Wait, does this give you a headache or take it away?

By Phil Plait | February 11, 2010 1:00 pm

phil_iphoneI like my iPhone, kinda. It’s not that great as a phone, but it does have lots of fun apps. The maps hardly ever tell me to take a wrong turn at the last second, and I rather enjoy taking fuzzy red photos in low light levels.

Snark aside, there are a lot of good science and entertainment apps for the iPhone. But because I am so stubbornly reality-based, it didn’t occur to me that there would be some apps that border — if not flounce solidly into — alt-med nonsensery.

That is, until I received an email from BABLoggee Cameron Carr, who told me about an app that cures headaches.


Called, oddly enough, "Headache", it uses "… principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine [that] teach that energy imbalances in the body often contribute to headache symptoms, and these imbalances can be corrected with pressure to specific points on the body."

Energy balances! Wow, that sure sounds sciencey! Except whenever you talk to people who believe in this, they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does. I guess it only sounds sciencey.

So basically, this app embraces both the ancient and the modern, but with a slippery grip on both.

My favorite line in the app description is, "Selected by licensed acupuncturists, these points may bring you safe, natural, effective relief." Hmm, just "may"? And c’mon, "natural"? The app can make your phone emit sounds or vibrate, which it claims "may" relieve your headache if you hold the phone against these imagined points. How is that "natural"? Even Steve Jobs wouldn’t claim that.

Having this stuff supported by acupuncturists doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence either. Acupuncture is the idea that sticking needles at certain locations in your body can restore the balance of this energy flow. If that’s true, acupuncture can be tested to see if it works. Surprise! It has been, and it doesn’t. Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t work any better than the placebo effect.

The thing about headaches is, they can have lots of causes. Sometimes they go away by themselves, sometimes they don’t. Certainly the placebo effect will help some percentage of the time, as might a gentle vibration (just as a gentle neck massage might relieve some symptoms as well). So testing a product like this isn’t easy… and there are approximately a bajillion other products like it, so they’ll never all get tested. There are a hundred ridiculous products — no, probably ten thousand — for every person actually willing to do a proper scientific test of its efficacy. There’ll never be an end to them.

I cannot say whether this app really works, or is thinly disguised quackery. Given the description on the app’s page, I suspect it’s just another alt-med claim with little or no evidence in support of it, just as I suspect it’ll do quite well. Just as the company’s Aulterra cell phone EM neutralizer probably does quite well (and you have to read that page to believe — or disbelieve — it) despite there being no credible evidence that cell phones cause any harm… unless you’re using one while driving, or skydiving.

Science pays in the long run, but stuff you just make up pays off really well in the short run. And since it’ll never, ever, go away, nonsense pays off in the long run too.

I wish there were an app to cure that.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Skepticism

Comments (48)

  1. gski

    Turning the phone off helps with my headaches.

  2. GA

    Just out of curiosity – what are some good Science apps for the iPhone? I have PocketUniverse and NASA, but that’s just about it.

  3. Derek

    Considering I have a half-open mind, I try to give eastern medicine a break. I am rather close to several people that buy into acupuncture’s ‘flowing energy points’. You know, poke your knee, your right shoulder feels better.

    But I wonder how Phil and the rest of us BA baddies REALLY feel about this stuff. Its generally promoted by progressive, open-minded individuals. The kind of people that I assume believe in rational thought. Yet this Chinese mysticism seems to be total BS in my opinion. I believe smart people can be dumb as well.

    Total placebo. This may help some as was pointed out above, but I doubt it. Placebo’s are highly effective against depression, but don’t seem to work well against real pain. Save the few bucks and get a good night sleep and drink some water. Seems to help prevent headaches better than anything else i’ve come across.

  4. Funny aside. The google ad at the bottom of your blog entry (in my Google reader) said – “Headache – Visit ________Chiropractic” .

    I had to laugh. You’re right. It won’t end. Might as well laugh.

  5. Gus Snarp

    There’s a sucker born every minute.

