Is spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) dangerous? This question has kept us on this blog busy for quite some time now. To me, there is little doubt that SMT can cause adverse effects some of which are serious. But many chiropractors seem totally unconvinced. Perhaps this new overview of reviews might help to clarify the issue. Its aim was to elucidate and quantify the risk of serious adverse events (SAEs) associated with SMT.

The authors searched five electronic databases from inception to December 8, 2015 and included reviews on any type of studies, patients, and SMT technique. The primary outcome was SAEs. The quality of the included reviews was assessed using a measurement tool to assess systematic reviews (AMSTAR). Since there were insufficient data for calculating incidence rates of SAEs, they used an alternative approach; the conclusions regarding safety of SMT were extracted for each review, and the communicated opinion were judged by two reviewers independently as safe, harmful, or neutral/unclear. Risk ratios (RRs) of a review communicating that SMT is safe and meeting the requirements for each AMSTAR item, were calculated.

A total of 283 eligible reviews were identified, but only 118 provided data for synthesis. The most frequently described adverse events (AEs) were stroke, headache, and vertebral artery dissection. Fifty-four reviews (46%) expressed that SMT is safe, 15 (13%) expressed that SMT is harmful, and 49 reviews (42%) were neutral or unclear. Thirteen reviews reported incidence estimates for SAEs, roughly ranging from 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 250,000,000 manipulations. Low methodological quality was present, with a median of 4 of 11 AMSTAR items met (interquartile range, 3 to 6). Reviews meeting the requirements for each of the AMSTAR items (i.e. good internal validity) had a higher chance of expressing that SMT is safe.

The authors concluded that it is currently not possible to provide an overall conclusion about the safety of SMT; however, the types of SAEs reported can indeed be significant, sustaining that some risk is present. High quality research and consistent reporting of AEs and SAEs are needed.

This article is valuable, if only for the wealth of information one can extract from it. There are, however, numerous problems. One is that the overview included mostly reviews of the effectiveness of SMT for various conditions. We know that studies of SMT often do not even mention AEs. If such studies are then pooled in a review, they inevitably generate an impression of safety. But this would, of course, be a false-positive result!

The authors of the overview are aware of this problem and address it in the following paragraph: “When only considering the subset of reviews, where the objective was to investigate AEs (37 reviews), then 8 reviews (22%) expressed that SMT is safe, 13 reviews (35%) expressed that SMT is harmful and 16 reviews (43%) were neutral or unclear regarding the safety of SMT. Hence, there is a tendency that a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful compared to the full sample of reviews…”

To my surprise, I found several of my own reviews in the ‘neutral or unclear’ category. Here are the verbatim conclusions of three of them:

  1. It is concluded that serious cerebrovascular complications of spinal manipulation continue to be reported.
  2. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome.
  3. These data indicate that mild and transient adverse events seem to be frequent. Serious adverse events are probably rare but their incidence can only be estimated at present.

I find it puzzling how this could be classified as neutral or unclear. The solution of the puzzle might lie in the methodology used: “we appraised the communicated opinions of each review concerning the safety of SMT based on their conclusions regarding the AEs and SAEs. This was done by two reviewers independently (SMN, LK), who judged the communicated opinions as either ‘safe’, ‘neutral/unclear’ or ‘harmful’, based on the qualitative impression the reviewers had when reading the conclusions. The reviewers had no opinion about the safety/harmfulness of SMT before commencing the judgements. Cohen’s weighted Kappa was calculated for the agreement between the reviewers, with a value of 0.40–0.59 indicating ‘fair agreement’, 0.60–0.74 indicating ‘good agreement’ and ≥0.75 indicating ‘excellent agreement’. Disagreements were resolved by a third reviewer (MH).”

In other words, the categorisation was done on the basis of subjective judgements of two researchers. It seems obvious that, if their attitude was favourable towards SMT, their judgements would be influenced. The three examples from my own work cited above indicates to me that their verdicts were indeed far from objective.

So what is the main message here? In my view, it can be summarized in the following quote from the overview: “a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful …”

Yes, yes, yes – I know that, if you are a chiropractor (or other practitioner using mostly SMT), you are unlikely to agree with this!

Perhaps you can agree with this statement then:

As long as there is reasonable doubt about the safety of SMT, and as long as we cannot be sure that SMT generates more good than harm, we should be very cautious using it for routine healthcare and do rigorous research to determine the truth (it’s called the precautionary principle and applies to all types of healthcare).

The title of the press-release was impressive: ‘Columbia and Harvard Researchers Find Yoga and Controlled Breathing Reduce Depressive Symptoms’. It certainly awoke my interest and I looked up the original article. Sadly, it also awoke the interest of many journalists, and the study was reported widely – and, as we shall see, mostly wrongly.

According to its authors, the aims of this study were “to assess the effects of an intervention of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing at five breaths per minute on depressive symptoms and to determine optimal intervention yoga dosing for future studies in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD)”.

Thirty two subjects were randomized to either the high-dose group (HDG) or low-dose group (LDG) for a 12-week intervention of three or two intervention classes per week, respectively. Eligible subjects were 18–64 years old with MDD, had baseline Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) scores ≥14, and were either on no antidepressant medications or on a stable dose of antidepressants for ≥3 months. The intervention included 90-min classes plus homework. Outcome measures were BDI-II scores and intervention compliance.

Fifteen HDG and 15 LDG subjects completed the intervention. BDI-II scores at screening and compliance did not differ between groups. BDI-II scores declined significantly from screening (24.6 ± 1.7) to week 12 (6.0 ± 3.8) for the HDG (–18.6 ± 6.6; p < 0.001), and from screening (27.7 ± 2.1) to week 12 (10.1 ± 7.9) in the LDG. There were no significant differences between groups, based on response (i.e., >50% decrease in BDI-II scores; p = 0.65) for the HDG (13/15 subjects) and LDG (11/15 subjects) or remission (i.e., number of subjects with BDI-II scores <14; p = 1.00) for the HDG (14/15 subjects) and LDG (13/15 subjects) after the 12-week intervention, although a greater number of subjects in the HDG had 12-week BDI-II scores ≤10 (p = 0.04).

The authors concluded that this dosing study provides evidence that participation in an intervention composed of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms for individuals with MDD, both on and off antidepressant medications. The HDG and LDG showed no significant differences in compliance or in rates of response or remission. Although the HDG had significantly more subjects with BDI-II scores ≤10 at week 12, twice weekly classes (plus home practice) may rates of response or remission. Although the HDG, thrice weekly classes (plus home practice) had significantly more subjects with BDI-II scores ≤10 at week 12, the LDG, twice weekly classes (plus home practice) may constitute a less burdensome but still effective way to gain the mood benefits from the intervention. This study supports the use of an Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing intervention as a treatment to alleviate depressive symptoms in MDD.

