MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

“energy” healing

On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the issues around para-normal or spiritual healing practices. In one of these posts I concluded that these treatments are:

  1. utterly implausible
  2. not supported by good clinical evidence.

What follows seems as simple as it is indisputable: energy healing is nonsense and does not merit further research.

Yet both research and – more importantly – the practice of spiritual healing continue, not only in the developed world but even more so in poor and under-developed countries.

Traditional healers, known in Rwanda as Abarangi or Abacwezi claim to use their spiritual powers to heal sick patients. Recently, they urged their government to acknowledge them through proper regulation. Jean-Bosco Kajongi, the leader of the healers in Rwanda, said Abahereza are like doctors who have been selected by angels. “Umuhereza is someone who gets power from God to treat different diseases but particularly demonic possession such as ‘Amahembe’ and ‘Imandwa’. Sometimes, doctors detect something in the body, do surgery but find nothing. But Abarangi can identify the disease beforehand and heal it. Thus, we want to have legal personality and work with modern doctors because what we cure, they cannot even see it. Therefore, mortality rate would decrease.”

Abahereza claim to have God-given powers to heal any disease, provided that the patient has belief in their powers. Claudine Uwamahoro, a resident of Rulindo district is one of them. “Last year, I was transferred to Kanombe Military Hospital to have my leg cut off after they diagnosed me with cancer. Abarangi told me it was not cancer but rather ‘Imandwa.’ They treated me but I didn’t get healed immediately because I had not yet heeded God’s commandment because they do not use any medicines but only requires you to obey God and respect his commandments.  Now my leg has been healed… Like Jesus came to save us so that we don’t perish, Umurangi also came so that we do not die of diseases that normal medicines cannot treat.”

Another patient agrees: “In 1983, I played football but later, Imandwa disabled me and my legs were paralyzed. I went to various hospitals and was given an assortment of medicines but they could not help. I always had fever; Doctors treated me but could not identify what kind of disease it really was. I even went to traditional healers but they didn’t have a solution. Pastors and priests prayed for me but in vain. Sorcerers also tried but failed. I was possessed by Imandwa and I was cured by Umurangi from Kirehe District. I believe that they have the power from God and when you respect their conditions, they treat and cure you completely.”

According to Alexia Mukahirwa, another witness, Umurangi is very powerful. “I was sick for 16 years. I went to different places and met many doctors. Some told me I had blood infection, others said it was stomach and intestinal infections. I consumed numberless medicines that never helped until I saw the power of Abarangi and believed them. Some people said that I had HIV/AIDS but it was not true. I only weighed 42 kilograms but now I have 68. Abarangi are powerful and may God bless them.”

James Mugabo, who is an “Umuhereza” or priest, said: “Before colonialism, people had their way of treating illness. But we have abandoned everything yet we should not.” The Director General of clinical services in the Ministry of Health responded by stating: “The law and policy are being drafted and will help us to know who does what kind of medicine and their identity. From that, we will know where to localize Abarangi in traditional or alternative.”

Hearing such things, we might smile and think ‘that’s Rwanda – this would not happen in developed countries’. But sadly, it does! These things happen everywhere. I know of healing ceremonies in the UK and the US that are embarrassingly similar to the ones in Rwanda – remember, for instance, the scenes seen on TV where Donald Trump was blessed by some evangelicals to receive the ability to win the election? And now they will probably claim that it worked!

Nothing to do with alternative medicine, you say? Perhaps this website on ‘spiritual homeopathy’ is more relevant then:

START OF QUOTE

What is spiritual homeopathy? It is based on the principle that “like cures like” and “wounds heal wounds” — the underlying wisdom of support groups. A Biblical story which illustrates this principle takes place on the ancient shepherding people’s journey through the desert. When they grew impatient and complained bitterly to Moses, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people. Many died. When the people confessed their sin, God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole. Those who were bitten and focused on the bronze snake did not die; they looked and lived.

