MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

alternative medicine

Many dietary supplements are heavily promoted for the prevention of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. But do they actually work or are they just raising false hopes? The evidence on this subject is confusing and proponents of both camps produce data which seemingly support their claims. In this situation, we need an independent analysis of the totality of the evidence to guide us. And one such review has just become available

The purpose of this article was to systematically review evidence for the use of multivitamins or single nutrients and functionally related nutrient pairs for the primary prevention of CVD and cancer in the general population.

The authors searched 5 databases to identify literature that was published between 2005 and January 29, 2013. They also examined the references from the previous reviews and other relevant articles to identify additional studies. In addition, they searched Web sites of government agencies and other organizations for grey literature. Two investigators independently reviewed identified abstracts and full-text articles against a set of a priori inclusion and quality criteria. One investigator abstracted data into an evidence table and a second investigator checked these data. The researchers then qualitatively and quantitatively synthesized the results for 4 key questions and grouped the included studies by study supplement. Finally, they conducted meta-analyses using Mantel-Haenzel fixed effects models for overall cancer incidence, CVD incidence, and all-cause mortality.

103 articles representing 26 unique studies met the inclusion criteria. Very few studies examined the use of multivitamin supplements. Two trials showed a protective effect against cancer in men; only one of these trials included women and found no effect. No effects of treatment were seen on CVD or all-cause mortality.

Beta-carotene showed a negative effect on lung cancer incidence and mortality among individuals at high risk for lung cancer at baseline (i.e., smokers and asbestos-exposed workers); this effect was persistent even when combined with vitamin A or E. Trials of vitamin E supplementation showed mixed results and altogether had no overall effect on cancer, CVD, or all-cause mortality. Only one of two studies included selenium trials showed a beneficial effect for colorectal and prostate cancer; however, this trial had a small sample size. The few studies addressing folic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin A showed no effect on CVD, cancer, and mortality. Vitamin D and/or calcium supplementation also showed no overall effect on CVD, cancer, and mortality. Harms were infrequently reported and aside from limited paradoxical effects for some supplements, were not considered serious.

The authors’ conclusion are less than encouraging: there are a limited number of trials examining the effects of dietary supplements on the primary prevention of CVD and cancer; the majority showed no effect in healthy populations. Clinical heterogeneity of included studies limits generalizability of results to the general primary care population. Results from trials in at-risk populations discourage additional studies for particular supplements (e.g., beta-carotene); however, future research in general primary care populations and on other supplements is required to address research gaps.

A brand-new RCT provides further information, specifically on the question whether oral multivitamins are effective for the secondary prevention of cardiovascular events. In total, 1708 patients aged 50 years or older who had myocardial infarction (MI) at least 6 weeks earlier with elevated serum creatinine levels were randomly assigned to an oral, 28-component, high-dose multivitamin and multi-mineral mixture or placebo. The primary end point was time to death, recurrent MI, stroke, coronary revascularization, or hospitalization for angina. Median follow-up was 55 months. Patients received treatments for a median of 31 months in the vitamin group and 35 months in the placebo group. 76% and 76% patients in the vitamin and placebo groups completed at least 1 year of oral therapy, and 47% and 50% patients completed at least 3 years. Totals of 46% and 46% patients in both groups discontinued the vitamin regimen, and 17% of patients withdrew from the study.

The primary end point occurred in 27% patients in the vitamin group and 30% in the placebo group. No evidence suggested harm from vitamin therapy in any category of adverse events. The authors of this RCT concluded that high-dose oral multivitamins and multiminerals did not statistically significantly reduce cardiovascular events in patients after MI who received standard medications. However, this conclusion is tempered by the nonadherence rate.

These findings are sobering and in stark contrast to what the multi-billion dollar supplement industry promotes. The misinformation in this area is monumental. Here is what one site advertises for heart disease:

Vitamin C could be helpful, limit dosage to 100 to 500 mg a day.

Vitamin E works better with CoQ10 to reduce inflammation in heart disease. Limit vitamin E to maximum 30 to 200 units a few times a week. Use a natural vitamin E complex rather than synthetic products.

CoQ10 may be helpful in heart disease, especially in combination with vitamin E. I would recommend limiting the dosage of Coenzyme Q10 to 30 mg daily or 50 mg three or four times a week.

B complex vitamins reduce levels of homocysteine. Keep the vitamin B dosages low, perhaps one or two times the RDA. Taking higher amounts may not necessary be a healthier approach.

Curcumin protects rat heart tissue against damage from low oxygen supply, and the protective effect could be attributed to its antioxidant properties. Curcumin is derived from turmeric, which is often used in curries.

Garlic could be an effective treatment for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels for patients with a history or risk of cardiovascular disease, especially as a long term strategy.

Terminalia arjuna, an Indian medicinal plant, has been reported to have beneficial effects in patients with ischemic heart disease in a number of small studies. Arjuna has been tested in angina and could help reduce chest pain.
Magnesium is a mineral that could help some individuals. It is reasonable to encourage diets high in magnesium as a potential means to lower the risk of coronary heart disease.

