alternative medicine

Swiss chiropractors have just published a clinical trial to investigate outcomes of patients with radiculopathy due to cervical disk herniation (CDH). All patients had neck pain and dermatomal arm pain; sensory, motor, or reflex changes corresponding to the involved nerve root and at least one positive orthopaedic test for cervical radiculopathy were included. CDH was confirmed by magnetic resonance imaging. All patients received regular neck manipulations.

Baseline data included two pain numeric rating scales (NRSs), for neck and arm, and the Neck Disability Index (NDI). At two, four and twelve weeks after the initial consultation, patients were contacted by telephone, and the data for NDI, NRSs, and patient’s global impression of change were collected. High-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts were administered by experienced chiropractors. The proportion of patients reporting to feel “better” or “much better” on the patient’s global impression of change scale was calculated. Pre-treatment and post-treatment NRSs and NDIs were analysed.

Fifty patients were included. At two weeks, 55.3% were “improved,” 68.9% at four and 85.7% at twelve weeks. Statistically significant decreases in neck pain, arm pain, and NDI scores were noted at 1 and 3 months compared with baseline scores. 76.2% of all sub-acute/chronic patients were improved at 3 months.

The authors concluded that most patients in this study, including sub-acute/chronic patients, with symptomatic magnetic resonance imaging-confirmed CDH treated with spinal manipulative therapy, reported significant improvement with no adverse events.

In the presence of disc herniation, chiropractic manipulations have been described to cause serious complications. Some experts therefore believe that CDH is a contra-indication for spinal manipulation. The authors of this study imply, however, that it is not – on the contrary, they think it is an effective intervention for CDH.

One does not need to be a sceptic to notice that the basis for this assumption is less than solid. The study had no control group. This means that the observed effect could have been due to:

a placebo response,

the regression towards the mean,

the natural history of the condition,

concomitant treatments,

social desirability,

or other factors which have nothing to do with the chiropractic intervention per se.

And what about the interesting finding that no adverse-effects were noted? Does that mean that the treatment is safe? Sorry, but it most certainly does not! In order to generate reliable results about possibly rare complications, the study would have needed to include not 50 but well over 50 000 patients.

So what does the study really tell us? I have pondered over this question for some time and arrived at the following answer: NOTHING!

Is that a bit harsh? Well, perhaps yes. And I will revise my verdict slightly: the study does tell us something, after all – chiropractors tend to confuse research with the promotion of very doubtful concepts at the expense of their patients. I think, there is a name for this phenomenon: PSEUDO-SCIENCE.

The ‘NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF HEALTH SCIENCES (NUHS) started life as the ‘NATIONAL SCHOOL OF CHIROPRACTIC’, in 1906 in Davenport, Iowa. In 1908, it moved to Chicago, because its founder desired a more scientifically rigorous academic culture.  On their web-site, we are informed that the NUHS now offers degree programs in chiropractic medicine, naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, Chinese medicine and biomedical sciences. The university also offers certificate programs for massage therapy and chiropractic assistants. Researchers from the NUHS have recently published an article with findings which, I think, are remarkable.

The aim of this retrospective chart-review was to identify the percentage of non-musculoskeletal and musculoskeletal conditions treated by interns in the NUHS Student Clinic. The information was taken from the charts of patients treated in the fall trimester of 2011.

The results show that 52% of all patients were treated only for musculoskeletal conditions, and 48% were treated for non-musculoskeletal conditions, or musculoskeletal plus non-musculoskeletal conditions.

The authors draw the following conclusions: The NUHS Student Clinic interns are treating a greater percentage of non-musculoskeletal conditions and a lesser percentage of musculoskeletal conditions than practicing chiropractic physicians. The student interns also treat a lesser percentage of non-musculoskeletal and a greater percentage of musculoskeletal conditions than allopathic practitioners. This comparison would suggest that NUHS is nearing its institutional goal of training its student interns as primary care practitioners.

