MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

causation

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A reader of this blog recently sent me the following message: “Looks like this group followed you recent post about how to perform a CAM RCT!” A link directed me to a new trial of ear-acupuncture. Today is ‘national acupuncture and oriental medicine day’ in the US, a good occasion perhaps to have a critical look at it.

The aim of this study was to assess the effectiveness of ear acupressure and massage vs. control in the improvement of pain, anxiety and depression in persons diagnosed with dementia.

For this purpose, the researchers recruited  a total of 120 elderly dementia patients institutionalized in residential homes. The participants were randomly allocated, to three groups:

  • Control group – they continued with their routine activities;
  • Ear acupressure intervention group – they received ear acupressure treatment (pressure was applied to acupressure points on the ear);
  • Massage therapy intervention group – they received relaxing massage therapy.

Pain, anxiety and depression were assessed with the Doloplus2, Cornell and Campbell scales. The study was carried out during 5 months; three months of experimental treatment and two months with no treatment. The assessments were done at baseline, each month during the treatment and at one and two months of follow-up.

A total of 111 participants completed the study. The ear acupressure intervention group showed better improvements than the two other groups in relation to pain and depression during the treatment period and at one month of follow-up. The best improvement in pain was achieved in the last (3rd) month of ear acupressure treatment. The best results regarding anxiety were also observed in the last month of treatment.

 The authors concluded that ear acupressure and massage therapy showed better results than the control group in relation to pain, anxiety and depression. However, ear acupressure achieved more improvements.

The question is: IS THIS A RIGOROUS TRIAL?

My answer would ne NO.

Now I better explain why, don’t I?

If we look at them critically, the results of this trial might merely prove that spending some time with a patient, being niche to her, administering a treatment that involves time and touch, etc. yields positive changes in subjective experiences of pain, anxiety and depression. Thus the results of this study might have nothing to do with the therapies per se.

And why would acupressure be more successful than massage therapy? Massage therapy is an ‘old hat’ for many patients; by contrast, acupressure is exotic and relates to mystical life forces etc. Features like that have the potential to maximise the placebo-response. Therefore it is conceivable that they have contributed to the superiority of acupressure over massage.

What I am saying is that the results of this trial can be interpreted in not just one but several ways. The main reason for that is the fact that the control group were not given an acceptable placebo, one that was indistinguishable from the real treatment. Patients were fully aware of what type of intervention they were getting. Therefore their expectations, possibly heightened by the therapists, determined the outcomes. Consequently there were factors at work which were totally beyond the control of the researchers and a clear causal link between the therapy and the outcome cannot be established.

An RCT that is aimed to test the effectiveness of a therapy but fails to establish such a causal link beyond reasonable doubt cannot be characterised as a rigorous study, I am afraid.

Sorry! Did I spoil your ‘national acupuncture and oriental medicine day’ ?

For this blog, I am constantly on the lookout for ‘positive news’ about alternative medicine. Admittedly, I rarely find any.

All the more delighted I was when I found this new study aimed to analyse the association between dietary long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and incidence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in middle-aged and older women.

Data on diet were collected in 1987 and 1997 via a self-administered food-frequency questionnaire (FFQ). The risk of RA associated with dietary long-chain n-3 PUFAs and fish intake was estimated using Cox proportional hazard regression models, adjusted for age, cigarette smoking, alcohol intake, use of aspirin and energy intake.

The results show that, among 32 232 women born 1914–1948, 205 RA cases were identified during a mean follow-up of 7.5 years. An intake of dietary long-chain n-3 PUFAs (FFQ1997) of more than 0.21 g/day (lowest quintile) was associated with a 35% decreased risk of developing RA compared with a lower intake. Long-term intake consistently higher than 0.21 g/day (according to both FFQ1987 and FFQ1997) was associated with a 52% decreased risk. Consistent long-term consumption (FFQ1987 and FFQ1997) of fish ≥1 serving per week compared with<1 was associated with a 29% decrease in risk.

