alternative medicine

Still in the spirit of ACUPUNCTURE AWARENESS WEEK, I have another critical look at a recent paper. If you trust some of the conclusions of this new article, you might think that acupuncture is an evidence-based treatment for coronary heart disease. I think this would be a recipe for disaster.

This condition affects millions and eventually kills a frighteningly large percentage of the population. Essentially, it is caused by the fact that, as we get older, the blood vessels supplying the heart also change, become narrower and get partially or even totally blocked. This causes lack of oxygen in the heart which causes pain known as angina pectoris. Angina is a most important warning sign indicating that a full blown heart attack might be not far.

The treatment of coronary heart disease consists in trying to let more blood flow through the narrowed coronaries, either by drugs or by surgery. At the same time, one attempts to reduce the oxygen demand of the heart, if possible. Normalisation of risk factors like hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia are key preventative strategies. It is not immediate clear to me how acupuncture might help in all this – but I have been wrong before!

The new meta-analysis included 16 individual randomised clinical trials. All had a high or moderate risk of bias. Acupuncture combined with conventional drugs (AC+CD) turned out to be superior to conventional drugs alone in reducing the incidence of acute myocardial infarction (AMI). AC+CD was superior to conventional drugs in reducing angina symptoms as well as in improving electrocardiography (ECG). Acupuncture by itself was also superior to conventional drugs for angina symptoms and ECG improvement. AC+CD was superior to conventional drugs in shortening the time to onset of angina relief. However, the time to onset was significantly longer for acupuncture treatment than for conventional treatment alone.

From these results, the authors [who are from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Sichuan, China] conclude that “AC+CD reduced the occurrence of AMI, and both acupuncture and AC+CD relieved angina symptoms and improved ECG. However, compared with conventional treatment, acupuncture showed a longer delay before its onset of action. This indicates that acupuncture is not suitable for emergency treatment of heart attack. Owing to the poor quality of the current evidence, the findings of this systematic review need to be verified by more RCTs to enhance statistical power.”

As in the meta-analysis discussed in my previous post, the studies are mostly Chinese, flawed, and not obtainable for an independent assessment. As in the previous article, I fail to see a plausible mechanism by which acupuncture might bring about the effects. This is not just a trivial or coincidental observation – I could cite dozens of systematic reviews for which the same criticism applies.

What is different, however, from the last post on gout is simple and important: if you treat gout with a therapy that is ineffective, you have more pain and eventually might opt for an effective one. If you treat coronary heart disease with a therapy that does not work, you might not have time to change, you might be dead.

Therefore I strongly disagree with the authors of this meta-analysis; “the findings of this systematic review need NOT to be verified by more RCTs to enhance statistical power” — foremost, I think, the findings need to be interpreted with much more caution and re-written. In fact, the findings show quite clearly that there is no good evidence to use acupuncture for coronary heart disease. To pretend otherwise is, in my view, not responsible.


This week is acupuncture awareness week, and I will use this occasion to continue focusing on this therapy. This first time ever event is supported by the British Acupuncture Council who state that it aims to “help better inform people about the ancient practice of traditional acupuncture. With 2.3 million acupuncture treatments carried out each year, acupuncture is one of the most popular complementary therapies practised in the UK today.

Right, let’s inform people about acupuncture then! Let’s show them that there is often more to acupuncture research than meets the eye.

My team and I have done lots of research into acupuncture and probably published more papers on this than any other subject. We had prominent acupuncturists on board from the UK, Korea, China and Japan, we ran conferences, published books and are proud to have been innovative and productive in our multidisciplinary research. But here I do not intend to dwell on our own achievements, rather I will highlight several important new papers in this area.

Korean authors just published a meta-analysis to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture as  therapy for gouty arthritis. Ten RCTs involving 852 gouty arthritis patients were included. Six studies of 512 patients reported a significant decrease in uric acid in the treatment group compared with a control group, while two studies of 120 patients reported no such effect. The remaining four studies of 380 patients reported a significant decrease in pain in the treatment group.

The authors conclude “that acupuncture is efficacious as complementary therapy for gouty arthritis patients”.

We should be delighted with such a positive and neat result! Why then do I hesitate and have doubts?

