I am constantly amazed by the ingenuity of humans in coming up with weird and funny treatments for real and imagined illnesses. One of my favorites is train track therapy. People in Indonesia lie down on the tracks with their head on one rail and their legs on another. When a train comes, they get up and move away; after it passes, they lie down again. While lying there, they claim to feel electricity flowing through their bodies, and they twitch when they feel an electric surge from an approaching train. There are pictures online of up to fifty people lying on a track at once, seeking a cure for ailments such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The authorities have put up warning signs and have imposed penalties (three-month jail sentences and fines of up to $1,800), but people keep coming. As of a 2011 article, no one had yet been arrested or had died.
Indonesia has a national health service, but patients are dissatisfied with the cost and the bureaucratic hurdles. Train therapy is free, and the people who use it are mostly poor and uneducated; their culture also encourages belief in a lot of other weird things. They rely on testimonials from people who claim it works. We shouldn’t make fun of them; educated people in the U.S. are regularly persuaded by similar testimonial “evidence” to try all sorts of ridiculous things from “detoxification” remedies to homeopathy to drinking their own urine.
There are testimonials galore for train track therapy. One woman told reporters that it provided more relief from her symptoms than any doctor had since she was diagnosed with diabetes thirteen years ago. Her symptoms? High blood pressure, sleeplessness, and high cholesterol. A seventy-two-year-old man said he had a fractured leg and after 2.5 months of track therapy, he can walk again. A fifty-two-year-old therapist said twelve days of lying on the tracks brought her relief from the pain caused by excess uric acid in her system. A thirty-two-year-old security guard sits on the tracks every afternoon to reduce the stresses of the working world; he thinks it will prolong his life and cure his rheumatism and fatigue.
How did the practice originate? It’s based on a story that has not been verified and is probably one of those urban legends. Supposedly an elderly Chinese man who was partially paralyzed by a stroke and was despondent over his disability went to the tracks intending to commit suicide by train. As he lay on the tracks, he felt better, decided he didn’t really want to die, and got up and went home. The story doesn’t mention whether his paralysis improved.
There are valid applications of electricity in medicine, but train track therapy is not one of them. Electricity has always impressed people. It is invisible and mysterious, and it seems to do all sorts of amazing things, from lightning to lighting our homes. In 1795, Elisha Perkins invented metal rods he called “Perkins’ Tractors.” He claimed that stroking the ailing body part with these rods for twenty minutes would “draw off the noxious electrical fluid that lay at the root of suffering.” George Washington bought a set.
The rails are not electrified. Electric trains have overhead wires that carry the electricity. Some people believe that when trains pass on adjacent lines, they produce electric shocks in the vacant rails. That doesn’t make sense to me. The rails are grounded and there should be no way to get a difference in voltage between the rails that patients could feel, much less that would be therapeutic. People believe electricity absorbed by the metal rails can help with all kinds of health problems including hypertension, diabetes, rheumatism, gout, obesity, and high cholesterol.
Train track therapy is an ideal alternative medicine. It is free, has no side effects, and is an impressive way to produce placebo effects. Maybe it doesn’t cure anything, but at least it gets patients out of bed and out of the house.
On the other hand, if they stayed put on the tracks, there would be a guaranteed permanent end to all their symptoms.
Train track therapy is my second favorite. My all-time favorite is still Braco the Gazer. Karen Stollznow wrote a great article about him in 2011. He has found a way to make big bucks by doing absolutely nothing. He stands on stage for ten minutes and simply looks out at the audience. He doesn’t even make any claims for himself. His supporters make the claims: they call him a healer. They claim that his gaze has cured everything from anxiety and asthma to cancer and paralysis. Gazees claim to see an aura and feel warmth and electricity. Perhaps it’s the same kind of electricity that those Indonesians feel on the train tracks.
This article was originally published as a SkepDoc’s Corner column on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) website.