It is estimated that in Britain, people spend £450 million every year on “treatments” known as complementary and alternative medicine. No, these are not drugs that taste more palatable in combination with your usual prescribed drugs, nor are they invented by small, indie pharmaceutical companies. These are therapies like herbal medicine, homeopathy, and aromatherapy – treatments that are not evidence-based, and may even cause damage. These therapies are based on pseudoscience – unfortunately not a subject you can take at Oxford – but a set of practices that appears to have a scientific basis but in reality fails substantial scientific testing.

Take the example of colonic hydrotherapy. This is when someone inserts a tube through your anus and flushes out waste material (supposedly containing toxins that build up in there forever) with water. Some “therapists” even use water with herbal infusions in the mix. Think chamomile tea poured into your arse… Feeling healthier yet? Whilst the basis for it seems on face value scientifically sound, there is no way this will become a staple procedure done by doctors in A&E. Princess Diana once attributed her glowing complexion to colonic hydrotherapy, but why we don’t use this therapy to help people remove their heads out of their own backsides, I will never know.

Some are seemingly and beguilingly more innocuous, however. Hopi ear candling isn’t so much of a pain in the arse so much as a pyromaniac’s dream alternative therapy. In ear candling, the patient (read: rich victim) lies on their side and a hollow candle is placed over their ear and is lit. The theory goes that the flame melts the earwax and then draws it out of the ear through a negative pressure or vacuum effect. Toxins are also supposedly drawn out. It all sounds very risk-free until you find that there are cases of patients having burnt eardrums from the wax and with some patients having burnt their houses down because of DIY ear candling.

And if you think you can survive having your guts washed out or your eardrums burnt, how about drinking your own urine? This practice has been around for hundreds of years. Even Catullus writes in a poem about urine therapy being used for tooth whitening. In some Hindu texts, urine is cited as a cancer therapy. Hundreds of years later, we find public figures like Madonna talking about urinating on her feet to prevent or treat Athlete’s foot. Even J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher of the Rye, was said to have drunk his own urine. Whether this promotes existential crises as a side effect is currently the subject of much debate.

Would you ever have an alternative therapy to treat an illness? Let us know on bangscience.org