MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

death

Realgar, a commonly used traditional Chinese medicine, has – according to the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – acrid, bitter, warm, and toxic characteristics and is affiliated with the Heart, Liver and Stomach meridians. It is used internally against intestinal parasites and treat sore throats, and is applied externally to treat swelling, abscesses, itching, rashes, and other skin disorders.

Chemically, it is nothing other than arsenic sulphide. Despite its very well-known toxicity, is thought by TCM-practitioners to be safe, and it has been used in TCM under the name ‘Xiong Huang’ for many centuries. TCM-practitioners advise that the typical internal dose of realgar is between 0.2 and 0.4 grams, decocted in water and taken up to two times per day. Some practitioners may recommend slightly higher doses (0.3-0.9 grams). Larger doses of realgar may be used if it is being applied topically.

Toxicologists from Taiwan report a case of fatal realgar poisoning after short-term use of a topical realgar-containing herbal medicine.

A 24-year-old man with atopic dermatitis had received 18 days of oral herbal medicine and realgar-containing herbal ointments over whole body from a TCM-practitioner. Seven days later, he started to develop loss of appetite, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, an itching rash and skin scaling. Subsequently he suffered generalized oedema, nausea, vomiting, decreased urine amount, diarrhoea, vesico-oedematous exanthemas, malodorous perspiration, fever, and shortness of breath.

He was taken to hospital on day 19 when the dyspnoea became worse. Toxic epidermal necrolysis complicated with soft tissue infection and sepsis were then diagnosed. The patient died shortly afterwards of septic shock and multiple organ failure. Post-mortem blood arsenic levels were elevated at 1225 μg/L. The analysis of the patient’s herbal remedies yielded a very high concentration of arsenic in three unlabelled realgar-containing ointments (45427, 5512, and 4229 ppm).

The authors of this report concluded that realgar-containing herbal remedy may cause severe cutaneous adverse reactions. The arsenic in realgar can be absorbed systemically from repeated application to non-intact skin and thus should not be extensively used on compromised skin.

The notion that a treatment that ‘has stood the test of time’ must be safe and effective is very wide-spread in alternative medicine. This, we often hear, applies particularly to the external use of traditional remedies – what can be wrong with putting a traditional Chinese herbal cream on the skin?? This case, like so many others, should teach us that this appeal to tradition is a classical and often dangerous fallacy. And the ‘realgar-story’ also suggests that, in TCM, the ‘learning-curve’ is very flat indeed.

Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies are often contaminated with toxic heavy metals. But the bigger danger seems to be that some of these traditional ‘medicines’ contain such toxins because, according to ‘traditional wisdom’, these constituents have curative powers. I think that, until we have compelling evidence that any of these treatments do more good than harm, we should avoid taking them.

The vexing question whether the acupuncture needle is as safe as most acupuncturists seem to believe has been raised several times before on this blog. Here is a new case-report by Japanese authors which sheds an interesting light on this issue.

A 62-year-old man was admitted to A+E complaining of dizziness and diaphoresis. He had received an acupuncture treatment in the sub-xyphoid area (lower 2 cm and left 1 cm point from the lower xyphoid process border) only about one hour ago. He had a history of cerebral infarction and atrial fibrillation, and the latter condition was treated with 2 mg warfarin per day. On admission, the acupuncture needle was still sticking in his sub-sternum.

His blood pressure was 80/50 mm Hg, and tachycardia with 110 beats/min was noted. The acupuncture-needle was duly removed, but the patient went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. Because his international normalized ratio was 1.99, 2 pints of fresh frozen plasma and 5 mg of vitamin K were administered at that stage. A transthoracic echocardiography revealed pericardial effusion with early diastolic collapse of the right ventricle. Emergency pericardiocentesis using a sub-costal approach was performed. After drainage of 500 mL of sanguineous effusion, the patient seemed to stabilize.