I believe that this paper reveals several important issues in relation to systematic reviews of Chinese acupuncture trials and studies of other TCM interventions. In fact, this is my main reason for discussing the new meta-analysis here. The following three points are crucial, in my view:

1) All the primary studies were from China, and 8 of the 10 were only available in Chinese.

2) All of them had major methodological flaws.

3) It has been shown repeatedly that all acupuncture-trials from China are positive.

Given this situation, the conclusions of any review for which there are only Chinese acupuncture studies might as well be written before the actual research has started. If the authors are pro-acupuncture, as the ones of the present article clearly are, they will conclude that “acupuncture is efficacious“. If the research team has some critical thinkers on board, the same evidence will lead to an entirely different conclusion, such as “due to the lack of rigorous trials, the evidence is less than compelling.

Systematic reviews are supposed to be the best type of evidence we currently have; they are supposed to guide therapeutic decisions. I find it unacceptable that one and the same set of data could be systematically analysed to generate such dramatically different outcomes. This is confusing and counter-productive!

So what is there to do? How can we prevent being misled by such articles? I think that medical journals should refuse to publish systematic reviews which so clearly lack sufficient critical input. I also believe that reviewers of predominantly Chinese studies should provide English translations of these texts so that they can be independently assessed by those who are not able to read Chinese – and for the sake of transparency, journal editors should insist on this point.

And what about the value of acupuncture for gouty arthritis? I think I let the readers draw their own conclusion.

“They would say that, wouldn’t they?”  is the quote attributed to Mandy Rice-Davies giving witness in the Profumo affair. I think, it aptly highlights some of the issues related to conflicts of interest in health care.

These days, when a researcher publishes a paper, he will in all likelihood have to disclose all conflicts of interest he might have. The aim of this exercise is to be as transparent as possible; if someone has received support from a commercial company, for example, this fact does not necessarily follow that his paper is biased, but it is important to lay open the fact so that the readers can make up their own minds.

The questionnaires that authors have to complete prior to publication of their article focus almost exclusively on financial issues. For instance, one has to disclose any sponsorship, fees, travel support or shares that one might own in a company. In conventional medicine, these matters are deemed to be the most important sources for potential conflicts of interest.

In alternative medicine, financial issues are generally thought to be far less critical; it is generally seen as an area where there is so little money that it is hardly worth bothering. Perhaps this is the reason why few journals in this field insist on declarations of conflicts of interests and few authors disclose them.

After having been a full-time researcher of alternative medicine for two decades, I have become convinced that conflicts of interest are at least as prevalent and powerful in this field as in any other area of health care. Sure, there is less money at stake, but this fact is more than compensated by non-financial issues. Quasi-evangelic convictions abound in alternative medicine and it is, I think, obvious that they can amount to significant conflicts of interest.

During their training, alternative practitioners are being taught many things which are unproven, have no basis in fact or are just plainly wrong. Eventually this schooling can create a belief system which often is adhered to regardless of the scientific evidence and which tends to be defended at all cost. As some of my readers are bound to object to this remark, I better cite an example: during their training, students of chiropractic develop a more and more firm stance against immunization which in all likelihood is due to the type of information they receive at the chiropractic college. There is no question in my mind that creeds can represent an even more powerful conflict of interest than financial matters.

Moreover, this belief is indivisibly intertwined with existential issues. In alternative medicine, there may not be huge amounts of money at stake but practitioners’ livelihoods are perceived to be at risk. If an acupuncturist, for instance, argues in favour of his therapy, he also consciously or sub-consciously is trying to protect his income.

Some might say that this not different from conventional medicine, but I disagree: if we take away one specific therapy from a doctor because it turns out to be useless or unsafe, he will be able to use another one; if we take the acupuncture needle away from an acupuncturist, we have deprived him of his livelihood.

This is why conflicts of interest in alternative medicine tend to be very acute, powerful and personal. And this is why enthusiasts of alternative medicine are incapable or unwilling to look upon any type of critical assessment of their area as anything else than an attack on their income, their beliefs, their status, their training or their person. If anyone should doubt it, I recommend studying the comments I received to previous posts of this blog.

When Mandi Rice-Davies gave evidence during the trial of Stephen Ward, the osteopath who had introduced her to influential clients, the prosecuting council noted that Lord Astor denied having had an affair with her. Mrs Rice-Davies allegedly replied “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” (Actually, she did not say these exact words but something rather similar) When I read the comments following my posts on this blog, I am often reminded of this now classical quote.

