Edzard Ernst

MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

The Subject of the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ has recently been the topic of one of my blog-posts. In Germany, it has been a taboo for decades, but now the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’ (FAZ) have courageously addressed the problem. In today’s article, the FAZ reports that, Josef Hecken, the chair of the an organisation called ‘Selbstverwaltung im Gesundheitswesen’ (self-administration in healthcare), demands that “health-insurers should be forbidden to pay for treatments that are not supported by evidence.” Hecken, is also the chair of the Gemeinsamen Bundesausschusses, an umbrella organisation of doctors, insurers and hospitals which determines which services are paid for and which not. He stated that even paying for homeopathy out of your own pocket when treating diseases like cancer must be forbidden and stressed that “this is not about well-being but human lives.”

Hecken’s views are partly supported by Rudolf Henke, the chair of both a German doctor’s union and of the Marburger Bund, a union of hospitals: “the regulations regarding the Heilpraktiker have to be re-considered entirely… I do not believe it to be acceptable that Heilpraktiker are able to treat cancer patients.”

These remarks relate to the deaths that recently occurred in a clinic led by a Heilpraktiker. About two thirds of all German health insurers seem to pay for consultations with a Heilpraktiker. Vis a vis the fact that most of their treatments are not evidence-based, this situation seems intolerable and deeply unethical.

Hecken’s stance seems clear, rational and, in view of the popularity of homeopathy in Germany, even courageous: “The government should charge the ‘Gemeinsamen Bundesausschuss’ or another organisation with the task of conducting a meta-analysis on the evidence of homeopathy and then draw the appropriate conclusions… We have reached a point where we need a public discussion, and I am prepared to take the flack.”

On the website of THE CENTRE FOR HOMEOPATHIC EDUCATION (CHE), an organisation which claims to operate ‘in partnership with’ the MIDDLESEX UNIVERSITY LONDON, we find the most amazing promotion of quackery. Under the title of ’10 Top Homeopathic Remedies for your First Aid Kit’ they state that “we wanted to give you some top tips to put together your own remedy kit to use in first-aid situations for yourself, friends and family.”

Yes, you did read correctly: apparently, the Middlesex University is supporting a homeopathic ‘first aid’ kit. You find this unbelievable? You are not alone!

The remedies they recommend would be ideal in the 30c potency for everyday use, they claim. Here are a few of the high-lighted remedies, together with their ‘indications’:

ACONITE This remedy is great for shock…

ARNICA  This is the classic remedy for trauma… The typical arnica patient will tell you that they’re fine and avoid attention, but may well still be in shock…

ARSENICUM This is your go-to remedy for food-poisoning…

BELLADONNA …This is a great remedy for fever, sunstroke, and for a skin condition such as boils.

HEPAR SULPH Very painful and infected wounds and abscesses respond well to this remedy.

RHUS TOX …used to treat skin rashes like chicken pox and shingles.

There are many more remedies to choose from, but hopefully this will give you a good little starter kit. Also it is possible to buy a comprehensive homeopathic first-aid kit from any of the reputable homeopathic suppliers. These kits will come with instructions on how to use the remedies too.

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The CHE run all sorts of courses. It’s a shame that we all missed the recent lecture Evidence based homeopathy – with Dana Ullman. But if you are in London, you might want to attend on 7/9/2016 entitled Homeopathy, Detox and Cancer – with Dr Robin Murphy ND. It will cover subjects like these:

  • The Cancer Diseases –  the cancer disease is an umbrella term for a range of conditions which primarily affects the cells and immune system first.There are many causes of this condition such as emotional shocks, toxins, drugs, trauma, radiation and severe stress, etc. In some cases the cause is genetic or not known. Aging is another factor in the development and treatment of the cancer diseases.
  • Homeopathic remedies: Cancer remedies, cancer pains, chemotherapy and radiation side effects, socks, trauma, sleep, surgery, remedies for prevention and recovery.
  • Detox therapy: Detox principles and methods, heavy metals, chemo drugs, radiation, chemicals, etc. Detox diet, superfoods, herbal tonics and natural remedies.

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Yes, not just first aid but also cancer! This is sensational (or is the term scandalous better suited?) ! Cancer, they claim, can be caused by emotional shock (they do seem to like this term!) and there are homeopathic cancer remedies (the English cancer act prohibits claims, I think). This course must be a bargain at just £30! Perhaps some London sceptics should attend?

It would be ever so easy to make fun at this – but let’s try to keep a straight face because, in fact, this is not funny at all. It seems clear to me that it would be possible to kill quite a few emergency patients following the instructions of the homeopathic first aid kit, and one would most likely hasten the death of many cancer patients following Murphy’s cancer course.

Why is the Middlesex University a ‘partner’ in such monstrosities? Presumably they get some money for it, and officials would probably claim that their ‘partnership’ does not amount to an endorsement of such dangerous quackery (interestingly, when I searched their site for ‘homeopathy’, I got “no results found”). Yet they must be aware that they are lending credibility to indefensible charlatanry and thereby risking their own reputation.