Many years later Jesus said of his mission, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes on the Chosen One might have eternal life.” Jesus’ disciple Peter wrote, “By Christ’s wounds you are healed.” In “The Angel that Troubled the Waters,” Thornton Wilder wrote: “Without your wound where would your power be? … In love’s service only the wounded can serve.”

As the Thanksgiving and Christmas season approaches, spiritual homeopathy offers healing to all – because the Babe in the Manger is also the Wounded Healer

END OF QUOTE

I think I rest my case.

 

 

WARNING: THIS MIGHT MAKE YOU LAUGH OUT LOUDLY AND UNCONTROLLABLY.

Deepak Chopra rarely publishes in medical journals (I suppose, he has better things to do). I was therefore intrigued when I saw a recent article of which he is a co-author.

The ‘study‘ in question allegedly examined the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being. The authors describe it as “a quasi-randomized trial comparing the effects of participation in a 6-day Ayurvedic system of medicine-based comprehensive residential program with a 6-day residential vacation at the same retreat location.” They included 69 healthy women and men who received the Ayurvedic intervention addressing physical and emotional well-being through group meditation and yoga, massage, diet, adaptogenic herbs, lectures, and journaling. Key components of the program include physical cleansing through ingestion of herbs, fiber, and oils that support the body’s natural detoxification pathways and facilitate healthy elimination; two Ayurvedic meals daily (breakfast and lunch) that provide a light plant-based diet; daily Ayurvedic oil massage treatments; and heating treatments through the use of sauna and/or steam. The program includes lectures on Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle as well as lectures on meditation and yoga philosophy. The study group also participated in twice-daily group meditation and daily yoga and practiced breathing exercises (pranayama) as well as emotional expression through a process of journaling and emotional support. During the program, participants received a 1-hour integrative medical consultation with a physician and follow-up with an Ayurvedic health educator.

The control group simply had a vacation without any of the above therapies in the same resort. They were asked to do what they would normally do on a resort vacation with the additional following restrictions: they were asked not to engage in more exercise than they would in their normal lifestyle and to refrain from using La Costa Resort spa services. They were also asked not to drink ginger tea or take Gingko biloba during the 2 days before and during the study week.

Recruitment was via email announcements on the University of California San Diego faculty and staff and Chopra Center for Wellbeing list-servers. Study flyers stated that the week-long Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI) study would be conducted at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, located at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, in order to learn more about the psychosocial and physiologic effects of the 6-day Perfect Health (PH) Program compared with a 6-day stay at the La Costa Resort. The study participants were not blinded, and site investigators and study personnel knew to which group participants were assigned.

Participants in the Ayurvedic program showed significant and sustained increases in ratings of spirituality and gratitude compared with the vacation group, which showed no change. The Ayurvedic participants also showed increased ratings for self-compassion as well as less anxiety at the 1-month follow-up.

The authors arrived at the following conclusion: Findings suggest that a short-term intensive program providing holistic instruction and experience in mind–body healing practices can lead to significant and sustained increases in perceived well-being and that relaxation alone is not enough to improve certain aspects of well-being.

This ‘study’ had ethical approval from the University of California San Diego and was supported by the Fred Foundation, the MCJ Amelior Foundation, the National Philanthropic Trust, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chopra Foundation. The paper’s first author is director of research at the Chopra Foundation. Deepak Chopra is the co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

Did I promise too much?

Isn’t this paper hilarious?

Just for the record, let me formulate a short conclusion that actually fits the data from this ‘study’: Lots of TLC, attention and empathy does make some people feel better.

This is hardly something one needs to write home about; and certainly nothing to do a study on!

But which journal would publish such unadulterated advertising?

On this blog, I have mentioned the JACM several times before. Recently, I wrote about the new man in charge of it. I concluded stating WATCH THIS SPACE.

I think the wait is now over – this paper is from the latest issue of the JACM, and I am sure we all agree that the new editor has just shown us of what he is made and where he wants to take his journal.

