MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

evidence

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Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.

  1. Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
  2. Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
  3. Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
  4. Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
  5. Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
  6. Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
  7. The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.

Rigorous research into the effectiveness of a therapy should tell us the truth about the ability of this therapy to treat patients suffering from a given condition — perhaps not one single study, but the totality of the evidence (as evaluated in systematic reviews) should achieve this aim. Yet, in the realm of alternative medicine (and probably not just in this field), such reviews are often highly contradictory.

A concrete example might explain what I mean.

There are numerous systematic reviews assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture for fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). It is safe to assume that the authors of these reviews have all conducted comprehensive searches of the literature in order to locate all the published studies on this subject. Subsequently, they have evaluated the scientific rigor of these trials and summarised their findings. Finally they have condensed all of this into an article which arrives at a certain conclusion about the value of the therapy in question. Understanding this process (outlined here only very briefly), one would expect that all the numerous reviews draw conclusions which are, if not identical, at least very similar.

However, the disturbing fact is that they are not remotely similar. Here are two which, in fact, are so different that one could assume they have evaluated a set of totally different primary studies (which, of course, they have not).

One recent (2014) review concluded that acupuncture for FMS has a positive effect, and acupuncture combined with western medicine can strengthen the curative effect.

Another recent review concluded that a small analgesic effect of acupuncture was present, which, however, was not clearly distinguishable from bias. Thus, acupuncture cannot be recommended for the management of FMS.

How can this be?

By contrast to most systematic reviews of conventional medicine, systematic reviews of alternative therapies are almost invariably based on a small number of primary studies (in the above case, the total number was only 7 !). The quality of these trials is often low (all reviews therefore end with the somewhat meaningless conclusion that more and better studies are needed).

So, the situation with primary studies of alternative therapies for inclusion into systematic reviews usually is as follows:

  • the number of trials is low
  • the quality of trials is even lower
  • the results are not uniform
  • the majority of the poor quality trials show a positive result (bias tends to generate false positive findings)
  • the few rigorous trials yield a negative result

Unfortunately this means that the authors of systematic reviews summarising such confusing evidence often seem to feel at liberty to project their own pre-conceived ideas into their overall conclusion about the effectiveness of the treatment. Often the researchers are in favour of the therapy in question – in fact, this usually is precisely the attitude that motivated them to conduct a review in the first place. In other words, the frequently murky state of the evidence (as outlined above) can serve as a welcome invitation for personal bias to do its effect in skewing the overall conclusion. The final result is that the readers of such systematic reviews are being misled.

Authors who are biased in favour of the treatment will tend to stress that the majority of the trials are positive. Therefore the overall verdict has to be positive as well, in their view. The fact that most trials are flawed does not usually bother them all that much (I suspect that many fail to comprehend the effects of bias on the study results); they merely add to their conclusions that “more and better trials are needed” and believe that this meek little remark is sufficient evidence for their ability to critically analyse the data.

Authors who are not biased and have the necessary skills for critical assessment, on the other hand, will insist that most trials are flawed and therefore their results must be categorised as unreliable. They will also emphasise the fact that there are a few reliable studies and clearly point out that these are negative. Thus their overall conclusion must be negative as well.

In the end, enthusiasts will conclude that the treatment in question is at least promising, if not recommendable, while real scientists will rightly state that the available data are too flimsy to demonstrate the effectiveness of the therapy; as it is wrong to recommend unproven treatments, they will not recommend the treatment for routine use.

The difference between the two might just seem marginal – but, in fact, it is huge: IT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISLEADING PEOPLE AND GIVING RESPONSIBLE ADVICE; THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VIOLATING AND ADHERING TO ETHICAL STANDARDS.

One of the problems regularly encountered when evaluating the effectiveness of chiropractic spinal manipulation is that there are numerous chiropractic spinal manipulative techniques and clinical trials rarely provide an exact means of differentiating between them. Faced with a negative studies, chiropractors might therefore argue that the result was negative because the wrong techniques were used; therefore they might insist that it does not reflect chiropractic in a wider sense. Others claim that even a substantial body of negative evidence does not apply to chiropractic as a whole because there is a multitude of techniques that have not yet been properly tested. It seems as though the chiropractic profession wants the cake and eat it.