If I were the Vice Chancellor of Middlesex, I would quickly sever all links to THE CENTRE FOR HOMEOPATHIC EDUCATION and publish an apology for having been involved in such mind-boggling quackery.

It has been reported that the ‘American Society of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine’ (A SCAM) has published a list of the top 10 achievements in medical history. The spelling of ‘complimentary’ and the acronym might be hints suggesting that none of the below is meant too seriously – but it could be good fun. Here is the top 10 list unabbreviated and unaltered:

Tumeric – The miracle spice that can cure everything from athletes foot to cancer.

Homeopathy – The discovery that water has memory and that you can charge people for sugar pills revolutionized alternative medicine.

Cupping – Around a lot longer than Michael Phelps, cupping took hickies to a whole new level.

Aromatherapy – Smelly things can help calm nerves and cure various diseases based on who you buy it from.

Detoxing – From getting rid of heavy metals from vaccines to cleansing the body of harmful chemtrails, detoxing was one of the most influential and revolutionary practices of the last 100 years.

Coffee Enemas – Autism “advocates” discovered that shoving coffee up your rectum can cure you of autism, vaccine-injuries and several other conditions.

Black Salve – Somewhat controversial to those who understand science, black salve has been shown to burn off cancerous tumors and various parts of the body.

The Paleo Diet – The greatest diet ever discovered. The Paleo Diet and by extension the Paleo Lifestyle has proven to improve health outcomes and the pocket books of diet gurus.

Chiropractic Manipulation – Not surprisingly, chiropractic manipulation is one of the best and most lucrative of all the SCAM practices. Recently, more and more chiropractors are discovering that parents are also willing to let you manipulate the spine of their newborn infants (make sure you get them to sign a waiver first).

Cannabis – Last but certainly not least in Cannabis. The miracle plant which is KNOWN to cure every disease known to man yet remains illegal in several countries due to the influence of Big Pharma. Remember: if someone you know uses cannabis to fight their cancer and they still die, it was because they didn’t use it early enough, possibly did some kind of conventional therapy first, or simply used the wrong kind of plant.

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I am sure that readers of this blog appreciate the list – especially as all of these treatment have previously been discussed on this very blog (just put the term in the search box, and you will find plenty od posts) –  but they might also feel the need to add more of their favourites to it. Therefore, I have a few suggestions of my own (in no particular order) which I think are well worth considering, if only for the fun of it (I put in the links to some previous posts where the therapy in question has been discussed in a less satirical manner):

Bach Flower Remedies – not as good as Mozart Balls, but almost.

Cranio-sacral therapy – the brain pulsates and the cash-register rings.

Gerson diet – the alternative way to enjoy coffee.

Urine therapy – making your very own medicine saves you going to the pharmacy and spending money.

Laetrile – apricots so good, they are worth a little plagiary.

Chelation therapy – taking out the calcium from your blood so that you can spend more on calcium supplements later.

Colloidal silver – only gold is better.

Gua sha – no pain without gain [for the TCM-practitioner].

Pranic-healing – or should this be ‘panic-healing’?

Weight-loss supplements – guaranteed to reduce the weight of your wallet.

Naturopathy – the art of turning the fallacy of ‘natural = good’ into a thriving business.

Integrative medicine – the art of mixing cow pie and apple pie and make it look attractive to gullible gourmets.

Anthroposophic medicine – East or West, Steiner knew best.

Biopuncture – the annoying obsession of puncturing holes into other people’s CVs.

Applied Kinesiology – best not to apply when you are ill.

Ear candles – candles in the shape of an ear are attractive presents not just for ENT surgeons.

Mistletoe – an inevitable complementary asset for Christmas.

Iridology – the study of Iridaceae, a family of plants in the order of Asparagales.

Holism – the bane of the proctologist.

In case my readers wanted to add to the list, I would be delighted – just put your suggestions into the comments section below.

Cranio-sacral therapy has been a subject on this blog before, for instance here, here and here. The authors of this single-blind, randomized trial explain in the introduction of their paper that “cranio-sacral therapy is an alternative and complementary therapy based on the theory that restricted movement at the cranial sutures of the skull negatively affect rhythmic impulses conveyed through the cerebral spinal fluid from the cranium to the sacrum. Restriction within the cranio-sacral system can affect its components: the brain, spinal cord, and protective membranes. The brain is said to produce involuntary, rhythmic movements within the skull. This movement involves dilation and contraction of the ventricles of the brain,  which produce the circulation of the cerebral spinal fluid. The theory states that this fluctuation mechanism causes reciprocal tension within the membranes, transmitting motion to the cranial bones and the sacrum. Cranio-sacral therapy and cranial osteopathic manual therapy originate from the observations made by William G. Sutherland, who said that the bones of the human skeleton have mobility. These techniques are based mainly on the study of anatomic and physiologic mechanisms in the skull and their relation to the body as a whole, which includes a system of diagnostic and therapeutic techniques aimed at treatment and prevention of diseases. These techniques are  based on the so-called primary respiratory movement, which is manifested in the mobility of the cranial bones, sacrum,  dura, central nervous system, and cerebrospinal fluid. The main difference between the two therapies is that cranial osteopathy, in addition to a phase that works in the direction of the lesion (called the functional phase), also uses a phase that worsens the injury, which is called structural phase.”

