MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pain

Acupuncture is often recommended as a treatment for shoulder pain, but its effectiveness is far from proven. A new study has just been published; but does it change this uncertainty?

A total of 227 patients with subacromial pain syndrome were recruited to this RCT. The patients were allocated to three groups who received either A) group exercise, B) group exercise plus acupuncture or C) group exercise plus electro-acupuncture. The primary outcome measure was the Oxford Shoulder Score. Follow-up was post treatment, and at 6 and 12 months. Data were analysed on intention-to-treat principles with imputation of missing values.

Treatment groups were similar at baseline. All treatment groups demonstrated improvements over time. Between-group estimates were, however, small and non-significant.

The authors concluded that neither acupuncture nor electro-acupuncture were found to be more beneficial than exercise alone in the treatment of subacromial pain syndrome. 

Well, that was to be expected!… I hear the rationalists amongst us exclaim.

Actually, I am not so sure.

One could easily have expected that the acupuncture groups (B and C) show a significant advantage over group A.

Why?

Because acupuncture is a ‘theatrical placebo’, a ritual that impresses patients and thus impacts on results, particularly on subjective outcomes like pain. If the results had shown a benefit for acupuncture + exercise (groups B and C) versus exercise alone (group A), what would we have made of it? Acupuncture fans would surely have claimed that it is evidence confirming acupuncture’s effectiveness. Sceptics, on the other hand, would have rightly insisted that it demonstrates nothing of the sort – it merely confirms that placebo effects can affect clinical outcomes such as pain.

As it turned out, however, this trial results happened to indicate that these placebo-effects can be so small that they fail to reach the level of statistical significance.

I think there is one noteworthy message here: RCTs with such a design (no adequate control for placebo effects) can easily generate false-positive results (in this case, this did not happen, but it was nevertheless a possible outcome). Such studies are popular but utterly useless: they don’t advance our knowledge one single iota. If that is so, we should not waste our resources on them because, in the final analysis, this is not ethical. In other words, we must stop funding research that has little or no chance of advancing our knowledge.

The ACUPUNCTURE NOW FOUNDATION (ANF) has featured on this blog before. Today I want to re-introduce them because I just came across one of their articles which I found remarkable. In it, they define what many of us have often wondered about: the most important myth about acupuncture.

Is it acupuncture’s current popularity, its long history, its mode of action, its efficacy, its safety?

No, here is the answer directly from the ANF:

The most important myth that needs to be put to rest is the idea promoted by a small group of vocal critics that acupuncture is nothing more than a placebo. Many cite the fact that studies showing acupuncture to be highly effective were of low quality and that several higher quality studies show that, while acupuncture was clinically effective, it usually does not outperform “sham” acupuncture. But those studies are dominated by the first quality issue cited above; studies with higher methodological rigor where the “real” acupuncture was so poorly done as to not be a legitimate comparison. Yet despite the tendency toward poor quality acupuncture in studies with higher methodological standards, a benchmark study was done that showed “real” acupuncture clearly outperforming “sham” acupuncture in four different chronic pain conditions.3 When you add this study together with the fact veterinary acupuncture is used successfully in many different animals, the idea of acupuncture only being placebo must now be considered finally disproven. This is further supported by studies which show that the underlying physiological pathways activated by acupuncture sometimes overlap, but can be clearly differentiated from, those activated by placebo responses.

Disappointed?

Yes, I was too.

The myth, according to the ANF, essentially is that sceptics do not understand the scientific evidence. And these blinkered sceptics even go as far as ignoring the findings from what the ANF consider to be a ‘benchmark study’! Ghosh, that’s nasty of them!!!

But, no – the benchmark study (actually, it was not a ‘study’ but a meta-analysis of studies) has been discussed fully on this blog (and in many other places too). Here is what I wrote in 2012 when it was first published:

An international team of acupuncture trialists published a meta-analysed of individual patient data to determine the analgesic effect of acupuncture compared to sham or non-acupuncture control for the following 4 chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, headache, and shoulder pain. Data from 29 RCTs, with an impressive total of 17 922 patients, were included.

The results of this new evaluation suggest that acupuncture is superior to both sham and no-acupuncture controls for each of these conditions. Patients receiving acupuncture had less pain, with scores that were 0.23 (95% CI, 0.13-0.33), 0.16 (95% CI, 0.07-0.25), and 0.15 (95% CI, 0.07-0.24) SDs lower than those of sham controls for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, and chronic headache, respectively; the effect sizes in comparison to no-acupuncture controls were 0.55 (95% CI, 0.51-0.58), 0.57 (95% CI, 0.50-0.64), and 0.42 (95% CI, 0.37-0.46) SDs.

