Edzard Ernst


The Nobel Prize committee has just awarded this year’s prize to a Chinese researcher from the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Beijing. To be precise, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given jointly to three scientists from three different institutions, William C. Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura and Youyou Tu, for their work on new anti-malaria drugs. A small excerpt from the press-release of the committee tells us more about the possibility of a TCM connection:

Malaria was traditionally treated by chloroquine or quinine, but with declining success. By the late 1960s, efforts to eradicate Malaria had failed and the disease was on the rise. At that time, Youyou Tu in China turned to traditional herbal medicine to tackle the challenge of developing novel Malaria therapies. From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in Malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the Malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans (Figure 4). Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the Malaria parasites at an early stage of their development, which explains its unprecedented potency in the treatment of severe Malaria.

One does not have to be a clairvoyant to predict that this event will now be celebrated by TCM fans as a vindication of TCM. But is this justified?

The antifebrile effect of the Chinese herb Artemisia annua (qinghaosu 青蒿素), or sweet wormwood, has been known 1,700 years ago. Tu was the first to extract the biologically active component of the herb, Artemisinin, and discover how it worked. As a result, Artemisinin could be studied and tested for efficacy. Fortunately these tests turned out positive, and subsequently Artemisinin could be produced on a large scale and made available for those who needed it.

Tu’s achievements are huge, and I do unreservedly and enthusiastically applaud her for getting this prestigious award. But is it an award for TCM?


One could even argue that Tu showed how insufficient TCM can be. Artemisia was not used for malaria in TCM, it was used to lower fever. In fact, the whole plant extract shows not enough activity to be effective for malaria. It was not employed to treat a disease but to ease a symptom. TCM physicians had no idea what malaria was, what its cause was, or how it should be treated effectively. It needed a skilled scientist, modern scientific tools and systematic research to make these discoveries.

So, what does this episode really tell us?

Amongst other things,I think, it shows that medicine is open to discoveries regardless where they come from, that experience alone is normally insufficient to make progress, that China has some good scientists who can do amazing work, that plants contain millions of interesting molecules of which some might be therapeutic, that tenacity and skill is usually required to make an important break-through… WHAT IS DOES NOT SHOW, HOWEVER, IS THAT THE MERITS OF TCM HAVE BEEN AKNOWLEDGED BY A NOBEL PRIZE.

An Indian chain of homeopathic clinics, Dr Batra’s, has just opened its first branch in London. The new website is impressive. It claims homeopathy is effective for the following conditions:

Hair loss? Are they serious? Have they not seen pictures of Samuel Hahnemann?

I decided to look into the psoriasis claim a little closer. This is what they state regarding the homeopathic treatment of psoriasis:

Research-based evidences speak clear and loud of the success of homeopathy in treating psoriasis.

A study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, a conventional medical Journal, showed that psoriasis patients experienced significant improvement in their quality of life and reduction in their psoriasis symptoms with homeopathy. And this was without any kind of side-effects whatsoever. Of the 82 patients involved in the study that went on for 2 years, many had suffered psoriasis for as long as 15 years and had previously unsuccessfully tried conventional treatments.

At Dr. Batra’s we have successfully treated more than 25,000 cases of psoriasis with homeopathy over the last 35 years. Our safe and scientific solutions have brought smiles to many suffering patients of psoriasis. In fact, a study conducted by A.C. Nielson showed that as compared to general practitioners, specialists and local homeopaths, a higher than average improvement is seen at Dr. Batra’s in treatment of skin ailments.

