MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

clinical trial

Tai Chi, as we know it in the West, is said to promote the smooth flow of “energy” throughout the body by performing postures, slow meditative movements and controlled breathing. Tai Chi is also supposed to help increasing flexibility, suppleness, balance and coordination. According to enthusiasts, the smooth, gentle movements of Tai Chi aid relaxation and help to keep the mind calm and focused.

Tai Chi has become popular in Western countries and is being considered for a surprisingly wide range of conditions. The patient/consumer is taught to perform postures, slow meditative movements and controlled breathing. The concepts underlying Tai Chi are strange, but that does not necessarily mean that the treatment is not effective for certain illnesses or symptoms.

There has been a surprising amount of research in this area, and some studies have generated encouraging results. A recent study which is unfortunately not available electronically ( Wu, WF; Muheremu, A; Chen, CH; Liu, WG; Sun, L. Effectiveness of Tai Chi Practice for Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain on Retired Athletes: A Randomized Controlled Study. JOURNAL OF MUSCULOSKELETAL PAIN 2013, 21:1, p.37-45) tested the effectiveness of Tai Chi for chronic back pain. Specifically, the researchers wanted to determine whether regular Tai Chi practice is superior to other means of sports rehabilitation in relieving non-specific chronic low back pain [LBP] in a younger population. They randomized 320 former athletes suffering from chronic LBP into a treatment [tai chi practice] and several control groups [regular sessions with swimming, backward walking or jogging, or no such interventions]. At the beginning, middle, and end of a six-month intervention, patients from all groups completed questionnaires assessing the intensity of LBP; in addition, a physical examination was conducted.

After 3 and 6 months, no statistically significant difference in the intensity of LBP was demonstrated between the Tai Chi and swimming. However, significant differences were demonstrated between the Tai Chi and backward walking, jogging, and no exercise groups.

The authors’ concluded that “Tai chi has better efficacy than certain other sports on the treatment of non-specific chronic LBP.”

This is only the second RCT of Tai chi for back pain. The first such study consisted of 160 volunteers between ages 18 and 70 years with persistent nonspecific low back pain. The experimental group (n = 80) had 18 Tai Chi sessions over a 10-week period. The waitlist control group continued with their usual health care. Bothersomeness of symptoms was the primary outcome, and secondary outcomes included pain intensity and pain-related disability. Tai Chi reduced bothersomeness of back symptoms by 1.7 points on a 0-10 scale, reduced pain intensity by 1.3 points on a 0-10 scale, and improved self-report disability by 2.6 points on the 0-24 Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire scale. The authors of this RCT concluded that a 10-week Tai Chi program improved pain and disability outcomes and can be considered a safe and effective intervention for those experiencing long-term low back pain symptoms.

My own team have conducted their fair share of Tai Chi research. Specifically,we have published several systematic reviews of Tai Chi as an adjunctive or supportive treatment of various conditions, and the conclusions (in italics) have been mixed.

DIABETES: The existing evidence does not suggest that tai chi is an effective therapy for type 2 diabetes.

HYPERTENSION: The evidence for tai chi in reducing blood pressure in the elderly individuals is limited.

BREAST CANCER: the existing trial evidence does not show convincingly that tai chi is effective for supportive breast cancer care.

IMPROVEMENT OF AEROBIC EXCERCISE CAPACITY: the existing evidence does not suggest that regular tai chi is an effective way of increasing aerobic capacity.

PARKINSON’S DISEASE: the evidence is insufficient to suggest tai chi is an effective intervention for Parkinson’s Disease.

OSTEOPOROSIS: The evidence for tai chi in the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis is not convincing.

OSTEOARTHRITIS: there is some encouraging evidence suggesting that tai chi may be effective for pain control in patients with knee OA.

RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS: Collectively this evidence is not convincing enough to suggest that tai chi is an effective treatment for RA.

Finally, an overview over all systematic reviews of Tai Chi suggested that the only area where the evidence is convincing is the prevention of falls in the elderly.

I think, this indicates that we should not pin our hopes too high as to the therapeutic value of Tai Chi. In particular, for back pain, the evidence might be optimistically judged as encouraging, but it is by no means convincing; the effect size seems to be small and two studies are not enough to issue general recommendations. On the other hand, considering that there is so little to offer to back pain patients, I concede that this is an area that should be studied further. Meanwhile, one could argue that Tai Chi can be fun and is devoid of risks – so, why not give it a try?

Lymph oedema in the arms or legs is a frequent complication after lymph-node dissections for cancer. Treatment or prevention can be difficult, and the results  are often unsatisfactory. Consequently, the burden of suffering of cancer patients affected by this problem is immense.

Amongst several options, a little-known massage technique, called lymph-drainage (or lymphatic drainage, LD), is sometimes recommended. It consists of gentle manual movements which lightly push the lymph fluid through the lymphatic vessels that eventually enter into the blood circulation. During a session of lymph-drainage, a specially trained massage therapist lightly moves his or her hands along the lymph vessels to facilitate the lymph flow. The treatment is agreeable and relaxing, but does it really reduce the oedema?

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of RCTs evaluated the effectiveness of LD in the prevention and treatment of breast-cancer related lymph-oedema. The primary outcome for prevention was the incidence of postoperative lymph-oedema. The outcome for management of  was a reduction in oedema volume.

In total, 10 RCTs with altogether 566 patients were identified. Two studies evaluating the preventive outcome of LD found no significant difference in the incidence of lymph-oedema between the LD and standard treatments. Seven studies assessed the reduction in arm volume, and found no significant difference between the LD and standard treatments.

The authors conclusion was negative about the value of LD: The current evidence from RCTs does not support the use of LD in preventing or treating lymph-oedema. However, clinical and statistical inconsistencies between the various studies confounded our evaluation of the effect of LD on breast-cancer-related lymph-oedema.

Perhaps a brand-new clinical trial which had not been included in the above assessment would have persuaded the authors to be a little more optimistic. This study evaluated the effectiveness of LD in the prevention of lymph-oedema after treatment of breast cancer. The study-population consisted of 67 women, who had undergone surgery for breast cancer. From the second day of surgery, 33 randomly chosen women were given LD. The control group consisted of 34 women who did not receive LD. Measurements of the volumes of both arms were taken before surgery and on days 2, 7, 14, and at 3 and 6 months after surgery.

Among the women who did not have LD, a significant increase in the arm volume on the operated side was observed after 6 month. There was no statistically significant  increase in the volume of the upper limb on the operated side in women who underwent LD.

The authors conclude that regardless of the surgery type and the number of the lymph nodes removed, LD effectively prevented lymph-oedema of the arm on the operated side. Even in high risk breast cancer treatments (operation plus irradiation), LD was demonstrated to be effective against arm volume increase. Even though confirmatory studies are needed, this study demonstrates that LD administered early after operation for breast cancer should be considered for the prevention of lymph-oedema.

So, does LD reduce oedema or not? This does not seem to be such a difficult question that it should take decades to resolve! And who would doubt that it is an important one? Lymph-oedema has the potential to seriously impede the quality of life of many patients, and it can even contribute to unnecessary mortality. The fact that the few available studies are too small and too weak to generate reliable results is disappointing and shines a dim light on the supposedly patient-centred research in oncology, in my view.

The concept of LD is plausible, at least some of the findings from clinical trials are encouraging, and the problem of lymph-oedema is both prevalent and relevant. So what is stopping us from funding a large, well-designed and definitive study?

Indian homeopaths recently published a clinical trial aimed at evaluating homeopathic treatment in the management of diabetic polyneuropathy. The condition affects many diabetic patients; its symptoms include tingling, numbness, burning sensation in the feet and pain, particularly at night. The best treatment consists of adequate metabolic control of the underlying diabetes. The pain can be severe often does not respond adequately to conventional pain-killers. It is therefore obvious that any new, effective treatment would be more than welcome.

The new trial  is a prospective observational study which was carried out from October 2005 to September 2009 by the Indian Central Council for Research in Homeopathy at its five Institutes. Patients suffering diabetic polyneuropathy (DPN) were screened and enrolled in the study, if they fulfilled the inclusion and exclusion criteria. The Diabetic Distal Symmetric Polyneuropathy Symptom Score (DDSPSS), developed by the Council, served as the primary outcome measure.

A total of 15 homeopathic medicines were identified after repertorizing the nosological symptoms and signs of the disease. The appropriate constitutional medicine was selected and prescribed in the 30, 200 and 1 M potencies on an individualized basis. Patients were followed up for 12 months.

Of 336 diabetics enrolled in the study, 247 patients who attended at least three follow-up appointments and baseline nerve conduction studies were included in the analysis. A statistically significant improvement in DDSPSS total score was found at 12 months. Most objective measures did not show significant improvements. Lycopodium clavatum (n = 132), Phosphorus (n = 27) and Sulphur (n = 26) were the most frequently prescribed homeopathic remedies.

From these results, the authors concluded that: “homeopathic medicines may be effective in managing the symptoms of DPN patients.”

Does this study tell us anything worth knowing? The short answer to this question, I am afraid, is NO.

Its weaknesses are all too obvious:

1) There was no control group.

2) Patients who did not come back to the follow-up appointments – presumably because they were not satisfied – were excluded from the analyses. The average benefit reported is thus likely to be a cherry-picked false positive result.

3) The primary outcome measure was not validated.

4) The observed positive effect on subjective symptoms could be due to several factors which are entirely unrelated to the homeopathic treatments’ e.g. better metabolic control, regression towards the mean, or social desirability.

Anyone who had seen the protocol of this study would have predicted the result; I see no way that such a study does not generate an apparently positive outcome. In other words, conducting the investigation was superfluous, which means that the patients’ participation was in vain; and this, in turn, means that the trial was arguably unethical.

This might sound a bit harsh, but I am entirely serious: deeply flawed research should not happen. It is a waste of scarce resources and patients’ tolerance; crucially, it has a powerful potential to mislead us and to set back our efforts to improve health care. All of this is unethical.

The problem of research which is so poor that it crosses the line into being unethical is, of course, not confined to homeopathy. In my view, it is an important issue in much of alternative medicine and quite possibly in conventional medicine as well. Over the years, several mechanisms have been put in place to prevent or at least minimize the problem, for instance, ethic committees and peer-review. The present study shows, I think, that these mechanisms are fragile and that, sometimes, they fail altogether.

In their article, the authors of the new homeopathic study suggest that more investigations of homeopathy for diabetic polyneuropathy should be done. However, I suggest almost precisely the opposite: unethical research of this nature should be prevented, and the existing mechanisms to achieve this aim must be strengthened.

Neck pain is a common problem which is often far from easy to treat. Numerous therapies are being promoted but few are supported by good evidence. Could yoga be the solution?

The aim of a brand-new RCT was to evaluate the effectiveness of Iyengar yoga for chronic non-specific neck pain. Patients were randomly assigned to either yoga or exercise. The yoga group attended a 9-week yoga course, while the exercise group received a self-care manual on home-based exercises for neck pain. The primary outcome measure was neck pain. Secondary outcome measures included functional disability, pain at motion, health-related quality of life, cervical range of motion, proprioceptive acuity, and pressure pain threshold. Fifty-one patients participated in the study: yoga (n = 25), exercise (n = 26). At the end of the treatment phase, patients in the yoga group reported significantly less neck pain compared as well as less disability and better mental quality of life compared with the exercise group. Range of motion and proprioceptive acuity were improved and the pressure pain threshold was elevated in the yoga group.

The authors draw the following conclusion: “Yoga was more effective in relieving chronic nonspecific neck pain than a home-based exercise program. Yoga reduced neck pain intensity and disability and improved health-related quality of life. Moreover, yoga seems to influence the functional status of neck muscles, as indicated by improvement of physiological measures of neck pain.”

I’d love to agree with the authors and would be more than delighted, if an effective treatment for neck pain had been identified. Yoga is fairly safe and inexpensive; it promotes a generally healthy life-style, and is attractive to many patients; it has thus the potential to help thousands of suffering individuals. However, I fear that things might not be quite as rosy as the authors of this trial seem to believe.

The principle of an RCT essentially is that two groups of patients receive two different therapies and that any difference in outcome after the treatment phase is attributable to the therapy in question. Unfortunately, this is not the case here. One does not need to be an expert in critical thinking to realise that, in the present study, the positive outcome might be unrelated to yoga. For instance, it could be that the unsupervised home exercises were carried out wrongly and thus made the neck pain worse. In this case, the difference between the two treatment groups might not have been caused by yoga at all. A second possibility is that the yoga-group benefited not from the yoga itself but from the attention given to these patients which the exercise-group did not have. A third explanation could be that the yoga teachers were very kind to their patients, and that the patients returned their kindness by pretending to have less symptoms or exaggerating their improvements. In my view the most likely cause of the results seen in this study is a complex mixture of all the options just mentioned.

This study thus teaches us two valuable lessons: 1) whenever possible, RCTs should be designed such that a clear attribution of cause and effect is possible, once the results are on the table; 2) if cause and effect cannot be clearly defined, it is unwise to draw conclusions that are definite and have the potential to mislead the public.

A stroke is a condition where brain cells get irreversibly damaged either by a haemorrhage in the brain or by a blood clot cutting off oxygen supply. This process leaves most patients with neurological deficits such as difficulties in moving, speaking, concentrating etc. As other parts of the brain learn to take over, these problems can partly or completely resolve themselves over time, but many patients are left with permanent handicaps. Stroke-rehabilitation can minimise these problems, and there is a long-standing debate as to which measures are most effective. Acupuncture has been discussed as a method to improve the results of stroke-rehabilitation, but the evidence is hotly disputed. This is why a new study in this area is an important contribution to our existing knowledge.

The aim of this randomised trial was to test the effectiveness of acupuncture in promoting the recovery of patients with ischaemic stroke and to determine whether the outcomes of combined physiotherapy and acupuncture are superior to those with physiotherapy alone. The Chinese investigators recruited 120 patients who received one of three daily treatments: 1) acupuncture, 2) physiotherapy, 3) physiotherapy combined with acupuncture. Motor function in the limbs was measured with the Fugl-Meyer assessment (FMA); the modified Barthel index (MBI) was used to rate activities of daily living; both of these measures are validated and well-established. All evaluations were performed by assessors blinded to treatment allocation.

At baseline, FMA and MBI scores did not significantly differ among the treatment groups. Compared with baseline, on day 28 of therapy, the mean FMA scores of the physiotherapy, acupuncture, and combined treatment groups had increased by 65.6%, 57.7%, and 67.2%, respectively; on day 56, FMA scores had increased by 88.1%, 64.5%, and 88.6%, respectively. The respective MBI scores in the three groups had increased by 85.2%, 60.4%, and 63.4% at day 28 and by 108.0%, 71.2%, and 86.2% at day 56, respectively. However, FMA scores did not significantly differ between the three treatment groups on the 28th day. By the day 56, the FMA and MBI scores of the physiotherapy group were 46.1% and 33.2% greater, respectively, than those in the acupuncture group. No significant differences were seen between the combined treatment group and the other groups. The FMA subscores for the upper extremities did not show significant improvements in any group on day 56.

The authors draw the following conclusion: “Acupuncture is less effective for the outcome measures studied than is physiotherapy. Moreover, the therapeutic effect of combining acupuncture with physiotherapy was not superior to that of physiotherapy alone. A larger-scale clinical trial is necessary to confirm these finding.”

Our own study arrived at similarly disappointing conclusions: “Acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients“. Our review of all 10 sham-controlled RCTs in this area is also in line with the results of this new study: “Our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke”

I am quite sure that some acupuncture-enthusiasts will dispute this evidence. They might argue that I am too critical, the trials were not done optimally, that acupuncturists have seen plenty of good results in their clinical practice, that acupuncture is a complex intervention that does not fit into the straight jacket of an RCT, that this or that “prestigious” organisation recommends acupuncture for stroke patients, that it would be wrong not to give acupuncture a try etc. etc. I would counter that the reliable evidence available to date is sufficiently conclusive to stop claiming that acupuncture is effective and thus give false hope to severely suffering, vulnerable patients. Moreover, I would advocate using the sparse available resources to help stroke victims with treatments that demonstrably work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I must have mentioned this once or twice before: I am constantly on the look-out for new evidence which shows or suggests that some form of alternative medicine works. Today, it seems, I have been lucky.

In this randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, 200 patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were randomly allocated to receive oral therapy with 3 × 30 drops/day of an extract of Pelargonium sidoides (EPs 7630) or placebo. Both treatments were administered in addition to standardised COPD- therapies, and the treatment period lasted 24 weeks. The primary endpoint of this study was the time to the next exacerbation of COPD. Secondary endpoints were the number of such exacerbations, consumption of antibiotics, quality of life, patient satisfaction, inability to work, and the tolerability of the treatment.

The results show that the median time to exacerbation was significantly prolonged with the herbal treatment compared to placebo (57 versus 43 days). The superiority of EPs 7630 over placebo was also confirmed in secondary endpoints, e.g., fewer exacerbations, less patients with antibiotic use, improved quality of life, higher patient satisfaction, and less days of inability to work. The incidence of minor gastrointestinal adverse events was higher in the EPs 7630 group.

The authors of the study conclude that “the results demonstrate a statistically significant and clinically relevant superiority of add-on therapy with EPs 7630 over placebo and a good long-term tolerability in the treatment of moderate to severe COPD. EPs 7630 prolonged time to exacerbations and reduced exacerbation frequency and antibiotic use.”

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive and serious condition linked to smoking which makes breathing increasingly difficult. The symptoms of COPD typically include a productive cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust may contribute to COPD. The condition is a major cause of disability, and currently it is the third leading cause of death, which means that millions of people suffer from COPD.

There is no cure for COPD; the damage to the airways and lungs is not reversible. Various symptomatic treatments exist, for instance, antibiotics, bronchio-dilators, steroids and physiotherapy. Lifestyle changes can further improve the situation,  help patients to stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.

It is clear that COPD is a very serious condition, that the burden of suffering for individual patients can be immense, that therapeutic options are limited and often associated with adverse-effects. In this situation, any new effective and safe therapy would be more than welcome. Pelargonium has previously shown promise in the treatment of asthma, acute bronchitis as well as other respiratory infections. It seems generally safe but is not totally devoid of adverse-effects.

This new study gives hope to COPD-sufferers as it suggests that Pelargonium sidoides might alleviate their symptoms. The trial seems rigorous but the benefit is not huge and the treatment is not a cure of COPD. Moreover, I should point out that any new finding of this nature requires independent confirmations. I do think that the trial is an important step in the right direction, yet I feel that it is too early for issuing general recommendations.

Many cancer patients will suffer from severe, debilitating fatigue during the course of their illness. The exact cause of this common symptom is not entirely clear. Most likely it is due to a combination of the cancer and the treatments used to cure it. Managing cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is thus an important part of the palliative and supportive care of cancer patients. Acupuncture is often advocated for this purpose and many centres use it routinely. The question therefore is, does it work?

The most recent trial on this subject was aimed at assessing the effectiveness of maintenance acupuncture in the management of CRF; acupuncture or self-acupuncture/self-needling was compared with no such treatment. Breast cancer patients who previously had received acupuncture were randomized to have 4 acupuncturist-delivered weekly sessions, 4 self-administered weekly acupuncture sessions (self-needling); or no acupuncture at all. The primary outcome-measure was general fatigue, while mood, quality of life and safety served as secondary endpoints. In total, 197 patients were randomized: 65 to therapist-delivered sessions, 67 to self-acupuncture/self-needling and 65 to no further acupuncture. The results failed to demonstrate significant inter-group differences in any of the parameters evaluated. The authors concluded that “maintenance acupuncture did not yield important improvements beyond those observed after an initial clinic-based course of acupuncture“.

But this is just one single of several available studies. Acupuncture-fans might suspect me of cherry-picking a largely negative study. If we want a fair verdict, we must consider the totality of the evidence. The aim of our systematic review was therefore to critically evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture (AT) for CRF based on all the trial data available to us.

Fourteen databases were searched from their respective inception to November 2012. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of AT for the treatment of CRF were considered for inclusion. The risk of bias/methodological quality was assessed using the method suggested by the Cochrane Collaboration. Seven RCTs met the eligibility criteria. Most were small pilot studies with serious methodological flaws. Four of them showed effectiveness of AT or AT in addition to usual care (UC) over sham AT, UC, enhanced UC, or no intervention for alleviating CRF. Three RCTs failed to demonstrate an effect of AT over sham treatment.

Our conclusion had to be cautious: “Overall, the quantity and quality of RCTs included in the analysis were too low to draw meaningful conclusions. Even in the positive trials, it remained unclear whether the observed outcome was due to specific effects of AT or nonspecific effects of care. Further research is required to investigate whether AT demonstrates specific effects on CRF

There will, of course, be those who claim that no trial evidence is needed in this case; if a cancer-patient benefits from the treatment, she should have it regardless of whether it works as a placebo or has effects beyond that. I do sympathize with this attitude but should point out that there are a number of points to consider when making it:

1) Acupuncture is not risk-free.

2) There are other treatments against CRF; if we blindly advocate acupuncture, we might not offer the best option to our patients.

3) If we spend our limited resources on acupuncture, we might not afford treatments which are more effective.

4) If we are happy using acupuncture because it conveys a sizable placebo-effect, how will we make progress in finding treatments that are more effective?

It is therefore difficult to decide whether or not to recommend acupuncture for CRF. There are some arguments for both sides. Skeptics or critical thinkers or clinicians adhering to the principles of evidence-based medicine are unlikely to condone it, and some people might accuse them for cruelly  and heartlessly denying severely ill patients help which they so badly need. Personally, I fail to see what is cruel or heartless in insisting that these patients receive the treatment which demonstrably works best – and that does not seem to be acupuncture.

Reiki is a form of  healing which rests on the assumption that some form “energy” determines our health. In this context, I tend to put energy in inverted commas because it is not the energy a physicist might have in mind. It is a much more mystical entity, a form of vitality that is supposed to be essential for life and keep us going. Nobody has been able to define or quantify this “energy”, it defies scientific measurement and is biologically implausible. These circumstances render Reiki one of the least plausible therapies in the tool kit of alternative medicine.

Reiki-healers (they prefer to be called “masters”) would channel “energy” into his or her patient which, in turn, is thought to stimulate the healing process of whatever condition is being treated. In the eyes of those who believe in this sort of thing, Reiki is therefore a true panacea: it can heal everything.

The clinical evidence for or against Reiki is fairly clear – as one would expect after realising how ‘far out’ its underlying concepts are. Numerous studies are available, but most are of very poor quality. Their results tend to suggest that patients experience benefit after having Reiki but they rarely exclude the possibility that this is due to placebo or other non-specific effects. Those that are rigorous show quite clearly that Reiki is a placebo. Our own review therefore concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition… the value of Reiki remains unproven.”

Since the publication of our article, a number of new investigations have become available. In a brand-new study, for instance, the researchers wanted to explore a Reiki therapy-training program for the care-givers of paediatric patients. A series of Reiki training classes were offered by a Reiki-master. At the completion of the program, interviews were conducted to elicit participant’s feedback regarding its effectiveness.

Seventeen families agreed to participate and 65% of them attended three Reiki training sessions. They reported that Reiki had benefited their child by improving their comfort (76%), providing relaxation (88%) and pain relief (41%). All caregivers thought that becoming an active participant in their child’s care was a major gain. The authors of this investigation conclude that “a hospital-based Reiki training program for caregivers of hospitalized pediatric patients is feasible and can positively impact patients and their families. More rigorous research regarding the benefits of Reiki in the pediatric population is needed.

Trials like this one abound in the parallel world of “energy” medicine. In my view, such investigations do untold damage: they convince uncritical thinkers that “energy” healing is a rational and effective approach – so much so that even the military is beginning to use it.

The flaws in trials as the one above are too obvious to mention. Like most studies in this area, this new investigation proves nothing except the fact that poor quality research will mislead those who believe in its findings.

Some might say, so what? If a patient experiences benefit from a bogus yet harmless therapy, why not? I would strongly disagree with this increasingly popular view. Reiki and similarly bizarre forms of “energy” healing are well capable of causing harm.

Some fanatics might use these placebo-treatments as a true alternative to effective therapies. This would mean that the condition at hand remains untreated which, in a worst case scenario, might even lead to the death of patients. More important, in my view, is an entirely different risk: making people believe in mystic “energies” undermines rationality in a much more general sense. If this happens, the harm to society would be incalculable and extends far beyond health care.

My aim with this blog is to eventually cover most of the 400 or so different alternative therapies and diagnostic techniques. So far, I have focused on some of the most popular modalities; and this means, I have neglected many others. Today, it is time, I think, to discuss aromatherapy, after all, it is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine in the UK.

Aromatherapists use essential oils, and this is where the confusion starts. They are called “essential” not because humans cannot do without them, like essential nutrients, for instance; they are called “essential” because they are made of flower ESSENCES. The man who ‘discovered’ aromatherapy was a chemist who accidentally had burnt his hand and put some lavender essence on the burn. It healed very quickly, and he thus concluded that essential oils can be useful therapeutics.

Today’s aromatherapists would rarely use the pure essential oil; they dilute it in an inert carrier oil and usually apply it via a very gentle massage to the skin. They believe that specific oils have specific effects for specific conditions. As these oils contain pharmacologically active ingredients, some of these assumptions might even be correct. The question, however, is one of concentration. Do these ingredients reach the target organ in sufficient quantities? Are they absorbed through the skin at all? Does smelling them have a sufficiently large effect to produce the claimed benefit?

The ‘acid test’ for any therapeutic claim is, as always, the clinical trial. As it happens a new paper has just become available. The aim of this randomised study was to determine the effects of inhalation aromatherapy on pregnant women. Essential oils with high linalool and linalyl acetate content were selected and among these the one preferred by the participant was used. Thirteen pregnant women in week 28 of a single pregnancy were randomly assigned into an aromatherapy and a control group. The main outcome measures were several validated scores to assess mood and the heart-rate variability. The results showed significant differences in the Tension-Anxiety score and the Anger-Hostility score after aromatherapy. Heart rate variability changes indicated that the parasympathetic nerve activity increased significantly in the verum group. The authors concluded that aromatherapy inhalation was effective and suggest that more research is warranted.

I have several reasons for mentioning this study here.

1st research into aromatherapy is rare and therefore any new trial of this popular treatment might be important.

2nd aromatherapy is mostly (but not in this study) used in conjunction with a gentle, soothing massage; any outcome of such an intervention is difficult to interpret: we cannot then know whether it was the massage or the oil that produced the observed effect. The present trial is different and might allow conclusions specifically about the effects of the essential oils.

3rd the study displays several classic methodological mistakes which are common in trials of alternative medicine. By exposing them, I hope that they might become less frequent in future.

The most obvious flaw is its tiny sample size. What is an adequate size, people often ask. This question is unfortunately unanswerable. To determine the adequate sample size, it is best to conduct a pilot study or use published data to calculate the required number of patients needed for the specific trial you are planning. Any statistician will be able to help you with this.

The second equally obvious flaw relates to the fact that the results and the conclusions of this study were based on comparing the outcome measures before with those after the interventions within one intervention group. The main reason for taking the trouble of running a control group in a clinical trial is that the findings from the experimental group are compared to those of the control group. Only such inter-group comparisons can tell us whether the results were actually caused by the intervention and not by other factors such as the passage of time, a placebo-effect etc.

In the present study, the authors seem to be aware of their mistake and mention that there were no significant differences in outcomes when the two groups were compared. Yet they fail to draw the right conclusion from this fact. It means that their study demonstrated that aromatherapy inhalation had no effect on the outcomes studied.

So, what does the reliable trial evidence on aromatherapy tell us?

A clinical trial in which I was involved failed to show that it improves the mood or quality of life of cancer patients. But one swallow does not make a summer; what do systematic reviews of all available trials indicate?

The first systematic review was probably the one we published in 2000. We then located 12 randomised clinical trials: six of them had no independent replication; six related to the relaxing effects of aromatherapy combined with massage. These 6 studies collectively suggested that aromatherapy massage has a mild but short-lasting anxiolytic effect. These effects of aromatherapy are probably not strong enough for it to be considered for the treatment of anxiety. We concluded that the hypothesis that it is effective for any other indication is not supported by the findings of rigorous clinical trials.

Since then several other systematic reviews have emerged. We therefore decided to summarise their findings in an overview of all available reviews. We searched 12 electronic databases and our departmental files without restrictions of time or language. The methodological quality of all systematic reviews was evaluated independently by two authors. Of 201 potentially relevant publications, 10 met our inclusion criteria. Most of the systematic reviews were of poor methodological quality. The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia. For none of the conditions was the evidence convincing. Our conclusions therefore had to be cautious: due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.

Finally, we also investigated the safety of aromatherapy by assessing all published data regarding adverse effects. Forty two primary reports met our inclusion criteria. In total, 71 patients had experienced adverse effects after aromatherapy which ranged from mild to severe and included one fatality. The most common adverse effect was dermatitis. Lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil and ylang-ylang were the most common essential oils responsible for adverse effects. We concluded that aromatherapy has the potential to cause adverse effects some of which are serious. Their frequency remains unknown.

And what is the conclusion of all this? To me, it seems fairly straight forward: Aromatherapy is not demonstrably effective for any condition. It also is not entirely free of risks. Its risk/benefit profile is thus not positive which can only mean that it is not a useful or recommendable treatment for anybody who is ill.

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