With this study, the researchers wanted to evaluate the effects of cranio-sacral therapy on disability, pain intensity, quality of life, and mobility in patients with low back pain. Sixty-four patients with chronic non-specific low back pain were assigned to an experimental group receiving 10 sessions of craniosacral therapy, or to the control group receiving 10 sessions of classic massage. Craniosacral therapy took 50 minutes and was conducted as follows: With pelvic diaphragm release, palms are placed in transverse position on the superior aspect of the pubic bone, under  the L5–S1 sacrum, and finger pads are placed on spinal processes.  With respiratory diaphragm release, palms are placed transverse under T12/L1 so that the spine lies along the start of fingers and the border of palm, and the anterior hand is placed on the breastbone. For thoracic inlet release, the thumb and index finger are placed on the opposite sides of the clavicle, with the posterior hand/palm of the hand cupping C7/T1. For the hyoid release, the thumb and index finger are placed on the hyoid, with the index finger on the occiput and the cupping finger pads on the cervical vertebrae. With the sacral technique for stabilizing L5/sacrum, the fingers contact the sulcus and the palm of the hand is in contact with the distal part of the sacral bone. The non-dominant hand of the therapist rested over the pelvis, with one hand on one iliac crest and the elbow/forearm of the other side over the other iliac crest. For CV-4 still point induction, thenar pads are placed under the occipital protuberance, avoiding mastoid sutures.  Classic massage protocol was compounded by the following sequence techniques of soft tissue massage on the  low back: effleurage, petrissage, friction, and kneading. The maneuvers are performed with surface pressure, followed by deep pressure and ending with surface pressure again. The techniques took 30 minutes.

Disability (Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire RMQ, and Oswestry Disability Index) was the primary endpoint. Other outcome measures included the pain intensity (10-point numeric pain rating scale), kinesiophobia (Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia), isometric endurance of trunk flexor muscles (McQuade test), lumbar mobility in flexion, hemoglobin oxygen saturation, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, hemodynamic measures (cardiac index), and biochemical analyses of interstitial fluid. All outcomes were measured at baseline, after treatment, and one-month follow-up.

No statistically significant differences were seen between groups for the main outcome of the study, the RMQ. However, patients receiving craniosacral therapy experienced greater improvement in pain intensity (p ≤ 0.008), hemoglobin oxygen saturation (p ≤ 0.028), and systolic blood pressure (p ≤ 0.029) at immediate- and medium-term and serum potassium (p = 0.023) level and magnesium (p = 0.012) at short-term than those receiving classic massage.

The authors concluded that 10 sessions of cranio-sacral therapy resulted in a statistically greater improvement in pain intensity, hemoglobin oxygen saturation, systolic blood pressure, serum potassium, and magnesium level than did 10 sessions of classic massage in patients with low back pain.

Given the results of this study, the conclusion is surprising. The primary outcome measure failed to show an inter-group difference; in other words, the results of this RCT were essentially negative. To use secondary endpoints – most of which are irrelevant for the study’s aim – in order to draw a positive conclusion seems odd, if not misleading. These positive findings are most likely due to the lack of patient-blinding or to the 200 min longer attention received by the verum patients. They are thus next to meaningless.

In my view, this publication is yet another example of an attempt to turn a negative into a positive result. This phenomenon seems embarrassingly frequent in alternative medicine. It goes without saying that it is not just misleading but also dishonest and unethical.

Two of my recent posts directly related to the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ (here and here) and to the risks which this profession poses to public health in Germany. As this is a very German phenomenon, it might be time to provide some explanations to my non-German readers.

The German ‘Heilpraktiker’ (literally translated: healing practitioner) is perhaps best understood by its fascinating history. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, German health care was dominated by lay practitioners who were organised in multiple organisations struggling for recognition. The Nazis felt the need to re-organise this situation to bring it under their control. At the same time, the Nazis promoted their concept of ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ (New German Medicine) which entailed the integration – perhaps more a shot-gun marriage – of conventional and alternative medicine. I have published about the rather bizarre history of the ‘New German Medicine’ in 2001:

The aim of this article is to discuss complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) in the Third Reich. Based on a general movement towards all things natural, a powerful trend towards natural ways of healing had developed in the 19(th)century. By 1930 this had led to a situation where roughly as many lay practitioners of CAM existed in Germany as doctors. To re-unify German medicine under the banner of ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’, the Nazi officials created the ‘Heilpraktiker‘ – a profession which was meant to become extinct within one generation. The ‘flag ship’ of the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was the ‘Rudolf Hess Krankenhaus’ in Dresden. It represented a full integration of CAM and orthodox medicine. An example of systematic research into CAM is the Nazi government’s project to validate homoeopathy. Even though the data are now lost, the results of this research seem to have been negative. Even though there are some striking similarities between today’s CAM and yesterday’s ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ there are important differences. Most importantly, perhaps, today’s CAM is concerned with the welfare of the individual, whereas the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was aimed at ensuring the dominance of the Aryan race.