Just as I thought that this cannot get any better, it did! It did so in the form of a second paper which is evidently reporting from the same ‘study’. Here is its abstract unaltered in its full beauty:

The effects of integrative medicine practices such as meditation and Ayurveda on human physiology are not fully understood. The aim of this study was to identify altered metabolomic profiles following an Ayurveda-based intervention. In the experimental group, 65 healthy male and female subjects participated in a 6-day Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic intervention which included herbs, vegetarian diet, meditation, yoga, and massage. A set of 12 plasma phosphatidylcholines decreased (adjusted p < 0.01) post-intervention in the experimental (n = 65) compared to control group (n = 54) after Bonferroni correction for multiple testing; within these compounds, the phosphatidylcholine with the greatest decrease in abundance was PC ae C36:4 (delta = -0.34). Application of a 10% FDR revealed an additional 57 metabolites that were differentially abundant between groups. Pathway analysis suggests that the intervention results in changes in metabolites across many pathways such as phospholipid biosynthesis, choline metabolism, and lipoprotein metabolism. The observed plasma metabolomic alterations may reflect a Panchakarma-induced modulation of metabotypes. Panchakarma promoted statistically significant changes in plasma levels of phosphatidylcholines, sphingomyelins and others in just 6 days. Forthcoming studies that integrate metabolomics with genomic, microbiome and physiological parameters may facilitate a broader systems-level understanding and mechanistic insights into these integrative practices that are employed to promote health and well-being.

Now that I managed to stop laughing about the first paper, I am not just amused but also puzzled by the amount of contradictions the second article seems to cause. Were there 65 or 69 individuals in the experimental group? Was the study randomised, quasi-randomised or not randomised? All of these versions are implied at different parts of the articles. It turns out that they randomised some patients, while allocating others without randomisation – and this clearly means the study was NOT randomised. Was the aim of the study ‘to identify altered metabolomic profiles following an Ayurveda-based intervention’ or ‘to examine the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being’?

I am sure that others will find further contradictions and implausibilites, if they look hard enough.

The funniest inconsistency, in my opinion, is that Deepak Chopra does not even seem to be sure to which university department he belongs. Is it the ‘Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA.’ as indicated in the 1st paper or is it the ‘Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA’ as listed in the 2nd article?

Does he know from which planet he is?

 

For far too many proponents of alternative medicine, belief in alternative methods seems disappointingly half-hearted. Not so for this enthusiast who invented an alternative form of resuscitation – but sadly failed.

This article explains:

A Russian woman spent more than 4 months trying to bring her dead husband back to life. How?  With the help of holy water and prayer!

The retired therapist said she didn’t report the death of her 87-year-old husband because she believed she could revive him by sprinkling holy water on his body and reading prayers. The woman’s bizarre secret was revealed when she accidentally flooded the apartment below, and a neighbour forced his way into her home to turn off the water. He found the almost completely mummified husband laying on the living-room couch. Forensic pathologists determined that the man had been dead for 4 – 6 months, but found no traces of violence on his body and concluded he had died of natural causes.

Neighbours said that they did sense a strange smell coming out of the apartment, but didn’t think anything of it. The deceased had suffered a serious injury to his leg in 2015 and had been bed-ridden since then. Therefore his disappearance from public view went unnoticed. To make sure nobody interfered with her resuscitations, the woman told everyone that he was fine, but too tired for receiving guests. Even the couple’s children were asked not to visit.

The 76-year-old woman who had worked as a doctor for most of her life, became interested in the occult and obsessed with the work of Leonid Konovalov, a Russian psychic who stars in a television show where he tries to communicate with the dead. “When we started talking to the woman, it turned out that she was fascinated by alternative medicine and believed that, by sprinkling holy water on her husband, she would be able to bring him back, to revive him,” Chief investigator commented.

Is there a lesson in this story?

Perhaps this one: conviction in one’s methods might be good, but evidence is better.

Yes, I know, lately I have been neglecting my ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’. This is entirely my fault; there are so many candidates waiting to be admitted that, I have been hesitant as to who should be next. Today, I came across an article about Deepak Chopra and his latest book, Super Genes. It tells “how lifestyle shifts can help you reboot your health at a genetic level.” If it were just for this single sentence, he would deserve to be admitted – no, not into what you just thought, into the ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’, of course’.

