MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

alternative medicine

This article was posted a few months ago. Then it mysteriously vanished without a trace; nobody knows quite why or how. Today I found an old draft on my computer, so I post the article again. It might not be identical with the original but it is close enough, I think.

Some time ago, Andy Lewis formulated a notion which he called ‘Ernst’s law’. Initially, I felt this was a bit o.t.t., then it made me chuckle, and eventually it got me thinking: could there be some truth in it, and if so, why?

The ‘law’ stipulates that, if a scientist investigating alternative medicine is much liked by the majority of enthusiasts in this field, the scientist is not doing his/her job properly. In any other area of healthcare, such a ‘law’ would be absurd. Why then does it seem to make sense, at least to some degree, in alternative medicine? The differences between any area of conventional and alternative medicine are diverse and profound.

Take neurology, for instance: here we have an organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology and nosology all related more or less specifically to this field and all based on facts, rigorous science and substantial evidence. None of this knowledge, science and evidence is static, but each has evolved and can be predicted to do so in future. What we knew about neurology 50 years ago, for example, was dramatically different from what we know today. Scientific discovery discoveries in neurology link up with the knowledge gathered in other areas of medicine to generate a (more or less) complete bigger picture.

In alternative medicine or any single branch thereof, we have no specific organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology or nosology to speak of. We also have few notions that are transferable from one branch of alternative medicine to another – on the contrary, the assumptions of homeopathy, for example, are in overt contradiction to those of acupuncture which, in turn, are out of sync with those of reflexology, aromatherapy and Reiki.

Instead, each branch of alternative medicine has its own axioms that are largely detached from reality or, indeed, from the axioms of other branches of alternative medicine. In acupuncture, for instance, we have concepts such as yin and yang, qi, meridians and acupuncture points, and there is hardly any development of these concepts. This renders them akin to dogmas, and there is no chance in hell that the combination of all the branches of alternative medicine would add up to provide a sensible ‘bigger picture’.

If a scientist were to instill scientific, critical, progressive thought in a field like neurology, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would be greeted with open arms among many like-minded researchers who all pursue the aim of advancing their field and contributing to the knowledge base by overturning wrong assumptions and discovering new truths. If researchers were to spend their time trying to analyse the concepts or treatments of alternative medicine, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would not only not be appreciated by the majority of the experts working in this field, they would be castigated for their actions.

If a scientist dedicated decades of hard work to the rigorous assessment of alternative medicine, that person would become a thorn in the flesh of believers. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, some disappointed enthusiasts of alternative treatments might even pay for defaming them.

On the other hand, if a researcher merely misused the tools of science to confirm the implausible assumptions of alternative medicine, he would quickly become the celebrated ‘heroes’ of this field.

This is the bizarre phenomenon that ‘Ernst’s law’ seems to capture quite well – and this is why I believe the ‘law’ is worth more than a laugh and a chuckle. In fact, ‘Ernst’s law’ might even describe the depressing reality of retrograde thinking in alternative medicine more accurately than most of us care to admit.

What do my readers feel? Their comments following this blog may well confirm or refute my theory.

Guest post by Dr. Richard Rawlins MB BS MBA FRCS, Consultant Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgeon

On 14th November 2013 the Daily Telegraph advised that ‘Meditation could help troops overcome the trauma of war: Troops suffering post traumatic stress should take up yoga and acupuncture to get over the horrors of war. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Children’s Fund is urging troops to try alternative therapies to get over psychological disorders when they return from conflict zones. After receiving a Whitehall grant, the charity has written a book aimed at helping families understand and cope with the impact and stresses suffered by troops before, during and after warfare. It suggests servicemen try treatments such as massage, reflexology, reiki and meditation.’

As a former Surgeon Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve I treated servicemen on their return from the Falklands. As a father of a platoon commander who served with the Grenadier Guards in Helmand I support Combat Stress. As a member of the Magic Circle I am well acquainted with methods of deceit, deception and delusion. As a doctor I care and hope to see all patients treated appropriately, but alternative therapies must be considered critically.

To assist management of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the Children’s Fund book provides details of relevant therapies, institutions providing them and knitting patterns for making dolls representing the service personnel and their families. The title Knit the Family is both a suggestion for practical help by making dolls and a metaphor for knitting families back together after deployment. All of which is highly laudable and deserving of substantial support. But…

I do not doubt yoga, meditation, relaxation and doll making can provide valuable emotional support for one of the most pernicious outcomes of combat. I do not doubt that support from an empathic caring practitioner or a conscientious counsellor is of benefit. But what is the added value of pressing on ‘zones’ in the feet? Of positioning hands around a patient and providing them with charms? Of feeling for and adjusting ‘subtle rhythms in cerebro-spinal fluid’? Of inserting needles in the skin? Unless there is evidence that such manoeuvres and modalities actually do provide benefit greater than any other method for producing placebo effects – why spend any valuable funds on such practices? Would not the charitable funds be better spent on psychotherapy, counselling, yoga and meditation? There is no need for CAM therapy. The RN & RM Children’s Fund suggests that complementary and alternative medicine can help PTSD. I know of no evidence alternatives such as reiki, reflexology, CST, acupuncture, Emotional Freedom Techniques (utilising ‘finger tapping’), Thought Field Therapy and Somatic Experiencing all of which are set out in the charity’s book, can provide any benefit. Indeed, the book admits there is no scientific evidence of such benefit. Spending time in a therapeutic relationship helps, but there is no evidence the therapies have any effect on their own account – and there is plenty of evidence they almost certainly do not. That is why they are referred to as being implausible and are termed ‘alternative medicine’.

In order service personnel and their families can give fully informed consent to any proposed treatment they will need to consider the probability that they are wasting time and scarce funds on implausible treatments. And members of the public who might wish to support the charity will need to carefully consider the use to which their funds might be put.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has Guidelines for the management of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and emphasises ‘Families and carers have a central role in supporting people with PTSD and many families may also need support for themselves …Healthcare professionals should identify the need for appropriate information about the range of emotional responses that may develop and provide practical advice on how to access appropriate services for these problems.’