The Nazis thus offered to grant all alternative practitioners official recognition by establishing them under the newly created umbrella of ‘Heilpraktiker’. To please the powerful lobby of conventional doctors, they decreed that the ‘Heilpraktiker’ was barred from educating a second generation of this profession. Therefore, the Heilpraktiker was destined to become extinct within decades.

Several of the Nazi rulers were staunch supporters of homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine. They hoped that alternative medicine would soon have become an established part of ‘New German Medicine’. For a range of reasons, this never happened.

After the war, the Heilpraktiker went to court and won the right to educate their own students. Today they are a profession that uses homeopathy extensively. The German Heilpraktiker has no mandatory medical training; a simple test to show that they know the legal limits of their profession suffices for receiving an almost unrestricted licence for practicing medicine as long as they want.

You may not believe me – many readers of my blog seem to think that I spend my time spinning the truth – therefore let me show you an article by another author on the same subject:

In Germany, the naturopathic practitioner, the “Heilpraktiker”, is allowed to practice medicine, like medically trained physicians. The German heilpraktiker, a specific German phenomenon embedded in the country’s history, practices medicine without being obliged to undertake any medical teaching or training. Anybody 25 years old or older, with a secondary school certificate, and free of disease can participate in a test, conducted by the local health authorities to “exclude danger to the health of the nation.” In the case of failure, this test can be repeated ad libitum. Having passed this test, the heilpraktiker is allowed to practice the whole realm of medicine, except for gynecology, dentistry, prescription of medication, and healing infectious diseases. There is no more state control during the heilpraktiker’s working life, except in those practices applying invasive methods, such as infusions, injections, oxygen therapy, and acupuncture. These practices are inspected by the public health department based on the Infection Protection Act. Although several cases of fatal errors in treatment are known, the greatest risk in the heilpraktiker’s practice is the omission of proper diagnostics and therapies, which is risk by omission. In this paper, the history of the heilpraktiker in Germany as well as the task of the Public Health Departments in testing the candidates are shown. The data of 345 tests from 2004-2007 in the Rhein-Main area are presented, with 53% of the participants failing. Concerning the hygiene control visits, a concept for hygiene was lacking in 79% of 109 practices, while in 49% a concept for cleaning and disinfection was also missing. In 60% of the practices, a dispenser for hand disinfection was lacking. Recommended improvements were quickly performed in most practices. In conclusion, the current legal regulation, i.e., testing the candidates only once before practicing for a lifetime, does not sufficiently protect the population against danger caused by false diagnostics and (invasive) therapy of the heilpraktiker. Considering the population’s increasing interest and use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) with a heilpraktiker being frequently consulted, there are growing concerns in health services, regarding (1) how to regulate CAM professions and natural health procedures, (2) how to incorporate safe CAM into school medicine, and (3) how best to protect the public from a wide range of possible CAM-conventional medicine interactions.

There have been very few investigations into the Heipraktiker phenomenon. Recently, however, an excellent book has been published, and here is the abstract of a rare study of the subject:

We investigated to what extent psychiatric inpatients consult Heilpraktiker, i.e. non-academically trained providers of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which diagnostic and therapeutic methods Heilpraktiker employ, how patients assess Heilpraictikers’ professional competence, CAM in general and issues of satisfaction for those who have had experience with Heilpraktiker. Four hundred and seventy three patients admitted to a psychiatric university department during a 9-month period filled out a questionnaire developed for this investigation. About one third of the patients had consulted a Heilpraktiker, a quarter of these for their current psychiatric illness. Women were in the majority. Patients with the highest secondary school education consulted Heilpraktiker less often. There was considerable ‘customer loyalty’ towards Heilpraktiker. Largely the same diagnostic and treatment methods were employed for mental illness as for somatic complaints. Except for iridology, exotic or dangerous methods played a secondary role. Patients generally revealed a very positive attitude toward Heilpraktiker and CAM, although methods were rated differently. CAM enjoyed greater appreciation among women and patients who had consulted Heilpraktiker. Patients with personal experience were, on the whole, very satisfied with the professional competence, with the atmosphere in the practice and staff concern for the patient’s well-being. Degree of satisfaction correlated closely with frequency of consultation. More patients with neurotic disorders considered the cost unreasonable than others, despite comparatively frequent visits. Psychiatric patients seek out Heilpraktiker to a considerable degree. Especially those who have relevant experience rank Heilpraktiker highly, in particular due to their ‘psychotherapeutic’ attitude, but professional competence is also valued. Methods of CAM received mixed reviews from patients but are generally seen in a positive light. It is recommended that doctors collecting case history data on their patients also ask about experience with alternative practitioners and treatments.

Unsurprisingly, there are numerous reports of Heilpraktiker doing harm to their patients. However, such cases hardly ever get reported in the medical literature. Because there is no effective post-marketing surveillance system in this area, the frequency of harm is essentially unknown.

In my view, it is high time that German officials cast a critical eye on this sector. The incidents mentioned above seem to confirm the urgency of this view.

