MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

case report

It is almost 10 years ago that Prof Kathy Sykes’ BBC series entitled ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE was aired. I had been hired by the BBC as their advisor for the programme and had tried my best to iron out the many mistakes that were about to be broadcast. But the scope for corrections turned out to be narrow and, at one stage, the errors seemed too serious and too far beyond repair to continue with my task. I had thus offered my resignation from this post. Fortunately this move led to some of my concerns being addressed after all, and they convinced me to remain in post.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Kathy presented the opening scene of a young women undergoing open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. All the BBC had ever shown me and asked me to advise on was the text – I had never seen the images. Kathy’s text included the statement that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  I had not objected to this statement in the firm belief that the images of the film would back up this extraordinary claim. As it turned out, it did not; the patient clearly had all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines and, in the film, these were openly in the view of Kathy Sykes.

This overt contradiction annoyed not just me but several other people as well. One of them was Simon Singh who filed an official complaint against the BBC for misleading the public, and eventually won his case.

The notion that acupuncture can serve as an alternative to anaesthesia or other surgical conditions crops up with amazing regularity. It is important not least because is often used as a promotional tool with the implication that, IF ACUPUNCTURE CAN ACHIVE SUCH DRAMATIC EFFECTS, IT MUST BE AN INCREDIBLY USEFUL TREATMENT! It is therefore relevant to ask what the scientific evidence tells us about this issue.

This was the question we wanted to address in a recent publication. Specifically, our aim was to summarise recent systematic reviews of acupuncture for surgical conditions.

Thirteen electronic databases were searched for relevant reviews published since 2000. Data were extracted by two independent reviewers according to predefined criteria. Twelve systematic reviews met our inclusion criteria. They related to the prevention or treatment of post-operative nausea and vomiting as well as to surgical or post-operative pain. The reviews drew conclusions which were far from uniform; specifically for surgical pain the evidence was not convincing. We concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention in surgical settings.”

So, Kathy Sykes’ comment was misguided in more than just one way: firstly, the scene she described in the film did not support what she was saying; secondly, the scientific evidence fails to support the notion that acupuncture can be used as an alternative to analgesia during surgery.

This story has several positive outcomes all the same. After seeing the BBC programme, Simon Singh contacted me to learn my views on the matter. This prompted me to support his complaint against the BBC and helped him to win this case. Furthermore, it led to a co-operation and friendship which produced our book TRICK OR TREATMENT.

Dutch neurologists recently described the case of a 63-year-old female patient presented at their outpatient clinic with a five-week history of severe postural headache, tinnitus and nausea. The onset of these symptoms was concurrent with chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine which she had tried because of cervical pain.

Cranial MRI showed findings characteristic for intracranial hypotension syndrome. Cervical MRI revealed a large posterior dural tear at the level of C1-2. Following unsuccessful conservative therapy, the patient underwent a lumbar epidural blood patch after which she recovered rapidly.

The authors conclude that manipulation of the cervical spine can cause a dural tear and subsequently an intracranial hypotension syndrome. Postural headaches directly after spinal manipulation should therefore be a reason to suspect this complication. If conservative management fails, an epidural blood patch may be performed.

Quite obviously, this is sound advice that can save lives. The trouble, however, is that the chiropractic profession is, by and large, still in denial. A recent systematic review by a chiropractor included eight cases of intracranial hypotension (IH) and concluded that case reports on IH and spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) have very limited clinical details and therefore cannot exclude other theories or plausible alternatives to explain the IH. To date, the evidence that cervical SMT is not a cause of IH is inconclusive. Further research is required before making any conclusions that cervical SMT is a cause of IH. Chiropractors and other health practitioners should be vigilant in recording established risk factors for IH in all cases. It is possible that the published cases of cervical SMT and IH may have missed important confounding risk factors (e.g. a new headache, or minor neck trauma in young or middle-aged adults).

Instead of distracting us from the fact that chiropractic can lead to serious adverse events, chiropractors would be well-advised to face the music, admit that their treatments are not risk-free and conduct rigorous research with a view of minimizing the harm.

The purpose of this paper by Canadian chiropractors was to expand practitioners’ knowledge on areas of liability when treating low back pain patients. Six cases where chiropractors in Canada were sued for allegedly causing or aggravating lumbar disc herniation after spinal manipulative therapy were retrieved using the CANLII database.

The patients were 4 men and 2 women with an average age of 37 years. Trial courts’ decisions were rendered between 2000 and 2011. The following conclusions from Canadian courts were noted:

  1. informed consent is an on-going process that cannot be entirely delegated to office personnel;
  2. when the patient’s history reveals risk factors for lumbar disc herniation the chiropractor has the duty to rule out disc pathology as an aetiology for the symptoms presented by the patients before beginning anything but conservative palliative treatment;
  3. lumbar disc herniation may be triggered by spinal manipulative therapy on vertebral segments distant from the involved herniated disc such as the thoracic spine.

The fact that this article was published by chiropractors seems like a step into the right direction. Disc herniations after chiropractic have been reported regularly and since many years. It is not often that I hear chiropractors admit that their spinal manipulations carry serious risks.

And it is not often that chiropractors consider the issue of informed consent. One the one hand, one hardly can blame them for it: if they ever did take informed consent seriously and informed their patients fully about the evidence and risks of their treatments as well as those of other therapeutic options, they would probably be out of business for ever. One the other hand, chiropractors should not be allowed to continue excluding themselves from the generally accepted ethical standards of modern health care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has it ever occurred to you that much of the discussion about cause and effect in alternative medicine goes in circles without ever making progress? I have come to the conclusion that it does. Here I try to illustrate this point using the example of acupuncture, more precisely the endless discussion about how to best test acupuncture for efficacy. For those readers who like to misunderstand me I should explain that the sceptics’ view is in capital letters.

At the beginning there was the experience. Unaware of anatomy, physiology, pathology etc., people started sticking needles in other people’s skin, some 2000 years ago, and observed that they experienced relief of all sorts of symptoms.When an American journalist reported about this phenomenon in the 1970s, acupuncture became all the rage in the West. Acupuncture-fans then claimed that a 2000-year history is ample proof that acupuncture does work.

BUT ANECDOTES ARE NOTORIOUSLY UNRELIABLE!

Even the most enthusiastic advocates conceded that this is probably true. So they documented detailed case-series of lots of patients, calculated the average difference between the pre- and post-treatment severity of symptoms, submitted it to statistical tests, and published the notion that the effects of acupuncture are not just anecdotal; in fact, they are statistically significant, they said.

BUT THIS EFFECT COULD BE DUE TO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CONDITION!

“True enough”, grumbled the acupuncture-fans and conducted the very first controlled clinical trials. Essentially they treated one group of patients with acupuncture while another group received conventional treatments as usual. When they analysed the results, they found that the acupuncture group had improved significantly more. “Now do you believe us?”, they asked triumphantly, “acupuncture is clearly effective”.

NO! THIS OUTCOME MIGHT BE DUE TO SELECTION BIAS. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT.

The acupuncturists felt slightly embarrassed because they had not thought of that. They had allocated their patients to the treatment according to patients’ choice. Thus the expectation of the patients (or the clinician) to get relief from acupuncture might have been the reason for the difference in outcome. So they consulted an expert in trial-design and were advised to allocate not by choice but by chance. In other words, they repeated the previous study but randomised patients to the two groups. Amazingly, their RCT still found a significant difference favouring acupuncture over treatment as usual.

BUT THIS DIFFERENCE COULD BE CAUSED BY A PLACEBO-EFFECT!

Now the acupuncturists were in a bit of a pickle; as far as they could see, there was no good placebo for acupuncture! Eventually some methodologist-chap came up with the idea that, in order to mimic a placebo, they could simply stick needles into non-acupuncture points. When the acupuncturists tried that method, they found that there were improvements in both groups but the difference between real acupuncture and placebo was tiny and usually neither statistically significant nor clinically relevant.

NOW DO YOU CONCEDE THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT?

Absolutely not! The results merely show that needling non-acupuncture points is not an adequate placebo. Obviously this intervention also sends a powerful signal to the brain which clearly makes it an effective intervention. What do you expect when you compare two effective treatments?

IF YOU REALLY THINK SO, YOU NEED TO PROVE IT AND DESIGN A PLACEBO THAT IS INERT.

At that stage, the acupuncturists came up with a placebo-needle that did not actually penetrate the skin; it worked like a mini stage dagger that telescopes into itself while giving the impression that it penetrated the skin just like the real thing. Surely this was an adequate placebo! The acupuncturists repeated their studies but, to their utter dismay, they found again that both groups improved and the difference in outcome between their new placebo and true acupuncture was minimal.

WE TOLD YOU THAT ACUPUNCTURE WAS NOT EFFECTIVE! DO YOU FINALLY AGREE?

Certainly not, they replied. We have thought long and hard about these intriguing findings and believe that they can be explained just like the last set of results: the non-penetrating needles touch the skin; this touch provides a stimulus powerful enough to have an effect on the brain; the non-penetrating placebo-needles are not inert and therefore the results merely depict a comparison of two effective treatments.

YOU MUST BE JOKING! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PROVE THAT BIZARRE HYPOTHESIS?

We had many discussions and consensus meeting amongst the most brilliant brains in acupuncture about this issue and have arrived at the conclusion that your obsession with placebo, cause and effect etc. is ridiculous and entirely misplaced. In real life, we don’t use placebos. So, let’s instead address the ‘real life’ question: is acupuncture better than usual treatment? We have conducted pragmatic studies where one group of patients gets treatment as usual and the other group receives acupuncture in addition. These studies show that acupuncture is effective. This is all the evidence we need. Why can you not believe us?

NOW WE HAVE ARRIVED EXACTLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE BEEN A LONG TIME AGO. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU OBVIOUSLY CANNOT DEMONSTRATE THAT ACUPUNCTURE CAUSES CLINICAL IMPROVEMENT. THEREFORE YOU OPT TO PRETEND THAT CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU USE SOME IMITATION OF SCIENCE TO ‘PROVE’ THAT YOUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS ARE CORRECT. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE AT ALL.

It was 20 years ago today that I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.

Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.

The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.

So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).

  1. Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and - BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
  2. Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
  3. If, for some reason, this should not appeal to you, how about taking a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach? How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
  4. It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
  5. If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
  6. Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
  7. As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
  8. It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
  9. Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.

These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.

Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty sceptics after you) you might just point out that:

  • your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
  • your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
  • your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
  • you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.

In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.

Realgar, a commonly used traditional Chinese medicine, has – according to the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – acrid, bitter, warm, and toxic characteristics and is affiliated with the Heart, Liver and Stomach meridians. It is used internally against intestinal parasites and treat sore throats, and is applied externally to treat swelling, abscesses, itching, rashes, and other skin disorders.

Chemically, it is nothing other than arsenic sulphide. Despite its very well-known toxicity, is thought by TCM-practitioners to be safe, and it has been used in TCM under the name ‘Xiong Huang’ for many centuries. TCM-practitioners advise that the typical internal dose of realgar is between 0.2 and 0.4 grams, decocted in water and taken up to two times per day. Some practitioners may recommend slightly higher doses (0.3-0.9 grams). Larger doses of realgar may be used if it is being applied topically.

Toxicologists from Taiwan report a case of fatal realgar poisoning after short-term use of a topical realgar-containing herbal medicine.

A 24-year-old man with atopic dermatitis had received 18 days of oral herbal medicine and realgar-containing herbal ointments over whole body from a TCM-practitioner. Seven days later, he started to develop loss of appetite, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, an itching rash and skin scaling. Subsequently he suffered generalized oedema, nausea, vomiting, decreased urine amount, diarrhoea, vesico-oedematous exanthemas, malodorous perspiration, fever, and shortness of breath.

He was taken to hospital on day 19 when the dyspnoea became worse. Toxic epidermal necrolysis complicated with soft tissue infection and sepsis were then diagnosed. The patient died shortly afterwards of septic shock and multiple organ failure. Post-mortem blood arsenic levels were elevated at 1225 μg/L. The analysis of the patient’s herbal remedies yielded a very high concentration of arsenic in three unlabelled realgar-containing ointments (45427, 5512, and 4229 ppm).

The authors of this report concluded that realgar-containing herbal remedy may cause severe cutaneous adverse reactions. The arsenic in realgar can be absorbed systemically from repeated application to non-intact skin and thus should not be extensively used on compromised skin.

The notion that a treatment that ‘has stood the test of time’ must be safe and effective is very wide-spread in alternative medicine. This, we often hear, applies particularly to the external use of traditional remedies – what can be wrong with putting a traditional Chinese herbal cream on the skin?? This case, like so many others, should teach us that this appeal to tradition is a classical and often dangerous fallacy. And the ‘realgar-story’ also suggests that, in TCM, the ‘learning-curve’ is very flat indeed.

Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies are often contaminated with toxic heavy metals. But the bigger danger seems to be that some of these traditional ‘medicines’ contain such toxins because, according to ‘traditional wisdom’, these constituents have curative powers. I think that, until we have compelling evidence that any of these treatments do more good than harm, we should avoid taking them.

Upper spinal manipulation, the signature-treatment of many chiropractors is by no means free of serious risks. Most chiropractors negate this, but can any reasonable person deny it? Neurosurgeons from New York have just published an interesting case-report in this context:

A 45 year old male with presented to his internist with a two-week history of right sided neck pain and tenderness, accompanied by tingling in the hand. The internists’ neurological examination revealed nothing abnormal, except for a decreased range of motion of the right arm. He referred the patient to a chiropractor who performed plain X-rays which apparently showed “mild spasm” (how anyone can see spasm on an X-ray is beyond me!). No magnetic resonance imaging study was done.

The chiropractor proceeded manipulating the patient’s neck on two successive days. By the morning of the third visit, the patient reported extreme pain and difficulty walking. Without performing a new neurological examination or obtaining a magnetic resonance study, the chiropractor manipulated the patient’s neck for a third time.

Thereafter, the patient immediately became quadriplegic. Despite undergoing an emergency C5 C6 anterior cervical diskectomy/fusion to address a massive disc found on the magnetic resonance scan, the patient remained quadriplegic. There seemed to be very little doubt that the quadriplegia was caused by the chiropractic spinal manipulation.

The authors of this report also argue that a major point of negligence in this case was the failure of both the referring internist and chiropractor to order a magnetic resonance study of the cervical spine prior to the chiropractic manipulations. In his defence, the internist claimed that there was no known report of permanent quadriplegia resulting from neck manipulation in any medical journal, article or book, or in any literature of any kind or on the internet. Even the quickest of literature searches discloses this assumption to be wrong. The first such case seems to have been published as early as 1957. Since then, numerous similar reports have been documented in the medical literature.

The internist furthermore claimed that the risk of this injury must be vanishingly small given the large numbers of manipulations performed annually. As we have pointed out repeatedly, this argument is pure speculation; under-reporting of such cases is huge, and therefore exact incidence figures are anybody’s guess.

The patient sued both the internist and the chiropractor, and the total amount of the verdict was $14,596,000.00 the internist’s liability was 5% ($759,181.65).

On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the serious adverse effects of Spinal Manipulative Therapies (SMT) as frequently administered by chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists. These events mostly relate to vascular accidents involving vertebral or carotid arterial dissections after SMT of the upper spine. Lower down, the spine is anatomically far less vulnerable which, however, does not mean that injuries in this region after SMT are impossible. They have been reported repeatedly but, to the best of my knowledge, there is no up-to-date review of such events – that is until recently.

Australian researchers have just filled this gap by publishing a systematic review aimed at systematically reviewing all reports of serious adverse events following lumbo-pelvic SMT. They conducted electronic searches in MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and The Cochrane Library up to January 12, 2012. Article-selection was performed by two independent reviewers using predefined criteria. Cases were included involving individuals 18 years or older who experienced a serious adverse event following SMT applied to the lumbar spine or pelvis by any type of provider (chiropractic, medical, physical therapy, osteopathic, layperson). A serious adverse event was defined as an untoward occurrence that resulted in death or was life threatening, required hospital admission, or resulted in significant or permanent disability. Reports published in English, German, Dutch, and Swedish were included.

The searches identified a total of 2046 papers, and 41 articles reporting a total of 77 cases were included in the review. Important case details were frequently missing in these reports, such as descriptions of SMT technique, the pre-SMT presentation of the patient, the specific details of the adverse event, time from SMT to the adverse event, factors contributing to the adverse event, and clinical outcome.

The 77 adverse events consisted of cauda equina syndrome (29 cases); lumbar disk herniation (23 cases); fracture (7 cases); haematoma or haemorrhagic cyst (6 cases); and12 cases of neurologic or vascular compromise, soft tissue trauma, muscle abscess formation, disrupted fracture healing, and oesophageal rupture.

The authors’ conclusion was that this systematic review describes case details from published articles that describe serious adverse events that have been reported to occur following SMT of the lumbo-pelvic region. The anecdotal nature of these cases does not allow for causal inferences between SMT and the events identified in this review.

This review is timely and sound. Yet several factors need consideration:

1) The search strategy was thorough but it is unlikely that all relevant articles were retrieved because these papers are often well-hidden in obscure and not electronically listed journals.

2) It is laudable that the authors included languages other than English but it would have been preferable to impose no language restrictions at all.

3) Under-reporting of adverse events is a huge problem, and it is anyone’s guess how large it really is [we have shown that, in our research it was precisely 100%]

4) This means that the 77 cases, which seem like a minute number, could in reality be 770 or 7700 or 77000; nobody can tell.

Cauda equina (horse tail) syndrome was the most frequent and most serious adverse event reported. This condition is caused by nerve injury at the lower end of the spinal canal. Symptoms can include leg pain along the sciatic nerve, severe back pain, altered or loss of sensation over the area around the genitals, anus and inner thighs as well as urine retention or incontinence and faecal incontinence. The condition must be treated as an emergency and usually requires surgical decompression of the injured nerves.

Disk herniation, the second most frequent adverse event, is an interesting complication of SMT. Most therapists using SMT would probably claim (no, I have no reference for that speculation!) that they can effectively treat herniated disks with SMT. The evidence for this claim is, as far as I know, non-existent. In view of the fact that SMT can actually cause a disk to herniate, I wonder whether SMT should not be contra-indicated for this condition. I am sure there will be some discussion about this question following this post.

The authors make a strong point about the fact that case reports never allow causal inference. One can only agree with this notion. However, the precautionary principle in medicine also means that, if case reports provide reasonable suspicion that an intervention might led to adverse-effects, we need to be careful and should warn patients of this possibility. It also means that it is up to the users of SMT to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that SMT is safe.

The vexing question whether the acupuncture needle is as safe as most acupuncturists seem to believe has been raised several times before on this blog. Here is a new case-report by Japanese authors which sheds an interesting light on this issue.

A 62-year-old man was admitted to A+E complaining of dizziness and diaphoresis. He had received an acupuncture treatment in the sub-xyphoid area (lower 2 cm and left 1 cm point from the lower xyphoid process border) only about one hour ago. He had a history of cerebral infarction and atrial fibrillation, and the latter condition was treated with 2 mg warfarin per day. On admission, the acupuncture needle was still sticking in his sub-sternum.

His blood pressure was 80/50 mm Hg, and tachycardia with 110 beats/min was noted. The acupuncture-needle was duly removed, but the patient went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. Because his international normalized ratio was 1.99, 2 pints of fresh frozen plasma and 5 mg of vitamin K were administered at that stage. A transthoracic echocardiography revealed pericardial effusion with early diastolic collapse of the right ventricle. Emergency pericardiocentesis using a sub-costal approach was performed. After drainage of 500 mL of sanguineous effusion, the patient seemed to stabilize.

Two hours later, the drainage of pericardial effusion amounted to around 1000 mL, and cardiac arrest re-developed. After another resuscitation, an operation was performed under cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). A median sternotomy allowed visualization of huge hematomas over the right atrium and ventricle. After the hematomas had been evacuated, pulsating blood loss from the marginal branch of the right coronary artery was identified. The vessel had been torn into pieces, and it was ligated which stopped the bleeding. Thereafter, the patient remained hemodynamically stable. Subsequently the patient made an uneventful recovery and, eventually, he was discharged without further complications.

The authors of this case-report conclude as follows: To our best knowledge, this appears to be the first case of an acupuncture-related coronary artery injury. The important causes of this unfortunate adverse event are a lack of anatomic knowledge and an incorrect application of the procedure. It can be avoided that acupuncture leads to cardiac tamponade like most serious complications….every acupuncturist should be aware of the possible and life-threatening adverse events and be adequately trained to prevent them.

In 2011, we published a review of all cases of cardiac tamponade after acupuncture. At the time, we found a total of 26 such incidences. In 14 patients, the complications were fatal. In most reports, there was little doubt about causality. We concluded that cardiac tamponade is a serious, often fatal complication after acupuncture. As it is theoretically avoidable, acupuncturists should be trained to minimize the risk.

Acupuncture-fans will, of course, claim (as before) that it is alarmist to go on about risks of acupuncture or alternative medicine which are so minute that they are dwarfed by those of conventional health care. And I will counter (as before) that it is never the absolute risk that counts, but that it is the risk benefit balance which defines the value of any therapeutic intervention. As long as we have no solid proof that acupuncture is more than a “theatrical placebo“, even a tiny risk weighs heavily and seems unacceptable.

But the true significance of this case-report lies elsewhere, in my view: risks of this nature can and should be avoided. The only way to achieve this aim is to train and educate acupuncturists properly. At present this does not seem to be the case, particularly in Asian countries where acupuncture is most popular. It is up to the acupuncture communities across the globe to get their act together.

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