MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

causation

In the UK, we have about 150000 practitioners of Spiritual Healing (SH). They treat all sorts of conditions claiming to channel ‘healing energy’ into the patient’s body which enables him/her to heal itself. The plausibility of SH is very close to zero and, despite numerous trials, its clinical effectiveness remains unproven. A new and, in my view, remarkable study of SH was aimed at investigating whether “SH could support patients with breast cancer”.

Spiritual Healing was provided by 4 healers registered with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. Twelve patients with breast cancer undergoing long-term hormone treatment and experiencing its adverse-effects as onerous, self-referred themselves and were given ten weekly sessions of approximately 40 minutes each. Data collected included participant’s daily records, direct observations noted by the healers, the researcher’s field diary and a one-to-one semi-structured interview.

The alleged positive effects of SH included alleviation of the physical adverse-effects of their treatment, increased energy levels, enhanced well-being, emotional relaxation, and re-engagement with pre-cancer activities. Although one participant admitted considering a drug holiday prior to joining the study, none of the participants felt tempted to stop their hormonal treatments while receiving SH. The authors concluded that “these qualitative findings indicate that SH has the potential to support patients with breast cancer in the maintenance of their long-term orthodox treatments. Further research is needed to test SH as a cost-effective complementary therapy, for those undergoing long-term cancer treatments.”

As I already mentioned, I think this study is remarkable. Having done quite a bit of research into SH myself, I know how bizarre this intervention truly is. A typical treatment session might be with the patient lying on a couch in a relaxing atmosphere, often accompanied by soothing background music; the healer would talk gently but very little to enable the patient to be comfortable and relax; the SH itself might be performed by the healer moving his/her hands at a distance over the body of the patient; the healer would explain that this may cause the sensation of warmth as the ‘healing energy’ enters the body. Altogether, the experience is exotic to say the least.

It is therefore not surprising that SH generates a host of non-specific effects, including the most enormous placebo-response I have ever witnessed in any clinical trial which I have been involved in. I am mentioning this, of course, to point out that the above-noted effects are entirely compatible with those of placebo. As the study has no control group, there is no way of knowing what the effects of SH per se might have been. The fact that patients self-referred themselves to SH would only amplify this placebo-response. In the discussion of the paper, we find a further interesting pointer regarding patients’ prior experience with conventional health care professionals: “participants felt they were left to cope alone as their side-effects were trivialized.”  This seems to suggest that the group of patients were indeed highly selected and all had suffered badly from previous experiences of poorly administered heath care. Thus their expectations of SH were probably high which, in turn, would exaggerate the placebo-response even further.

All of these phenomena might well be fascinating and could provide ample material for relevant research. They deserve to be analysed carefully and discussed openly and critically. Unfortunately none of this happened in the present study. The authors do not even consider the possibility that the observed effects could be related to anything else than their SH. Their stated aim to investigate whether SH supports cancer patients is not even approached; the authors simply assume a cause-effect relationship without demonstrating one. I find this is more than just a missed opportunity; in my view, it is pseudo-science. And this is the reason why I find this study remarkable.

Many cancer patients use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), mostly as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies to improve the symptoms of the disease or to alleviate the side-effects of the often harsh cancer-therapy. The hope is that this approach leads to less suffering and perhaps even longer survival – but is this really so?

In a recently published study, Korean researchers evaluated whether CAM-use influenced the survival and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) of terminal cancer patients. From July 2005 to October 2006, they prospectively studied a cohort study of 481 cancer patients. During a follow-up of 163.8 person-years, they identified 466 deceased patients. Their multivariate analyses of these data showed that, compared with non-users, CAM-users did not have better survival. Using mind-body interventions or prayer was even associated with significantly worse survival. CAM users reported significantly worse cognitive functioning and more fatigue than nonusers. In sub-group analyses, users of alternative medical treatments, prayer, vitamin supplements, mushrooms, or rice and cereal reported significantly worse HRQOL. The authors conclude that “CAM did not provide any definite survival benefit, CAM users reported clinically significant worse HRQOLs.”

Most proponents of CAM would find this result counter-intuitive and might think it is a one-off coincidental result or a fluke. But, in fact, it is not; similar data have been reported before. For instance, a Norwegian study from 2003 examined the association between CAM-use and cancer survival. Survival data were obtained with a follow-up of 8 years for 515 cancer patients. A total of 112 patients used CAM. During the follow-up period, 350 patients died. Death rates were higher in CAM-users (79%) than in those who did not use CAM (65%). The hazard ratio of death for CAM-use compared with no use was 1.30. The authors of this paper concluded that “use of CAM seems to predict a shorter survival from cancer.”

I imagine that, had the results been the opposite (i.e. showing that CAM-users live longer and have a better quality of life), most CAM-enthusiasts would not have hesitated in claiming a cause effect relationship (i.e. that the result was due to the use of alternative medicine). Critical thinkers, however, are more careful, after all, correlation is not causation! So, how can these findings be explained?

There are, of course, several possibilities, for example:

1) Some patients might use ineffective alternative therapies instead of effective cancer treatments thus shortening their life and reducing their quality of life.

2) Other patients might employ alternative treatments which cause direct harm; for this, there are numerous options; for instance, if they self-medicate St John’s Wort, they would decrease the effectiveness of many mainstream medications, including some cancer drugs.

3) Patients who elect to use alternative medicine as an adjunct to their conventional cancer treatment might, on average, be more sick than those who stay clear of alternative medicine.

The available data do not allow us to say which explanation applies. But things are rarely black or white, and I would not be surprised, if a complex combination of all three possibilities came closest to the truth.

Whenever I have the occasion to discuss with  practitioners of alternative medicine the pros and cons of their methods, I hear sooner or later the argument “WE TREAT THE ROOT CAUSES OF DISEASE !!!” This remark emerges regularly regardless of the type of treatment the practitioner uses, and regardless of what disease we might have been talking about.

The statement is regularly pronounced with such deep conviction (and almost audible exclamation marks) that I am inclined to conclude these practitioners fully and wholeheartedly believe it. The implication usually is that, in conventional medicine, we only treat the symptoms of our patients. Quite often, this latter notion is not just gently implied but also forcefully expressed.

I have often wondered where this assumption and the fierce conviction with which it is expressed come from. The answer, I have come to conclude after many years of having such debates, is quite simple: it is being taught over and over again during the practitioners’ training, and it constitutes a central message of most ‘textbooks’ for the aspiring alternative practitioner.

It is not difficult to find the actual origin of all this. The notion that alternative practitioners treat the root causes is clearly based on the practitioners’ understanding of aetiology. If a traditional acupuncturist, for instance, becomes convinced that all disease is the expression of an imbalance of life-forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces thus restoring health, he must automatically assume that he is treating the root causes of any condition. If a chiropractor believes that all diseases  are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it must seem logical to him that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever complaint his patient is suffering from. If a Bowen therapist is convinced that “the Bowen Technique aims to balance the whole person, not just the symptoms“, he is bound to be equally sure that “practically any problem can potentially be addressed” by this intervention.

Let us assume for a minute that all these practitioners are correct in believing that their interventions are causal treatments, i.e. therapies directed against the cause of a disease. Successful treatment of any root cause can only mean that the therapy in question completely  heals the problem at hand. If we abolish the cause of a disease, we would expect the disease to disappear for good.

This, I think, begs a crucial question: ARE THERE ANY DISEASES WHICH ARE REPRODUCIBLY CURED BY AN ALTERNATIVE THERAPY?

I have contemplated it frequently and discussed it often with practitioners but, so far, I have not identified a single one.  I have no problem naming diseases which conventional medicine can cure – but, in alternative medicine, I only draw blanks. Even those alternative therapies which might be effective are not causal but symptomatic by nature. Honestly, I have not yet come across a single alternative treatment for which there is compelling evidence proving that it can produce more than symptom-relief.

But, of course, I might be wrong, over-critical, blind, bought by the pharmaeutical industry, dishonest or stupid. So, the purpose of this post is to clarify this issue once and for all. I herewith invite practitioners to name a disease for which there is sound evidence proving that it can be cured by their therapy.

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