The authors concluded that this prospective study of women supports the hypothesis that dietary intake of long-chain n-3 PUFAs may play a role in aetiology of RA.

These are interesting findings which originate from a good investigation and which are interpreted with the necessary caution. As all epidemiological data, this study is open to a number of confounding factors, and it is therefore impossible to make firm causal inferences. The results thus do not led themselves to clinical recommendation, but they are an indication that more definitive research is warranted, all the more so since we have plausible mechanisms to explain the observed findings.

A most encouraging development for alternative medicine, one could conclude. But is this really true? Most experts would be surprised, I think, to find that PUFA-consumption should fall under the umbrella of alternative medicine. Remember: What do we call alternative medicine that works? It is called MEDICINE!

Here and elsewhere, I have repeatedly written about the many things that can go wrong with acupuncture. This invariably annoys acupuncture fans who usually counter by accusing me of being alarmist. Despite their opposition, I continue to think it is important to regularly point out that acupuncture – contrary to what many acupuncturists would tell us – can result in serious injury. I will therefore carry on reporting new evidence about the harm caused by acupuncture. Here is a very brief review of new (2014) articles on this important topic.

A recent study found that the incidence of any adverse events per patient was 42.4% with traditional acupuncture, 40.7% with minimal acupuncture and 16.7% with non-invasive sham acupuncture. These figures are much higher than those around 10% previously reported.

Other authors described the case of a broken off acupuncture needle in a patient’s abdomen. A very long needle was used which happily is unusual in routine practice.

Pneumothorax has been often noted as a complication of acupuncture – it is by far the most frequently reported serious complication caused by acupuncture; well over 100 instances have been described in the medical literature which, of course, reflects only the tip of an iceberg – new cases are being reported almost on a monthly basis.

Cardiac tamponade is even more dangerous but fortunately also much rarer. A case of life-threatening cardiac tamponade due to penetration of an acupuncture needle directly into the right ventricle was recently published. Cardiac tamponade can happen when the patient is unfortunate enough to have a sternal foramen, an congenital abnormality that is not normally detected by simple inspection or palpation. An investigation found that the frequency of a sternal foramen is approximately 10.5%. The authors concluded that sternal acupuncture should be planned in the region of corpus-previous CT should be done to rule out this variation. Furthermore, we strongly recommend the acupuncture technique which prescribes a safe superficial-oblique approach to the sternum.

A review from Egypt noted that acupuncture presented a significant risks for acquiring hepatitis C infections.

Other types of infections can also be transmitted by acupuncture needles, if the therapist fails to adhere to proper procedures of sterility. One report described the diagnosis, treatment and >1 year follow-up of 30 patients presenting with acupuncture-induced primary inoculation tuberculosis.

Similarly, Chinese authors reported the case of a 54-year-old woman who presented with progressive low back pain and fever. She underwent surgical decompression, with an immediate improvement of her pain. A culture of the epidural abscess grew Serratia marcescens. One year postoperatively, magnetic resonance imaging revealed the almost complete eradication of the abscess. This case is the first case of Serratia marcescens-associated spinal epidural abscess formation secondary to acupuncture.

Other authors reported a rare case of isolated unilateral hypoglossal nerve injury following ipsilateral acupuncture for migraines in a 53-year-old lady.

Finally, Greek authors published a case of severe rhabdomyolysis and acute kidney injury after acupuncture sessions. Rhabdomyolysis is a rare condition that can be caused by muscle injury and presents with muscle weakness and pain. It is characterized by myoglobinuria which, in turn, may cause acute kidney injury.

I can hear the world of acupuncture arguing that all of these events are extreme rarities and that conventional treatments are much more dangerous. This may well be true but it also ignores the following facts:

  • The frequency of such events is essentially unknown. Contrary to conventional medicine, alternative medicine has no functioning systems to monitor adverse events. Therefore the true incidence figures of acupuncture-related complications are anyone’s guess.
  • Most conventional treatments in common use are backed up by good evidence for efficacy and therefore demonstrably do more good than harm, even if they regularly cause adverse effects. This is not the case for acupuncture. In the absence of solid evidence for efficacy, even relatively rare or minor adverse effects would mean that the risk/benefit profile of acupuncture is not positive.