Amongst the most commonly used is the ‘DIVERSIFIED TECHNIQUE’ (DT) which has been described as follows: Like many chiropractic and osteopathic manipulative techniques, Diversified is characterized by a high velocity low amplitude thrust. Diversified is considered the most generic chiropractic manipulative technique and is differentiated from other techniques in that its objective is to restore proper movement and alignment of spine and joint dysfunction.

Also widely used is a technique called ‘FLEXION DISTRACTION’ (FD) which involves the use of a specialized table that gently distracts or stretches the spine and which allows the chiropractor to isolate the area of disc involvement while slightly flexing the spine in a pumping rhythm.

The ‘ACTIVATOR TECHNIQUE’ (AT) seems a little less popular; it involves having the patient lie in a prone position and comparing the functional leg lengths. Often one leg will seem to be shorter than the other. The chiropractor then carries out a series of muscle tests such as having the patient move their arms in a certain position in order to activate the muscles attached to specific vertebrae. If the leg lengths are not the same, that is taken as a sign that the problem is located at that vertebra. The chiropractor treats problems found in this way moving progressively along the spine in the direction from the feet towards the head. The activator is a small handheld spring-loaded instrument which delivers a small impulse to the spine. It was found to give off no more than 0.3 J of kinetic energy in a 3-millisecond pulse. The aim is to produce enough force to move the vertebrae but not enough to cause injury.

There is limited research comparing the effectiveness of these and the many other techniques used by chiropractors, and the few studies that are available are usually less than rigorous and their findings are thus unreliable. A first step in researching this rather messy area would be to determine which techniques are most frequently employed.

The aim of this new investigation was to do just that, namely to provide insight into which treatment approaches are used most frequently by Australian chiropractors to treat spinal musculoskeletal conditions.

A questionnaire was sent online to the members of the two main Australian chiropractic associations in 2013. The participants were asked to provide information on treatment choices for specific spinal musculoskeletal conditions.

A total of 280 responses were received. DT was the first choice of treatment for most of the included conditions. DT was used significantly less in 4 conditions: cervical disc syndrome with radiculopathy and cervical central stenosis were more likely to be treated with AT. FD was used almost as much as DT in the treatment of lumbar disc syndrome with radiculopathy and lumbar central stenosis. More experienced Australian chiropractors use more AT and soft tissue therapy and less DT compared to their less experienced chiropractors. The majority of the responding chiropractors also used ancillary procedures such as soft tissue techniques and exercise prescription in the treatment of spinal musculoskeletal conditions.

The authors concluded that this survey provides information on commonly used treatment choices to the chiropractic profession. Treatment choices changed based on the region of disorder and whether neurological symptoms were present rather than with specific diagnoses. Diversified technique was the most commonly used spinal manipulative therapy, however, ancillary procedures such as soft tissue techniques and exercise prescription were also commonly utilised. This information may help direct future studies into the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for spinal musculoskeletal disorders.

I am a little less optimistic that this information will help to direct future research. Critical readers might have noticed that the above definitions of two commonly used techniques are rather vague, particularly that of DT.

Why is that so? The answer seems to be that even chiropractors are at a loss coming up with a good definition of their most-used therapeutic techniques. I looked hard for a more precise definition but the best I could find was this: Diversified is characterized by the manual delivery of a high velocity low amplitude thrust to restricted joints of the spine and the extremities. This is known as an adjustment and is performed by hand. Virtually all joints of the body can be adjusted to help restore proper range of motion and function. Initially a functional and manual assessment of each joint’s range and quality of motion will establish the location and degree of joint dysfunction. The patient will then be positioned depending on the region being adjusted when a specific, quick impulse will be delivered through the line of the joint in question. The direction, speed, depth and angles that are used are the product of years of experience, practice and a thorough understanding of spinal mechanics. Often a characteristic ‘crack’ or ‘pop’ may be heard during the process. This is perfectly normal and is nothing to worry about. It is also not a guide as to the value or effectiveness of the adjustment.