Danshen used in China for heart conditions.

And in the area of cancer, the choice is even more wide and audacious as this web-site for example demonstrates.

So, the picture that emerges from all this seems fairly clear. Despite thousands of claims to the contrary, dietary supplements are useless in preventing cardiovascular diseases or cancer. All they do produce, I am afraid, is rather expensive urine.

Advocates of alternative medicine are incredibly fond of supporting their claims with anecdotes, or ‘case-reports’ as they are officially called. There is no question, case-reports can be informative and important, but we need to be aware of their limitations.

A recent case-report from the US might illustrated this nicely. It described a 65-year-old male patient who had had MS for 20 years when he decided to get treated with Chinese scalp acupuncture. The motor area, sensory area, foot motor and sensory area, balance area, hearing and dizziness area, and tremor area were stimulated once a week for 10 weeks, then once a month for 6 further sessions.

After the 16 treatments, the patient showed remarkable improvements. He was able to stand and walk without any problems. The numbness and tingling in his limbs did not bother him anymore. He had more energy and had not experienced incontinence of urine or dizziness after the first treatment. He was able to return to work full time. Now the patient has been in remission for 26 months.

The authors of this case-report conclude that Chinese scalp acupuncture can be a very effective treatment for patients with MS. Chinese scalp acupuncture holds the potential to expand treatment options for MS in both conventional and complementary or integrative therapies. It can not only relieve symptoms, increase the patient’s quality of life, and slow and reverse the progression of physical disability but also reduce the number of relapses and help patients.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with case-reports; on the contrary, they can provide extremely valuable pointers for further research. If they relate to adverse effects, they can give us crucial information about the risks associated with treatments. Nobody would ever argue that case-reports are useless, and that is why most medical journals regularly publish such papers. But they are valuable only, if one is aware of their limitations. Medicine finally started to make swift progress, ~150 years ago, when we gave up attributing undue importance to anecdotes, began to doubt established wisdom and started testing it scientifically.

Conclusions such as the ones drawn above are not just odd, they are misleading to the point of being dangerous. A reasonable conclusion might have been that this case of a MS-patient is interesting and should be followed-up through further observations. If these then seem to confirm the positive outcome, one might consider conducting a clinical trial. If this study proves to yield encouraging findings, one might eventually draw the conclusions which the present authors drew from their single case.

To jump at conclusions in the way the authors did, is neither justified nor responsible. It is unjustified because case-reports never lend themselves to such generalisations. And it is irresponsible because desperate patients, who often fail to understand the limitations of case-reports and tend to believe things that have been published in medical journals, might act on these words. This, in turn, would raise false hopes or might even lead to patients forfeiting those treatments that are evidence-based.

It is high time, I think, that proponents of alternative medicine give up their love-affair with anecdotes and join the rest of the health care professions in the 21st century.

Even relatively well-informed people tend to think that homeopathy might be quirky and useless but, so what, it cannot do any harm. This is perhaps true for the homeopathic remedies but it does certainly not apply to the homeopaths. As soon as there is a public health problem, homeopaths claim that their approach offers a solution – never mind the evidence to the contrary. Just look at what they presently try to sell us in terms of cold and flu treatments!

The often criminal fight of homeopaths against public health is nowhere clearer than with their never-ending propaganda against the most successful public health measure in the history of medicine, immunisation. Some professional organisations of homeopathy have issued politically correct statements about this and thus feel they are out of the firing line. But, as far as I can see, most homeopaths are against vaccinations. Their arguments are wilfully misguided; here are just a few examples:

  • It is well known that measles is an important development milestone in the life and maturing processes in children.  Why would anybody want to stop or delay the maturation processes of children and of their immune systems?
  • Homoeopathy offers an option for disease prevention and cure.  There is scientific evidence in favour of homoeopathy for prevention of diseases.
  • Seek out homeopathic, osteopathic, naturopathic, or Chinese medical constitutional treatment to boost your child’s immune system and help them be as healthy as they can be.
  • If your children do get sick, use homeopathy to help their immune system get over it. Homeopathy is very effective in epidemics of acute illness. Either see a homeopath, buy a book on homeopathic acute care, or take a class on acute homeopathic prescribing.
  • It is possible to prevent post-vaccination damage by giving the homeopathic dilution of the vaccine shortly before and    after the vaccination in the C200 dilution.
  • there are many recorded cases of people making dramatic  recoveries with homeopathic medicines following a bad reaction to a  vaccination. Expert advice from a registered homeopath is usually  required.
  • As you would keep your children away from toxic chemicals in the environment as much as possible, inform yourself about the toxicity of the solutions that are being injected into their bloodstream. It’s up to you to find the information: no one loves your children the way you do.

