critical thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Lewith has died on 17 March, aged 67. He was one of the most productive researchers of alternative medicine in the UK; specifically he was interested in acupuncture. If you search this blog, you find several posts that mention him or are entirely dedicated to his work. Undeniably, my own views and research were often very much at odds with those of Lewith.

Wikipedia informs us that Lewith graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in medicine and biochemistry.  He then went on to Westminster Medical School to complete his clinical studies and began working clinically in 1974. In 1977 Lewith became a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Then, in 1980, he became a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners and, later in 1999, was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

He was a Professor of Health Research in the Department of Primary Care at the University of Southampton and a director of the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research. Lewith has obtained a significant number of institutional peer reviewed fellowships at doctoral and post-doctoral level and has been principal investigator or collaborator in research grants totally over £5 million during the last decade.

Between 1980 and 2010, Lewith was a partner at the Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine, a private practice providing complementary treatments with clinics in London and Southampton.

A tribute by the British Acupuncture Council is poignant, in my view: “George was a friend not only to all of the acupuncture profession, be it traditional, medical or physiotherapist – he was a member of all three professional bodies – but to the whole of complementary medicine. As well as being a research leader he was also politically savvy, working tirelessly up front and behind the scenes to try to bring acupuncture and CAM further into the mainstream. Nobody did more.”

I find it poignant because it hints at the many differences I (and many others) had with Lewith during the last 25 years that I knew him. George was foremost a proponent of acupuncture. His 1985 book – the first of many – advocated treating many internal diseases with acupuncture!

George did not strike me as someone who had the ability or even the ambition to use science for finding the truth and for falsifying hypotheses; in my view, he employed it to confirm his almost evangelic belief. In the pursuit of this all-important aim he did indeed spend a lot of time and energy pulling strings, including on the political level. George was undoubtedly successful but the question has to be asked to what extent this was due to his tireless work ‘behind the scenes’.

In my view, George was a typical example of someone who first and foremost was an advocate and a researcher second. During my time in Exeter, I have met numerous co-workers who had the same problem. Almost without exception, I found that it is impossible to turn such a person into a decent scientist. The advocacy of alternative medicine always got in the way of objectivity and rationality, qualities that are, of course, essential for good science.

George’s very first publication on acupuncture was a ‘letter to the editor’ published in the BMJ. In it, he announced that he is planning to conduct a trial of acupuncture and stated that “acupuncture will be compared to an equally magical placebo”. Yes, George always had the ability to make me laugh; and this is why I will miss him.

The love-affair of many nurses with complementary medicine is well-known. We have discussed it many times on this blog – see for instance here, here and here. Yet the reasons for it remain somewhat mysterious, I find. Therefore I was interested to see a new paper on the subject.

The aim of this ‘meta-synthesis‘ was to review, critically, appraise and synthesize the existing qualitative research to develop a new, more substantial interpretation of nurses’ attitudes regarding the, use of complementary therapies by patients. Fifteen articles were included in the review.

Five themes emerged from the data relating to nurses’ attitude towards complementary therapies:

  1. the strengths and weaknesses of conventional medicine;
  2. complementary therapies as a way to enhance nursing practice;
  3. patient empowerment and patient-centeredness;
  4. cultural barriers and enablers to integration;
  5. structural barriers and enablers to integration.

Nurses’ support for complementary therapies, the authors of this article claim, is not an attempt to challenge mainstream medicine but rather an endeavour to improve the quality of care available to patients. There are, however, a number of barriers to nurses’ support including institutional culture and clinical context, as well as time and knowledge limitations.

The authors concluded that some nurses promote complementary therapies as an opportunity to personalise care and practice in a humanistic way. Yet, nurses have very limited education in this field and a lack of professional frameworks to assist them. The nursing profession needs to consider how to address current deficiencies in meeting the growing use of complementary therapies by patients.