This means that the DT is not a single method but a hotchpotch of techniques; this assumption is also confirmed by the following quote: The diversified technique is a technique used by chiropractors that is composed of all other techniques. It is the most commonly used technique and primarily focuses on spinal adjustments to restore function to vertebral and spinal problems.

What does that mean for research into chiropractic spinal manipulation? It means, I think, that even if we manage to define that a study was to test the effectiveness of one named chiropractic technique, such as DT, the chiropractors doing the treatments would most likely do what they believe is required for each individual patient.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with that approach; it is used in many other area of health care as well. In such cases, we need to view the treatment as something like a ‘black box'; we test the effectiveness of the black box without attempting to define its exact contents, and we trust that the clinicians in the trial are well-trained to use the optimal mix of techniques as needed for each individual patient.

I would assume that, in most studies available to date, this is precisely what already has been implemented. It is simply not reasonable to assume that a trial the trialists regularly instructed the chiropractors not to use the optimal treatments.

What does that mean for the interpretation of the existing trial evidence? It means, I think, that we should interpret it on face value. The clinical evidence for chiropractic treatment of most conditions fails to be convincingly positive. Chiropractors often counter that such negative findings fail to take into account that chiropractors use numerous different techniques. This argument is not valid because we must assume that in each trial the optimal techniques were administered.

In other words, the chiropractic attempt to have the cake and eat it has failed.

Whenever I give a public lecture about homeopathy, I explain what it is, briefly go in to its history, explain what its assumptions are, and what the evidence tells us about its efficacy and safety. When I am finished, there usually is a discussion with the audience. This is the part I like best; in fact, it is the main reason why I made the effort to do the lecture in the first place.

The questions vary, of course, but you can bet your last shirt that someone asks: “We know it works for animals; animals cannot experience a placebo-response, and therefore your claim that homeopathy relies on nothing but the placebo-effect must be wrong!” At this stage I often despair a little, I must admit. Not because the question is too daft, but because I did address it during my lecture. Thus I feel that I have failed to get the right message across – I despair with my obviously poor skills of giving an informative lecture!

Yet I need to answer the above question, of course. So I reiterate that the perceived effectiveness of homeopathy relies not just on the placebo-effect but also on phenomena such as regression towards the mean, natural history of the condition etc. I also usually mention that it is erroneous to assume that animals cannot benefit from placebo-effects; they can be conditioned, and pets can react to the expectations of their owners.

Finally, I need to mention the veterinary clinical evidence which – just like in the case of human patients – fails to show that homeopathic remedies are better than placebos for treating animals. Until recently, this was not an easy task because no systematic review of randomised placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) of veterinary homeopathy was available. Now, I am happy to announce, this situation has changed.

Using Cochrane methods, a brand-new review aimed to assess risk of bias and to quantify the effect size of homeopathic interventions compared with placebo for each eligible peer-reviewed trial. Judgement in 7 assessment domains enabled a trial’s risk of bias to be designated as low, unclear or high. A trial was judged to comprise reliable evidence, if its risk of bias was low or was unclear in specified domains. A trial was considered to be free of vested interest, if it was not funded by a homeopathic pharmacy.

The 18 RCTs found by the researchers were disparate in nature, representing 4 species and 11 different medical conditions. Reliable evidence, free from vested interest, was identified in only two trials:

  1. homeopathic Coli had a prophylactic effect on porcine diarrhoea (odds ratio 3.89, 95 per cent confidence interval [CI], 1.19 to 12.68, P=0.02);
  2. individualised homeopathic treatment did not have a more beneficial effect on bovine mastitis than placebo intervention (standardised mean difference -0.31, 95 per cent CI, -0.97 to 0.34, P=0.35).

The authors conclusions are clear: Mixed findings from the only two placebo-controlled RCTs that had suitably reliable evidence precluded generalisable conclusions about the efficacy of any particular homeopathic medicine or the impact of individualised homeopathic intervention on any given medical condition in animals.