The very last sentence of the conclusions is particularly surprising, in my view. Do these findings really imply that the NUHS is training competent primary care practitioners? I fail to see that the data demonstrate this. On the contrary, I think they show that some US chiropractic schools want to promote the notion that chiropractors are, in fact, primary care physicians. More worryingly, I fear that this article demonstrates how, through the diligent work of chiropractic schools, the myth is being kept alive that chiropractic is effective for all sorts of non-musculoskeletal conditions. In other words, I think we might here have a fine example of unsubstantiated beliefs being handed from one to the next generation of chiropractors.

Evidence-based chiropractic my foot! They continue to “happily promote bogus claims”.

One thing that unites all (well, almost all, in my experience) proponents of alternative medicine is their intense dislike for BIG PHARMA. Essentially, they see this sector as:

  1. Driven by profit
  2. Employing unethical means to maximise profit
  3. Not caring for the needs of patients
  4. Attacking alternative medicine for fear of losing profit

And, of course, they claim that alternative medicine, LITTLE ALT MED, is fundamentally different from the cynically capitalist, malign BIG PHARMA.

I have no intention to defend the ways of the pharmaceutical industry – neither on this blog nor anywhere else. This industry is usually responsible to their share-holders and that constellation can lead to excesses which are counter-productive to our needs, to put it mildly. However, what I will question is the notion that LITTLE ALT MED is fundamentally different from BIG PHARMA.

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We all have to make a living; to some extend at least we are therefore all driven by our desire to earn money. In alternative medicine, there are certainly not as many mega-enterprises as in the pharmaceutical industry but nobody can deny that many sizable firms exist which make a profit selling alternative remedies of one type or another.

And those parts of alternative medicine which are not into the sale of remedies, you may well ask – think of acupuncture, for instance. Well, those therapists are not exempt either from the need to make a living. Sure, this is on a different scale from BIG PHARMA, but it constitutes still a need for profit. If we multiply the relatively small sums involved by the vast number of therapists, the grand total of LITTLE ALT MED might approach similar orders of magnitude as that of BIG PHARMA.

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Ok, but the alternative sector would not employ unethical means for securing or maximising profits! Wrong again, I am afraid.

My 20 years of experience of LITTLE ALT MED have let me witness several incidents which I would not hesitate to call unethical. One of the most recent and least pleasant, from my point of view, was the discovery that several German homeopathic manufacturers had given money to a ‘journalist’ who used these funds to systematically defame me.

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What about the charge that BIG PHARMA does not care for the suffering patient? LITTLE ALT MED would never do that!!! Sadly this is a myth too.

Alternative practitioners and their organisations make a plethora of therapeutic claims which are not substantiated. Who would deny that misleading patients into making wrong health care decisions is not the opposite from ‘caring’? What seems even worse, in my view, is the behaviour that might follow the exposure of such behaviour. If someone is courageous enough to disclose the irresponsibility of bogus claims, he might be attacked or even taken to court by those who, in reality should be in the dock or, at least, do their utmost to get their house in order.

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Finally, we have the notion of BIG PHARMA trying to suppress LITTLE ALT MED. I call this a myth too because I see absolutely no evidence for this rumour. Even those who circulate it can, when challenged, not produce any.

And, anyway, we all know how many of the big pharmaceutical firms buy into the alternative medicine market as soon as they see a commercially viable opportunity. Does that look like suppression?

So, what is the conclusion? BIG PHARMA can behave badly, no doubt, and when they do, I am as disgusted as the next man. However, LITTLE ALT MED also can behave badly – in fact, wherever there is money to be made, some people will behave badly some of the time.

Perhaps we should not judge an entire sector just by the bad actions of some of its members, but perhaps we should also consider whether or not it has done any good. Who would doubt that BIG PHARMA has helped to save lives – millions of lives?!

And now ask yourself: can we honestly say the same about LITTLE ALT MED?

Australian researchers wanted to know whether acupuncture is effective for alleviating the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a common painful condition for which no universally accepted treatment exists. For this purpose, they conducted a Cochrane review. After extensive literature searches, they identified 9 RCTs, extracted their data and assessed risk of bias.

The results show that all studies except one were at low risk of selection bias; five were at risk of selective reporting bias; two were subject to attrition bias (favouring acupuncture); three were subject to performance bias (favouring acupuncture) and one to detection bias (favouring acupuncture).