Dengue is a viral infection spread by mosquitoes; it is common in many parts of the world. The symptoms include fever, headache, muscle/joint pain and a red rash. The infection is usually mild and lasts about a week. In rare cases it can be more serious and even life threatening. There’s no specific treatment – except for homeopathy; at least this is what many homeopaths want us to believe.

And, of course, we don’t want to listen to just any odd homeopath, we want true experts to tell us the truth – for instance, experts like Dr. R.K. Manchanda, Deputy Director(Homoeopathy), Directorate of ISM & Homoeopathy, Govt. of NCT of Delhi and Dr. Surinder Verma, Assistant Director (Homoeopathy), Directorate of ISM & Homoeopathy, Govt. of NCT of Delhi. They authored an article which states the following:

There are about 25 homoeopathic drugs available for the treatment of dengue fever. These are Aconite., Arnica, Arsenic-alb., Arum-tri., Baptisia., Belladonna., Bryonia., Cantharis., China officinalis Colocynthis., Eupatorium perfoliatum., Ferrum metallicum., Gelsemium., Hamamelis., Ipecac., Lachesis, Merc-sol, Nux vomica., Podophyllum., Rhus toxicodendron., Rhus-venenata., Sanicula., Secale cornutum and Sul-acidum. These drugs had been successfully used by various homeopaths across the globe for its treatment and management. In 1996 during the epidemic of dengue in Delhi Eupatorium perfoliatum was found most effective.

Sadly, the article does not provide any evidence. A quick Medline search located one (!) single trial on the subject. Here is the abstract:

A double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial of a homeopathic combination medication for dengue fever was carried out in municipal health clinics in Honduras. Sixty patients who met the case definition of dengue (fever plus two ancillary symptoms) were randomized to receive the homeopathic medication or placebo for 1 week, along with standard conventional analgesic treatment for dengue. The results showed no difference in outcomes between the two groups, including the number of days of fever and pain as well as analgesic use and complication rates. Only three subjects had laboratory confirmed dengue. An interesting sinusoidal curve in reported pain scores was seen in the verum group that might suggest a homeopathic aggravation or a proving. The small sample size makes conclusions difficult, but the results of this study do not suggest that this combination homeopathic remedy is effective for the symptoms that are characteristic of dengue fever.

This is a 2007 study by a well-known US homeopath. Its results fail to confirm that homeopathy is effective for Dengue. So, surely the homeopathic community has since stopped claiming that homeopathy is an option for this infection!

No, you guessed correctly, they continue claiming that homeopathy works for Dengue. Currently, there are about half a million websites doing exactly that. An example is this article published YESTERDAY (!):

Alopathy is no more the only solution for Dengue these days. Especially in a place like Bengaluru where doctors and medicines are both expensive, residents have now turned to a cheaper and an effective alternative-Homeopathy to combat Dengue.People have been milling Homeopathy clinics and hospitals for an antidote. Dr Sudhir Babu of Javaji Advanced Homeopathy said, “People ask for some cure to keep the disease at bay. We do in fact have medicines to help build immunity against the ailment.”The dosage is for four or five days and is taken daily. Homeopathy has now become a trusted alternative in the field of medicine, especially because of its easy acceptibility among children and adults. According to a survey by IMRB, 100% people know about this form of medicine and 92% perceive it as a reputed form of treatment. The medicines that are administered depending on the symmptoms of Dengue Fever are Aconitum Napellus, Arsenicum Album, Belladonna, Bryonia Alba, Cantharis, Cinchona Officinalis, Eupatorium Perfoliatum, Gelsemium, Ipecacuanha, Nux Vomica, Rhus Toxicodendron and Rhus Venenata.

What I found particularly impressive here is the way popularity has been used to replace evidence. This, I think, begs several questions:

  • How long will homeopaths continue treating self-limiting conditions to claim success based no nothing but their natural history?
  • How long will they continue to lie to the public?
  • How long will they refuse to learn from the evidence?
  • How long will they ignore even the most fundamental rules of medical ethics?
  • How long will we let them get away with all this?

As predicted, thanks to its high visibility in Rio, to the journalists, editors, photographers, numerous ‘experts’ crawling out of the woodwork, and last but not least the gullible public, cupping has fast become fashionable, ‘cool’ and ‘en vogue’.

Yes! Literally ‘en vogue’!

It has conquered the pages of ‘VOGUE’ (and any quackery that achieves this feast must have a bright future!) where Dr. Alex Moroz, director of the Integrative Sports Medicine program at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation, offers some extraordinary ‘explanations’. Dr Moroz (yes, he does exist; I looked him up) claims that he uses cupping at home on himself and his family. He believes there’s wisdom in the ancient practice, as well as common sense. Cupping’s effect, he says, is “mechanical, much like a massage,” and though Moroz has not treated professional athletes personally, he says, “It makes sense that it would work for that group of muscular skeletal injuries and problems.”