My task when lecturing about homeopathy has thus become a great deal easier. But homeopathy-fans are not best pleased with this new article, I guess. They will try to claim that it was a biased piece of research conducted, most likely, by notorious anti-homeopaths who cannot be trusted. So who are the authors of this new publication?

They are RT Mathie from the British Homeopathic Association and J Clausen from one of Germany’s most pro-homeopathic institution, the ‘Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung’.

DOES ANYONE BELIEVE THAT THIS ARTICLE IS BIASED AGAINST HOMEOPATHY?

Hard to believe that it’s been already two years! On 14 October 2012, I posted the very first article. It set out what I wanted to achieve:

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

At the time, I had no idea how successful this venture into the unknown would become. Today, over 350 articles have been posted and almost 8000 comments have contributed to an often lively debate about almost all aspects of alternative medicine. Currently, the blog has well over 1000 – 2000 visitors every day. Selected posts have been translated and re-published in about half a dozen languages. I admit: I am quite proud of all that!

Back in 2012, I also had no idea how much fun I would derive from doing all this. Those who know me well would probably confirm that I am an unlikely candidate for getting his teeth into something like a blog. Thanks to mostly helpful and often brilliant comments from my readers, this blog has become a constant source of entertainment and information for me and, I hope, many others too.

My aims have remained very much the same during these last two years. Today I might formulate them as follows:

  • I want to inform the public about all matters related to alternative medicine.
  • I aim to review new evidence as it emerges.
  • I also wish to entertain my readers.
  • I feel a strong need to create a counter-balance to the thousands of blogs that are dangerously promotional and woefully uncritical.
  • And I want to help consumers to become much more effective ‘BULL-SHIT DETECTORS’ (I got this term recently from Sir Iain Chalmers).

Of course, none of these aims are achievable without active, critical, witty and outspoken readers and commentators. I would like to take the occasion of this second anniversary to thank everybody who has helped with and contributed to this blog. May the good work and intense fun continue!

Reflexology? Isn’t that an alternative therapy? And as such, a physiotherapist would not normally use it, most of us might think.

Well, think again! Here is what the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists writes about reflexology:

Developed centuries ago in countries such as China, Egypt and India, reflexology is often referred to as a ‘gentle’ and ‘holistic’ therapy that benefits both mind and body. It centres on the feet because these are said by practitioners to be a mirror, or topographical map, for the rest of the body. Manipulation of certain pressure, or reflex, points is claimed to have an effect on corresponding zones in the body. The impact, say reflexologists, extends throughout – to bones, muscles, organs, glands, circulatory and neural pathways. The head and hands can also be massaged in some cases. The treatment is perhaps best known for use in connection with relaxation and relief from stress, anxiety, pain, sleep disorders, headaches, migraine, menstrual and digestive problems. But advocates say it can be used to great effect far more widely, often in conjunction with other treatments.

Reflexology, or Reflex Therapy (RT) as some physiotherapists prefer to call it, clearly is approved by the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. And what evidence do they have for it?

One hundred members of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Reflex Therapy (ACPIRT) participated in an audit to establish a baseline of practice. Findings indicate that experienced therapists use RT in conjunction with their professional skills to induce relaxation (95%) and reduce pain (86%) for patients with conditions including whiplash injury and chronic pain. According to 68% of respondents, RT is “very good,” “good” or “as good as” orthodox physiotherapy practices. Requiring minimal equipment, RT may be as cost effective as orthodox physiotherapy with regards to duration and frequency of treatment.

But that’s not evidence!!! I hear you grumble. No, it isn’t, I agree.

Is there good evidence to show that RT is effective?

I am afraid not!

My own systematic review concluded that the best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.

Does that mean that the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists promotes quackery?

I let my readers answer that question.

Pranic healing?

What on earth is that?

Whatever it is, it is big; there are more than half a million websites on it, and it seems to me that a lot of dosh is being made with pranic healing.

But what is it?

This website might be as good as any to explain:

Pranic Healing is a form of ancient energy medicine, which utilizes the inherent energy Prana (life force or energy) to balance, and promote the body’s energy and its processes. Prana is a Sanskrit word which actually means, the vital force that keeps us alive and healthy. Pranic healing is a holistic approach as it assumes a person in its complexity and does not separate the body and the mind.