Three studies utilised electro-acupuncture (EA) and the remainder manual acupuncture (MA) without electrical stimulation.

Low quality evidence from one study (13 participants) showed EA improved symptoms with no adverse events at one month following treatment.

Moderate quality evidence from six studies (286 participants) indicated that acupuncture (EA or MA) was no better than sham acupuncture, except for less stiffness at one month. Subgroup analysis of two studies (104 participants) indicated benefits of EA. Mean pain was 70 points on 0 to 100 point scale with sham treatment; EA reduced pain by 13% (5% to 22%).

Low-quality evidence from one study suggested that MA resulted in poorer physical function: mean function in the sham group was 28 points (100 point scale); treatment worsened function by a mean of 6 points.

Moderate quality evidence from one study (58 participants) found that, compared with standard therapy alone (antidepressants and exercise), adjunct acupuncture therapy reduced pain at one month after treatment.

Low quality evidence from one study (38 participants) showed a short-term benefit of acupuncture over antidepressants in pain relief.

Moderate-quality evidence from one study (41 participants) indicated that deep needling with or without deqi did not differ in pain, fatigue, function or adverse events.

Four studies reported no differences between acupuncture and control or other treatments described at six to seven months follow-up.

No serious adverse events were reported, but there were insufficient adverse events to be certain of the risks.

The authors draw the following conclusions: There is low to moderate-level evidence that compared with no treatment and standard therapy, acupuncture improves pain and stiffness in people with fibromyalgia. There is moderate-level evidence that the effect of acupuncture does not differ from sham acupuncture in reducing pain or fatigue, or improving sleep or global well-being. EA is probably better than MA for pain and stiffness reduction and improvement of global well-being, sleep and fatigue. The effect lasts up to one month, but is not maintained at six months follow-up. MA probably does not improve pain or physical functioning. Acupuncture appears safe. People with fibromyalgia may consider using EA alone or with exercise and medication. The small sample size, scarcity of studies for each comparison, lack of an ideal sham acupuncture weaken the level of evidence and its clinical implications. Larger studies are warranted.

What does all that mean? In my view, it means that there is no sound evidence base for acupuncture as a treatment of fibromyalgia – or as we expressed it in our own systematic review of 2007: The notion that acupuncture is an effective symptomatic treatment for fibromyaligia is not supported by the results from rigorous clinical trials. On the basis of this evidence, acupuncture cannot be recommended for fibromyalgia.

Chiropractors across the world tend to make false claims. This has been shown with such embarrassing regularity that there is no longer any question about it. Should someone have the courage to disclose and criticises this habit, chiropractors tend to attack their critic, rather than putting their house in order. One of their more devious strategies, in my view, is their insistence on claiming to effectively treat all sorts of childhood conditions.

What could be more evil than treating sick children with ineffective and harmful spinal manipulations? The answer is surprisingly simple: PREVENTING CHILDREN FROM PROFITTING FROM ONE OF THE MOST BENEFICIAL INTERVENTIONS EVER DISCOVERED!

The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) is an organisation which seems to support anti-vaxers of various kinds. Officially they try hard to give the image of being neutral about vaccinations and state that they are dedicated to the prevention of vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and to defending the informed consent ethic in medicine. As an independent clearinghouse for information on diseases and vaccines, NVIC does not advocate for or against the use of vaccines. We support the availability of all preventive health care options, including vaccines, and the right of consumers to make educated, voluntary health care choices.

In my view, this is thinly disguised promotion of an anti-vaccination stance. The NVIC recently made the following announcement:

The International Chiropractic Pediatric Association (ICPA), which was founded by Dr. Larry Webster and represents doctors of chiropractic caring for children, has supported NVIC’s mission to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and to protect informed consent rights for more than two decades. ICPA’s 2013 issue of Pathways to Family Wellness magazine features an article written by Barbara Loe Fisher on “The Moral Right to Religious and Conscientious Belief Exemptions to Vaccination.”