Based on these findings, the authors reached the conclusion that “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture”.

… even the enthusiastic authors of this article admit that, when compared to sham, the effect size of real acupuncture is too small to be clinically relevant. Therefore one might argue that this meta-analysis confirms what critics have suggested all along: acupuncture is not a useful treatment for clinical routine.

Unsurprisingly, the authors of the meta-analysis do their very best to play down this aspect. They reason that, for clinical routine, the comparison between acupuncture and non-acupuncture controls is more relevant than the one between acupuncture and sham. But this comparison, of course, includes placebo- and other non-specific effects masquerading as effects of acupuncture – and with this little trick (which, by the way is very popular in alternative medicine), we can, of course, show that even sugar pills are effective.

I do not doubt that context effects are important in patient care; yet I do doubt that we need a placebo treatment for generating such benefit in our patients. If we administer treatments which are effective beyond placebo with kindness, time, compassion and empathy, our patients will benefit from both specific and non-specific effects. In other words, purely generating non-specific effects with acupuncture is far from optimal and certainly not in the interest of our patients. In my view, it cannot be regarded as not good medicine, and the authors’ conclusion referring to a “reasonable referral option” is more than a little surprising in my view.

Acupuncture-fans might argue that, at the very minimum, the new meta-analysis does demonstrate acupuncture to be statistically significantly better than a placebo. Yet I am not convinced that this notion holds water: the small residual effect-size in the comparison of acupuncture with sham might not be the result of a specific effect of acupuncture; it could be (and most likely is) due to residual bias in the analysed studies.

The meta-analysis is strongly driven by the large German trials which, for good reasons, were heavily and frequently criticised when first published. One of the most important potential drawbacks was that many participating patients were almost certainly de-blinded through the significant media coverage of the study while it was being conducted. Moreover, in none of these trials was the therapist blinded (the often-voiced notion that therapist-blinding is impossible is demonstrably false). Thus it is likely that patient-unblinding and the absence of therapist-blinding importantly influenced the clinical outcome of these trials thus generating false positive findings. As the German studies constitute by far the largest volume of patients in the meta-analysis, any of their flaws would strongly impact on the overall result of the meta-analysis.

So, has this new meta-analysis finally solved the decades-old question about the effectiveness of acupuncture? It might not have solved it, but we have certainly moved closer to a solution, particularly if we employ our faculties of critical thinking. In my view, this meta-analysis is the most compelling evidence yet to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain.

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The ANF-text then goes from bad to worse. First they cite the evidence from veterinary acupuncture as further proof of the efficacy of their therapy. Well, the only systematic review in this are is, I think, by my team; and it concluded that there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.

Lastly, the ANF mentions acupuncture’s mode of action which they seem to understand clearly and fully. Congratulations ANF! In this case, you are much better than the many experts in basic science or neurology who almost unanimously view these ‘explanations’ of how acupuncture might work as highly adventurous hypotheses or speculations.

So, what IS the most important myth about acupuncture? I am not sure and – unlike the ANF – I do not feel that I can speak for the rest of the world, but one of the biggest myths FOR ME is how acupuncture fans constantly manage to mislead the public.

Meniscus-injuries are common and there is no consensus as to how best treat them. Physiotherapists tend to advocate exercise, while surgeons tend to advise surgery.

Of course, exercise is not a typical alternative therapy but, as many alternative practitioners might disagree with this statement because they regularly recommend it to their patients, it makes sense to cover it on this blog. So, is exercise better than surgery for meniscus-problems?

The aim of this recent Norwegian study aimed to shed some light on this question. Specifically wanted to determine whether  exercise therapy is superior to arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for knee function in  patients with degenerative meniscal tears.

A total of 140 adults with degenerative medial meniscal tear verified by magnetic resonance imaging were randomised to either receiving 12 week supervised exercise therapy alone, or arthroscopic partial meniscectomy alone. Intention to treat analysis of between group difference in change in knee injury and osteoarthritis outcome score (KOOS4), defined a priori as the mean score for four of five KOOS subscale scores (pain, other symptoms, function in sport and recreation, and knee related quality of life) from baseline to two-year follow-up and change in thigh muscle strength from baseline to three months.

The results showed no clinically relevant difference between the two groups in change in KOOS4 at two years (0.9 points, 95% confidence interval −4.3 to 6.1; P=0.72). At three months, muscle strength had improved in the exercise group (P≤0.004). No serious adverse events occurred in either group during the two-year follow-up. 19% of the participants allocated to exercise therapy crossed over to surgery during the two-year follow-up, with no additional benefit.

The authors concluded that the observed difference in treatment effect was minute after two years of follow-up, and the trial’s inferential uncertainty was sufficiently small to exclude clinically relevant differences. Exercise therapy showed positive effects over surgery in improving thigh muscle strength, at least in the short-term. Our results should encourage clinicians and middle-aged patients with degenerative meniscal tear and no definitive radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis to consider supervised exercise therapy as a treatment option.

As I stated above, I mention this trial because exercise might be considered by some as an alternative therapy. The main reason for including it is, however, that it is in many ways an exemplary good study from which researchers in alternative medicine could learn.

Like so many alternative therapies, exercise is a treatment for which placebo-controlled studies are difficult, if not impossible. But that does not mean that rigorous tests of its value are impossible. The present study shows the way how it can be done.

Meaningful clinical research is no rocket science; it merely needs well-trained scientists who are willing to test the (rather than promote) their hypotheses. Sadly such individuals are as rare as gold dust in the realm of alternative medicine.

This website tells us that ‘Stopain Migraine’ is the first topical product to effectively relieve migraine pain. It is a safe alternative to other migraine relief products that begins to work as soon as it’s applied. And the press release informs us that Troy Healthcare extended its Stopain line with a Stopain Migraine offering – a topical pain relieving gel that is massaged onto the back of the neck and behind each ear.

“Many of the women we shopped with told us they like that Stopain Migraine lacks systemic side effects and can be used in conjunction with other products – whether that’s natural remedies like peppermint essential oil, Epsom salts and ginger tea, or even prescription drugs or other over-the-counter products,” stated Anthony Cicini, VP Troy Healthcare.

Stopain Migraine begins to work as soon as it’s applied, can be reapplied after 30 minutes, and can be used up to four times daily, the company noted. It’s unique in that it can be used alone, or in addition to other ingestible migraine products to relieve migraine pain.

The homeopathic blend of ingredients follow the guidelines of The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United State and is recommended by both by primary care physicians and OBGYNs, the company stated.

In addition to providing effective relief quickly, Stopain Migraine offers peace of mind for migraine sufferers, knowing the product is free from aspirin, acetaminophen and caffeine, has no known drug interactions and contains no dyes or preservatives.

Consumers can now find Stopain Migraine nationwide for the suggested retail price of $11.99

END OF PRESS RELEASE

Any evidence, you’d probably ask. A quick Medline search located this abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To determine whether topical menthol 6% gel will relieve a migraine attack.

MATERIALS AND METHODS:

A single-center, open-label pilot trial of 25 patients with at least 1 year of diagnosed episodic migraine and <15 headache days per month. Patients treated one migraine attack with STOPAIN topical menthol 6% gel to skull base within 2 h of headache onset. Headache pain severity was assessed prior to and after gel application.

RESULTS:

Thirty-two patients enrolled and 25 completed the study. Prior to treatment, 7 patients had mild pain, 13 moderate pain, and 5 severe pain. Two hours following gel application, 7 (28%) patients had no pain, 7 (28%) mild pain, 6 (25%) moderate pain, and 5 (20%) severe pain. The majority of patients had similar pain intensity (8; 32%) or improvement (13; 52%). At 24-h, only two non-rescued patients still had mild headache. Of the 25 completers, 2 patients took rescue medication prior to the 2-h period, and an additional 10 patients rescued between 2 and 24 h.

CONCLUSION:

Study results showed a significant improvement in headache intensity by 2 h after gel application. This pilot study shows STOPAIN gel may be effective in treating an acute migraine attack.

A pilot study! I thought pilots were for testing feasibility, not effectiveness!

No control group! The observed effect is therefore not attributable to ‘Stopain’ at all!

But there is more! Iranian researchers published this RCT:

OBJECTIVE:

To investigate the efficacy and safety of the cutaneous application of menthol 10% solution for the abortive treatment of migraine.

BACKGROUND:

Peppermint and its active ingredient menthol have long been used for the treatment of various pain conditions including headache.

METHODS:

This is a randomised, triple-blind, placebo-controlled, crossed-over study conducted in the neurology Clinic of Nemazee Hospital, affiliated with Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Shiraz, southern Iran, from March 2007 to March 2008. The patients were recruited via local newspaper advertisements. Eligible patients were categorised into two groups and a 10% ethanol solution of menthol (as drug) and 0.5% ethanol solution of menthol (as placebo) were applied to the forehead and temporal area in a crossover design. Pain free, pain relief, sustained pain free and sustained pain relief end-points were measured by questionnaires using a visual analogue scale.

RESULTS:

The intent-to-treat population consisted of 35 patients (80% women, 20% men, mean age: 29.6 +/- 6.2) with 118 migraine attacks. In the intent-to-treat population, the menthol solution was statistically superior to the placebo on 2-h pain free (p = 0.001), 2-h pain relief (p = 0.000), sustained pain free and sustained pain relief end-points (p = 0.008). The menthol solution was also more efficacious in the alleviation of nausea and/or vomiting and phonophobia and/or photophobia (p = 0.02). In the per-protocol population, there was significantly higher number of patients who experienced at least one pain free/pain relief after the application of menthol rather than the placebo (p = 0.002). No significant difference was seen between the adverse effects of the drug and the placebo groups (p = 0.13).

CONCLUSION:

Menthol solution can be an efficacious, safe and tolerable therapeutic option for the abortive treatment of migraine.

Yes, you are quite right; this must be a different product. It contains just menthol and at a higher concentration than ‘Stopain’.

So what does ‘Stopain’ actually contain?  I must say that 6% menthol does not sound very homeopathic to me! The website of Troy Healthcare tells us that it has a total of 4 ingredients:

Mentholum 1X HPUS – 50.00%
Belladonna 3X HPUS – 1.33%
Iris Versicolor 6X HPUS – 1.33%
Sanguinaria Canadensis 6X HPUS – 1.33%

And what do the three homeopathically diluted ingredients do?

Is the term ‘homeopathic’ used here merely to attract a certain type of customer?

And why do they claim that ‘Stopain’ is effective when there is no evidence?

Or perhaps there is evidence and they haven’t published it?

And why do they claim that ‘Stopain’ is the first topical product?

Wasn’t a German topical menthol product marketed years ago?

Search me! I am not sure I know all the answers.

I hope someone from Troy Healthcare reads this and cares to explain.

The risks of consulting a chiropractor have regularly been the subject of this blog (see for instance here, here and here). My critics believe that I am alarmist and have a bee in my bonnet. I think they are mistaken and believe it is important to warn the public of the serious complications that are being reported with depressing regularity, particularly in connection with neck manipulations.

It has been reported that the American model Katie May died earlier this year “as the result of visiting a chiropractor for an adjustment, which ultimately left her with a fatal tear to an artery in her neck” This is the conclusion drawn by the L.A. County Coroner.

katie-may-ist-mit-34-jahre-gestorben

According to Wikipedia, Katie tweeted on January 29, 2016, that she had “pinched a nerve in [her] neck on a photoshoot” and “got adjusted” at a chiropractor. She tweeted on January 31, 2016 that she was “going back to the chiropractor tomorrow.” On the evening of February 1, 2016, May “had begun feeling numbness in a hand and dizzy” and “called her parents to tell them she thought she was going to pass out.” At her family’s urging, May went to Cedars Sinai Hospital; she was found to be suffering a “massive stroke.” According to her father, she “was not conscious when we got to finally see her the next day. We never got to talk to her again.” Life support was withdrawn on February 4, 2016.

Katie’s death certificate states that she died when a blunt force injury tore her left vertebral artery, and cut off blood flow to her brain. It also says the injury was sustained during a “neck manipulation by chiropractor.” Her death is listed as accidental.

Katie’s family is said to be aware of the coroner’s findings. They would not comment on whether they or her estate would pursue legal action.

The coroner’s verdict ends the uncertainty about Katie’s tragic death which was well and wisely expressed elsewhere:

“…The bottom line is that we don’t know for sure. We can’t know for sure. If you leave out the chiropractic manipulations of her neck, her clinical history—at least as far as I can ascertain it from existing news reports—is classic for a dissection due to neck trauma. She was, after all, a young person who suffered a seemingly relatively minor neck injury that, unbeknownst to her, could have caused a carotid artery dissection, leading to a stroke four or five days later… Thus, it seems to be jumping to conclusions for May’s friend Christina Passanisi to say that May “really didn’t need to have her neck adjusted, and it killed her.” … Her two chiropractic manipulations might well have either worsened an existing intimal tear or caused a new one that led to her demise. Or they might have had nothing to do with her stroke, her fate having been sealed days before when she fell during that photoshoot. There is just no way of knowing for sure. It is certainly not wrong to suspect that chiropractic neck manipulation might have contributed to Katie May’s demise, but it is incorrect to state with any degree of certainty that her manipulation did kill her.”

My conclusions are as before and I think they need to be put as bluntly as possible: avoid chiropractors – the possible risks outweigh the documented benefits – and if you simply cannot resist consulting one: DON’T LET HIM/HER TOUCH YOUR NECK!

The placebo response might be important in clinical practice, but it is certainly difficult to study and the findings of such investigations can be confusing. This seems to be exemplified by two new trials.

The first study examined the possibility of using theatrical performance tools, including stage directions and scripting, to reproducibly manipulate the style and content of a simulated doctor-patient encounter and influence the placebo response (defined as improvement of clinical outcome in individuals receiving inactive treatment) in experimental pain.

A total of 122 healthy volunteers were exposed to experimental pain using the cold pressor test and assessed for pain threshold and tolerance before and after receiving a placebo cream from a “doctor” impersonated by a trained actor. The actor alternated between two distinct scripts and stage directions. One script emulated a standard doctor-patient encounter (scenario A), while the other emphasized elements present in ritual healing such as attentiveness and strong suggestion (scenario B).

The placebo response size was calculated as the % difference in pain threshold and tolerance after exposure relative to baseline. Subjects demonstrating a ≥30% increase in pain threshold or tolerance relative to baseline were defined as responders. Each encounter was videotaped in its entirety.

Inspection of the videotapes confirmed the reproducibility and consistency of the distinct scenarios enacted by the “doctor”-performer. Furthermore, scenario B resulted in a significant increase in pain threshold relative to scenario A. This increase derived from the placebo responder subgroup; as shown by two-way analysis of variance (performance style, F = 4.30; p = 0.040; η(2) = 0.035; style × responder status interaction term, F = 5.21; p = 0.024) followed by post hoc analysis showing a ∼60% increase in pain threshold in responders exposed to scenario B (p = 0.020).

fpsyg-07-00874-g003

Performance style and response size in placebo responders and non-responders. Bars represent mean ± SE of % change in CPT threshold of 60 subjects in scenario A: 53 non-responders vs. 7 responders and 62 subjects in scenario B: 51 non-responders and 11 responders. Two-way ANOVA by performance style and responsiveness revealed significant effects of doctor’s performance (F = 4.30; p = 0.040; η2 = 0.035) and responsiveness (F = 134.71; p < 0.001) as well as a significant interaction term (F = 5.21; p = 0.024). p = 0.020, Fisher’s least significant difference post hoc test.

The authors concluded that these results support the hypothesis that structured manipulation of physician’s verbal and non-verbal performance, designed to build rapport and increase faith in treatment, is feasible and may have a significant beneficial effect on the size of the response to placebo analgesia. They also demonstrate that subjects, who are not susceptible to placebo, are also not susceptible to performance style.

In the second study, the authors investigated if an implicit priming procedure, where participants were unaware of the intended priming influence, affected placebo analgesia.

In a double-blind experiment, healthy participants (n = 36) were randomized to different implicit priming types; one aimed at increasing positive expectations and one neutral control condition. First, pain calibration (thermal) and a credibility demonstration of the placebo analgesic device were performed. In a second step, an independent experimenter administered the priming task; Scrambled Sentence Test. Then, pain sensitivity was assessed while telling participants that the analgesic device was either turned on (placebo) or turned off (baseline). Pain responses were recorded on a 0-100 Numeric Response Scale.

Overall, there was a significant placebo effect (p < 0.001), however, the priming conditions (positive/neutral) did not lead to differences in placebo outcome. Prior experience of pain relief (during initial pain testing) correlated significantly with placebo analgesia (p < 0.001) and explained 34% of placebo variance. Trait neuroticism correlated positively with placebo analgesia (p < 0.05) and explained 21% of placebo variance.

The authors concluded that priming is one of many ways to influence behaviour, and non-conscious activation of positive expectations could theoretically affect placebo analgesia. Yet, we found no SST priming effect on placebo analgesia. Instead, our data point to the significance of prior experience of pain relief, trait neuroticism and social interaction with the treating clinician.

The two studies are similar but generate somewhat contradictory results. In the discussion section, the authors of the first paper stress that “replication of our findings in clinical populations; employing professional physicians of both sexes, are necessary in order to establish their generality and possible application in medical training, with the aim of improving patient outcome across diseases and treatment modalities.” This is certainly true. They continue by stating that  “future studies using performance tools in clinical trial settings could demonstrate the potential of borrowing performance principles and techniques from traditional healing and applying them to physician–patient encounters in Western medicine, following certain necessary modifications. Performance tools could thus eventually be incorporated into the systematic training of physicians and medical students, possibly to complement programs in Narrative Medicine and Relational Medicine.”

These ideas are not dissimilar to what we have been discussing on this blog repeatedly. For instance, I have previously tried to explain that “the science and the art of medicine are essential elements of good medicine. In other words, if one is missing, medicine is by definition  not optimal. In vast areas of alternative medicine, the science-element is woefully neglected or even totally absent. It follows, that these areas cannot be good medicine. In some areas of conventional medicine, the art-element is weak or neglected. It follows that, in these areas, medicine is not good either.”

The fact that the two studies above show contradictory findings is not easy to interpret. Possibly, this shows how fragile the placebo response can be. It can be influenced by a multitude of factors related to an experiment or the clinical setting. If that is so, and placebo effects are truly unreliable, it would be yet another argument for not relying on them in clinical routine. In my view, clinicians should try to maximize them where they can. Yet placebo effects are not normally a justification for employing placebo therapies in clinical practice. In other words, the fact that a bogus treatment can generate a placebo response is not a good reason for using it on patients who need help.

Good clinicians have probably always been good ‘performers’. Alternative practitioners tend to be excellent ‘performers’, and I am sure their success is mainly due to this ability. I see little reason why conventional practitioners should not (re-)learn the skills that once upon a time were called ‘good bed-side manners’. Maximizing the placebo effect in this way might maximize the benefit patients experience – and for that we do not require the placebo-therapies of alternative medicine.

A new study tested the efficacy of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy (CSMT) for migraine. It was designed as a three-armed, single-blinded, placebo -controlled RCT of 17 months duration including 104 migraineurs with at least one migraine attack per month. Active treatment consisted of CSMT (group 1) and the placebo was a sham push manoeuvre of the lateral edge of the scapula and/or the gluteal region (group 2). The control group continued their usual pharmacological management (group 3).

The RCT began with a one-month run-in followed by three months intervention. The outcome measures were quantified at the end of the intervention and at 3, 6 and 12 months of follow-up. The primary end-point was the number of migraine days per month. Secondary end-points were migraine duration, migraine intensity and headache index, and medicine consumption.

The results show that migraine days were significantly reduced within all three groups from baseline to post-treatment (P < 0.001). The effect continued in the CSMT and placebo groups at all follow-up time points (groups 1 and 2), whereas the control group (group 3) returned to baseline. The reduction in migraine days was not significantly different between the groups. Migraine duration and headache index were reduced significantly more in the CSMT than in group 3 towards the end of follow-up. Adverse events were few, mild and transient. Blinding was strongly sustained throughout the RCT.

The authors concluded that it is possible to conduct a manual-therapy RCT with concealed placebo. The effect of CSMT observed in our study is probably due to a placebo response.

Chiropractors often cite clinical trials which suggest that CSMT might be effective. The effects sizes are rarely impressive, and it is tempting to suspect that the outcomes are mostly due to bias. Chiropractors, of course, deny such an explanation. Yet, to me, it seems fairly obvious: trials of CSMT are not blind, and therefore the expectation of the patient is likely to have major influence on the outcome.

Because of this phenomenon (and several others, of course), sceptics are usually unconvinced of the value of chiropractic. Chiropractors often respond by claiming that blind studies of physical intervention such as CSMT are not possible. This, however, is clearly not true; there have been several trials that employed sham treatments which adequately mimic CSMT. As these frequently fail to show what chiropractors had hoped, the methodology is intensely disliked by chiropractors.

The above study is yet another trial that adequately controls for patients’ expectation, and it shows that the apparent efficacy of CSMT disappears when this source of bias is properly accounted for. To me, such findings make a lot of sense, and I suspect that most, if not all the ‘positive’ studies of CSMT would turn out to be false positive, once such residual bias is eliminated.

Chiropractic for animals?

Can’t be!

Yes, it can!!!

Animal Chiropractic “is a field of animal health care that focuses on the preservation and health of the neuro-musculo-skeletal system. Why? Nerves control everything that happens in your animals. Anything adversely affecting the nervous system will have detrimental effects that will resonate throughout the entire body. The command centers of the nervous system are the brain and spinal cord which are protected by the spine. The spine is a complex framework of bones (vertebra), ligaments, muscles and nerves. If the movement and biomechanics of the vertebra become dysfunctional, they can interfere with the performance of the nerves that are branching off of the spinal cord and going to the all of the muscles and organs. As this occurs, your animal can lose normal mobility; resulting in stiffness, tension, pain and even organ dysfunction. Additionally, when normal movement is affected, and left unattended, it will ultimately impact your animal’s entire wellbeing and quality of life…”

As you see, much the same nonsense as for human chiropractic is now also advertised for animals, particularly horses. Chiropractic for horses and other animals has become a thriving business; today there are even colleges that specialise in ‘educating’ animal chiropractors, and the ‘AMERICAN VETERINARY CHIROPRACTIC ASSOCIATION promotes “animal chiropractic to professionals and the public, and [acts] as the certifying agency for doctors who have undergone post-graduate animal chiropractic training. Members working together within their disciplines to expand and promote the knowledge and acceptance of animal chiropractic to their professions, the public and governments; locally, nationally and internationally.”

Recently I came across a remarkable website which promoted chiropractic specifically for horses. Here are a few paragraphs from the promotional text:

In recent years, the demand among horse owners for alternative equine therapies has spurred many veterinarians to explore therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic. Equine chiropractic techniques provide relief by restoring movement to the spinal column and promoting healthy neurologic functioning. In turn, the entire musculoskeletal system benefits, and the overall health of the animal increases.

Perhaps the greatest clinical application of chiropractic techniques is for animals with a vague sort of lameness that is not localized to any specific area, and for horses that experience a sudden decline in performance for seemingly no reason. These issues often relate back to musculoskeletal disorders that can be diagnosed through chiropractic techniques.

Some horse owners use chiropractic as a preventative measure. Subclinical conditions, meaning those that do not yet show symptoms, can often be detected by an equine chiropractor, as can abnormal biomechanics that could cause lameness down the road. Conditions that originate in the spine often result in a changed gait that can affect how force is applied to joints in the lower limbs. Over time, this shifted force can cause lameness, but chiropractic attention may help identify and deal with problems before they become a real issue…

Several situations can benefit from meeting with an equine chiropractor. The most significant sign that a horse could benefit from chiropractic treatment is pain. If the animal’s behavior suddenly changes or its posture seems abnormal, the horse may be experiencing pain. Similarly, reduced performance, refusing to jump, and tossing the head under saddle can indicate pain.

Owners should familiarize themselves with the many signs that a horse is experiencing pain. Some other indicators include chronic weight loss, sensitivity when being groomed, and difficulty turning. A chiropractor is a great option for identifying the issues leading to these behaviors and correcting them as quickly as possible — before the problems compound.

While pain is a great reason to seek equine chiropractic therapy, individuals may also want to consider the option if the horse is not responding to more conventional therapies. Chiropractors can also aid in recovery after significant trauma or lameness. However, horse owners should recognize that chiropractic therapy does not reverse degenerative changes already present, so working with a practitioner early in a disease’s progression can slow its advancement. Chiropractic may also help manage chronic conditions and prevent them from worsening…

END OF QUOTE

And where is the evidence for all this? I did a quick search and found virtually nothing to write home about. A review which I did locate made it clear why: “…only anecdotal evidence exists in horses…”

And that statement does, of course, prompt me to quickly remind everyone: THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTE IS ANECDOTES, NOT EVIDENCE!

 

Low back pain (LBP) is a ‘minor complaint’ in the sense that it does not cost patients’ lives. At the same time, LBP is amongst the leading causes of disability and one of the most common reasons for patients to seek primary care. Chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and general practitioners are among those treating LBP patients, but there is only limited evidence regarding the effectiveness offered by these provider groups.

The aim of this systematic review was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and to systematically review economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to other commonly used approaches among adult patients with non-specific LBP.

A comprehensive search strategy was conducted to identify 1) pragmatic randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and/or 2) full economic evaluations of chiropractic care for low back pain compared to standard care delivered by other healthcare providers. Studies published between 1990 and 4th June 2015 were considered. The primary outcomes included pain, functional status and global improvement. Study selection, critical quality appraisal and data extraction were conducted by two independent reviewers. Data from RCTs with low risk of bias were included in a meta-analysis to determine estimates of effect sizes. Cost estimates of full economic evaluations were converted to 2015 USD and results summarized.

Six RCTs and three full economic evaluations were included. Five RCTs with low risk of bias compared chiropractic care to exercise therapy (n = 1), physical therapy (n = 3) and medical care (n = 1). The authors found similar effects for chiropractic care and the other types of care. Three low to high quality full economic evaluations studies (one cost-effectiveness, one cost-minimization and one cost-benefit) compared chiropractic to medical care. Highly divergent conclusions (favours chiropractic, favours medical care, equivalent options) were noted for economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to medical care.

The authors drew the following conclusions: moderate evidence suggests that chiropractic care for LBP appears to be equally effective as physical therapy. Limited evidence suggests the same conclusion when chiropractic care is compared to exercise therapy and medical care although no firm conclusion can be reached at this time. No serious adverse events were reported for any type of care. Our review was also unable to clarify whether chiropractic or medical care is more cost-effective. Given the limited available evidence, the decision to seek or to refer patients for chiropractic care should be based on patient preference and values. Future studies are likely to have an important impact on our estimates as these were based on only a few admissible studies.

This is a thorough and timely review. Its results are transparent and clear, however, its conclusions are, in my view, more than a little odd.

Let me try to re-formulate them such that they are better supported by the actual data: There is no good evidence to suggest that chiropractic care is better or worse that conventional therapeutic approaches currently used for LBP. The pooled sample size dimensions too small to allow any statements about the risks of the various approaches. The data are also too weak for any pronouncements on the relative cost-effectiveness of the various options. Given these limitations, the decision which approach to use should be based on a more comprehensive analysis of the therapeutic risks.

The point I am trying to make is quite simple:

  • The fact that RCTs fail to show adverse effects could be due to the small collective sample size and/or to the well-known phenomenon that, in well-controlled trials, adverse effects tend to be significantly rarer than in routine care.
  • Hundreds of serious adverse events have been reported after chiropractic spinal manipulations; to these we have to add the fact that ~50% of all chiropractic patients suffer from transient, mild to moderate adverse effects after spinal manipulations.
  • If we want to generate a realistic picture of the safety of a therapy, we need to include case-reports, case-series and other non-RCT evidence.
  • Conventional treatments of LBP may not be free of adverse effects, but some are relatively safe.
  • It seems reasonable, necessary and ethical to consider a realistic picture of the relative risks when deciding which therapy amongst equally (in)effective treatments might be best.

To me, all this seems almost painfully obvious, and I ask myself why the authors of this otherwise sound review failed to consider such thoughts. As one normally is obliged to, the authors included a section about the limitations of their review:

Our review has limitations. First, we did not search the grey literature for clinical effectiveness studies. McAuley et al. showed that the inclusion of results from the grey literature tend to decrease effectiveness estimates in meta-analyses because the unpublished studies tend to report smaller treatment effects. Second, critical appraisal requires scientific judgment that may vary among reviewers. This potential bias was minimized by training reviewers to use a standardized critical appraisal tool and using a consensus process among reviewers to reach decisions regarding scientific admissibility. Most of the original between-group differences and pooled estimates in our meta-analysis did not favour a specific provider group, and we believe it is unlikely that the inclusion of unpublished grey literature would change our conclusions. Third, the low number of clinical trials prevents us from conducting a meaningful investigation for publication bias. Fourth, the majority of the included clinical effectiveness studies (three out of five) and all three economic evaluations were conducted in the United States. Caution should therefore be used when generalizing our findings to other settings or jurisdictions. With respect to economic evaluations in particular, local healthcare systems and insurance plans may have a higher impact on cost than the type of healthcare provider.

Remarkably, this section does not mention their useless assessment of the risks with one word. Why? One answer might be found in the small-print of the paper:

The authors … have the following competing interests: MAB: Personal fees from Ordre des chiropraticiens du Québec for one teaching presentation, outside the submitted work. MJS: Position at the Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics is funded by the Danish Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication. RBDS: Nothing to disclose. JB: Nothing to disclose. PH: Nothing to disclose. AB: Position at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University is funded by the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication.

In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.

According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”

The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”

This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.

Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.

Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:

  • the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
  • the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
  • the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
  • the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
  • not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
  • the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
  • there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.

My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.

Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.

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