I appreciate the value of prescription medicines as much as anyone. When I was ten years old, the then-new wonder drug penicillin saved me from peritonitis. I know, too, that other drugs perform medical miracles today. Yet even so, I am wary of prescription medicines, taking them only when I am convinced they are necessary, and such occasions have been rare.
In short, I am a pharmaphobe, and for several good reasons.
To begin with, most physicians practice medicine mainly, if not exclusively, by dispensing prescription drugs. They were taught to do this in medical school, where they also learned to be suspicious of “natural” remedies. To ensure that they don’t forget those lessons, pharmaceutical companies regularly send representatives to provide marketing materials and drug samples. As a result, many physicians lack a balanced view of prescription drugs and are largely ignorant of other forms of treatment.
A second reason is that most prescription drugs tend to treat symptoms rather than underlying causes. For example, when doctors prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and/or cortisone shots for knee pain, they are treating the symptoms of knee problems. In contrast, when physical therapists teach clients stretching and strengthening exercises, they are addressing the underlying knee problems. (The latter approach has saved me from knee replacement surgery.)
Finally, prescription drugs frequently create other problems, in some cases more numerous and serious than the conditions they are supposed to cure. This is easily seen by examining their side effects, as I did with five heavily advertised prescription drugs. My findings, which can be verified at WebMD and/or Drugs.com, are arranged by medical conditions rather than by the names of the specific drugs.
1. A drug used for nerve pain and fibromyalgia has two broad categories of side effects. The first category, “check with doctor immediately,” lists three less common ones, including difficult or labored breathing, and seventeen rare ones, including blistering of the skin, fast heartbeat, and joint or muscle pain. The second category, “usually don’t need medical attention,” lists seventy more or less common ones, including swelling of various parts of the body, blurred vision, confusion, delusions, dementia, loss of memory, and stabbing pain.
2. A drug used to treat various forms of arthritis lists under “may need medical attention,” five common side effects, including fever, and sixty-one “less common” or “incidence not known” effects, including depression and shortness of breath, convulsions, and severe and continuing nausea. It also lists, under “usually do not need medical attention,” six more common effects including nausea and vomiting, and seventeen “less common” or “incidence not known” effects, including depression, hair loss, dizziness, and loss of appetite.
3. A drug used to treat low testosterone has four common side effects, including “continued painful erection,” and twenty-eight infrequent side effects, including liver problems, vomiting, and prostate cancer (all “severe”) and “altered interest in having sexual intercourse” (“less severe”). In addition, this drug has twenty-three rare side effects, including “liver tissue death” and liver cancer.
4. A drug used to help people quit smoking has six common side effects, including dizziness and stomach cramps; four infrequent ones, including indigestion; and fifty-two rare ones, of which a number are classified “severe,” including depression, aggressive behavior, high blood pressure, hepatitis, and hallucination.
5. A drug used to treat impotence has six common side effects, including indigestion and head pain, and sixteen infrequent ones, including “severe” problems with eyesight and “less severe” problems with urinary tract infection, joint pain, and trouble breathing. The drug also has one hundred-nine rare side effects, including seven categories of severe eye problems (plus five less severe), as well as depression, bleeding from the lungs, chronic heart failure, seizures, and two kinds of sexual problems (despite the fact that the drug is designed to treat sexual problems).
Doctors sometimes explain away such data by claiming that most side effects are rare, affecting only a small percentage of patients. Although technically correct, this argument ignores the fact that a serious side effect is 100% serious for the people who have it. Moreover, focusing on the rarity of a side effect can create an illogical and unscientific thought pattern among physicians—“because the great majority of patients do not have a particular side effect, my patient will not.”
Such fallacious thinking, together with the fact that the lists of side effects are often long and unwieldy, can cause physicians (and pharmacists) to miss the multiplication of side effects.
For example, a friend of mine with a number of medical problems began having serious memory difficulties. When he shared this fact with me, I offered to check the side effects of the nine or ten prescription drugs he was taking. In doing so, I found that every single one listed confusion and loss of memory as a problem. My friend subsequently asked his physician to consider dropping some of the medicines and reducing the dosages of others. When the physician did so, my friend’s memory difficulties diminished sharply.
The pharmaceutical industry bears significant responsibility for the careless use of prescription drugs. Their ads create the impression that their products will do all manner of wonderful things for us. The ads often end with the suggestion that we ask our doctor whether the product is right for us. That is always a good idea, but it is hardly sufficient. Even the most insightful physician can be mistaken. So we should do our own research, consider alternative medicines and approaches, and confirm (or disconfirm) that his advice is best for us.
This approach proved beneficial several years ago when I contracted a fungal infection on the sole of my foot. I visited a dermatologist whom I had come to trust. He prescribed a strong anti-fungal cream. When that did not work after a few weeks, he recommended an oral medicine. I said I had read that such medicine could cause liver damage and asked whether he would ever take it himself. He paused, thought for a moment, and then answered “No.”
Having ruled out the oral medicine, I was left to find my own solution. My research revealed that a natural remedy—soaking the foot in white vinegar several times a day—might be helpful. After ten days of doing so, no trace of the fungal infection remained. (Nor has it ever returned).
The next time I saw the dermatologist, I showed him the foot and explained that vinegar had cured the condition. He responded, “Hmmm. I know that vinegar is highly acidic and fungi hate acidity, so that makes sense to me.” I thought to myself, Why didn’t he think of that before suggesting the oral medicine. But I smiled and said nothing.
It was enough to know that my pharmaphobia had served me well.
Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
To see more of this author’s work, visit www.mind-at-work.com
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.