Pathways to Family Wellness is a full-color, quarterly publication that offers parents timely, relevant information about health and wellness options that will help them make conscious health choices for their families. ICPA offers NVIC donor supporters and NVIC Newsletter subscribers a complimentary digital version or print version of Pathways to Family Wellness magazine at a significant discount. Visit the Pathways subscription page and, when checking out in the shopping cart, add the exclusive code: NVIC. 

ICPA also has initiated parenting support groups that meet monthly to discuss health and parenting topics. Meetings are hosted by local doctors of chiropractic and the Pathways website features a directory of local groups. ICPA Executive Director Dr. Jeanne Ohm said “We look forward to many more years of collaborating with NVIC to forward our shared goal of enhancing and protecting the ability of parents to make fully informed health and wellness choices for their children.”

Why, we may well ask, are so many chiropractors against immunisations? The answer might be found in the history of chiropractic. Their founding fathers believed and taught that “subluxations” are the cause of all human diseases. To uphold this ridiculous creed, it was necessary to deny that infections play an important role in many illnesses. In other words, early chiropractors negated the germ theory of disease. Today, of course, they claim that all of this is ancient history – but the stance of many chiropractors against immunisations discloses fairly clearly, I think, that this is not true. Many chiropractic institutions still teach obsolete pseudo-knowledge and many chiropractors seem unable to totally free themselves from such obvious nonsense.

But back to the ICPA: they profess to be a non-profit organization whose mission is to engage and serve family chiropractors worldwide through education, training, and research, establishing evidenced informed practice, excellence in professional skills and unity in a global community which cooperatively and enthusiastically participates in advancing chiropractic for both the profession and the public.

What does “evidence informed practice” mean? This bizarre creation is alarmingly popular with quacks of all kinds and seems to aim at misleading the unsuspecting public. It clearly has little to do with EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE as globally adopted by responsible clinicians. If not, the ICPA would inform its members and the public at large that immunisations are amongst the most successful preventive measures in the history of medicine. It is hard to think of another medical intervention where the benefits so clearly and hugely outweigh the risks. Immunisations have saved more lives than most other medical treatments. To not make this crystal clear to concerned parents is, in my view, wholly irresponsible.

Two of the top US general medical journals have just published articles which somehow smell of the promotion of quackery. A relatively long comment on alternative medicine, entitled THE FUTURE OF INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE appeared in THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF MEDICINE and another one entitled PERSPECTIVES ON COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE RESEARCH in THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION. As this sort of thing does not happen that often, it is perhaps worth having a closer look at these publications. The JAMA-article has already been analysed skilfully by Orac, so I will not criticise it further. In the following text, the passages which are in italics are direct quotes from the AJM-article, while the interceptions in normal print are my comments on it.

…a field of unconventional medicine has evolved that has been known by a progression of names: holistic medicine, complementary and alternative medicine, and now integrative medicine. These are NOT synonyms, and there are many more names which have been forgotten, e.g. fringe, unorthodox, natural medicine It is hoped that the perspectives offered by integrative medicine will eventually transform mainstream medicine by improving patient outcomes, reducing costs, improving safety, and increasing patient satisfaction. Am I the only one to feel this sentence is a platitude?

Integrative medicine has been defined as “the practice of medicine that reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient, focuses on the whole person, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches, healthcare professionals and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.” There is, in fact, no accepted definition; the most remarkable bit in this one is perhaps the term “informed by evidence” which, as we will see shortly, is by no means the same as “evidence-based”, the accepted term and principle in medicine.

The most obvious differences between integrative and conventional medicine are its practitioners, who offer longer consultations and emphasize minimally invasive therapies, such as mind-body approaches, nutrition, prevention, and lifestyle changes, and focus on healing and wellness. Come again! Is that supposed to mean that conventional doctors do not employ “minimally invasive therapies or prevention or nutrition etc.”? In addition to conventional therapies, they may recommend alternatives, such as acupuncture, dietary supplements, and botanicals. BINGO! The difference between integrative and conventional physicians is quite simply that the former put an emphasis on unproven treatments; evidence my foot! This is just quackery by a different name. The doctor-patient relationship emphasizes joint decision-making by the patient and the physician. Yes, that may be true, but it does so in any type of good health care. To imply that the doctor-patient relationship and joint decision-making is an invention of integrative medicine is utter nonsense. 

