MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

bias

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A German homeopathic journal, Zeitschrift Homoeopathie, has just published the following interesting article entitled HOMEOPATHIC DOCTORS HELP IN LIBERIA. It provides details about the international team of homeopaths that travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola. Here I take the liberty of translating it from German into English. As most of it is fairly self-explanatory, I abstain from any comments of my own – however, I am sure that my readers will want to add their views.

In mid-October, an international team of 4 doctors travelled to the West African country for three weeks. The mission in a hospital in Ganta, a town with about 40 000 inhabitants on the border to Guinea, ended as planned on 7 November. The exercise was organised by the World Association of Homeopathic Doctors, the Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis (LMHI), with support of by the German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors. The aim was to support the local doctors in the care of the population and, if possible, also to help in the fight against the Ebola epidemic. The costs for the three weeks’ stay were financed mostly through donations from homeopathic doctors.

“We know that we were invited mainly as well-trained doctors to Liberia, and that or experience in homeopathy was asked for only as a secondary issue”, stresses Cornelia Bajic, first chairperson of the DZVhA (German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors). The doctors from India, USA, Switzerland and Germany were able to employ their expertise in several wards of the hospital, to help patients, and to support their Liberian colleagues. It was planned to use and document the homeopathic treatment of Ebola-patients as an adjunct to the WHO prescribed standard treatment. “Our experience from the treatment of other epidemics in the history of medicine allows the conclusion that a homeopathic treatment might significantly reduce the mortality of Ebola patients”, judges Bajic. The successful use of homeopathic remedies has been documented for example in Cholera, Diphtheria or Yellow Fever.

Overview of the studies related to the homeopathic treatment of epidemics

In Ganta, the doctors of the LMHI team treated patients with “at times most serious diseases, particularly inflammatory conditions, children with Typhus, meningitis, pneumonias, and unclear fevers – each time only under the supervision of the local doctor in charge”, reports Dr Ortrud Lindemann, who also worked obstetrically in Ganta. The medical specialist reports after her return: “When we had been 10 days in the hospital, the successes had become known, and the patients stood in queues to get treated by us.” The homeopathic doctors received thanks from the Ganta hospital for their work, it was said that it had been helpful for the patients and a blessing for the employees of the hospital.

POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MEDICAL TREATMENT? 

This first LMHI team of doctors was forbidden to care for patients from the “Ebola Treatment Unit”. The decision was based on an order of the WHO. A team of Cuban doctors was also waiting in vain for being allowed to work. “We are dealing here with a dangerous epidemic and a large number of seriously ill patients. And despite a striking lack of doctors in West Africa political considerations are more important than the treatment of these patients”, criticises the DZVhA chairperson Bajic. Now a second team is to travel to Ganta to support the local doctors.

Reiki is a form of energy healing that evidently has been getting so popular that, according to the ‘Shropshire Star’, even stressed hedgehogs are now being treated with this therapy. In case you argue that this publication is not cutting edge when it comes to reporting of scientific advances, you may have a point. So, let us see what evidence we find on this amazing intervention.

A recent systematic review of the therapeutic effects of Reiki concludes that the serious methodological and reporting limitations of limited existing Reiki studies preclude a definitive conclusion on its effectiveness. High-quality randomized controlled trials are needed to address the effectiveness of Reiki over placebo. Considering that this article was published in the JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE, this is a fairly damming verdict. The notion that Reiki is but a theatrical placebo recently received more support from a new clinical trial.

This pilot study examined the effects of Reiki therapy and companionship on improvements in quality of life, mood, and symptom distress during chemotherapy. Thirty-six breast cancer patients received usual care, Reiki, or a companion during chemotherapy. Data were collected from patients while they were receiving usual care. Subsequently, patients were randomized to either receive Reiki or a companion during chemotherapy. Questionnaires assessing quality of life, mood, symptom distress, and Reiki acceptability were completed at baseline and chemotherapy sessions 1, 2, and 4. Reiki was rated relaxing and caused no side effects. Both Reiki and companion groups reported improvements in quality of life and mood that were greater than those seen in the usual care group.

The authors of this study conclude that interventions during chemotherapy, such as Reiki or companionship, are feasible, acceptable, and may reduce side effects.