In my view, there are two most remarkable misunderstandings here:

  1. While it is undoubtedly laudable that nurses “endeavour to improve the quality of care available to patients”, it has to be said that such an endeavour does not require complementary medicine. Are they implying that with conventional medicine the quality of care cannot be improved?
  2. I fail to understand why the lack of good evidential support for most complementary therapies did not emerge as a prominent theme. Are nurses not concerned about the (lack of) evidence that underpins their actions?

Aromatherapy is popular and pleasant – but does it have real health effects? The last time I tried to find an answer to this question was in 2012. At that time, our systematic review concluded that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.” But 5 years can be a long time in research, and more up-to-date information would perhaps be helpful.

This systematic review of 2017 aimed to provide an analysis of the clinical evidence on the efficacy of aromatherapy specifically for depressive symptoms on any type of patients. The authors searched 5 databases for relevant studies Outcome measures included scales measuring depressive symptoms levels. Twelve randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were included. Aromatherapy was administered by inhalation (5 studies) or massage (7 studies). Seven RCTs showed improvement in depressive symptoms. The quality of half of the studies was low, and the administration protocols varied considerably among the studies. Different assessment tools were employed in the studies. In 6 of the RCTs, aromatherapy was compared to no intervention.

Despite these caveats, the authors concluded that aromatherapy showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms in a wide variety of subjects. Particularly, aromatherapy massage showed to have more beneficial effects than inhalation aromatherapy.

Apart from the poor English, this paper is irritating because of the almost total lack of critical input. Given that half of the trials were of poor quality (only one was given the full points on the quality scale) and many totally failed to control for placebo-effects, I think that calling aromatherapy an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms is simply not warranted. In fact, it is highly misleading and, given the fact that depression is a life-threatening condition, it seems unethical and dangerous.

Considering these facts, my conclusion remains that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition, including depression.”

On 13 March, the UK Charity Commission published the following announcement:

This consultation is about the Commission’s approach to deciding whether an organisation which uses or promotes CAM therapies is a charity. For an organisation to be charitable, its purposes must be exclusively charitable. Some purposes relate to health and to relieve the needs of the elderly and disabled.

We are seeking views on:

  • the level and nature of evidence to support CAM
  • conflicting and inconsistent evidence
  • alternative therapies and the risk of harm
  • palliative alternative therapy

Last year, lawyers wrote to the Charity Commission on behalf of the Good Thinking Society suggesting that, if the commission refused to revoke the charitable status of organisations that promote homeopathy, it could be subject to a judicial review. The commission responded by announcing their review which will be completed by 1 July 2017.

Charities must meet a “public benefit test”. This means that they must be able to provide evidence that the work they do benefits the public as a whole. Therefore the consultation will have to determine what nature of evidence is required to demonstrate that a CAM-promoting charity provides this benefit.

In a press release, the Charity Commission stated that it will consider what to do in the face of “conflicting or inconsistent” evidence of a treatment’s effectiveness, and whether it should approach “complementary” treatments, intended to work alongside conventional medicine, differently from “alternative” treatments intended to replace it. In my view, however, this distinction is problematic and often impossible. Depending on the clinical situation, almost any given alternative therapy can be used both as a complementary and as an alternative treatment. Some advocates seem to cleverly promote their therapy as complementary (because this is seen as more acceptable), but clearly employ it as an alternative. The dividing line is often far too blurred for this distinction to be practical, and I have therefore long given up making it.

John Maton, the commission’s head of charitable status, said “Our consultation is not about whether complementary and alternative therapies and medicines are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but about what level of evidence we should require when making assessments about an organisation’s charitable status.” Personally, I am not sure what this means. It sounds suspiciously soft and opens all sorts of escape routes for even the most outright quackery, I fear.

Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society said “We are pleased to see the Charity Commission making progress on their review. Too often we have seen little effective action to protect the public from charities whose very purpose is the promotion of potentially dangerous quackery. However, the real progress will come when the commission considers the clear evidence that complementary and alternative medicine organisations currently afforded charitable status often offer therapies that are completely ineffective or even potentially harm the public. We hope that this review leads to a policy to remove such misleading charities from the register.”