For these reasons, it is an ethical imperative, I think, to keep a keen eye on the harm caused by acupuncture and to inform the public about the fact that it is undeniably not free of risks.

After the usually challenging acute therapy is behind them, cancer patients are often desperate to find a therapy that might improve their wellbeing. At that stage they may suffer from a wide range of symptoms which can seriously limit their quality of life. Any treatment that can be shown to restore them to their normal mental and physical health would be more than welcome.

Most homeopaths believe that their remedies can do just that, particularly if they are tailored not to the disease but to the individual patient. Sadly, the evidence that this might be so is almost non-existent. Now, a new trial has become available; it was conducted by Jennifer Poole, a chartered psychologist and registered homeopath, and researcher and teacher at Nemeton Research Foundation, Romsey.

The aim of this study was to explore the benefits of a three-month course of individualised homeopathy (IH) for survivors of cancer.  Fifteen survivors of any type of cancer were recruited from a walk-in cancer support centre. Conventional treatment had to have taken place within the last three years. Patients saw a homeopath who prescribed IH. After three months of IH, they scored their total, physical and emotional wellbeing using the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy for Cancer (FACIT-G). The results show that 11 of the 14 women had statistically positive outcomes for emotional, physical and total wellbeing.
The conclusions of the author are clear: Findings support previous research, suggesting CAM or IH could be beneficial for survivors of cancer.

This article was published in the NURSING TIMES, and the editor added a footnote informing us that “This article has been double-blind “.

I find this surprising. A decent peer-review should have picked up the point that a study of that nature cannot possibly produce results which tell us anything about the benefits of IH. The reasons for this are fairly obvious:

  • there was no control group,
  • therefore the observed outcomes are most likely due to 1) natural history, 2) placebo, 3) regression towards the mean and 4) social desirability; it seems most unlikely that IH had anything to do with the result
  • the sample size was tiny,
  • the patients elected to receive IH which means that had high expectations of a positive outcome,
  • only subjective outcome measures were used,
  • there is no good previous research suggesting that IH benefits cancer patients.

On the last point, a recent systematic review showed that the studies available on this topic had mixed results either showing a significantly greater improvement in QOL in the intervention group compared to the control group, or no significant difference between groups. The authors concluded that there existed significant gaps in the evidence base for the effectiveness of CAM on QOL in cancer survivors. Further work in this field needs to adopt more rigorous methodology to help support cancer survivors to actively embrace self-management and effective CAMs, without recommending inappropriate interventions which are of no proven benefit.

All this new study might tell us is that IH did not seem to harm these patients  – but even this finding is not certain; to be sure, we would need to include many more patients. Any conclusions about the effectiveness of IH are totally unwarranted. But are there ANY generalizable conclusions that can be drawn from this article? Yes, I can think of a few:

  • Some cancer patients can be persuaded to try the most implausible treatments.
  • Some journals will publish any rubbish.
  • Some peer-reviewers fail to spot the most obvious defects.
  • Some ‘researchers’ haven’t got a clue.
  • The attempts of misleading us about the value of homeopathy are incessant.

One might argue that this whole story is too trivial for words; who cares what dodgy science is published in the NURSING TIMES? But I think it does matter – not so much because of this one silly article itself, but because similarly poor research with similarly ridiculous conclusions is currently published almost every day. Subsequently it is presented to the public as meaningful science heralding important advances in medicine. It matters because this constant drip of bogus research eventually influences public opinion and determines far-reaching health care decisions.

Many proponents of alternative medicine seem somewhat suspicious of research; they have obviously understood that it might not produce the positive result they had hoped for; after all, good research tests hypotheses and does not necessarily confirm beliefs. At the same time, they are often tempted to conduct research: this is perceived as being good for the image and, provided the findings are positive, also good for business.

