered by IV, the donor’s feces are introduced to the patient’s gut by colonoscopy, nasal tube, or enema.
A 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that fecal transplants worked better against C. difficile than the typical last-resort antibiotic vancomycin.
It works because C. difficile is an opportunistic infection that grows in guts where microbiota have been decimated by antibiotics. With fecal transplants, patients are getting an inoculation of all the good bacteria that they’ve lost through powerful medical interventions.
Fecal transplants might also help people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and they are being explored as a treatment for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis (MS) to heart disease. But the jury’s still out on those applications.
Carissa Stephens, R.N., C.C.R.N., C.P.N., a pediatric ICU nurse and ECMO specialist, told Healthline that fecal transplants can work, especially in patients who have become weak or malnourished.
“Getting the gut flora back to a balance is a crucial part of feeding tolerance and getting rid of diarrhea,” Stephens said. “We have had patients who had fecal transplants that came from their family members and they did not suffer ill effects from it.”
“Vaginal steaming” has been roundly derided by gynecologists, but according to one New York salon that offers the service, it can help with everything from sexual pain to scars from childbirth.
Patients sit in a “specially created chair” over a pot of steaming water and herbs.
The heat from the steaming water increases blood flow to the genitals and “brings more oxygen and health to the pelvic region,” the salon’s website says.
The treatment was popularized by the lifestyle site Goop, which claims that herbal steam balances hormone levels and cleanses the uterus.
Gynecologist Jen Gunter, who wrote a response to these claims on her blog, points out that “balancing hormones” has no medical definition and that steam cannot simply waft up into the vagina past the closed cervix and into the uterus.
“Steam isn’t going to get into your uterus from your vagina unless you are using an attachment with some kind of pressure and MOST DEFINITELY NEVER EVER DO THAT,” she writes.
Worms for multiple sclerosis
Autoimmune diseases are can be difficult conditions to treat.
The “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that such disorders are on the rise in developed countries because residents in these places lack exposure to the germs humans evolved alongside for thousands of years. Somehow, this void causes the body to attack itself.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that parasitic worms are being explored as a potential treatment for MS, an autoimmune disorder that affects more than 2 million people worldwide.
Hookworms and whipworms have shown promise in reducing the inflammation that causes MS symptoms and even reducing the size of brain lesions.
Patients either swallow the worms or wear patches that deliver them to the body through the skin. One person with MS who spoke with The Wall Street Journal put it into perspective.
“The idea makes me feel a bit squeamish but, hey, I inject every day, and I don't really know what I'm injecting — it's some chemical drug that I don't really know what it is, how it works. But I do it every day. And actually, a worm feels a bit more natural. I understand what a worm is!"
Dr. Stacy Sampson, a family medicine specialist, told Healthline that research mainly in mice and rats has shown positive results in using intestinal worms to treat autoimmune diseases.
Human trials have been limited so far, but Sampson said there are controlled clinical trials under way to try to “understand the mechanism by which immune system regulation is achieved by intestinal worm presence.”
“Hopefully as time passes, with further understanding from research, the beneficial molecular component within the worm could be isolated and used in a treatment form that would not have risks of infection associated with it,” said Sampson. “Otherwise, outside of a controlled study, it does not seem the most wise to consider taking in a random intestinal worm that could result in a full-blown parasite infection.
Singing for cystic fibrosis
The outlook for people with cystic fibrosis (CF), a condition in which thickened mucus obstructs the lungs and other parts of the body, is much better than it once was.
Still, if the condition is severe, patients must regularly dislodge mucus from their airways to prevent chest infections.
The typical way to do this is to pound on the chest, or rely on a mechanical device like a vibrating vest. But some patients are trying something a little different: singing.
Breath Cycle, a collaboration of the Scottish Opera and patients at Gartnavel General Hospital in Glasgow, is a program that teaches classic singing techniques to people with CF.
And the technique might be working. People who sang performed better on lung and breathing tests, although the results were not statistically significant.
Emotionally, the results are a little clearer.
“I have had that extreme level of pain for six months now but when I am singing it makes me feel so good that for a short time I get to forget it all and focus my head, my trying to be positive from day to day, and my confidence that I can continue to cope,” one participant wrote.
Sampson said more research needs to be done beyond this 14-person study by Breath Cycle, but she can see some promise in the technique.
“In theory, singing with proper technique on a regular basis requires proper control of the diaphragm and other breathing muscles,” Sampson told Healthline. “So yes, singing may possibly offer some benefit to cystic fibrosis patients in addition to scientifically proven standard of care therapies.”