MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

gullible consumer

Would you believe it? This is the 500th post on this blog!

When I started this blog less than three years ago, I would have never thought that I would have fun doing this; and I would not have expected to get hooked on it. In fact, it needed even a bit of arm twisting to try it, and I have to thank Alan for doing it and everything else. Without him, this blog would surely not exist.

With my very first post, I promised that my blog is not going to provide just another critique of alternative medicine; it is going to be different, I hope. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: I have researched alternative medicine for two decades. My team and I have conducted about 40 clinical trials and published more than 100 systematic reviews of alternative medicine. We were by far the most productive research unit in this area. For 14 years, we hosted an annual international conference for researchers in this field. I know many of the leading investigators personally, and I understand their way of thinking. I have rehearsed every possible argument for or against alternative medicine dozens of times.

In a nutshell, I am not someone who judges alternative medicine from the outside; I come from within the field. Arguably, I am the only researcher in this area who is willing [or capable?] to state publicly what is wrong with alternative medicine. This is perhaps one of the advantages of being an emeritus professor!

I am not sure whether I lived up to this promise – but I did try. And one thing is for sure, it was an eventful exercise. The blog now has ~ 20 000 readers every week; we had something like 15 000 comments; and some posts were re-tweeted several hundred times.

This seems to indicate that there is a need for a forum of this nature. Alternative medicine continues to be popular but critical thinking is not something that this field is blessed with. On the contrary, the misinformation on this subject is simply monstrous and seems to be growing every day. Factual and reliable information is very hard to come by, and therefore I feel that I am doing an important educational job here.

It’s a job which I certainly could not do alone. I therefore like to take this occasion to thank everyone who made my blog what it is today. Alan has already been mentioned but the many commentators deserve a big THANKS too – regardless of whether I agree or disagree with you, your comments make it all worth my while.

Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is an infectious disease caused by Borrelia infection transmitted by ticks. The most common early sign is an expanding area of redness beginning at the site of a bite about a week after a tick-bite. Fever, tiredness and headaches often follow. Later stages are characterised by more severe and remarkably variable illness.

Patients with medically unexplained or vague symptoms are sometimes told that they suffer from Lyme disease. These patients are commonly targeted by providers of alternative therapies who promise hope by claiming that their particular brand of quackery is effective for this chronic condition.

A recent review was designed to identify and characterize the range of unorthodox alternative therapies advertised to patients with a diagnosis of Lyme disease.

Internet searches using the Google search engine were performed to identify the websites of clinics and services that marketed non-antimicrobial therapies for Lyme disease. Subsequently the PubMed search engine was employed to identify any scientific studies evaluating such treatments for Lyme disease. Websites were included in this review, if they advertised a commercial, non-antimicrobial product or service that specifically mentioned utility for Lyme disease. Websites with patient testimonials (such as discussion groups) were excluded unless the testimonial appeared as marketing on a commercial site.

More than 30 different alternative treatments were identified. They fell into several broad categories: these included oxygen and reactive oxygen therapy; energy and radiation-based therapies; nutritional therapies; chelation and heavy metal therapies; and biological and pharmacological therapies ranging from certain medications without recognized therapeutic effects on Borrelia burgdorgeri to stem cell transplantation. The review of the medical literature did not substantiate efficacy or, in most cases, any rationale for the advertised treatments.

The authors concluded that providers of alternative therapies commonly target patients who believe they have Lyme disease. The efficacy of these unconventional treatments for Lyme disease is not supported by scientific evidence, and in many cases they are potentially harmful.

Being a bacterial infection, Lyme disease can be successfully treated with oral or intra-venous antibiotics. But, of course, patients need to have the infection in order to benefit from antibiotic treatment. Those patients who don’t are easy targets for charlatans promising help from bogus treatments. It seems that an entire, profitable industry has developed around this situation.