Moroz believes, furthermore, that cupping’s benefits reach far beyond sports. “For people with muscle-based pain, tightness, spasms, or chronic pain of any sort, it’s a great modality to use. Like other short-term modalities, there’s a curve where you have a small number of people who have rather dramatic results, and then you have a group of people who will not be helped at all,” he says. “Everyone else will fall somewhere in between.”

Dr Moroz has opinions but seems to be remarkably short on the ‘common sense’ he praises and a bit under-developed in the area of evidence.

This is regrettable!

Where on earth can we find some reliable information?

Surely, with all the hype about cupping, there must be someone who is just a trifle more science-based. Of course there is. The ‘London Cupping Clinic’ seems serious enough; they even employ real GPs who explain the SCIENCE OF CUPPING’ as follows:

“[Cupping]… involves, as the name suggests, a series of glass or plastic cups being placed on the recipient’s skin. The cups are heated and come into effect upon cooling; the air trapped between the cup and skin contracts, creating a suction-like effect that pulls the skin upwards, drawing blood to the surface to increase blood flow and give the resulting marks their deep crimson-purple colour. At times, vacuum pumps can be used along with the cups to aid the process of suction.”

Drawing blood to the surface to increase blood flow? Really?

In my quest to find some factual information I stumble across the website of HOLISTIC LIVING TIPS. Yes, I know, ‘holistic living’ does not sound like factual information. Yet I read on and find that…

“…along with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is closely linked to a stressed digestive tract, cupping has been used for stomach pains, diarrhea, gastritis and other common digestive issues. Flowing the energy to help release tension in and around the digestive tract, while aiding the abdomen with added nutrients and oxygen can help stimulate a healthier digestive tract… The most common skin issues cupping has been used for is acne, skinflammation and even herpes. Your capillaries are expanded by cupping and the addition flow of blood helps tone your skin and clear unwanted toxins from the skin to help get rid of acne. Also, wet cupping, where a small cut is made before the cup is applied can reduce acne better because with the incision the therapy can extract more of the toxins from your body. Cupping has also been used for cellulite and varicose veins. An increased flow of blood throughout the skin will help tone and tighten the skin. Also, cupping stimulates and improves the flow of blood, helping reduce varicose veins…  Mainly, cupping increases the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid throughout the body. Both of these help your body protect itself from illnesses and toxins. Additionally, cupping can help extract and remove phlegm and congestion from your body. The purpose of cupping is to enhance circulation, help relieve pain, remove heat and pull out the toxins that linger in your body’s tissues. It is not something that everyone is aware of, but just like other Chinese Medicine practices, like acupuncture, it can be an effective and most importantly a natural way, to help treat several conditions and help improve your body’s overall health and function.”

Even considering that we are in the realm of alternative medicine, the claims and explanations currently made for cupping seem impressive. With such a solid base in holistic anatomy and New Age physiology, the future of cupping ought to be delightful.

I can see all sorts of profitable options for those who want to jump on the vacuum-driven bandwagon:

  • courses for aspiring cupping therapists [a safe career, as demand is bound to soar]
  • DIY books for amateur cuppers
  • car seats that give you a love bite while you are driving home from work [very practical for the less than faithful alt med fan]
  • vacuum suckers for the dental patient [cupping kills pain and reduces anxiety, they say]
  • similar devices for Indian restaurants who offer it for customers to control the well-known digestive problems after a good Vindaloo chicken [Charles’ Dutchy Originals might already be planning the launch]
  • cupping walk-in centres for every-day emergencies
  • cupping clinics for those who fear the effects of ageing [cupping ‘tightens the skin’, you know]
  • a face mask with integrated vacuum cups for teenagers suffering from acne
  • shoes that produce a sucking action on the sole of the feet as you walk [thus ingeniously combining cupping with reflexology]
  • a 24-hours cupping helpline for the less experienced DIY-cuppers…

There really are no limits (neither to profit nor to fantasy) – the future of cupping is bright!

A new Cochrane review evaluated the effectiveness and safety of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) in the treatment of menopausal symptoms. Its authors conducted a thorough search for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the effectiveness of CHM with placebo, hormone therapy (HT), pharmaceutical drugs, acupuncture, or another CHM formula in women suffering from menopausal symptoms.

Two review authors independently assessed 864 studies for eligibility. Data extractions were performed by them with disagreements resolved through group discussion and clarification of data or direct contact with the study authors. Data analyses were performed in accordance with Cochrane Collaboration guidelines.

In total, 22 RCTs (2902 women) could be included. When CHM was compared with placebo (8 RCTs), there was little or no evidence of a difference between the groups for the following outcomes: hot flushes per day (MD 0.00, 95% CI -0.88 to 0.89; 2 trials, 199 women; moderate quality evidence); hot flushes per day assessed by an overall hot flush score in which a difference of one point equates to one mild hot flush per day (MD -0.81 points, 95% CI -2.08 to 0.45; 3 RCTs, 263 women; low quality evidence); and overall vasomotor symptoms per month measured by the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life questionnaire (MENQOL, scale 0 to 6) (MD -0.42 points; 95% CI -1.52 to 0.68; 3 RCTs, 256 women; low quality evidence). In addition, results from individual studies suggested there was no evidence of a difference between the groups for daily hot flushes assessed by severity (MD -0.70 points, 95% CI -1.00, -0.40; 1 RCT, 108 women; moderate quality evidence); or overall monthly hot flushes scores (MD -2.80 points, 95% CI -8.93 to 3.33; 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence); or overall daily night sweats scores (MD 0.07 points, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.33, 1 RCT, 64 women; low quality evidence); or overall monthly night sweats scores (MD 1.30 points, 95% CI -1.76 to 4.36, 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence). However, one study reported that overall monthly vasomotor symptom scores were lower in the CHM group (MD -4.79 points, 95% CI -5.52 to -4.06; 1 RCT, 69 women; low quality evidence).