When chiropractors deny that neck manipulations carry a risk, when herbalists insist that traditional herbalism is based on good evidence, when homeopaths claim that their remedies are more than placebos, I believe we should ask who, in these debates, might have a conflict of interest.

Is there a circumstance of one party in the discussion where personal interests might benefit from the argument? Who is more likely to be objective, the person whose livelihood is endangered or the independent expert who studied the subject in depth but has no axe to grind? If you ask these questions, you might conclude as I frequently do: “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

In 2010, I have reviewed the deaths which have been reported after chiropractic treatments. My article suggested that 26 fatalities had been published in the medical literature and many more might have remained unpublished. The alleged pathology usually was a vascular accident involving the dissection of a vertebral artery. Whenever I write about the risks of spinal manipulation, chiropractors say that I am irresponsible and alarmist. Yet I believe I am merely doing my duty in alerting health care professionals and the public to the possibility that this intervention is associated with harm and that caution is therefore recommended.

Fortunately, I am not alone, as a new report from China shows.This review summarised published cases of injuries associated with cervical manipulation in China, and to describe the risks and benefits of the therapy.

A total of 156 cases met the inclusion criteria. They included the following problems: syncope = 45 cases , mild spinal cord injury or compression = 34 cases, nerve root injury = 24 cases, ineffective treatment or symptom increased = 11 cases ; cervical spine fracture = 11 cases, dislocation or semiluxation = 6 cases, soft tissue injury = 3 cases, serious accident = 22 cases including paralysis, death and cerebrovascular accident. Manipulation including rotation was involved in 42.00%, 63 cases). 5 patients died.

The authors conclude that “it is imperative for practitioners to complete the patients’ management and assessment before manipulation. That the practitioners conduct a detailed physical examination and make a correct diagnosis would be a pivot method of avoiding accidents. Excluding contraindications and potential risks, standardizing evaluation criteria and practitioners’ qualification, increasing safety awareness and risk assessment and strengthening the monitoring of the accidents could decrease the incidence of accidents” (I do apologize for the authors’ poor English).

It is probable that someone will now calculate that the risk of harm is minute. Chinese traditional healers seem to use spinal manipulation fairly regularly, so the incidence of complications would be one in several millions.

Such calculations are frequently made by chiropractors in an attempt to define the incidence rates of risks associated with chiropractic in the West. They look convincing but, in fact, they are complete nonsense.

The reason is that under-reporting can be huge. Clinical trials of chiropractic often omit any mention of adverse effects (thus violating publication ethics) and, in our case-series, under-reporting was precisely 100% (none of the cases we discovered had been recorded anywhere). This means that these estimates are entirely worthless.

I sincerely hope that the risk turns out to be extremely low – but without a functioning reporting system for such events, we might as well read tea-leaves.

Since weeks I have been searching for new (2013) studies which actually report POSITIVE results. I like good news as much as the next man but, in my line of business, it seems awfully hard to come by. Therefore I am all the more delighted to present these two new articles to my readers.

The first study is a randomized trial with patients suffering from metastatic cancer who received one of three interventions: massage therapy, no-touch intervention or usual care. Primary outcomes were pain, anxiety, and alertness; secondary outcomes were quality of life and sleep. The mean number of massage therapy sessions per patient was 2.8.

The results show significant improvement in the quality of life of the patients who received massage therapy after 1-week follow-up which was not observed in either of the other groups. Unfortunately, the difference was not sustained at 1 month. There were also trends towards improvement in pain and sleep of the patients after massage. No serious adverse events were noted.

The authors conclude that “providing therapeutic massage improves the quality of life at the end of life for patients and may be associated with further beneficial effects, such as improvement in pain and sleep quality. Larger randomized controlled trials are needed to substantiate these findings“.

The second study examined the effectiveness of a back massage for improving sleep quality in 60 postpartum women suffering from poor sleep. They were  randomized to either the intervention or the control group. Participants in both groups received the same care except for the back massages. The intervention group received one 20-minutes back massage at the same time each evening for 5 consecutive days by a certified massage therapist. The outcome measure was the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). The results showed that the changes in mean PSQI were significantly lower in the intervention group than in controls indicating a positive effect of massage on sleep quality.