If you think I cherry-picked these quotes, you are mistaken. I simply used the citations as they appeared on my computer screen after a simple Google search. You might try this yourself because there are hundreds, if not thousands more to be discovered.

A typical and interesting example of a homeopathic anti-vaccinationist is Oksana Frolov, D.Hom. graduate of Saint Petersburg, Russia, I.P.Pavlov State Medical University, General Medicine, and graduate of Los Angeles School of Homeopathy. She states that, although I do hold a medical degree, I am not a licensed medical health provider in the United States. As a homeopathic practitioner, I will provide you with the treatment which is alternative or complementary to healing arts that are licensed by the State of California. On her blog, she provides detailed advice for people who might be uncertain whether to vaccinate their children: immunisation… can cause some very serious side effects including permanent brain damage, epilepsy, autism, and mental retardation. With so many vaccinations being required, doctors often have to administer several shots at a time, which can often result in a disaster.  Vaccines, along with the elements that are supposed to create the antibodies, also contain mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde, animal tissue, animal blood, human cell from aborted babies, potatoes, yeast, lactose, phenol, antibiotics and unrelated species of germs that inadvertently get into the vaccines. Do you really want all this to be injected into your child just to prevent him or her from having a chicken pox? Vaccines are said to work by stimulating the body to produce antibodies, which are supposed to protect us from an invasion of harmful germs. Childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, affect the immune system in a way that makes most people immune to them for the rest of their lives. Vaccinations, on the other hand, create an artificial immunity that wears off and allows the person to catch the disease later in life….

Homeopathy has proved to be very effective in treatment of childhood diseases, as well as other infections. From its earliest days, homeopathy has been able to treat epidemic disease, such as cholera, typhus, yellow fever, and diphtheria, with a substantial rate of success, when compared to conventional treatments. 

Doctors who practice homeopathy usually claim that only non-medically qualified homeopaths hold such deranged views. Dr Frolov shows us that this assumption is clearly not true. In my experience, most homeopaths, medical or not, advise their patients against immunizations or are at least very cagey about this subject in order to raise doubts in concerned parents. Professional organisations of homeopaths usually hide behind some powerless statement in favour of informed choice; yet they must be well-aware that many of their members fail to abide by it. And what do they do about it? Nothing!

Yes, I am afraid the fight of many homeopaths against public health is active, incessant and often criminal. Of course, they do not for one second believe that they are doing anything wrong; on the contrary, they are convinced of their good intentions. As Bert Brecht once wrote, THE OPPOSITE OF GOOD IS NOT EVIL, BUT GOOD INTENTIONS.

Yes, it is unlikely but true! I once was the hero of the world of energy healing, albeit for a short period only. An amusing story, I hope you agree.

Back in the late 1990s, we had decided to run two trials in this area. One of them was to test the efficacy of distant healing for the removal of ordinary warts, common viral infections of the skin which are quite harmless and usually disappear spontaneously. We had designed a rigorous study, obtained ethics approval and were in the midst of recruiting patients, when I suggested I could be the trial’s first participant, as I had noticed a tiny wart on my left foot. As patient-recruitment was sluggish at that stage, my co-workers consulted the protocol to check whether it might prevent me from taking part in my own trial. They came back with the good news that, as I was not involved in the running of the study, there was no reason for me to be excluded.

The next day, they ‘processed’ me like all the other wart sufferers of our investigation. My wart was measured, photographed and documented. A sealed envelope with my trial number was opened (in my absence, of course) by one of the trialists to see whether I would be in the experimental or the placebo group. The former patients were to receive ‘distant healing’ from a group of 10 experienced healers who had volunteered and felt confident to be able to cure warts. All they needed was a few details about each patients, they had confirmed. The placebo group received no such intervention. ‘Blinding’ the patient was easy in this trial; since they were not themselves involved in any healing-action, they could not know whether they were in the placebo or the verum group.

The treatment period lasted for several weeks during which time my wart was re-evaluated in regular intervals. When I had completed the study, final measurements were done, and I was told that I had been the recipient of ‘healing energy’ from the 10 healers during the past weeks. Not that I had felt any of it, and not that my wart had noticed it either: it was still there, completely unchanged.

I remember not being all that surprised…until, the next morning, when I noticed that my wart had disappeared! Gone without a trace!

Of course, I told my co-workers who were quite excited, re-photographed the spot where the wart had been and consulted the study protocol to determine what had to be done next. It turned out that we had made no provisions for events that might occur after the treatment period.

But somehow, this did not feel right, we all thought. So we decided to make a post-hoc addendum to our protocol which stipulated that all participants of our trial would be asked a few days after the end of the treatment whether any changes to their warts had been noted.

Meanwhile the healers had got wind of the professorial wart’s disappearance. They were delighted and quickly told other colleagues. In no time at all, the world of ‘distant healing’ had agreed that warts often reacted to their intervention with a slight delay – and they were pleased to hear that we had duly amended our protocol to adequately capture this important phenomenon. My ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ action of acknowledging and documenting the disappearance of my wart was praised, and it was assumed that I was about to prove the efficacy of distant healing.