It was developed by Grand Master ChoaKok Sui who founded the World Pranic Healing Foundation. He is a Manila-based businessman of Chinese origin – a spiritual teacher, writer and therapist of Pranic healing system.

According to ancient medicine, the body is composed of several physical elements including skin, bones, muscles, organs and so on which function with the help of Prana.The pranais present in the form of +ve and –ve ions. Pranic therapy or treatment involves the act of manipulating the energy (by experts) to restore the energy of the chakras in the body which is believed to treat the condition. Although it’s difficult to detect and measure life energy, its existence is undoubtedly proved…

Following health issues can be successfully treated with Pranic healing: Sleeping illness (lack of sleep) Mental illnesses including depression, anxiety etc. Stress Sprains and strains Body aches like neck pain, muscle pain, back pain etc. A recent trauma and related inflammation Improve psycho-physical aspects in athletes Improve memory Enhance energy level Treat headache Fight ulcers (intestinal) Heal respiratory illnesses, including sinusitis and asthma Skin diseases, including eczema Improves overall immunity Treat the various causes of infertility Aesthetic treatments such as Pranic face lift, bust lift, hip and tummy tuck etc.

Not only is pranic healing a true panacea, it also includes all the buzz-words any self-respecting charlatan wants to employ these days:

  • energy medicine
  • ancient wisdom
  • life force
  • holism
  • complexity
  • mind-body
  • chakras

But the real beauty is, I think, that the existence of the energy – and by implication pranic healing – is undoubtedly proven!

Should we believe this statement?

Not without some evidence, I suggest.

Medline lists all of 4 articles on the subject of pranic healing – not too difficult a task to summarise them quickly here:

The first paper is entirely evidence-free, but we learn the following interesting thing: “When Pranic healing is applied the molecular structure of liquid and dense states of matter can be altered significantly to create positive outcomes, as revealed through research.”

The second article is not actually on pranic healing and contains no relevant information on it.

The third article is merely a promotional essay for nurses that fails to include anything resembling evidence.

The fourth paper finally is much of the same again.

So where is all this science supporting pranic healing? After all any treatment that can alter the molecular structure of matter must amount to a bit of a scientific sensation! Has the evidence perhaps been published in journals that are not Medline-listed? That I find difficult to imagine after realising that even the AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF HOLISTIC NURSING (one of the above 4 publications) is included in this database. And, in any case, such a scientific sensation deserves to be published in one of the leading science-journals!

Could it be that there is not science to pranic healing at all?

Could the whole thing be a hoax?

I sure hope one of my readers can point me to the science thus proving my suspicion to be unfounded!

Kinesiology tape is all the rage. Its proponents claim that it increases cutaneous stimulation, which facilitates motor unit firing, and consequently improves functional performance. But is this just clever marketing, wishful thinking or is it true? To find out, we need reliable data.

The current trial results are sparse, confusing and contradictory. A recent systematic review indicated that kinesiology tape may have limited potential to reduce pain in individuals with musculoskeletal injury; however, depending on the conditions, the reduction in pain may not be clinically meaningful. Kinesiology tape application did not reduce specific pain measures related to musculoskeletal injury above and beyond other modalities compared in the context of included articles. 

The authors concluded that kinesiology tape may be used in conjunction with or in place of more traditional therapies, and further research that employs controlled measures compared with kinesiology tape is needed to evaluate efficacy.

This need for further research has just been met by Korean investigators who conducted a study testing the true effects of KinTape by a deceptive, randomized, clinical trial.

Thirty healthy participants performed isokinetic testing of three taping conditions: true facilitative KinTape, sham KinTape, and no KinTape. The participants were blindfolded during the evaluation. Under the pretense of applying adhesive muscle sensors, KinTape was applied to their quadriceps in the first two conditions. Normalized peak torque, normalized total work, and time to peak torque were measured at two angular speeds (60°/s and 180°/s) and analyzed with one-way repeated measures ANOVA.