Note that the NICE guidelines, quoted in Knit the Family, require that PTSD support services should be ‘appropriate’. So presumably the Fund has decided that implausible non-evidenced based modalities of treatment are appropriate. But just how did it come to such a decision? I have asked questions on this and a number of other points and await an answer.

And there is more to this matter. Knit the Family acknowledges the support it has received from Whitehall’s Army Covenant Libor Fund and also from the Barcarpel Foundation. Barcarpel’s website tells us it ‘is a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Complementary Medicine’ and ‘has made substantial donations to the Homeopathic Trust for Research & Education as well as establishing the Nelson Barcapel Teaching Fellowship at Exeter, specifically to enable medical practitioners to take the Integrated Healthcare programme.’ ‘Nelson’ not for the Admiral but for the firm which manufactures homeopathic remedies, sponsored the inaugural meeting of the ‘College of Medicine’, and whose Chairman Robert Wilson is also Chairman of Barcarpel. And ‘integrated medicine’ means the incorporation of non-evidenced based therapies with orthodox care. Which might be reasonable if there was evidence CAMs had an effect on PTSD – but there is no such evidence.

Special thanks are given to Jonathan Poston, Chair of the Craniosacral Therapy Association, for assistance with setting up the project; Liz Kalinowska, Fellow of the Craniosacral Therapy Association, for wise advice; Michael Kern, Founder/Principal of Craniosacral Therapy Educational Trust; Cathy Cremer, whose experience with the UK Forces Project has contributed to an understanding of how best to explain the benefits of CST for those suffering from PTSD; Silvana Calzavara whose experience working at Headway East London (acquired brain injury) proved invaluable at the Portsmouth CST clinic; Monica Tomkins, Eva Kretchmar, Sally Christian, Talita Harrison, Cathy Brooks and Simon Copp for their contribution in carrying the CST project forward.’

So we see that a group of enthusiasts for CST have inveigled their way into the Children’s Fund and are set on promoting the use of this implausible therapy for some of our most vulnerable patients. An insurgency if ever there was one. They have not been able to offer any evidence that ‘subtle rhythms’ can be felt in the cerebro-spinal fluid, let alone manipulative methods can influence the flow of cerebro-spinal fluid. And if they are not doing that, they are not doing CST. The care and attention provided by these practitioners can be applauded, but not the methods they purport to use. In which case, why use them? Would the Children’s Fund not do better to spend its funds on plausible evidence based therapies? How has the Fund assessed whether or not the promoters of CST and other CAMs are quacks? Or whether or not they are frauds? The public who are considering donations need to be reassured. The service personnel who so deservedly need support should be treated with honestly, integrity and probity – not metaphysics.

I have been challenged by homeopaths! Not again you might think, but this one is quite interesting.

Some time ago, I gave an interview in which I stated that, for a while, I had assumed homeopaths to be just a little over-enthusiastic but, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that many of them are lying outright (the interview is in German, and I used the term “luegen wie gedruckt”). Predictably, this has prompted fierce opposition from homeopaths who objected to my claim and demand proof of this statement.

So, here I will try to provide some evidence – only SOME because there is far too much for a short post of this nature. To get started, I quickly googled ‘homeopathy’ and, impressively, the very first site already provided me with the following quotes:

Homeopathy is extremely effective.

Homeopathy is completely safe.

Homeopathy is natural.

Homeopathy is holistic.

None of these statements is true; and if they are not true, they must be lies (defined as “an untrue or deceptive statement deliberately used to mislead“)! Yes, I don’t mean errors, I do mean deliberate lies.

In fact, if we want to find proof for my statement ‘MANY HOMEOPATHS LIE OUTRIGHT’, we are spoilt for choice. For instance, any homeopath who mis-quoted the so-called ‘Swiss report’ on homeopathy as being an official document of the Swiss government even when its true nature had been disclosed over and over again, was clearly telling lies; and Dana Ullman must be the undisputed champion in this respect.

But there is more – much, much more! Homeopaths who promote their placebos as a cure of AIDS or cancer or any other serious disease are not just lying, they are endangering the health of millions. If anyone wants to read about individual homeopaths or organisations that have issued lies, I recommend reading this site which provides plenty of names and interesting links.

I think, I can stop here – but I do invite readers to post their own examples of ‘homeopathic lies’ in the comments below.

Sorry homeopaths, but you did ask for it!

Several sceptics including myself have previously commented on this GP’s bizarre promotion of bogus therapies, his use of disproven treatments, and his advocacy for quackery. An interview with Dr Michael Dixon, OBE, chair of the ‘College of Medicine’, and advisor to Prince Charles, and chair of NHS Alliance, and president of the ‘NHS Clinical Commissioners’ and, and, and…was published on 15 November. It is such a classic example of indulgence in fallacies, falsehoods and deceptions that I cannot resist adding a few words.

To make it very clear what is what: the interviewer’s questions are in bold Roman; MD’s answers are in simple Roman; and my comments are in bold italic typeface. The interview itself is reproduced without changes or cuts.

How did you take to alternative medicine?

I started trying out alternative medicine after 10 years of practising as a general physician. During this period, I found that conventional medicine was not helping too many patients. There were some (patients) with prolonged headaches, backaches and frequent infections whom I had to turn away without offering a solution. That burnt me out. I started looking for alternative solutions.

The idea of using alternative treatments because conventional ones have their limits is perhaps understandable. But which alternative therapies are effective for the conditions mentioned? Dr Dixon’s surgery offers many alternative therapies which are highly unlikely to be effective beyond placebo, e.g. ‘Thought Field Therapy’, reflexology, spiritual healing or homeopathy.

But alternative medicine has come under sharp criticism. It was even argued that it has a placebo effect?

I don’t mind what people call it as long as it is making patients better. If the help is more psychological than physiological, as they argue, all the better. There are less side-effects, less expenses and help is in your own hands.

I have posted several articles on this blog about this fundamental misunderstanding. The desire to help patients via placebo-effects is no good reason to employ bogus treatments; effective therapies also convey a placebo-response, if administered with compassion. Merely administering placebos means denying patients the specific effects of real medicine and is therefore not ethical.

Why are people unconvinced about alternative medicine?

One, there are vested interests – professional and organizational impact on it. Two, even practitioners in conventional medicine do not know much about it. And most importantly, we need to develop a scientific database for it. In conventional medicine, pharmaceutical companies have the advantage of having funds for research. Alternative medicine lacks that. Have people who say alternative medicine is rubbish ever done research on it to figure out whether it is rubbish? The best way to convince them is through the age-old saying: Seeing is believing.

1) Here we have the old fallacy which assumes that ‘the establishment’ (or ‘BIG PHARMA’ ) does not want anyone to know how effective alternative treatments are. In truth, everyone would be delighted to have more effective therapies in the tool-kit and nobody does care at all where they originate from.

2) GPs do not know much about alternative medicine, true. But that does not really explain why they are ‘unconvinced’. The evidence shows that they need more convincing evidence to be convinced.

3) Dixon himself has done almost no research into alternative medicine (I know that because the few papers he did publish were in cooperation with my team). Contrary to what Dixon says, there are mountains of evidence (for instance ~ 20 000 articles on acupuncture and ~5000 on homeopathy in Medline alone); and the most reliable of this evidence usually shows that the alternative therapy in question does not work.

4) Apologists lament the lack of research funds ad nauseam. However, there is plenty of money in alternative medicine; currently it is estimated to be a $ 100 billion per year business worldwide. If they are unable to channel even the tiniest of proportions into a productive research budget, only they are to blame.

5) Have people who say alternative medicine is rubbish ever done research on it to figure out whether it is rubbish? Yes, there is probably nobody on this planet who has done more research on alternative medicine than I have (and DM knows it very well, for about 15 years, he tried everything to be associated with my team). The question I ask myself is: have apologists like Dixon ever done rigorous research or do they even know about the research that is out there?

6) Seeing is believing??? No, no, no! I have written several posts on this fallacy. Experience is no substitute for evidence in clinical medicine.

Will alternative medicine be taught in UK universities?

US already has 16 universities teaching it. The College of Medicine, UK, is fighting hard for it. We are historically drenched in conventional medicine and to think out of the box will take time. But we are at it and hope to have it soon.

1) Yes, the US has plenty of ‘quackademia‘ – and many experts are worried about the appalling lack of academic standards in this area.

2) The College of Medicine, UK, is fighting hard for getting alternative medicine into the medical curriculum. Interesting! Now we finally know what this lobby group really stands for.

3) Of course, we are ‘drenched’ in medicine at medical school. What else should we expose students to?

4) Thinking ‘out of the box’ can be productive and it is something medicine is often very good at. This is how it has evolved during the last 150 years in a breath-taking speed. Alternative medicine, by contrast, has remained stagnant; it is largely a dogma.

What more should India do to promote integrated medicine?

India needs to be prouder of its institutions and more critical of the West. The West has made massive mistakes. It has done very little about long-term diseases and in preventing them. India needs to be more cautious as it will lead the world in some diseases like the diabetes. It should not depend on conventional medicine for everything, but take the best for the worst.

To advise that India should not look towards the ‘West’ for treating diabetes and perhaps use more of their Ayurvedic medicines or homeopathic remedies (both very popular alternatives in India) is a cynical prescription for prematurely ending the lives of millions prematurely.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is common and often difficult to treat – unless, of course, you consult a homeopath. Here is just one of virtually thousands of quotes from homeopaths available on the Internet: Homeopathic medicine can reduce Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms by lowering food sensitivities and allergies. Homeopathy treats the patient as a whole and does not simply focus on the disease. Careful attention is given to the minute details about the presenting complaints, including the severity of diarrhea, constipation, pain, cramps, mucus in the stools, nausea, heartburn, emotional triggers and conventional laboratory findings. In addition, the patient’s eating habits, food preferences, thermal attributes and sleep patterns are noted. The patient’s family history and diseases, along with the patient’s emotions are discussed. Then the homeopathic practitioner will select the remedy that most closely matches the symptoms.

Such optimism might be refreshing, but is there any reason for it? Is homeopathy really an effective treatment for IBS? To answer this question, we now have a brand-new Cochrane review. The aim of this review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of homeopathic treatment for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (This type of statement always makes me a little suspicious; how on earth can anyone truly assess the safety of a treatment by looking at a few studies? This is NOT how one evaluates safety!) The authors conducted extensive literature searches to identify all RCTs, cohort and case-control studies that compared homeopathic treatment with placebo, other control treatments, or usual care in adults with IBS. The primary outcome was global improvement in IBS.

Three RCTs with a total of 213 participants were included. No cohort or case-control studies were identified. Two studies compared homeopathic remedies to placebos for constipation-predominant IBS. One study compared individualised homeopathic treatment to usual care defined as high doses of dicyclomine hydrochloride, faecal bulking agents and a high fibre diet. Due to the low quality of reporting, the risk of bias in all three studies was unclear on most criteria and high for some criteria.

A meta-analysis of two studies with a total of 129 participants with constipation-predominant IBS found a statistically significant difference in global improvement between the homeopathic ‘asafoetida’ and placebo at a short-term follow-up of two weeks. Seventy-three per cent of patients in the homeopathy group improved compared to 45% of placebo patients. There was no statistically significant difference in global improvement between the homeopathic asafoetida plus nux vomica compared to placebo. Sixty-eight per cent of patients in the homeopathy group improved compared to 52% of placebo patients.

The overall quality of the evidence was very low. There was no statistically significant difference between individualised homeopathic treatment and usual care for the outcome “feeling unwell”. None of the studies reported on adverse events (which, by the way, should be seen as a breech in research ethics on the part of the authors of the three primary studies).

The authors concluded that a pooled analysis of two small studies suggests a possible benefit for clinical homeopathy, using the remedy asafoetida, over placebo for people with constipation-predominant IBS. These results should be interpreted with caution due to the low quality of reporting in these trials, high or unknown risk of bias, short-term follow-up, and sparse data. One small study found no statistically difference between individualised homeopathy and usual care (defined as high doses of dicyclomine hydrochloride, faecal bulking agents and diet sheets advising a high fibre diet). No conclusions can be drawn from this study due to the low number of participants and the high risk of bias in this trial. In addition, it is likely that usual care has changed since this trial was conducted. Further high quality, adequately powered RCTs are required to assess the efficacy and safety of clinical and individualised homeopathy compared to placebo or usual care.

THIS REVIEW REQUIRES A FEW FURTHER COMMENTS, I THINK

Asafoetida, the remedy used in two of the studies, is a plant native to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. It is used in Ayurvedic herbal medicine to treat colic, intestinal parasites and irritable bowel syndrome. In the ‘homeopathic’ trials, asafoetida was used in relatively low dilutions, one that still contains molecules. It is therefore debatable whether this was really homeopathy or whether it is more akin to herbal medicine – it was certainly not homeopathy with its typical ultra-high dilutions.

Regardless of this detail, the Cochrane review does hardly provide sound evidence for homeopathy’s efficacy. On the contrary, my reading of its findings is that the ‘possible benefit’ is NOT real but a false positive result caused by the serious limitations of the original studies. The authors stress that the apparently positive result ‘should be interpreted with caution’; that is certainly correct.

So, if you are a proponent of homeopathy, as the authors of the review seem to be, you will claim that homeopathy offers ‘possible benefits’ for IBS-sufferers. But if you are not convinced of the merits of homeopathy, you might suggest that the evidence is insufficient to recommend homeopathy. I imagine that IBS-sufferers might get as frustrated with such confusion as most scientists will be. Yet there is hope; the answer could be imminent: apparently, a new trial is to report its results within this year.

IS THIS NEW TRIAL GOING TO CONTRIBUTE MEANINGFULLY TO OUR KNOWLEDGE?

It is a three-armed study (same 1st author as in the Cochrane review) which, according to its authors, seeks to explore the effectiveness of individualised homeopathic treatment plus usual care compared to both an attention control plus usual care and usual care alone, for patients with IBS. (Why “explore” and not “determine”, I ask myself.) Patients are randomly selected to be offered, 5 sessions of homeopathic treatment plus usual care, 5 sessions of supportive listening plus usual care or usual care alone. (“To be offered” looks odd to me; does that mean patients are not blinded to the interventions? Yes, indeed it does.) The primary clinical outcome is the IBS Symptom Severity at 26 weeks. Analysis will be by intention to treat and will compare homeopathic treatment with usual care at 26 weeks as the primary analysis, and homeopathic treatment with supportive listening as an additional analysis.

Hold on…the primary analysis “will compare homeopathic treatment with usual care“. Are they pulling my leg? They just told me that patients will be “offered, 5 sessions of homeopathic treatment plus usual care… or usual care alone“.

Oh, I see! We are again dealing with an A+B versus B design, on top of it without patient- or therapist-blinding. This type of analysis cannot ever produce a negative result, even if the experimental treatment is a pure placebo: placebo + usual care is always more than usual care alone. IBS-patients will certainly experience benefit from having the homeopaths’ time, empathy and compassion – never mind the remedies they get from them. And for the secondary analyses, things do not seem to be much more rigorous either.

Do we really need more trials of this nature? The Cochrane review shows that we currently have three studies which are too flimsy to be interpretable. What difference will a further flimsy trial make in this situation? When will we stop wasting time and money on such useless ‘research’? All it can possibly achieve is that apologists of homeopathy will misinterpret the results and suggest that they demonstrate efficacy.

Obviously, I have not seen the data (they have not yet been published) but I think I can nevertheless predict the conclusions of the primary analysis of this trial; they will read something like this: HOMEOPATHY PROVED TO BE SIGNIFICANTLY MORE EFFECTIVE THAN USUAL CARE. I have asked the question before and I do it again: when does this sort of ‘research’ cross the line into the realm of scientific misconduct?

Alternative medicine thrives in the realm of common chronic conditions which conventional medicine cannot cure and which respond well to treatment with placebos. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is such a condition, and IBS-sufferers who are often frustrated with the symptomatic relief conventional medicine has to offer are only too keen to try any therapy that promises help. There is hardly an alternative therapy which does not claim to be the solution to IBS-symptoms: herbal medicine, mind-body interventions, homeopathy (the subject of my next post), acupuncture, even ‘MOXIBUSTION‘.

Moxibustion is a derivative of acupuncture; instead of needles, this method employs heat to stimulate acupuncture points. Proponents believe that the effects of moxibustion are roughly equivalent to those of acupuncture but many acupuncturists feel that they are less powerful. One website explains: Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves the burning of mugwort, a small, spongy herb, to facilitate healing. Moxibustion has been used throughout Asia for thousands of years; in fact, the actual Chinese character for acupuncture, translated literally, means “acupuncture-moxibustion.” The purpose of moxibustion, as with most forms of traditional Chinese medicine, is to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi, and maintain general health.

Many proponents of moxibustion claim that their treatment works for IBS. The evidence is, however, far less clear. Two recent meta-analyses might tell us more.

The first systematic review and meta-analysis was published by Korean researchers and aimed at critically evaluating the current evidence on moxibustion for improving global symptoms of IBS. The authors conducted extensive searches and found a total of 20 RCTs to be included in their analyses. The risk of bias in these studies was generally high. Compared with pharmacological medications, moxibustion significantly alleviated overall IBS symptoms but there was a moderate inconsistency among the 7 RCTs. Moxibustion combined with acupuncture was more effective than pharmacological therapy but a moderate inconsistency among the 4 studies was found. When moxibustion was added to pharmacological medications or herbal medicine, no additive benefit of moxibustion was shown compared with pharmacological medications or herbal medicine alone. One small sham-controlled trial found no difference between moxibustion and sham control in symptom severity. Moxibustion appeared to be associated with few adverse events but the evidence is limited due to poor reporting.

The authors concluded that moxibustion may provide benefit to IBS patients although the risk of bias in the included studies is relatively high. Future studies are necessary to confirm whether this finding is reproducible in carefully-designed and conducted trials and to firmly establish the place of moxibustion in current practice.

The way I see it, these conclusions are far too optimistic. There was only one RCT that controlled for placebo-effects, and the results of that study were negative. Thus I would conclude that some studies report effectiveness of moxibustion for IBS, yet the effects seem not to be caused by the treatment per se but are most likely due to a placebo-effect.

The second systematic review and meta-analysis was published by Chinese researchers and aimed at evaluating the clinical efficacy and safety of moxibustion and acupuncture in treatment of IBS. The authors included randomized and quasi-randomized clinical trials in their analyses and were able to include 11 trials. Their meta analysis suggests that the effectiveness of the combined methods of acupuncture and moxibustion is superior to conventional western medication treatment. The authors concluded that acupuncture-moxibustion for IBS is better than the conventional western medication treatment.

While the first meta-analysis was at least technically sound, the second seems to have too many flaws to mention: the search methodology was flimsy, many available studies were not included, their risk of bias was not assessed critically, the conclusions are based more on wishful thinking than on the available data, etc.

If we consider that moxibustion is a method of stimulating acupoints, we have to assume that it can at best be as effective as acupuncture, quite possibly slightly less. Thus it is relevant to see what the evidence tells us about acupuncture for IBS. The current Cochrane review of acupuncture for IBS shows that sham-controlled RCTs have found no benefits of acupuncture relative to a credible sham acupuncture control for IBS symptom severity or IBS-related quality of life.

I think I rest my case.

If we ask how effective spinal manipulation is as a treatment of back pain, we get all sorts of answers. Therapists who earn their money with it – mostly chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists – are obviously convinced that it is effective. But if we consult more objective sources, the picture changes dramatically. The current Cochrane review, for instance, arrives at this conclusion: SMT is no more effective in participants with acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT, or when added to another intervention. SMT also appears to be no better than other recommended therapies.

Such reviews tend to pool all studies together regardless of the nature of the practitioner. But perhaps one type of clinician is better than the next? Certainly many chiropractors are on record claiming that they are the best at spinal manipulations. Yet it is conceivable that physiotherapists who do manipulations without being guided by the myth of ‘adjusting subluxations’ have an advantage over chiropractors. Three very recent systematic reviews might go some way to answer these questions.

The purpose of the first systematic review was to examine the effectiveness of spinal manipulations performed by physiotherapists for the treatment of patients with low back pain. The authors found 6 RCTs that met their inclusion criteria. The most commonly used outcomes were pain rating scales and disability indexes. Notable results included varying degrees of effect sizes favouring spinal manipulations and minimal adverse events resulting from this intervention. Additionally, the manipulation group in one study reported significantly less medication use, health care utilization, and lost work time. The authors concluded that there is evidence to support the use of spinal manipulation by physical therapists in clinical practice. Physical therapy spinal manipulation appears to be a safe intervention that improves clinical outcomes for patients with low back pain.

The second systematic Review was of osteopathic intervention for chronic, non-specific low back pain (CNSLBP). Only two trials met the authors’ inclusion criteria. They had a lack of methodological and clinical homogeneity, precluding a meta-analysis. The trials used different comparators with regards to the primary outcomes, the number of treatments, the duration of treatment and the duration of follow-up. The authors drew the following conclusions: There are only two studies assessing the effect of the manual therapy intervention applied by osteopathic clinicians in adults with CNSLBP. One trial concluded that the osteopathic intervention was similar in effect to a sham intervention, and the other suggests similarity of effect between osteopathic intervention, exercise and physiotherapy. Further clinical trials into this subject are required that have consistent and rigorous methods. These trials need to include an appropriate control and utilise an intervention that reflects actual practice.

The third systematic review sought to determine the benefits of chiropractic treatment and care for back pain on well-being, and aimed to explore to what extent chiropractic treatment and care improve quality of life. The authors identified 6 studies (4 RCTs and two observational studies) of varying quality. There was a high degree of inconsistency and lack of standardisation in measurement instruments and outcome measures. Three studies reported reduced use of other/extra treatments as a positive outcome; two studies reported a positive effect of chiropractic intervention on pain, and two studies reported a positive effect on disability. The authors concluded that it is difficult to defend any conclusion about the impact of chiropractic intervention on the quality of life, lifestyle, health and economic impact on chiropractic patients presenting with back pain.

Yes, yes, yes, I know: the three reviews are not exactly comparable; so we cannot draw firm conclusions from comparing them. Five points seem to emerge nevertheless:

  1. The evidence for spinal manipulation as a treatment for back pain is generally not brilliant, regardless of the type of therapist.
  2. There seem to be considerable differences according to the nature of the therapist.
  3. Physiotherapists seem to have relatively sound evidence to justify their manipulations.
  4. Chiropractors and osteopaths are not backed by evidence which is as reliable as they so often try to make us believe.
  5. Considering that the vast majority of serious complications after spinal manipulation has occurred with chiropractors, it would seem that chiropractors are the profession with the worst track record regarding manipulation for back pain.

Today, Prince Charles celebrates his 65th birthday. He is one of the world’s most tenacious, outspoken and influential proponent of alternative medicine and attacker of science – sufficient reason, I think, to join the birthday-celebrations by outlining a chronology of his love affair with quackery. The following post highlights just a few events (there are so many more!) which I happen to find interesting. As I was personally involved in several of them, I have tried to stay as close as possible to the text published by journalists at the time (with links to the originals); this, I thought, was fairer than providing my own, possibly biased interpretations.

The origins Charles’ passion for all things alternative are not difficult to trace. The Royal family is famous for using homeopathy and other doubtful treatments while they are healthy, and for employing the very best conventional medicine has to offer as soon as they are ill. This pattern also applied to Charles’ childhood, and it is more than likely that this is how his weakness for alternative medicine and charlatans first started.

The young Prince Charles went on a journey of ‘spiritual discovery’ into the wilderness of northern Kenya. His guru and guide was Laurens van der Post (who was later discovered to be a fraud and compulsive fantasist and to have fathered a child with a 14-year old girl entrusted to him during a sea voyage). Van der Post wanted to awake Charles’ young intuitive mind and attune it to the ideas of Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ which allegedly unites us all through a common vital force. It is this belief in vitalism (long obsolete in medicine and science) that provides the crucial link to alternative medicine: virtually every form of the otherwise highly diverse range of alternative therapies is based on the assumption that some sort of vital force or energy exists. Charles was so taken by van der Post that, after his death, he established an annual lecture in his honour.

Throughout the 1980s, Charles seems to have lobbied for the statutory regulation of chiropractors and osteopaths in the UK. In 1993, it finally became reality.

Osteopathy has strong Royal links: Prince Charles is the President of the GOsC; Princess Diana was the President of the GCRO; and Princess Anne is the patron of the British School of Osteopathy (statement dated 2011).

In 1982, Prince Charles was elected as President of the British Medical Association (BMA) and promptly challenged the medical orthodoxy by advocating alternative medicine. In a speech at his inaugural dinner as President, the Prince lectured the medics: ‘Through the centuries healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom which sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient’s body, but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to the cosmos.’ The BMA-officials were impressed – so much so that they ordered a full report on alternative medicine which promptly condemned this area as utter nonsense.

In 1993, Charles founded his often re-named lobby group that ended up being called the ‘Foundation for Integrated Health’ (FIH). It was closed down in 2010 amidst allegations of money laundering and fraud. Its chief executive, George Gray, was later convicted and went to jail. The FIH had repeatedly been economical with the truth. For instance, when it published a DoH-sponsored ‘patient guide’ that was entirely devoid of evidence, arguably the most important feature of such a document. They claimed evidence was never meant to be included. But I had seen a draft where it had been part of it, and friends have seen the contract with the DoH where “evidence” was an important element.

In 2000, Charles wrote an open letter to The Times (citing my work twice!!!) stating that…It makes good sense to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies. For one thing, since an estimated £1.6 billion is spent each year on them, then we want value for our money. The very popularity of the non-conventional approaches suggests that people are either dissatisfied with their orthodox treatment, or they find genuine relief in such therapies. Whatever the case, if they are proved to work, they should be made more widely available on the NHS…But there remains the cry from the medical establishment of “where’s the proof?” — and clinical trials of the calibre that science demands cost money…The truth is that funding in the UK for research into complementary medicine is pitiful…So where can funding come from?…Figures from the department of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter show that less than 8p out of every £100 of NHS funds for medical research was spent on complementary medicine. In 1998-99 the Medical Research Council spent no money on it at all, and in 1999 only 0.05 per cent of the total research budget of UK medical charities went to this area…

In 2001, Charles was working on plans to help build a model hospital that would tap into the power of alternative therapy. It was to train doctors to combine conventional medicine and alternative treatments, such as homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and acupuncture, and was to have have up to 100 beds. The prince’s intervention marked the culmination of years of campaigning by him for the NHS to assign a greater role to alternative medicine. In a speech he had urged the NHS not to dismiss it as a “woolly cul-de-sac”. Groups interested in alternative medicine were delighted at the news. Teresa Hale, founder of the Hale Clinic in London, said: “Twenty-five years ago people said we were quacks. Now several branches, including homeopathy, acupuncture and osteopathy, have gained official recognition.” The proposed hospital, which was due to open in London in 2003 or early 2004, was to be overseen by Mosaraf Ali, who runs the Integrated Medical Centre (IMC) in London. He was also responsible for raising finance for its construction.

To the best of my knowledge, this hospital never materialised. This might be due to Mosaraf Ali falling in disrepute: Raj Bathija, 69 and from India, went for a massage at the clinic of Dr Mosaraf Ali and his brother Imran in 2005 after suffering from two strokes. However, he claims that shortly after the treatment, his legs became pale and discoloured. Four days afterwards, Mr Bathija was admitted to hospital, where he had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a shortage of blood. According to Mr Bathija, Dr Ali and his brother were negligent in that they failed to diagnose his condition and neglected to advise him to go to hospital.

His daughter Shibani said: “My father was in a wheelchair but was making progress with his walking. He hoped he might become a bit more independent. With the amputations, that’s all gone.”

In 2003, Prince Charles’ Prince of Wales’ FIH has launched a five-year plan which outlined how to improve access to therapies.

In 2004, Charles publicly supported the Gerson diet as a treatment for cancer and Prof Baum, one of the UK’s most eminent oncologists, was invited to respond in an open letter to the British Medical Journal: …Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer and lost some dear friends and relatives to this dreaded disease…The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don’t begrudge you that authority but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.

In 2005, the ‘Smallwood-Report’ was published, commissioned by Charles and paid for by Dame Shirley Porter, specifically to inform health ministers. It stated that up to 480 million pounds could be saved if one in 10 family doctors offered homeopathy as an alternative to standard drugs. Savings of up to 3.5 billion pounds could be achieved by offering spinal manipulation rather than drugs to people with back pain. Because I had commented on this report, Prince Charles’ first private secretary asked my vice chancellor to investigate my activities; even though I was found to be not guilty of any wrong-doing, specifically of violating confidentiality, all local support stopped which led to my early retirement. ITV later used this incident in a film entitled THE MEDDLING PRINCE.

In a 2006 speech Prince Charles told the World Health Organisation in Geneva that alternative medicine should have a more prominent place in health care. The Prince urged every country to come up with a plan to integrate conventional and alternative medicine into the mainstream. But British science struck back. Anticipating Prince Charles’s sermon in Geneva, thirteen of Britain’s most eminent physicians and scientists issued a widely quoted “Open Letter: Use of ‘Alternative’ Medicine in the NHS”. The letter expressed concern over “ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in Britain’s National Health Service.” The signatories, who included three Fellows of the Royal Society, one Nobel Laureate (Sir James Black, FRS) and the son of another (Professor Gustav Born, FRS), cited the overt promotion of homeopathy by the NHS, including its official website. The Open Letter warned that “it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle.”

In 2008The Times published my letter asking the FIH to recall two guides promoting “alternative medicine”, saying: “the majority of alternative therapies appear to be clinically ineffective, and many are downright dangerous.” A speaker for the FIH countered the criticism by stating: “We entirely reject the accusation that our online publication Complementary Healthcare: A Guide contains any misleading or inaccurate claims about the benefits of complementary therapies. On the contrary, it treats people as adults and takes a responsible approach by encouraging people to look at reliable sources of information… so that they can make informed decisions. The foundation does not promote complementary therapies.”

In 2009, the Prince held talks with the health Secretary to persuade him to introduce safeguards amid a crackdown by the EU that could prevent anyone who is not a registered health practitioner from selling remedies. This, it seems, was yet another example of Charles’ disregard of his constitutional role. In the same year, Charles urged government to protect alternative medicine medicine because “we fear that we will see a black market in herbal products”, as Dr Michael Dixon, medical director of Charles’ FIH, put it.

In 2009, Charles seemed to have promised that his London-based ‘College of Integrated Medicine’ (the name was only later changed to ‘College of Medicine’, see below) was to have a second base in India. An Indian spokesman commented: “The second campus of the Royal College will be in Bangalore. We have already proposed the setting up of an All India Institute of Integrated Medicine to the Union health ministry. At a meeting in London last week with Prince Charles, we finalized the project which will kick off in July 2010”.

In 2010, Charles publicly stated that he was proud to be perceived as ‘an enemy of the enlightenment’.

In 2010, ‘Republic’ filed an official complaint about FIH alleging that its trustees allowed the foundation’s staff to pursue a public “vendetta” against a prominent critic of the prince’s support for complementary medicines, Edzard Ernst. It also suggests the imminent closure of Ernst’s department may be partly down to the charity’s official complaint about him after he publicly attacked its draft guide to complementary medicines as “outrageous and deeply flawed”.

In 2010, former fellows of Charles’ disgraced FIH launched a new organisation, The College of Medicine’ supporting the use of integrated treatments in the NHS. One director of the college is Michael Dixon, a GP in Cullompton, Devon, who was formerly medical director of the Foundation for Integrated Health. The others are George Lewith, who runs a complementary medicine unit at Southampton University; David Peters, the chairman of the British Holistic Medical Association; and Christine Glover, a holistic health consultant. All are former fellows of the prince’s charity. My own analysis of the activities of the new college leaves little doubt that it is promoting quackery.

In 2010, Charles published his book HARMONY which is full of praise for even the most absurd forms of quackery.

In 2011, after the launch of his very own range of herbal tinctures Charles was harshly criticised. Consequently, a public row was re-ignited with Clarence House by branding the Prince of Wales a “snake oil salesman”. I had the audacity to criticise the heir to the throne for lending his support to homeopathic remedies and for selling the Duchy Herbals detox tincture.

In 2011, Charles forged a link between ‘The College of Medicine’ and an Indian holistic health centre. The collaboration has been reported to include clinical training to European and Western doctors in ayurveda and homoeopathy and traditional forms of medicine to integrate them in their practice. The foundation stone for the extended campus of the Royal College known as the International Institution for Holistic and Integrated Medicine was laid by Dr Michael Dixon in collaboration with the Royal College of Medicine.

In 2012, Charles was nominated for ‘THE GOLDEN DUCK AWARD’ for his achievements in promoting quackery; Andrew Wakefield beat him to it, but Charles was a well-deserved runner-up.

In 2013, Charles called for society to embrace a broader and more complex concept of health. In his article he described a vision of health that includes the physical and social environment, education, agriculture and architecture. Emphasising that his point is not to confront accepted medical wisdom, HRH suggests reasons for encouraging a wider perspective on health. Rather than simply treating the symptoms of disease, The Prince advocates a health service that puts patients at the heart of the process by incorporating the core human elements of mind, body and spirit. Explaining that symptoms may often be a metaphor for underlying disease and unhappiness, he calls for a scientific and therapeutic approach that understands, values and uses patient perspective and belief rather than seeking to exclude them.

In 2013, Charles’ Highgrove enterprise offered ‘baby-hampers’ for sale at £195 a piece and made a range of medicinal claims for the products it contained. As these claims were not supported by evidence, there is no way to classify them other than quackery.

By 2013, the ‘Association of Osteomyologists’ are seeking to become regulated in statute, with the help of Prince Charles as their patron. An Osteomyologist will treat both the symptoms and the root cause of a condition with the aim of alleviating symptoms and preventing reoccurrence whenever possible. Osteomyology encourages the skilled use of techniques including Cranial and Cranio-Sacral therapy.

In November 2013, Charles invited alternative medicine proponents from across the world, including Dean Michael Ornish, Sausalito, California, Michael Dixon, chair of College of Medicine, UK and Issac Mathai of Soukya Foundation, Bangalore, to India for a ‘brain storm’ and a subsequent conference on alternative medicine. The prince wanted the experts to collaborate and explore the possibilities of integrating different systems of medicines and to better the healthcare delivery globally, one of the organisers said.

I am sure that, in the future, we will hear much more about Charles’ indulgence in quackery; and, of course, we will hear more criticism of it. But I doubt that anyone can put it better that the late Christopher Hitchens who repeatedly wrote about Charles’ passion for anti-science:

“Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The “vacuum” will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now. One thinks of the painstaking, cloud-dispelling labour of British scientists from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Charles Darwin to Ernest Rutherford to Alan Turing and Francis Crick, much of it built upon the shoulders of Galileo and Copernicus, only to see it causally slandered by a moral and intellectual weakling from the usurping House of Hanover.”

And perhaps even better here:

We have known for a long time that Prince Charles’ empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant. He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post. He was bowled over by the charms of homeopathic medicine. He has been believably reported as saying that plants do better if you talk to them in a soothing and encouraging way. But this latest departure promotes him from an advocate of harmless nonsense to positively sinister nonsense….The heir to the throne seems to possess the ability to surround himself—perhaps by some mysterious ultramagnetic force?—with every moon-faced spoon-bender, shrub-flatterer, and water-diviner within range.

Some experts concede that chiropractic spinal manipulation is effective for chronic low back pain (cLBP). But what is the right dose? There have been no full-scale trials of the optimal number of treatments with spinal manipulation. This study was aimed at filling this gap by trying to identify a dose-response relationship between the number of visits to a chiropractor for spinal manipulation and cLBP outcomes. A further aim was to determine the efficacy of manipulation by comparison with a light massage control.

The primary cLBP outcomes were the 100-point pain intensity scale and functional disability scales evaluated at the 12- and 24-week primary end points. Secondary outcomes included days with pain and functional disability, pain unpleasantness, global perceived improvement, medication use, and general health status.

One hundred patients with cLBP were randomized to each of 4 dose levels of care: 0, 6, 12, or 18 sessions of spinal manipulation from a chiropractor. Participants were treated three times per week for 6 weeks. At sessions when manipulation was not assigned, the patients received a focused light massage control. Covariate-adjusted linear dose effects and comparisons with the no-manipulation control group were evaluated at 6, 12, 18, 24, 39, and 52 weeks.

For the primary outcomes, mean pain and disability improvement in the manipulation groups were 20 points by 12 weeks, an effect that was sustainable to 52 weeks. Linear dose-response effects were small, reaching about two points per 6 manipulation sessions at 12 and 52 weeks for both variables. At 12 weeks, the greatest differences compared to the no-manipulation controls were found for 12 sessions (8.6 pain and 7.6 disability points); at 24 weeks, differences were negligible; and at 52 weeks, the greatest group differences were seen for 18 visits (5.9 pain and 8.8 disability points).

The authors concluded that the number of spinal manipulation visits had modest effects on cLBP outcomes above those of 18 hands-on visits to a chiropractor. Overall, 12 visits yielded the most favorable results but was not well distinguished from other dose levels.

This study is interesting because it confirms that the effects of chiropractic spinal manipulation as a treatment for cLBP are tiny and probably not clinically relevant. And even these tiny effects might not be due to the treatment per se but could be caused by residual confounding and bias.

As for the optimal dose, the authors suggest that, on average, 18 sessions might be the best. But again, we have to be clear that the dose-response effects were small and of doubtful clinical relevance. Since the therapeutic effects are tiny, it is obviously difficult to establish a dose-response relationship.

In view of the cost of chiropractic spinal manipulation and the uncertainty about its safety, I would probably not rate this approach as the treatment of choice but would consider the current Cochrane review which concludes that “high quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between spinal manipulation and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain” Personally, I think it is more prudent to recommend exercise, back school, massage or perhaps even yoga to cLBP-sufferers.

Some sceptics are convinced that, in alternative medicine, there is no evidence. This assumption is wrong, I am afraid, and statements of this nature can actually play into the hands of apologists of bogus treatments: they can then easily demonstrate the sceptics to be mistaken or “biased”, as they would probably say. The truth is that there is plenty of evidence – and lots of it is positive, at least at first glance.

Alternative medicine researchers have been very industrious during the last two decades to build up a sizable body of ‘evidence’. Consequently, one often finds data even for the most bizarre and implausible treatments. Take, for instance, the claim that homeopathy is an effective treatment for cancer. Those who promote this assumption have no difficulties in locating some weird in-vitro study that seems to support their opinion. When sceptics subsequently counter that in-vitro experiments tell us nothing about the clinical situation, apologists quickly unearth what they consider to be sound clinical evidence.

An example is this prospective observational 2011 study of cancer patients from two differently treated cohorts: one cohort with patients under complementary homeopathic treatment (HG; n = 259), and one cohort with conventionally treated cancer patients (CG; n = 380). Its main outcome measures were the change of quality life after 3 months, after one year and impairment by fatigue, anxiety or depression. The results of this study show significant improvements in most of these endpoints, and the authors concluded that we observed an improvement of quality of life as well as a tendency of fatigue symptoms to decrease in cancer patients under complementary homeopathic treatment.

Another, in some ways even better example is this 2005 observational study of 6544 consecutive patients from the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. Every patient attending the hospital outpatient unit for a follow-up appointment was included, commencing with their first follow-up attendance. Of these patients 70.7% (n = 4627) reported positive health changes, with 50.7% (n = 3318) recording their improvement as better or much better. The authors concluded that homeopathic intervention offered positive health changes to a substantial proportion of a large cohort of patients with a wide range of chronic diseases.

The principle that is being followed here is simple:

  • believers in a bogus therapy conduct a clinical trial which is designed to generate an apparently positive finding;
  • the fact that the study cannot tell us anything about cause and effect is cleverly hidden or belittled;
  • they publish their findings in one of the many journals that specialise in this sort of nonsense;
  • they make sure that advocates across the world learn about their results;
  • the community of apologists of this treatment picks up the information without the slightest critical analysis;
  • the researchers conduct more and more of such pseudo-research;
  • nobody attempts to do some real science: the believers do not truly want to falsify their hypotheses, and the real scientists find it unreasonable to conduct research on utterly implausible interventions;
  • thus the body of false or misleading ‘evidence’ grows and grows;
  • proponents start publishing systematic reviews and meta-analyses of their studies which are devoid of critical input;
  • too few critics point out that these reviews are fatally flawed – ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’!
  • eventually politicians, journalists, health care professionals and other people who did not necessarily start out as believers in the bogus therapy are convinced that the body of evidence is impressive and justifies implementation;
  • important health care decisions are thus based on data which are false and misleading.

So, what can be done to prevent that such pseudo-evidence is mistaken as solid proof which might eventually mislead many into believing that bogus treatments are based on reasonably sound data? I think the following measures would be helpful:

  • authors should abstain from publishing over-enthusiastic conclusions which can all too easily be misinterpreted (given that the authors are believers in the therapy, this is not a realistic option);
  • editors might consider rejecting studies which contribute next to nothing to our current knowledge (given that these studies are usually published in journals that are in the business of promoting alternative medicine at any cost, this option is also not realistic);
  • if researchers report highly preliminary findings, there should be an obligation to do further studies in order to confirm or refute the initial results (not realistic either, I am afraid);
  • in case this does not happen, editors should consider retracting the paper reporting unconfirmed preliminary findings (utterly unrealistic).

What then can REALISTICALLY be done? I wish I knew the answer! All I can think of is that sceptics should educate the rest of the population to think and analyse such ‘evidence’ critically…but how realistic is that?

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