According to Bloomberg Markets, A Nelson & Co Ltd. manufactures and markets natural healthcare products. The company offers arnica creams that provide natural first aid for bruises; plant and flower based remedies that help in managing the emotional demands of everyday life; and over-the-counter homeopathic medicines for everyday ailments, such as relief from travel sickness and relief for the symptoms of hay fever. It also provides hemorrhoid relief creams and soothing hygienic wipes; anti-blemish range products for various skin types and age groups; multi-purpose cream that helps to soothe and restore skin; iron supplements; teething granules that provide relief from the symptoms and discomfort of teething; a range of creams, ointments, and sprays for a range of common skin conditions/complaints; and a range of commonly used herbal remedies. The company offers products for ailments, including aches and pains, mild anxiety, babies and children, colds and minor infections, digestion, emotional health, energy, everyday stresses, first aid, getting older, pets, quit smoking, skin, sleep, travel, and women’s health. It also operates a clinic; and a pharmacy that offers homeopathy and complementary healthcare products. The company offers its products through its pharmacy in the United Kingdom; and distributors in Europe, Latin America, and internationally. It also serves customers online. The company was formerly known as Armbrecht, Nelson & Co. The company was founded in 1860 and is based in London, United Kingdom with subsidiary offices in Boston, Massachusetts; and Hamburg, Germany. A Nelson & Co Ltd. operates as a subsidiary of Nelson and Russell Holdings Ltd.

In the journal ‘Chemist and Druggist’ we find an article informing us that, in 1930, Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy was approached by Dr Edward Bach who wanted help making and selling his products. He had created 38 flower remedies to rebalance emotions and later created an emergency remedy, a combination of five flower remedies that became Rescue. The relationship between Nelsons and the Dr Edward Bach Centre, based at Dr Bach’s former home at Mount Vernon in Oxfordshire, continues to this day and both the Bach Original Flower Remedies and Rescue are key ranges for Nelsons.

Nelson’s homeopathic pharmacy has a proud history:

Ernst Louis Armbrecht, a German pharmacist and disciple of Samuel Hahnemann, came to London and founded Nelsonsin 1860. Since then, Nelsons has been supplying homeopathic medicines. “Our wish today” they state “is the same as 152 years ago: to make homeopathy accessible and to provide the highest standards of medicine and advice.”

The highest standards of medicine and advice? It seems that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) disagrees. A recent ASA Adjudication on A Nelson & Co Ltd deals with an advertisement by Nelsons for ‘Bach Rescue Night’ which stated “I CAN’T SWITCH OFF…The RESCUE NIGHT range helps your mind switch off, so you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep”

A freelance health writer had challenged whether the claims “I can’t switch off … Rescue Night range helps your mind switch off, so you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep” was an authorised health claim in the EU Register of Nutrition and Health Claims for Foods (the EU Register).

The ASA noted that, according to EC Regulation 1924/2006 on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods (the Regulation), which was reflected in the CAP Code, only health claims which appeared on the list of authorised health claims (the Register) could be made in ads promoting foods, including food supplements. Health claims were defined as those that stated, suggested or implied that a relationship existed between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health.

The ASA furthermore stated: We acknowledged Rescue Remedy’s assertion that their ad had not made specific claims to aid sleep or that it improved sleep. However, we considered that the use of visuals such as a crescent moon and stars on a dark background, that the letter ‘O’ in the word “OFF” resembled a simple on/ off light switch image, the text “… you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep” and the name of the product “Rescue Night” was likely to give the impression to consumers that it was a product that would aid sleep or that it would help consumers fall asleep easily. We understood that ‘unwanted thoughts’ was one reason why consumers might find it difficult to get to sleep and, again, considered this added to the impression that the product would contribute positively to sleep. We therefore considered that the ad made a health claim related to sleep involving a food item.

We understood that some Bach Flower Remedies contained levels of alcohol which would preclude them from bearing health claims altogether, however, we noted that Bach Rescue Night was alcohol free. We acknowledged Rescue Remedy’s points regarding EFSA and ‘on hold’ claims for botanicals. We understood that ‘on hold’ claims for such botanicals could be used in marketing, provided such use had the same meaning as the proposed claim and they were used in compliance with applicable existing national provisions (in this case the CAP Code). However, Rescue Remedy did not provide evidence that relevant proposed claims for white chestnut, or any of the other product ingredients were ‘on hold’. Nevertheless, we understood that there were no ‘on hold’ claims entered onto the Register for white chestnut or the other product ingredients. Furthermore, ‘on hold’ claims should also be supported with adequate substantiation which we did not receive.

