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Television current affairs shows have a long tradition of promoting "scientific" breakthroughs which owe little to science and a lot to the entrepreneurial spirit of inventors and promoters. They are where you go to hear about the latest gadget or additive to increase the mileage of your car or to save large amounts of money by reducing or even eliminating your electricity bill. As a change from these perpetual motion machines we get medical devices which cause wondrous changes to the body and increase health and wellness.
A recent example was the $60 rubber band that improved strength and balance, and the next fad seemed to be hand-held devices to rub on the body. At least three of these have recently been given extensive and uncritical advertising.
Let's look first at what these devices have in common, before we consider their differences. All of them are a little larger than a mobile phone, about the size of a Nintendo Wii controller. All claim to work by doing something to nerves or nerve cells. All are backed by many testimonials from satisfied customers, but none have any actual scientific research, or even scientific plausibility. Two of them claimed to have listing as approved medical devices with the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the third was waiting. All of them are promoted to professional healers who then charge patients for treatment. All of them are sold as safe and effective alternatives to conventional medical treatment for pain.
The first is the Migraine Zapper. Migraine is apparently caused by "electrical storms" in the brain and the device "short circuits the storm sending magnetic pulses throughout the brain". At the time the promotion was broadcast the sellers claimed that approval for sale in Australia was imminent, but a check today of the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods showed only pills as permitted migraine treatments.
Next is the HI-DOW Massager V, which uses a well-known technology, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, to trigger nerve impulses and cure both chronic and acute pain. I've had TENS used on me by a physiotherapist for muscle spasm, and it is a legitimate medical treatment. This device is much better than those old-fashioned arrangements of wires and suction caps that the physio used on me, because not only can you hold it in your hand but it "has a new 6th mode" and "is set apart from other Tens devices on the market as it continually tricks the brain". At the time the advertisement went to air the promoter was claiming TGA approval but a search today of the ARTG showed nothing called "HI-DOW".
The third device is the SCENAR, which claims to work by causing nerves near where the device is rubbed on the body to tell the brain to release pain-killing endorphins targeted back to the point of stimulation. It actually had ARTG listing but the promoters were asked by the TGA's Complaints Resolution Panel to display a notice on their web site saying that the claims made for it were false and backed by no science. No notice was displayed and the device is no longer listed. Scientific evidence for this device was claimed and PubMed, an international database of the medical literature, contained four papers. Three were in Russian (it was invented in Russia as a "spin off from the space program") and could be assumed to be produced by the manufacturers. The fourth was a report of three people with pain following herpes infections. The "study" was carried out by an ophthalmologist (?) and declared the device effective despite the fact that one of the patients needed treatment for more than six months.
Pain is subjective and perception of pain is very susceptible to the placebo effect. I know this because I have at times suffered from migraine and an injured back. Placebo is all these devices offer, which means that they also offer the major danger of all alternative medicine - there might be a real problem that isn't detected because the patient thinks that they are better and doesn't bother to get proper medical attention.
My original point was the way these devices and other forms of pseudoscience get free publicity on television programs. These shows often pretend to be doing "investigative journalism", but part of journalism is checking the facts. It took me five minutes to check the ARTG status of these devices, yet at least one managed to get a false claim of approval to air.
People trust these shows and there are millions of viewers. The shows claim to get behind the news but when challenged fall back on the "it's entertainment" excuse. They should make up their minds. Either do journalism or admit that anything goes as long as the audience can be held until the next ad break.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the March 2012 edition of Australasian Science
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