And that’s how I became their ‘hero’ – the sceptical professor who had now seen the light with his own eyes and experienced on his own body the incredible power of their ‘healing energy’.

Incredible it remained though: I was the only trial participant who lost his wart in this way. When we published this study, we concluded: Distant healing from experienced healers had no effect on the number or size of patients’ warts.

AND THAT’S WHEN I STOPPED BEING THEIR ‘HERO’.

Web-sites have become a leading source of information on health matters. This is particularly true in the realm of alternative medicine. Conventional health care professionals often know too little about this subject to advise their patients, and alternative practitioners are usually too biased to be trusted. So many consumers turn to the Internet and hope that it offers information which is reliable. But is it?

American pharmacists published a study evaluating the quality of on-line information on herbal supplements. They conducted a search of 13 common herbals – including black cohosh, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, green tea, kava, saw palmetto, and St John’s wort – and reviewed the top 50 Web sites for each using a Google search. Subsequently, they analysed clinical claims, warnings, and other safety information.

A total of 1179 Web sites were examined in this way. Less than 8% of retail sites provided information regarding potential adverse effects, drug interactions, and other safety information; only 10.5% recommended consultation with a healthcare professional. Less than 3% cited scientific literature to support their claims.

The authors’ conclusions were worrying: Key safety information is still lacking from many online sources of herbal information. Certain nonretail site types may be more reliable, but physicians and other healthcare professionals should be aware of the variable quality of these sites to help patients make more informed decisions.

Having conducted my fair share of similar research (e.g. here or here or here or here), I can only concur with these conclusions. When it comes to health care, the Internet is a scary place! In the realm of alternative medicine, it is dominated by people who seem not to care much about anything other than their profits.

But what can be done to change this situation? How can we protect the public from Internet-charlatans? How can one control the Internet? I wish I knew! But there are nevertheless means of directing consumers to those sites which do offer reliable information. Kite-marking high quality sites might be one way of achieving this. This task would, of course, be huge and difficult, but in the interest of public safety, governments and other official institutions should consider tackling it.

Therapeutic Touch is an alternative therapy which is based on the notion of ‘energy healing’; it is thus akin to Reiki and other forms of spiritual healing. A recent survey from Canada suggested that such treatments are incredibly popular: over 50% of the families that were asked admitted using them for kids suffering from cancer.

The therapists using Therapeutic Touch, mostly nurses, believe to be able to channel ‘healing energy’ into the body of the patient which, in turn, is thought to stimulate the patient’s self-healing potential. Proponents of Therapeutic Touch claim that it is effective for a very wide range of conditions. Here is what one typical website by advocates states: As a healing modality Therapeutic Touch has been shown to be very effective in decreasing anxiety, decreasing stress, evoking the relaxation response, decreasing pain, and promoting wound healing. Therapeutic Touch as a method of healing is used by both professionals in the health field and laymen in the community.

There is a surprising amount of research on Therapeutic Touch. Unfortunately most of it is fatally flawed. It is therefore refreshing to see a new clinical study with a rigorous and straight forward design.

The objective of this trial was to determine whether Therapeutic Touch is efficacious in decreasing pain in preterm neonates. Fifty-five infants < 30 weeks’ gestational age participated in a randomized control trial in two neonatal intensive care units. Immediately before and after a painful heel lance procedure, the therapist performed non-tactile Therapeutic Touch with the infant behind curtains. In the sham condition, the therapist stood by the incubator without performing Therapeutic Touch. The Premature Infant Pain Profile was used for measuring pain and time for heart rate to return to baseline during recovery. Heart rate variability and stress response were secondary outcomes.

The results showed no group differences in any of the outcome measures. Mean Premature Infant Pain Profile scores across 2 minutes of heel lance procedure in 30-second blocks ranged from 7.92 to 8.98 in the Therapeutic Touch group and 7.64 to 8.46 in the sham group. The authors concluded that Therapeutic Touch given immediately before and after heel lance has no comforting effect in preterm neonates. Other effective strategies involving actual touch should be considered.

These findings are hardly surprising considering the implausibility of the ‘principles’ that underlie Therapeutic Touch. Nobody has so far been able to measure the mystical ‘energy’ that is the basis of this treatment. The only Cochrane review failed to show that Therapeutic touch works beyond placebo: There is no robust evidence that TT promotes healing of acute wounds.

Why then is Therapeutic Touch so popular? Part of the answer to this question might lie here: New Age spiritualism has co-opted some of the language of physics, including the language of quantum mechanics, in its quest to make ancient metaphysics sound like respectable science. The New Age preaches enhancing your vital energy, tapping into the subtle energy of the universe,or manipulating your biofield so that you can be happy, fulfilled, successful, and lovable, and so life can be meaningful, significant, and endless. The New Age promises you the power to heal the sick and create reality according to your will, as if you were a god.