More and more patients seek integrative medicine practitioners. By 2007, approximately 40% of adult Americans and 12% of children were using some form of alternative therapies compared with 33% in 1991.

The number of US hospitals offering integrative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, therapeutic touch, and guided imagery, has increased from 8% in 1998 to 42% in 2010.Many academic cancer centers offer these integrative practices as part of a full spectrum of care. Other hospitals offer programs in integrative women’s health, cardiology, and pain management. But why? I think the authors forgot to mention that the main reason here is to make money.

Despite the increasing number of patients seeking alternative therapies, until recently, many of these skills were not routinely offered in medical schools or graduate medical education. Yet they are critical competencies and essential to stemming the tide of chronic diseases threatening to overwhelm both our health care and our financial systems. Essential? Really? Most alternative therapies are, in fact, unproven or disproven! Further, conventional medical journals rarely contained articles about alternative therapies until 1998 when the Journal of the American Medical Association and its affiliated journals published more than 60 articles on the theme of complementary and alternative medicine.

The National Institutes of Health established an office in 1994 and a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998. Because many alternative therapies date back thousands of years, their efficacy has not been tested in randomized clinical trials. The reasons for the lack of research may be complex but they have very little to do with the long history of the modalities in question. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine provides the funds to conduct appropriate trials of these therapies. The NCCAM- funded studies have been criticised over and over again and most scientists find them not at all “appropriate”. They also have funded education research and programs in both conventional medical nursing schools and complementary and alternative medicine professional schools. Outcomes of these studies are being published in the conventional medical literature. Not exactly true! Much of it is published in journals of alternative medicine. Also, the authors forgot to mention that none of the studies of NCCAM have ever convincingly shown an alternative treatment to work.

Integrative medicine began to have an impact on medical education when 8 medical school deans met in 1999 to discuss complementary and alternative medicine. This meeting led to the establishment of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, composed initially of 11 academic centers. By 2012, this group had grown to 54 medical and health profession schools in the United States, Canada, and Mexico that have established integrative medicine programs. The consortium’s first international research conference on integrative medicine was held in 2006, with subsequent research conferences being held in 2009 and 2012. Three conferences? Big deal! I have hosted 14 research conferences in Exeter in as many years. I think, the authors are here blowing up a mouse to look like an elephant.

Multiple academic integrative medicine programs across the country have been supported by National Institutes of Health funding and private contributions, including the Bravewell Collaborative that was founded in 2002 by a group of philanthropists. The goal of the Bravewell Collaborative is “to transform the culture of healthcare by advancing the adoption of Integrative Medicine.” It foremost was an organisation of apologists of alternative medicine and quackery. A high water mark also occurred in 2009 when the Institute of Medicine held a Summit on Integrative Medicine led by Dr Ralph Snyderman. 

There is clear evidence that integrative medicine is becoming part of current mainstream medicine. Really? I would like to see it. Increasing numbers of fellowships in integrative medicine are being offered in our academic health centers. In 2013, there are fellowships in integrative medicine in 13 medical schools. In 2000, the University of Arizona established a 1000-hour online fellowship that has been completed by more than 1000 physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. This online fellowship makes it possible for fellows to continue their clinical practice during their fellowship. I see, this is supposed to be the evidence?

A 200-hour curriculum for Integrative Medicine in Residency has been developed and is now in place in 30 family practice and 2 internal medicine residencies. The curriculum includes many of the topics that are not covered in the medical school curriculum, such as nutrition, mind–body therapies, nutritional and botanical supplements, alternative therapies (eg, acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic), and lifestyle medicine. It is not true that conventional medical schools do not teach about nutrition, psychology etc. Not all might, however, teach overt quackery. A similar curriculum for pediatric residencies is being developed. The eventual goal is to include integrative medicine skills and competencies in all residency programs.


Integrative medicine now has a broad presence in medical education, having evolved because of public demand, student and resident interest, increased research, institutional support, and novel educational programs. Now on the horizon is a more pluralistic, pragmatic approach to medicine that is patient-centered, that offers the broadest range of potential therapies, and that advocates not only the holistic treatment of disease but also prevention, health, and wellness.