Because the ad made health claims relating to Bach Rescue Night as a sleep aid and we had not seen evidence that relevant claims for the botanical ingredients contained in the product were ‘on hold’, we concluded that the ad breached the Code.

The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 15.1, 15.1.1 and 15.7 (Food, food supplements and associated health or nutritional claims).

The ASA ruled that the ad must not appear again in its current form. We told A Nelson & Co Ltd t/a rescueremedy.co.uk not to make health claims for botanical ingredients if they did not comply with the requirements of the Regulation.

I am afraid that such a ruling will have very little effect on the sale of Bach Flower Remedies. In case you have any doubt, I should mention that these inventions of Dr Bach are not supported by good evidence. Here is the abstract of my systematic review on the subject:

Bach flower remedies continue to be popular and its proponents make a range of medicinal claims for them. The aim of this systematic review was to critically evaluate the evidence for these claims. Five electronic databases were searched without restrictions on time or language. All randomised clinical trials of flower remedies were included. Seven such studies were located. All but one were placebo-controlled. All placebo-controlled trials failed to demonstrate efficacy. It is concluded that the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos.

Bach Flower Remedies have no effect whatsoever!

Come to think of it, this is not entirely true: they obviously keep the ASA busy, they exploit the gullible public, and they are clearly good for the cash flow at Nelson’s.

Each year, during the Christmas period, we are bombarded with religious ideology, soapy sentimentality and delusive festive cheer. In case you are beginning to feel slightly nauseous about all this, it might be time to counter-balance this abundance with my (not entirely serious) version of the ’10 commandments of quackery’?

  1. You must not use therapies other than those recommended by your healer – certainly nothing that is evidence-based!
  2. You must never doubt what your healer tells you; (s)he embraces the wisdom of millennia combined with the deep insights of post-modernism – and is therefore beyond doubt.
  3. You must happily purchase all the books, gadgets, supplements etc. your healer offers for sale. For more merchandise, you must frequent your local health food shops. Money is no object!
  4. You must never read scientific literature; it is the writing of evil. The truth can only be found by studying the texts recommended by your healer.
  5. You must never enter into discussions with sceptics or other critical thinkers; they are wicked and want to destroy your well-being.
  6. You must do everything in your power to fight the establishment, Big Pharma, their dangerous drugs and vicious vaccines.
  7. You must support Steiner Schools, Prince Charles and other enlightened visionaries so that the next generation is guided towards the eternal light.
  8. You must detox regularly to eliminate the ubiquitous, malignant poisons of Satan.
  9. You must blindly, unreservedly and religiously believe in vitalism, quantum medicine, vibrational energy and all other concepts your healer relies upon.
  10. You must denounce, vilify, aggress and attack anyone who disagrees with the gospel of your healer.

One thing that has often irritated me – alright, I admit it: sometimes it even infuriated me – is the pseudoscientific language of authors writing about alternative medicine. Reading publications in this area often seems to me like being in the middle of a game of ‘bullshit bingo’ (I am afraid that some of the commentators on this blog have importantly contributed to this phenomenon). In an article of 2004, I once discussed this issue in some detail and concluded that “… pseudo-scientific language … can be seen as an attempt to present nonsense as science…this misleads patients and can thus endanger their health…” For this paper, I had focussed on examples from the ‘bioresonance’- literature – more by coincidence than by design, I should add. I could have selected any other alternative treatment or diagnostic method; the use of pseudoscientific language is truly endemic in alternative medicine.

To give you a little flavour, here is the section of my 2004 paper where I used 5 quotes from recent articles on bioresonance and added a brief comment after each of them.

Quote No. 1

The biophysical control processes are superordinate to the biochemical processes. In the same way as the atomic processes result in chemical compounds the ultrafine biocommunication results in the biochemical processes. Control signals have an electromagnetic quality. Disturbing signals or ‘disturbing energies’ also have an electromagnetic quality. This is the reason why they can, for example, be conducted through cables and transformed into therapy signals by means of sophisticated electronic devices. The purpose is to clear the pathological part of the signals.’

Here the author uses highly technical language which, at first, sounds very complicated and scientific. However, after a second read, one is bound to discover that the words hide more than they reveal. In particular, the scientific tone distracts from the lack of logic in the argument. The basic message, once the pseudoscientific veneer is stripped away, seems to be the following. Living systems display electromagnetic phenomena. The electromagnetic energies that they rely upon can make us ill. The energies can also be transferred into an electronic instrument where they can be changed so that they don’t cause any more harm.

Quote No. 2

A very important advantage of the BICOM device as compared to the original form of the MORA-therapy in paediatry is the possibility to reduce the oscillation, a fact which meets much better the reaction pattern of the child and gives better results’ [3].

This paragraph essentially states that the BICOM instrument can change (the frequency or amplitude of) some sort of (electromagnetic) wave. We are told that, for children, this is preferable because of the way children tend to react. This would then be more effective.

Quote No. 3

The question how causative the Bioresonanz-Therapy can be must be answered in a differentiated way. The BR is in the first place effective on the informative level, which means on the ultrafine biokybernetical regulation level of the organism. This also includes the time factor and with that the functional aspect, and thus it influences the material-biochemical area of the body. The BRT is in comparison to other therapy procedures very high on the scale of causativeness, but it still remains in the physical level, and does not reach into the spiritual area. The freeing of the patient from his diseases can self evidently also lead to a change and improvement of conduct and attitudes and to a general wellbeing of the patient’ [4].

This amazing statement is again not easy to understand. If my reading is correct, the author essentially wants to tell us that BR interferes with the flow of information within organisms. The process is time-dependent and therefore affects function, physical and biochemical properties. Compared to other treatments, BR is more causative without affecting our spiritual sphere. As BR cures a disease, it can also change behaviour, attitudes and wellbeing.

Quote No. 4

MORA therapy is an auto-iso-therapy using the patient’s own vibrations in a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Strictly speaking, we have hyperwaves in a six-dimensional cosmos with two hidden parameters (as predicted by Albert Einstein and others). Besides the physical plane there are six other planes of existence and the MORA therapy works in the biological plane, a region called the M-field, according to Sheldrake and Burkhard Heim’ [5].

Here we seem to be told that the MORA therapy is a selftreatment using the body’s own resources, namely a broad range of electromagnetic waves. These waves are hyperwaves in 6 dimensions and their existence has already been predicted by Einstein. Six (or 7?) planes of existence seem to have been discovered and the MORA therapy is operative in one of them.

Quote No. 5

The author presents an overall medical conception of the world between mass maximum and masslessness and completes it with the pair of concepts of subjectivity/objectivity. Three test procedures of the bioelectronic function diagnostics are presented and incorporated in addition to other procedures in this conception of the world. Therefore, in the sense of a holistic medicine, there is a useful indication for every medical procedure, because there are different objectives associated with each procedure. A one-sided assessment of the procedures does not do justice to the human being as a whole’ [6].

This author introduces a new concept of the world between maxima and minima of mass or objectivity. He has developed 3 tests of BR diagnosis that fit into the new concept. Therefore, holistically speaking, any therapy is good for something because each may have a different aim. One-sided assessments of such holistic treatments are too narrow bearing in mind the complexity of a human being.

The danger of pseudoscientific language in health care is obvious: it misleads patients, consumers, journalists, politicians, and everyone else (perhaps even some of the original authors?) into believing that nonsense is credible; to express it more bluntly: it is a method of cheating the unsuspecting public. Yes, the way I see it, it is a form of health fraud. Thus it leads to wrong therapeutic decisions and endangers public health.

I could easily get quite cross with the many authors who publish such drivel. But let’s not allow them to spoil our day; let’s take a different approach: let’s try to have some fun.

I herewith invite my readers to post quotes in the comments section of the most extraordinary excesses of pseudoscientific language that they have come across. If the result is sufficiently original, I might try to design a new BULLSHIT BINGO with it.

If you have diabetes, chances are that you need life-long treatment. Before effective anti-diabetic medications became available, diabetes amounted to a death sentence. Fortunately, these times are long gone.