  6. KurtMac

    @GA There are some halfway decent sky-map apps, like SkyVoyager and SkyGazer, among others, as well as clear sky charts apps and other astronomy tools. Also, there is the Buzz Aldrin App coming out in a few weeks. I’m currently beta-testing it for the developers and its a lot like the NASA app but more widely aggregated space news and events, plus pushing a lot about Buzz’z Vision, book appearances and whatnot.

  7. they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does.

    I’ve found that the quickest way to stop that kind of conversation is to ask “how many joules are we talking about?”

    GA: Distant Suns is the best sky map app I’ve found (it even shows Santa at Christmastime). And the American Museum of Natural History has its dinosaur collection in an app. Unfortunately, there’s no search function, though it’s fun to browse.

  8. If you want to eliminate headaches, get a Nexus One.

  9. Charlie Young

    That Aulterra Neutralizer is pretty amazing. Scare people into thinking something bad is happening and then sell them a (probably) useless magnet (unless you want to put your kid’s drawings on the fridge) for $30 and, voila, you’re protected! You have to read the review (only one) to get to the target audience.

  10. JT

    I wish there were an app to cure that.

    There was. Apple rejected it.

  11. Moxiequz

    @GA: what are some good Science apps for the iPhone?

    Astronomy Picture of the Day! (APOD). A new photo every day with an explanation on the “back” of the picture. I’ve gotten lots of wonderful wallpaper pictures from this app.

    On the subject of woo apps I saw one paid app (not really woo, just fraudulent) claiming to be a ‘hand warmer’. As far as I could tell the company wasn’t selling this as a novelty or gag app – they were really claiming it could warm your hands. The app is just a picture of heating coils. I’d be interested to see the download numbers for that app. Sadly, there were some five star “Really works!” reviews. I hope those were shills. Thankfully its overall rating was 1.5 or something in that area.

  12. they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does.

    I’ve found that the quickest way to stop that kind of conversation is to ask “how many joules are we talking about?”

    My watch has 18 jewels. Does that help?

  13. they were really claiming it could warm your hands. The app is just a picture of heating coils. I’d be interested to see the download numbers for that app.

    Well, if they can run the phone so that it gets warm…

  14. Art

    If you want to get rid of a headache, abandon all mainstream convention and move to the mountains, just hope there is enough fresh water up there to practice homeopathy.

  15. nomuse

    iPhone! Apply directly to the forehead!

    (I can’t believe I’m the first one to make that joke.)

  16. There are some good astronomy apps for iPhone. I have StarMap Pro on mine, a great star chart. Also “Exoplanet” it’s an amazing app with up-to-date information about all the exoplanets discovered to date and info about their parent stars, including pictures.

  17. ThurrtyPhiv

    I actually just found out this week that my grandma has given thousands of dollars to a local con man for chelation ‘therapy’. She has a real heart condition diagnosed by a real MD, but this guy told her that her heart condition was caused by mercury in her bloodstream from vaccines she received in the 1950s! His diagnosis included having her hold a metal rod with a moist cloth while he asked her questions about her health. The rod was attached to a machine that was apparently feeding him results *somehow*. A few weeks ago she had to be hospitalized with chest pains and that’s when she told me about visiting this guy.

    His name is James Hawver and his runs his con out of an office in Bremen, GA. It’s weird that I used to drive by there all the time and never noticed the place before. Maybe I never noticed because it has the very professional sounding name of “Bremen Health Clinic”. A simple Google search revealed that he got his degree in “Natural Medicine” from an unaccredited school.

    I’ve been reading BA and other skeptic blogs since 2001, and I never thought this would happen so close to me.

  18. That picture of you Phil is priceless! Hahaha!

  19. Doc


    I thought the same thing. Really though, I don’t see this as any worse than that magic chapstick.

  20. For good science/astronomy apps, don’t miss Moon Globe (free) and Mars Globe (99 cents US)

  21. The BA says: “they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does.”

    Just like the “toxins” that are supposedly being “cleansed.” I’ve asked these folks just what are these toxins? How are they being “cleansed?” Where are they going? I always get the same vague answers: “They’re the toxins caused by modern living/eating processed food/big pharma/big oil/contrails/space shuttle launches… You get the idea.

    A request for specifics is usually met with a blank stare. “Toxins” are atomic to these people, that is, indivisible. But they sure know how to get rid of them.

    – Jack

    PS – This is not to bash Eastern practices. I studied Tai-Chi for six years and found it very enjoyable. The teacher was always going on about the flow of chi along the meridians. I said it’s all about focused meditation and relaxation. She was open minded enough that when I’d raise (gently) an Western science objection to something in class, she’d ask me about it later. I explained to her that Eastern science is two-step, observe and theorize. Western science is three-step, observe, theorize and test. The Chinese never performed any sort of dissections or autopsies to see if the “meridians” were actually there. They just fit the theory.

  22. Davros

    I also was wondering what apps you use

  23. Ken

    @GA: I use all three of Distant Suns, Sky Voyager and Sky Gazer. Distant Suns is great for general browsing and naked-eye viewing. It’s fast, has lots of info on visible objects, and is easy to use. When I pull out my telescope I use Sky Gazer and Sky Voyager. They are basically the same program, but Gazer is geared more towards naked-eye and small telescope viewing. It does slew and zoom much faster than Voyager. Voyager is great when star-hopping; it can speak right-ascension / declination coordinates, and it has a mode to reverse the image so it can be matched up with the view through the eyepiece. It makes star-hopping so easy it feels like cheating. :-) It’s pretty slow for slewing and zooming though (likely due to the care they take in accuracy plus the huge star database).

    I also use “Satellite Tracker”, and app that predicts satellite overflights. It has a decent database, and a good graphical view showing where the sat track is plus uses the accelerometer to make a dotted ring where your ipod/iphone is pointing.

    I also use “Clinometer” as a decent bubble/straightedge level. It’s pretty helpful when I forget where the North Star is, and not too bad for levelling a tripod. :-)

  24. It works on the principle of mind over matter: if you don’t have a mind, then it doesn’t matter if they take your money.

  25. AbuMaia

    I recall seeing an article not long ago about some researchers finding that regular exposure to cellphone radio waves helped improve memory in young mice, and helped reduce signs of alzheimers in older mice, contrary to all the cellphone radiation scare stories.

    Found it: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/01/100106-cell-phones-alzheimers-disease-mice.html

  26. Kevin

    You know you can always report the app, and perhaps it will be taken down.

    I don’t know – I don’t have an iPhone.

  27. Leander

    “Except whenever you talk to people who believe in this, they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does. ”

    Let me see, what does that remind me of ? Oh yeah, doctors who check every inch of your reality-based body with all the knowledge and expertise they can muster, because you come to them with, let’s stick with the example, splitting headaches, and they have no f*cking clue what’s wrong. And do they admit that ? No, it’ ususally inexplicably “psychosomatic”. Am I saying we should believe in energy imbalances ? No. Fact is, “reality” (including that of our bodies) is by far not fully explored (definitely not the degree where I would comfortably base myself in it), and sometimes there is no answer (yet). But instead of admitting that, people tend to make up all sorts of BS to explain it. Just at this time, in this culture, they don’t call it “energy imbalances”, but use a fancy, sciencey, latin-derived term to feel like they have a clue (read “understand reality and are based in it”).

    But I guess we all should feel free to scoff at the culture of choice and their ideas. Whether that’s a culture using energy imbalances and needles, or one that has the burning desire to explain everything in materialist terms, and when it fails shrugs it off to fancy but fuzzy notions of mind-body interactions. Or we could set aside the scoffing and use the time to explore the vast portions of “reality” still out there. I don’t know about the Discover Magazine bloggers, but sounds like a deal to me.

  28. Lawrence

    Yes Leander, but which practice has correctly explained the way things actually work?

  29. Leander

    “Except whenever you talk to people who believe in this, they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does. ”

    And oh, by the way…that’s kind of a straw-man. This sentence might apply to all the new-agey folk, but have you ever bothered to read the centuries-old original texts of the cultures in which these concepts originated ? That inability to explain said energy doesn’t apply to those – of course those concepts are not derived from scientific investigation as we understand it…but then, you’d have to show how their methods of investigation (mainly through mindful and conscious observation of their own bodies and “felt reality”) are bound to fail even if rigorously conducted over decades and centuries. Now that (consciousness, what it is and its abilities, especially when it comes to exploring and putting together [concepts of] reality) is something I’d love to read about on Discover Magazine, not some drive-by scoffing. But hey, that’s just me.

    PS: With straw-man I guess I mean…if you judge concepts and ideas accumulated over centuries all across the globe by how the new age scene in our culture represents these concepts to make a quick dollar (e.g. iPhone apps), you might as well judge Western science by how it’s portrayed in Hollywood movies. Makes things very easy, but is not very, uhm, reality-based.

  30. Leander


    “Yes Leander, but which practice has correctly explained the way things actually work?”

    Kind of my point. Since there’s none that has, why waste time on scoffing at any of these for not having done so, instead of exploring how we can come up with one that can ?

  31. You should trade in your iphone for a droid? Why? Here’s why.
    Behold, a window to the stars:


    If you can get your hands on an android phone you have to give this app a try (unless they have it for the iphone, in which case enjoy it there). This is the sort of app that makes me think we live in the future… Well, and this one:


  32. Mike

    I think the app was just an excuse for Phil to put up a shot of himself looking like Lobot


    Just sayin…

  33. Cindy

    I searched the Android market and didn’t see one. The only one under “alternative medicine” was an app about herbal remedies.

    Come on, Phil, real geeks use Droids. 😉

  34. i guess you missed the acupuncture app: Q palm.


  35. Floyd

    I don’t believe in acupuncture. Mostly, I don’t like needles (from a young age), so I don’t do needles unless there’s a good reason, like a needed tetanus inoculation or other periodic shot.

    I do believe in energy, the scientific kind, but am hard pressed to consider an iPhone a possible cure for a headache. Aspirin, ibuprofen or Tylenol I can believe in…worked just fine on my SO’s headache just now…

  36. Luke


    “Kind of my point. Since there’s none that has, why waste time on scoffing at any of these for not having done so, instead of exploring how we can come up with one that can ?”

    There’s none that has explained how things work? Is that a summary dismissal of all branches of science? If so, you’ve got your work cut out for you explaining how no science has explained how things work.

    If you’re talking only about headaches, let’s start there. We not only DO know much more about how headaches occur nowadays, but headache medication, a.k.a. medical science, works above placebo.

    Acupuncture, a.k.a. Let’s Make Stuff Up Since We Don’t Know The Answer, doesn’t work above placebo. Neither does Homeopathy. Neither does faith healing. Neither does literally any other discipline other than those based on a scientific understanding of how the body works.

    Science wins. The universe doesn’t care how long a culture took to come up with an explanation for how things work. If it’s a bad one, it doesn’t work.

  37. Free apps for iPhone:
    Discovery (channel)
    Periodic Table
    3D Brain
    Dinosaurs (very good–from museum of history)
    Science @vl Vision Learning (vocab)
    Space Images
    3D Sun
    iResearch (academic papers)
    ssrn (more research papers)
    Big Blue Marble
    Genetic Code
    Physics 101 SE Jr.

  38. Thorsten

    I just had to have a look at the AcuGraph website, where http://acugrapheurope.com/acugrapheuropecom/why-do-i-need-acugraph-c-337_340.html includes the hilarious line:
    “Evidence-based acupuncture is the future of acupuncture.”

  39. Mary

    Derek says—– Placebo’s are highly effective against depression, but don’t seem to work well against real pain.
    I hope you did not mean to dismiss the very real pain that can accompany depression nor imply that depression can be wished away, snapped out of, or treated lightly.

  40. I have actually used a cell phone while skydiving, not during free fall mind you, while under canopy. I know another person who has done the same.

    Out of our exhaustive sample set of two, we can say with certainty that there is no increased danger from the combination of the two activities.

  41. Kevin

    I don’t believe the book is quite closed on the efficacy of acupuncture. While some studies have yielded definite results, others beg for more research.
    The fundamentals of eastern practices such as acupuncture and herbal medicines have been by far based on noticeable outcomes from observed treatments. It’s the ambiguity in what is observed that needs to be cleared up.
    In other words it is not unlike how western medicine happened upon some of its greatest achievements.
    The antibacterial mechanisms of penicillin were discovered by accident through observation. Surgeons were using alcohol as analgesics based on observation without understanding its effects on GABA. Corticosteroids were synthesized in 1950’s but much of its anti-inflammatory mechanisms on eczema/pruritis were not understood till decades after. Before, when explaining to a patient (who is poisoned by a certain toxin) that you are using another toxin to treat them – the explanation often sounds medieval and pseudoscience. To use a concrete example, today we understand the allosteric competitive effects of ethanol on methanol poisoning.
    But I digress…
    Consider for a moment the complexity of the human nervous system. When one bangs their knee…the pain is often reportedly “made less” by rubbing the general afflicted area. The sensory neurons firing electrical impulses to your brain alerting you to the “pain” is not toned down but flooded among a sea of other electrical impulses from the sensory neurons you activate through rubbing.
    Now consider the complexity of how the soma sensory is mapped in the human brain. A foot massage to certain regions of the feet often reportedly elicits emotional elation associated with the genitalia area. How this is possible considering the extent of separation between the two regions is best understood by the mapping of these zones in the brain through cross-talk. Cross-talk and neuronal rewiring can also be attributed to the “phantom sensations” a patient (with left arm amputated) who may report “you are touching their phantom hand” when you are tapping their left leg.
    So what all of this boils down to is that acupuncture (especially the “electric acupuncture” like the one I and colleagues observed right here on the hospital floor one time) can be really just a form of sensory modulation. Very fascinating! I would love to get a grant to further study this. Not to sound Borgish – but imagine, if there is credible techniques, what can be assimilated into western medicine.

  42. Derek

    To Mary:
    Depression is very real. I cannot identify with it now. I did when I was a teenager and took a pill for it when I was 16. I wish I hadn’t done that, mainly for quackery reasons, but I feel that science has a very firm grasp on chemical imbalances of the brain.

    It is very hard to identify with any ailment you haven’t experienced. The toughest one for me to understand in PTSD. But a friend of a friend is experiencing it in a major way. This gentleman looks and talks normally, but there are times when it just hits him and life becomes almost unlivable. I don’t think medical science has a grasp on why someone can experience trauma then bliss from one moment to the next. Mental problems are very scary.

    I was talking about the physical pain.

  43. Gary Ansorge

    I can think of a lot more entertaining and stress relieving ways to use an app that turns on your iPhone vibrator,,,as in “Is your phone on vibrate or are you just glad to see me?”

    GAry 7

  44. Matt

    Now unless I’m bad at skimming the comments, you don’t have any Audio Engineers reading this blog except perhaps me (and I’m hardly a professional myself). I took the University of Michigan iPhone music class last fall and one thing I learned is that the iPhone isn’t quite enhanced enough to run 24 bit, 96kHz sampling rate sound. So it may be that some acupuncturist just has the most sonically soothing voice ever, but even if they upload a sound in 24 bit 96kHz (AKA better than CD quality) the sound still has to come out a tiny little hole at whatever the iPhone’s own bit depth and sampling rate are, which isn’t that great. And goodness forbid if you turn the volume all the way up, you might even add some harmonic distortion to your sound. Bad karma!

  45. Ae7flux

    I once wrote an iPhone app that cured headaches by stimulating measurable physiological effects (mostly to do with blood flow) but according to Steve Jobs that sort of thing’s not permitted on the App Store.

    Yeah, I know Gary bet me to it. . .

  46. Gary Ansorge

    46. Ae7flux

    I’m just pleased to see I’m not the only “dirty old man” on the site. LOL.

    GAry 7


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