I will save you the expense of buying his book (don’t worry, Deepak is already a multi-millionaire) by repeating what the article said about his ‘6 pillars of wellbeing’ (another cracker!!!):

DIET

• A typical modern diet is very likely to cause inflammation, which research has linked to many chronic diseases and obesity.

• To reduce inflammation, add prebiotics – substances that buffer the body from inflammation – such as oatmeal, pulpy orange juice, bran cereal and bananas to your breakfast.

• Consume probiotics – foods that contain active bacteria – once a day for gut health. These foods include active yoghurt, pickles and sauerkraut.

• Eat mindfully – eat only when you’re genuinely hungry and stop when you are full.

• Reduce snacking by eating only one measured portion in a bowl; never eat straight from a bag or packet.

STRESS

• Three factors generally lie behind the problem of chronic stress: repetition, unpredictability and a lack of control. Think of a dog barking outside your window; you don’t know when it will end and you have no way of stopping it.

• Decrease background noise and distractions at work. Also, avoid multitasking by dealing with one thing at a time.

• Leave work on time at least three times a week and don’t bring work home. Leave the office at the office.

• Avoid people who are sources of pressure and conflict. Even normal office behaviour, such as forming cliques and gossiping, is a source of stress that has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

• If you struggle to deal with negative emotions, ask your doctor about cognitive behaviour therapy.

EXERCISE

• The secret to exercise is this: keep going and don’t stop. It’s better to be active all your life at a lower level, rather than to be at a near professional-level in high school, say, and then stop completely.

• At work get up and move around once an hour and devote half your lunch break to movement, even if it’s walking around the block.

• Be in nature more: go outside for five to 10 minutes three times a day.

• Acquire more active friends and join them in their activities. Plan a shared exercise activity with your spouse or friends twice a week.

• Make leisure time more creative – think beyond TV or internet.

• Volunteer to help the needy with housecleaning, painting and repairs.

This will serve as both exercise and a morale boost.

MEDITATION

• Meditate every day for 10 minutes.

Sit with your eyes closed in a quiet place, put your attention on the tip of your nose and focus on the sensation of your breath coming in and out of your nostrils.

• Don’t look at meditation as an aid for the bad days you experience (“I’m feeling good today, so I don’t need to meditate”). It should be a lifelong practice.

• Take 10 minutes out of your lunch break to sit alone with eyes closed, preferably outside in nature.

• Notice what a relief it is to take big deep breaths when you are upset or nervous, and how ragged your breath becomes when you are anxious or stressed.

• Join an organised meditation course in your area. Search for meetup.com to find local groups that meet all around the country.

SLEEP

• Make your bedroom as dark as possible. If total darkness is impossible, wear a sleep mask.

• Drink a glass of warm almond milk, which is rich in calcium and promotes melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

• Experiment with herbal teas associated with good sleep such as chamomile, valerian, passionflower, lavender and kava kava.

• Explore abhyanga, a self-massage technique that uses warmed sesame oil, lightly massaged into arms, legs, neck and torso (go to YouTube to see tutorials).

• Don’t ignore insomnia. In some studies sleep disorders have been associated with triggering Alzheimer’s disease and are also associated with high blood pressure.

EMOTIONS

• Take responsibility for your feelings. Wellbeing depends upon happiness, yet most people don’t really make that connection.

• Write down five specific things that make you happy and, on a daily basis, do at least one of them.

• Set a “good news policy” at meal times, whether it’s the radio station you choose to listen to or the topic of conversation around the table.

• Explore a time in your past when you were happy and learn from it, whether that means re-embracing an old hobby or getting in touch with an old friend.

• Become comfortable with delayed gratification – consider how your choices will make you feel in the future as well as today.

END OF QUOTE

My favourite website about Deepak Chopra is the one by Tom Williamson. It states that “it has been said by some that the thoughts and tweets of Deepak Chopra are indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order, particularly the tweets tagged with “#cosmisconciousness”. This site aims to test that claim! Each “quote” is generated from a list of words that can be found in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter stream randomly stuck together in a sentence.” It seems to me that Deepak himself might have made ample use of this site for writing his latest book, and if you should ever run out of platitudes or empty phrases, this site will serve you well.

Deepak has published plenty of best-sellers, but he has as good as nothing to show for himself in the peer-reviewed medical literature. (When you are that famous, you obviously don’t need to bother anymore with trivia such as evidence, science and all that jazz.) This means that I had to deviate from my usual admission criteria for the “prophet of alternative medicine”, as Deepak likes to be called. But he is well worth making an exception, I am sure you agree, he is the absolute super-star!

Super-star of what?

I let you decide!

 

This series of post is quite good fun – at least for me who is writing it.  But I also hope that it is useful to those readers who are tempted to consult alternative practitioners. My intention is to stimulate people’s ability to think critically and to provide some sort of guide for patients which might help them in deciding which practitioners to avoid.

In this spirit, I now offer you the next instalment of three ‘tricks of the trade’:

 

NATURAL IS GOOD

Everyone working in advertising will confirm: the ‘natural label’ is a great asset for boosting sales of all sorts of things. Practitioners of alternative medicine have long appreciated this fact and exploited it to the best of their abilities. They stress the ‘naturalness’ of their treatments ad nauseam, and more often than not they use the term misleadingly.

For instance, there is nothing natural to thrust a patients spine beyond the physiological range of motion [chiropractic]; there is nothing natural in endlessly diluting and shaking remedies which may or may not have their origin in a natural substance [homeopathy]; there is nothing natural in sticking needles into the skin of patients [acupuncture].

Moreover, the notion of a benign ‘mother nature’ is naïvely misleading. Ask those who have been at sea during a storm or who have been struck by lightning.

My advice is to see through transparent marketing slogans and to tell the anyone who goes on about the ‘naturalness’ of his therapy to buzz off.

ENERGY

When one goes to a meeting of alternative practitioners, the term ‘energy’ is mentioned more often than at a board meeting of EDF. The difference is that the alternative brigade does not mean really energy when they speak of energy; they mean ‘vital force’ or one of the many related terms from other traditions.

Practitioners do prefer to use ‘energy’ because this sounds modern and impressive to many consumers. Crucially, it avoids disclosing how deeply steeped the therapists are in vitalism and vitalistic ideas. Whereas rational thinkers have discarded such concepts more than a century ago, alternative medicine advocates find it hard to do the same – if they did, there would be little else to underpin their various ‘philosophies’.

My advice is to avoid clinicians who are ‘vitalists’ because adhering to long obsolete concepts is a sure sign of dangerous backward thinking.

STIMULATING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

‘Your immune system need stimulating!’ – how often have we heard that from practitioners of alternative medicine? By contrast, conventional clinicians are most reserved about such aims; they might try to stimulate the immune system in certain, rare circumstances. Quite often they need to achieve the opposite effect and use powerful drugs to suppress the immune system. But even when they aim at stimulating the immune system of a patient, they would not use any of the treatments alternative practitioners swear by.

How come? There are several reasons:

  1. The alternative ‘immune stimulants’ do not really stimulate the immune system.
  2. Stimulating the immune system is rarely a desirable therapeutic aim.
  3. Stimulating a normal immune system is hardly possible.
  4. For many of us, stimulating the immune system might even be a very risky business (if it were at all achievable).

My advice is to ask your practitioner precisely why he wants to stimulate your immune system. If he can give you a good reason, ask him to try stimulating his own immune system first and to show you the proof that his therapy can do such a thing.

You have to admit, quacks had a difficult time recently:

  • homeopathy has been disclosed as humbug,
  • chiropractic is not much better,
  • ‘acupuncture awareness week’ left acupuncturists bruised…

Need I go on?

One has to pity these guys; their income is dwindling; they have no pensions, no unions to protect them etc., they know nothing other than quackery…what can they do? They are clearly fighting for survival.

I suggest we all focus, use our imagination and come up with come constructive ideas to help them.

Alright, I start: HOLISTIC DOPING

The fate of the poor (not in a monetary sense, of course) tennis star Sharapova gave me that brainwave.

Our elite athletes are in a pickle: they feel the need to enhance their performance but more and more ways of achieving this with cleverly administered drugs are becoming illegal. Their livelihood is at stake almost as much as that of our dear quacks.

What if the two groups jointed forces?

What if they decided to help solve each others’ problems?

This could be a classical win/win situation!

I am sure homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists etc. could design holistic program for improving athletic performance. It would be highly individualised and embrace body, mind, spirit, sole and anything else they can think of. It could include the newest concepts in quantum healing, energy field, qi, vital force, etc. The advantages are obvious, I think:

  • none of these interventions will ever be found on a list of forbidden drugs,
  • the program will work perfectly well because it will generate large placebo responses,
  • performance will therefore increase (as always in alternative medicine, anecdotal ‘evidence’ will suffice) ,
  • and so will the quacks’ cash flow.

Is there a downside? Not really…oh, hold on…yes there is!

My idea is not that original; others have had it already. In fact, there are quite a few quacks offering alternatives to good old-fashioned doping.

THAT’S THE AWFUL THING ABOUT QUACKERY: ALL THE GOOD IDEAS TURN OUT TO BE ALREADY TAKEN!

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a popular ‘energy therapy’ which is based on the use of hand movements and detection of ‘energy field congestion’ to correct alleged imbalances that, in turn, are postulated to stimulate self-healing. The effectiveness of TT during radiotherapy for breast cancer is unknown, and this study was aimed at shedding some light on it.

Women undergoing adjuvant radiation for stage I/II breast cancer post surgery were recruited for this study. TT treatments were administered to patients in the experimental group three times per week following radiation therapy. The control group did not receive any TT. Both groups had conventional care in addition.

The effectiveness of TT was evaluated by documenting the ‘time to develop’ and the ‘worst grade of radiation’ dermatitis. Toxicity was assessed using NCIC CTC V3 dermatitis scale. Cosmetic rating was performed using the EORTC Breast Cosmetic Rating. The quality of life, mood and energy, and fatigue were assessed by EORTC QLQ C30, POMS, and BFI, respectively. The parameters were assessed at baseline, and serially during treatment.

A total of 49 patients entered the study (17 in the TT group and 32 in the control group). Median age in TT arm was 63 years and in control arm was 59 years. TT was considered feasible as all 17 patients screened completed TT treatment. There were no side effects observed with the TT treatments. In the TT group, the worst grade of radiation dermatitis was grade II in nine patients (53%). Median time to develop the worst grade was 22 days. In the control group, the worst grade of radiation dermatitis was grade III in 1 patient. However, the most common toxicity grade was II in 15 patients (47%). Three patients did not develop any dermatitis. Median time to develop the worst grade in the control group was 31 days. There was no difference between cohorts for the overall EORTC cosmetic score and there was no significant difference in before and after study levels in quality of life, mood and fatigue.

Based on these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: This study is the first evaluation of TT in patients with breast cancer using objective measures. Although TT is feasible for the management of radiation induced dermatitis, we were not able to detect a significant benefit of TT on NCIC toxicity grade or time to develop the worst grade for radiation dermatitis. In addition, TT did not improve quality of life, mood, fatigue and overall cosmetic outcome.

Like all forms of ‘energy healing’, TT lacks any biological plausibility and is not clinically effective. At best, it can generate a placebo-response; but in this particular study it did not even manage that.

Is it not time to stop fooling patients with outright quackery?

Is it not time to stop spending scarce research resources on such nonsense?

Is it not time that editors stop considering such rubbish for publication?

Is it not time to stop allowing TT-proponents to undermine rationality?

Is it not time to make progress and move on?

All across the world we see initiatives to regulate alternative medicine. The most recent news in this sphere comes from Switzerland. The ‘Swissinfo’ website reported that the training of alternative medicine practitioners is to be regulated by creating a ‘COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE DIPLOMA’.

The decision was welcomed by the Organisation of Swiss Alternative Medicine Professionals (OdA KT), which will conduct the exams for the diploma in question. The five therapies selected by the government for the complementary medicine diploma are yoga, ayurveda, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and eutony. The first exams are expected to be held in 2016.

“Recognition by the state provides an important political basis for these therapies,” Christoph Q Meier, secretary general of OdA KT told swissinfo.ch. “The diploma will also improve the quality of therapy offered in Switzerland, as until now anybody could call themselves a therapist.” Meier estimates that there are between 12-15,000 practitioners of complementary therapies in Switzerland. Applicants for the national diploma will first have to pass a series of pre-exams. However, those with recognised qualifications and at least five years of experience could be exempt from the pre-exams. The exam is open to foreign nationals but will only be offered in German, French and Italian. In April this year, ayurveda was also included for a separate national diploma in naturopathy medicine along with Chinese and European traditional medicine, as well as homeopathy. Switzerland has around 3,000 naturopaths.

Whenever issues like this come up, I ask myself: IS REGULATION OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE A GOOD OR A BAD THING?

On the one hand, one might be pleased to hear that therapists receive some training and that not everyone who feels like it can do this job. On the other hand, it has to be said that regulation of nonsense will inevitably result in nonsense. What is more, regulation will also be misused by the practitioners to claim that their treatment is now well-established and supported by the government. This phenomenon can already be seen in the comments above and it misleads the public who understandably believe that, once a form of health care is regulated officially, it must be evidence-based.

So, what is the solution? I wish I knew the answer.

Any suggestion is welcomed.

A new RCT of Reiki healing has been published by US authors from the following institutions: Union Institute & University, Psychology Program, Brattleboro, VT, Coyote Institute, Augusta and Bangor, ME, Eastern Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital, Bangor, ME, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Biddeford, ME, Coyote Institute, Orono, ME. The purpose of this study was to determine if 30 minutes of healing touch could reduce burnout in community mental health clinicians.

The authors utilized a crossover design to explore the efficacy of Reiki versus sham Reiki, a pseudo treatment performed by volunteers who had no experience with Reiki and pretended to be healers vis-à-vis the patients. This sham control intervention was designed to mimic true Reiki.

Subjects were randomized to whether they started with Reiki or sham. The Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS) and the Measure Your Medical Outcome Profile Version 2 (MYMOP-2) were used as outcome measures. Multilevel modeling was used to represent the relations among variables.

The results showed that real Reiki was significantly better than sham Reiki in reducing burnout among community mental health clinicians. Reiki was significant in reducing depersonalization, but only among single people. Reiki reduced the primary symptom on the MYMOP also only among single people.

The authors concluded that the effects of Reiki were differentiated from sham Reiki. Reiki could be helpful in community mental health settings for the mental health of the practitioners.

My team has published on Reiki (see here and here, for instance), and on this blog I have repeatedly been expressed my doubts that Reiki is more than an elaborate placebo (see here and here, for instance). Do these new results mean that I need to eat my words and henceforth praise the wonders of Reiki? No, I don’t think so!

Having conducted studies on ‘energy healing’ myself, I know only too well of the many pitfalls and possibilities of generating false-positive findings with such research. This new study has many flaws, but we need not look far to find the reason for the surprising and implausible finding. Here is my explanation why this study suggests one placebo to be superior to another placebo.

The researchers had to recruit 16 Reiki healers and several non-Reiki volunteers to perform the interventions on the small group of patients. It goes without saying that the Reiki healers were highly motivated to demonstrate the value of their therapy. This means they (unintentionally?) used verbal and non-verbal communication to maximise the placebo effect of their treatment. The sham healers, of course, lacked such motivation. In my view, this seemingly trivial difference alone is capable of producing the false-positive result above.

There are, of course, ways of minimising the danger of such confounding. In our own study of ‘energy healing’ with sham healers as controls, for instance, we instructed both the healers and the sham healers to abstain from all communication with their patients, we filmed each session to make sure, and we asked each patient to guess which treatment they had received. None of these safeguards were incorporated in the present study – I wonder why!

If I tell you that I just read a book by a homeopath writing about homeopathy, would you doubt my sanity? But I did, and I read it in one session with great interest. The book is (in German) by Natalie Grams (perhaps I should mention that I had never heard of her before Springer sent me her book), a German doctor; it is entitled HOMOEOPATHIE NEU GEDACHT (Homeopathy newly considered). I liked it a lot.

The author discusses in some detail why basically everything homeopaths believe in is erroneous. You might think: so what, we all knew that. True, we did, but she then she concludes that homeopathy has still some value as some sort of psychotherapy. The remedy is effective because the consultation with a homeopath gives it a ‘meaning’ which is tailor-made for each patient. Now you will think: that this is hardly original, others have considered this before. And you are, of course, correct again.

So why did this book fascinate me? Mostly because, in a few passages, Natalie Grams tells her very personal story how she matured from an enthusiast to rationalist. This could be reminiscent of my own life, but it isn’t (and by no means do I agree with everything doctor Grams writes). I found myself in a homeopathic hospital directly after medical school, became a homeopath (of sorts), later I learnt to think critically and researched homeopathy. As a scientist, when the evidence was squarely negative, I said so loud and clear (I published the whole story with all the relevant details here).

Natalie Grams studied medicine and seemed to have become disenchanted with the lack of humanity in mainstream medicine (as a clinician, I often felt this too but always concluded that the solution was not to turn away from medicine but to re-introduce more humanity into it). Doctor Grams then experienced serious health problems which were cured/alleviated by homeopathy. This made her look into the subject a little closer. She decided to do the necessary courses, uncritically adopted most of what she was told by die-hard homeopaths and eventually fulfilled her dream: she opened her own private practice as a homeopath. In other words, she dropped out of real medicine and into homeopathy, while I, in a way, did the reverse.

Doctor Grams’ practice seemed to have been successful; many of her patients, even some with serious conditions, got better. All she had been told about homeopathy seemed to get confirmed in her clinical routine. Homeopaths, like most clinicians, remember their success stories and tend to forget their failures. If this happens over and over during an entire life-time, the last doubts a budding homeopath may have once had dissolve into thin air. The result is a clinician who is utterly convinced that like cures like and high dilutions are powerful medicines because water has a memory.

Up to this point, Dr Grams career is a textbook example of a homeopath who would bet on the life of her children that homeopathy is correct and science is wrong. The world is full of them, and I have personally met many. They are usually kind, empathetic and dedicated clinicians. But they are also totally impervious to reason. They have their experience and NOBODY is allowed to question it. If you do, you are no longer their friend.

This is where the typical story of homeopaths ends… and they happily lied ever after (to themselves, their patients and everyone else). Not so in the case of Natalie Grams!

When she was still an enthusiast, she decided to write a book. It was going to be a book that showed how good homeopathy was and how bad its critics were. To do this responsibly, she read a lot of the original literature. What she found shocked her. When reading her account, I could repeatedly feel the agony she must have felt through her discoveries. Eventually, she had no choice but to agree with most of the arguments of homeopathy’s critics and disagreed with practically all of the arguments of her fellow homeopaths.

I predict that Natalie’s painful ‘journey’ has not yet come to an end; she now argues that the 200 year old assumptions of homeopathy are all obsolete and homeopathy is certainly not an effective drug therapy. However, it may turn out to be a valuable ‘talking therapy’, she believes.

I hate to say it, but I am fairly certain that she will have to go through further agony and find that her discovery is not truly workable. It might have some theoretical value but, for a whole number of reasons, it will not function in real life heath care.

My hope is that Natalie will find her way back to what she calls ‘normal medicine’ (there is, of course, the danger that she does the opposite and wanders off into even more esoteric grounds). We need doctors like her who have empathy, compassion and understanding for their patients. These are qualities many homeopaths who I have met have in abundance – but these are qualities that belong not into the realm of quackery, they belong into real medicine.

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