This is an odd conclusion, if there ever was one. Clearly the ‘companionship’ group was included to see whether Reiki has effects beyond simply providing sympathetic attention. The results show that this is not the case. It follows, I think, that Reiki is a placebo; its perceived relaxing effects are the result of non-specific phenomena which have nothing to do with Reiki per se. The fact that the authors fail to spell this out more clearly makes me wonder whether they are researchers or promoters of Reiki.

Some people will feel that it does not matter how Reiki works, the main thing is that it does work. I beg to differ!

If its effects are due to nothing else than attention and companionship, we do not need ‘trained’ Reiki masters to do the treatment; anyone who has time, compassion and sympathy can do it. More importantly, if Reiki is a placebo, we should not mislead people that some super-natural energy is at work. This only promotes irrationality – and, as Voltaire once said: those who make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

A special issue of Medical Care has just been published; it was sponsored by the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation. A press release made the following statement about it:

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies are increasingly available, used, and appreciated by military patients, according to Drs Taylor and Elwy. They cite statistics showing that CAM programs are now offered at nearly 90 percent of VA medical facilities. Use CAM modalities by veterans and active military personnel is as at least as high as in the general population.

If you smell a bit of the old ad populum fallacy here, you may be right. But let’s look at the actual contents of the special issue. The most interesting article is about a study testing acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fifty-five service members meeting research diagnostic criteria for PTSD were randomized to usual PTSD care (UPC) plus eight 60-minute sessions of acupuncture conducted twice weekly or to UPC alone. Outcomes were assessed at baseline and 4, 8, and 12 weeks postrandomization. The primary study outcomes were difference in PTSD symptom improvement on the PTSD Checklist (PCL) and the Clinician-administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) from baseline to 12-week follow-up between the two treatment groups. Secondary outcomes were depression, pain severity, and mental and physical health functioning. Mixed model regression and t test analyses were applied to the data.

The results show that the mean improvement in PTSD severity was significantly greater among those receiving acupuncture than in those receiving UPC. Acupuncture was also associated with significantly greater improvements in depression, pain, and physical and mental health functioning. Pre-post effect-sizes for these outcomes were large and robust.

The authors conclude from these data that acupuncture was effective for reducing PTSD symptoms. Limitations included small sample size and inability to parse specific treatment mechanisms. Larger multisite trials with longer follow-up, comparisons to standard PTSD treatments, and assessments of treatment acceptability are needed. Acupuncture is a novel therapeutic option that may help to improve population reach of PTSD treatment.

What shall we make of this?

I know I must sound like a broken record to some, but I have strong reservations that the interpretation provided here is correct. One does not even need to be a ‘devil’s advocate’ to point out that the observed outcomes may have nothing at all to do with acupuncture per se. A much more rational interpretation of the findings would be that the 8 times 60 minutes of TLC and attention have positive effects on the subjective symptoms of soldiers suffering from PTSD. No needles required for this to happen; and no mystical chi, meridians, life forces etc.

It would, of course, have been quite easy to design the study such that the extra attention is controlled for. But the investigators evidently did not want to do that. They seemed to have the desire to conduct a study where the outcome was clear even before the first patient had been recruited. That some if not most experts would call this poor science or even unethical may not have been their primary concern.

The question I ask myself is, why did the authors of this study fail to express the painfully obvious fact that the results are most likely unrelated to acupuncture? Is it because, in military circles, Occam’s razor is not on the curriculum? Is it because critical thinking has gone out of fashion ( – no, it is not even critical thinking to point out something that is more than obvious)? Is it then because, in the present climate, it is ‘politically’ correct to introduce a bit of ‘holistic touchy feely’ stuff into military medicine?

I would love to hear what my readers think.