Participants were successfully deceived and they were ignorant about KinTape. No significant differences were found between normalized peak torque, normalized total work, and time to peak torque at 60°/s or 180°/s (p = 0.31-0.99) between three taping conditions. The results showed that KinTape did not facilitate muscle performance in generating higher peak torque, yielding a greater total work, or inducing an earlier onset of peak torque.

The authors concluded that previously reported muscle facilitatory effects using KinTape may be attributed to placebo effects.

The claims that are being made for kinesiology taping are truly extraordinary; just consider what this website is trying to tell us:

Kinesiology tape is a breakthrough new method for treating athletic sprains, strains and sports injuries. You may have seen Olympic and celebrity athletes wearing multicolored tape on their arms, legs, shoulders and back. This type of athletic tape is a revolutionary therapeutic elastic style of support that works in multiple ways to improve health and circulation in ways that traditional athletic tapes can’t compare. Not only does this new type of athletic tape help support and heal muscles, but it also provides faster, more thorough healing by aiding with blood circulation throughout the body.

Many athletes who have switched to using this new type of athletic tape report a wide variety of benefits including improved neuromuscular movement and circulation, pain relief and more. In addition to its many medical uses, Kinesiology tape is also used to help prevent injuries and manage pain and swelling, such as from edema. Unlike regular athletic taping, using elastic tape allows you the freedom of motion without restricting muscles or blood flow. By allowing the muscles a larger degree of movement, the body is able to heal itself more quickly and fully than before.

Whenever I read such over-enthusiastic promotion that is not based on evidence but on keen salesmanship, my alarm-bells start ringing and I see parallels to the worst type of alternative medicine hype. In fact, kinesiology tapes have all the hallmarks of alternative medicine and its promoters have, as far as I can see, all the characteristics of quacks. The motto seems to be: LET’S EARN SOME MONEY FAST AND IGNORE THE SCIENCE WHILE WE CAN.

If you believe herbalists, the Daily Mail or similarly reliable sources, you come to the conclusion that herbal medicines are entirely safe – after all they are natural, and everything that is natural must be safe. However, there is plenty of evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily correct. In fact, herbal medicines can cause harm in diverse ways, e. g. because:

  • one or more ingredients of a plant are toxic,
  • they interact with prescribed drugs,
  • they are contaminated, for instance, with heavy metals,
  • they are adulterated with prescription drugs.

There is no shortage of evidence for any of these 4 scenarios. Here are some very recent and relevant publications:

German authors reviewed recent case reports and case series that provided evidence for herbal hepatotoxicity caused by Chinese herbal mixtures. The implicated remedies were the TCM products Ban Tu Wan, Chai Hu, Du Huo, Huang Qin, Jia Wei Xia Yao San, Jiguja, Kamishoyosan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Lu Cha, Polygonum multiflorum products, Shan Chi, ‘White flood’ containing the herbal TCM Wu Zhu Yu and Qian Ceng Ta, and Xiao Chai Hu Tang. the authors concluded that stringent evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is essential to protect traditional Chinese medicines users from health hazards including liver injury.

A recent review of Nigerian anti-diabetic herbal remedies suggested hypoglycemic effect of over 100 plants. One-third of them have been studied for their mechanism of action, while isolation of the bioactive constituent(s) has been accomplished for 23 plants. Several plants showed specific organ toxicity, mostly nephrotoxic or hepatotoxic, with direct effects on the levels of some liver function enzymes. Twenty-eight plants have been identified as in vitro modulators of P-glycoprotein and/or one or more of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, while eleven plants altered the levels of phase 2 metabolic enzymes, chiefly glutathione, with the potential to alter the pharmacokinetics of co-administered drugs

US authors published a case of a 44-year-old female who developed subacute liver injury demonstrated on a CT scan and liver biopsy within a month of using black cohosh to resolve her hot flashes. Since the patient was not taking any other drugs, they concluded that the acute liver injury was caused by the use of black cohosh. The authors concluded: we agree with the United States Pharmacopeia recommendations that a cautionary warning about hepatotoxicity should be labeled on the drug package.

Hong Kong toxicologists recently reported five cases of poisoning occurring as a result of inappropriate use of herbs in recipes or general herbal formulae acquired from books. Aconite poisoning due to overdose or inadequate processing accounted for three cases. The other two cases involved the use of herbs containing Strychnos alkaloids and Sophora alkaloids. These cases demonstrated that inappropriate use of Chinese medicine can result in major morbidity, and herbal formulae and recipes containing herbs available in general publications are not always safe.

Finally, Australian emergency doctors just published this case-report: A woman aged 34 years presented to hospital with a history of progressive shortness of breath, palpitations, decreased exercise tolerance and generalised arthralgia over the previous month. A full blood count revealed normochromic normocytic anaemia and a haemoglobin level of 66 g/L. The blood film showed basophilic stippling, prompting measurement of lead levels. Her blood lead level (BLL) was 105 µg/dL. Mercury and arsenic levels were also detected at very low levels. On further questioning, the patient reported that in the past 6 months she had ingested multiple herbal preparations supplied by an overseas Ayurvedic practitioner for enhancement of fertility. She was taking up to 12 different tablets and various pastes and powders daily. Her case was reported to public health authorities and the herbal preparations were sent for analytical testing. Analysis confirmed high levels of lead (4% w/w), mercury (12% w/w), arsenic and chromium. The lead levels were 4000 times the maximum allowable lead level in medications sold or produced in Australia. Following cessation of the herbal preparations, the patient was commenced on oral chelation therapy, iron supplementation and contraception. A 3-week course of oral DMSA (2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid) was well tolerated; BLL was reduced to 13 µg/dL and haemoglobin increased to 99 g/L. Her symptoms improved over the subsequent 3 months and she remains hopeful about becoming pregnant.

So, how safe are herbal medicines? Unfortunately, the question is unanswerable. Some herbal medicines are quite safe, others are not. But always remember: whenever you administer a treatment you should ask yourself one absolutely crucial question: do the documented benefits outweigh the risks? There are several thousand different herbal medicines, and for less than a dozen of them can the honest answer to this question be YES.

We all know, I think, that chronic low back pain (CLBP) is common and causes significant suffering in individuals as well as cost to society. Many treatments are on offer but, as we have seen repeatedly on this blog, not one is convincingly effective and some, like chiropractic, is associated with considerable risks.

Enthusiasts claim that hypnotherapy works well, but too little is known about the minimum dose needed to produce meaningful benefits, the roles of home practice and hypnotizability on outcome, or the maintenance of treatment benefits beyond 3 months. A new trial was aimed at addressing these issues.

One hundred veterans with CLBP participated in a randomized, four parallel group study. The groups were (1) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention without audio recordings for home practice; (2) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings; (3) a two-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings and brief weekly reminder telephone calls; and (4) an eight-session active (biofeedback) control intervention.

Participants in all four groups reported significant pre- to post-treatment improvements in pain intensity, pain interference and sleep quality. The three hypnotherapy groups combined reported significantly more pain intensity reduction than the control group. There was no significant difference among the three hypnotherapy groups. Over half of the participants who received hypnotherapy reported clinically meaningful (≥30%) reductions in pain intensity, and they maintained these benefits for at least 6 months after treatment. Neither hypnotizability nor amount of home practice was associated significantly with treatment outcome.

The authors conclude that two sessions of self-hypnosis training with audio recordings for home practice may be as effective as eight sessions of hypnosis treatment. If replicated in other patient samples, the findings have important implications for the application of hypnosis treatment for chronic pain management.

Even though this trial has several important limitations, I do agree with the authors: these results would be worth an independent replication – not least because self-hypnosis is cheap and does not carry great risks. What would be interesting, in my view, are studies that compare several alternative LBP therapies (e.g. chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, various form of exercise and hypnotherapy) in terms of cost, risks, long-term effectiveness and patients’ preference. I somehow feel that the results of such comparative trials might overturn the often issued recommendations for spinal manipulation, i.e. chiropractic or osteopathy.

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