MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

placebo

Prof Walach has featured on this blog before, for instance here, and here. He is a psychologist by training and a vocal and prominent advocate of several bogus treatments, including homeopathy. He also is the editor in chief of the journal ‘Complementary Medicine Research’ and regularly uses this position to sing the praise of homeopathy. There is a degree of mystery about his affiliation: he informed me about 10 months ago that he has left his post at the Europa Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder (“Dass ich als “ehemaliger Professor” geführt werde liegt daran, dass ich  Ende Januar aufgehört habe. Meine Stelle ist ausgelaufen und ich habe
sie nicht mehr verlängert.”). Yet all, even his recent papers still carry this address.

His latest article is entitled ‘The future of homeopathy’ is no exception. It is remarkable not just because of the mysterious affiliation but also – and mostly – because of its content. Here is my translation of a brief passage from this paper [I added some numbers in square brackets which refer to footnotes below].

START OF MY TRANSLATION

It is entirely undisputed that homeopathy with its therapeutic principles runs against the mainstream of science; and in this, Weymayr [1] is correct. However, to build on this fact a veritable research prohibition, such as the ‘scientability-concept’ suggests, is not just wrong from a science theoretical perspective, but… also discloses a dogmatic and unscientific stance.

If we see things soberly, homeopathy is – from a science theory point of view – an anomaly: empiric data prove that effects appear regularly and more and more frequently [2].  This is being demonstrated with meta-analyses of placebo-controlled clinical trials. And this also shows with our own provings, which conform well with the newly developed standards as well as with the newer provings. Effects are furthermore noted with such frequency in animal and plant-based studies. Contrary to often voiced statements, there are also models which produce replicated effects – for instance the model of children with ADHD which is currently being replicated. Repeatedly high quality pilot studies emerge, such as the one by Gassmann et al., which show that unexpected effects also appear with higher potencies, documented with objective methods. Homeopathy proves itself as useful in large pragmatic trials of which we, however, have far too few. And let’s not forget: homeopathy is pragmatically useful. Even though aggravations do occur occasionally during homeopathic treatments, the claim that homeopathy is dangerous is a careless interpretation of the data. [3]

In what way is homeopathy an anomaly? I have already years ago argued that the signature of the data does not suggest that we are dealing with a classical local effect. This would be an effect which would conform with the usual criterion of causality and would thus be stable, regular and more and more evident with improved experimentation. It is unnecessary to repeat this argument [4] for the purpose of this editorial. But precisely the question of the classic causal effect is the controversy. And exactly this is the issue used by the new wave of critic of homeopathy which is openly aimed at the demise of homeopathy. This situation occurs because also the homeopaths are victims of the misapprehension  that homeopathy is based on a classic causal process. But this assumption is most likely wrong, and homeopaths would be well-advised on the one side to point to the empiric evidence, and on the other side to practice theoretical chastity making clear that, for the time being, we have not a clue how homeopathy functions. This is the typical situation when a scientific anomaly occurs…

My prognosis would be: if we stop to misunderstand homeopathy as a classic causal phenomenon and instead view and research it as a non-classical phenomenon, homeopathy would have a chance and science would get richer by a new category of phenomena. This approach will prompt criticism, because it renders the world more complex rather than simpler. But this cannot be changed. Perhaps a new era of therapeutics might even emerge which does not abolish the molecular paradigm but makes it appear as one of several possibilities. [5]

END OF MY TRANSLATION

For those of you who can read German, here is the original text with references:

Dass die Homöopathie mit ihren therapeutischen Prinzipien dem Hauptstrom der Wissenschaft immer schon zuwiderlief, ist völlig unbestritten, und darin hat Weymayr recht. Aber auf dieser Tatsache ein regelrechtes «Forschungsverbot» aufbauen zu wollen, wie es das Szientabilitätskonzept vorsieht, das ist nicht nur wissenschaftstheoretisch absolut falsch, wie wir in einer Replik gezeigt haben [2], sondern offenbart auch eine dogmatische und unwissenschaftliche Einstellung.