To the reader who does not look deeper, this may sound fairly convincing. Sadly, it is not. The first study cited above was an uncontrolled trial. Here is its abstract:

Design Prospective multicentre observational study. Objective To evaluate details and effects of homeopathic treatment in patients with psoriasis in usual medical care. Methods Primary care patients were evaluated over 2 years using standardized questionnaires, recording diagnoses and complaints severity, health-related quality of life (QoL), medical history, consultations, all treatments, and use of other health services. Results Forty-five physicians treated 82 adults, 51.2% women, aged 41.6 +/- 12.2 (mean +/- SD) years. Patients had psoriasis for 14.7 +/- 11.9 years; 96.3% had been treated before. Initial case taking took 127 +/- 47 min. The 7.4 +/- 7.4 subsequent consultations (duration: 19.4 +/- 10.5 min) cumulated to 169.0 +/- 138.8 min. Patients received 6.0 +/- 4.9 homeopathic prescriptions. Diagnoses and complaints severity improved markedly with large effect sizes (Cohen’s d= 1.02-2.09). In addition, QoL improved (SF-36 physical component score d = 0.26, mental component score d = 0.49), while conventional treatment and health service use were considerably reduced. Conclusions Under classical homeopathic treatment, patients with psoriasis improved in symptoms and QoL.

It is clear that, due to the lack of a control group, no causal inference can be made between the treatment and the outcome. To claim that otherwise is in my view bogus.

I should mention that there is not a single controlled clinical trial of homeopathy for psoriasis that would support the claim that it is effective.

The second study is not listed in Medline. In fact, the only publication of an author by the name of ‘A C Nielson’ is entitled ‘Are men more intuitive when it comes to eating and physical activity?’. Until I see the evidence, I very much doubt that the study cited above produced strong evidence that homeopathy is an effective cure for psoriasis.

Dr Batra’s chain of clinics boasts to provide the best quality and the highest standards of services that percolate down to all levels in an organisation. Everyone in the institute and those associated with it strive for excellence in whatever they do. Measuring the degree of customer satisfaction was the fundamental concept on which this homeopathic institute’s commitment to become a patient-driven institution was built. 


Hurray, I can hear the Champagne corks popping: this month is ‘National Chiropractic Months’ in the USA – a whole month! This has depleted my stock of the delicious fizz already in the first three days.

Now that my bottles are empty (is there a chiropractic cure for a hang-over?), I must find other ways to celebrate. How about a more sober look at what has been published in the medical literature on chiropractic during the last few days?

A quick look into Medline identifies several articles of interest. The very first one is a case-report:

Spinal epidural hematoma (SEH) occurring after chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy (CSMT) is a rare clinical phenomenon. Our case is unique because the patient had an undiagnosed cervical spinal arteriovenous malformation (AVM) discovered on pathological analysis of the evacuated hematoma. Although the spinal manipulation likely contributed to the rupture of the AVM, there was no radiographic evidence of the use of excessive force, which was seen in another reported case. As such, patients with a known AVM who have not undergone surgical intervention should be cautioned against symptomatic treatment with CSMT, even if performed properly. Regardless of etiology, SEH is a surgical emergency and its favorable neurological recovery correlates inversely with time to surgical evacuation.

This is important, I think, in more than one way. Many chiropractors simply deny that their manipulations cause serious complications of this nature. Yet such cases are being reported with depressing regularity. Other chiropractors claim that excessive force is necessary to cause the damage. This paper seems to refute this notion quite well, I think.

But let’s not be inelegant and dwell on this unpleasant subject; it might upset chiros during their month of celebration.

The next article fresh from the press is a survey – chiropractors are very fond of this research tool, it seems. It produced a lot of intensely boring data – except for one item that caught my eye: the authors found that ‘virtually all Danish chiropractors working in the primary sector made use of manipulation as one of their treatment modalities.’

Why is that interesting? Whenever I point out that there is no good evidence that chiropractic manipulations generate more good than harm, chiropractors tend to point out that they do so much more than that. Manipulations are not administered to all their patients, they say. This survey is a reminder (there is plenty more evidence on this issue) of the fact that the argument is not very convincing.

Another survey which has just been published in time for the ‘celebratory month’ is worth mentioning. It reports the responses of patients to questions about chiropractic by providing the ‘positive angle’, e.g.: ‘Most (61.4%) respondents believed that chiropractic care was effective at treating neck and back pain…’ Just for the fun of it, I thought it might be worth doing the opposite: 39% did not believe that chiropractic care was effective at treating neck and back pain… If we use this approach, the new survey also indicates that about half of the respondents did not think chiropractors were trustworthy, and 86% have not consulted a chiropractor within the last year.