Therefore they seem to be tirelessly looking for a study design that cannot ‘fail’, i.e. one that avoids the risk of negative results but looks respectable enough to be accepted by ‘the establishment’. For these enthusiasts, I have good news: here is the study design that cannot fail.

It is perhaps best outlined as a concrete example; for reasons that will become clear very shortly, I have chosen reflexology as a treatment of diabetic neuropathy, but you can, of course, replace both the treatment and the condition as it suits your needs. Here is the outline:

  • recruit a group of patients suffering from diabetic neuropathy – say 58, that will do nicely,
  • randomly allocate them to two groups,
  • the experimental group receives regular treatments by a motivated reflexologist,
  • the controls get no such therapy,
  • both groups also receive conventional treatments for their neuropathy,
  • the follow-up is 6 months,
  • the following outcome measures are used: pain reduction, glycemic control, nerve conductivity, and thermal and vibration sensitivities,
  • the results show that the reflexology group experience more improvements in all outcome measures than those of control subjects,
  • your conclusion: This study exhibited the efficient utility of reflexology therapy integrated with conventional medicines in managing diabetic neuropathy.

Mission accomplished!

This method is fool-proof, trust me, I have seen it often enough being tested, and never has it generated disappointment. It cannot fail because it follows the notorious A+B versus B design (I know, I have mentioned this several times before on this blog, but it is really important, I think): both patient groups receive the essential mainstream treatment, and the experimental group receives a useless but pleasant alternative treatment in addition. The alternative treatment involves touch, time, compassion, empathy, expectations, etc. All of these elements will inevitably have positive effects, and they can even be used to increase the patients’ compliance with the conventional treatments that is being applied in parallel. Thus all outcome measures will be better in the experimental compared to the control group.

The overall effect is pure magic: even an utterly ineffective treatment will appear as being effective – the perfect method for producing false-positive results.

And now we hopefully all understand why this study design is so very popular in alternative medicine. It looks solid – after all, it’s an RCT!!! – and it thus convinces even mildly critical experts of the notion that the useless treatment is something worth while. Consequently the useless treatment will become accepted as ‘evidence-based’, will be used more widely and perhaps even reimbursed from the public purse. Business will be thriving!

And why did I employ reflexology for diabetic neuropathy? Is that example not a far-fetched? Not a bit! I used it because it describes precisely a study that has just been published. Of course, I could also have taken the chiropractic trial from my last post, or dozens of other studies following the A+B versus B design – it is so brilliantly suited for misleading us all.

On this blog, I have often pointed out how dismally poor most of the trials of alternative therapies frequently are, particularly those in the realm of chiropractic. A brand-new study seems to prove my point.

The aim of this trial was to determine whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) plus home exercise and advice (HEA) compared with HEA alone reduces leg pain in the short and long term in adults with sub-acute and chronic back-related leg-pain (BRLP).

Patients aged 21 years or older with BRLP for least 4 weeks were randomised to receive 12 weeks of SMT plus HEA or HEA alone. Eleven chiropractors with a minimum of 5 years of practice experience delivered SMT in the SMT plus HEA group. The primary outcome was subjective BRLP at 12 and 52 weeks. Secondary outcomes were self-reported low back pain, disability, global improvement, satisfaction, medication use, and general health status at 12 and 52 weeks.

Of the 192 enrolled patients, 191 (99%) provided follow-up data at 12 weeks and 179 (93%) at 52 weeks. For leg pain, SMT plus HEA had a clinically important advantage over HEA (difference, 10 percentage points [95% CI, 2 to 19]; P = 0.008) at 12 weeks but not at 52 weeks (difference, 7 percentage points [CI, -2 to 15]; P = 0.146). Nearly all secondary outcomes improved more with SMT plus HEA at 12 weeks, but only global improvement, satisfaction, and medication use had sustained improvements at 52 weeks. No serious treatment-related adverse events or deaths occurred.

The authors conclude that, for patients with BRLP, SMT plus HEA was more effective than HEA alone after 12 weeks, but the benefit was sustained only for some secondary outcomes at 52 weeks.

This is yet another pragmatic trial following the notorious and increasingly popular A+B versus B design. As pointed out repeatedly on this blog, this study design can hardly ever generate a negative result (A+B is always more than B, unless A has a negative value [which even placebos don't have]). Thus it is not a true test of the experimental treatment but all an exercise to create a positive finding for a potentially useless treatment. Had the investigators used any mildly pleasant placebo with SMT, the result would have been the same. In this way, they could create results showing that getting a £10 cheque or meeting with pleasant company every other day, together with HEA, is more effective than HEA alone. The conclusion that the SMT, the cheque or the company have specific effects is as implicit in this article as it is potentially wrong.

The authors claim that their study was limited because patient-blinding was not possible. This is not entirely true, I think; it was limited mostly because it failed to point out that the observed outcomes could be and most likely are due to a whole range of factors which are not directly related to SMT and, most crucially, because its write-up, particularly the conclusions, wrongly implied cause and effect between SMT and the outcome. A more accurate conclusion could have been as follows: SMT plus HEA was more effective than HEA alone after 12 weeks, but the benefit was sustained only for some secondary outcomes at 52 weeks. Because the trial design did not control for non-specific effects, the observed outcomes are consistent with SMT being an impressive placebo.

No such critical thought can be found in the article; on the contrary, the authors claim in their discussion section that the current trial adds to the much-needed evidence base about SMT for subacute and chronic BRLP. Such phraseology is designed to mislead decision makers and get SMT accepted as a treatment of conditions for which it is not necessarily useful.

Research where the result is known before the study has even started (studies with a A+B versus B design) is not just useless, it is, in my view, unethical: it fails to answer a real question and is merely a waste of resources as well as an abuse of patients willingness to participate in clinical trials. But the authors of this new trial are in good and numerous company: in the realm of alternative medicine, such pseudo-research is currently being published almost on a daily basis. What is relatively new, however, that even some of the top journals are beginning to fall victim to this incessant stream of nonsense.

Linus Carl Pauling (1901 – 1994), the American scientist, peace activist, author, and educator who won two Nobel prizes, was one of the most influential chemists in history and ranks among the most important scientists of the 20th century. Linus Pauling’s work on vitamin C, however, generated considerable controversy. Pauling wrote many papers and a popular book, Cancer and Vitamin C. Vitamin C, we know today, protects cells from oxidative DNA damage and might thereby block carcinogenesis. Pauling popularised the regular intake of vitamin C; eventually he published two studies of end-stage cancer patients; their results apparently showed that vitamin C quadrupled survival times. A re-evaluation, however, found that the vitamin C groups were less sick on entry to the study. Later clinical trials concluded that there was no benefit to high-dose vitamin C. Since then, the established opinion is that the best evidence does not support a role for high dose vitamin C in the treatment of cancer. Despite all this, high dose IV vitamin C is in unexpectedly wide use by CAM practitioners.

Yesterday, new evidence has been published in the highly respected journal ‘Nature'; does it vindicate Pauling and his followers?

Chinese oncologists conducted a meta-analysis to assess the association between vitamin C intake and the risk to acquire lung cancer. Pertinent studies were identified by a searches of several electronic databases through December of 2013. Random-effect model was used to combine the data for analysis. Publication bias was estimated using Begg’s funnel plot and Egger’s regression asymmetry test.

Eighteen articles reporting 21 studies involving 8938 lung cancer cases were included in this meta-analysis. Pooled results suggested that highest vitamin C intake level versus lowest level was significantly associated with the risk of lung cancer. The effect was largest in investigations from the United States and in prospective studies. A linear dose-response relationship was found, with the risk of lung cancer decreasing by 7% for every 100 mg/day increase in the intake of vitamin C . No publication bias was found.

The authors conclude that their analysis suggested that the higher intake of vitamin C might have a protective effect against lung cancer, especially in the United States, although this conclusion needs to be confirmed.

Does this finding vindicate Pauling’s theory? Not really.

Even though the above-quoted conclusions seem to suggest a causal link, we are, in fact, far from having established one. The meta-analysis pooled mainly epidemiological data from various studies. Such investigations are doubtlessly valuable but they are fraught with uncertainties and cannot prove causality. For instance, there could be dozens of factors that have confounded these data in such a way that they produce a misleading result. The simplest explanation of the meta-analytic results might be that people who have a very high vitamin C intake tend to have generally healthier life-styles than those who take less vitamin C. When conducting a meta-analysis, one does, of course, try to account for such factors; but in many cases the necessary information to do that is not available, and therefore uncertainty persists.

In other words, the authors were certainly correct when stating that their findings needed to be confirmed. Pauling’s theory cannot be vindicated by such reports – in fact, the authors do not even mention Pauling with one word.

Dodgy science abounds in alternative medicine; this is perhaps particularly true for homeopathy. A brand-new trial seems to confirm this view.

The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that homeopathy (H) enhances the effects of scaling and root planing (SRP) in patients with chronic periodontitis (CP).

The researchers, dentists from Brazil, randomised 50 patients with CP to one of two treatment groups: SRP (C-G) or SRP + H (H-G). Assessments were made at baseline and after 3 and 12 months of treatment. The local and systemic responses to the treatments were evaluated after one year of follow-up. The results showed that both groups displayed significant improvements, however, the H-G group performed significantly better than C-G group.

The authors concluded that homeopathic medicines, as an adjunctive to SRP, can provide significant local and systemic improvements for CP patients.

Really? I am afraid, I disagree!

Homeopathic medicines might have nothing whatsoever to do with this result. Much more likely is the possibility that the findings are caused by other factors such as:

  • placebo-effects,
  • patients’ expectations,
  • improved compliance with other health-related measures,
  • the researchers’ expectations,
  • the extra attention given to the patients in the H-G group,
  • disappointment of the C-G patients for not receiving the additional care,
  • a mixture of all or some of the above.

I should stress that it would not have been difficult to plan the study in such a way that these factors were eliminated as sources of bias or confounding. But this study was conducted according to the A+B versus B design which we have discussed repeatedly on this blog. In such trials, A is the experimental treatment (homeopathy) and B is the standard care (scaling and root planning). Unless A is an overtly harmful therapy, it is simply not conceivable that A+B does not generate better results than B alone. The simplest way to comprehend this argument is to imagine A and B are two different amounts of money: it is impossible that A+B is not more that B!

It is unclear to me what relevant research question such a study design actually does answer (if anyone knows, please tell me). It seems obvious, however, that it cannot test the hypothesis that homeopathy (H) enhances the effects of scaling and root planing (SRP). This does not necessarily mean that the design is necessarily useless.  But at the very minimum, one would need an adequate research question (one that matches this design) and adequate conclusions based on the findings.

The fact that the conclusions drawn from a dodgy trial are inadequate and misleading could be seen as merely a mild irritation. The facts that, in homeopathy, such poor science and misleading conclusions emerge all too regularly, and that journals continue to publish such rubbish are not just mildly irritating; they are annoying and worrying – annoying because such pseudo-science constitutes an unethical waste of scarce resources; worrying because it almost inevitably leads to wrong decisions in health care.

Readers of this blog will know that few alternative treatments are more controversial and less plausible than homeopathy. Therefore they might be interested to read about the latest attempt of homeopathy-enthusiasts to convince the public that, despite all the clinical evidence to the contrary, homeopathy does work.

The new article was published in German by Swiss urologist and is a case-report describing a patient suffering from paralytic ileus. This condition is a typical complication of ileocystoplasty of the bladder, the operation the patient had undergone. The patient had also been suffering from a spinal cord injury which, due to a pre-existing neurogenic bowel dysfunction, increases the risk of paralytic ileus.