Is it not an insult to conventional medicine to imply it is not pluralistic, pragmatic, patient-centred, that it does not offer a broad range of therapies, holism and prevention? This article displays much of what is wrong with the mind-set of the apologists of alternative medicine. The more I think about it, the more I feel that it is a bonanza of fallacies, follies and attempts to white-wash quackery. But I would be interested in how my readers see it.

Researchers from the ‘Complementary and Integrative Medicine Research, Primary Medical Care, University of Southampton’ conducted a study of Professional Kinesiology Practice (PKP) What? Yes, PKP! This is a not widely known alternative method.

According to its proponents, it is unique and a complete kinesiology system… It was developed by a medical doctor, Dr Bruce Dewe and his wife Joan Dewe in the 1980s and has been taught since then in over 16 countries around the world with great success… Kinesiology is a unique and truly holistic science and on the cutting edge of energy medicine. It uses muscle monitoring as a biofeedback system to identify the underlying cause of blockage from the person’s subconscious mind via the nervous system. Muscle monitoring is used to access information from the person’s “biocomputer”, the brain, in relation to the problem or issue and also guides the practitioner to find the priority correction in order to stimulate the person’s innate healing capacity and support their physiology to return to normal function. Kinesiology is unique as it looks beyond symptoms. It recognizes the flows of energy within the body not only relate to the muscles but to every tissue and organ that make the human body a living ever changing organism. These energy flows can be evaluated by testing the function of the muscles, which in turn reflect the body’s overall state of structural, chemical, emotional and spiritual balance. In this way kinesiology taps into energies that the more conventional modalities overlook and helps remove all the guesswork, doubt and hard work of subjective diagnostics. This is a revolutionary way to communicate with the body/mind connection. Through muscle monitoring and the use of over 300 fingermodes we can detect and correct the cause of the problem and effect a long lasting change for better health and wellbeing. Our posture could be considered to be the visual display unit from our internal bio-computer. Our posture / life energy improves as we upgrade the way we respond to life’s constant challenges and demands.

You do not understand? Let me make it crystal clear by citing another PKP-site:

PKP is a phenomenological practice – this means practitioners use manual muscle testing to demonstrate to the client how much or how little they are able to move in relation to their problem. PKP practitioners have tests for more than 100 muscles, and dozens of other tests that they do so they can clearly show you how your movement is affected by your problem. This muscle story shows a person how their life is unfolding, and it also helps to guide on how to transcend the situation and design a future which is more in alignment with nature and the laws of the cosmos… PKP is about living life more wisely.

In case you still have not understood what PKP is, you might have to watch this youtube clip. And now that everyone knows what it is, let us have a look at the new study.

According to its authors, it was an exploratory, pragmatic single-blind, 3-arm randomised sham-controlled pilot trial with waiting list control (WLC) which was conducted in the setting of a UK private practice. Seventy participants scoring ≥4 on the Roland and Morris Disability Questionnaire (RMDQ) were randomised to real or sham PKP receiving one treatment weekly for 5 weeks or a WLC. WLC’s were re-randomised to real or sham after 6 weeks. The main outcome measure was a change in RMDQ from baseline to end of 5 weeks of real or sham PKP.

The results show an effect size of 0.7 for real PKP which was significantly different to sham. Compared to WLC, both real and sham groups had significant RMDQ improvements. Practitioner empathy (CARE) and patient enablement (PEI) did not predict outcome; holistic health beliefs (CAMBI) did, though. The sham treatment appeared credible; patients did not guess treatment allocation. Three patients reported minor adverse reactions.

From these data, the authors conclude that real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP; both were better than WLC indicating a substantial non-specific and contextual treatment effect. A larger definitive study would be appropriate with nested qualitative work to help understand the mechanisms involved in PKP.

So, PKP has a small specific effect in addition to generating a sizable placebo-effect? Somehow, I doubt it! This was, according to its authors, a pilot study. Such an investigation should not evaluate the effectiveness of a treatment but the feasibility of the protocol. Even if we disregard this detail, I assume that the results indicate the effects of PKP to be essentially due to placebo. The small effect which the authors label as “specific” is, in my view, almost certainly caused by residual confounding and hidden biases.