When CHM was compared with HT (10 RCTs), only two RCTs reported monthly vasomotor symptoms using MENQOL. It was uncertain whether CHM reduces vasomotor symptoms (MD 0.47 points, 95% CI -0.50 to 1.44; 2 RCTs, 127 women; very low quality evidence).

Adverse effects were not fully reported in the included studies. Adverse events reported by women taking CHM included mild diarrhoea, breast tenderness, gastric discomfort and an unpleasant taste. Effects were inconclusive because of imprecise estimates of effects: CHM versus placebo (RR 1.51; 95% CI 0.69 to 3.33; 7 trials, 705 women; I² = 40%); CHM versus HT (RR 0.96; 95% CI 0.66 to 1.39; 2 RCTs, 864 women; I² = 0%); and CHM versus specific conventional medications (such as Fluoxetine and Estazolam) (RR 0.20; 95% CI 0.03 to 1.17; 2 RCTs, 139 women; I² = 61%).

The authors concluded: We found insufficient evidence that Chinese herbal medicines were any more or less effective than placebo or HT for the relief of vasomotor symptoms. Effects on safety were inconclusive. The quality of the evidence ranged from very low to moderate; there is a need for well-designed randomised controlled studies.

This review seems well done and reports clear findings. The fact that there was insufficient evidence for CHM is probably no surprise to most readers of this blog. However, I would like to draw your attention to a finding that could easily be missed: most of the primary studies failed to mention adverse effects; to be perfectly clear: they did not state “there were no adverse effects”, but they simply did not mention the subject of adverse effects at all.

In my view, this is a breach of research ethics. I have been banging on about this phenomenon for some time now, because I think it is important. Many if not most clinical trials in this area neglect reporting adverse effects. This means that we get an entirely misleading impression about the safety of the treatments in question. Reviewers of such studies are bound to conclude that they seem to be safe, while, in fact, researchers have only been withholding crucial information from us.

The solution to this fast-growing problem would be simple: trialists must be forced to fully report adverse effects. This is less complicated that it might seem: journal editors must insist that all authors fully report adverse effects of alternative treatments. Even if there were none at all – a very unlikely proposition if you think about it – they must disclose this fact.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to enjoy food and drink to one’s heart content and, once the pounds are piling up, simply swallow a pill and the weight goes down to normal? There are plenty of such pills on the market, but here I advise you to avoid them – mainly for two reasons.

The first is that they do not work. On this blog, we have discussed this before. The claims made for weight loss supplements are bogus. The manufacturers promise substantial body weight reductions not because their product is effective but because they want your money. So, unless you want to donate your cash to quacks, don’t buy such rubbish.

The second reason is probably even more compelling: weight-loss supplements endanger your health. A new paper tells us more about their risks. This investigation was aimed at identifying banned and discouraged-use ingredients, such as ephedra, 1,3-dimethylamylamine, and beta-methyl-phenylethylamine, in readily available weight loss dietary supplements within a 10-mile radius of Regis University.

A list of banned and discouraged-use ingredients was compiled with the use of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dietary supplement website which provides information on supplement ingredients that are no longer legal or are advised against owing to adverse event reporting. Investigators visited all retail outlet stores within a 10-mile radius of Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Retail chains were not duplicated and only one of each chain was evaluated.

A total of 51 weight loss supplement products from retail stores were found with banned or discouraged-use substances listed on their labels. At least one banned ingredient was found to be listed on the product labels in 17 of the 51 studied supplements (33%). At least one discouraged-use ingredient was found in 46 of the 51 products (90%). Retail outlet stores dedicated to supplements and sports nutrition alone were found to have the greatest number of weight loss supplements that included banned and discouraged-use ingredients.

The authors of this paper draw the following conclusions: the FDA has taken action to remove some weight loss supplements from the market that contain banned ingredients. Unfortunately, based on the findings of this study, it is evident that products containing these ingredients remain on the market today.

You might think that these findings apply only to the US, however, I am afraid, you would be mistaken. People buy such bogus supplements on the Internet where national regulations can easily be circumvented. Thus the trade in weight-loss supplements is thriving regardless of what the FDA or any other regulatory agency might do about them.

The solution is simple: avoid such products!

