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Scientists warn about use of alternative medicine in sport

Thursday 20 July 2017

A report published today in the British Journal of Sports Medicine warns against the increasing use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in sport.

It argues that, in the absence of good evidence of effectiveness, many practitioners cite the placebo effect as justification for using non evidence-based CAM treatments.

Lead author of the report is Chris Beedie, Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Canterbury Christ Church University. Professor Beedie said: “Sport is increasingly medicalised, with athletes, coaches and sports scientists routinely using medical or quasi medical substances and techniques to gain a competitive edge. Whilst many of these are supported by good scientific evidence, many are not, and some might even be harmful. Athletes, who are often keen to take anything to enhance performance, sometimes have no idea what they are taking or how it works.

“The placebo effect is a real phenomenon, but it’s not quite as easy to switch on and off as many practitioners believe. Further, the positive image of the placebo effect is being undermined by mounting evidence for the ‘nocebo effect’, a significant negative effect that might be experienced when the athlete has doubts about the treatment”.  

The health and wellbeing of athletes has been a recurring theme this year, with almost weekly revelations relating to poor standards of care in Olympic and professional sports organisations. Professor Beedie believes there is a growing serious issue on the use of CAMs in sport, he explained: “There is increasing concern that the very visible use of alternative medicine by famous athletes – for example Michael Phelps’ use of cupping in the 2016 Rio Olympics, which left substantial dark-red blotches all over his body – is encouraging other athletes, as well as the general public to chose alternative treatments, forgoing evidence-based medicine.

“This might not be a problem when an athlete chooses a CAM treatment to enhance performance, but could well be so if they choose an alternative treatment to treat a medical condition. In this latter scenario they might be effectively denying themselves proper medical care”.

Professor Beedie concludes: “There is an old truism that when we find evidence for the effectiveness of a complementary of alternative treatment, we simply call it a ‘medicine’. The history of science dictates that what we didn't know yesterday we might know today, and in this context we are not suggesting that all alternative medicines are ineffective. In some cases, for example acupuncture, the nature of the treatment dictates that it is hard to study using conventional scientific techniques. However, as the result of the lack of research into many traditional and emerging CAM treatments, not only does their effectiveness remain in doubt, but we often know far too little about potential side effects and interactions that could place athletes at risk. Practitioners have an ethical and professional responsibility to adopt evidence-based treatments wherever possible”. 

 You can read the report here. 

Notes to Editor

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with a particular strength in higher education for the public services.

With 17,000 students across Kent and Medway, its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas.

  • 96% of our UK undergraduates were in employment or further studies six months after completing their studies*.
  • We are one of the South East’s largest providers of education, training and skills leading to public service careers.

*2014/15 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey

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Last edited: 11/09/2017 10:22:00