The authors also warn that this study must be interpreted with caution and point out several limitations:

  • the small sample size,
  • the lack of an active non-yoga control (both groups received Iyengar yoga plus coherent breathing),
  • the supportive group environment and multiple subject interactions with research staff each week could have contributed to the reduction in depressive symptoms,
  • the results cannot be generalized to MDD with more acute suicidality or more severe symptoms.

In the press-release, we are told that “The practical findings for this integrative health intervention are that it worked for participants who were both on and off antidepressant medications, and for those time-pressed, the two times per week dose also performed well,” says The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Editor-in-Chief John Weeks

At the end of the paper, we learn that the authors, Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg, teach and have published Breath∼Body∼Mind©, a technique that uses coherent breathing. Dr. Streeter is certified to teach Breath∼Body∼Mind©. No competing financial interests exist for the remaining authors.

Taking all of these issues into account, my take on this study is different and a little more critical:

  • The observed effects might have nothing at all to do with the specific intervention tested.
  • The trial was poorly designed.
  • The aims of the study are not within reach of its methodology.
  • The trial lacked a proper control group.
  • It was published in a journal that has no credibility.
  • The limitations outlined by the authors are merely the tip of an entire iceberg of fatal flaws.
  • The press-release is irresponsibly exaggerated.
  • The authors have little incentive to truly test their therapy and seem to use research as a means of promoting their business.

The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has lost all credibility after suing Simon Singh for drawing the public’s attention to the fact that they were ‘happily promoting bogus treatments’. Now, it seems, they are trying to re-establish themselves with regular, often bogus or dubious pronouncements about back pain. It looks as though they have learnt nothing. A recent article in THE INDEPENDENT is a good example of this ambition, I think:


Skinny jeans and coats with big fluffy hoods can contribute to painful back problems, chiropractors have warned.

Nearly three-quarters of women have experienced back pain, according to a survey by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), who said fashionable clothing including backless shoes, oversized bags and heavy statement jewellery were partly to blame.

Wearing very tight jeans can restrict mobility and force other muscles to strain as they try to compensate for the resulting change in posture, chiropractor Rishi Loatey told The Independent.

“If they’re incredibly tight, you won’t be able to walk as you normally would,” he said.

“You’ve got a natural gait, or stride, that you would take, and the knee, hip and lower back all move to minimise the pressure coming up through the joints.

“However, if one of those areas isn’t moving as it should be, it’s going to cause more pressure elsewhere.”

While 73 per cent of women from a sample of more than 2,000 said they have had back pain, more than a quarter – 28 per cent – said they were aware their clothing affects their posture and back and neck pain, but did not take this into account when choosing what to wear.

Lower back pain is the most common cause of disability worldwide, with 9.4 per cent of people suffering from it, according to a previous study.

High heels, which cause muscles in the back of the leg and the calf to tighten and pull on the pelvis differently, have long been culprits of back pain.

A number of high-profile campaigns against “sexist” dress codes requiring women to wear high heels at work have made reference to this fact.

But backless shoes, flimsy ballet pumps and some soft boots can also damage your back if they are worn too often, said Mr Loatey.

“If you imagine the back of a shoe, the bit that goes round the back is supposed to be quite firm, so it grips the rear foot,” he said. “If you don’t have that, then your foot is more mobile in the shoe.”

“If they’re not the right size, they’re a bit loose or they don’t have the bit at the back, you’re almost gripping the shoe as you walk, which again changes the way you walk,” said Mr Loatey, adding that ideally shoes should be laced up at the front to make sure the foot is held firmly.

A third of women surveyed by the BCA were unaware that their clothing choices could harm their backs and necks.

Mr Loatey said people should try and wear clothes that allow them to move more freely. Heavy hoods and over-shoulder bags can both restrict movement.

They should also consider limiting the amount of time they spent wearing high heels or backless shoes and consider travelling to work or social events in trainers or other well-supported shoes instead, he said.


This piece strikes me as pure promotion of chiropractic – health journalism at its worse, I’d say. What is more objectionable than the promotion, it is full of half truths, ‘alternative facts’ and pure invention. Let me list a few statements that I find particularly doggy:

  1. “Skinny jeans and coats with big fluffy hoods can contribute to painful back problems.” Do they have any evidence for this? I don’t know of any!
  2. “…fashionable clothing including backless shoes, oversized bags and heavy statement jewellery were partly to blame [for back problems].” Idem!
  3. “Wearing very tight jeans can restrict mobility and force other muscles to strain…” Idem!
  4. “…it’s going to cause more pressure elsewhere.” Idem!
  5. 28% of women said “they were aware their clothing affects their posture and back and neck pain, but did not take this into account when choosing what to wear.” To make the findings from a survey look like scientific evidence for cause and effect is at best misleading, at worst dishonest.
  6. “…according to a previous study“. It turns out that this previous study was of occupational back pain which has nothing to do with tight jeans etc.
  7. “High heels, which cause muscles in the back of the leg and the calf to tighten and pull on the pelvis differently, have long been culprits of back pain.” A link to the evidence would be nice – if there is any.
  8. “But backless shoes, flimsy ballet pumps and some soft boots can also damage your back – if they are worn too often…” Evidence needed – if there is any.
  9. “Mr Loatey said people should try and wear clothes that allow them to move more freely. Heavy hoods and over-shoulder bags can both restrict movement.” Concrete recommendations require concrete evidence or a link to it.
  10. Women “should also consider limiting the amount of time they spent wearing high heels or backless shoes and consider travelling to work or social events in trainers or other well-supported shoes instead.” Idem.

At this point congratulations are in order, I feel.

Firstly to THE INDEPENDENT for publishing one of the most inadequate health-related article which I have seen in recent months.

Secondly to the BCA for their stubborn determination to ‘happily promoting bogus’ notions. Instead of getting their act together when found out to advertise quackery in 2008, they sued Simon Singh (unsuccessfully, I hasten to add). Instead of cutting out the nonsense once and for all, they now promote populist ‘alternative facts’ about the causes of back pain. Instead of behaving like a professional organisation that promotes high standards and solid evidence, they continue to do the opposite.

One cannot but be impressed with so much intransigence.

Prof Walach has featured on this blog before, for instance here, and here. He is a psychologist by training and a vocal and prominent advocate of several bogus treatments, including homeopathy. He also is the editor in chief of the journal ‘Complementary Medicine Research’ and regularly uses this position to sing the praise of homeopathy. There is a degree of mystery about his affiliation: he informed me about 10 months ago that he has left his post at the Europa Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder (“Dass ich als “ehemaliger Professor” geführt werde liegt daran, dass ich  Ende Januar aufgehört habe. Meine Stelle ist ausgelaufen und ich habe
sie nicht mehr verlängert.”). Yet all, even his recent papers still carry this address.

His latest article is entitled ‘The future of homeopathy’ is no exception. It is remarkable not just because of the mysterious affiliation but also – and mostly – because of its content. Here is my translation of a brief passage from this paper [I added some numbers in square brackets which refer to footnotes below].


It is entirely undisputed that homeopathy with its therapeutic principles runs against the mainstream of science; and in this, Weymayr [1] is correct. However, to build on this fact a veritable research prohibition, such as the ‘scientability-concept’ suggests, is not just wrong from a science theoretical perspective, but… also discloses a dogmatic and unscientific stance.

If we see things soberly, homeopathy is – from a science theory point of view – an anomaly: empiric data prove that effects appear regularly and more and more frequently [2].  This is being demonstrated with meta-analyses of placebo-controlled clinical trials. And this also shows with our own provings, which conform well with the newly developed standards as well as with the newer provings. Effects are furthermore noted with such frequency in animal and plant-based studies. Contrary to often voiced statements, there are also models which produce replicated effects – for instance the model of children with ADHD which is currently being replicated. Repeatedly high quality pilot studies emerge, such as the one by Gassmann et al., which show that unexpected effects also appear with higher potencies, documented with objective methods. Homeopathy proves itself as useful in large pragmatic trials of which we, however, have far too few. And let’s not forget: homeopathy is pragmatically useful. Even though aggravations do occur occasionally during homeopathic treatments, the claim that homeopathy is dangerous is a careless interpretation of the data. [3]

In what way is homeopathy an anomaly? I have already years ago argued that the signature of the data does not suggest that we are dealing with a classical local effect. This would be an effect which would conform with the usual criterion of causality and would thus be stable, regular and more and more evident with improved experimentation. It is unnecessary to repeat this argument [4] for the purpose of this editorial. But precisely the question of the classic causal effect is the controversy. And exactly this is the issue used by the new wave of critic of homeopathy which is openly aimed at the demise of homeopathy. This situation occurs because also the homeopaths are victims of the misapprehension  that homeopathy is based on a classic causal process. But this assumption is most likely wrong, and homeopaths would be well-advised on the one side to point to the empiric evidence, and on the other side to practice theoretical chastity making clear that, for the time being, we have not a clue how homeopathy functions. This is the typical situation when a scientific anomaly occurs…

My prognosis would be: if we stop to misunderstand homeopathy as a classic causal phenomenon and instead view and research it as a non-classical phenomenon, homeopathy would have a chance and science would get richer by a new category of phenomena. This approach will prompt criticism, because it renders the world more complex rather than simpler. But this cannot be changed. Perhaps a new era of therapeutics might even emerge which does not abolish the molecular paradigm but makes it appear as one of several possibilities. [5]


For those of you who can read German, here is the original text with references:

Dass die Homöopathie mit ihren therapeutischen Prinzipien dem Hauptstrom der Wissenschaft immer schon zuwiderlief, ist völlig unbestritten, und darin hat Weymayr recht. Aber auf dieser Tatsache ein regelrechtes «Forschungsverbot» aufbauen zu wollen, wie es das Szientabilitätskonzept vorsieht, das ist nicht nur wissenschaftstheoretisch absolut falsch, wie wir in einer Replik gezeigt haben [2], sondern offenbart auch eine dogmatische und unwissenschaftliche Einstellung.

Wenn man die Sache nüchtern sieht, ist die Homöopathie – wissenschaftstheoretisch betrachtet – eine Anomalie [3]: Empirische Daten belegen, dass immer wieder und insgesamt häufiger als zufällig erwartet Effekte auftreten. Das zeigen Meta-Analysen placebokontrollierter klinischer Studien [4,5,6]. Und das zeigt sich sowohl in unseren eigenen Arzneimittel-Prüfungen [7], die im Übrigen den erst neuerdings entwickelten Standards gut entsprechen [8], als auch in neueren Prüfungen [9]. Auch in Tierexperimenten [10,11,12,13] und in Pflanzenstudien [14,15,16] treten Effekte in solcher Häufigkeit auf. Entgegen oft gehörten Äußerungen gibt es durchaus auch Modelle, die replizierte Effekte ergeben – etwa das Modell homöopathischer Behandlung von Kindern mit Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-/Hyperaktivitätssyndrom [17,18], das gerade repliziert wird [19]. Immer wieder gibt es qualitativ hochwertige Pilotstudien, wie die unlängst publizierte von Gassmann et al. [20], die zeigen, dass unerwartete Effekte auch unter höheren Potenzen und dokumentiert mit objektiven Methoden zu beobachten sind. Homöopathie erweist sich in großen pragmatischen Studien, von denen es allerdings viel zu wenige gibt, als nützlich [21,22,23]. Und nicht zu vergessen: Homöopathie ist pragmatisch hilfreich [24,25,26,27]. Zwar kommt es bei homöopathischer Behandlung gelegentlich zu einer Erstverschlimmerung [28,29], aber die Behauptung, Homöopathie sei gefährlich [30], ist eine fahrlässige Interpretation der Daten [31].

Inwiefern ist die Homöopathie dann eine Anomalie? Ich habe schon vor Jahren argumentiert, dass die Signatur der Daten in der Homöopathie nicht dafür spricht, dass wir es mit einem klassischen, lokalen Effekt zu tun haben [32]. Das wäre ein Effekt, der dem gewöhnlichen Kriterium der Kausalität entspräche und somit stabil, regelmäßig und bei immer besserer Experimentierkunst immer deutlicher hervorträte. Dieses Argument jetzt wieder aufzurollen, ist im Rahmen eines Editorials müßig. Aber genau die Frage nach einem klassisch-kausalen Effekt ist letztlich der Stein des Anstoßes. Und genau diesen Anstoß nimmt nun die neue Welle der Homöopathiekritik, die erklärtermaßen auf die Abschaffung der Homöopathie abzielt, zu ihrem Anlass. Diese Situation ergibt sich, weil auch die Homöopathen dem Selbstmissverständnis aufsitzen, Homöopathie sei ein klassisch-kausaler Prozess. Das ist höchstwahrscheinlich falsch, und die Homöopathie wäre gut beraten, einerseits auf die empirischen Befunde hinzuweisen und auf der anderen Seite theoretische Enthaltsamkeit zu üben und klarzulegen, dass wir vorläufig keinerlei Ahnung haben, wie Homöopathie funktioniert. Das ist die typische Situation, wenn eine wissenschaftliche Anomalie vorliegt…

Meine Prognose wäre: Wenn wir aufhören, die Homöopathie als klassisches Phänomen misszuverstehen, und sie stattdessen als ein mögliches nichtklassisches Phänomen betrachten und beforschen, dann hat die Homöopathie eine Chance und die Wissenschaft wird um eine neue Kategorie von Phänomenen reicher. Dieser Ansatz wird Kritik hervorrufen, denn er macht die Welt eher komplexer als einfacher. Aber das lässt sich nicht ändern. Vielleicht kann sogar eine neue Ära der Therapie beginnen, die das molekulare Paradigma nicht abschafft, aber als eine von mehreren Möglichkeiten erscheinen lässt.

Rather than commenting on this text in full detail, I simply want to provide a few explanations [they refer to the numbers in square brackets inserted by me into my translation] in order to facilitate understanding. I hope, however, that my readers will comment as much as they feel like.

1) Weymayr argued that certain fields lack plausibility to a degree that they do not merit being investigated. Here is an abstract of an article by him:

Evidence-based medicine (EbM) has proved to be very useful in healthcare; thanks to its methodology the reliability of our knowledge of the benefits and harms of interventions can be assessed. This at least applies to interventions which are based on a plausible concept for their mechanism of action and which have already achieved positive effects in experiments and simple studies. However, for interventions whose concepts contradict scientific findings EbM has proved to be unsuitable; it has not been able to prevent that they are still regarded as effective amongst wide parts of the population and medical experts. Particularly homeopathy has managed to even present itself as scientifically justified by using EbM. With the aim of highlighting the speculative character of homeopathy and other procedures and of preventing EbM from getting damaged, the concept of scientability is introduced in this article. This concept only approves of clinical studies if the intervention that is to be tested does not contradict definite scientific findings.

2) A scientific anomaly is “something which cannot be explained by currently accepted scientific theories. Sometimes the new phenomenon leads to new rules or theories, e.g., the discovery of x-rays and radiation.

3) Even a minimal amount of critical thinking leads to the conclusion that the claims made about homeopathy in this paragraph are mostly not true or exaggerated. On this blog, there is plenty of evidence to contradict Walach on all the points he made here.

4) Walach’s argument is detailed in this article:

Among homeopaths the common idea about a working hypothesis for homeopathic effects seems to be that, during the potentization process, ‘information’ or ‘energy’ is being preserved or even enhanced in homeopathic remedies. The organism is said to be able to pick up this information, which in turn will stimulate the organism into a self-healing response. According to this view the decisive element of homeopathic therapy is the remedy which locally contains and conveys this information. I question this view for empirical and theoretical reasons. Empirical research has shown a repetitive pattern, in fundamental and clinical research alike: there are many anomalies in high-dilution research and clinical homeopathic trials which will set any observing researcher thinking. But no single paradigm has proved stable enough in order to produce repeatable results independent of the researcher. I conclude that the database is too weak and contradictory to substantiate a local interpretation of homeopathy, in which the remedy is endowed with causal-informational content irrespective of the circumstances. I propose a non-local interpretation to understand the anomalies along the lines of Jung’s notion of synchronicity and make some predictions following this analysis.

5) In a nutshell, Walach seems to be saying:

  • the empirical evidence for homeopathy is strong;
  • nobody understands the mechanisms by which the effects of homeopathy are brought about;
  • if we all claim that homeopathy is a ‘scientific anomaly’ which operates according to Jung’s notion of synchronicity, the discrepancy between strong evidence and lack of plausible explanation disappears and everyone can be happy.

This is wrong for the following reasons, in my view:

  • the evidence is not strong but negative or extremely weak;
  • we understand very well that the effects of homeopathy are due to non-specific effects;
  • therefore there is no need for a new paradigm;
  • Jung’s notion of synchronicity is pure speculation and not applicable to therapeutics.

In summary, Prof Walach would do well to stop philosophising about homeopathy, read up about critical analysis, fine-tune his BS-detector and familiarise himself with Occam’s razor.


You may recall, we have dealt with the JCAM many times before; for instance here, here, here and here. Now they have come out with another remarkable paper. This study – no, the authors called it a ‘pilot study’ – was to compare the efficacy of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) with that of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in reducing adolescent anxiety. Sixty-three American high-ability students in grades 6–12, ages 10–18 years, who scored in the moderate to high ranges for anxiety on the Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale-2 (RCMAS-2) were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • CBT (n = 21),
  • EFT (n = 21),
  • or waitlist control (n = 21).

EFT is an alternative therapy that incorporates acupoint stimulation. Students assigned to the CBT or EFT treatment groups received three individual sessions of the identified protocols from trained graduate counseling, psychology, or social work students enrolled at a large northeastern research university. The RCMAS-2 was used to assess preintervention and postintervention anxiety levels in participants.

EFT participants showed significant reduction in anxiety levels compared with the waitlist control group with a moderate to large effect size. CBT participants did not differ significantly from the EFT or control.

The authors concluded that EFT is an efficacious intervention to significantly reduce anxiety for high-ability adolescents.

They also state in their abstract that EFT is an evidence-based treatment for anxiety…

Are you happy with these conclusions?

Are you convinced that this trial lends itself to establish efficacy of anything?

Are you impressed with the trial design, the sample size, etc?

Are you sure that EFT is plausible, credible or evidence-based in any way?


Me neither!

If you look up EFT, you will find that there is a surprising amount of papers on it. Most of them have one thing in common: they were published in highly dubious journals. The field does not inspire trust or competence. The authors of the study state that EFT is an easily implemented strategy that uses such techniques as awareness building, exposure, reframing of interpretation, and systematic desensitization, while teaching the participant to self-stimulate protocol-identified acupoints (i.e., acupuncture points) by tapping. The effectiveness of acupuncture for treating anxiety has been well documented. Rather than using acupuncture needles, EFT relies on the manual stimulation of the acupoints. A recent meta-analysis indicated that interventions using acupoint stimulation had a moderate effect size (Hedge’s g = −0.66 95% CI [−0.99, −0.33]) in reducing symptoms. In EFT, the client stimulates the protocol-identified acupoints by tapping on them. Preliminary studies have suggested that tapping and other alternative ways of stimulating acupuncture points to be as effective as acupuncture needling. The EFT protocol and identified acupoints that were used in this study are the ones recommended for research purposes by the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology…

Wikipedia tells us that “Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a form of counseling intervention that draws on various theories of alternative medicine including acupuncture, neuro-linguistic programming, energy medicine, and Thought Field Therapy (TFT). It is best known through Gary Craig’s EFT Handbook, published in the late 1990s, and related books and workshops by a variety of teachers. EFT and similar techniques are often discussed under the umbrella term “energy psychology”. Advocates claim that the technique may be used to treat a wide variety of physical and psychological disorders, and as a simple form of self-administered therapy.[1] The Skeptical Inquirer describes the foundations of EFT as “a hodgepodge of concepts derived from a variety of sources, [primarily] the ancient Chinese philosophy of chi, which is thought to be the ‘life force’ that flows throughout the body.” The existence of this life force is “not empirically supported”.[2] EFT has no benefit as a therapy beyond the placebo effect or any known-effective psychological techniques that may be provided in addition to the purported “energy” technique.[3] It is generally characterized as pseudoscience and it has not garnered significant support in clinical psychology.”

A recent systematic review of EFT concluded that “there were too few data available comparing EFT to standard-of-care treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and further research is needed to establish the relative efficacy of EFT to established protocols.”

Notwithstanding these and many other verdicts on EFT, we now are asked to agree with the new study that EFT IS EFFICACIOUS.

Is this a joke?

They want us to believe this on the basis of  a PILOT STUDY? Such studies are not even supposed to test efficacy! (Yet the authors of the trial state that this study was designed to meet the American Psychological Association (APA) Division 12 quality control criteria and the Consolidated Standards for Reporting Trials (CONSORT) criteria. I have to admit, they could have fooled me!)

No, it is not a joke, it is yet another nonsense from the ‘The Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ which, in my view, should henceforth be called THE JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE FACTS (JAF).

We have discussed the risks of (chiropractic) spinal manipulation more often than I care to remember. The reason for this is simple: it is an important subject; making sure that as many consumers know about it will save lives, I am sure. Therefore, any new paper on the subject is likely to be reported on this blog.

Objective of this review was to identify characteristics of 1) patients, 2) practitioners, 3) treatment process and 4) adverse events (AE) occurring after cervical spinal manipulation (CSM) or cervical mobilization. Systematic searches were performed in 6 electronic databases. Of the initial 1043 studies, 144 studies were included.

They reported 227 cases. 117 cases described male patients with a mean age of 45 (SD 12) and a mean age of 39 (SD 11) for females. Most patients were treated by chiropractors (66%) followed by non-clinicians (5%), osteopaths (5%), physiotherapists (3%) and other medical professions. Manipulation was reported in 95% of the cases (mobilisations only in 1.7%), and neck pain was the most frequent indication.

Cervical arterial dissection (CAD) was reported in 57% of the cases and 46% had immediate onset symptoms; in 2% onset of symptoms took for more than two weeks. Other complications were disc rupture, spinal cord swelling and thrombus. The most frequently reported symptoms included disturbance of voluntary control of movement, pain, paresis and visual disturbances.

In most of the reports, patient characteristics were described poorly. No clear patient profile, related to the risk of AE after CSM, could be extracted. However, women seem more at risk for CAD.

The authors concluded that there seems to be under-reporting of cases. Further research should focus on a more uniform and complete registration of AE using standardized terminology.

I do not want to repeat what I have stated in previous posts on this subject. So,let me just ask this simple question: IF THERE WERE A DRUG MARKTED FOR NECK PAIN BUT NOT SUPPORTED BY GOOD EVIDENCE FOR EFFICACY, DO YOU THINK IT WOULD BE ON THE MARKET AFTER 227 CASES OF SEVERE ADVERSE EFFECTS HAD BEEN DESCRIBED?

I think the answer is NO!

If we then consider the huge degree of under-reporting in this area which might bring the true figure up by one or even two dimensions, we must ask: WHY IS CERVICAL MANIPULATION STILL USED?

‘The use of a harmless alternative therapy is not necessarily wrong. Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it can help many patients. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject such therapies simply because they are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence’.

How often have I heard this notion in one or another form?

I hear such words almost every day.

Arguments along these lines are difficult to counter. Any attempt to do so is likely to make us look blinkered, high-handed and less than compassionate.

Yet we all – well almost all – know that the notion is wrong. Not only that, it can be dangerous.

I will try to explain this with a concrete example of a patient employing a harmless alternative remedy with great success… until… well, you’ll see.

The patient is a married women with two kids. She is well known to her doctor because she has suffered from a range of symptoms for years, and the doctor – despite extensive tests – could never find anything really wrong with her. He knows about his patient’s significant psychological problems and has, on occasion, been tempted to prescribe tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Before he does so, however, he tells her to try Rescue Remedies@ (homeopathically diluted placebos from the range of Bach Flower Remedies). The patient is generally ‘alternatively inclined’, seems delighted with this suggestion and only too keen to give it a try.

After a couple of weeks, she reports that the Rescue Remedies (RR) are helping her. She says she can cope much better with stressful situations and has less severe and less frequent headaches or other symptoms. As she embarks on a long period of taking RR more or less regularly, she becomes convinced that the RR are highly effective and uses them whenever needed with apparent success. This goes on for months, and everyone is happy: the patient feels she has finally found a ‘medication that works’, and the doctor (who knows only too well that RR are placebos) is pleased that his patient is suffering less without needing real medication.

Then, a few months later, the patient notices that the RR are becoming less and less effective. Not only that, she also thinks that her headaches have changed and are becoming more intense. As she has been conditioned to believe that the RR are highly effective, she continues to take them. Her doctor too agrees and encourages her to carry on as before. But the pain gets worse and worse. When she develops other symptoms, her doctor initially tries to trivialise them, until they cannot be trivialised any longer. He eventually sends her to a specialist.

The patient has to wait a couple of weeks until an appointment can be arranged. The specialist orders a few tests which take a further two weeks. Finally, he diagnoses a malignant, possibly fast growing brain tumour. The patient has a poor prognosis but nevertheless agrees to an operation. Thereafter, she is paralysed on one side, needs 24-hour care, and dies 4 weeks post-operatively.

The surgeon is certain that, had he seen the patient several months earlier, the prognosis would have been incomparably better and her life could have been saved.

I suspect that most seasoned physicians have encountered stories which are not dissimilar. Fortunately they often do not end as tragically as this one. We tend to put them aside, and the next time the situation arises where a patient reports benefit from a bogus treatment we think: ‘Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it might help. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject this ‘feel-good factor’.

I hope my story might persuade you that this notion is not necessarily correct.

If you are unable to make your patient feel better without resorting to quackery, my advice is to become a pathologist!!!

Yes, homeopaths are incredibly fond of the notion that homeopathy has been proven to work in numerous population studies of outbreaks of infectious diseases. The argument is bound to come up in any discussion with a ‘well-informed’ homeopathy fan. Therefore, it might be worth addressing it once and for all.

This website offers a fairly good summary of what homeopaths consider to be convincing evidence. It also provides links to the original articles which is valuable for all who want to study them in full detail. I will therefore present the crucial passage here unchanged.


By the end of year 2014, there have been 19 papers published on Epidemiological studies on 7 epidemic diseases (scarlet fever, typhus fever, Cholera, Dengue, meningococcal, influenza and Leptospirosis) in 11 peer-reviewed (beyond year 1893) journals in evidence of Homeopathy including 2 Randomised Controlled Trials.

1. Samuel Hahnemann, “The Cure and prevention of scarlet fever”, Zeitschrift für Praktischen Medizin (Journal of Practical Medicine), 1801, Republished in Lesser Writings. B.Jain Publishing, New Delhi

Preventive use of homeopathy was first applied in 1799 during an epidemic of scarlet fever in Königslütter, Germany, when Dr. Hahnemann prescribed a single dose of Belladonna, as the remedy of the genus epidemicus to susceptible children in the town with more than 95% success rate. In this paper, he also specified how the Belladonna has to be potentised to 1/24,000,000 dilution. His recommended dose of Belladonna was 0.0416 nanograms to be repeated every 72 hrs. This is the first recorded nano dose of medicine used in treatment of any disease [6]. It was another 125 years before Gladys Henry and George Frederick developed a vaccine for scarlet fever in 1924.

2. Samuel Hahnemann, “Scarlet fever and Purpura miliaris, two different diseases”, Zeitschrift für Praktischen Medizin, vol. 24, part. 1, 1806

3. Samuel Hahnemann, “Observations on scarlet fever”, Allgemeine Reichanzeiger (General Reich Gazette), No. 160, Germany, 1808

4. Samuel Hahnemann, “Reply to a question about the prophylactic for scarlet fever”, Zeitschrift für Praktischen Medizin, vol. 27, part. 4, p. 152-156, 1808

5. Samuel Hahnemann, “Treatment of typhus & fever at present prevailing”, Allgemeine Reichanzeiger, No. 6, Jan. 1814.

6. Hufeland, Prophylactic powers of Belladonna against Scarlet Fever , The Lancet, 1829
The proper use of belladonna has, in most cases, prevented infection. Numerous observations have shown that, by the general use of belladonna, epidemics of scarlet fever have actually been arrested. In those few instances where the use of belladonna was insufficient to prevent infection, the disease has been invariably slight. The Prussian (German Empire) Government ordered the use of the prophylactic during all scarlet fever epidemics

7. Samuel Hahnemann, “Cure and prevention of Asiatic cholera”, Archiv für die homöopathische Heilkunst (Archives for the Homoeopathic Healing Art), Vol. 11, part 1, 1831.
Cuprum 30c once every week as preventive medicine

8. Samuel Hahnemann, “On the contagiousness of cholera”. British Homoeopathic Journal, Vol. 7, 1849

9. Samuel Hahnemann, “Appeal to Thinking Philanthropists Respecting the Mode of Propagation of the Asiatic Cholera”, 20 pages, 1831. Republished in British Homoeopathic Journal, Oct 1849.

He said, “On board ships – in those confined spaces, filled with mouldy watery vapours, the cholera-miasm finds a favourable element for its multiplication, and grows into an enormously increased brood of those excessively minute, invisible, living creatures, so inimical to human life, of which the contagious matter of the cholera most probably consists millions of those miasmatic animated beings, which, at first developed on the broad marshy banks or the tepid Ganges– on board these ships, I say, this concentrated aggravated miasm kills several of the crew …” [7].
It was another 59 years (1890) before Koch saw these organisms, and later on orthodox medicine gave them the name ‘germs’

10. Charles Woodhull Eaton, The Facts about Variolinum, Transactions of the American Institute of Homoeopathy, 1907
2806 patients were treated prophylactically with Variolinum 30 (a nosode) for prevention of smallpox in Iowa. Of the 547 patients definitely exposed, only 14 developed the disease. Efficacy rate of 97.5%

11. Taylor Smith A, Poliomyelitis and prophylaxis British Homoeopathic Journal, 1950
In 1950 during an epidemic of poliomyelitis, Dr Taylor Smith of Johannesburg, South Africa protected 82 people with homoeopathic Lathyrus sativus. Of the 82 so immunised, 12 came into direct contact with disease. None were infected.

12. Oscillococcinum 200c in the treatment of influenza during epidemic in France from 1984-1987, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (1989)
A DBRPCT, Oscillococcinum 200c taken twice daily for 5 days significantly increased the rate of cure within two days (n=487, 237 treated and 241 on placebo), absence of symptoms at 48 hours, relative risk estimate significantly favour homeopathy (p=0.048), no pain and no fever (p=0.048), recovery rate (headache, stiffness, articular pain, shivering reduction) at 48 hours better in homeopathy group (p=0.032)

13. Bernard Leary, Cholera 1854 Update, British Homoeopathic Journal, 1994
Sir William Wilde, the well-known allopathic doctor of Dublin, which in his work entitled “Austria and its Institutions”, wrote: “Upon comparing the report of the treatment of Cholera in the Homeopathic hospital testified to by two allopathic medical inspectors appointed by Government with that of the treatment of the same disease in the other hospitals of Vienna during the same period the epidemic of 1836, it appeared that while two-thirds of the cases treated by Dr. Fleischmann the physician of the Homeopathic hospital, recovered, two-thirds of those treated by the ordinary methods in the other hospitals died.”

14. Meningococcinum – its protective effect against meningococcal disease, Homeopathy Links, 2001 (2001)
A total of 65,826 people between the ages of 0–20 were immunised homeopathically to protect against meningococcal disease while 23,532 were not. Over a year period, 4 out of 65,826 protected homeopathically developed meningococcal infection. 20 out of 23,532 not protected developed meningococcal infection. Based on the infection rate in the unprotected group, 58 cases of infection could have been expected in the homeopathically protected group. Instead, there were only four cases of meningococcal infection. Statistical analysis showed that homeopathic immunisation offered 95% protection in the first six months and 91% protection over the year against meningococcal disease. [8]

15. Contribution of homeopathy to the control of an outbreak of dengue epidemic in Macaé, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2007-8 , International Journal of High Dilution Research, 2008
In a campaign ‘Homeopathy campaign against dengue’ by Brazilian Govt, “156,000 doses of homeopathic remedy were freely distributed in April and May 2007 to asymptomatic patients and 129 doses to symptomatic patients treated in outpatient clinics, according to the notion of genus epidemicus . The remedy used was a homeopathic complex against dengue containing Phosphorus 30c, Crotalus horridus 30c and Eupatorium perfoliatum 30c. The incidence of the disease in the first three months of 2008 fell 93% by comparison to the corresponding period in 2007, whereas in the rest of the State of Rio de Janeiro there was an increase of 128%.”

16. Marino R. Eupatorium perfoliatum 30c for the Dengue Epidemics in Brazil in 2007. International Journal of High Dilution Research, 2008
In May 2001, prophylactic use of Eupatorium perfoliatum 30c single dose was given during a dengue outbreak to 40% of residents in the most highly affected neighbourhood which resulted in significant decrease in dengue incidence by 81.5% (p<0.0001) when compared with those neighbourhoods that did not receive homeopathic prophylaxis.

17. Bracho et. al. Application of 200C potency of bacteria for Leptospirosis epidemic control in Cuba 2007-8 (2010)
Conducted by the Finlay Institute, a vaccines producer in Cuba gave 2.308562 million (70% of the target population above the age of 1 year) people in Cuba given two doses (1 dose=5 drops) of 200C potency of a nosode prepared from Leptospirosis bacteria, each (7-9 days apart), for protection against Leptospirosis (fever+jaundice+ inflammation in kidney+enlargement of spleen) with 84% decrease in disease incidence and only 10 reported cases. Dramatic decrease in morbidity within two weeks and zero morbidity of hospitalised patients, non-treated (8.8 millions) area saw an increase in number of cases from 309 cases in 2007 to 376 in 2008 representing a 21% increase. The cost of homeopathic immunization =1/15th of conventional vaccine.

18. Effect of individualized homoeopathic treatment in influenza like illness, Indian Journal of Research in Homeopathy (2013)
A multicenter, single blind, randomized, placebo controlled study to evaluate the effect of homoeopathic medicines in the treatment of Influenza like illness and to compare the efficacy of LM (50 millisimal) potency vis-à-vis centesimal (C) potency. In LM group (n=152), C group (n=147) or placebo (n=148) group. The study revealed the significant effect of individualized homoeopathic treatment in the patients suffering from ILI with no marked difference between LM and Centesimal groups. The medicines which were commonly prescribed were: Arsenic album, Bryonia alba, Rhus tox., Belladonna, Nux vomica, Sepia, Phosphorus, Gelsemium, Sulphur, Natrum mur. and Aconitum napellus. [9]

19. Reevaluation of the Effectiveness of Homoeoprophylaxis Against Leptospirosis in Cuba in 2007-8, Journal of Evidence-based Complementary & Alternative Medicine (2014)
The results support the previous conclusions that homoeoprophylaxis can be used to effectively immunize people against targeted infectious diseases such as leptospirosis.

[1] Iman Navab, Lives saved by Homeopathy in Epidemics and Pandemics,

[2] Reshu Agarwal, Natural History of Disease and Homeopathy at different levels of Intervention,

[3] Homoeopathy- Science of Gentle Healing, Deptt. of AYUSH, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt, of India, 2013,

[4] Conversation with David Little,

[5] Nancy Malik, Principles of Homeopathy Explained, 2015,

[6] Nancy Malik, Recent Advances in Nanoparticle Research in Homeopathy, Homeopathy 4 Everyone, Vol.12, Issue 6, 18 June 2015,

[7] Samuel Hahnemann, “Appeal to Thinking Philanthropists Respecting the Mode of Propagation of the Asiatic Cholera”, 20 pages, 1831, Translated by R E Dudgeon, M.D. in The Lesser Writings of Samuel Hahnemann, 1851, B Jain Publishers, reproduced edition, 2002, p. 758

[8] Fran Sheffield, Homeoprophylaxis: Human Records, Studies and Trials, 2014,

[9] Homoeopathy in Flu-like Illness- Factsheet, Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, Deptt. of AYUSH, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt, of India, 2015,


Whenever I read articles of this nature, I get a little embarrassed. It seems obvious to me that the authors of such reviews have done some ‘research’ and believe strongly in the correctness in what they write. It embarrasses me to see how such people, full of good will, can be so naïve, ignorant and wrong. They clearly fail to understand several crucial issues. To me. this seems like someone such as me lecturing others about car mechanics, quantum physics or kite flying. I have no idea about these subjects, and therefore it would be idiotic to lecture others about them. But homeopaths tend to be different! And this is when my embarrassment quickly turns into anger: articles like the above spread nonsense and misguide people about important issues. THEY ARE DANGEROUS! There is little room for embarrassment and plenty of room for criticism. So, let’s criticise the notions advanced above.

In my recent book, I briefly touched upon epidemics in relation to homeopathy:

Epidemics are outbreaks of disease occurring at the same time in one geographical area and affecting large number of people. In homeopathy, epidemics are important because, in its early days, they seemed to provide evidence for the notion that homeopathy is effective. The results of homeopathic treatment seemed often better than those obtained by conventional means. Today we know that this was not necessarily due to the effects of homeopathy per se, but might have been a false impression caused by bias and confounding.

This tells us the main reason why the much-treasured epidemiological evidence of homeopaths is far from compelling. The review above does not mention these caveats at all. But it is lousy also for a whole host of other reasons, for instance:

  • The text contains several errors (which I find too petty to correct here).
  • The list of studies is the result of cherry-picking the evidence.
  • It confuses what epidemiological studies are; RCTs are certainly not epidemiological studies, for instance.
  • It also omits some of the most important epidemiological studies suggesting homeopathy works.
  • It cites texts that are clearly not epidemiological studies.
  • Several studies are on prevention of illness rather than on treatment.
  • Some studies do not even employ homeopathy at all.

In the typical epidemiological case/control study, one large group of patients [A] is retrospectively compared to another group [B]. By large, I mean with a sample size of thousands of patients. In our case, group A has been treated homeopathically, while group B received the treatments available at the time. It is true that several of such reports seemed to suggest that homeopathy works. But this does by no means prove anything; the result might have been due to a range of circumstances, for instance:

  • group A might have been less ill than group B,
  • group A might have been richer and therefore better nourished,
  • group A might have benefitted from better hygiene in the homeopathic hospital,
  • group A might have received better care, e. g. hydration,
  • group B might have received treatments that made the situation not better but worse.

Because these are RETROSPECTIVE studies, there is no way to account for these and many other factors that might have influenced the outcome. This means that epidemiological studies of this nature can generate interesting results which, in turn, need testing in properly controlled studies where these confounding factors are adequately controlled for. Without such tests, they are next to worthless for recommendations regarding clinical practice.

As it happens, the above author also included two RCT in the review (these are NOT epidemiological studies, as I already mentioned). Let’s have a quick look at them.

The first RCT is flawed for a range of reasons and has been criticised many times before. Even its authors state that “the result cannot be explained given our present state of knowledge, but it calls for further rigorously designed clinical studies.” More importantly, the current Cochrane review of Oscillococcinum, the remedy used in this study, concluded: “There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum® in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness.”

The second RCT is equally flawed; for instance, its results could be due to the concomitant use of paracetamol, and it seems as though the study was not double blind. The findings of this RCT have so far not been confirmed by an independent replication.

What puzzles me most with these regularly voiced notions about the ‘epidemiological evidence’ for homeopathy is not the deplorable ineptitude of those who promote them, but it is this: do homeopaths really believe that conventional medics and scientists would ignore such evidence, if it were sound or even just encouraging? This assumes that all healthcare professionals (except homeopaths) are corrupt and cynical enough not to follow up leads with the potential to change medicine for ever. It assumes that we would supress knowledge that could save the lives of millions for the sole reason that we are against homeopathy or bribed by ‘BIG PHARMA’.

Surely, this shows more clearly than anything else how deluded homeopaths really are!!!


A new joint position statement of the Italian Society of Diabetology (SID) and of the Italian Society for the Study of Arteriosclerosis (SISA) has recently been published. In the context of this blog, it seems relevant enough for its summary to be reproduced here:

Evidence showed that LDL-cholesterol lowering is associated with a significant cardiovascular risk reduction. The initial therapeutic approach to hypercholesterolaemia includes dietary modifications but the compliance to recommendations is often inadequate. Some dietary components with potential cholesterol-lowering activity are present in small amounts in food. Therefore, in recent years the use of “nutraceuticals” (i.e., nutrients and/or bioactive compounds with potential beneficial effects on human health) has become widespread. Such substances may be added to foods and beverages, or taken as dietary supplements (liquid preparations, tablets, capsules). In the present manuscript, the cholesterol-lowering activity of some nutraceuticals (i.e. fiber, phytosterols, soy, policosanol, red yeast rice and berberine) will be discussed along with: 1) the level of evidence on the cholesterol-lowering efficacy emerging from clinical trial; 2) the possible side effects associated with their use; 3) the categories of patients who could benefit from their use.


Based on the current literature, the cholesterol-lowering effect of fiber, phytosterols and red yeast rice is consistent and supported by a good level of evidence. Over berberine, there is sufficient evidence showing significant cholesterol-lowering effects, although the results come from studies carried out almost exclusively in Asian populations. Data on the effects of soy are conflicting and, therefore, the strength of recommendation is quite low. The evidence on policosanol is inconclusive.


Although health benefits may arise from the use of nutraceuticals with cholesterol-lowering activity, their use might be also associated with possible risks and pitfalls, some of which are common to all nutraceuticals whereas others are related to specific nutraceuticals.


Many advocates of alternative medicine are highly sceptical of the value of statins. Yet, it seems clear that statins exert considerably larger effects on our lipid profile than nutraceuticals. So, why not use the treatment that is best documented and most efficacious? One answer could lie in the well-known adverse effects of statins. However, can we be sure that nutraceuticals are devoid of serious side-effects? I am not sure that we can: statins have been fully investigated, and we therefore are well-informed about their risks. Nutraceuticals, by contrast, have not been monitored in such detail, and their safety profile is therefore not as well-understood.

Other advocates of alternative medicine argue that cholesterol (I use the term simplistically without differentiating between the ‘good and bad’ cholesterol) has been hyped by the pharmaceutical industry and is, in truth, not nearly as important a risk factor as we have been led to believe. This line of thought would consequently deny the need to lower elevated cholesterol levels and therefore negate the need for cholesterol-lowering treatments. This stance may be popular, particularly in the realm of alternative medicine, but, to the best of my knowledge, it is erroneous.

Obviously, the first line treatment for people with pathological lipid profiles is the adoption of different life-styles, particularly in terms of nutrition. This may well incorporate some of the nutraceuticals mentioned above. If that strategy is unsuccessful in normalizing our blood lipids – and it often is – we should consider the more effective conventional medications; and that unquestionably includes statins.

I do not expect that everyone reading these lines will agree with me, yet, after studying the evidence, this is my honest conclusion – and NO, I am not paid or otherwise rewarded by the pharmaceutical industry or anyone else!


One of the questions I hear frequently is ‘HOW CAN I BE SURE THIS STUDY IS SOUND’? Even though I have spent much of my professional life on this issue, I am invariably struggling to provide an answer. Firstly, because a comprehensive reply must inevitably have the size of a book, perhaps even several books. And secondly, to most lay people, the reply would be intensely boring, I am afraid.

Yet many readers of this blog evidently search for some guidance – so, let me try to provide a few indicators – indicators, not more!!! – as to what might signify a good and a poor clinical trial (other types of research would need different criteria).


  • Author from a respected institution.
  • Article published in a respected journal.
  • A clear research question.
  • Full description of the methods used such that an independent researcher could repeat the study.
  • Randomisation of study participants into experimental and control groups.
  • Use of a placebo in the control group where possible.
  • Blinding of patients.
  • Blinding of investigators, including clinicians administering the treatments.
  • Clear definition of a primary outcome measure.
  • Sufficiently large sample size demonstrated with a power calculation.
  • Adequate statistical analyses.
  • Clear presentation of the data such that an independent assessor can check them.
  • Understandable write-up of the entire study.
  • A discussion that puts the study into the context of all the important previous work in this area.
  • Self-critical analysis of the study design, conduct and interpretation of the results.
  • Cautious conclusion which are strictly based on the data presented.
  • Full disclosure of ethics approval and informed consent,
  • Full disclosure of funding sources.
  • Full disclosure of conflicts of interest.
  • List of references is up-to-date and includes also studies that contradict the authors’ findings.

I told you this would be boring! Not only that, but each bullet point is far too short to make real sense, and any full explanation would be even more boring to a lay person, I am sure.

What might be a little more fun is to list features of a clinical trial that might signify a poor study. So, let’s try that.


  • published in one of the many dodgy CAM journals (or in a book, blog or similar),
  • single author,
  • authors are known to be proponents of the treatment tested,
  • author has previously published only positive studies of the therapy in question (or member of my ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’),
  • lack of plausible rationale for the study,
  • lack of plausible rationale for the therapy that is being tested,
  • stated aim of the study is ‘to demonstrate the effectiveness of…’ (clinical trials are for testing, not demonstrating effectiveness or efficacy),
  • stated aim ‘to establish the effectiveness AND SAFETY of…’ (even large trials are usually far too small for establishing the safety of an intervention),
  • text full of mistakes, e. g. spelling, grammar, etc.
  • sample size is tiny,
  • pilot study reporting anything other than the feasibility of a definitive trial,
  • methods not described in sufficient detail,
  • mismatch between aim, method, and conclusions of the study,
  • results presented only as a graph (rather than figures which others can re-calculate),
  • statistical approach inadequate or not sufficiently detailed,
  • discussion without critical input,
  • lack of disclosures of ethics, funding or conflicts of interest,
  • conclusions which are not based on the results.

The problem here (as above) is that one would need to write at least an entire chapter on each point to render it comprehensible. Without further detailed explanations, the issues raised remain rather abstract or nebulous. Another problem is that both of the above lists are, of course, far from complete; they are merely an expression of my own experience in assessing clinical trials.

Despite these caveats, I hope that those readers who are not complete novices to the critical evaluation of clinical trials might be able to use my ‘warning signals’ as a form of check list that helps them to tell the chaff from the wheat.

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