“THERE IS A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE” – this quote is commonly attributed to P.T.Barnum. If he really coined the sentence, he certainly did not think of the little cups sucking in the skin of patients undergoing cupping therapy. Yet, the recent media coverage of cupping made me think of this quote. The suckers here are not the therapeutic devices employed for cupping but the athletes, the journalists and the general public.

In my experience, athletes are often very worried about their body. This is perhaps understandable but, at the same time, it makes them the ideal victims of all types of charlatans. I am therefore not really surprised to see that some Olympic athletes fell for cupping. They want to use every means allowed by the doping rules to enhance their performance. Cupping therapists claim all sorts of strange and unwarranted things, and some athletes seem to be gullible enough to believe them. Belief can perhaps not move mountains, but it might give you the edge in an Olympic competition.

The ‘beauty’ of cupping when applied to an athlete’s body is that its traces are so publicly visible. During Olympic games, this means that the entire world knows within hours about the cupping-habit of an athlete. What could be more exciting for journalists than these odd cupping marks decorating the muscular bodies of some Olympic athletes? If they are not worth a good story, what is?

There is hardly a newspaper on the planet that did not jump on this band-waggon full of snake oil – there is a sucker born every minute! Nothing wrong with reporting what is happening at the Olympic games, of course. But what has sometimes been reported in the press about cupping beggars belief. Rarely have I read so much nonsense about an alternative therapy in such a short time.

Do you need an example? The DAILY MAIL is as good – or rather bad? – as most; this is what the DM published yesterday on the subject: Chinese media have been cheering cupping’s appearance at the Olympics as proof of the value of traditional culture, with both the official Xinhua news agency and Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily touting the soft-power benefits. “Chinese traditions and products proliferate Olympic village”, read one headline on the People’s Daily website. Ding Hui, manager of the Lily Spring Health & Spa in Beijing, said she has seen a 30 percent jump in clients asking for cupping treatment since the Olympics started. “Even though Chinese people have known about it for a long time, they see a great athlete does it and see it really works,” Ding said. “For athletes, they build up harmful lactic acid in the body and cupping can help relieve it.”

You might think that, when reporting about a weird therapy, journalists have little options but to interview weird ‘experts’ relating cupping to even weirder ‘energies’, ‘life forces’, ‘meridians’, yin and yang, TCM, etc. But you would be wrong. They do of course have other options; they would only have needed to log on Medline to find hundreds of references related to the subject. If they had done that, they would even have found an abstract of mine that might have answered many of their question and would have clarified many of the questions about the scientific evidence for or against cupping. Here it is:

The objective of this study was to assess the evidence for or against the effectiveness of cupping as a treatment option for pain. Fourteen databases were searched. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing cupping in patients with pain of any origin were considered. Trials using cupping with or without drawing blood were included, while trials comparing cupping with other treatments of unproven efficacy were excluded. Trials with cupping as concomitant treatment together with other treatments of unproven efficacy were excluded. Trials were also excluded if pain was not a central symptom of the condition. The selection of studies, data extraction and validation were performed independently by three reviewers. Seven RCTs met all the inclusion criteria. Two RCTs suggested significant pain reduction for cupping in low back pain compared with usual care (P < .01) and analgesia (P < .001). Another two RCTs also showed positive effects of cupping in cancer pain (P < .05) and trigeminal neuralgia (P < .01) compared with anticancer drugs and analgesics, respectively. Two RCTs reported favorable effects of cupping on pain in brachialgia compared with usual care (P = .03) or heat pad (P < .001). The other RCT failed to show superior effects of cupping on pain in herpes zoster compared with anti-viral medication (P = .065). Currently there are few RCTs testing the effectiveness of cupping in the management of pain. Most of the existing trials are of poor quality. Therefore, more rigorous studies are required before the effectiveness of cupping for the treatment of pain can be determined.

With just one further click on their keyboard, they would have been able to read the full text of my article which cautioned in no uncertain terms: The number of trials and the total sample size are too small to distinguish between any nonspecific or specific effects, which preclude any firm conclusions. Moreover, the methodological quality was often poor.

Sadly, few journalists seemed to have bothered to do this tiny bit of research. Why? Surely, journalists are trained to investigate their subject before putting pen to paper! Yes, most of them are, but a headline like THE EVIDENCE FOR CUPPING IS FLIMSY does not sell newspapers. The public wants something much more interesting – there is a sucker born every minute!

And what should be wrong with that? People deserve a bit of an entertaining story about their Olympic idols! Perhaps, but there is a downside, of course. The media-hype of the last week will create a demand. The general public will now want the very therapy that helped athletes win gold medals (never mind that it didn’t). Thanks to the media, cupping is now destined to become the alternative therapy of the future.

And what is wrong with that? Quite a lot, I think!

For one, quacks will jump on this fast-moving band-waggon filled with snake oil and try to divert as much cash as they can from their victims’ into their own bank accounts. Perhaps that would not be the worst effect. The worst would be, if some people believe what some quacks will undoubtedly tell them, that cupping is effective (“they see a great athlete does it and see it really works”) for all sorts of conditions, including serious diseases (“Cupping has also been used by some as an alternative treatment for cancer.”) – THERE IS A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE (and some might even die sucking)!

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