Two hours later, the drainage of pericardial effusion amounted to around 1000 mL, and cardiac arrest re-developed. After another resuscitation, an operation was performed under cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). A median sternotomy allowed visualization of huge hematomas over the right atrium and ventricle. After the hematomas had been evacuated, pulsating blood loss from the marginal branch of the right coronary artery was identified. The vessel had been torn into pieces, and it was ligated which stopped the bleeding. Thereafter, the patient remained hemodynamically stable. Subsequently the patient made an uneventful recovery and, eventually, he was discharged without further complications.

The authors of this case-report conclude as follows: To our best knowledge, this appears to be the first case of an acupuncture-related coronary artery injury. The important causes of this unfortunate adverse event are a lack of anatomic knowledge and an incorrect application of the procedure. It can be avoided that acupuncture leads to cardiac tamponade like most serious complications….every acupuncturist should be aware of the possible and life-threatening adverse events and be adequately trained to prevent them.

In 2011, we published a review of all cases of cardiac tamponade after acupuncture. At the time, we found a total of 26 such incidences. In 14 patients, the complications were fatal. In most reports, there was little doubt about causality. We concluded that cardiac tamponade is a serious, often fatal complication after acupuncture. As it is theoretically avoidable, acupuncturists should be trained to minimize the risk.

Acupuncture-fans will, of course, claim (as before) that it is alarmist to go on about risks of acupuncture or alternative medicine which are so minute that they are dwarfed by those of conventional health care. And I will counter (as before) that it is never the absolute risk that counts, but that it is the risk benefit balance which defines the value of any therapeutic intervention. As long as we have no solid proof that acupuncture is more than a “theatrical placebo“, even a tiny risk weighs heavily and seems unacceptable.

But the true significance of this case-report lies elsewhere, in my view: risks of this nature can and should be avoided. The only way to achieve this aim is to train and educate acupuncturists properly. At present this does not seem to be the case, particularly in Asian countries where acupuncture is most popular. It is up to the acupuncture communities across the globe to get their act together.

I happen to be convinced that safety issues related to alternative medicine are important – very important, in fact. Therefore I will continue to report on recent publications addressing them – even at the risk of irritating a few of my readers. And here is such a recent publication:

This review, a sequel to one published 10 years ago, is an evaluation of the number and the severity of adverse events (AEs) reported after acupuncture, moxibustion, and cupping between 2000 and 2011. Relevant English-language reports in 6 databases were identified and assessed by two reviewers; no Asian databases were searched and no articles were included which were in languages other than English. 117 reports of 308 AEs from 25 countries and regions were associated with acupuncture (294 cases), moxibustion (4 cases), or cupping (10 cases). Three patients died after receiving acupuncture.

A total of 239 of infections associated with acupuncture were reported in 17 countries and regions. Korea reported 162 cases, Canada 33, Hong Kong 7, Australia 8, Japan 5, Taiwan 5, UK 4, USA 6, Spain 1, Ireland 1, France 1, Malaysia 1, Croatia 1, Scotland 1, Venezuela 1, Brazil 1, and Thailand 1. Of 38 organ or tissue injuries, 13 were pneumothoraxes; 9 were central nerve system injuries; 4 were peripheral nerve injuries; 5 were heart injuries; 7 were other injuries. These cases originated from 10 countries: 10 from South Korea, 6 from the USA, 6 from Taiwan, 5 from Japan, 3 from the UK, 2 from Germany, 2 from Hong Kong, 1 from Austria, 1 from Iran, 1 from Singapore, and 1 from New Zealand.

The authors concluded “although serious AEs associated with acupuncture are rare, acupuncture practice is not risk-free. Adequate regulation can even further minimize any risk. We recommend that not only adequate training in biomedical knowledge, such as anatomy and microbiology, but also safe and clean practice guidelines are necessary requirements and should continue to be enforced in countries such as the United States where they exist, and that countries without such guidelines should consider developing them in order to minimize acupuncture AEs.”

When I last wrote about the risks of acupuncture, I discussed a Chinese paper reporting 1038 cases of serious adverse events, including 35 fatalities. I was keen to point out that, due to under-reporting, this might just be the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Subsequently, my inbox was full with hate-mail, and comments such as this one appeared on the blog: “This is tiresome old stuff, and we have to wonder what’s wrong with Ernst that he still peddles his dubious arguments.”

I suspect that I will see similar reactions to this post. It probably does not avert the anger to point out that the authors of the new article are, in fact, proponents of acupuncture. Neither will it cool the temper of acupuncture-fans to stress that the new paper completely ignored the Chinese literature as well as articles not published in English; this means that the 1038 Chinese cases (and an unknown amount published in other languages; after all, there might be a lot of published material in Japanese, Korean or other Asian languages) would need adding to the published 308 cases summarised in the new article; and this, in turn, means that the numbers provided here are not even nearly complete. And finally, my re-publishing the conclusions from my previous post is unlikely to apease many acupuncture-enthusiasts either:

True, these are almost certainly rare events – but we have no good idea how rare they are. There is no adverse event reporting scheme in acupuncture, and the published cases are surely only the tip of the ice-berg. True, most other medical treatments carry much greater risks! And true, we need to have the right perspective in all of this!

So let’s put this in a reasonable perspective: with most other treatments, we know how effective they are. We can thus estimate whether the risks outweigh the benefit, and if we find that they do, we should (and usually do) stop using them. I am not at all sure that we can perform similar assessments in the case of acupuncture.

Many cancer patients use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), mostly as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies to improve the symptoms of the disease or to alleviate the side-effects of the often harsh cancer-therapy. The hope is that this approach leads to less suffering and perhaps even longer survival – but is this really so?

In a recently published study, Korean researchers evaluated whether CAM-use influenced the survival and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) of terminal cancer patients. From July 2005 to October 2006, they prospectively studied a cohort study of 481 cancer patients. During a follow-up of 163.8 person-years, they identified 466 deceased patients. Their multivariate analyses of these data showed that, compared with non-users, CAM-users did not have better survival. Using mind-body interventions or prayer was even associated with significantly worse survival. CAM users reported significantly worse cognitive functioning and more fatigue than nonusers. In sub-group analyses, users of alternative medical treatments, prayer, vitamin supplements, mushrooms, or rice and cereal reported significantly worse HRQOL. The authors conclude that “CAM did not provide any definite survival benefit, CAM users reported clinically significant worse HRQOLs.”

Most proponents of CAM would find this result counter-intuitive and might think it is a one-off coincidental result or a fluke. But, in fact, it is not; similar data have been reported before. For instance, a Norwegian study from 2003 examined the association between CAM-use and cancer survival. Survival data were obtained with a follow-up of 8 years for 515 cancer patients. A total of 112 patients used CAM. During the follow-up period, 350 patients died. Death rates were higher in CAM-users (79%) than in those who did not use CAM (65%). The hazard ratio of death for CAM-use compared with no use was 1.30. The authors of this paper concluded that “use of CAM seems to predict a shorter survival from cancer.”

I imagine that, had the results been the opposite (i.e. showing that CAM-users live longer and have a better quality of life), most CAM-enthusiasts would not have hesitated in claiming a cause effect relationship (i.e. that the result was due to the use of alternative medicine). Critical thinkers, however, are more careful, after all, correlation is not causation! So, how can these findings be explained?

There are, of course, several possibilities, for example:

1) Some patients might use ineffective alternative therapies instead of effective cancer treatments thus shortening their life and reducing their quality of life.

2) Other patients might employ alternative treatments which cause direct harm; for this, there are numerous options; for instance, if they self-medicate St John’s Wort, they would decrease the effectiveness of many mainstream medications, including some cancer drugs.

3) Patients who elect to use alternative medicine as an adjunct to their conventional cancer treatment might, on average, be more sick than those who stay clear of alternative medicine.

The available data do not allow us to say which explanation applies. But things are rarely black or white, and I would not be surprised, if a complex combination of all three possibilities came closest to the truth.

Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.

I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?

So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).

As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?

If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.

But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?

Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:

– pointing out that some forms of alternative medicine can cause serious complications, including deaths,

– disclosing that alternative diagnostic methods are unreliable and can cause serious problems,

– demonstrating that much of the advice given by alternative practitioners can cause serious harm to the patients who follow it,

– that the advice provided in books or on the Internet can be equally dangerous,

– and that even the most innocent yet ineffective therapy becomes life-threatening, once it is used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions.

Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.

For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles  (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.

Several months ago, my co-workers and I once again re-visited the contentious issue of acupuncture’s safety. We published several articles on the topic none of which, I am afraid to say, was much appreciated by the slightly myopic world of acupuncture. The paper which created overt outrage and prompted an unprecedented amount of hate-mail was the one on deaths after acupuncture. This publication reported that around 90 fatalities associated with acupuncture had been documented in the medical literature.

The responses from acupuncturists ranged from disbelief to overt hostility. Acupuncturists the world over seemed to agree that there was something profoundly wrong with me personally and with my research; they all knew that acupuncture was entirely safe and that I was maliciously incorrect and merely out to destroy their livelihood.

So, am I alarmist or am I just doing my duty in reporting important facts? Two new articles might go some way towards answering this intriguing question.

The first is a review by Chinese acupuncturists who summarised all the adverse events published in the Chinese literature, a task which my article may have done only partially. The authors found 1038 cases of serious adverse events, including 35 fatalities. The most frequent non-fatal adverse events were syncope (468 cases), pneumothorax (307 cases), and subarachnoid hemorrhage (64 cases). To put this into context, we ought to know that the Chinese literature is hopelessly biased in favour of acupuncture. Thus the level of under-reporting can be assumed to be even larger than in English language publications.

The second new article is by a Swedish surgeon who aimed at systematically reviewing the literature specifically on vascular injuries caused by acupuncture. His literature searches found 31 such cases; the majority of these patients developed symptoms in direct connection with the acupuncture treatment. Three patients died, two from pericardial tamponade and one from an aortoduodenal fistula. There were 7 more tamponades, 8 pseudoaneurysms, two with ischemia, two with venous thrombosis, one with compartment syndrome and 7 with bleeding (5 in the central nervous system). The two patients with ischemia suffered lasting sequeleae.

The answer to the question asked above seems thus simple: the Chinese authors, the Swedish surgeon (none of whom I know personally or have collaborated with) and I are entirely correct and merely report the truth. And the truth is that acupuncture can cause severe complications through any of the following mechanisms:

1) puncturing the lungs resulting in a pneumothorax,

2) puncturing the heart causing a cardiac tamponade,

3) puncturing blood vessels causing haemorrhage,

4) injuring other vital structures in the body,

5) introducing bacteria or viruses resulting in infections.

Any of these complications can be severe and might, in dramatic cases, even lead to the death of the patient.

But we have to have the right perspective! These are extremely rare events! Most other treatments used in medicine are much much more risky! To keep banging on about such exotic events is not helpful! I can hear the acupuncture world shout in unison.

True, these are almost certainly rare events – but we have no good idea how rare they are. There is no adverse event reporting scheme in acupuncture, and the published cases are surely only the tip of the ice-berg. True, most other medical treatments carry much greater risks! And true, we need to have the right perspective in all of this!

So let’s put this in a reasonable perspective: with most other treatments, we know how effective they are. We can thus estimate whether the risks outweigh the benefit, and if we find that they do, we should (and usually do) stop using them. I am not at all sure that we can perform similar assessments in the case of acupuncture.

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