conflict of interest
This new RCT by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia was aimed at ‘examining the effect of changing treatment timing and the use of manual, electro acupuncture on the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea’. It had four arms:
- low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
- high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
- low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
- and high frequency electro acupuncture (HF-EA).
A total of 74 women were given 12 treatments over three menstrual cycles, either once per week (LF groups) or three times in the week prior to menses (HF groups). All groups received a treatment in the first 48 hours of menses. The primary outcome was the reduction in peak menstrual pain at 12 months from trial entry.
During the treatment period and 9 month follow-up all groups showed statistically significant reductions in peak and average menstrual pain compared to baseline. However, there were no differences between groups. Health related quality of life increased significantly in 6 domains in groups having high frequency of treatment compared to two domains in low frequency groups. Manual acupuncture groups required less analgesic medication than electro-acupuncture groups. HF-MA was most effective in reducing secondary menstrual symptoms compared to both–EA groups.
The authors concluded that acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity and duration after three months of treatment and this was sustained for up to one year after trial entry. The effect of changing mode of stimulation or frequency of treatment on menstrual pain was not significant. This may be due to a lack of power. The role of acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials.
If I were not used to reading rubbish research of alternative medicine in general and acupuncture in particular, this RCT would amaze me – not so much because of its design, execution, or write-up, but primarily because of its conclusion (why, oh why, I ask myself, did PLOS ONE publish this paper?). They are, I think, utterly barmy.
Let me explain:
- “acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity” – oh no, it didn’t; at least this is not what the study proves; the fact that pain was perceived as less could be due to a host of factors, for instance regression towards the mean, or social desirability; as there was no proper control group, nobody can tell;
- the lack of difference between treatments “may be due to a lack of power”. Yes, but more likely it is due to the fact that all versions of a placebo therapy generate similar outcomes.
- “acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials”. Why? Because the authors have a quasi-religious belief in acupuncture? And if they have, why did they not design their study ‘appropriately’?
The best conclusion I can suggest for this daft trial is this: IN THIS STUDY, THE PRIMARY ENDPOINT SHOWED NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 4 TREATMENT GROUPS. THE RESULTS ARE THEREFORE FULLY COMPATIBLE WITH THE NOTION THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS A PLACEBO THERAPY.
Something along these lines would, in my view, have been honest and scientific. Sadly, in acupuncture research, we very rarely get such honest science and the ‘National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia’ has no track record of being the laudable exception to this rule.
To a significant extend, this blog has always exposed untruths in the realm of alternative medicine – not just one or two, but hundreds. Obviously, some of them are more clear-cut than others. If, for instance, someone claims that acupuncture has been proven to be effective for a given condition, this many seem like a lie or untruth to you, like a misinterpretation of the evidence to someone else, or like the truth to a third person.
But there are some statements which are demonstrably false. These are often the most irritating lies, frequently forwarded by people who should know better and who nevertheless insist on not being truthful. Below I have listed a few, randomly-chosen examples upon which I have previously commented. For clarity, I have copied the quotes in question, linked them to my original posts, named the authors in brackets, and added a brief comment by myself in bold print.
I was at Exeter when Ernst took over what was already a successful Chair in CAM. (anonymous reviewer of my book at Amazon)
Anyone can check this fairly easily, for instance, in my memoir ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’, there was no pre-existing chair at Exeter.
Ernst’s leak of the Smallwood report (also front page lead in The Times, August 2005), (Dr Peter Fisher, homeopath of the Queen)
This was painfully investigated during a 13 (!) months inquiry which found that I did not leak this report. Again you find the full details in my memoir.
As far as this statement implies that homeopathy is effective for treating intoxications, this is not only a lie but a very dangerous nonsense.
If this is to suggest that homeopathy is of proven effectiveness in treating diseases of animals, this is a lie.
Homeoprophylaxis, the homeopathic vaccine alternative, prevents disease through nosodes. (Lisa is the mastermind behind All Natural Ideas)
Homeoprophylaxis has never been proven to prevent any disease; this lie could kill millions.
There are essentially two categories of critics. The first category consists of individuals who are totally ignorant of homeopathy and just repeating propaganda they’ve been exposed to. The second category is people who know that homeopathy works, but have a vested financial interest in destroying it. (Alan Schmukler, US homeopathy)
This lie is quite funny in its transparent defamation of the truth, I think.
Homeopathy works like a vaccine. (Dr Batra, Indian homeopath)
Homeopathy does not even remotely work like a vaccine; in fact, it works like a placebo, if at all.
…UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM… (Dr Michael Dixon, GP and advisor to Prince Charles)
There has always been a sizable budget for CAM-research in the UK.
Even cancer viruses have, on record, been put into vaccinations. There is no actual vaccine for cancer. The only reason to put cancer viruses in the mix is to create more cases of cancer. In this day and age, one of the most dangerous things you can do for your health is to get vaccinated… (US homeopath)
In this short quote, there are more lies than I care to comment on. The paranoia of the anti-vaccination brigade is astounding and endangers many lives.
A lie is a statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception. In alternative medicine, we encounter so many lies that one would need to continually publish volume after volume to expose just the most harmful untruths. The danger of these lies is that some people might believe them. This could seriously harm their health. Another danger is that we might get used to them, trivialise them, or – like Trump and co – start thinking of them as ‘alternative facts’.
I will continue to do my best to prevent any of this from happening.
This recently published report provides updated clinical practice guidelines from the Society for Integrative Oncology on the use of integrative therapies for specific clinical indications during and after breast cancer treatment, including anxiety/stress, depression/mood disorders, fatigue, quality of life/physical functioning, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, lymphedema, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, pain, and sleep disturbance.
The practice guidelines are based on a systematic literature review from 1990 through 2015. The recommendations are as follows:
- Music therapy, meditation, stress management, and yoga are recommended for anxiety/stress reduction.
- Meditation, relaxation, yoga, massage, and music therapy are recommended for depression/mood disorders.
- Meditation and yoga are recommended to improve quality of life.
- Acupressure and acupuncture are recommended for reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
- Acetyl-L-carnitine is not recommended to prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy due to a possibility of harm.
- No strong evidence supports the use of ingested dietary supplements to manage breast cancer treatment-related side effects.
The authors conclude that there is a growing body of evidence supporting the use of integrative therapies, especially mind-body therapies, as effective supportive care strategies during breast cancer treatment. Many integrative practices, however, remain understudied, with insufficient evidence to be definitively recommended or avoided.
I have to admit that I am puzzled by this paper.
The first obvious point to make is that these treatments are not ‘integrative therapies’; they are alternative or complementary and I fail to see what is integrative about them.
The second point is that the positive recommendations are based on often poor-quality studies which did not control for placebo effects.
The third point is that the negative recommendations are woefully incomplete. There are many more alternative therapies for which there is no strong evidence.
The forth point is the conclusion implying that treatment supported by insufficient evidence should be avoided. I would not claim that any of the mentioned treatments is backed by SUFFICIENT evidence. Therefore, we should avoid them all, one might argue.
But these concerns are perhaps relatively trivial or far-fetched. More important is the fact that a very similar article been published in 2014. Here is the abstract:
The majority of breast cancer patients use complementary and/or integrative therapies during and beyond cancer treatment to manage symptoms, prevent toxicities, and improve quality of life. Practice guidelines are needed to inform clinicians and patients about safe and effective therapies.
Following the Institute of Medicine’s guideline development process, a systematic review identified randomized controlled trials testing the use of integrative therapies for supportive care in patients receiving breast cancer treatment. Trials were included if the majority of participants had breast cancer and/or breast cancer patient results were reported separately, and outcomes were clinically relevant. Recommendations were organized by outcome and graded based upon a modified version of the US Preventive Services Task Force grading system.
The search (January 1, 1990–December 31, 2013) identified 4900 articles, of which 203 were eligible for analysis. Meditation, yoga, and relaxation with imagery are recommended for routine use for common conditions, including anxiety and mood disorders (Grade A). Stress management, yoga, massage, music therapy, energy conservation, and meditation are recommended for stress reduction, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and quality of life (Grade B). Many interventions (n = 32) had weaker evidence of benefit (Grade C). Some interventions (n = 7) were deemed unlikely to provide any benefit (Grade D). Notably, only one intervention, acetyl-l-carnitine for the prevention of taxane-induced neuropathy, was identified as likely harmful (Grade H) as it was found to increase neuropathy. The majority of intervention/modality combinations (n = 138) did not have sufficient evidence to form specific recommendations (Grade I).
Specific integrative therapies can be recommended as evidence-based supportive care options during breast cancer treatment. Most integrative therapies require further investigation via well-designed controlled trials with meaningful outcomes.
I have harshly criticised this review on this blog in 2016. For instance, I voiced concern about the authors declaration of conflicts of interest and stated:
I know none of the authors (Heather Greenlee, Lynda G. Balneaves, Linda E. Carlson, Misha Cohen, Gary Deng, Dawn Hershman, Matthew Mumber, Jane Perlmutter, Dugald Seely, Ananda Sen, Suzanna M. Zick, Debu Tripathy) of the document personally. They made the following collective statement about their conflicts of interest: “There are no financial conflicts of interest to disclose. We note that some authors have conducted/authored some of the studies included in the review.” I am a little puzzled to hear that they have no financial conflicts of interest (do not most of them earn their living by practising integrative medicine? Yes they do! The article informs us that: “A multidisciplinary panel of experts in oncology and integrative medicine was assembled to prepare these clinical practice guidelines. Panel members have expertise in medical oncology, radiation oncology, nursing, psychology, naturopathic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, epidemiology, biostatistics, and patient advocacy.”). I also suspect they have other, potentially much stronger conflicts of interest. They belong to a group of people who seem to religiously believe in the largely nonsensical concept of integrative medicine…
The just-published update has a different statement about conflicts of interest:
DISCLOSURES: Linda E. Carlson reports book royalties from New Harbinger and the American Psychological Association. Misha R. Cohen reports royalties from Health Concerns Inc., outside the submitted work. Matthew Mumber owns stock in I Thrive. All remaining authors report no conflicts of interest.
Is this much better than the previous statement? Was the previous statement therefore false?
What do you think?
I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:
- is on alternative medicine,
- focusses on acupuncture,
- is authored by Chinese researchers,
- was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?
The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!
As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.
The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.
And what is wrong with that?
- The review is of very poor quality.
- The primary studies are even worse.
- The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
- The conclusions are misleading.
Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.
And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.
In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:
56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.
Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!
And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.
In the US, some right-wing politicians might answer this question in the affirmative, having suggested that American citizens don’t really need healthcare, if only they believed stronger in God. Here in the UK, some right-wing MPs are not that far from such an attitude, it seems.
A 2012 article in the ‘Plymouth Harald’ revealed that the Tory MP for South West Devon, Gary Streeter , has challenged the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for banning claims that ‘God can heal’. Mr Streeter was reported to have written to the ASA demanding it produce “indisputable scientific evidence” to prove that prayer does not work – otherwise they will raise the issue in Parliament, he threatened. Mr Streeter also accused the ASA of “poor judgement” after it banned a Christian group from using leaflets stating: “Need healing? God can heal today!… We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.”
The ASA said such claims were misleading and could discourage people from seeking essential medical treatment.
The letter to ASA was written on behalf of the all-party Christians in Parliament group, which Mr Streeter chairs. Here are a few quotes from this bizarre document:
“We write to express our concern at this decision and to enquire about the basis on which it has been made… It appears to cut across two thousand years of Christian tradition and the very clear teaching in the Bible. Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible. On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?… You might be interested to know that I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since. What does the ASA say about that? I would be the first to accept that prayed for people do not always get healed, but sometimes they do… It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene? … We invite your detailed response to this letter and unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.”
Mr Streeter displays, of course, a profound and embarrassing ignorance of science, healthcare and common sense:
- ‘Indisputable’ evidence that something is ineffective is usually not obtainable in science.
- In healthcare it is also not relevant, because we try to employ treatments that are proven to work and avoid those for which this is not the case.
- It is common sense that those who make a claim must also prove it to be true; those who doubt it need not prove that it is untrue.
- Chronic pain disappearing spontaneously is not uncommon.
- The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence!
Personally, I find it worrying that a man with such views sits in parliament and exerts influence over me and our country.
Systematic reviews are aimed at summarising and critically evaluating the evidence on a specific research question. They are the highest level of evidence and are more reliable than anything else we have. Therefore, they represent a most useful tool for both clinicians and researchers.
But there are, of course, exceptions. Take, for instance, this recent systematic review by researchers from the
- Texas Chiropractic College, Pasadena, the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport,
- Department of Planning, Policy and Design, University of California, Irvine,
- VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Tacoma,
- New York Chiropractic College, Seneca Falls,
- Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield,
- University of Western States, Portland.
Dr Gabriella Day is a GP in England who describes herself and her beliefs as follows: “I began training in homeopathy as it is clear that for many conditions conventional treatment options are not effective and can have unwanted side effects. It seemed to me that there must be another way to help people suffering from symptoms such as these… I believe in whole person medicine. No illness exists in isolation. The human body is immensely sophisticated and complicated and we do not understand it fully. Therefore the illness cannot be separated from the person suffering the disease. This may be as simple as stress impairing the immune system to far more complex interactions. Homeopathic treatment seeks to match the underlying disturbance in the system and stimulate the body to correct itself.”
I do not know Dr Day, but she caught my attention recently when she published an article in THE HIPPOCRATIC POST (I had never heard of this publication before!). It is, I think, sufficiently noteworthy to show you some excerpts (the references [in square brackets] were added by me, and they refer to my comments below):
START OF QUOTES
…Homeopathy can be helpful for pretty much any condition , whether as the main treatment , as a complement to a conventional treatment  to speed up the healing process , or to lessen the side-effects of a pharmacological medication . It can be helpful in the treatment of emotional problems , physical problems  and for multi-morbidity patients . I find it an invaluable tool in my GP’s toolbox and regularly see the benefits of homeopathy in the patients I treat …
There are many conditions for which I have found homeopathy to be effective … There are, however, a multitude of symptomatic treatments available to suppress symptoms, both on prescription and over-the-counter. Most symptoms experienced by patients in this context result from the body’s attempt to eliminate the infection. Our immune systems have spent thousands of years refining this response; therefore it seems counter-intuitive to suppress it .
For these types of acute conditions homeopathy can work with the body to support it . For instance, homeopathic Arsenicum album (arsenic) is a classic remedy for diarrhoea and vomiting that can be taken alongside essential oral rehydration . And in influenza I’ve found Eupatorium perfoliatum (ague or feverwort) to be very helpful if the patient is suffering with bony pain .
…Unless it is clinically imperative for a pharmacological intervention, I will always consider homeopathy first  and have successfully prescribed the homeopathic remedy Nux vomica (strychnine) for women suffering from morning sickness . Problems associated with breastfeeding such as mastitis have also responded well to the classic remedies Belladonna (deadly nightshade) and Phytolacca (pokeweed), while I have found Urtica urens (dog nettle) effective in switching off the milk supply to prevent engorgement when the mother stops breastfeeding .
…“heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this… Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients [1,3]. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help .
The beauty of homeopathy is that it combines mental and emotional symptoms with physical symptoms . When the right remedy is found it appears to stimulate the body to recognise how it is being dysfunctional and corrects this, with no suppression, just a correction of the underlying disturbance . Thus homeopathy not only eliminates unwanted symptoms , it dramatically improves a patient’s overall well-being .
…homeopathy… enables me to reduce the number of painkillers and other drugs I’m prescribing [1,3]. This is particularly true for older multi-morbidity, polypharmacy patients  who are often taking huge amounts of medication.
Contrary to what most homeopaths will tell you, I believe homeopathic treatment does have side-effects – positive side-effects!  It fosters an enhanced doctor patient relationship . The process of eliciting the relevant information to select a remedy enables me to better understand the patient’s condition and helps me to get to know them better . And the patient, seeing that the doctor is interested in the idiosyncrasies and detail of their disease, finds themselves heard and understood . In short, since training in homeopathy I enjoy my job as a GP and my relationship with patients so much more .
Dr Gabriella Day BSc, MBBS, MRCP, DCH, MRCGP, MFHom
END OF QUOTES
- statement without good evidence,
- Hahnemann was vehemently against combining homeopathy with other treatments and called clinicians who disregarded this ‘traitors’,
- statement of belief,
- wrong assumption,
- questionable ethics.
I have recently attempted to slip into the brain of lay-homeopaths and shown how illogical, misguided and wrong the arguments of such enthusiasts really are. Surely, the logic of a doctor homeopath must be better, I then thought. Once you have studied medicine, you have learnt an awful lot of things about the body, disease, therapy, etc., etc., I felt.
Judging from the above article, I might have been wrong.
David Needleman, a pharmacist at Wilkinson Chemist in Barnet, UK, has published a brilliant article explaining that complementary medicine such as homeopathy, nutrition and aromatherapy could make smaller pharmacies “more viable and competitive”, as they look to “survive” the funding cuts across England. In doing so, he made it clear that retail pharmacists are shop-keepers, not healthcare professionals, as previously assumed.
“We need to explore other ways of maintaining profitability. One of these is to enter profitable niche markets”. Mr Needleman – who is also joint principal of The School of Complementary Medicine (TSOCM) – helped set up a homeopathic dispensary in a North London pharmacy while studying for his qualification in 1987. “Within a year, the various homeopathic remedies, various other nutritional supplements and herbal medicines we stocked accounted for nearly 40% of the pharmacy’s turnover, with a considerably higher margin. This 40% turnover was the difference between bankruptcy and survival [of this pharmacy],” he added.
Mr Needleman and his colleague at TSOCM have designed a two-year “comprehensive complementary medicines” course for pharmacists and technicians, which will launch at the London School of Pharmacy in September. “It is going to cover nutrition, homeopathy, herbal medicine, flower remedies, aromatherapy and Chinese medicines and will lead to a [certificate] for pharmacists to become registered with a professional body,” Mr Needleman said. He said “it is early days” but “everyone I have spoken to has shown an interest” in the training. Mr Needleman is now looking to expand the offer to pharmacists across the country, “possibly Manchester next”.
Mr Needleman said he reacted with “sadness” to the news that some clinical commissioning groups (CCG) plan to scrap homeopathy funding. “Homeopathy has been under a lot of threat and a lot of pressure for some considerable time. It is going to disenfranchise thousands of people who can’t afford to pay. When you think that between six and 10 million people a year use complementary medicines…it is rather a large chunk of business that pharmacies are missing out on. There are only about six dedicated homeopathic pharmacies in the country, but there are a number of pharmacies that will dispense remedies and give advice. Anything that can take us away from NHS dispensing has got to be useful for the survival of community pharmacy,” he added. A full copy of Mr Needleman’s letter can be found here.
I want to personally thank Mr Needleman for this statement. It avoids all the BS pharmacists tend to unpack when asked about homeopathy or other bogus treatments they sell. I agree entirely with Needleman, no need to beat about the bush! Pharmacists who sell homeopathic remedies do so mostly to make money, they are essentially shop-keepers. I find it easier to deal with the truth – even though it may be slightly embarrassing for the profession of pharmacists – than with the excuses pharmacists usually provide when asked why they sell disproven nonsense to the unsuspecting public. I guess, I prefer a slight embarrassment to a painfully big one.
The downside of the behaviour of the shop-keepers in the pharmacist profession is, of course, that they violate their own code of ethics. But who cares about ethics? Who cares about responsibly advising patients on the best therapy for their conditions? Who cares about evidence? The aim of the game is not about niceties, it is about saving the pharmacists’ income!!!
In its ‘quick guide’ to homeopathy, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said it “does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment because there is no scientific basis for homeopathy nor any evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect”.
The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.
A recent article is a case in point, I think.
START OF QUOTE
Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.
Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”
It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK, although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.
The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.
Herbs for high blood pressure
The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.
Herbs for diabetes
The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.
Herbs for cholesterol
The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.
Herbs for heart disease
Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.
Limitations with trials
But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.
END OF QUOTE
Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.
None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.
Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!
Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.
With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.
In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.
As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:
START OF QUOTE
…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.
First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…
Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.
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Sound advice indeed.
Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!
Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.
Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
- What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
- Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’ someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
- Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.” *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
- Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.
A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:
- Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
- New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
- Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
- Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
- Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
- Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.
Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.
*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.