Some of the recent comments on this blog have been rather emotional, a few even irrational, and several were, I am afraid, outright insulting (I usually omit to post the worst excesses). Moreover, I could not avoid the impression that some commentators have little understanding of what the aim of this blog really is. I tried to point this out in the very first paragraph of my very first post:

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

My foremost aim with his blog is to inform consumers through critical analysis and, in this way, I hope to prevent harm from patients in the realm of alternative medicine. What follows, are a few simple yet important points about this blog which I try to spell out here as clearly as I can:

  • I am not normally commenting on issues related to conventional medicine – not because I feel there is nothing to criticise in mainstream medicine, but because my expertise has long been in alternative medicine. So commentators might as well forget about arguments like “more people die because of drugs than alternative treatments”; they are firstly fallacious and secondly not relevant to this blog.
  • I have researched alternative medicine for many years (~ 40 clinical studies, > 300 systematic reviews etc.) and my readers can be confident that I know what I am talking about. Thus comments like ‘he does not know anything about the subject’ are usually not well placed and just show the ignorance of those who post them.
  • I am not in the pocket of anyone. I do not receive payments for doing this blog, nor did I, as an academic, receive any financial or other inducements for researching alternative medicine (on the contrary, I have often been given to understand that my life could be made much easier, if I adopted a more promotional stance towards my alternative medicine). I also do not belong to any organisation that is financed by BIG PHARMA or similar power houses. So my critics might as well abandon their conspiracy theories and  focus on a more promising avenue of criticism.
  • My allegiance is not with any interest group in (or outside) the field of alternative medicine. For instance, I do not see it as my job to help chiropractors, homeopaths etc. getting their act together. My task here is to point out the deficits in chiropractic (or any other area of alternative medicine) so that consumers are better protected. (I should think, however, that this also creates pressure on professions to become more evidence-based – but I see this as a mere welcome side-effect.)
  • If some commentators seem to find my arguments alarmist or see it as venomous scare-mongering, I suggest they re-examine their own position and learn to think a little more (self-) critically. I furthermore suggest that, instead of claiming such nonsense, they point out where they think I have gone wrong and provide evidence for their views.
  • Some people seem convinced that I have an axe to grind, that I have been personally injured by some alternative practitioner, or had some other unpleasant or traumatic experience. To those who think so, I have to say very clearly that none of this has ever happened. I recommend they inform themselves of the nature of critical analysis and its benefits.
  • This is a blog, not a scientific journal. I try to reach as many lay people as I can and therefore I tend to use simple language and sometimes aim to be entertaining. Those who feel that this renders my blog more journalistic than scientific are probably correct. If they want science, I recommend they look for my scientific articles in the medical literature; I can assure them that they will find plenty.
  • I very much invite an open and out-spoken debate. But ad hominem attacks are usually highly counterproductive – they only demonstrate that the author has no rational arguments left, or had none in the first place. Authors of insults also risks being banned from this blog.
  • Finally, I fear that some readers of my blog might sometimes get confused in the arguments and counter-arguments, and end up uncertain which side is right and which is wrong. To those who have this problem, I recommend a simple method for deciding where the truth is usually more likely to be found: ask yourself who might be merely defending his/her self-interest and who might be free of such conflicts of interest and thus more objective. For example, in my endless disputes with chiropractors, one could well ask: do the chiropractors have an interest in defending their livelihood, and what interest do I have in questioning whether chiropractors do generate more good than harm?

The chiropractic profession have been reminded time and times again that their claim to be able to effectively treat paediatric conditions is bogus. Many experts have asked them to produce some compelling evidence or stop this dangerous nonsense. Yet most of them seem to remain in denial, famously documented by the British Chiropractic Association suing Simon Singh for libel after he disclosed that they happily promote bogus treatments.

Some chiropractors now say that things have changed and that chiropractors are finally getting their act together. If that is true, progress must be painfully slow – so slow, in fact, that it is hard to see it at all. There are still far too many chiropractors who carry on just as before. There are hundreds, if not thousands of articles promoting chiropractic for childhood conditions; a very basic Google search for ‘chiropractic for children’ returns more than 7 million hits many of which advertise this sort of approach. Take this website, for instance; it makes its bogus claims entirely unabashed:

Even as an infant your child may have spinal nerve stress, known as subluxations. Although subluxations may not be painful, they can pose serious threats to your child’s development. If your baby was in a difficult position in the womb, or experienced a traumatic birth they may have developed subluxations. A common condition attributed to subluxations in children is known as Blocked Atlantal Nerve Syndrome. This condition may be the primary cause of ear and upper respiratory infections, and chronic tonsillitis.

Even regular childhood activities such as tumbles taken while learning to walk and run, bike riding, and participation in sports can also cause stress on your child’s body. Emotional stress and trauma may also be a cause of subluxations. Unless they are corrected they can affect future nerve function and the development of your child’s nervous system. They can also cause problems as your child grows and develops into adulthood.

With regular chiropractic care your child may be at less risk for common childhood disease such as colds and fevers. Some children show a marked improvement in asthma symptoms with regular chiropractic care and nutritional counselling. While chiropractors do no treat disease or sickness, they can identify and remove subluxations which interfere with your child’s natural ability to heal. By removing this stress from your child’s spinal system their immune system may function more efficiently and your child may have a better defense to disease. Their overall health may improve as their natural healing power is released. Children who receive regular chiropractic care may also be able to handle emotional and physical stress better and this care may contribute to their natural development.

Your child is never too young to start chiropractic care. Well-child care starts are early as the first month of life. Doctors use a very gentle pressure to treat children (no more pressure than picking up a tomato in the grocery store) and their treatments are very soothing to your child. After their first visit it is recommended that they receive treatments every three months up to age three, and then every six to 12 month after that. You may also want to visit your chiropractor after major milestones in your child’s life such as learning to sit up, crawl, and walk. They should also be seen if they experience any falls or trauma, and if you notice any balance issues they may be experiencing. These may include head tilting and limping.

Pediatric chiropractic care has many benefits. Children as young as infants may see an improvement in their development and overall health with regular care. Doctors of chiropractic take a proactive approach to health by striving to return and maintain your body’s natural balance. If you are looking for an alternative or supplement to traditional medical care, look into chiropractic care for your entire family.

Just a few rotten apples!… the apologists would probably say. But this is clearly not true. I find it even hard to locate the non-rotten apples in this decomposing and disgusting mess. More importantly, if it were true that things were now changing, one would expect that the progressive sections of the chiropractic profession protest regularly, sharply and effectively to shame the many charlatans amongst their midst. Crucially, one would expect the chiropractic professional organisations  to oust their bogus members systematically and swiftly.

The sad truth, however, is that none of this is really happening – certainly not in the US or the UK. On the contrary, organisations like THE INTERNATIONAL PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION, books entitled CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRICS, and periodicals like the JOURNAL OF PEDIATRIC, MATERNAL AND FAMILY CHIROPRACTIC remain popular and respected within the chiropractic profession. A few lip-services here and there, yes. But truly effective action? No!

The tolerance of quackery, I would argue, must be one of the most important hallmarks of a quack profession.

In many countries, consumers seem to be fond of consulting chiropractors – mostly for back pain, but also for other conditions. I therefore think it is might be a good and productive idea to give anyone who is tempted to see a chiropractor some simple, easy to follow advice. Here we go:

  1. Ask your chiropractor what he/she thinks about the chiropractic concept of subluxation. This is the chiropractors’ term (real doctors use the word too but understand something entirely different by it) for an imagined problem with your spine. Once they have diagnosed you to suffer from subluxation, they will persuade you that it needs correcting which is done by spinal manipulation which they tend to call ‘adjustments’. There are several important issues here: firstly subluxations do not exist outside the fantasy world of chiropractic; secondly chiropractors who believe in subluxation would diagnose subluxation in about 100% of the population – also in individuals who are completely healthy. My advice is to return straight back home as soon as the chiropractor admits he believes in the mystical concept of subluxation.
  2. Ask your chiropractor what he/she thinks of ‘maintenance care’. This is the term many chiropractors use for indefinite treatments which do little more than transfer lots of cash from your account to that of your chiropractor. There is no good evidence to show that maintenance care does, as chiropractors claim, prevent healthy individuals from falling ill. So, unless you have the irresistible urge to burn money, don’t fall for this nonsense. You should ask your chiropractor how long and frequent your treatment will be, what it will cost, and then ask yourself whether it is worth it.
  3. Run a mile, if the chiropractor wants to manipulate your neck (which most will do regardless of whether you have neck-pain, some even without informed consent). Neck manipulation is associated with very serious complications; they are usually caused by an injury to an artery that supplies parts of your brain. This can cause a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but the true figure is almost certainly much larger (there is still no system in place to monitor such events).
  4. Run even faster, if the chiropractor wants to treat your children for common paediatric conditions. Many chiropractors believe that their manipulations are effective for a wide range of health problems that kids frequently suffer from. However, there is not a jot of evidence that these claims are true.
  5. Be aware that about 50% of all patients having chiropractic treatments will suffer from side effects like pain and stiffness. These symptoms usually last for 2-3 days and can be severe enough to impede your quality of life. Ask yourself whether the risk is outweighed by the benefit of chiropractic.
  6. Remember that there is no good evidence that chiropractors can treat any condition effectively other than lower back pain (and even for that condition the evidence is far from strong). Many chiropractors claim to be able to treat a plethora of non-spinal conditions like asthma, ear infection, gastrointestinal complaints, autism etc. etc. There is no good evidence that these claims are correct.
  7. Distrust the advice given by many chiropractors regarding prescribed medications, vaccinations or surgery. Chiropractic has a long history of warning their patients against all sorts of conventional treatments. Depending on the clinical situation, following such advice can cause very serious harm.

I am minded to write similar posts for all major alternative therapies (this will not make me more popular with alternative therapists, but I don’t mind all that much) – provided, of course, that my readers find this sort of article useful. So, please do give me some feedback.

The question that I hear with unfailing regularity when talking about alternative medicine is WHY IS IT SO POPULAR? I always struggle to find a simple answer – mainly because there is no simple answer. The reasons for patients and consumers to use alternative medicine are complex and multiple. They range from dissatisfaction with conventional medicine to clinging to the last straw. However, one factor is very clearly always involved: the often bafflingly uncritical promotion of quackery by the daily papers – and that even includes those with a reputation for being respectable.

Yesterday’s article in THE TELEGRAPH is as good an example as any. In the following section, I quote excerpts from it and add my own comments in bold. 

It is perhaps easier to list what the naturopath Katrin Hempel doesn’t offer her clients than what she does. Bioresonance and live blood analysis, acupuncture, biopuncture, infusion therapy, oxyvenation…”

Katrin Hempel, B.H.Sc.,ND, Dipl.Ac. describes herself on her website as an energetic, enthusiastic and experienced natural therapist with a great passion and commitment to the health and well-being of her patients. She calls herself a ‘naturopathic doctor’. I am not sure what this actually is but I am fairly sure she has not studied medicine. I do not doubt her enthusiasm, but I do doubt that most of the methods listed above are anything else but pure quackery.

“Germany has a long tradition of natural medicine, so it’s more common to find conventional doctors who have also studied natural medicine and use these modalities. Here we are at least 20 years behind.” That is true only, if one regards the integration of quackery as progress.

“Every cell in the body puts out a certain electromagnetic frequency, that can be measured – a healthy stomach cell sounds different to a healthy brain cell – and the machine can put the right resonance back in, to trigger deep healing.”) This is pure pseudoscience; neither live blood analysis nor bioresonance are supported by good evidence (and don’t even ask about ‘biopuncture’).

The article goes on misleading the reader in the most scandalous way by promoting pure nonsense. To provide a flavour, I will merely cite a few quotes from the ‘naturopathic doctor':

  • “If your digestion isn’t working properly there is a malabsorption of nutrients”
  • “Bioresonance can pick up a condition before it manifests as a disease.”
  • “Bioresonance measures the electromagnetic output of every cell in the body. If there’s any discrepancy with the healthy frequency for that kind of cell that gives a diagnosis.”
  • “Whatever the problem, at root it will be an imbalance in the cells.”

At no point in this article is there an attempt to challenge or critically analyse this bonanza in quackery; THE TELEGRAPH promotion of dangerous nonsense ends with the cheerful footnote informing the reader that one hour with the ‘naturopathic doctor’ will cost from £100. THE TELEGRAPH does not even shy away to print an address for booking a consultation with the ‘naturopathic doctor’.

But is it really all quackery? Yes it is! The article promotes so many unproven methods that I find it hard to choose one for demonstrating how irresponsible it really is. Let’s take life blood analysis (LBA), for instance; here is what I published about LBA some time ago:

The principle of LBA is fairly simple: a drop of blood is taken from your fingertip, put on a glass plate and viewed via a microscope on a video screen. Despite the claims made for it, LBA is by no means new; using his lately developed microscope, Antony van Leeuwenhoek observed in 1686 that living blood cells changed shape during circulation. Ever since, doctors, scientists and others have studied blood samples in this and other ways.

What is new, however, is what today’s “holistic practitioners” claim to be able to do with LBA. Proponents believe that the method provides information “about the state of the immune system, possible vitamin deficiencies, amount of toxicity, pH and mineral imbalance, areas of concern and weaknesses, fungus and yeast”, as another website puts it.

Others dare to be much more concrete and claim that they can “spot cancer and other degenerative immune system diseases up to two years before they would otherwise be detectable”; or say they can diagnose “lack of oxygen in the blood, low trace minerals, lack of exercise, too much alcohol or yeast, weak kidneys, bladder or spleen”. All this would amount to a remarkable discovery if it were true. But it’s not.

No credible scientific studies have demonstrated the reliability of LBA for detecting any of the above conditions. In what was, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to assess the value of this method, a practitioner with several years of experience in LBA tested the samples of 110 patients. Twelve had cancer and the task was to identify their samples without knowing further details. The results could hardly have been more disconcerting – just three of the 12 with confirmed cancer were detected, and the authors concluded that the method “does not seem to reliably detect cancer. Clinical use of the method can therefore not be recommended.”

And, in case you do not trust me, here is a recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling on LBA:

London Natural Therapies is in breach of the UK Advertising Standards Code for making unproven claims on its website about Live Blood Analysis. The CAP Compliance team has contacted London Natural Therapies several times about removing claims implying that Live Blood Analysis could be beneficial for Gastro Intestinal Tract Disorders, Allergies and Hormonal Imbalances after the ASA previously ruled that Live Blood Analysis was not effective in detecting/diagnosing those conditions. Despite repeated requests to remove the problem claims, London Natural Therapies continues to feature them on its website, www.londonnaturaltherapies.co.uk. Because of London Natural Therapies continued non-compliance we took the decision to place its details on this section of the ASA website on 26 June 2012. These details shall remain in place until such time as London Natural Therapies has removed or appropriately amended the claims on its website to ensure compliance with the CAP Code.

This is but one of many examples of truly shoddy journalism published in a daily paper that most people would call ‘respectable’. If anyone cares to look at the less respectable end to the journalistic spectrum, the picture gets even more horrific. The points I am trying to make are simple and, I think, important:

  1. Journalists and editors have a responsibility which, in the realm of alternative medicine, they often disregard most scandalously.
  2. Such poorly researched, unbalanced and uncritical articles can cause very serious harm.
  3. The promotion of quackery may be good for selling copy, but it can also quickly ruin the reputation of a paper.

Acute tonsillitis (AT) is an upper respiratory tract infection which is prevalent, particularly in children. The cause is usually a viral or, less commonly, a bacterial infection. Treatment is symptomatic and usually consists of ample fluid intake and pain-killers; antibiotics are rarely indicated, even if the infection is bacterial by nature. The condition is self-limiting and symptoms subside normally after one week.

Homeopaths believe that their remedies are effective for AT – but is there any evidence? A recent trial seems to suggest there is.

It aimed, according to its authors, to determine the efficacy of a homeopathic complex on the symptoms of acute viral tonsillitis in African children in South Africa.

The double-blind, placebo-controlled RCT was a 6-day “pilot study” and included 30 children aged 6 to 12 years, with acute viral tonsillitis. Participants took two tablets 4 times per day. The treatment group received lactose tablets medicated with the homeopathic complex (Atropa belladonna D4, Calcarea phosphoricum D4, Hepar sulphuris D4, Kalium bichromat D4, Kalium muriaticum D4, Mercurius protoiodid D10, and Mercurius biniodid D10). The placebo consisted of the unmedicated vehicle only. The Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale was used for measuring pain intensity, and a Symptom Grading Scale assessed changes in tonsillitis signs and symptoms.

The results showed that the treatment group had a statistically significant improvement in the following symptoms compared with the placebo group: pain associated with tonsillitis, pain on swallowing, erythema and inflammation of the pharynx, and tonsil size.

The authors drew the following conclusions: the homeopathic complex used in this study exhibited significant anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities in children with acute viral tonsillitis. No patients reported any adverse effects. These preliminary findings are promising; however, the sample size was small and therefore a definitive conclusion cannot be reached. A larger, more inclusive research study should be undertaken to verify the findings of this study.

Personally, I agree only with the latter part of the conclusion and very much doubt that this study was able to “determine the efficacy” of the homeopathic product used. The authors themselves call their trial a “pilot study”. Such projects are not meant to determine efficacy but are usually designed to determine the feasibility of a trial design in order to subsequently mount a definitive efficacy study.

Moreover, I have considerable doubts about the impartiality of the authors. Their affiliation is “Department of Homoeopathy, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa”, and their article was published in a journal known to be biased in favour of homeopathy. These circumstances in itself might not be all that important, but what makes me more than a little suspicious is this sentence from the introduction of their abstract:

“Homeopathic remedies are a useful alternative to conventional medications in acute uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infections in children, offering earlier symptom resolution, cost-effectiveness, and fewer adverse effects.”

A useful alternative to conventional medications (there are no conventional drugs) for earlier symptom resolution?

If it is true that the usefulness of homeopathic remedies has been established, why conduct the study?

If the authors were so convinced of this notion (for which there is, of course, no good evidence) how can we assume they were not biased in conducting this study?

I think that, in order to agree that a homeopathic remedy generates effects that differ from those of placebo, we need a proper (not a pilot) study, published in a journal of high standing by unbiased scientists.

Rigorous research into the effectiveness of a therapy should tell us the truth about the ability of this therapy to treat patients suffering from a given condition — perhaps not one single study, but the totality of the evidence (as evaluated in systematic reviews) should achieve this aim. Yet, in the realm of alternative medicine (and probably not just in this field), such reviews are often highly contradictory.

A concrete example might explain what I mean.

There are numerous systematic reviews assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture for fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). It is safe to assume that the authors of these reviews have all conducted comprehensive searches of the literature in order to locate all the published studies on this subject. Subsequently, they have evaluated the scientific rigor of these trials and summarised their findings. Finally they have condensed all of this into an article which arrives at a certain conclusion about the value of the therapy in question. Understanding this process (outlined here only very briefly), one would expect that all the numerous reviews draw conclusions which are, if not identical, at least very similar.

However, the disturbing fact is that they are not remotely similar. Here are two which, in fact, are so different that one could assume they have evaluated a set of totally different primary studies (which, of course, they have not).

One recent (2014) review concluded that acupuncture for FMS has a positive effect, and acupuncture combined with western medicine can strengthen the curative effect.

Another recent review concluded that a small analgesic effect of acupuncture was present, which, however, was not clearly distinguishable from bias. Thus, acupuncture cannot be recommended for the management of FMS.

How can this be?

By contrast to most systematic reviews of conventional medicine, systematic reviews of alternative therapies are almost invariably based on a small number of primary studies (in the above case, the total number was only 7 !). The quality of these trials is often low (all reviews therefore end with the somewhat meaningless conclusion that more and better studies are needed).

So, the situation with primary studies of alternative therapies for inclusion into systematic reviews usually is as follows:

  • the number of trials is low
  • the quality of trials is even lower
  • the results are not uniform
  • the majority of the poor quality trials show a positive result (bias tends to generate false positive findings)
  • the few rigorous trials yield a negative result

Unfortunately this means that the authors of systematic reviews summarising such confusing evidence often seem to feel at liberty to project their own pre-conceived ideas into their overall conclusion about the effectiveness of the treatment. Often the researchers are in favour of the therapy in question – in fact, this usually is precisely the attitude that motivated them to conduct a review in the first place. In other words, the frequently murky state of the evidence (as outlined above) can serve as a welcome invitation for personal bias to do its effect in skewing the overall conclusion. The final result is that the readers of such systematic reviews are being misled.

Authors who are biased in favour of the treatment will tend to stress that the majority of the trials are positive. Therefore the overall verdict has to be positive as well, in their view. The fact that most trials are flawed does not usually bother them all that much (I suspect that many fail to comprehend the effects of bias on the study results); they merely add to their conclusions that “more and better trials are needed” and believe that this meek little remark is sufficient evidence for their ability to critically analyse the data.

Authors who are not biased and have the necessary skills for critical assessment, on the other hand, will insist that most trials are flawed and therefore their results must be categorised as unreliable. They will also emphasise the fact that there are a few reliable studies and clearly point out that these are negative. Thus their overall conclusion must be negative as well.

In the end, enthusiasts will conclude that the treatment in question is at least promising, if not recommendable, while real scientists will rightly state that the available data are too flimsy to demonstrate the effectiveness of the therapy; as it is wrong to recommend unproven treatments, they will not recommend the treatment for routine use.

The difference between the two might just seem marginal – but, in fact, it is huge: IT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISLEADING PEOPLE AND GIVING RESPONSIBLE ADVICE; THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VIOLATING AND ADHERING TO ETHICAL STANDARDS.

Some people are their worst enemies, and it seems as though chiropractors are no strangers to this strange phenomenon.

On this blog, I frequently criticise chiropractic; my main concerns are that

  1. chiropractors make far too many bogus claims far too often,
  2. there is precious little evidence that their hallmark treatment, spinal manipulation, generates more good than harm.

I repeatedly voice those concerns because I feel strongly that consumers have the right to unbiased information for making evidence-based therapeutic decisions. When I do this, I get invariably attacked by some chiropractors who disagree with me. Frequently, these chiropractors are not interested to discuss the issues I raised with me; instead they insult me in the most primitive way imaginable.

This happens far too often to write about each time, but occasionally things are so extraordinary that I do blog about them. A case in point is the email I recently received out of the blue from “Dr” Brian Moravec, a chiropractor who believes in subluxation and claims that new-born babies should have spinal adjustments. My last post quotes his astonishing views in full; he believes I am a self proclaimed “expert” on alternative medicine, promoting so much misinformation with regard to chiropractic care.  Unfortunately he failed to tell me which of my statements he considers to be misleading and he continued: fortunately you look old.  and soon will be gone. 

Rejoicing at the (hopefully not so) imminent demise of a fellow human being is perhaps not what one might expect from a health care professional. Yet it does fit into the behaviour of chiropractors which tends to turn outright self-destructive when challenged. The comments by chiropractors that followed my post seem to confirm this tendency. They show that the demolition of chiropractic’s reputation by chiropractors is relentless.

One chiropractor claimed Moravec’s opinion could “have been better put”… and “come over as a somewhat personal attack” while quickly changing the subject by starting a discussion on the evidence-base of chiropractic. This ended abruptly in him agreeing with me to disagree. Other chiropractors seemed to concur.

At that stage, one chiropractor noted that Moeavec’s email is doing no favours to the reputation of chiropractic, a ray of light which quickly was instantly overshadowed by a further chiropractor’s comments. This man – or perhaps woman (hiding behind a pseudonym) – is a regular commentator on my blog. He felt that Moravec’s comments were rather polite an opinion which he justified as follows: Dr. Moravec thinks you are old because of your unflattering (IMO) photo. The shiny, bald look adds years to a person’s looks, especially in photos. It is the old glass half-empty or half-full debate. IOW, have you lost hair or have you gained face? The mustache is so fifties, too. The perpetual scowl, however, does suit you rather well. Just sayin’.  

At this point, I cannot help but laugh out loud. Someone asked how I can bear those vicious attacks. The answer is that I merely cringe at the stupidity on display.  Are these guys really so limited as to not realise what they are doing to their own reputation? Do they not notice that this amounts to a relentless and general demolition of chiropractic’s reputation?

All of this would, of course, be rather trivial fun, if it were a single occurrence – but it is most definitely not!

As I already pointed out, such things happen to me all the time. More remarkably, chiropractors have repeatedly tried to get me fired. Much more importantly, chiropractors have behaved in this way when they decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. Each time, they ended up with plenty of egg on their faces.

Isn’t it time that they learn a lesson? Isn’t it time that they learn to consider criticism seriously? Isn’t it time the more rational one amongst them do something about the many cranks in their midst? Isn’t it time they got their act together?

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