One could also go one step further and say that any treatment that is shrouded in pseudo-scientific language and has zero plausibility is an ill-conceived candidate for a clinical trial of this nature. If it should be tested at all – and thus cost money, effort and patient-participation – a rigorous study should be designed and conducted not by apologists of the intervention but by more level-headed scientists.

In 2010, NICE recommended acupuncture for chronic low back pain (cLBP). Acupuncturists were of course delighted; the British Acupuncture Council, for instance, stated that they fully support NICE’s (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) decision that acupuncture be made available on the NHS for chronic lower back pain. Traditional acupuncture has been used for over 2,000 years to alleviate back pain and British Acupuncture Council members have for many many years been successfully treating patients for this condition either in private practice or working within the NHS. In effect, therefore, these new guidelines are a rubber stamp of the positive work already being undertaken as well as an endorsement of the wealth of research evidence now available in this area.

More critical experts, however, tended to be surprised about this move and doubted that the evidence was strong enough for a positive recommendation. Now a brand-new meta-analysis sheds more light on this important issue.

Its aim was to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture as a therapy for cLBP. The authors found 13 RCTs which matched their inclusion criteria. Their results show that, compared with no treatment, acupuncture achieved better outcomes in terms of pain relief, disability recovery and better quality of life. These effects were, however, not observed when real acupuncture was compared to sham acupuncture. Acupuncture achieved better outcomes when compared with other treatments. No publication bias was detected.

The authors conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain, but this effect is likely to be produced by the nonspecific effects of manipulation.

In plain English, this means that the effects of acupuncture on cLBP are most likely due to placebo. Should NICE be recommending placebo-treatments and have the tax payer foot the bill? I think I can leave it to my readers to answer this question.

Believe it or not, I started my medical career in homeopathy, to be more exact, in the ‘Krankenhaus fuer Naturheilweisen’ in Munich. That was directly after studying medicine almost 40 years ago. I am not ashamed to admit that I was impressed (show me a doctor who is not balled over with his/her first clinical post and I show you a person without compassion who should have chosen another profession). I stayed about half a year in this hospital and then moved on to lots of other things.

So, how has homeopathy cured me?

In medical school, I am afraid to say, we did not learn critical thinking, not even one iota of it! When I started working, and saw several patients who did get better after taking my homeopathic remedies, I was fascinated. Back in medical school, our pharmacology professor used to go apoplectic when anyone mentioned homeopathy, and I thus knew very well that there was no way it could possibly work. But it did!!! My patients did improve! I had seen it with my own eyes!

This discrepancy needed an explanation. Years later, it became my job to apply science to alternative medicine, and I picked up the subject roughly where I had left it more than a decade before. Now, we did systematic research and published dozens of papers on homeopathy. Even though I started this work slightly on the ‘pro- homeopathic foot’, in the end, the discrepancy between the scientific evidence and the anecdotal observations of millions of patients and homeopaths and myself dissolved into thin air: homeopathic remedies are pure placebos, and there is no discrepancy at all between evidence and anecdote.

Patients can improve for all sorts of reasons:

1) the natural history of the condition

2) placebo effects

3) other treatments they fail to tell their doctor about

4) because the clinician is nice and compassionate

etc. etc.

These are, of course, pretty obvious insights. Yet, remarkably, doctors and other clinicians of all specialities very rarely have them, in my experience. When a patient gets better after our treatments (homeopathic or otherwise), we almost automatically assume that our interventions did the trick. Few of us have the courage to admit that this is only one of many explanations.

To accurately differentiate between effects of the treatment per se and the host of context effects which can mimic them, we need critical thinking. The lack of critical thinking in health care is, I think, like an illness which hinders progress. AND IT WAS HOMEOPATHY THAT CURED ME FROM IT.

Hot flushes are a big problem; they are not life-threatening, of course, but they do make life a misery for countless menopausal women. Hormone therapy is effective, but many women have gone off the idea since we know that hormone therapy might increase their risk of getting cancer and cardiovascular disease. So, what does work and is also risk-free? Acupuncture?

Together with researchers from Quebec, we wanted to determine whether acupuncture is effective for reducing hot flushes and for improving the quality of life of menopausal women. We decided to do this in form of a Cochrane review which was just published.

We searched 16 electronic databases in order to identify all relevant studies and included all RCTs comparing any type of acupuncture to no treatment/control or other treatments. Sixteen studies, with a total of 1155 women, were eligible for inclusion. Three review authors independently assessed trial eligibility and quality, and extracted data. We pooled data where appropriate.

Eight studies compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture. No significant difference was found between the groups for hot flush frequency, but flushes were significantly less severe in the acupuncture group, with a small effect size. There was substantial heterogeneity for both these outcomes. In a post hoc sensitivity analysis excluding studies of women with breast cancer, heterogeneity was reduced to 0% for hot flush frequency and 34% for hot flush severity and there was no significant difference between the groups for either outcome. Three studies compared acupuncture with hormone therapy, and acupuncture turned out to be associated with significantly more frequent hot flushes. There was no significant difference between the groups for hot flush severity. One study compared electro-acupuncture with relaxation, and there was no significant difference between the groups for either hot flush frequency or hot flush severity. Four studies compared acupuncture with waiting list or no intervention. Traditional acupuncture was significantly more effective in reducing hot flush frequency, and was also significantly more effective in reducing hot flush severity. The effect size was moderate in both cases.

For quality of life measures, acupuncture was significantly less effective than HT, but traditional acupuncture was significantly more effective than no intervention. There was no significant difference between acupuncture and other comparators for quality of life. Data on adverse effects were lacking.

Our conclusion: We found insufficient evidence to determine whether acupuncture is effective for controlling menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, there was no evidence of a significant difference in their effect on menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with no treatment there appeared to be a benefit from acupuncture, but acupuncture appeared to be less effective than HT. These findings should be treated with great caution as the evidence was low or very low quality and the studies comparing acupuncture versus no treatment or HT were not controlled with sham acupuncture or placebo HT. Data on adverse effects were lacking.

I still have to meet an acupuncturist who is not convinced that acupuncture is not an effective treatment for hot flushes. You only need to go on the Internet to see the claims that are being made along those lines. Yet this review shows quite clearly that it is not better than placebo. It also demonstrates that studies which do suggest an effect do so because they fail to adequately control for a placebo response. This means that the benefit patients and therapists observe in routine clinical practice is not due to the acupuncture per se, but to the placebo-effect.

And what could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, is my answer; here are just 4 things that immediately spring into my mind:

1) Arguably, it is dishonest and unethical to use a placebo on ill patients in routine clinical practice and charge for it pretending it is a specific and effective treatment.

2) Placebo-effects are unreliable, small and usually of short duration.

3) In order to generate a placebo-effect, I don’t need a placebo-therapy; an effective one administered with compassion does that too (and generates specific effects on top of that).

4) Not all placebos are risk-free. Acupuncture, for instance, has been associated with serious complications.

The last point is interesting also in the context of our finding that the RCTs analysed failed to mention adverse-effects. This is a phenomenon we observe regularly in studies of alternative medicine: trialists tend to violate the most fundamental rules of research ethics by simply ignoring the need to report adverse-effects. In plain English, this is called ‘scientific misconduct’. Consequently, we find very little published evidence on this issue, and enthusiasts claim their treatment is risk-free, simply because no risks are being reported. Yet one wonders to what extend systematic under-reporting is the cause of that impression!

So, what about the legion of acupuncturists who earn a good part of their living by recommending to their patients acupuncture for hot flushes?

They may, of course, not know about the evidence which shows that it is not more than a placebo. Would this be ok then? No, emphatically no! All clinicians have a duty to be up to date regarding the scientific evidence in relation to the treatments they use. A therapist who does not abide by this fundamental rule of medical ethics is, in my view, a fraud. On the other hand, some acupuncturists might be well aware of the evidence and employ acupuncture nevertheless; after all, it brings good money! Well, I would say that such a therapist is a fraud too.

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