Wenn man die Sache nüchtern sieht, ist die Homöopathie – wissenschaftstheoretisch betrachtet – eine Anomalie [3]: Empirische Daten belegen, dass immer wieder und insgesamt häufiger als zufällig erwartet Effekte auftreten. Das zeigen Meta-Analysen placebokontrollierter klinischer Studien [4,5,6]. Und das zeigt sich sowohl in unseren eigenen Arzneimittel-Prüfungen [7], die im Übrigen den erst neuerdings entwickelten Standards gut entsprechen [8], als auch in neueren Prüfungen [9]. Auch in Tierexperimenten [10,11,12,13] und in Pflanzenstudien [14,15,16] treten Effekte in solcher Häufigkeit auf. Entgegen oft gehörten Äußerungen gibt es durchaus auch Modelle, die replizierte Effekte ergeben – etwa das Modell homöopathischer Behandlung von Kindern mit Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-/Hyperaktivitätssyndrom [17,18], das gerade repliziert wird [19]. Immer wieder gibt es qualitativ hochwertige Pilotstudien, wie die unlängst publizierte von Gassmann et al. [20], die zeigen, dass unerwartete Effekte auch unter höheren Potenzen und dokumentiert mit objektiven Methoden zu beobachten sind. Homöopathie erweist sich in großen pragmatischen Studien, von denen es allerdings viel zu wenige gibt, als nützlich [21,22,23]. Und nicht zu vergessen: Homöopathie ist pragmatisch hilfreich [24,25,26,27]. Zwar kommt es bei homöopathischer Behandlung gelegentlich zu einer Erstverschlimmerung [28,29], aber die Behauptung, Homöopathie sei gefährlich [30], ist eine fahrlässige Interpretation der Daten [31].

Inwiefern ist die Homöopathie dann eine Anomalie? Ich habe schon vor Jahren argumentiert, dass die Signatur der Daten in der Homöopathie nicht dafür spricht, dass wir es mit einem klassischen, lokalen Effekt zu tun haben [32]. Das wäre ein Effekt, der dem gewöhnlichen Kriterium der Kausalität entspräche und somit stabil, regelmäßig und bei immer besserer Experimentierkunst immer deutlicher hervorträte. Dieses Argument jetzt wieder aufzurollen, ist im Rahmen eines Editorials müßig. Aber genau die Frage nach einem klassisch-kausalen Effekt ist letztlich der Stein des Anstoßes. Und genau diesen Anstoß nimmt nun die neue Welle der Homöopathiekritik, die erklärtermaßen auf die Abschaffung der Homöopathie abzielt, zu ihrem Anlass. Diese Situation ergibt sich, weil auch die Homöopathen dem Selbstmissverständnis aufsitzen, Homöopathie sei ein klassisch-kausaler Prozess. Das ist höchstwahrscheinlich falsch, und die Homöopathie wäre gut beraten, einerseits auf die empirischen Befunde hinzuweisen und auf der anderen Seite theoretische Enthaltsamkeit zu üben und klarzulegen, dass wir vorläufig keinerlei Ahnung haben, wie Homöopathie funktioniert. Das ist die typische Situation, wenn eine wissenschaftliche Anomalie vorliegt…

Meine Prognose wäre: Wenn wir aufhören, die Homöopathie als klassisches Phänomen misszuverstehen, und sie stattdessen als ein mögliches nichtklassisches Phänomen betrachten und beforschen, dann hat die Homöopathie eine Chance und die Wissenschaft wird um eine neue Kategorie von Phänomenen reicher. Dieser Ansatz wird Kritik hervorrufen, denn er macht die Welt eher komplexer als einfacher. Aber das lässt sich nicht ändern. Vielleicht kann sogar eine neue Ära der Therapie beginnen, die das molekulare Paradigma nicht abschafft, aber als eine von mehreren Möglichkeiten erscheinen lässt.


Rather than commenting on this text in full detail, I simply want to provide a few explanations [they refer to the numbers in square brackets inserted by me into my translation] in order to facilitate understanding. I hope, however, that my readers will comment as much as they feel like.

1) Weymayr argued that certain fields lack plausibility to a degree that they do not merit being investigated. Here is an abstract of an article by him:

Evidence-based medicine (EbM) has proved to be very useful in healthcare; thanks to its methodology the reliability of our knowledge of the benefits and harms of interventions can be assessed. This at least applies to interventions which are based on a plausible concept for their mechanism of action and which have already achieved positive effects in experiments and simple studies. However, for interventions whose concepts contradict scientific findings EbM has proved to be unsuitable; it has not been able to prevent that they are still regarded as effective amongst wide parts of the population and medical experts. Particularly homeopathy has managed to even present itself as scientifically justified by using EbM. With the aim of highlighting the speculative character of homeopathy and other procedures and of preventing EbM from getting damaged, the concept of scientability is introduced in this article. This concept only approves of clinical studies if the intervention that is to be tested does not contradict definite scientific findings.

2) A scientific anomaly is “something which cannot be explained by currently accepted scientific theories. Sometimes the new phenomenon leads to new rules or theories, e.g., the discovery of x-rays and radiation.

3) Even a minimal amount of critical thinking leads to the conclusion that the claims made about homeopathy in this paragraph are mostly not true or exaggerated. On this blog, there is plenty of evidence to contradict Walach on all the points he made here.

4) Walach’s argument is detailed in this article:

Among homeopaths the common idea about a working hypothesis for homeopathic effects seems to be that, during the potentization process, ‘information’ or ‘energy’ is being preserved or even enhanced in homeopathic remedies. The organism is said to be able to pick up this information, which in turn will stimulate the organism into a self-healing response. According to this view the decisive element of homeopathic therapy is the remedy which locally contains and conveys this information. I question this view for empirical and theoretical reasons. Empirical research has shown a repetitive pattern, in fundamental and clinical research alike: there are many anomalies in high-dilution research and clinical homeopathic trials which will set any observing researcher thinking. But no single paradigm has proved stable enough in order to produce repeatable results independent of the researcher. I conclude that the database is too weak and contradictory to substantiate a local interpretation of homeopathy, in which the remedy is endowed with causal-informational content irrespective of the circumstances. I propose a non-local interpretation to understand the anomalies along the lines of Jung’s notion of synchronicity and make some predictions following this analysis.

5) In a nutshell, Walach seems to be saying:

  • the empirical evidence for homeopathy is strong;
  • nobody understands the mechanisms by which the effects of homeopathy are brought about;
  • if we all claim that homeopathy is a ‘scientific anomaly’ which operates according to Jung’s notion of synchronicity, the discrepancy between strong evidence and lack of plausible explanation disappears and everyone can be happy.

This is wrong for the following reasons, in my view:

  • the evidence is not strong but negative or extremely weak;
  • we understand very well that the effects of homeopathy are due to non-specific effects;
  • therefore there is no need for a new paradigm;
  • Jung’s notion of synchronicity is pure speculation and not applicable to therapeutics.

In summary, Prof Walach would do well to stop philosophising about homeopathy, read up about critical analysis, fine-tune his BS-detector and familiarise himself with Occam’s razor.

 

‘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!!!

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.

This new RCT was embargoed until today; so, I had to wait until I was able to publish my comments. Here are the essentials of the study:

The Swedish investigators compared the effect of two types of acupuncture versus no acupuncture in infants with colic in public child health centres (CHCs). The study was designed as a multicentre, randomised controlled, single-blind, three-armed trial (ACU-COL) comparing two styles of acupuncture with no acupuncture, as an adjunct to standard care. Among 426 infants whose parents sought help for colic and registered their child’s fussing/crying in a diary, 157 fulfilled the criteria for colic and 147 started the intervention.

Parallel to usual care, study participants visited the study CHC twice a week for 2 weeks. Thus, all infants received usual care plus 4 extra visits to a CHC, during which parents met a nurse for 20–30 min and were able to discuss their infant’s symptoms. Together these were considered to represent gold standard care. The nurse listened, and gave evidence-based advice and calming reassurance. Breastfeeding mothers were encouraged to continue breastfeeding. At each visit, the study nurse carried the infant to a separate treatment room where they were left alone with the acupuncturist for 5 min.

The acupuncturist treated the baby according to group allocation and recorded the treatment procedures and any adverse events. Disposable stainless steel 0.20×13 mm Vinco needles (Helio, Jiangsu Province, China) were used. Infants allocated to group A received standardised MA at LI4. One needle was inserted to a depth of approximately 3 mm unilaterally for 2–5 s and then withdrawn without stimulation. Infants allocated to group B received semi-standardised individualised acupuncture, mimicking clinical TCM practice. Following a manual, the acupuncturists were able to choose one point, or any combination of Sifeng, LI4 and ST36, depending on the infant’s symptoms, as reported in the diary. A maximum of five insertions were allowed per treatment. Needling at Sifeng consisted of 4 insertions, each to a depth of approximately 1 mm for 1 s. At LI4 and ST36, needles were inserted to a depth of approximately 3 mm, uni- or bilaterally. Needles could be retained for 30 seconds. De qi was not sought, therefore stimulation was similarly minimal in groups A and B. Infants in group C spent 5 min alone with the acupuncturist without receiving acupuncture.

The effect of the two types of acupuncture was similar and both were superior to gold standard care alone. Relative to baseline, there was a greater relative reduction in time spent crying and colicky crying by the second intervention week (p=0.050) and follow-up period (p=0.031), respectively, in infants receiving either type of acupuncture. More infants receiving acupuncture cried <3 hours/day, and thereby no longer fulfilled criteria for colic, in the first (p=0.040) and second (p=0.006) intervention weeks. No serious adverse events were reported.

The authors concluded that acupuncture appears to reduce crying in infants with colic safely.

Notice that the investigators are cautious and state in the abstract that “acupuncture appears to reduce crying…” Their conclusions from the actual article are, however, quite different; here they state the following:

Among those initially experiencing excessive infant crying, the majority of parents reported normal values once the infant’s crying had been evaluated in a diary and a diet free of cow’s milk had been introduced. Therefore, objective measurement of crying and exclusion of cow’s milk protein are recommended as first steps, to avoid unnecessary treatment. For those infants that continue to cry >3 hours/day, acupuncture may be an effective treatment option. The two styles of MA tested in ACU-COL had similar effects; both reduced crying in infants with colic and had no serious side effects. However, there is a need for further research to find the optimal needling locations, stimulation and treatment intervals.

Such phraseology is much more assertive and seems to assume acupuncture caused specific therapeutic effects. Yet, I think, this assumption is not warranted.

In fact, I believe, the study shows almost the opposite of what the authors conclude. Both minimal and TCM acupuncture seemed to reduce the symptoms of colic compared to no acupuncture at all. I think, this confirms previous research showing that acupuncture is a ‘theatrical placebo’. The study was designed without an adequate placebo group. It would have been easy to use some form of sham acupuncture in the control group. Why did the authors not do that? Heaven knows, but one might speculate that they were aiming for a positive result – and what better way to ensure it than with a ‘no treatment’ control group?

There are, of course, numerous other flaws. For instance, Prof David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London, criticised the study because of its lousy statistics:

START OF QUOTE

“It is truly astonishing that, in the 21st century, the BMJ still publishes a journal devoted to a form of pre-scientific medicine which after more than 3000 trials has still not been able to produce convincing evidence of efficacy1. Like most forms of alternative medicine, acupuncture has been advocated for a vast range of problems, and there is little evidence that it works for any of them. Colic has not been prominent in these claims. What parent would think that sticking needles into their baby would stop it crying? The idea sounds bizarre. It is. This paper certainly doesn’t show that it works.

“The statistical analysis in the paper is incompetent. This should have been detected by the referees, but wasn’t.  For a start, the opening statement, ‘A two-sided P value ≤0.05 was considered statistically significant’ is simply unacceptable in the light of all recent work about reproducibility.  Still worse, Table 1 uses the description ‘statistical tendency towards significance (p=0.051–0.1)’.

“Worst of all, Table 1 reports 24 different P values, of which three are (just) below 0.05. Yet no correction has been used for multiple comparisons. This is very bad practice. It’s highly unlikely that, if the proper correction had been done, any of the results would have given a type 1 error rate below 5%.

“Even were it not for this, most of the ‘significant’ P values are marginal (only slightly less than 0.05).  It is now well known that the type 1 error rate gives an optimistic view. What matters is the false positive rate – the chance that a ‘significant’ result is a false positive.  A p-value close to 0.05 implies that there is at least a 30% chance that they are false positives.  If one thought, a priori, that the chance of colic being cured by sticking needles into a baby was less than 50%, the false positive rate could easily be greater than 80%2.  It is now recognised that this misinterpretation of p-values is a major contributor to the crisis of reproducibility.

“Other problems concern the power calculation.  A priori calculations of power are well-known to be overoptimistic, because small trials usually overestimate the effect size.  In this case the initial estimated sample size was not attained, and a rather mysterious recalculation of power was used.

“Another small problem: the discussion points out that ‘the majority of infants in this cohort did not have colic’.

“The nature of the control group is not very clear. An appropriate control might have been to cuddle the baby – this was used in a study in which another implausible treatment, chiropractic, was shown not to work.  This appears not to have been done.

“Lastly, p-values are reported in the text without mention of effect sizes. This is contrary to all statistical advice.

“In conclusion, the design of the trial is reasonable (apart from the control group) but the statistical analysis is appalling.  It’s very likely that there aren’t any real effects of acupuncture at all. This paper serves more to muddy the waters than to add useful information. It’s a model for the sort of mistakes that have led to the crisis in reproducibility.  The BMJ should not be publishing this sort of stuff, and the referees seem to have no understanding of statistics.”

END OF QUOTE

Despite these rather obvious – some would say fatal – flaws, the editor of ACUPUNCTURE IN MEDICINE (AIM) thought this trial to be so impressively rigorous that he issued a press-release about it. This, I think, is particularly telling, perhaps even humorous: it shows what kind of a journal AIM is, and also provides an insight into the state of acupuncture research in general.

The long and short of it is that conclusions about specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture are not permissible. We know that colicky babies respond even to minimal attention, and this trial confirms that even a little additional TLC in the form of acupuncture will generate an effect. The observed outcome is most likely unrelated to acupuncture.

If you want to scientifically investigate this question, it might be a good idea NOT to start with the following sentence: “Auricular acupuncture (AA) is effective in the treatment of preoperative anxiety”. Yet, this is exactly what the authors did in their recent publication.

The aim of this new study was to investigate whether AA can reduce exam anxiety as compared to placebo and no intervention. Forty-four medical students were randomized to receive AA, placebo, or no intervention in a crossover manner. Subsequently they completed three comparable oral anatomy exams with an interval of one month between the exams/interventions.

A licensed acupuncturist with more than five years of experience with this technique applied AA at the acupuncture points MA-IC1 (Lung), MA-TF1 (ear Shenmen), MA-SC (Kidney), MA-AT1 (Subcortex) and MA-TG (Adrenal gland) bilaterally. Indwelling fixed ‘New Pyonex’ needles embedded in a skin-coloured adhesive tape were used for AA. The participants were instructed by the acupuncturist to stimulate the auricular needles for 3–5 minutes, if they felt anxious. For the placebo procedure, ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles were attached to five sites on the helix of the auricle bilaterally. ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles have the same appearance as AA needles but consist of self-adhesive tape only. In order to avoid potential physiologic effects of acupressure, the participants were not instructed to stimulate the attached ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles. AA and placebo needles were left in situ until the next day and were removed out of sight of the participants after the exam by the investigator, who was not involved in acupuncture procedure

Levels of anxiety were measured using a visual analogue scale before and after each intervention as well as before each exam. Additional measures included the State-Trait-Anxiety Inventory, duration of sleep at night, blood pressure, heart rate and the extent of participant blinding.

All included participants finished the study. Anxiety levels were reduced after AA and placebo intervention compared to baseline and the no intervention condition (p < 0.003). Moreover, AA was also better at reducing anxiety than placebo in the evening before the exam (p = 0.018). Participants were able to distinguish between AA and placebo intervention.

The authors concluded that both auricular acupuncture and placebo procedure were shown to be effective in reducing levels of exam anxiety in medical students. The superiority of verum AA over placebo AA and no intervention is considered to be due to stimulation of cranial nerves, but may have been increased in effect by insufficient participant blinding.

Here are just three of the major concerns I have about this study:

  • The trial design seems odd: a crossover study can only work well, if there is a stable baseline. This may not be the case with three consecutive exams; the anxiety experienced by students is bound to get less as time goes by. I think anyone who has passed a series of exams will confirm that there is a large degree of habituation.
  • It seems inadequate to employ just one acupuncturist; it means that the trial might end up testing not acupuncture per se but the skills of the therapist.
  • The placebo used for this study cannot possibly have fooled anyone into believing that it was real AA; volunteers were not even instructed to ‘stimulate’ the placebo devices. The difference to the ‘real thing’ must have been very clear to all involved. This means that the control for placebo-effects was woefully incomplete. In turn, this means that the observed outcomes are most likely due to residual bias.

In view of these concerns, allow me to re-phrase the authors’ conclusions:

THE RESULTS OF THIS POORLY-DESIGNED STUDY ARE DIFFICULT TO INTERPRET. MOST LIKELY THEY SHOW THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT EFFECTIVE BUT MERELY WORKS THROUGH A PLACEBO-RESPONSE.

You probably remember: the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) has issued a statement announcing that unsupported claims for homeopathic remedies will be no longer allowed. Specifically, they said that, in future, homeopathic remedies have to be held to the same standard as other medicinal products. In other words, American companies must now have reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims that their products can treat specific conditions and illnesses.

Now the AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF HOMEOPATHY (AIH) has published a rebuttal. It is hilarious and embarrassing in equal measure. Here it is in full (I have only omitted their references – they can be seen in the linked original –  and added footnotes in bold square brackets with my very short comments):

START OF QUOTE

November 30, 2016

The American Institute of Homeopathy applauds the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) goal of protecting the American public from false advertising claims, but in a recent circumstance we believe the FTC has overstepped its jurisdictional bounds and promulgated false information in what appears to be a bid to restrict health care choices [1] available to the American public.

In Response to the recent Enforcement Policy Statement1 and a Consumer Information Blog,2 both issued by the FTC on November 15, 2016, the American Institute of Homeopathy registers our strong concern regarding the content of the following inaccurate statements:

  1. “Homeopathy… is based on the view that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms…”

Homeopathy is not based on a “view” or an opinion. It is based on reliable, reproducible, clinically acquired, empiric evidence [2] gathered through two centuries of corroborated data, assisted by thousands of practitioners worldwide [3], demonstrating the actions of different medicinal substances in living systems, aka: the science of homeopathy. In fact, the homeopathic scientific community were pioneers of the modern scientific method including the widespread adoption of blinded and placebo controlled studies in 1885 [4], decades before conventional medicine.3

Homeopathy is not based on a theory or on conjecture, but on principles that have been confirmed by long-studied clinical data, meticulously gathered and analyzed over many years [5].

  1. “Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance.”

While the dilution and succussion process of formulating homeopathic medicines does reduce the concentration (and the toxicity) of the original substances, detectable amounts of these materials remain quantifiable in the form of nanoparticles [6] dispersed throughout.4 Multiple independent laboratories, worldwide have confirmed that these nanoparticles persist,5 and that they are biologically active.6 Many other homeopathic products (particularly those sold OTC and described as “low potency”) have dilute amounts of the original substance [7] that remain chemically detectable by straightforward titration.

  1. “…homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods…”

This statement is false and misleading. The active ingredients within most OTC homeopathic products have hundreds or thousands of case reports from physicians who have used these medicines [8]. These reports of direct clinical experiences establish a collective, real-world dataset that demonstrates which conditions have been observed to respond to treatment. Such historical data is similar to the types of information used to demonstrate effectiveness for many conventional OTC medicines on the market today [9].

The Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS) maintains a formulary describing the appropriate manufacturing standards for homeopathic medicines [10]. Every homeopathic manufacturer member of the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists in good ethical standing complies with both manufacturing and labeling standards set by the HPCUS. Consumers should be cautious when using any products that are not distinguished by conformance with “HPUS” on the label.

  1. “…the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories…”

This statement is false. Neither homeopathy nor homeopathic efficacy is based on any theories. Efficacy for various homeopathic medicines has been established by scientifically reproducible clinical empiric research evidence [11] and cured patient cases followed over many years [12]. Homeopathy is an evidence-based medical subspecialty rooted in patient care.

  1. “…there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”

While this statement may have limited accuracy with respect to some OTC products, it is false and misleading with respect to most homeopathic medicines listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States. Hundreds of state-of-the-art double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled studies, many in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrate the superior efficacy of homeopathic medicines in a wide range of conditions, including asthma,7 depression and anxiety,8 chronic illness,9 allergic rhinitis,10 hypertension,11 headaches/migraines,12 sepsis,13 mild traumatic brain injury,14 otitis media,15 cancer,16 and many other conditions [13]. The American Institute of Homeopathy maintains and continually updates an extensive database, available free to the public, with over 6,000 research articles [14].17

Multiple meta-analyses published in peer reviewed medical journals that conclude that homeopathic medicine effects are superior to placebo [15] and that additional study of this therapeutic system is warranted.18,19,20,21,22,23  To that end, we encourage the National Institutes of Health to reverse their current position of blocking funding for homeopathic trials.24

  1. “…marketing claims that such homeopathic products have a therapeutic effect lack a reasonable basis and are likely misleading…”

The conclusion of whether a product has a “reasonable basis” is entirely irrelevant if that product has demonstrable clinical effectiveness. The important question, when it comes to homeopathy, is whether it is effective in clinical settings, not whether it has a “reasonable basis” for how it works. The mechanism by which homeopathy works differs from conventional medicines [16], but this fact does not make these products “misleading”.

Several recent class-action lawsuits brought against homeopathic manufacturers confirm that marketing practices were neither deceptive nor misleading [17].25

The FTC’s inability to formulate a reasonable basis for why homeopathic medicines work should not enter into any governmental enforcement policy statement. The FTC is not a medical organization, lacks expertise in interpreting scientific research [18], and is not qualified to make any comment on the validity of any field of medicine. To be less misleading, the FTC should exclude opinions from its policy statements.

  1. “Homeopathy: Not backed by modern science”

Homeopathy, as a system of medicine, does not fall under the purview of the FTC. Therefore, the FTC has been reckless in expressing an opinion of this magnitude. In this situation, the FTC’s comments can only be construed as being prejudicially biased and intentionally discriminatory against homeopathy. Such statements cause unwarranted harm to public trust and damage to a respected traditional system of medicine in the United States [19].

The American Institute of Homeopathy strongly objects to the FTC’s characterization of the entire field of homeopathic medicine as being without scientific evidence of efficacy. These comments are unqualified and wholly lacking in merit. The release of this Enforcement Policy Statement serves only to align the FTC with several recently released scientifically fraudulent [20] reports by a variety of pseudoscientists [21] and lowers the credibility of this valued consumer protection agency.

This type of misinformation should be embarrassing to a government organization striving to be nonpartisan and objective. The FTC owes an apology to the American Institute of Homeopathy as well as the many consumer groups that look toward this agency for fair and accurate information.

END OF QUOTE

My comments:

1 In healthcare, choice must be restricted to treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm.

2 The AIH seems to be unaware of the difference between the nature of evidence, anecdote and experience.

3 Fallacy – appeal to popularity.

4 The first randomized, placebo-controlled study of homeopathy was, in fact, published in 1835 – its results were negative.

5 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

6 The nano-particle explanation of homeopathy is but a theory (at best).

7 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

8 Fallacy – appeal to authority.

9 Really? Which ones? Examples would help, but I doubt they exist.

10 The proper manufacturing of nonsense must still result in nonsense.

11 See footnote number 2

12 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

13 For all of these conditions, the totality of the reliable evidence fails to demonstrate efficacy.

14 In this context, only clinical trials are relevant, and their number is nowhere near 6,000.

15 Most of the independent systematic reviews fail to be positive.

16 The mechanism is well-known and is called ‘placebo-effect’.

17 Many class actions also went against the manufacturers of homeopathic preparations.

18 I assume they ‘bought in’ the necessary expertise.

19 Surely, the damage is only to the cash-flow of firms selling bogus products.

20 Really? Name the report you libel here or be quiet!

21 Name the individuals you attack in this way or be quiet!

I must say, I had fun reading this. In fact, I cannot remember having seen a document by an organisation of healthcare professionals which was so embarrassingly nonsensical that it becomes comedy gold. If one of my PhD students, for instance, had submitted such drivel, I would have had no choice but to fail him or her.

Having said that, I need to stress to the AIH:

FULL MARKS FOR AMUSEMENT!!!

 

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.

Over on ‘SPECTATOR HEALTH’, we have an interesting discussion (again) about homeopathy. The comments so far were not short of personal attacks but this one by someone who called himself (courageously) ‘Larry M’ took the biscuit. It is so characteristic of deluded homeopathy apologists that I simply have to share it with you:

Ernst grew up with homeopathy [1], saw how well it worked [2], and chose to become a so-called expert in alternative medicine [3]. To his surprise, he met with professional disapproval [4]. Being the weak ego-driven person that he is [5], he saw an opportunity to still come out on top. He sold his soul in exchange for the notoriety that he now receives for being the crotchety old homeopathy hater that he has become [6]. As with all homeopathy haters, his fundamentalist zeal [7] is evidence of his secret self-loathing [8] and fear that his true beliefs will be found out [9]. It’s no different than the evangelical preacher who rails against gays only to be eventually found out to be a closeted gay [10].

There is not much that makes me speechless these days, but this comment almost did. There is someone who clearly does not even know me and he takes it upon himself to interpret and re-invent my past, my motives and my actions at will. How deluded is that?

After re-reading the comment, I began to see the funny side of it, had a giggle and decided to add a few elements of truth in the form of this blog-post. So I took the liberty to insert some reference numbers into Larry’s text which refer to my brief points below.

  1. This is at least partly true; our family doctor was a prominent homeopath. Whenever one of us was truly ill, he employed conventional treatments.
  2. I was impressed as a young physician working in a homeopathic hospital to see that patients improved on homeopathy – even though, at medical school, I had been told that the remedies were pure placebos. This contradiction fascinated me, and I began to do some own research into the subject.
  3. I did not ‘choose’, I had a genuine interest; and I don’t think that I am a ‘so called’ expert – after 2 decades of research and hundreds of papers, this attribute seems a trifle unfitting.
  4. The disapproval came from the homeopathy fans who were irritated that someone had the audacity to undertake a truly CRITICAL assessment of their treatments and actions.
  5. The amateur psychology here speaks for itself, I think.
  6. Yes, I am no spring chicken! But I am not a ‘hater’ of anything – I try to create progress by convincing people that it is prudent to go for treatments that are evidence-based and avoid those that do not generate more good than harm.
  7. This attitude is not a ‘fundamental zeal’, it is the only responsible way forward.
  8. This made me laugh out loud! Nothing could be further from the truth.
  9. My ‘true belief’ is that patients deserve the best treatments available. I have no fear of being ‘found out’; on the contrary, during my career I stood up to several challenges of influential people who tried to trip me up.
  10. This is hilarious – does Larry not feel how pompously ridiculous and ridiculously pompous he truly is?

This might be all too trivial, if such personal attacks were not an almost daily event. The best I can do with them, I have concluded, is to expose them for what they are and demonstrate how dangerously deluded the advocates of quackery really are. In this way, I can perhaps minimize the harm these people do to public health and medical progress.

The ‘Deutsche Apotheker Zeitung’, a paper for German pharmacists, rarely is the most humorous of publications. However, recently they reported on a battle between the EU and the European producers of homeopathic remedies – a battle over mercury which has, I think, hints of Monty Python and the Flying Circus.

The EU already has strict regulations on the use of mercury, for obvious reasons, they apply particularly to medicines. The law in this area is now 8 years old and is about to be replaced by a new one which is even stricter. A draft has been recently published here.

The new law would prohibit all mercury in medicinal products, except for some used in dentistry. For the homeopathic and anthroposophic manufacturers, this is not good news because they have many remedies on the market that have the word ‘mercury’ on the label. Consequently, they fear that the sale of these products might be impeded or even become impossible in the EU.

„Quecksilber und Quecksilberverbindungen stellen für manche homöopathische und andere traditionelle Arzneimittel einen unverzichtbaren Bestandteil dar“ (Mercury and mercury compounds are an essential ingredient of some homeopathic and other traditional medicines) .. “Es steht keine Quecksilber-freie Alternative zur Verfügung, die als aktiver Bestandteil in der Therapie mit homöopathischen oder anderen traditionellen Arzneimitteln verwendet werden könnte“ (There is no mercury-free alternative that could be used in these medications”) wrote the Dachverband der Arzneimittelhersteller im Bereich der Selbstmedikation (AESGP) (a lobby group of the homeopathic manufacturers) in a comment adding that „Diese Produkte sind seit Dekaden auf dem europäischen Markt und gehören zum Arzneimittel-Werkzeugkoffer” (these products are on the market since decades and belong to the medical tool-kit)… and that these products contain merely tiny amounts of mercury – even the largest manufacturers of these remedies only require a few milligrams for their production.

The plea of the manufacturers therefore is for an exemption from the new law which would allow the trade of mercury-containing remedies in future. They even have the support of some health politicians; for instance Peter Liese CDU favours an exemption for homeopathic medicines. The next meeting of the EU committee on public health will vote on the matter.

Personally, I can imagine the following dialogue between the EU officials (EU) and the lobbyists of the homeopathic industry (LOHI):

EU: We are very sorry but, because of the toxicity of mercury, we will not allow any of it in medicines.

LOHI: But we have always used it and nobody has come to harm.

EU: We don’t know that, and we have to be strict.

LOHI: We appreciate your concern, but we use only very, very tiny amounts; they cannot cause harm.

EU: The law is the law!

LOHI: Actually, the vast majority of our products are so dilute that they do not contain a single molecule of the ingredient on the bottle.

EU: That’s interesting! In this case, they are not medicines and we will have to ban them.

LOHI: NO, no, no – you don’t understand. We potentise our medicines; this means that the ingredient that they no longer contain gets more and more powerful.

EU: Are you sure?

LOHI: Absolutely!

EU: In this case, we will ban not just your mercury products but all your phony remedies. Because either science is right and they are fraudulent, or you are correct and they are dangerous.

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