…unless, of course, you decide to listen to the promises of alternative practitioners many of whom offer a cure for diabetes. Here is just one website of hundreds that does just that. The following is an abbreviated quote where I have changed nothing, not even the numerous spelling mistakes:

Modern medicine has no  permanent cure for diabetes but alternative medicines like yoga ,mudra,ayurveda is very useful to control and even cure diabetes.Ayurveda is an alternative medicine to cure diabetes.

Alternative medicine like ayurveda is a best to cure diabetes naturally.
A serious disorder of the glands,of pancreas to be exact,is diabetes,or madhumeha as described in ayurveda.It is one of the most insidious disorders of the metabolism and,if left undiagnosed or untreated,it may lead to rapid emaciation and ultimately death…
Ayurveda medicines to cure diabetes
In ayurveda the following medicines have been recommended for this disease
Shiljita ————————–240 mg
Nyagrodadhi churna ———3 gm
These should be given twice after meals with decoction of arni.
Vasantakusumakara rasa —120 mg
Shudha Shilajit ————–240 mg
Nag Bhasma —————–120 mg
Haldi ————————–500 mg
Amlaki Churna ————-500 mg
Twice daily with powder of rose-apple stones.Twice daily with honey.
Chadraprabha  Vati ——– 500 mg
Mudra the alternative treatment to cure diabetes naturally
Mudra is a non medical and no cost treatment to cure diabetes.You can perform mudras at any time or any position.It is an effective way of treatment you can get better result if you practice it regularly .

It goes without saying that none of these treatments would cure diabetes. A Cochrane review concluded that there is insufficient evidence at present to recommend the use of these interventions in routine clinical practice. It also goes without saying that not many patients would fall for the nonsense proclaimed on this or so many other websites. But even just one single patient dying because of some charlatan promising a cure for life-threatening diseases is one patient too many.

I just came across this hilarious yet revealing article by Italian authors defending homeopathy. It is far too remarkable to keep it for myself, and I therefore decided to quote its abstract here in full:

Throughout its over 200-year history, homeopathy has been proven effective in treating diseases for which conventional medicine has little to offer. However, given its low cost, homeopathy has always represented a serious challenge and a constant threat to the profits of drug companies. Moreover, since drug companies represent the most relevant source of funding for biomedical research worldwide, they are in a privileged position to finance detractive campaigns against homeopathy by manipulating the media as well as academic institutions and the medical establishment. The basic argument against homeopathy is that in some controlled clinical trials (CCTs), comparison with conventional treatments shows that its effects are not superior to those of placebo. Against this thesis we argue that a) CCT methodology cannot be applied to homeopathy, b) misconduct and fraud are common in CCTs, c) adverse drug reactions and side effects show that CCT methodology is deeply flawed, d) an accurate testing of homeopathic remedies requires more sophisticated techniques, e) the placebo effect is no more “plausible” than homeopathy, and its real nature is still unexplained, and f) the placebo effect is nevertheless a “cure” and, as such, worthy of further investigation and analysis. It is concluded that no arguments presently exist against homeopathy and that the recurrent campaigns against it represent the specific interests of the pharmaceutical industry which, in this way, strives to protect its profits from the “threat” of a safer, more effective, and much less expensive treatment modality.

Despite (or is it because?) of such nonsense, homeopathy seems to be very popular, especially in the treatment of small children, and particularly for conditions where conventional medicine has no effective treatment. Teething problems are thus an ideal target for the homeopathic industry.

A survey of British GPs found that the most frequently prescribed homeopathic remedies were for common self-limiting infantile conditions such as colic, cuts and bruises, and teething. Similarly, the Avon-study suggested that homeopathic Chamomillia is popular to alleviate the pain of teething. And prominent homeopaths recommend that “teething often responds to Chamomilla.

One website also recommends Chamomilla as well as several other homeopathic remedies leaving little doubt about their efficacy:

Chamomilla 6c: When teething is very painful and the child becomes quite cranky, satisfied with nothing and pacified only by being carried, then Chamomilla may help. Sometimes, the child seeking some relief from the discomfort will demand one thing after another, rejecting each one when it does not give relief. Children who could benefit from this remedy are very irritable, with a cry that sounds as if they are in pain. Chamomilla 6c can be taken every thirty minutes, up to six times per day, while symptoms persist.