Oh, so sorry – I did not mean to spoil the celebrations! Better move on then!

A third survey assessed the attitudes of Canadian obstetricians towards chiropractic. Overall, 70% of respondents did not hold a positive views toward chiropractic, 74% did not agree that chiropractic had a role in treatment of non-musculoskeletal conditions, 60% did not refer at least some patients for chiropractic care each year, and comments of the obstetricians revealed concerns regarding safety of spinal manipulation and variability among chiropractors.

And now I better let you get on with your well-deserved celebrations and look for another bottle!

Embedded image permalink

The question why patients turn to homeopathy – or indeed any other disproven treatment – has puzzled many people. There has been a flurry of research into these issues. Here is the abstract of a paper that I find very remarkable and truly fascinating:

Interviews with 100 homeopathic patients in the San Francisco Bay Area show that for the most part the patients are young, white and well-educated, and have white-collar jobs; most had previously tried mainstream medical care and found it unsatisfactory. Among the reasons for their dissatisfaction were instances of negative side effects from medication, lack of nutritional or preventive medical counseling, and lack of health education. Experiences with conventional physicians were almost evenly divided: nearly half of the subjects reported poor experiences, slightly fewer reported good experiences. Three quarters of the patients suffered from chronic illness and about half considered their progress to be good under homeopathic care. The majority were simultaneously involved in other nontraditional health care activities.

If you read the full article, you will see that the authors make further important points:

  • Patients who use alternative treatments are by no means ignorant or unsophisticated.
  • Most of these patients use other treatments in parallel – but they seem to attribute any improvements in their condition to homeopathy.
  • Dissatisfaction with conventional medicine seems the prime motivation to turn to homeopathy. In particular, patients need more time with their clinician and want to share the responsibility for their own health – and these needs are met by homeopaths better than by conventional doctors.
  • Most homeopaths (63%) adhere to Hahnemann’s dictum that homeopathic remedies must never be combined with other treatments. This renders then potentially dangerous in many situations.

At this point you might say BUT WE KNEW ALL THIS BEFORE! True! Why then do I find this paper so remarkable?

It is remarkable mostly because of its publication date: 1978! In fact, it may well be the very first of hundreds of similar surveys that followed in the years since.

The questions I ask myself are these:


Some people seem to believe that the field of alternative medicine resembles a quaint little cottage industry where money hardly matters. A new analysis shows how far from the truth this impression is.

In the 2007 US National Health Interview Survey, use of complementary health approaches, reasons for this use, and associated out of pocket (OOP) costs were captured in a nationally representative sample of 5,467 US adults. Ordinary least square regression models that controlled for co-morbid conditions were used to estimate aggregate and per person OOP costs associated with 14 painful health conditions.

The analyses suggest that individuals using complementary approaches spent a total of $14.9 billion OOP on these approaches to manage three painful conditions: arthritis, back pain and fibromyalgia. Around 7.5 billion of that total was spent on consulting practitioners such as chiropractors and acupuncturists. Total OOP expenditures seen in those using complementary approaches for their back pain ($8.7 billion) far outstripped that of any other condition, with the majority of these costs ($4.7 billion) resulting from visits to complementary providers. Annual condition-specific per-person OOP costs varied from a low of $568 for regular headaches, to a high of $895 for fibromyalgia. The total expenditure on complementary medicine was comparable to that on conventional care.

The authors concluded that adults in the United States spent $14.9 billion OOP on complementary health approaches (e.g., acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicines) to manage painful conditions including back pain ($8.7 billion). This back pain estimate is almost 1/3rd of total conventional healthcare expenditures for back pain ($30.4 billion) and 2/3rds higher than conventional OOP expenditures ($5.1 billion).

These are truly eye-watering sums. The obvious question is: IS THIS MONEY WELL-SPENT?

The short answer, I fear, is NO!

The alternative therapies in question are not based on compelling evidence in the management of these painful conditions. Some are clearly not better than placebo, and others are apparently supported by some research but its quality is hardly good enough to rely upon.

This level expenditure is both impressive and worrying. It highlights an enormous waste of resources, alerts us to an urgent need for truly rigorous research, and demonstrates how high the stakes really are.

No, this post is not about the human cost of homeopathy. I have written about this subject already rather a lot, I think. This post is about the money we dish out for homeopathy. This should be a very straight forward issue – but unfortunately it isn’t, and I find it rather intriguing that there can be so much uncertainty about such simple questions.

Homeopathy is cheap, people say. Mr Smallwood even claimed that we can all save millions, if we only used more of it. I am not sure that this is true.

The typical homeopathic remedy is not very expensive – and it shouldn’t be, after all, there is nothing in it! Paradoxically, the less likely you are to have even a remote chance of finding a single ‘active’ molecule in a homeopathic remedy, the more you might have to pay for it. The reason is simple: the homeopathic dilution process can be time-consuming, and time is of course money. Thus high potencies would normally be quite expensive.

So how much do we spend on homeopathic remedies? As a society or nation, we seem to be spending quite a lot. In Britain, the NHS apparently pays around £ 5 million per year for homeopathic remedies. Consumers in the US are said to spend about $ 3 billion each year. The Germans are known to be keener than most on homeopathy, and they spend around 500 million Euros per year.

But are these the real costs of homeopathy? Certainly not!

The real costs should include the time for the clinicians. As homeopathic consultations can be longer than one hour, this might amount to a tidy sum. Yet realistic figures are difficult to find.

To these costs we should add the costs for educating and training the homeopaths, the costs for the support staff, the costs for the premises where homeopathy is practised, and many other costs that I don’t even know about.

There is little doubt therefore that homeopathy is expensive. I would love to know the exact figures per year by different countries. Unfortunately I cannot even begin to estimate them. Let’s hope that my readers know more and are able to enlighten us.

This study created a media storm when it was first published. Several articles in the lay press seemed to advertise it as though a true breakthrough had been made in the treatment of hypertension. I would not be surprised, if many patients consequently threw their anti-hypertensives over board and queued up at their local acupuncturist.

Good for business, no doubt – but would this be a wise decision?

The aim of this clinical trial was to examine effectiveness of electroacupuncture (EA) for reducing systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressures (DBP) in hypertensive patients. Sixty-five hypertensive patients not receiving medication were assigned randomly to one of two acupuncture intervention. Patients were assessed with 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitoring. They were treated by 4 acupuncturists with 30-minutes of EA at PC 5-6+ST 36-37 or LI 6-7+GB 37-39 (control group) once weekly for 8 weeks. Primary outcomes measuring effectiveness of EA were peak and average SBP and DBP. Secondary outcomes examined underlying mechanisms of acupuncture with plasma norepinephrine, renin, and aldosterone before and after 8 weeks of treatment. Outcomes were obtained by blinded evaluators.

After 8 weeks, 33 patients treated with EA at PC 5-6+ST 36-37 had decreased peak and average SBP and DBP, compared with 32 patients treated with EA at LI 6-7+GB 37-39 control acupoints. Changes in blood pressures significantly differed between the two patient groups. In 14 patients, a long-lasting blood pressure–lowering acupuncture effect was observed for an additional 4 weeks of EA at PC 5-6+ST 36-37. After treatment, the plasma concentration of norepinephrine, which was initially elevated, was decreased by 41%; likewise, renin was decreased by 67% and aldosterone by 22%.

The authors concluded that EA at select acupoints reduces blood pressure. Sympathetic and renin-aldosterone systems were likely related to the long-lasting EA actions.

These results are baffling, to say the least; and they contradict a recent meta-analysis which did not find that acupuncture without antihypertensive medications significantly improves blood pressure in those hypertensive patients.

So, who is right and who is wrong here?

Or shall we just look for alternative explanations of the effects observed in the new study?

There could be dozens of reasons for these findings that are unrelated to the alleged effects of acupuncture. For instance, they could be due to life-style changes suggested to the experimental but not the control group, or they might be caused by some other undisclosed bias or confounding. At the very minimum, we should insist on an independent replication of this trial.

It would be silly, I think, to trust these results and now recommend acupuncture to the millions of hypertensive patients worldwide, particularly as dozens of safe, cheap and very effective treatments for hypertension do already exist.

All across the world we see initiatives to regulate alternative medicine. The most recent news in this sphere comes from Switzerland. The ‘Swissinfo’ website reported that the training of alternative medicine practitioners is to be regulated by creating a ‘COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE DIPLOMA’.

The decision was welcomed by the Organisation of Swiss Alternative Medicine Professionals (OdA KT), which will conduct the exams for the diploma in question. The five therapies selected by the government for the complementary medicine diploma are yoga, ayurveda, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and eutony. The first exams are expected to be held in 2016.

“Recognition by the state provides an important political basis for these therapies,” Christoph Q Meier, secretary general of OdA KT told swissinfo.ch. “The diploma will also improve the quality of therapy offered in Switzerland, as until now anybody could call themselves a therapist.” Meier estimates that there are between 12-15,000 practitioners of complementary therapies in Switzerland. Applicants for the national diploma will first have to pass a series of pre-exams. However, those with recognised qualifications and at least five years of experience could be exempt from the pre-exams. The exam is open to foreign nationals but will only be offered in German, French and Italian. In April this year, ayurveda was also included for a separate national diploma in naturopathy medicine along with Chinese and European traditional medicine, as well as homeopathy. Switzerland has around 3,000 naturopaths.

Whenever issues like this come up, I ask myself: IS REGULATION OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE A GOOD OR A BAD THING?

On the one hand, one might be pleased to hear that therapists receive some training and that not everyone who feels like it can do this job. On the other hand, it has to be said that regulation of nonsense will inevitably result in nonsense. What is more, regulation will also be misused by the practitioners to claim that their treatment is now well-established and supported by the government. This phenomenon can already be seen in the comments above and it misleads the public who understandably believe that, once a form of health care is regulated officially, it must be evidence-based.

So, what is the solution? I wish I knew the answer.

Any suggestion is welcomed.

Wet cupping is a therapy traditionally used in several cultures. It involves superficial injuries to the skin and subsequently the application of a vacuum cup over the injured site. This procedure would draw a small amount of blood into the cup, and this visible effect was taken as a sign that the humors or life forces or whatever are being restored.

The treatment is obviously painful and carries the risk of infection. But does it work? There are not many clinical trials of this form of alternative medicine, and I was therefore thrilled to find a new paper with a randomised clinical trial.

The aim of this clinical trial was to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of wet cupping therapy as the sole treatment for persistent nonspecific low back pain (PNSLBP). The investigators recruited 80 with PNSLBP lasting at least 3 months and randomly allocated them to an intervention group (n=40) or to a control group (n=40). The experimental group had 6 wet cupping sessions within 2 weeks, each of which were done at two bladder meridian (BL) acupuncture points. The control group had no such treatments. Acetaminophen was allowed as a rescue treatment in both groups. The Numeric Rating Scale (NRS), McGill Present Pain Intensity (PPI), and Oswestry Disability Questionnaire (ODQ) were used as outcome measures. Numbers of acetaminophen tablets taken were compared at 4 weeks from baseline. Adverse events were recorded.

At the end of the intervention, statistically significant differences in all three outcome measures favouring the wet cupping group compared with the control group were seen. These improvements continued for another two weeks after the end of the intervention. Acetaminophen was used less in the wet cupping group, but this difference was not statistically significant. No adverse events were reported.

The authors concluded that wet cupping is potentially effective in reducing pain and improving disability associated with PNSLBP at least for 2 weeks after the end of the wet cupping period. Placebo-controlled trials are needed.

Every now and then – well, actually in alternative medicine this is not so rare an event – I come across a study that ‘smells to high heaven’. This one certainly does; to be precise, it has the stench of TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.

Apart from the numerous weaknesses of the study design, there is the fact that the results are do simply not seem plausible. Low back pain has a natural history that is well-studied. We therefore know that the majority of cases do get better fairly quickly regardless of whether we treat them or not. In this study, the control group did not improve at all, as shown on the impressive graph below (the grey line depicts the symptoms in the control group and the black one those of the cupping group).

To me, the improvement of the experimental group looks much like one might expect from the natural history of back pain. If this were true, the effect of wet cupping would by close to zero and the conclusion drawn by the authors of this trial would be false-positive.

But why was there no improvement in the control group?

I do not know the answer to this question. All I know is that it is this unexplained phenomenon which has created the impression of effectiveness of wet cupping.

When it comes to alternative medicine, the public relies heavily on the writings of health journalists. We therefore have to count ourselves lucky to have some that are outstanding in their ability to inform the public honestly, objectively and responsibly. Here is an excerpt of what one particularly gifted and ethical heath journalist (and consultant!!!) just published regarding the treatment of babies and kids on a highly visible, popular website:

Homeopathy, or homeopathic medicine, is based on the principle that “like cures like.” Instead of treating an individual’s illness, homeopathy treats individual symptoms with substances from plants and minerals that are highly diluted and “succussed,” or shaken to release energy, said Sara Chana Silverstein, a homeopath, master herbalist and an international board-certified lactation consultant…Although homeopathy isn’t meant to replace Western medicine, it can be a complementary or alternative approach for ailments like colds, the stomach flu and teething. For example, if your pediatrician has diagnosed your baby with an upper respiratory infection, there’s not much you can do other than offer lots of fluids, rest and possibly acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In this case, a homeopathic remedy might help. Plus, since antibiotic overuse and antimicrobial resistance remain a major concern in the U.S., and antibiotics often have side effects, homeopathy could help heal without the need for a prescription. In fact, a study in the journal Homeopathy found that homeopathy for ear infections was just as effective as conventional treatment but patients in the homeopathic group had a faster improvement in symptoms. Although some studies show promising results, more research is needed to determine who homeopathic remedies work best for and in what situations, said Dr. Hilary McClafferty, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Complementary and Integrative Medicine…

“In the United, States, the homeopathic products that carry the label, HPUS

Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States— are prepared with a very standardized, procedural monograph. So there is a map and regulations that ensure what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle,” McClafferty said…The only adverse effect of homeopathy, according to Silverstein, is that if a baby consumed a remedy too frequently, such as every hour for 10 hours, they would “prove” the remedy, or create the symptoms the remedy was trying to heal. “But if you gave it to a child 3 times a day at a low dose, personally I do not believe it could injure a child in anyway whatsoever,” she said…Your best bet is to see a trained homeopath who will target individual symptoms and give you pellets in the size that’s appropriate for your child’s age, Silverstein said. The bottom line when it comes to deciding between homeopathy, a medication or another remedy? “You want to be well educated, conservative and in touch with your pediatrician,” McClafferty said.

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.

As I said: outstanding!

With so much sound information about homeopathy and its merits in the treatment of childhood conditions, we are inclined to forgive the few tiny errors and marginally misleading statements that might require corrections such as:

  • homeopathy is very much meant as a replacement of conventional medicine by its inventor Hahnemann who was adamant that it must not be combined with other treatments because it is the only true healing art;
  • there is no good evidence that homeopathy is anything else than a placebo for children or, indeed, for anyone else;
  • the study in the journal ‘Homeopathy’ was lousy and does not allow any conclusions whatsoever about the effectiveness of homeopathy;
  • to state “some studies show promising results” is very misleading; the totality of the reliable evidence is negative;
  • more research is not needed to determine who benefits from homeopathy; there is no longer a debate about homeopathy within science;
  • the label of a typical homeopathic preparation does not tell you what’s in the bottle, at best it tells you what used to be there;
  • the main risk of homeopathy is that diseases are not treated effectively; in this way, homeopathy can kill.

Yes, these are but very minor flaws, I know. They should not distract from this journalist’s great achievement of getting her brilliantly informative article read by the widest possible audience. If Prince Charles offered an award for the best science writer of the year (why has he not yet thought of this publicity stunt?), she would certainly be a candidate.

1 2 3 57

Recent Comments

Note that comments can now be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.

Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.