The paraplegic patient developed a massive paralytic ileus after ileocystoplasty and surgical revision. Conventional stimulation of bowel function was unsuccessful. But after adjunctive homeopathic treatment normalization of bowel function was achieved.

The authors conclude that adjunctive homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment option in patients with complex bowel dysfunction after abdominal surgery who do not adequately respond to conventional treatment.

YES, you did read correctly: homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment

In case anyone doubts that this is more than a trifle too optimistic, let me suggest three much more plausible reasons why the patient’s bowel function finally normalised:

  • It could have been a spontaneous recovery (in most cases, even severe ones, this is what happens).
  • It could have been all the conventional treatments aimed at stimulating bowel function.
  • It could have been a mixture of the two.

The article made me curious, and I checked whether the authors had previously published other material on homeopathy. Thus I found two further articles in a very similar vein:

Article No 2 (dated 2014):

We present the clinical course of a patient with an epididymal abscess caused by multiresistant bacteria. As the patient declined surgical intervention, a conservative approach was induced with intravenous antibiotic treatment. As the clinical findings did not ameliorate, adjunctive homeopathic treatment was used. Under combined treatment, laboratory parameters returned to normal, and the epididymal abscess was rapidly shrinking. After 1 week, merely a subcutaneous liquid structure was detected. Fine-needle aspiration revealed sterile purulent liquid, which was confirmed by microbiological testing when the subcutaneous abscess was drained. Postoperative course was uneventful.

As the risk for recurrent epididymitis is high in persons with spinal cord injury, an organ-preserving approach is justified even in severe cases. Homeopathic treatment was a valuable adjunctive treatment in the above-mentioned case. Therefore, prospective studies are needed to further elucidate the future opportunities and limitations of classical homeopathy in the treatment of urinary tract infections.

Article No 3 (dated 2012):

Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI) in patients with spinal cord injury are a frequent clinical problem. Often, preventive measures are not successful. We present the case reports of five patients with recurrent UTI who received additional homeopathic treatment. Of these patients, three remained free of UTI, whereas UTI frequency was reduced in two patients. Our initial experience with homeopathic prevention of UTI is encouraging. For an evidence-based evaluation of this concept, prospective studies are required.

It seems clear that all of the three more plausible explanations for the patients’ recovery listed above also apply to these two cases.

One might not be far off speculating that J Pannek, the first author of all these three articles, is a fan of homeopathy (this suspicion is confirmed by a link between him and the HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH INSTITUE: Prof Jürgen Pannek on the use of homeopathy for prophylaxis of UTI’s in patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction). If that is so, I wonder why he does not conduct a controlled trial, rather than publishing case-report after case-report of apparently successful homeopathic treatments. Does he perhaps fear that his effects might dissolve into thin air under controlled conditions?

Case-reports of this nature can, of course, be interesting and some might even deserve to be published. But it would be imperative to draw the correct conclusions. Looking at the three articles above, I get the impression that, as time goes by, the conclusions of Prof Pannek et al (no, I know nobody from this group of authors personally) are growing more and more firm on less and less safe ground.

In my view, responsible authors should have concluded much more cautiously and reasonably. In the case of the paralytic ileus, for instance, they should not have gone further than stating something like this: adjunctive homeopathic therapy might turn out to be a promising treatment option for such patients. Despite the implausibility of homeopathy, this case-report might deserve to be followed up with a controlled clinical trial. Without such evidence, firm conclusions are clearly not possible.

If you believe herbalists, the Daily Mail or similarly reliable sources, you come to the conclusion that herbal medicines are entirely safe – after all they are natural, and everything that is natural must be safe. However, there is plenty of evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily correct. In fact, herbal medicines can cause harm in diverse ways, e. g. because:

  • one or more ingredients of a plant are toxic,
  • they interact with prescribed drugs,
  • they are contaminated, for instance, with heavy metals,
  • they are adulterated with prescription drugs.