Mercurius sol 6c: This remedy may be of help in cases where teething is accompanied by excessive salivation and drooling. In addition, the gums are likely to be red and sore, and the child may have diarrhea with a foul smell to it. Mercurius sol 6c can be taken four to six times per day for two to three days; its use should be discontinued when the symptoms diminish.

>Belladonna 30c: For children who tend to develop a fever with a flushed, red face when they are cutting teeth, Belladonna may be a good choice. Often the eyes have a glassy look due to the dilation of the pupils. The child may be irritable and crying as if angry. Belladonna 30c can be taken every thirty minutes up to four times per day, while symptoms continue.

Aconite napellus 30c: When the symptoms come on quickly and include physical and mental restlessness, this remedy may be useful. The affected gums will be hot, swollen, and inflamed and there may also be an earache with aversion to loud noises. The condition may come on following exposure to cold, dry winds. Try Aconite napellus 30c every hour for up to six times per day.

Calcarea carbonica 6c: When children are finally cutting teeth that have been late in erupting, Calcarea carbonica could be helpful. This remedy is often helpful with “late bloomers,” babies who develop a little more slowly, crawling, walking, and cutting teeth on their own schedule, weeks or months later than some other babies or toddlers. Children likely to benefit from Calcarea carbonica often have sweaty heads and feet and may have a tendency to develop cradle cap or yeast infections. With teething, they often do not show the extreme irritability that calls for Chamomilla, or the fever that indicates Belladonna, but they may have teeth that seem permanently on the verge of breaking through the surface. Calcarea carbonica 6c can be taken three times per day, for up to ten days; its use should be discontinued when symptoms improve.

Given this level of assurance, it not really surprising that manufacturers of homeopathic remedies want to profit from all this. Anxious mothers must seem like sitting ducks to the homeopathic industry.

Camilia, a homeopathic teething remedy that contains Chamomillia in the 9c potency from Boiron, the world’s largest producer of homeopathic products, will be launched shortly in the UK. The PR-agency in charge of the UK campaign to promote camilia announced that they will focus on a “national awareness drive through earned and paid-for media along with influencer engagement.” The agency is also responsible for re-building the brand’s website and implementing a strategy to drive discovery online. Amanda Meyrick of Clarion Communications, said: “Launching a product into a new market gives us the opportunity to work in partnership from the beginning to establish Camilia in the UK, and we are looking forward to seeing the results of our planning and creativity.” Remarkably, nobody seems to mention efficacy as a factor in the promotion of camilia.

However, the product is already available in the US, and from the US website we learn that this remedy “temporarily relieves symptoms of teething, including painful gums and irritability.” So, there are clear claims of efficacy after all!

Boiron is not the only firm who aim to profit from the vast market of teething problems. Nelson’s Teetha, for instance, is already available in the UK. Each 300mg sachet of TEETHA contains “the active ingredient of Chamomilla 6c.” Even Boots, the UK’s ‘trusted’ high street pharmacy, sell a product called ‘TEETHING PAIN RELIEF’ which also contains Chamomilla 6c, its only ‘active’ ingredient. Even the name of their product carries a therapeutic claim for efficacy, in my view.

But hold on! A 6c dilution equals one ml of plant extract diluted in 1 000 000 000 litres of water (add 6 zeros to that figure for the Boiron product)!!! Is that really going to alleviate teething problems?

Of course not!, you will say. Dilutions of this nature will do nothing whatsoever.

But they are not just dilutions, they are potentiations! would the homeopaths counter; they have been succussed at each dilution step, and this process transfers a vital force from the Chamomilla extract to the remedy. Yes, of course, how could I forget – it’s homeopathy where LIKE CURES LIKE and people believe in the tooth fairy.

But this does not make any sense either!

Chamomillia is nothing other than chamomile, a plant known to sooth through its anti-inflammatory actions. So, in highly diluted homeopathic products, the actions of this plant should be reversed according to the ‘like cures like’ principle. That means that these teething products, according to homeopathic ‘logic’, is not for treating inflamed gums but for treating the absence of inflammation.

