The History of Snake Oil

Original Snakeoil May Have Therapeutic Properties

Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment Label
Public Domain

There's snake oil, and then there's snake oil.

When you hear the term "snake oil" you probably think of fake medicine. And if you are old enough, you might remember back to the days of cowboy movies when a man calling himself a doctor, would arrive in town with a wagon full of "elixirs." He would stand on a perch (perhaps attached to his wagon) and begin preaching about the benefits of his medicines, claiming they would solve all sorts of ills, from pain to congestion to skin rashes.

A small audience would gather around him to listen. A shill, someone in the audience (who he had paid to do so ahead of time) would loudly testify to the great relief he had experienced as a result of using Dr. Who-ever's Relief Elixer, and people would pony up their hard-earned money so they, too, could be relieved of whatever ailed them.

Of course, in the movies, that salesman was a quack, a con artist, simply a "snake oil salesman"—a doctor with no medical training or credentials who sold bogus salves, liniments, and liquids. By the time his naive customers realized his medicine did nothing to help them and they had wasted their money, he would be long gone.

Today most of us believe that it's illegal to sell snake oil. But if you believe that, you are mistaken. You can buy snake oil—the real stuff made from snakes. It may even have therapeutic properties.

However, it's important to understand the distinctions.

First, There Really Is Such a Thing as Snake Oil

It has been used as a pain remedy for hundreds of years.

The original snake oil came from Chinese water snakes and was used in China as a treatment for arthritis, bursitis, and other joint pains. It is believed to have been brought to North America during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. The oil, which was really fat that was taken from the snakes, was actually studied in the 1980s and found to be full of omega-3 fatty acids. Of course, we know omega-3 fatty acids are prescribed today to reduce inflammation (which can lead to arthritis), reduce blood pressure and more.

Other studies have been reported as well. In Japan, snake oil was rendered from Erabu sea snakes, which are the same species as the Chinese water snake, and determined that the Omega-3s were present in their fat, too. In 2007, Japanese researchers reported on a study in mice that showed mice had improved abilities when ingesting snake oil rendered from those Erabu snakes over those mice who were fed only lard.

So How Did Snakeoil Get a Bad Name?

More than likely the problem is one of percentages. Whereas the original Chinese snake oil was comprised of a high percentage of real snake fat that even today's science tells us might supply relief, those huckster doctors had probably watered down their products to such an extent that it no longer had pain-relieving properties. The other possibility is that they expanded their definition of what "real" snake fat was—using rattlesnakes or other native North American snakes to derive their snake oil instead of water or sea snakes. Or maybe they used nothing really snake-related at all, but capitalized on the original regard for Chinese snake oil.

The Internet as Snake Oil Salesman

Regardless of whether snake oil, even the original omega-3 bearing kind, has an interesting history, the problems of bogus medicines and drugs being sold on the Internet today is growing. When we patients are desperate, we too easily make decisions that can hurt us instead of helping us.

And those modern-day snake oil salesmen, in the form of websites, are out there to take advantage of our desperation. Just like in the old days, they feast on our fears, they showcase bogus shills to convince us that their fake medicine can help us, and they take our money. By the time we realize it, they've moved on. In an evil twist, they may also make use of the real credit card numbers we've supplied.

Often you will hear the term snake oil used to describe complementary or alternative therapies. While some of those therapies may be effective, not all are, nor are they regulated by the FDA to be able to tell which ones really can be useful to you. Buyer beware.

A smart patient will know how to find only credible and reliable information online. Further, he or she will understand how to avoid quackery and false promises. Spending one's hard earned money on bogus snake oil—any bogus medicine or treatment—will not only waste that money but will get in the way of getting a treatment that might be real and helpful.

If you are tempted to purchase any sort of drug or substance from a website, you'll want to make sure the site is legal and safe to do business with.

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