MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pain

You might think that the question asked in the title of this post is a bit impertinent. Let’s see whether you change your mind after reading on.

“Come along for a ten minute taster sessions and experience the Bowen Technique.
It is appropriate for a wide range of acute and chronic conditions, including back pain, sciatica, neck, shoulder and knee problems, arthritis, asthma, migraine, sports injuries and stress. Ten-minute taster sessions will be offered so that you can experience the therapy first hand. Many find their aches and pains melt away!” 

It is with these exact words that the Royal College of Nursing advertises a session on Bowen Technique to be held during their major conference on Saturday 13 – Wednesday 17 May 2017, Liverpool Arena and Convention Centre.

You may not have heard of the Bowen Technique, one of the more exotic types of alternative medicine. So, let me fill you in:

According to proponents, it is “a system of subtle and precise mobilizations called “Bowen moves” over muscles, tendons, nerves and fascia. The moves are performed using the thumbs and fingers applying only gentle, non invasive pressure. A treatment consists of a series of specific sequences of moves called procedures, with frequent pauses to allow time for the body to respond.”

Wikipedia explains: “recipients are generally fully clothed. Each session typically involves gentle rolling motions along the muscles, tendons, and fascia. The therapy’s distinctive features are the minimal nature of the physical intervention and pauses incorporated in the treatment. Proponents claim these pauses allow the body to “reset” itself. In 2015 the Australian Government’s Department of Health published the results of a review of alternative therapies that sought to determine if any were suitable for being covered by health insurance; Bowen Technique was one of 17 therapies evaluated for which no clear evidence of effectiveness was found.”

Medline lists just one single trial of Bowen Technique; it is not a clinical trial with patients but a study with healthy volunteers; here is its abstract:

The hamstring muscles are regularly implicated in recurrent injuries, movement dysfunction and low back pain. Links between limited flexibility and development of neuromusculoskeletal symptoms are frequently reported. The Bowen Technique is used to treat many conditions including lack of flexibility. The study set out to investigate the effect of the Bowen Technique on hamstring flexibility over time. An assessor-blind, prospective, randomised controlled trial was performed on 120 asymptomatic volunteers. Participants were randomly allocated into a control group or Bowen group. Three flexibility measurements occurred over one week, using an active knee extension test. The intervention group received a single Bowen treatment. A repeated measures univariate analysis of variance, across both groups for the three time periods, revealed significant within-subject and between-subject differences for the Bowen group. Continuing increases in flexibility levels were observed over one week. No significant change over time was noted for the control group.

So, whichever way we look at it, there is no evidence whatsoever that Bowen Technique is helpful for patients suffering from any condition. This clearly means that therapeutic claims made for it are bogus, and that the way the Royal College of Nursing advertised it is misleading to the point of being unethical. By definition, the promotion of bogus treatments is quackery. Ergo, the Royal College of Nursing is promoting quackery.

If that is so, there is of course another question that needs an answer: Why does the Royal College of Nursing promote quackery?

As I see it, there are several possibilities, for instance:

  • They see nothing wrong with the Bowen session.
  • They don’t know better.
  • They don’t adhere to EBM.
  • They don’t care.
  • They were asked to run the session by someone with influence.
  • They believe that nurses want this sort of thing.
  • They think it’s trendy.

I would be fascinated to hear from someone who knows the correct answer.

The BMJ has always been my favourite Medical journal. (Need any proof for this statement? A quick Medline search tells me that I have over 60 publications in the BMJ.) But occasionally, the BMJ also disappoints me a great deal.

One of the most significant disappointments was recently published under the heading of STATE OF THE ART REVIEW. A review that is ‘state of the art’ must fulfil certain criteria; foremost it should be informative, unbiased and correct. The paper I am discussing here has, I think, neither of these qualities. It is entitled ‘Management of chronic pain using complementary and integrative medicine’, and here is its abstract:

Complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) encompasses both Western-style medicine and complementary health approaches as a new combined approach to treat a variety of clinical conditions. Chronic pain is the leading indication for use of CIM, and about 33% of adults and 12% of children in the US have used it in this context. Although advances have been made in treatments for chronic pain, it remains inadequately controlled for many people. Adverse effects and complications of analgesic drugs, such as addiction, kidney failure, and gastrointestinal bleeding, also limit their use. CIM offers a multimodality treatment approach that can tackle the multidimensional nature of pain with fewer or no serious adverse effects. This review focuses on the use of CIM in three conditions with a high incidence of chronic pain: back pain, neck pain, and rheumatoid arthritis. It summarizes research on the mechanisms of action and clinical studies on the efficacy of commonly used CIM modalities such as acupuncture, mind-body system, dietary interventions and fasting, and herbal medicine and nutrients.

The full text of this article is such that I could take issue with almost every second statement in it. Obviously, this would be too long and too boring for this blog. So, to keep it crisp and entertaining, let me copy the (tongue in cheek) ‘letter to the editor’ some of us published in the BMJ as a response to the review:

“Alternative facts are fashionable in politics these days, so why not also in healthcare? The article by Chen and Michalsen on thebmj.com provides a handy set of five instructions for smuggling alternative facts into medicine.

1. Create your own terminology: the term ‘complementary and integrated medicine’ (CIM) is nonsensical. Integrated medicine (a hotly disputed field) already covers complementary and conventional medicine.

2. Pretend to be objective: Chen and Michalsen elaborate on the systematic searches they conducted. But they omit hundreds of sources which do not support their message, which cherry-picks only evidence for the efficacy of the treatments they promote.

3. Avoid negativity: they bypass any material that might challenge what they include. For instance, when discussing therapeutic risks, they omit the disturbing lack of post-marketing surveillance: the reason we lack information on adverse events. They even omit to mention the many fatalities caused by their ‘CIM’.

4. Create an impression of thoroughness: Chen and Michalsen cite a total of 225 references. This apparent scholarly attention to detail masks their misuse of many of they list. Reference 82, for example, is employed to back up the claim that “satisfaction was lowest among complementary medicine users with rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, or connective tissue diseases”. In fact, it shows nothing of the sort.

5. Back up your message with broad generalisations: Chen and Michalsen conclude that “Taken together, CIM has an increasing role in the management of chronic pain, but high quality research is needed”. The implication is that all the CIMs mentioned in their figure 1 are candidates for pain control – even discredited treatments such as homeopathy.

In our view, these authors render us a service: they demonstrate to the novice how alternative facts may be used in medicine.”

James May, Edzard Ernst, Nick Ross, on behalf of HealthWatch UK

END OF QUOTE

I am sure you have your own comments and opinions, and I encourage you to post them here or (better) submit them to the BMJ or (best) both.

This double-blind RCT aimed to test the efficacy of self-administered acupressure for pain and physical function in adults with knee osteoarthritis (KOA).

150 patients with symptomatic KOA participated and were randomized to

  1. verum acupressure,
  2. sham acupressure,
  3. or usual care.

Verum and sham, but not usual care, participants were taught to self-apply acupressure once daily, five days/week for eight weeks. Assessments were collected at baseline, 4 and 8 weeks. The numeric rating scale (NRS) for pain was administered during weekly phone calls. Outcomes included the WOMAC pain subscale (primary), the NRS and physical function measures (secondary). Linear mixed regression was conducted to test between group differences in mean changes from baseline for the outcomes at eight weeks.

Compared with usual care, both verum and sham participants experienced significant improvements in WOMAC pain, NRS pain and WOMAC function at 8 weeks. There were no significant differences between verum and sham acupressure groups in any of the outcomes.

The authors concluded that self-administered acupressure is superior to usual care in pain and physical function improvement for older people with KOA. The reason for the benefits is unclear and placebo effects may have played a role.

Another very odd conclusion!

The authors’ stated aim was to TEST THE EFFICACY OF ACUPRESSURE. To achieve this aim, they rightly compared it to a placebo (sham) intervention. This comparison did not show any differences between the two. Ergo, the only correct conclusion is that acupressure is a placebo.

I know, the authors (sort of) try to say this in their conclusions: placebo effects may have played a role. But surely, this is more than a little confusing. Placebo effects were quite evidently the sole cause of the observed outcomes. Is it ethical to confuse the public in this way, I wonder.

 

 

Shiatsu is one of those alternative therapies where there is almost no research. Therefore, every new study is of interest, and I was delighted to find this new trial.

Italian researchers tested the efficacy and safety of combining shiatsu and amitriptyline to treat refractory primary headaches in a single-blind, randomized, pilot study. Subjects with a diagnosis of primary headache and who experienced lack of response to ≥2 different prophylactic drugs were randomized in a 1:1:1 ratio to receive one of the following treatments:

  1. shiatsu plus amitriptyline,
  2. shiatsu alone,
  3. amitriptyline alone

The treatment period lasted 3 months and the primary endpoint was the proportion of patients experiencing ≥50%-reduction in headache days. Secondary endpoints were days with headache per month, visual analogue scale, and number of pain killers taken per month.

After randomization, 37 subjects were allocated to shiatsu plus amitriptyline (n = 11), shiatsu alone (n = 13), and amitriptyline alone (n = 13). Randomization ensured well-balanced demographic and clinical characteristics at baseline.

The results show that all the three groups improved in terms of headache frequency, visual analogue scale score, and number of pain killers and there was no between-group difference in the primary endpoint. Shiatsu (alone or in combination) was superior to amitriptyline in reducing the number of pain killers taken per month. Seven (19%) subjects reported adverse events, all attributable to amitriptyline, while no side effects were related with shiatsu treatment.

The authors concluded that shiatsu is a safe and potentially useful alternative approach for refractory headache. However, there is no evidence of an additive or synergistic effect of combining shiatsu and amitriptyline. These findings are only preliminary and should be interpreted cautiously due to the small sample size of the population included in our study.

Yes, I would advocate great caution indeed!

The results could easily be said to demonstrate that shiatsu is NOT effective. There is NO difference between the groups when looking at the primary endpoint. This plus the lack of a placebo-group renders the findings uninterpretable:

  • If we take the comparison 2 versus 3, this might indicate efficacy of shiatsu.
  • If we take the comparison 1 versus 3, it would indicate the opposite.
  • If we finally take the comparison 1 versus 2, it would suggest that the drug was ineffective.

So, we can take our pick!

Moreover, I do object to the authors’ conclusion that “shiatsu is a safe”. For such a statement, we would need sample sizes that are about two dimensions greater that those of this study.

So, what might be an acceptable conclusion from this trial? I see only one that is in accordance with the design and the results of this study:

 

POORLY DESIGNED RESEARCH CANNOT LEAD TO ANY CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THERAPEUTIC EFFICACY OR SAFETY. IT IS A WASTE OF RESOURCES AND A VIOLATION OF RESEARCH ETHICAL.

D D Palmer was born on March 7, 1845; so, why do chiros celebrate the ‘CHIROPRACTIC AWARENESS WEEK’ from 10 – 16 of April? Perhaps out of sympathy with the homeopaths (many US chiros also use homeopathy) who had their ‘big week’ during the same period? Please tell me, I want to know!

Anyway, the HAW almost ‘drowned’ the CAW – but only almost.

The British Chiropractic Association did its best to make sure we don’t forget the CAW. On their website, we find an article that alerts us to their newest bit of research. Here are some excerpts:

The consumer survey by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) of more than 2,000 UK adults who currently suffer from back or neck pain, or have done so in the past, found that almost three in five (56%) people experienced pain after using some form of technological device. Despite this, only 27% of people surveyed had limited or stopped using their devices due to concerns for their back or neck health and posture. The research showed people were most likely to experience back or neck pain after using the following technological devices:

•    Laptop computer (35%)
•    Desktop computer (35%)
•    Smart phone (22%)
•    Tablet (20%)
•    Games console (17%)

The age group most likely to experience back or neck pain when using their smart phone were 16-24 year olds, while nearly half (45%) of young adults 25-34 year olds) admitted to experiencing back or neck pain after using a laptop. One in seven (14%) 16-24 year olds attributed their back or neck pain to virtual reality headsets.

As part of Chiropractic Awareness Week (10-16 April) the BCA is calling for technology companies to design devices with posture in mind, to help tech proof our back health. BCA chiropractor Rishi Loatey comments: “We all know how easy it is to remain glued to our smart phone or tablet, messaging friends or scrolling through social media. However, this addiction to technology could be causing changes to posture, which can lead to increased pressure on the muscles, joints and discs in the spine. Technology companies are now starting to issue older phone models which hark back to a time before smart phones enabled people to do everything from check emails and take pictures, to internet banking. Returning to a time of basic functionality, which may see people look to limit the time spent on their phone, can only be good news for our backs. Yet, in an age where people can now track their health and wellbeing using their phone, technology companies should also start looking at ways to make their devices posture friendly from the outset, encouraging us to take time away from our desks and breaks from our scrolling, gaming and messaging.”

END OF QUOTE

So, here we have it: another piece of compelling, cutting edge research by the BCA. They have made us giggle before but rarely have I laughed so heartily about a ‘professional’ organisation confusing so unprofessionally correlation with causation.

Considering the amount of highly public blunders they managed to inflict on the profession in recent years, I have come to the conclusion that the BCA is a cover organisation of BIG PHARMA with the aim of giving chiropractic a bad name!

 

Tui Na is a massage technique that is based on the Taoist principles of TCM. It involves a range of manipulations usually performed by an operator’s finger, hand, elbow, knee, or foot applied to muscle or soft tissue at specific parts of the body. According to one website of TCM-proponents “Tui Na makes use of various hand techniques in combination with acupuncture and other manipulation techniques. To enhance the healing process, the practitioner may recommend the use of Chinese herbs. Many of the techniques used in this massage resemble that of a western massage like gliding, kneading, vibration, tapping, friction, pulling, rolling, pressing and shaking. In Tui Na massage, the muscles and tendons are massaged with the help of hands, and an acupressure technique is applied to directly affect the flow of Qi at different acupressure points of the body, thus facilitating the healing process. It removes the blockages and keeps the energy moving through the meridians as well as the muscles. A typical session of Tui Na massage may vary from thirty minutes to an hour. The session timings may vary depending on the patient’s needs and condition. The best part of the therapy is that it relaxes as well as energizes the person. The main benefit of Tui Na massage is that it focuses on the specific problem, whether it is an acute or a chronic pain associated with the joints, muscles or a skeletal system. This technique is very beneficial in reducing the pain of neck, shoulders, hips, back, arms, highs, legs and ankle disorders. It is a very effective therapy for arthritis, pain, sciatica and muscle spasms. Other benefits of this massage therapy include alleviation of the stress related disorders like insomnia, constipation, headaches and other disorders related to digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems. The greatest advantage of Tui Na is that it focuses on maintaining overall balance with both physical and mental health. Any one who wants to avoid the side effects of drugs or a chemical based treatment can adopt this effective massage technique to alleviate their pain. Tui Na massage therapy is now becoming a more common therapy method due to its focus on specific problems rather than providing a general treatment.”

This clearly begs the question IS IT EFFECTIVE?

This systematic review assessed the evidence of Tui Na for cervical radiculopathy. Seven databases were searched. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) incorporating Tui Na alone or Tui Na combined with conventional treatment were included. Five studies involving 448 patients were found. The pooled analysis from the 3 trials indicated that Tui Na alone showed a significant lowering immediate effects on pain score with moderate heterogeneity compared to cervical traction. The meta-analysis from 2 trials revealed significant immediate effects of Tui Na plus cervical traction in improving pain score with no heterogeneity compared to cervical traction alone. None of the RCTs mentioned adverse effects. There was very low quality or low quality evidence to support the results.

The authors concluded that “Tui Na alone or Tui Na plus cervical traction may be helpful to cervical radiculopathy patients, but supportive evidence seems generally weak. Future clinical studies with low risk of bias and adequate follow-up design are recommended.”

In my view, this is a misleading conclusion. A correct one would have been: THE CURRENT EVIDENCE IS INSUFFICIENT TO DRAW ANY CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE EFFECTIVENESS OF TUI NA.

Why?

Here are some of the most obvious reasons:

Personally, I am getting very tired of conclusions stating ‘…XY MAY BE EFFECTIVE/HELPFUL/USEFUL/WORTH A TRY…’ It is obvious that the therapy in question MAY be effective, otherwise one would surely not conduct a systematic review. If a review fails to produce good evidence, it is the authors’ ethical, moral and scientific obligation to state this clearly. If they don’t, they simply misuse science for promotion and mislead the public. Strictly speaking, this amounts to scientific misconduct.

Therapeutic Touch is a therapy mostly popular with nurses. We have discussed it before, for instance here, here, here and here. To call it implausible would be an understatement. But what does the clinical evidence tell us? Does it work?

This literature review by Iranian authors was aimed at critically evaluating the data from clinical trials examining the clinical efficacy of therapeutic touch as a supportive care modality in adult patients with cancer.

Four electronic databases were searched from the year 1990 to 2015 to locate potentially relevant peer-reviewed articles using the key words therapeutic touch, touch therapy, neoplasm, cancer, and CAM. Additionally, relevant journals and references of all the located articles were manually searched for other potentially relevant studies.

The number of 334 articles was found on the basis of the key words, of which 17 articles related to the clinical trial were examined in accordance with the objectives of the study. A total of 6 articles were in the final dataset in which several examples of the positive effects of healing touch on pain, nausea, anxiety and fatigue, and life quality and also on biochemical parameters were observed.

The authors concluded that, based on the results of this study, an affirmation can be made regarding the use of TT, as a non-invasive intervention for improving the health status in patients with cancer. Moreover, therapeutic touch was proved to be a useful strategy for adult patients with cancer.

This review is badly designed and poorly reported. Crucially, its conclusions are not credible. Contrary to what the authors stated when formulating their aims, the methods lack any attempt of critically evaluating the primary data.

A systematic review is more than a process of ‘pea counting’. It requires a rigorous assessment of the risk of bias of the included studies. If that crucial step is absent, the article is next to worthless and the review degenerates into a promotional excercise. Sadly, this is the case with the present review.

You may think that this is relatively trivial (“Who cares what a few feeble-minded nurses do?”), but I would disagree: if the medical literature continues to be polluted by such irresponsible trash, many people (nurses, journalists, healthcare decision makers, researchers) who may not be in a position to see the fatal flaws of such pseudo-reviews will arrive at the wrong conclusions and make wrong decisions. This will inevitably contribute to a hindrance of progress and, in certain circumstances, must endanger the well-being or even the life of vulnerable patients.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have discussed the risks of (chiropractic) spinal manipulation more often than I care to remember. The reason for this is simple: it is an important subject; making sure that as many consumers know about it will save lives, I am sure. Therefore, any new paper on the subject is likely to be reported on this blog.

Objective of this review was to identify characteristics of 1) patients, 2) practitioners, 3) treatment process and 4) adverse events (AE) occurring after cervical spinal manipulation (CSM) or cervical mobilization. Systematic searches were performed in 6 electronic databases. Of the initial 1043 studies, 144 studies were included.

They reported 227 cases. 117 cases described male patients with a mean age of 45 (SD 12) and a mean age of 39 (SD 11) for females. Most patients were treated by chiropractors (66%) followed by non-clinicians (5%), osteopaths (5%), physiotherapists (3%) and other medical professions. Manipulation was reported in 95% of the cases (mobilisations only in 1.7%), and neck pain was the most frequent indication.

Cervical arterial dissection (CAD) was reported in 57% of the cases and 46% had immediate onset symptoms; in 2% onset of symptoms took for more than two weeks. Other complications were disc rupture, spinal cord swelling and thrombus. The most frequently reported symptoms included disturbance of voluntary control of movement, pain, paresis and visual disturbances.

In most of the reports, patient characteristics were described poorly. No clear patient profile, related to the risk of AE after CSM, could be extracted. However, women seem more at risk for CAD.

The authors concluded that there seems to be under-reporting of cases. Further research should focus on a more uniform and complete registration of AE using standardized terminology.

I do not want to repeat what I have stated in previous posts on this subject. So,let me just ask this simple question: IF THERE WERE A DRUG MARKTED FOR NECK PAIN BUT NOT SUPPORTED BY GOOD EVIDENCE FOR EFFICACY, DO YOU THINK IT WOULD BE ON THE MARKET AFTER 227 CASES OF SEVERE ADVERSE EFFECTS HAD BEEN DESCRIBED?

I think the answer is NO!

If we then consider the huge degree of under-reporting in this area which might bring the true figure up by one or even two dimensions, we must ask: WHY IS CERVICAL MANIPULATION STILL USED?

‘The use of a harmless alternative therapy is not necessarily wrong. Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it can help many patients. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject such therapies simply because they are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence’.

How often have I heard this notion in one or another form?

I hear such words almost every day.

Arguments along these lines are difficult to counter. Any attempt to do so is likely to make us look blinkered, high-handed and less than compassionate.

Yet we all – well almost all – know that the notion is wrong. Not only that, it can be dangerous.

I will try to explain this with a concrete example of a patient employing a harmless alternative remedy with great success… until… well, you’ll see.

The patient is a married women with two kids. She is well known to her doctor because she has suffered from a range of symptoms for years, and the doctor – despite extensive tests – could never find anything really wrong with her. He knows about his patient’s significant psychological problems and has, on occasion, been tempted to prescribe tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Before he does so, however, he tells her to try Rescue Remedies@ (homeopathically diluted placebos from the range of Bach Flower Remedies). The patient is generally ‘alternatively inclined’, seems delighted with this suggestion and only too keen to give it a try.

After a couple of weeks, she reports that the Rescue Remedies (RR) are helping her. She says she can cope much better with stressful situations and has less severe and less frequent headaches or other symptoms. As she embarks on a long period of taking RR more or less regularly, she becomes convinced that the RR are highly effective and uses them whenever needed with apparent success. This goes on for months, and everyone is happy: the patient feels she has finally found a ‘medication that works’, and the doctor (who knows only too well that RR are placebos) is pleased that his patient is suffering less without needing real medication.

Then, a few months later, the patient notices that the RR are becoming less and less effective. Not only that, she also thinks that her headaches have changed and are becoming more intense. As she has been conditioned to believe that the RR are highly effective, she continues to take them. Her doctor too agrees and encourages her to carry on as before. But the pain gets worse and worse. When she develops other symptoms, her doctor initially tries to trivialise them, until they cannot be trivialised any longer. He eventually sends her to a specialist.

The patient has to wait a couple of weeks until an appointment can be arranged. The specialist orders a few tests which take a further two weeks. Finally, he diagnoses a malignant, possibly fast growing brain tumour. The patient has a poor prognosis but nevertheless agrees to an operation. Thereafter, she is paralysed on one side, needs 24-hour care, and dies 4 weeks post-operatively.

The surgeon is certain that, had he seen the patient several months earlier, the prognosis would have been incomparably better and her life could have been saved.

I suspect that most seasoned physicians have encountered stories which are not dissimilar. Fortunately they often do not end as tragically as this one. We tend to put them aside, and the next time the situation arises where a patient reports benefit from a bogus treatment we think: ‘Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it might help. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject this ‘feel-good factor’.

I hope my story might persuade you that this notion is not necessarily correct.

If you are unable to make your patient feel better without resorting to quackery, my advice is to become a pathologist!!!

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