The authors’ conclusions were clear: “an intervention involving back massage in the postnatal period significantly improved the quality of sleep.

Where I was trained (Germany), massage is not deemed to be an alternative but an entirely mainstream treatment. Despite this fact, there is precious little evidence to demonstrate that it is effective. Our own research has found encouraging evidence for a range of conditions, including autism, cancer palliation, constipation, DOMS and back pain. In addition, we have shown that massage is not entirely free of risks but that its potential for harm is very low (some might say that this was never in question but it is good to have a bit more solid evidence).

The new studies are, of course, not without flaws; this can hardly be expected in an area where logistical, financial and methodological problems abound. The fact that there are many different approaches to massage does not make things easier either. The new evidence is nevertheless encouraging and seems to suggest that massage has relaxing effects which are clinically relevant. In my view, massage is a therapy worth considering for more rigorous research.

Acupuncture remains a highly controversial treatment: its mechanism of action is less than clear and the clinical results are equally unconvincing. Of course, one ought to differentiate between different conditions; the notion that acupuncture is a panacea is most certainly nonsense.

In many countries, acupuncture is being employed mostly in the management of pain, and it is in this area where the evidence is perhaps most encouraging. Yet, even here the evidence from the most rigorous clinical trials seems to suggest that much, if not all of the effects of acupuncture might be due to placebo.

Moreover, we ought to be careful with generalisations and ask what type of pain? One very specific pain is that caused by aromatase inhibitors (AI), a medication frequently prescribed to women suffering from breast cancer. Around 50 % of these patients complain of AI-associated musculoskeletal symptoms (AIMSS) and 15 % discontinue treatment because of these complaints. So, can acupuncture help these women?

A recent randomised, sham-controlled trial tested whether acupuncture improves AIMSS. Postmenopausal women with early stage breast cancer, experiencing AIMSS were randomized to eight weekly real or sham acupuncture sessions. The investigators evaluated changes in the Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability Index (HAQ-DI) and pain visual analog scale (VAS). Serum estradiol, β-endorphin, and proinflammatory cytokine concentrations were also measured pre and post-intervention. In total, 51 women were enrolled of whom 47 were evaluable (23 randomized to real and 24 to sham acupuncture).

Baseline characteristics turned out to be balanced between groups with the exception of a higher HAQ-DI score in the real acupuncture group. The results failed to show a statistically significant difference in reduction of HAQ-DI or VAS between the two groups. Following eight weekly treatments, a significant reduction of IL-17 was noted in both groups. No significant modulation was seen in estradiol, β-endorphin, or other proinflammatory cytokine concentrations in either group. No difference in AIMSS changes between real and sham acupuncture was seen.

Even though this study was not large, it was rigorously executed and well-reported. As many acupuncturists claim that their treatment alleviates pain and as many women suffering from AM-induced pain experience benefit, acupuncture advocates will nevertheless claim that the findings of this study are wrong, misleading or irrelevant. The often remarkable discrepancy between experience and evidence will again be the subject of intense discussions. How can a tiny trial overturn the experience of so many?

The answer is: VERY EASILY! In fact, the simplest explanation is that both are correct. The trial was well-done and its findings are thus likely to be true. The experience of patients is equally true – yet it relies not on the effects of acupuncture per se, but on the context in which it is given. In simple language, the effects patients experience after acupuncture are due to a placebo-response.

This is the only simple explanation which tallies with both the evidence and the experience. Once we think about it carefully, we realise that acupuncture is highly placebo-genic:

It is exotic.

It is invasive.

It is slightly painful.

It involves time with a therapist.

It involves touch.

If anyone had the task to develop a treatment that maximises placebo-effects, he could not come up with a better intervention!

Ahhh, will acupuncture-fans say, this means that acupuncture is a helpful therapy. I don’t care how it works, as long as it does help. Did we not just cover this issues in some detail? Indeed we did –  and I do not feel like re-visiting the three fallacies which underpin this sentence again.

During the last decade, Professor Claudia Witt and co-workers from the Charite in Berlin have published more studies of homeopathy than any other research group. Much of their conclusions are over-optimistic and worringly uncritical, in my view. Their latest article is on homeopathy as a treatment of eczema. As it happens, I have recently published a systematic review of this subject; it concluded that “the evidence from controlled clinical trials… fails to show that homeopathy is an efficacious treatment for eczema“. The question therefore arises whether the latest publication of the Berlin team changes my conclusion in any way.

Their new article describes a prospective multi-centre study which included 135 children with mild to moderate atopic eczema. The parents of the kids enrolled in this trial were able to choose either homeopathic or conventional doctors for their children who treated them as they saw fit. The article gives only scant details about the actual treatments administered. The main outcome of the study was a validated symptom score at 36 months. Further endpoints included quality of life, conventional medicine consumption, safety and disease related costs at six, 12 and 36 months.

The results showed no significant differences between the groups at 36 months. However, the children treated conventionally seemed to improve quicker than those in the homeopathy group. The total costs were about twice higher in the homoeopathic compared to the conventional group. The authors conclude as follows: “Taking patient preferences into account, while being unable to rule out residual confounding, in this long-term observational study, the effects of homoeopathic treatment were not superior to conventional treatment for children with mild to moderate atopic eczema, but involved higher costs“.

At least one previous report of this study has been available for some time and had thus been included in my systematic review. It is therefore unlikely that this new analysis might change my conclusion, particularly as the trial by Witt et al has many flaws. Here are just some of the most obvious ones:

Patients were selected according to parents’ preferences.

This means expectations could have played an important role.

It also means that the groups were not comparable in various, potentially important prognostic variables.

Even though much of the article reads as though the homeopaths exclusively employed homeopathic remedies, the truth is that both groups received similar amounts of conventional care and treatments. In other words, the study followed a ‘A+B versus B’ design (here is the sentence that best gives the game away “At 36 months the frequency of daily basic skin care was… comparable in both groups, as was the number of different medications (including corticosteroids and antihistamines)…”). I have previously stated that this type of study-design can never produce a negative result because A+B is always more than B.

Yet, at first glance, this new study seems to prove my thesis wrong: even though the parents chose their preferred options, and even though all patients were treated conventionally, the addition of homeopathy to conventional care failed to produce a better clinical outcome. On the contrary, the homeopathically treated kids had to wait longer for their symptoms to ease. The only significant difference was that the addition of homeopathy to conventional eczema treatments was much more expensive than conventional therapy alone (this finding is less than remarkable: even the most useless additional intervention costs money).

So, is my theory about ‘A+B versusB’ study-designs wrong? I don’t think so. If B equals zero, one would expect exactly the finding Witt et al produced:  A+0=A. In turn, this is not a compliment for the homeopaths of this study: they seem to have been incapable of even generating a placebo-response. And this might indicate that homeopathy was not even usefull as a means to generate a placebo-response. Whatever interpretation one adopts, this study tells us very little of value (as children often grow out of eczema, we cannot even be sure whether the results are not simply a reflection of the natural history of the disease); in my view, it merely demonstrates that weak study designs can only create weak findings which, in this particular case, are next to useless.

The study was sponsored by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, an organisation which claims to be dedicated to excellence in research and which has, in the past, spent millions on researching homeopathy. It seems doubtful that trials of this caliber can live up to any claim of excellence. In any case, the new analysis is certainly no reason to change the conclusion of my systematic review.

To their credit, Witt et al are well aware of the many weaknesses of their study. Perhaps in an attempt to make them appear less glaring, they stress that “the aim of this study was to reflect the real world situation“.Usually I do not accept the argument that pragmatic trials cannot be rigorous – but I think Witt et al do have a point here: the real word tells us that homeopathic remedies are pure placebos!

The most common pronouncement regarding alternative medicine that I have heard over the years from consumers, health care professionals or decision makers with a liking of alternative medicine goes as follows: “I don’t care how it works, as long as it helps.”

At first glance, this argument seems reasonable, logic and correct; it would be foolish, perhaps even unethical, to reject an effective treatment simply because we fail to understand how its effectiveness comes about – this would not be pragmatic and it is not what we do in medicine: aspirin, for instance, was used and helped many patients long before we understood how it worked. However, once we consider the way this notion is regularly used to defend the use of unproven therapies, we see that, in this context, it is fallacious – in fact, if we dissect it carefully, we find that it  crams three large fallacies in one tiny sentence.

The first thing we notice is that the argument combines two fundamentally different issues which really should be separate  1) the mechanism of action of a therapy and 2) its clinical effectiveness. The matter gets clearer, if we discuss it not in the abstract, but in relation to a concrete example: BACH FLOWER REMEDIES (BFRs). I could have selected many other alternative therapies but BFRs seem fine, particularly as they have so far received no mention on this blog.

Similar to homeopathic preparations, BFRs are so dilute that they do not contain any active ingredients to speak of (they differ from homeopathic preparations, however, in that they do not follow the ‘like cures like’ principle). Several clinical trials of BFRs have been published; collectively, their results show very clearly that the clinical effects of BFRs do not differ from those of placebo. (This does not stop manufacturers selling and consumers buying them; in fact, BFRs are a thriving business.)

The principles backing up BFRs are scientifically implausible, and even BFR-practitioners would probably admit that they have no scientifically defensible idea how their remedies work. Scientists might add that a mechanism of action of such highly dilute remedies is not just unknown but unknowable; there is no way to explain how they work without re-writing several laws of nature.

The overall situation is thus quite clear: BFRs are not effective and there is no plausible mechanism of action.Yet it is hard to deny that many patients feel better after having consulted a BFR-practitioner (or after self-medicating BFRs), and those satisfied customers often insist: “I don’t care how BFRs work, as long as they help me.”

As previously discussed, symptoms can improve for a range of reasons which are related to any specific therapeutic effect: the natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean, placebo-effects etc. Only rigorously controlled trials can tell us whether the therapy or other factors caused the clinical outcome; our perception alone cannot identify cause and effect.

The fact that thousands of patients swear by BFRs, does therefore not constitute proof for their efficacy. The explanation of the apparently different impressions from experience and the results of clinical trials is therefore simple: the empathetic encounter with a therapist and/or a placebo-effect and/or the natural history of the condition are perceived as helpful, while the BFRs are pure placebos.

Back to the notion “I don’t care how this therapy works, as long as it helps” – it turns out to be based on at least three misunderstandings all tightly woven together.

Firstly, it was not the treatment itself that helped, but something else (see above). To imply that the treatment worked is therefore a fallacy.

Secondly, the reference to an unknown mechanism of action is aimed at misleading the opponent: it distracts  from the first fallacy (“the treatment is effective”) by super-imposing a second fallacy (that there might be a mechanism of action). Crucially it attempts to wrong-foot the opponent by implying: “you reject something useful simply because you cannot explain it; this is poor logic and even worse ethics – shame on you!”.

BFR-enthusiasts are bound to see all this quite differently. They will probably claim that a placebo-effect is also a plausible mechanism. “Surely” they might say “this means that BFRs are useful and should be widely employed”.

In proclaiming this, they turn the double-fallacy into a triple fallacy. What they forget is that we do not need a placebo to generate placebo-effects. An effective treatment administered with time, compassion and empathy will, of course, also generate a placebo-effect – what is more, it would generate a specific therapeutic effect on top of it. Thus the BFR are quite useless in comparison. There is rarely a good justification for using placebos in clinical routine.

In conclusion, the often-used and seemingly reasonable sentence “I don’t care how it works, as long as it is helpful  turns out to be a package of fallacies when used to support the use of unproven treatments.

There are at least two dramatically different kinds of herbal medicine, and the proper distinction of the two is crucially important. The first type is supported by some reasonably sound evidence and essentially uses well-tested herbal remedies against specific conditions; this approach has been called by some experts RATIONAL PHYTOTHERAPY. An example is the use of St John’s Wort for depression.

The second type of herbal medicine. It entails consulting a herbal practitioner who takes a history, makes a diagnosis (usually according to obsolete concepts) and prescribes a mixture of several herbal remedies tailor-made to the characteristics of his patient. Thus 10 patients with the identical diagnosis (say depression) might receive 10 different mixtures of herbs. This is true for individualized herbalism of all traditions, e.g. Chinese, Indian or European, and virtually every herbalist you might consult will employ this individualized, traditional approach.

Many consumers know that, in principle, there is some reasonably good evidence for herbal medicine. They fail to appreciate, however, that this does only apply to (sections of) rational phytotherapy. So, they consult herbal practitioners in the belief that they are about to receive an evidence-based therapy. Nothing could be further from the truth! The individualised approach is not evidence-based; even if the individual extracts employed were all supported by sound data (which they frequently are not) the mixutres applied are clearly not.

And this is where the danger of traditional herbalism lies; over the years, herbalists have fooled us all with this fundamental misunderstanding. In the UK, they might even achieve statutory regulation on the back of this self-serving misconception. When this happens, we would have a situation where a completely unproven practice has obtained the same status as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. If this is not grossly misleading for the consumer, I do not know what is!!!

Some claim that individualized herbalism cannot be tested in clinical trials. This notion can very easily be shown to be wrong: several such studies testing individualized herbalism have been published. To the dismay of traditional herbalists, their results fail to confirm that such treatments are effective for any condition.

Now a further trial has become available that importantly contributes to this knowledge-base. Its authors (all enthusiasts of individualized herbalism) randomized 102 patients suffering from hip or knee-osteoarthritis into two groups. The experimental group received tailor-made mixtures of 7 to 10 Chinese herbs which were traditionally assumed to be helpful. The control group took a mixture of plants known to be ineffective but tasting similar. After 20 weeks of treatment, there were no differences between the groups in any of the outcome measures: pain, stiffness and function. These results thus confirm that this approach is not effective. Not only that, it also carries more risks.

As individualized herbalism employs a multitude of ingredients, the dangers of adverse-effects and herb-drug interactionscontamination, adulteration etc. are bigger that those with the use of single herbal extracts. It seems to follow therefore that the risks of individualized herbalism do not outweigh its benefit.

My recommendations are thus fairly straight forward: if we consider herbal medicine, it is vital to differentiate between the two types. Rational phytotherapy might be fine – of course, depending on the remedy and the condition we are aiming to treat. Individualised or traditional herbalism is not fine; it is not demonstrably effective and has considerable risks. This means consulting a herbalist is not a reasonable approach to treating any human ailment. It also means that regulating herbalists (as we are about to do in the UK) is a seriously bad idea: the regulation of non-sense will result in non-sense!


In my very first post on this blog, I proudly pronounced that this would not become one of those places where quack-busters have field-day. However, I am aware that, so far, I have not posted many complimentary things about alternative medicine. My ‘excuse’ might be that there are virtually millions of sites where this area is uncritically promoted and very few where an insider dares to express a critical view. In the interest of balance, I thus focus of critical assessments.

Yet I intend, of course, report positive news when I think it is relevant and sound. So, today I shall discuss a new trial which is impressively sound and generates some positive results:

French rheumatologists conducted a prospective, randomised, double blind, parallel group, placebo controlled  trial of avocado-soybean-unsaponifiables (ASU). This dietary supplement has complex pharmacological activities and has been used since years for osteoarthritis (OA) and other conditions. The clinical evidence has, so far, been encouraging, albeit not entirely convincing. My own review arrived at the conclusion that “the majority of rigorous trial data available to date suggest that ASU is effective for the symptomatic treatment of OA and more research seems warranted. However, the only real long-term trial yielded a largely negative result”.

For the new trial, patients with symptomatic hip OA and a minimum joint space width (JSW) of the target hip between 1 and 4 mm were randomly assigned to  three years of 300 mg/day ASU-E or placebo. The primary outcome was JSW change at year 3, measured radiographically at the narrowest point.

A total of 399 patients were randomised. Their mean baseline JSW was 2.8 mm. There was no significant difference on mean JSW loss, but there was 20% less progressors in the ASU than in the placebo group (40% vs 50%, respectively). No difference was observed in terms of clinical outcomes. Safety was excellent.

The authors concluded that 3 year treatment with ASU reduces the speed of JSW narrowing, indicating a potential structure modifying effect in hip OA. They cautioned that their results require independent confirmation and that the clinical relevance of their findings require further assessment.

I like this study, and here are just a few reasons why:

It reports a massive research effort; I think anyone who has ever attempted a 3-year RCT might agree with this view.

It is rigorous; all the major sources of bias are excluded as far as humanly possible.

It is well-reported; all the essential details are there and anyone who has the skills and funds would be able to attempt an independent replication.

The authors are cautious in their interpretation of the results.

The trial tackles an important clinical problem; OA is common and any treatment that helps without causing significant harm would be more than welcome.

It yielded findings which are positive or at least promising; contrary to what some people seem to believe, I do like good news as much as anyone else.


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