My mind boggles because nothing seems to make sense any more:

  • according to real science (or just common sense), the dilutions are far to high to have any effect at all,
  • according to homeopathic ‘logic’, these products should, if anything, produce inflammation and not alleviate it,
  • according to the best clinical evidence, homeopathic remedies are not effective for teething; I am not aware of a single rigorous trial that would show its efficacy, and current reviews do not recommend homeopathy for teething problems,
  • regardless of all this and despite of regulations prohibiting it, therapeutic claims are being made for these over-priced placebos.

Puzzled?

Don’t be!

IT’S HOMEOPATHY STUPID!

I find it always nice to see that people appreciate my work. Yet sometimes I am a little surprised to realise what some commercially interested firms make of it. Recently I came across a website that proudly used my research for advertising the use of magnetic bracelets against pain. Here is the text in question:

The extra strong magnets make this magnetic bracelet the fastest acting pain reliever. While wearing this magnetic bracelet customers with wrist and hand pain report significant pain relief….

What is a magnetic bracelet and what are the benefits? Magnetic bracelets are a piece of jewelry, worn for the therapeutic benefits of the magnetic field. Magnetic bracelets has been used successfully by many people for pain relief of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, tendinitis and bursitis.

A randomized, placebo controlled trial with three parallel groups, came to the conclusion : Pain from osteoarthritis of the hip and knee decreases when wearing magnetic bracelets. It is uncertain whether this response is due to specific or non-specific (placebo) effects. Tim Harlow, general practitioner, Colin Greaves, research fellow, Adrian White, senior research fellow, Liz Brown, research assistant, Anna Hart, statistician, Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine.

The entrepreneurs seem to have forgotten a few things which we tried to make clear in our paper:

  • this article was published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ which specialises in publishing unusual and odd findings with a high entertainment value,
  • in our paper, we point out that “the contamination of group B with stronger magnets prevented a more objective estimation of any-placebo effect”,
  • and stressed that “there were problems with the weak magnets”,
  • and that “a per-specification analysis suggested (but could not confirm) a specific effect of magnetic bracelets over and above placebo”.

Most importantly, this was just one trial, and surely one swallow does not make a summer! We should always consider the totality of the reliable evidence. Being conscientious researchers, at the time, we did exactly that and conducted a systematic review. Here is the abstract in its full beauty:

BACKGROUND:

Static magnets are marketed with claims of effectiveness for reducing pain, although evidence of scientific principles or biological mechanisms to support such claims is limited. We performed a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the clinical evidence from randomized trials of static magnets for treating pain.

METHODS:

Systematic literature searches were conducted from inception to March 2007 for the following data sources: MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine Database), CINAHL, Scopus, the Cochrane Library and the UK National Research Register. All randomized clinical trials of static magnets for treating pain from any cause were considered. Trials were included only if they involved a placebo control or a weak magnet as the control, with pain as an outcome measure. The mean change in pain, as measured on a 100-mm visual analogue scale, was defined as the primary outcome and was used to assess the difference between static magnets and placebo.

RESULTS:

Twenty-nine potentially relevant trials were identified. Nine randomized placebo-controlled trials assessing pain with a visual analogue scale were included in the main meta-analysis; analysis of these trials suggested no significant difference in pain reduction (weighted mean difference [on a 100-mm visual analogue scale] 2.1 mm, 95% confidence interval -1.8 to 5.9 mm, p = 0.29). This result was corroborated by sensitivity analyses excluding trials of acute effects and conditions other than musculoskeletal conditions. Analysis of trials that assessed pain with different scales suggested significant heterogeneity among the trials, which means that pooling these data is unreliable.

INTERPRETATION:

The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment. For osteoarthritis, the evidence is insufficient to exclude a clinically important benefit, which creates an opportunity for further investigation.

So, would I, on the basis of the current best evidence, recommend magnetic bracelets to people who suffer from pain? No! In my view, only charlatans would do such a thing.

A recent US study found that belief in conspiracy theories is rife in health care. The investigators presented people with 6 different conspiracy theories, and the one that was most widely believed was the following:

THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION IS DELIBERATELY PREVENTING THE PUBLIC FROM GETTING NATURAL CURES FOR CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES BECAUSE OF PRESSURE FROM DRUG COMPANIES.