Hypercholesterolemia is an important, independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, according to a generally accepted wisdom. Measures to normalise elevated blood lipids include diet, exercise and drugs, of which statins are the most widely prescribed. But many people have become somewhat sceptical about the wide-spread use of statins: Traditionally, doctors have viewed statin drugs as the most effective way to lower high LDL cholesterol. But today researchers are starting to believe that statins may not be the magic bullet they’ve always been made out to be. Statins can cause severe adverse effects and some experts have questioned whether they generate more benefit than harm and suggested that ‘BIG PHARMA’ are pushing statins not for the benefit of public health but for maximising profit.

This begs the question: is there an alternative?

This RCT tested the efficacy of a dietary supplement providing 1.8 g/day esterified plant sterols and stanols to improve the fasting lipid profile of men and women with primary hypercholesterolemia. Repeated measures analysis of covariance was used to compare outcomes for sterol/stanol and placebo treatment conditions using the baseline value as a covariate. Thirty subjects were randomized and all of them completed the trial.

Baseline (mean±standard error of the mean) plasma lipid concentrations were: total cholesterol 236.6±4.2 mg/dL (6.11±0.11 mmol/L), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol 56.8±3.0 mg/dL (1.47±0.08 mmol/L), LDL cholesterol 151.6±3.3 mg/dL (3.92±0.09 mmol/L), non-HDL cholesterol 179.7±4.6 mg/dL (4.64±0.12 mmol/L), and triglycerides 144.5±14.3 mg/dL (1.63±0.16 mmol/L). Mean placebo-adjusted reductions in plasma lipid levels were significant (P<0.01) for LDL cholesterol (-4.3%), non-HDL cholesterol (-4.1%), and total cholesterol (-3.5%), but not for triglycerides or HDL cholesterol.

The authors conclude that these results support the efficacy of 1.8 g/day esterified plant sterols/stanols in softgel capsules, administered as an adjunct to the National Cholesterol Education Program Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet, to augment reductions in atherogenic lipid levels in individuals with hypercholesterolemia.

These findings are encouraging but certainly not rock solid. The study was too small, and the effect sizes were less than impressive. A brand-new systematic review, however, provides much more convincing data.

Its aim was to quantify the LDL-cholesterol-lowering effect of plant sterols/stanols as supplements. Eight eligible clinical trials were identified. Among the trials with a duration between 4 and 6 weeks, plant sterol/stanol dose ranged from 1.0 to 3.0 g/day administrated mainly with the main meals (2 or 3 times/day). Intake of plant sterol/stanol supplements decreased LDL-cholesterol concentrations by 12 mg/dL (0.31 mmol/L) compared with placebo. Further analysis showed no significant difference between the LDL-cholesterol-lowering action of plant sterols/stanols supplements vs foods enriched with plant sterols/stanols. The authors concluded that plant sterol/stanol supplements as part of a healthy diet represent an effective means of delivering LDL-cholesterol-lowering similar to plant sterols/stanols delivered in various food formats.

Crucially, this positive verdict does not stand alone. Another recent review included 5 trials and concluded that a dose-effect relationship of plant stanols in higher doses than currently recommended has been demonstrated by recent clinical studies and a meta-analysis.

Plant sterols seem to be not just effective but also safe: none of the trials published to date reported significant adverse effects. The only concern is the potential decrease in the concentrations of lipid-soluble antioxidants and vitamins, including β-carotene, α-tocopherol, lutein, and α-carotene. It is currently not clear whether these effects are clinically relevant.

The relative merits of phytosterols versus statins are not easy to evaluate. We have hundreds of studies of statins but just a few of sterols. This means our knowledge in this area is incomplete. Statins can cause serious adverse effects but their effects on blood lipids is about one order of magnitude larger that those of sterols. There is plenty of evidence to show that statins lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, while such data are missing for phytosterols.

The choice between statins and plant sterols is thus not easy, particularly considering the often emotional arguments and hype used in the ‘cholesterol-debate’. Phytosterols offer one more alternative therapy for lowering LDL-cholesterol levels. They seem safe and have the added attraction of being ‘natural’ – but the lipid-effects are relatively small, the impact on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality is uncertain, and fairly high doses are required to see any lipid-lowering at all.

There are numerous types and styles of acupuncture, and the discussion whether one is better than the other has been long, tedious and frustrating. Traditional acupuncturists, for instance, individualise their approach according to their findings of pulse and tongue diagnoses as well as other non-validated diagnostic criteria. Western acupuncturists, by contrast, tend to use formula or standardised treatments according to conventional diagnoses.

This study aimed to compare the effectiveness of standardized and individualized acupuncture treatment in patients with chronic low back pain. A single-center randomized controlled single-blind trial was performed in a general medical practice of a Chinese-born medical doctor trained in both western and Chinese medicine. One hundred and fifty outpatients with chronic low back pain were randomly allocated to two groups who received either standardized acupuncture or individualized acupuncture. 10 to 15 treatments based on individual symptoms were given with two treatments per week.

The main outcome measure was the area under the curve (AUC) summarizing eight weeks of daily rated pain severity measured with a visual analogue scale. No significant differences between groups were observed for the AUC (individualized acupuncture mean: 1768.7; standardized acupuncture 1482.9; group difference, 285.8).

The authors concluded that individualized acupuncture was not superior to standardized acupuncture for patients suffering from chronic pain.

But perhaps it matters whether the acupuncturist is thoroughly trained or has just picked up his/her skills during a weekend course? I am afraid not: this analysis of a total of 4,084 patients with chronic headache, lower back pain or arthritic pain treated by 1,838 acupuncturists suggested otherwise. There were no differences in success for patients treated by physicians passing through shorter (A diploma) or longer (B diploma) training courses in acupuncture.

But these are just one single trial and one post-hoc analysis of another study which, by definition, cannot be fully definitive. Fortunately, we have more evidence based on much larger numbers. This brand-new meta-analysis aimed to evaluate whether there are characteristics of acupuncture or acupuncturists that are associated with better or worse outcomes.

An existing dataset, developed by the Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration, included 29 trials of acupuncture for chronic pain with individual data involving 17,922 patients. The available data on characteristics of acupuncture included style of acupuncture, point prescription, location of needles, use of electrical stimulation and moxibustion, number, frequency and duration of sessions, number of needles used and acupuncturist experience. Random-effects meta-regression was used to test the effect of each characteristic on the main effect estimate of pain. Where sufficient patient-level data were available, patient-level analyses were conducted.

When comparing acupuncture to sham controls, there was little evidence that the effects of acupuncture on pain were modified by any of the acupuncture characteristics evaluated, including style of acupuncture, the number or placement of needles, the number, frequency or duration of sessions, patient-practitioner interactions and the experience of the acupuncturist. When comparing acupuncture to non-acupuncture controls, there was little evidence that these characteristics modified the effect of acupuncture, except better pain outcomes were observed when more needles were used and, from patient level analysis involving a sub-set of 5 trials, when a higher number of acupuncture treatment sessions were provided.

The authors of this meta-analysis concluded that there was little evidence that different characteristics of acupuncture or acupuncturists modified the effect of treatment on pain outcomes. Increased number of needles and more sessions appear to be associated with better outcomes when comparing acupuncture to non-acupuncture controls, suggesting that dose is important. Potential confounders include differences in control group and sample size between trials. Trials to evaluate potentially small differences in outcome associated with different acupuncture characteristics are likely to require large sample sizes.

My reading of these collective findings is that it does not matter which type of acupuncture you use nor who uses it; the clinical effects are similar regardless of the most obvious potential determinants. Hardly surprising! In fact, one would expect such results, if one considered that acupuncture is a placebo-treatment.

One of the perks of researching alternative medicine and writing a blog about it is that one rarely runs out of good laughs. In perfect accordance with ERNST’S LAW, I have recently been entertained, amused, even thrilled by a flurry of ad hominem attacks most of which are true knee-slappers. I would like to take this occasion to thank my assailants for their fantasy and tenacity. Most days, these ad hominem attacks really do make my day.

I can only hope they will continue to make my days a little more joyous. My fear, however, is that they might, one day, run out of material. Even today, their claims are somewhat repetitive:

  • I am not qualified
  • I only speak tosh
  • I do not understand science
  • I never did any ‘real’ research
  • Exeter Uni fired me
  • I have been caught red-handed (not quite sure at what)
  • I am on BIG PHARMA’s payroll
  • I faked my research papers

Come on, you feeble-minded fantasists must be able to do better! Isn’t it time to bring something new?

Yes, I know, innovation is not an easy task. The best ad hominem attacks are, of course, always based on a kernel of truth. In that respect, the ones that have been repeated ad nauseam are sadly wanting. Therefore I have decided to provide all would-be attackers with some true and relevant facts from my life. These should enable them to invent further myths and use them as ammunition against me.

Sounds like fun? Here we go:

Both my grandfather and my father were both doctors

This part of my family history could be spun in all sorts of intriguing ways. For instance, one could make up a nice story about how I, even as a child, was brain-washed to defend the medical profession at all cost from the onslaught of non-medical healers.

Our family physician was a prominent homeopath

Ahhhh, did he perhaps mistreat me and start me off on my crusade against homeopathy? Surely, there must be a nice ad hominem attack in here!

I studied psychology at Munich but did not finish it

Did I give up psychology because I discovered a manic obsession or other character flaw deeply hidden in my soul?

I then studied medicine (also in Munich) and made a MD thesis in the area of blood clotting

No doubt this is pure invention. Where are the proofs of my qualifications? Are the data in my thesis real or invented?

My 1st job as a junior doctor was in a homeopathic hospital in Munich

Yes, but why did I leave? Surely they found out about me and fired me.

I had hands on training in several forms of alternative medicine, including homeopathy

Easy to say, but where are the proofs?

I moved to London where I worked in St George’s Hospital conducting research in blood rheology

Another invention? Where are the published papers to document this?

I went back to Munich university where I continued this line of research and was awarded a PhD

Another thesis? Again with dodgy data? Where can one see this document?

I became Professor Rehabilitation Medicine first at Hannover Medical School and later in Vienna

How did that happen? Did I perhaps bribe the appointment panels?

In 1993, I was appointed to the Chair in Complementary Medicine at Exeter university

Yes, we all know that; but why did I not direct my efforts towards promoting alternative medicine?

In Exeter, together with a team of ~20 colleagues, we published > 1000 papers on alternative medicine, more than anyone else in that field

Impossible! This number clearly shows that many of these articles are fakes or plagiaries.

My H-Index is currently >80

Same as above.

In 2012, I became Emeritus Professor of the University of Exeter

Isn’t ’emeritus’ the Latin word for ‘dishonourable discharge’?

I HOPE I CAN RELY ON ALL OF MY AD HOMINEM ATTACKERS TO USE THIS INFORMATION AND RENDER THE ASSAULTS MORE DIVERSE, REAL AND INTERESTING.

A recent interview on alternative medicine for the German magazine DER SPIEGEL prompted well over 500 comments; even though, in the interview, I covered numerous alternative therapies, the discussion that followed focussed almost entirely on homeopathy. Yet again, many of the comments provided a reminder of the quasi-religious faith many people have in homeopathy.

There can, of course, be dozens of reasons for such strong convictions. Yet, in my experience, some seem to be more prevalent and important than others. During my last two decades in researching homeopathy, I think, I have identified several of the most important ones. In this post, I try to outline a typical sequence of events that eventually leads to a faith in homeopathy which is utterly immune to fact and reason.

The epiphany

The starting point of this journey towards homeopathy-worship is usually an impressive personal experience which is often akin to an epiphany (defined as a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization). I have met hundreds of advocates of homeopathy, and those who talk about this sort of thing invariably offer impressive stories about how they metamorphosed from being a ‘sceptic’ (yes, it is truly phenomenal how many believers insist that they started out as sceptics) into someone who was completely bowled over by homeopathy, and how that ‘moment of great revelation’ changed the rest of their lives. Very often, this ‘Saulus-Paulus conversion’ relates to that person’s own (or a close friend’s) illness which allegedly was cured by homeopathy.

Rachel Roberts, chief executive of the Homeopathy Research Institute, provides as good an example of this sort of epiphany as anyone; in an article in THE GUARDIAN, she described her conversion to homeopathy with the following words:

I was a dedicated scientist about to begin a PhD in neuroscience when, out of the blue, homeopathy bit me on the proverbial bottom.

Science had been my passion since I began studying biology with Mr Hopkinson at the age of 11, and by the age of 21, when I attended the dinner party that altered the course of my life, I had still barely heard of it. The idea that I would one day become a homeopath would have seemed ludicrous.

That turning point is etched in my mind. A woman I’d known my entire life told me that a homeopath had successfully treated her when many months of conventional treatment had failed. As a sceptic, I scoffed, but was nonetheless a little intrigued.

She confessed that despite thinking homeopathy was a load of rubbish, she’d finally agreed to an appointment, to stop her daughter nagging. But she was genuinely shocked to find that, after one little pill, within days she felt significantly better. A second tablet, she said, “saw it off completely”.

I admit I ruined that dinner party. I interrogated her about every detail of her diagnosis, previous treatment, time scales, the lot. I thought it through logically – she was intelligent, she wasn’t lying, she had no previous inclination towards alternative medicine, and her reluctance would have diminished any placebo effect.

Scientists are supposed to make unprejudiced observations, then draw conclusions. As I thought about this, I was left with the highly uncomfortable conclusion that homeopathy appeared to have worked. I had to find out more.

So, I started reading about homeopathy, and what I discovered shifted my world for ever. I became convinced enough to hand my coveted PhD studentship over to my best friend and sign on for a three-year, full-time homeopathy training course.

Now, as an experienced homeopath, it is “science” that is biting me on the bottom. I know homeopathy works…

As I said, I have heard many strikingly similar accounts. Some of these tales seem a little too tall to be true and might be a trifle exaggerated, but the consistency of the picture that emerges from all of these stories is nevertheless extraordinary: people get started on a single anecdote which they are prepared to experience as an epiphanic turn-around. Subsequently, they are on a mission of confirming their new-found belief over and over again, until they become undoubting disciples for life.

So what? you might ask. But I do think this epiphany-like event at the outset of a homeopathic career is significant. In no other area of health care does the initial anecdote regularly play such a prominent role. People do not become believers in aspirin, for instance, on the basis of a ‘moment of great revelation’, they may take it because of the evidence. And, if there is a discrepancy between the external evidence and their own experience, as with homeopathy, most people would start to reflect: What other explanations exist to rationalise the anecdote? Invariably, there are many (placebo, natural history of the condition, concomitant events etc.).

Confirmation bias

Epiphany-stuck believers spends much time and effort to actively look for similar stories that seem to confirm the initial anecdote. They might, for instance, recommend or administer or prescribe homeopathy to others, many of whom would report positive outcomes. At the same time, all anecdotes that do not happen to fit the belief are brushed aside, forgotten, supressed, belittled, decried etc. This process leads to confirmation after confirmation after confirmation – and gradually builds up to what proponents of homeopathy would call ‘years of experience’. And ‘years of experience’ can, of course, not be wrong!

Again, believers neglect to question, doubt and rationalise their own perceptions. They ignore the fact that years of experience might just be little more than a suborn insistence on repeating one’s own mistakes. Even the most obvious confounders such as selective memory or alternative causes for positive clinical outcomes are quickly dismissed or not even considered at all.

Avoiding cognitive dissonance at all cost

But believers still has to somehow deal with the scientific facts about homeopathy; and these are, of course, grossly out of line with their belief. Thus the external evidence and the internal belief would inevitably clash creating a shrill cognitive dissonance. This must be avoided at all cost, as it might threaten the believer’s peace of mind. And the solution is amazingly simple: scientific evidence that does not confirm the believer’s conviction is ignored or, when this proves to be impossible, turned upside down.

Rachel Roberts’ account is most enlightening also in this repect:

And yet I keep reading reports in the media saying that homeopathy doesn’t work and that this scientific evidence doesn’t exist.

The facts, it seems, are being ignored. By the end of 2009, 142 randomised control trials (the gold standard in medical research) comparing homeopathy with placebo or conventional treatment had been published in peer-reviewed journals – 74 were able to draw firm conclusions: 63 were positive for homeopathy and 11 were negative. Five major systematic reviews have also been carried out to analyse the balance of evidence from RCTs of homeopathy – four were positive (Kleijnen, J, et al; Linde, K, et al; Linde, K, et al; Cucherat, M, et al) and one was negative (Shang, A et al). It’s usual to get mixed results when you look at a wide range of research results on one subject, and if these results were from trials measuring the efficacy of “normal” conventional drugs, ratios of 63:11 and 4:1 in favour of a treatment working would be considered pretty persuasive.

This statement is, in my view, a classic example of a desperate misinterpretation of the truth as a means of preventing the believer’s house of cards from collapsing. It even makes the hilarious claim that not the believers but the doubters “ignore” the facts.

In order to be able to adhere to her belief, Roberts needs to rely on a woefully biased white-wash from the ‘British Homeopathic Association’. And, in order to be on the safe side, she even quotes it misleadingly. The conclusion of the Cucherat review, for instance, can only be seen as positive by most blinkered of minds: There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies. Further high quality studies are needed to confirm these results. Contrary to what Roberts states, there are at least a dozen more than 5 systematic reviews of homeopathy; my own systematic review of systematic reviews, for example, concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.

It seems that, at this stage of a believer’s development, the truth gets all too happily sacrificed on the altar of faith. All these ‘ex-sceptics’ turned believers are now able to display is a rather comical parody of scepticism.

The delusional end-stage

The last stage in the career of a believer has been reached when hardly anything that he or she is convinced of resembles reality any longer. I don’t know much about Rachel Roberts, and she might not have reached this point yet; but there are many others who clearly have.

My two favourite examples of end-stage homeopathic delusionists are John Benneth and Dana Ullman. The final stage on the journey from ‘sceptic scientist’ to delusional disciple is characterised by an incessant stream of incoherent statements of vile nonsense that beggars belief. It is therefore easy to recognise and, because nobody can possibly take the delusionists seriously, they are best viewed as relatively harmless contributors to medical comedy.

Why does all of this matter?

Many homeopathy-fans are quasi-religious believers who, in my experience, have degressed way beyond reason. It is therefore a complete waste of time trying to reason with them. Initiated by a highly emotional epiphany, their faith cannot be shaken by rational arguments. Similar but usually less pronounced attitudes, I am afraid, can be observed in true believers of other alternative treatments as well (here I have chosen the example of homeopathy mainly because it is the area where things are most explicit).

True believers claim to have started out as sceptics and they often insist to be driven by a scientific mind. Yet I have never seen any evidence for these assumptions. On the contrary, for a relatively trivial episode to become a life-changing epiphany, the believer’s mind needs to be lamentably unscientific, unquestioning and simple.

In my experience, true believers will not change their mind; I have never seen this happening. However, progress might nevertheless be made, if we managed to instil a more (self-) questioning rationality and scientific attitudes into the minds of the next generations. In other words, we need better education in science and more training of critical thinking during their formative years.

Recent Comments

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


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories