The new guidelines by the American College of Physicians entitled ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’ have already been the subject of the previous post. Today, I want to have a closer look at a small section of these guidelines which, I think, is crucial. It is entitled ‘HARMS OF NONPHARMACOLOGIC THERAPIES’. I have taken the liberty of copying it below:

“Evidence on adverse events from the included RCTs and systematic reviews was limited, and the quality of evidence for all available harms data is low. Harms were poorly reported (if they were reported at all) for most of the interventions.

Low-quality evidence showed no reported harms or serious adverse events associated with tai chi, psychological interventions, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, ultrasound, acupuncture, lumbar support, or traction (9,95,150,170–174). Low-quality evidence showed that when harms were reported for exercise, they were often related to muscle soreness and increased pain, and no serious harms were reported. All reported harms associated with yoga were mild to moderate (119). Low-quality evidence showed that none of the RCTs reported any serious adverse events with massage, although 2 RCTs reported soreness during or after massage therapy (175,176). Adverse events associated with spinal manipulation included muscle soreness or transient increases in pain (134). There were few adverse events reported and no clear differences between MCE and controls. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation was associated with an increased risk for skin site reaction but not serious adverse events (177). Two RCTs (178,179) showed an increased risk for skin flushing with heat compared with no heat or placebo, and no serious adverse events were reported. There were no data on cold therapy. Evidence was insufficient to determine harms of electrical muscle stimulation, LLLT, percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, interferential therapy, short-wave diathermy, and taping.”

The first thing that strikes me is the brevity of the section. Surely, guidelines of this nature must include a full discussion of the risks of the treatments in question!

The second thing that is noteworthy is the fact that the authors confirm the fact I have been banging on about for years: clinical trials of alternative therapies far too often fail to mention adverse effects.  I have often pointed out that the failure to report adverse effects in clinical trials is an unacceptable violation of medical ethics. By contrast, the guideline authors seem not to feel strongly about this omission.

The third thing that is noteworthy is that the guidelines evaluate the harms of the treatments purely on the basis of the adverse effects reported in the clinical trials and systematic reviews included in their efficacy assessments. This is nonsensical for at least two reasons:

  1. The guideline authors themselves are aware that the trials very often fail to mention adverse effects.
  2. For any assessment of harm, one has to go far beyond the evidence of clinical trials, because trials tend to be too small to pick up rare adverse effects, and because they are always conducted under optimally controlled conditions where adverse effects are less likely to occur than in real life.

Together, these features of the assessment of harms explain why the guideline authors arrive at conclusions which are oddly misguided; I would even feel that they resemble a white-wash. Here are two of the most overt misjudgements:

  • no harms associated with acupuncture,
  • only trivial harm associated with spinal manipulations.

The best evidence we have today shows that acupuncture leads to mild adverse effects in about 10% of all cases and is also associated with very severe complications (e.g. pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, infections, deaths) in an unknown number of patients. More details can be found for instance here, here, here and here.

And the best evidence available shows that spinal manipulation leads to moderately severe adverse effects in ~50% of all cases. In addition, we know of hundreds of cases of very severe complications resulting in stroke, permanent neurological deficits or deaths. More details can be found for instance here, here, here and here.

In the introduction, I stated that this small section of the guidelines is crucial.


The reason is simple: any responsible therapeutic decision has to be based not just on the efficacy of the treatment in question but on its risk/benefit balance. The evidence shows that the risks of some alternative therapies can be considerable, a fact that is almost totally neglected in the guidelines. Therefore, the recommendations of the new guidelines by the American College of Physicians entitled ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’ are in several aspects not entirely correct and need to be reconsidered.

One Response to Harms of Nonpharmacologic Therapies (the new ACP guideline)

  • ACP recommend massage but not exercise for acute or sub-acute low back pain, and exercise but not massage for chronic low back pain.

    Does the quality of evidence really support such fine distinctions?

    For chronic but not acute/sub-acute LBP, ACP recommend mindfulness-based stress reduction, tai chi, yoga, motor control exercise, progressive relaxation, electromyography biofeedback, low-level laser therapy, operant therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy.

    Spinal manipulation and acupuncture are recommended for both categories of LBP.

    ACP’s recommendations for non-invasive, non-pharmacological treatments differ from those of NICE.

    NICE universally recommends exercise (biomechanical, aerobic, mind–body or a combination of approaches). A number of other therapies are recommended, but only as an addition to exercise. These are spinal manipulation/mobilisation, massage and cognitive behavioural psychotherapies. Acupuncture is not recommended.

    NICE puts an emphasis on exercise, particularly group exercise; ACP places an emphasis on acupuncture and spinal manipulation – individual treatments.

    NICE does not mention possible harmful effects of recommended treatments but does discuss cost-benefits.

    NICE exists within the context of the National Health Service; ACP within the context of private medicine.

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