A total of 37% agreed with this statement, 31% had no opinion on the matter, and 32% disagreed. What is more, the belief in this particular conspiracy correlated positively with the usage of alternative medicine.

Essentially, this implies that the current popularity of alternative medicine is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by the FDA or more generally speaking ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of alternative treatments.

I think it was Woody Allen who noted that, just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not following you. So, let’s look for evidence suggesting that the FDA or any similar organisation is suppressing alternative medicine.

A prime candidate is, of course, the often implicated, thoroughly evil ‘BIG PHARMA‘. I am not a fan of the pharmaceutical industry and I know few people who are. But where is the evidence for BIG PHARMA’s conspiracy against alternative medicine? In the many years of researching this sector, I have never come across a jot of evidence to support this notion. On the contrary, BIG PHARMA seems all to keen to jump on to the alternative bandwagon and make a few quick bucks from the gullibility of the consumer.

What about the rest of the medical establishment? All I see is that universities, hospitals, charities and other organisations in health care currently bend over backwards in order to accommodate as much alternative medicine as they possibly can get away with in view of the often embarrassing lack of convincing evidence for the treatments in question. Conspiracy against alternative medicine? I don’t think so.

The closer we look, the more we arrive at the conclusion that the conspiracy against alternative medicine is a myth and a figment of the imagination of those who religiously believe in alternative medicine. They seem to long for an explanation why their favourite therapy is not in even more wide-spread use. Cognitive dissonance seems to prevent them to consider that the lack of evidence has anything to do with this situation. Consequently, they prefer to invent a conspiracy theory.

And this is where an interesting question emerges, in my view: do people who believe that the FDA or other organisations prevent the public from getting more alternative medicine really need more alternative medicine, or do they perhaps just need an effective treatment for their paranoia?

It is almost 10 years ago that Prof Kathy Sykes’ BBC series entitled ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE was aired. I had been hired by the BBC as their advisor for the programme and had tried my best to iron out the many mistakes that were about to be broadcast. But the scope for corrections turned out to be narrow and, at one stage, the errors seemed too serious and too far beyond repair to continue with my task. I had thus offered my resignation from this post. Fortunately this move led to some of my concerns being addressed after all, and they convinced me to remain in post.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Kathy presented the opening scene of a young women undergoing open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. All the BBC had ever shown me and asked me to advise on was the text – I had never seen the images. Kathy’s text included the statement that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  I had not objected to this statement in the firm belief that the images of the film would back up this extraordinary claim. As it turned out, it did not; the patient clearly had all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines and, in the film, these were openly in the view of Kathy Sykes.

This overt contradiction annoyed not just me but several other people as well. One of them was Simon Singh who filed an official complaint against the BBC for misleading the public, and eventually won his case.

The notion that acupuncture can serve as an alternative to anaesthesia or other surgical conditions crops up with amazing regularity. It is important not least because is often used as a promotional tool with the implication that, IF ACUPUNCTURE CAN ACHIVE SUCH DRAMATIC EFFECTS, IT MUST BE AN INCREDIBLY USEFUL TREATMENT! It is therefore relevant to ask what the scientific evidence tells us about this issue.

This was the question we wanted to address in a recent publication. Specifically, our aim was to summarise recent systematic reviews of acupuncture for surgical conditions.

Thirteen electronic databases were searched for relevant reviews published since 2000. Data were extracted by two independent reviewers according to predefined criteria. Twelve systematic reviews met our inclusion criteria. They related to the prevention or treatment of post-operative nausea and vomiting as well as to surgical or post-operative pain. The reviews drew conclusions which were far from uniform; specifically for surgical pain the evidence was not convincing. We concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention in surgical settings.”

So, Kathy Sykes’ comment was misguided in more than just one way: firstly, the scene she described in the film did not support what she was saying; secondly, the scientific evidence fails to support the notion that acupuncture can be used as an alternative to analgesia during surgery.

This story has several positive outcomes all the same. After seeing the BBC programme, Simon Singh contacted me to learn my views on the matter. This prompted me to support his complaint against the BBC and helped him to win this case. Furthermore, it led to a co-operation and friendship which produced our book TRICK OR TREATMENT.

Recent Comments

Note that comments can now be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories