MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

clinical trial

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This new RCT was embargoed until today; so, I had to wait until I was able to publish my comments. Here are the essentials of the study:

The Swedish investigators compared the effect of two types of acupuncture versus no acupuncture in infants with colic in public child health centres (CHCs). The study was designed as a multicentre, randomised controlled, single-blind, three-armed trial (ACU-COL) comparing two styles of acupuncture with no acupuncture, as an adjunct to standard care. Among 426 infants whose parents sought help for colic and registered their child’s fussing/crying in a diary, 157 fulfilled the criteria for colic and 147 started the intervention.

Parallel to usual care, study participants visited the study CHC twice a week for 2 weeks. Thus, all infants received usual care plus 4 extra visits to a CHC, during which parents met a nurse for 20–30 min and were able to discuss their infant’s symptoms. Together these were considered to represent gold standard care. The nurse listened, and gave evidence-based advice and calming reassurance. Breastfeeding mothers were encouraged to continue breastfeeding. At each visit, the study nurse carried the infant to a separate treatment room where they were left alone with the acupuncturist for 5 min.

The acupuncturist treated the baby according to group allocation and recorded the treatment procedures and any adverse events. Disposable stainless steel 0.20×13 mm Vinco needles (Helio, Jiangsu Province, China) were used. Infants allocated to group A received standardised MA at LI4. One needle was inserted to a depth of approximately 3 mm unilaterally for 2–5 s and then withdrawn without stimulation. Infants allocated to group B received semi-standardised individualised acupuncture, mimicking clinical TCM practice. Following a manual, the acupuncturists were able to choose one point, or any combination of Sifeng, LI4 and ST36, depending on the infant’s symptoms, as reported in the diary. A maximum of five insertions were allowed per treatment. Needling at Sifeng consisted of 4 insertions, each to a depth of approximately 1 mm for 1 s. At LI4 and ST36, needles were inserted to a depth of approximately 3 mm, uni- or bilaterally. Needles could be retained for 30 seconds. De qi was not sought, therefore stimulation was similarly minimal in groups A and B. Infants in group C spent 5 min alone with the acupuncturist without receiving acupuncture.

The effect of the two types of acupuncture was similar and both were superior to gold standard care alone. Relative to baseline, there was a greater relative reduction in time spent crying and colicky crying by the second intervention week (p=0.050) and follow-up period (p=0.031), respectively, in infants receiving either type of acupuncture. More infants receiving acupuncture cried <3 hours/day, and thereby no longer fulfilled criteria for colic, in the first (p=0.040) and second (p=0.006) intervention weeks. No serious adverse events were reported.

The authors concluded that acupuncture appears to reduce crying in infants with colic safely.

Notice that the investigators are cautious and state in the abstract that “acupuncture appears to reduce crying…” Their conclusions from the actual article are, however, quite different; here they state the following:

Among those initially experiencing excessive infant crying, the majority of parents reported normal values once the infant’s crying had been evaluated in a diary and a diet free of cow’s milk had been introduced. Therefore, objective measurement of crying and exclusion of cow’s milk protein are recommended as first steps, to avoid unnecessary treatment. For those infants that continue to cry >3 hours/day, acupuncture may be an effective treatment option. The two styles of MA tested in ACU-COL had similar effects; both reduced crying in infants with colic and had no serious side effects. However, there is a need for further research to find the optimal needling locations, stimulation and treatment intervals.

Such phraseology is much more assertive and seems to assume acupuncture caused specific therapeutic effects. Yet, I think, this assumption is not warranted.

In fact, I believe, the study shows almost the opposite of what the authors conclude. Both minimal and TCM acupuncture seemed to reduce the symptoms of colic compared to no acupuncture at all. I think, this confirms previous research showing that acupuncture is a ‘theatrical placebo’. The study was designed without an adequate placebo group. It would have been easy to use some form of sham acupuncture in the control group. Why did the authors not do that? Heaven knows, but one might speculate that they were aiming for a positive result – and what better way to ensure it than with a ‘no treatment’ control group?

There are, of course, numerous other flaws. For instance, Prof David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London, criticised the study because of its lousy statistics:

START OF QUOTE

“It is truly astonishing that, in the 21st century, the BMJ still publishes a journal devoted to a form of pre-scientific medicine which after more than 3000 trials has still not been able to produce convincing evidence of efficacy1. Like most forms of alternative medicine, acupuncture has been advocated for a vast range of problems, and there is little evidence that it works for any of them. Colic has not been prominent in these claims. What parent would think that sticking needles into their baby would stop it crying? The idea sounds bizarre. It is. This paper certainly doesn’t show that it works.

“The statistical analysis in the paper is incompetent. This should have been detected by the referees, but wasn’t.  For a start, the opening statement, ‘A two-sided P value ≤0.05 was considered statistically significant’ is simply unacceptable in the light of all recent work about reproducibility.  Still worse, Table 1 uses the description ‘statistical tendency towards significance (p=0.051–0.1)’.

“Worst of all, Table 1 reports 24 different P values, of which three are (just) below 0.05. Yet no correction has been used for multiple comparisons. This is very bad practice. It’s highly unlikely that, if the proper correction had been done, any of the results would have given a type 1 error rate below 5%.

“Even were it not for this, most of the ‘significant’ P values are marginal (only slightly less than 0.05).  It is now well known that the type 1 error rate gives an optimistic view. What matters is the false positive rate – the chance that a ‘significant’ result is a false positive.  A p-value close to 0.05 implies that there is at least a 30% chance that they are false positives.  If one thought, a priori, that the chance of colic being cured by sticking needles into a baby was less than 50%, the false positive rate could easily be greater than 80%2.  It is now recognised that this misinterpretation of p-values is a major contributor to the crisis of reproducibility.

“Other problems concern the power calculation.  A priori calculations of power are well-known to be overoptimistic, because small trials usually overestimate the effect size.  In this case the initial estimated sample size was not attained, and a rather mysterious recalculation of power was used.

“Another small problem: the discussion points out that ‘the majority of infants in this cohort did not have colic’.

“The nature of the control group is not very clear. An appropriate control might have been to cuddle the baby – this was used in a study in which another implausible treatment, chiropractic, was shown not to work.  This appears not to have been done.

“Lastly, p-values are reported in the text without mention of effect sizes. This is contrary to all statistical advice.

“In conclusion, the design of the trial is reasonable (apart from the control group) but the statistical analysis is appalling.  It’s very likely that there aren’t any real effects of acupuncture at all. This paper serves more to muddy the waters than to add useful information. It’s a model for the sort of mistakes that have led to the crisis in reproducibility.  The BMJ should not be publishing this sort of stuff, and the referees seem to have no understanding of statistics.”

END OF QUOTE

Despite these rather obvious – some would say fatal – flaws, the editor of ACUPUNCTURE IN MEDICINE (AIM) thought this trial to be so impressively rigorous that he issued a press-release about it. This, I think, is particularly telling, perhaps even humorous: it shows what kind of a journal AIM is, and also provides an insight into the state of acupuncture research in general.

The long and short of it is that conclusions about specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture are not permissible. We know that colicky babies respond even to minimal attention, and this trial confirms that even a little additional TLC in the form of acupuncture will generate an effect. The observed outcome is most likely unrelated to acupuncture.

If you want to scientifically investigate this question, it might be a good idea NOT to start with the following sentence: “Auricular acupuncture (AA) is effective in the treatment of preoperative anxiety”. Yet, this is exactly what the authors did in their recent publication.

The aim of this new study was to investigate whether AA can reduce exam anxiety as compared to placebo and no intervention. Forty-four medical students were randomized to receive AA, placebo, or no intervention in a crossover manner. Subsequently they completed three comparable oral anatomy exams with an interval of one month between the exams/interventions.

A licensed acupuncturist with more than five years of experience with this technique applied AA at the acupuncture points MA-IC1 (Lung), MA-TF1 (ear Shenmen), MA-SC (Kidney), MA-AT1 (Subcortex) and MA-TG (Adrenal gland) bilaterally. Indwelling fixed ‘New Pyonex’ needles embedded in a skin-coloured adhesive tape were used for AA. The participants were instructed by the acupuncturist to stimulate the auricular needles for 3–5 minutes, if they felt anxious. For the placebo procedure, ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles were attached to five sites on the helix of the auricle bilaterally. ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles have the same appearance as AA needles but consist of self-adhesive tape only. In order to avoid potential physiologic effects of acupressure, the participants were not instructed to stimulate the attached ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles. AA and placebo needles were left in situ until the next day and were removed out of sight of the participants after the exam by the investigator, who was not involved in acupuncture procedure

Levels of anxiety were measured using a visual analogue scale before and after each intervention as well as before each exam. Additional measures included the State-Trait-Anxiety Inventory, duration of sleep at night, blood pressure, heart rate and the extent of participant blinding.

All included participants finished the study. Anxiety levels were reduced after AA and placebo intervention compared to baseline and the no intervention condition (p < 0.003). Moreover, AA was also better at reducing anxiety than placebo in the evening before the exam (p = 0.018). Participants were able to distinguish between AA and placebo intervention.

The authors concluded that both auricular acupuncture and placebo procedure were shown to be effective in reducing levels of exam anxiety in medical students. The superiority of verum AA over placebo AA and no intervention is considered to be due to stimulation of cranial nerves, but may have been increased in effect by insufficient participant blinding.

Here are just three of the major concerns I have about this study:

  • The trial design seems odd: a crossover study can only work well, if there is a stable baseline. This may not be the case with three consecutive exams; the anxiety experienced by students is bound to get less as time goes by. I think anyone who has passed a series of exams will confirm that there is a large degree of habituation.
  • It seems inadequate to employ just one acupuncturist; it means that the trial might end up testing not acupuncture per se but the skills of the therapist.
  • The placebo used for this study cannot possibly have fooled anyone into believing that it was real AA; volunteers were not even instructed to ‘stimulate’ the placebo devices. The difference to the ‘real thing’ must have been very clear to all involved. This means that the control for placebo-effects was woefully incomplete. In turn, this means that the observed outcomes are most likely due to residual bias.

In view of these concerns, allow me to re-phrase the authors’ conclusions:

THE RESULTS OF THIS POORLY-DESIGNED STUDY ARE DIFFICULT TO INTERPRET. MOST LIKELY THEY SHOW THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT EFFECTIVE BUT MERELY WORKS THROUGH A PLACEBO-RESPONSE.

The WDDTY is not my favourite journal – far from it. The reason for my dislike is simple: far too many of its articles are utterly misleading and a danger to public health. Take this recent one entitled ‘Paleo-type diet reversing Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis’, for instance:

START OF QUOTE
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are being reversed solely by diet—essentially a Paleo diet. The non-drug approach has been successful in 80 per cent of children who’ve been put on the special diet.

The diet—called the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD)—has been pioneered by Dr David Suskind, a gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The diet excludes grains, dairy, processed foods and sugars, other than honey, and promotes natural, nutrient-rich foods, including vegetables, fruits, meats and nuts.

Children are going into complete remission after just 12 weeks on the diet, a new study has discovered. Ten children with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—an umbrella term for Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis—were put on the diet, and eight were completely symptom-free by the end of the study. Suskind started exploring a dietary approach to IBD because he became convinced that the standard medical treatment of steroids or other medication was inadequate. “For decades, medicine has said diet doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t impact disease. Now we know that diet does have an impact, a strong impact. It works, and now there’s evidence,” he said.

END OF QUOTE

“For decades, medicine has said diet doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t impact disease”.

Really?

In this case, I must have studied an entirely different subject all these years ago at university – I had been told it was medicine but perhaps…???…!!!

It took me some time to find the original paper – they cited a wrong reference (2017 instead of 2016). But eventually I located it. Here is its abstract:

GOAL:

To determine the effect of the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD) on active inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

BACKGROUND:

IBD is a chronic idiopathic inflammatory intestinal disorder associated with fecal dysbiosis. Diet is a potential therapeutic option for IBD based on the hypothesis that changing the fecal dysbiosis could decrease intestinal inflammation.

STUDY:

Pediatric patients with mild to moderate IBD defined by pediatric Crohn’s disease activity index (PCDAI 10-45) or pediatric ulcerative colitis activity index (PUCAI 10-65) were enrolled into a prospective study of the SCD. Patients started SCD with follow-up evaluations at 2, 4, 8, and 12 weeks. PCDAI/PUCAI, laboratory studies were assessed.

RESULTS:

Twelve patients, ages 10 to 17 years, were enrolled. Mean PCDAI decreased from 28.1±8.8 to 4.6±10.3 at 12 weeks. Mean PUCAI decreased from 28.3±23.1 to 6.7±11.6 at 12 weeks. Dietary therapy was ineffective for 2 patients while 2 individuals were unable to maintain the diet. Mean C-reactive protein decreased from 24.1±22.3 to 7.1±0.4 mg/L at 12 weeks in Seattle Cohort (nL<8.0 mg/L) and decreased from 20.7±10.9 to 4.8±4.5 mg/L at 12 weeks in Atlanta Cohort (nL<4.9 mg/L). Stool microbiome analysis showed a distinctive dysbiosis for each individual in most prediet microbiomes with significant changes in microbial composition after dietary change.

CONCLUSIONS:

SCD therapy in IBD is associated with clinical and laboratory improvements as well as concomitant changes in the fecal microbiome. Further prospective studies are required to fully assess the safety and efficacy of dietary therapy in patients with IBD.

What does this mean?

The WDDTY report bears very little resemblance to the journal article (let alone with the title of their article or any other published research by David Suskind).

How come?

I cannot be sure, but I would not be surprised to hear that the latter was ‘egged up’ to make the former appear more interesting.

If that is so, WDDTY are (once again) guilty of misleading the public to the point of endangering lives of vulnerable patients.

SHAME ON EVERY OUTLET THAT SELLS WDDTY, I’d say.

Can intercessory prayer improve the symptoms of sick people?

Why should it? It’s utterly implausible!

Because the clinical evidence says so?

No, the current Cochrane review concluded that [the] findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.

Yet, not all seem to agree with this; and some even continue to investigate prayer as a medical therpy.

For this new study (published in EBCAM), the Iranian investigators randomly assigned 92 patients in 2 groups to receive either 40 mg of propranolol twice a day for 2 month (group “A”) or 40 mg of propranolol twice a day for 2 months with prayer (group “B”). At the beginning of study and 3 months after intervention, patients’ pain was measured using the visual analogue scale.

All patients who participate in present study were Muslim. At the beginning of study and before intervention, the mean score of pain in patients in groups A and B were 5.7 ± 1.6 and 6.5 ± 1.9, respectively. According to results of independent t test, mean score of pain intensity at the beginning of study were similar between patients in 2 groups (P > .05). Three month after intervention, mean score of pain intensity decreased in patients in both groups. At this time, the mean scores of pain intensity were 5.4 ± 1.1 and 4.2 ± 2.3 in patients in groups A and B, respectively. This difference between groups was statistically significant (P < .001).

figure

The above figure shows the pain score in patients before and after the intervention.

The authors concluded that the present study revealed that prayer can be used as a nonpharmacologic pain coping strategy in addition to pharmacologic intervention for this group of patients.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This study is, in fact, extraordinary – but only in the sense of being extraordinarily poor, or at least it is extraordinary in its quality of reporting. For instance, all we learn in the full text article about the two treatments applied to the patient groups is this: “The prayer group participated in an 8-week, weekly, intercessory prayer program with each session lasting 45 minutes. Pain reduction was measured at baseline and after 3 months, by registered nurses who were specialist in pain management and did not know which patients were in which groups (control or intervention), using a visual analogue scale.”

Intercessory prayer is the act of praying on behalf of others. This mans that the patients receiving prayer might have been unaware of being ‘treated’. In this case, the patients could have been adequately blinded. But this is not made clear in the article.

More importantly perhaps, the authors fail to provide any numeric results. All that we are given is the above figure. It is not possible therefore to run any type of check on the data. We are simply asked to believe what the authors have written. I for one have great difficulties in doing so. All I do believe in relation to this article is that

  • the journal EBCAM is utter trash,
  • constantly publishing rubbish is unethical and a disservice to everyone,
  • prayer does not need further research of this nature,
  • and poor studies often generate false-positive findings.

Perhaps I have a weak spot for fish oil; more likely, however, I just like positive news – and, in alternative medicine, there is not much of it. That’s why I have written about the potential benefits of fish-oil again and again and again and again.

Reduced intake of fish oil, i.e. n−3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), may be a contributing factor to the increasing prevalence of asthma and other wheezing disorders. Yet the evidence is neither clear nor strong. This study was aimed at shedding more light on the issue; specifically, it tested the effect of supplementation with n−3 LCPUFAs in pregnant women on the risk of persistent wheeze and asthma in their offspring.

The investigators randomly assigned 736 pregnant women at 24 weeks of gestation to receive 2.4 g of n−3 LCPUFA (fish oil) or placebo (olive oil) per day. Their children were followed prospectively with extensive clinical phenotyping. Neither the investigators nor the participants were aware of group assignments during follow-up for the first 3 years of the children’s lives, after which there was a 2-year follow-up period during which only the investigators were unaware of group assignments. The primary end point was persistent wheeze or asthma, and the secondary end points included lower respiratory tract infections, asthma exacerbations, eczema, and allergic sensitization.

A total of 695 children were included in the trial, and 95.5% completed the 3-year, double-blind follow-up period. The risk of persistent wheeze or asthma in the treatment group was 16.9%, versus 23.7% in the control group (hazard ratio, 0.69; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.49 to 0.97; P=0.035), corresponding to a relative reduction of 30.7%. Prespecified subgroup analyses suggested that the effect was strongest in the children of women whose blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid were in the lowest third of the trial population at randomization: 17.5% versus 34.1% (hazard ratio, 0.46; 95% CI, 0.25 to 0.83; P=0.011). Analyses of secondary end points showed that supplementation with n−3 LCPUFA was associated with a reduced risk of infections of the lower respiratory tract (31.7% vs. 39.1%; hazard ratio, 0.75; 95% CI, 0.58 to 0.98; P=0.033), but there were no statistically significant associations between supplementation and asthma exacerbations, eczema, or allergic sensitization.

The authors concluded that supplementation with n−3 LCPUFA in the third trimester of pregnancy reduced the absolute risk of persistent wheeze or asthma and infections of the lower respiratory tract in offspring by approximately 7 percentage points, or one third.

The authors must be congratulated. This trial is stunning in many ways: it was carefully designed and executed; its results are clear and important; its write-up is excellent. The research was supported by private and public research funds, all of which are listed at www.copsac.com. The Lundbeck Foundation, the Danish Ministry of Health, the Danish Council for Strategic Research, the Danish Council for Independent Research, and the Capital Region Research Foundation provided core support.

It is debatable whether the intake of fish oil falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine. In a way, it reminds me of the famous saying: what do we call alternative medicine that works? We call it medicine. It also holds an important reminder for all who make claims about the benefit of alternative therapies: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Can these findings be translated into practical advice to consumers? The NEJM discussed this question in an accompanying article in which the case of a fictional pregnant woman (Ms. Franklin) was considered. Here is what they concluded: …there is benefit and little risk associated with n−3 LCPUFA supplementation. Even though we do not know Ms. Franklin’s EPA and DHA levels, there is likely to be a benefit for her child, at little risk, cost, or inconvenience. She should start taking n−3 LCPUFA supplements.

Despite my soft spot for fish oil, I might add that, while we give advice of this nature, we nevertheless need to insist on independent replications to have certainty.

The common cold is one of the indications for which homeopathy is deemed to be effective… by homeopaths that is! Non-homeopaths are understandably critical about this claim, not least because there is no good evidence for it. But, hold on, there is a new study which might change all this.

This study was recently published in COMPLEMENTARY THERAPIES IN MEDICINE which is supposed to be one of the better journals in this area. According to its authors, it was conducted “to determine if a homeopathic syrup was effective in treating cold symptoms in preschool children.” Children diagnosed with an upper respiratory tract infection were randomized to receive a commercial homeopathic cold syrup containing allium cepa 6X, hepar sulf calc 12X, natrum muriaticum 6X, phosphorous 12X, pulsatilla 6X, sulphur 12X, and hydrastasis 6X or placebo. Parents administered the study medication as needed for 3 days. The primary outcome was change in symptoms one hour after each dose. Parents also assessed the severity of each of the symptoms of runny nose, cough, congestion and sneezing at baseline and twice daily for 3 days, using a 4-point rating scale. A composite cold score was calculated by combining the values for each of the four symptoms. Among 261 eligible participants, data on 957 doses of study medication in 154 children were analyzed. There was no significant difference in improvement one hour after the dose for any symptom between the two groups. Analysis of twice daily data on the severity of cold symptoms compared to baseline values found that improvements in sneezing, cough and the composite cold score were significantly greater at both the first and second assessments among those receiving the cold syrup compared to placebo recipients.

The authors concluded that the homeopathic syrup appeared to be effective in reducing the severity of cold symptoms in the first day after beginning treatment.

Where to start? There are so many problems with this study that I find it difficult to chose the most crucial ones:

  • The study had a clearly defined primary endpoint; it was not affected by the homeopathic treatment which doubtlessly makes the study a negative trial. The only correct conclusion therefore is that THE HOMEOPATHIC SYRUP FAILED TO AFFECT THE PRIMARY OUTCOME MEASURE OF THIS STUDY. THEREFORE THE TRIAL DID NOT PRODUCE ANY EVIDENCE TO ASSUME THAT THE EXPERIMENTAL TREATMENT WAS EFFICACIOUS.
  • I don’t think that many of the primary or secondary outcome measures are validated or reliable.
  • All the positive results reported in the abstract and the article relate to secondary endpoints which are purely explanatory by nature. They should, in my view, not be mentioned in the conclusions at all.
  • The fact that some results turned out to be positive can be explained by the fact that the investigators ran dozens of tests for statistical significance which means that, by simple chance, some will turn out to produce a positive result.
  • A further explanation for the seemingly positive results might be the fact disclosed in the text of the article that the children in the homeopathy group received more conventional drugs than those in the placebo group.
  • Whatever the reason for these positive results, they certainly had nothing to do with the homeopathic syrup.
  • The study was funded by the company producing the syrup and for which one of the authors was employed as a consultant. This might be an explanation for the abominably poor science. In other words, this paper is not an exercise in testing a hypothesis but one in marketing.

While I might forgive the company for trying to maximise their sales figures, I do find it harder to forgive the authors, reviewers and editors for publishing such overtly false conclusions. In my view, they are all guilty of scientific misconduct.

The boom of alternative medicine in the US – and consequently in the rest of the developed world – is intimately connected with a NHI centre now called NCCIH (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health). It was founded in the early 1990s because some politicians were bent on promoting quackery. Initially the institution had modest funding but, after more political interference, it had ample cash to pursue all sorts of activities, including sponsoring research into alternative therapies at US universities. A most interesting video summarising the history of the NCCIH can be seen here.

No other institution in the world had more funds for research into alternative medicine than the NCCIH, and it soon became the envy of alt med researchers globally. I have been invited by the NCCHI on several occasions and invariably was impressed by their apparent affluence. While we Europeans usually had to do our research on a shoe-string, our American colleagues seemed to be ‘rolling in it’.

I was often far less impressed with the research they sponsored. Not only it was invariably eye-wateringly expensive, but also its quality seemed often dismal. Sometimes, I even got the impression that research was used as a means of mainstreaming quackery for the unsuspecting American – and consequently world-wide – public.

An example of this mainstreaming is an article in JAMA published yesterday. Here is a short but telling excerpt:

Researchers led by Richard L. Nahin, PhD, MPH, lead epidemiologist at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), examined efficacy and safety evidence in 105 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted between January 1966 and March 2016. The review—geared toward primary care physicians as part of the journal’s Symposium on Pain Medicine—focused on popular complementary approaches to common pain conditions.

Unlike a typical systematic review that assigns quality values to the studies, the investigators conducted a narrative review, in which they simply looked at the number of positive and negative trials. “If there were more positives than negatives then we generally felt the approach had some value,” Nahin explained. “If there were more negatives, we generally felt the approach had less value.” Trials that were conducted outside of the United States were excluded from the review.

Based on a “preponderance” of positive vs negative trials, complementary approaches that may offer pain relief include acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Several other techniques had weaker evidence, according to the qualitative assessments, for specific pain conditions (see “Selected Complementary Health Approaches for Pain”). The treatments were generally safe, with no serious adverse events reported.

To me, this looks that NCCIH has now managed to persuade even the editors of JAMA to white-wash their dodgy science. The review referred to here is a paper we discussed some time ago on this blog. I then stated about it the following:

Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:

  • the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
  • the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
  • the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
  • the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
  • not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
  • the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
  • there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.

My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.

I find it puzzling that the ‘lead epidemiologist at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’ would publish such dubious research. Why does he do it? If you have watched the video mentioned above, you are inclined to think that it might be because of political interference.

However, I suggest another, in a way much more damming reason or contributing factor: the NCCIH has so long indulged in such poor science that even its top people have forgotten what good science looks like. I know this is a bold hypothesis; so, let me try to support it with some data.

Several years ago, my team together with several other researches have looked at the NCCIH-sponsored research systematically according to 4 different subject areas. Here are the conclusions of our articles reporting the findings:

ACUPUNCTURE

Seven RCTs had a low risk of bias. Numerous methodological shortcomings were identified. Many NCCAM-funded RCTs of acupuncture have important limitations. These findings might improve future studies of acupuncture and could be considered in the ongoing debate regarding NCCAM-funding. [Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 17(1) March 2012 15–21]

HERBAL MEDICINE

This independent assessment revealed a plethora of serious concerns related to NCCAM studies of herbal medicine. [Perfusion 2011; 24: 89-102]

ENERGY MEDICINE

In conclusion, the NCCAM-funded RCTs of energy medicine are prime examples of misguided investments into research. In our opinion, NCCAM should not be funding poor-quality studies of implausible practices. The impact of any future studies of energy medicine would be negligible or even detrimental. [Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 16(2) June 2011 106–109 ]

CHIROPRACTIC

In conclusion, our review demonstrates that several RCTs of chiropractic have been funded by the NCCAM. It raises numerous concerns in relation to these studies; in particular, it suggests that many of these studies are seriously flawed. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21207089]

I think I can rest my case and urge you to watch the video mentioned above.

This randomized, double-blind study evaluated the efficacy of a homeopathic treatment in preventing excessive weight gain during pregnancy in overweight or obese women who were suspected of having a common mental disorder. For the homeopathic group (n=62), 9 homeopathic remedies were pre-selected: (1) Pulsatilla nigricans, (2) Sepia succus, (3) Lycopodium clavatum, (4) sulphur, (5) Lachesis trigonocephalus, (6) Nux vomica, (7) Calcarea carbonica, (8) phosphorus; and (9) Conium maculatum. From those 9 drugs, one was prioritized for administration for each participant. After the first appointment, a re-selection or selection of a new, more appropriate drug occurred, using the list of preselected drugs. The dosage was 6 drops orally 2 ×/day, in the morning and at night, on 4 consecutive days each week, with an interval of 3 d between doses, up until the next appointment medical appointment. The control group (n=72) took placebos. Both groups also received a diet orientation.

Weight change during pregnancy was defined as the difference between the body mass index (BMI) at the initial evaluation and that recorded at the final evaluation, adjusted for 40 weeks of gestation. In addition, the APGAR index in the newborn  (a measure of the health of the baby) was evaluated. The mean variation between baseline BMI and BMI at week 40 of gestation was +4.95 kg/m2 in the control group and +5.05 kg/m2 in the homeopathy group. The difference between the two groups was not significant. APGAR 10 at 5 min (59.6% in the homeopathy group and 36.4% in the control group) was statistically significant (P = .016).

The authors concluded that homeopathy does not appear to prevent excessive body mass gain in pregnant women who are overweight or obese and suspected of having a common mental disorder. Homeopathy did not change the APGAR score to modified clinical attention at delivery room. However, the evidence observed at APGAR 10 at minute 5 suggests that  homeopathy had a modulating effect on the vitality of newborns, warranting further studies designed to investigate it.

I have seen many odd studies in my time, but this must be one of the oddest?

  • What is the rationale for assuming that homeopathy might affect body weight?
  • Why take pregnant women with a weight problem who were suspected of having a common mental disorder?
  • Why try to turn a clearly negative result into a finding that is (at least partly) positive?

The last point seems the most important one to me. The primary outcome measure of this study (weight gain) was clearly defined and was not affected by the therapy. Yet the authors feel it justified to add to their conclusions that homeopathy had a modulating effect on the vitality of newborns (almost certainly nothing but a chance finding).

Are they for real?

I suppose they are: they are real pseudo-scientific promoters of quackery!

Meniscus-injuries are common and there is no consensus as to how best treat them. Physiotherapists tend to advocate exercise, while surgeons tend to advise surgery.

Of course, exercise is not a typical alternative therapy but, as many alternative practitioners might disagree with this statement because they regularly recommend it to their patients, it makes sense to cover it on this blog. So, is exercise better than surgery for meniscus-problems?

The aim of this recent Norwegian study aimed to shed some light on this question. Specifically wanted to determine whether  exercise therapy is superior to arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for knee function in  patients with degenerative meniscal tears.

A total of 140 adults with degenerative medial meniscal tear verified by magnetic resonance imaging were randomised to either receiving 12 week supervised exercise therapy alone, or arthroscopic partial meniscectomy alone. Intention to treat analysis of between group difference in change in knee injury and osteoarthritis outcome score (KOOS4), defined a priori as the mean score for four of five KOOS subscale scores (pain, other symptoms, function in sport and recreation, and knee related quality of life) from baseline to two-year follow-up and change in thigh muscle strength from baseline to three months.

The results showed no clinically relevant difference between the two groups in change in KOOS4 at two years (0.9 points, 95% confidence interval −4.3 to 6.1; P=0.72). At three months, muscle strength had improved in the exercise group (P≤0.004). No serious adverse events occurred in either group during the two-year follow-up. 19% of the participants allocated to exercise therapy crossed over to surgery during the two-year follow-up, with no additional benefit.

The authors concluded that the observed difference in treatment effect was minute after two years of follow-up, and the trial’s inferential uncertainty was sufficiently small to exclude clinically relevant differences. Exercise therapy showed positive effects over surgery in improving thigh muscle strength, at least in the short-term. Our results should encourage clinicians and middle-aged patients with degenerative meniscal tear and no definitive radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis to consider supervised exercise therapy as a treatment option.

As I stated above, I mention this trial because exercise might be considered by some as an alternative therapy. The main reason for including it is, however, that it is in many ways an exemplary good study from which researchers in alternative medicine could learn.

Like so many alternative therapies, exercise is a treatment for which placebo-controlled studies are difficult, if not impossible. But that does not mean that rigorous tests of its value are impossible. The present study shows the way how it can be done.

Meaningful clinical research is no rocket science; it merely needs well-trained scientists who are willing to test the (rather than promote) their hypotheses. Sadly such individuals are as rare as gold dust in the realm of alternative medicine.

A press-release from a company based in Germany recently caught my attention. I here present only the most relevant sections from this document:

Natural remedies like medicinal mushrooms also called vitality mushrooms haven proven helpful in prevention and as a support in the therapy, of diabetes type 2. This could be shown by long-time observational studies in naturopathy, for example by MykoTroph – Institute for Medicinal Mushrooms. Medicinal mushroom Coprinus has regenerating effects on the pancreas; it also helps the sensitization of the receptors responsible for the absorption of insulin and claims to have a blood sugar lowering effect.

Medicinal mushroom Maitake has positive effects on the fat metabolism and the sensitivity of insulin receptors. Diabetes type 2 is often linked to circulation problems, vascular diseases and hypertension. Therefore, regular monitoring of the blood pressure, blood lipids, triglycerides and body weight is highly important. The intake of Maitake can help ‒ even in a preliminary stage ‒ to get a grip on these determining factors.

Within the scope of a holistic therapy of diabetes type 2 with metabolic syndrome, the combined intake of medicinal mushrooms and Nopal juice (prickly pear) can be very reasonable. Nopal juice has a lowering effect on the glycemic index of ingested food. The consequence is a slower release of carbohydrates in the intestines and is therefore favorable for a healthy level of blood sugar…

Medicinal mushrooms are available as mushroom powder capsules. According to observational studies of MykoTroph – Institute for Medicinal Mushrooms, especially mushroom powder derived from the whole mushroom has proven effective. Only if the mushroom powder is derived from the whole mushroom, the powder will contain all of the effective ingredients of medicinal mushrooms. It should also be taken care that the mushrooms are from certified organic production. For further information, please visit us on http://www.mykotroph.com
a Japanese study participants comprised 726 Japanese T2DM outpatients free of history of CVD. Life styles were analyzed using self-reported questionnaires. The relationship between dietary patterns, identified by factor analysis, and potential risk factors for CVD was investigated by linear and logistic regression analyses….The “Seaweeds, Vegetables, Soy products and Mushrooms” pattern, characterized by high consumption of seaweeds, soy products and mushrooms, was associated with lower use of diabetes medication and healthier lifestyles.

END OF QUOTE

These are claims that could be relevant to millions of diabetic patients worldwide – but are they true?

The study cited above did indeed show an association; but an association is not necessarily a causal relationship! So what evidence is there fore a causal relationship between mushroom-consumption and diabetes? The answer is: frustratingly little.

A Cochrane review concluded that “evidence from a small number of randomised controlled trials does not support the use of G lucidum [Ganoderma lucidum (also known as lingzhi or reishi)] for treatment of cardiovascular risk factors in people with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Future research into the efficacy of G lucidum should be placebo-controlled and adhere to clinical trial reporting standards.”

The authors of another Cochrane review concluded that “our review did not find sufficient evidence to justify the use of G. lucidum as a first-line treatment for cancer. It remains uncertain whether G. lucidum helps prolong long-term cancer survival. However, G. lucidum could be administered as an alternative adjunct to conventional treatment in consideration of its potential of enhancing tumour response and stimulating host immunity. G. lucidum was generally well tolerated by most participants with only a scattered number of minor adverse events. No major toxicity was observed across the studies. Although there were few reports of harmful effect of G. lucidum, the use of its extract should be judicious, especially after thorough consideration of cost-benefit and patient preference. Future studies should put emphasis on the improvement in methodological quality and further clinical research on the effect of G. lucidum on cancer long-term survival are needed. An update to this review will be performed every two years.”

A further study determined whether a supplement of Agaricus blazei Murill extract improves insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes. It was designed as a clinical randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Diabetic patients were randomly assigned to either receiving supplement of Agaricus blazei Murill (ABM) extract or placebo (cellulose) 1500 mg daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the subjects who received supplement of ABM extract (n = 29) showed significantly lower HOMA-IR index than the control group (n = 31). The plasma adiponectin concentration increased by 20% in the ABM group after 12 weeks of treatment, but decreased 20% among those taking the placebo. The authors concluded that “ABM extract improves insulin resistance among subjects with type 2 diabetes. The increase in adiponectin concentration after taking AMB extract for 12 weeks might be the mechanism that brings the beneficial effect. Studies with longer periods of follow-up should be conducted in the future.”

On the basis of all this evidence, it seems fair to conclude that mushrooms have little or no effect on diabetes.

And what about the above press-release?

Diabetes is a serious condition that can be well-controlled with diet, exercise and drugs. Many diabetics are nevertheless fed up with taking drugs throughout their entire life and would only be too happy to exchange them for ‘something natural’. Therefore patients might try mushrooms or other natural ‘cures’, if they are promoted in this way. However, this decision could prove fatal (examples of such tragedies abound).

In view of these considerations, I find such promotion irresponsible, unethical and outright dangerous.

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