There is no shortage of evidence for any of these 4 scenarios. Here are some very recent and relevant publications:

German authors reviewed recent case reports and case series that provided evidence for herbal hepatotoxicity caused by Chinese herbal mixtures. The implicated remedies were the TCM products Ban Tu Wan, Chai Hu, Du Huo, Huang Qin, Jia Wei Xia Yao San, Jiguja, Kamishoyosan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Lu Cha, Polygonum multiflorum products, Shan Chi, ‘White flood’ containing the herbal TCM Wu Zhu Yu and Qian Ceng Ta, and Xiao Chai Hu Tang. the authors concluded that stringent evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is essential to protect traditional Chinese medicines users from health hazards including liver injury.

A recent review of Nigerian anti-diabetic herbal remedies suggested hypoglycemic effect of over 100 plants. One-third of them have been studied for their mechanism of action, while isolation of the bioactive constituent(s) has been accomplished for 23 plants. Several plants showed specific organ toxicity, mostly nephrotoxic or hepatotoxic, with direct effects on the levels of some liver function enzymes. Twenty-eight plants have been identified as in vitro modulators of P-glycoprotein and/or one or more of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, while eleven plants altered the levels of phase 2 metabolic enzymes, chiefly glutathione, with the potential to alter the pharmacokinetics of co-administered drugs

US authors published a case of a 44-year-old female who developed subacute liver injury demonstrated on a CT scan and liver biopsy within a month of using black cohosh to resolve her hot flashes. Since the patient was not taking any other drugs, they concluded that the acute liver injury was caused by the use of black cohosh. The authors concluded: we agree with the United States Pharmacopeia recommendations that a cautionary warning about hepatotoxicity should be labeled on the drug package.

Hong Kong toxicologists recently reported five cases of poisoning occurring as a result of inappropriate use of herbs in recipes or general herbal formulae acquired from books. Aconite poisoning due to overdose or inadequate processing accounted for three cases. The other two cases involved the use of herbs containing Strychnos alkaloids and Sophora alkaloids. These cases demonstrated that inappropriate use of Chinese medicine can result in major morbidity, and herbal formulae and recipes containing herbs available in general publications are not always safe.

Finally, Australian emergency doctors just published this case-report: A woman aged 34 years presented to hospital with a history of progressive shortness of breath, palpitations, decreased exercise tolerance and generalised arthralgia over the previous month. A full blood count revealed normochromic normocytic anaemia and a haemoglobin level of 66 g/L. The blood film showed basophilic stippling, prompting measurement of lead levels. Her blood lead level (BLL) was 105 µg/dL. Mercury and arsenic levels were also detected at very low levels. On further questioning, the patient reported that in the past 6 months she had ingested multiple herbal preparations supplied by an overseas Ayurvedic practitioner for enhancement of fertility. She was taking up to 12 different tablets and various pastes and powders daily. Her case was reported to public health authorities and the herbal preparations were sent for analytical testing. Analysis confirmed high levels of lead (4% w/w), mercury (12% w/w), arsenic and chromium. The lead levels were 4000 times the maximum allowable lead level in medications sold or produced in Australia. Following cessation of the herbal preparations, the patient was commenced on oral chelation therapy, iron supplementation and contraception. A 3-week course of oral DMSA (2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid) was well tolerated; BLL was reduced to 13 µg/dL and haemoglobin increased to 99 g/L. Her symptoms improved over the subsequent 3 months and she remains hopeful about becoming pregnant.

So, how safe are herbal medicines? Unfortunately, the question is unanswerable. Some herbal medicines are quite safe, others are not. But always remember: whenever you administer a treatment you should ask yourself one absolutely crucial question: do the documented benefits outweigh the risks? There are several thousand different herbal medicines, and for less than a dozen of them can the honest answer to this question be YES.

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