On this blog, I have occasionally reported about charities promoting quackery (for instance here, here and here) and pointed out that such activities cannot ever benefit the public. On the contrary, they are a danger to public health and bring many good charities into disrepute. I would therefore encourage everyone to use this unique occasion to write to the Charity Commission and make their views felt.


The notorious tendency of pharmacist to behave like shop-keepers when it comes to the sale of bogus remedies has been the subject of this blog many times before. In my view, this is an important subject, and I will therefore continue to report about it.

On the website of the AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY (AJP), we find interesting new data on Australian pharmacists’ love affair with bogus alternative medicine. The AJP recently ran a poll asking readers: “Do you stock Complementary Medicines (CMs) in your pharmacy?” The results of this little survey so far show that 54% of all participating pharmacists say they stock CMs, including homeopathic products. About a quarter (28%) of respondents stock CMs but not homeopathic products. And 9% said they “only stock evidence-based CMs”. Three percent completely refuse to stock CMs, while 2% stock them but with clear in-store labels saying that they may not work. One person stated they stock CMs but have recently decided to no longer do so.

The President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) Joe Demarte commented on these findings: “The latest survey results, showing over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics on complementary medicines, are very encouraging… However it’s disappointing that some pharmacists are still stocking homeopathy products, which are not supported by PSA’s Code of Ethics or our Position Statement on Complementary Medicines… Irrespective of the products stocked in a pharmacy, the important thing is when discussing the use of complementary medicines with consumers, pharmacists must ensure that consumers are provided with the best available information about the current evidence for efficacy, as well as information on any potential side effects, drug interactions and risks of harm… It’s important for pharmacists to provide a fair, honest and balanced view of the current evidence available on all complementary medicines,” Demarte added.

NSW pharmacist Ian Carr, who is a member of the Friends of Science in Medicine group, commented that many pharmacists may not have much choice when it comes to stocking complementary and alternative medicines. “CMs policy is not being filtered through the professional assessment of the pharmacist… It’s basically a business deal with the franchise, and as a pharmacist taking on a franchise you’ve basically got to sign those rights away about what you get to sell. Some of the chains offer basically everything that is available, no questions asked. As an independent pharmacist I am able to make my own decisions about what to stock… We’ve got a ‘de-facto’ corporatisation happening with marketing groups and franchises, and I’m concerned the government will look at this trend and ask, why are we not deregulating the industry to reflect the apparent reality of pharmacy today? We’re only playing into the hands of people who want deregulation… We should be telling people in no uncertain terms that if something is on the shelf it doesn’t mean it’s been assessed or approved by the TGA… There is no doubt that there has been a long-term relationship between the supplement industry and pharmacy. But it was also a few decades ago that researchers started applying the concept of evidence-based medicine to healthcare generally. That should have been the point where we said, ‘we’re not just going to be a conduit for your products without questioning their basis in evidence’. That’s where we lost the plot. The question now is: where do we draw that line? I’m really trying to say to my fellow pharmacists: Please let us reassess the unquestioning support of the CM industry, or we’ll all be tarred with the same brush. I and many others are concerned about – and fighting for – the reputation of the pharmacy profession.”

A BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine survey by researchers from Alfred Hospital in Melbourne found that 92% thought pharmacists should provide safety information about CMs, while 93% thought it important for pharmacists to be knowledgeable about CMs. This shows a huge divide between what is happening in Australian pharmacy on the one side and ethical demands or public opinion on the other side. What is more, there is little reason to believe that the situation in other countries is fundamentally different.

And did you notice this little gem in the comments above?  “…over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics…” – the PSA president finds this ‘VERY ENCOURAGING’.

When I saw this, I almost fell off my chair!

Does the president know that this means that 60% of his members are violating their own code of ethics?

Is that truly VERY ENCOURAGING, I ask myself.

My answer is no, this is VERY WORRYING.


A recently published study was aimed at evaluating the efficacy and safety of potentized estrogen compared to placebo in homeopathic treatment of endometriosis-associated pelvic pain (EAPP). This 24-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial included 50 women aged 18-45 years old with diagnosis of deeply infiltrating endometriosis based on magnetic resonance imaging or transvaginal ultrasound after bowel preparation, and score≥5 on a visual analogue scale (VAS: range 0 to 10) for endometriosis-associated pelvic pain. Potentized estrogen (12cH, 18cH and 24cH) or placebo was administered twice daily. The primary outcome measure was change in the severity of EAPP global and partial scores (VAS) from baseline to week 24, determined as the difference in the mean score of five modalities of chronic pelvic pain (dysmenorrhea, deep dyspareunia, non-cyclic pelvic pain, cyclic bowel pain and/or cyclic urinary pain). The secondary outcome measures were mean score difference for quality of life assessed with SF-36 Health Survey Questionnaire, depression symptoms on Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and anxiety symptoms on Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI).

The EAPP global score (VAS: range 0 to 50) decreased by 12.82 in the group treated with potentized estrogen from baseline to week 24. Group that used potentized estrogen also exhibited partial score (VAS: range 0 to 10) reduction in three EAPP modalities: dysmenorrhea (3.28;), non-cyclic pelvic pain (2.71), and cyclic bowel pain (3.40). Placebo group did not show any significant changes in EAPP global or partial scores. In addition, the potentized estrogen group showed significant improvement in three of eight SF-36 domains (bodily pain, vitality and mental health) and depression symptoms (BDI). The placebo group showed no significant improvement in this regard. These results demonstrate superiority of potentized estrogen over placebo. Few adverse events were associated with potentized estrogen.

The authors concluded that potentized estrogen (12cH, 18cH and 24cH) at a dose of 3 drops twice daily for 24 weeks was significantly more effective than placebo for reducing endometriosis-associated pelvic pain.

The study is unusual in several ways. For instance, contrary to most trials of homeopathy, its protocol had been published in ‘Homeopathy’ in August 2016. Here is the abstract:


Endometriosis is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes difficult-to-treat pelvic pain. Thus being, many patients seek help in complementary and alternative medicine, including homeopathy. The effectiveness of homeopathic treatment for endometriosis is controversial due to the lack of evidences in the literature. The aim of the present randomized controlled trial is to assess the efficacy of potentized estrogen compared to placebo in the treatment of chronic pelvic pain associated with endometriosis.


The present is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of a homeopathic medicine individualized according to program ‘New Homeopathic Medicines: use of modern drugs according to the principle of similitude’ ( Women with endometriosis, chronic pelvic pain and a set of signs and symptoms similar to the adverse events caused by estrogen were recruited at the Endometriosis Unit of Division of Clinical Gynecology, Clinical Hospital, School of Medicine, University of São Paulo (Hospital das Clínicas da Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de São Paulo – HCFMUSP). The participants were selected based on the analysis of their medical records and the application of self-report structured questionnaires. A total of 50 women meeting the eligibility criteria will be randomly allocated to receive potentized estrogen or placebo. The primary clinical outcome measure will be severity of chronic pelvic pain. Statistical analysis will be performed on the intention-to-treat and per-protocol approaches comparing the effect of the homeopathic medicine versus placebo after 24 weeks of intervention.


The present study was approved by the research ethics committee of HCFMUSP and the results are expected in 2016.


As far as I can see, this study has no major flaws (I do not have access, however, to the full article). It seems to suggest that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are efficacious. I am aware of the fact that this will be difficult to accept for many readers of this blog.

So, what should we make of this new trial?

Should we recommend homeopathic estrogen to women suffering from endometriosis? I don’t think so. On the contrary, I recommend a healthy dose of scepticism. Clinical trials can produce false results sometimes by chance or through fraud. In any case, we hardly ever rely on the findings of a single study. The sensible course of action always is to wait for an independent replication (and, of course, study the full text of the paper).


One phenomenon that can be noted more frequently than any other in alternative medicine research is that studies arrive at wrong or misleading conclusions. This is more than a little disappointing, not least because it is the conclusion of a trial that is often picked up by health writers and others who in turn mislead the public. On this blog, we must have seen hundreds of examples of this irritating phenomenon. Here is yet another one. This study, a randomized, parallel, open-label exploratory trial, evaluated and compared the effects of systemic manual acupuncture, periauricular electroacupuncture and distal electroacupuncture for treating patients with tinnitus. It included patients who suffered from idiopathic tinnitus for more than two weeks were recruited. They were divided into three groups:

  1. systemic manual acupuncture group (MA),
  2. periauricular electroacupuncture group (PE),
  3. distal electroacupuncture group (DE).

Nine acupoints (TE 17, TE21, SI19, GB2, GB8, ST36, ST37, TE3 and TE9), two periauricular acupoints (TE17 and TE21), and four distal acupoints (TE3, TE9, ST36, and ST37) were selected. The treatment sessions were performed twice weekly for a total of 8 sessions over 4 weeks. Outcome measures were the tinnitus handicap inventory (THI) score and the loud and uncomfortable visual analogue scales (VAS). Demographic and clinical characteristics of all participants were compared between the groups upon admission using one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA). One-way ANOVA was used to evaluate the THI, VAS loud, and VAS uncomfortable scores. The least significant difference test was used as a post-hoc test. In total, 39 subjects were eligible for analysis. No differences in THI and VAS loudness scores were observed between groups. The VAS uncomfortable scores decreased significantly in MA and DE compared with those in PE. Within the group, all three treatments showed some effect on THI, VAS loudness scores and VAS uncomfortable scores after treatment except DE in THI. The authors concluded that there was no statistically significant difference between systemic manual acupuncture, periauricular electroacupuncture and distal electroacupuncture in tinnitus. However, all three treatments had some effect on tinnitus within the group before and after treatment. Systemic manual acupuncture and distal electroacupuncture have some effect on VAS. Neither of the three treatments tested in this study have been previously proven to work. Therefore, it is quite simply nonsensical to compare them. Comparative studies are indicated only with therapies that have a solid evidence-base. They are called ‘superiority trials’ and require a different statistical approach as well as much larger sample sizes. In other words, this study was an unethical waste of resources from the outset. With this in mind, there is only one conclusion that fits the data: there was no statistically significant difference between the three types of acupuncture. The data are therefore in keeping with the notion that all three are placebos. Alternatively one might conclude more clearly for those who are otherwise resistant to learning a lesson: POORLY DESIGNED CLINICAL TRIALS ARE UNETHICAL AND NEVER LEND THEMSELVES TO MEANINGFUL CONCLUSIONS.

The anti-vaccination attitudes of alternative practitioners such as chiropractors, homeopaths and naturopaths are well documented and have been commented upon repeatedly here. But most of these clinicians are non-doctors; they have not been anywhere near a medical school, and one might therefore almost excuse them for their ignorance and uneducated stance towards immunisations. As many real physicians have recently taken to practicing alternative therapies under the banner of ‘integrated medicine’, one may well ask: what do these doctors think about vaccinations?

This study tried to answer the question by evaluating the attitudes and practices regarding vaccination of members of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine (ABIHM). Prospective participants were 1419 diplomats of the ABIHM. The survey assessed members’ (1) use of and confidence in the vaccination recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and of medical-specialty associations, (2) confidence in the manufacturing safety of vaccines and in manufacturer’s surveillance of adverse events, and (3) attitudes toward vaccination mandates. The questionnaire included 33 items, with 5 open-ended questions that provided a space for comments.

The survey was completed by 290 of 1419 diplomats (20%). Its findings showed a diversity of opinions in many vaccination issues. Integrative medicine physicians were less likely to administer vaccinations than physicians in traditional allopathic medicine. Among the 44% who provide vaccinations, 35% used alternative schedules regularly. Integrative medicine physicians showed a greater support of vaccination choice, were less concerned about maintaining herd immunity, and were less supportive of school, day care, and employment mandates. Toxic chemical and viral contaminants were of greater concern to a higher percentage of integrative medicine physicians. Integrative medicine physicians were also more likely to accept a connection between vaccinations and both autism and other chronic diseases. Overall, there was dissatisfaction with the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System as well as the vaccination recommendations of the CDC and their primary specialty.

The authors concluded that significant variations in the vaccination attitudes and practices of integrative medicine physicians. This survey provides benchmark data for future surveys of this growing specialty and other practitioners. It is important for public health leaders and the vaccination industry to be aware that integrative medicine physicians have vaccination attitudes and practices that differ from the guidelines of the CDC and the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices.

Now we know!

Physicians practicing integrative medicine (the 80% who did not respond to the survey were most likely even worse) not only use and promote much quackery, they also tend to endanger public health by their bizarre, irrational and irresponsible attitudes towards vaccination.

From bad to worse!

A new study published in JAMA investigated the long-term effects of acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture and being placed in a waiting-list control group for migraine prophylaxis. The trial was a 24-week randomized clinical trial (4 weeks of treatment followed by 20 weeks of follow-up). Participants were randomly assigned to 1) true acupuncture, 2) sham acupuncture, or 3) a waiting-list control group. The trial was conducted from October 2012 to September 2014 in outpatient settings at three clinical sites in China. Participants 18 to 65 years old were enrolled with migraine without aura based on the criteria of the International Headache Society, with migraine occurring 2 to 8 times per month.

Participants in the true acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups received treatment 5 days per week for 4 weeks for a total of 20 sessions. Participants in the waiting-list group did not receive acupuncture but were informed that 20 sessions of acupuncture would be provided free of charge at the end of the trial. Participants used diaries to record migraine attacks. The primary outcome was the change in the frequency of migraine attacks from baseline to week 16. Secondary outcome measures included the migraine days, average headache severity, and medication intake every 4 weeks within 24 weeks.

A total of 249 participants 18 to 65 years old were enrolled, and 245 were included in the intention-to-treat analyses. Baseline characteristics were comparable across the 3 groups. The mean (SD) change in frequency of migraine attacks differed significantly among the 3 groups at 16 weeks after randomization; the mean (SD) frequency of attacks decreased in the true acupuncture group by 3.2 (2.1), in the sham acupuncture group by 2.1 (2.5), and the waiting-list group by 1.4 (2.5); a greater reduction was observed in the true acupuncture than in the sham acupuncture group (difference of 1.1 attacks; 95% CI, 0.4-1.9; P = .002) and in the true acupuncture vs waiting-list group (difference of 1.8 attacks; 95% CI, 1.1-2.5; P < .001). Sham acupuncture was not statistically different from the waiting-list group (difference of 0.7 attacks; 95% CI, −0.1 to 1.4; P = .07).

The authors concluded that among patients with migraine without aura, true acupuncture may be associated with long-term reduction in migraine recurrence compared with sham acupuncture or assigned to a waiting list.

Note the cautious phraseology: “… acupuncture may be associated with long-term reduction …”

The authors were, of course, well advised to be so atypically cautious:

  • Comparisons to the waiting list group are meaningless for informing us about the specific effects of acupuncture, as they fail to control for placebo-effects.
  • Comparisons between real and sham acupuncture must be taken with a sizable pinch of salt, as the study was not therapist-blind and the acupuncturists may easily have influenced their patients in various ways to report the desired result (the success of patient-blinding was not reported but would have gone some way to solving this problem).
  • The effect size of the benefit is tiny and of doubtful clinical relevance.

My biggest concern, however, is the fact that the study originates from China, a country where virtually 100% of all acupuncture studies produce positive (or should that be ‘false-positive’?) findings and data fabrication has been reported to be rife. These facts do not inspire trustworthiness, in my view.

So, does acupuncture work for migraine? The current Cochrane review included 22 studies and its authors concluded that the available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long-term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking.

So, maybe acupuncture is effective. Personally, I am not convinced and certainly do not think that the new JAMA study significantly strengthened the evidence.

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