MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

post-operative ileus

Readers of this blog will know that few alternative treatments are more controversial and less plausible than homeopathy. Therefore they might be interested to read about the latest attempt of homeopathy-enthusiasts to convince the public that, despite all the clinical evidence to the contrary, homeopathy does work.

The new article was published in German by Swiss urologist and is a case-report describing a patient suffering from paralytic ileus. This condition is a typical complication of ileocystoplasty of the bladder, the operation the patient had undergone. The patient had also been suffering from a spinal cord injury which, due to a pre-existing neurogenic bowel dysfunction, increases the risk of paralytic ileus.

The paraplegic patient developed a massive paralytic ileus after ileocystoplasty and surgical revision. Conventional stimulation of bowel function was unsuccessful. But after adjunctive homeopathic treatment normalization of bowel function was achieved.

The authors conclude that adjunctive homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment option in patients with complex bowel dysfunction after abdominal surgery who do not adequately respond to conventional treatment.

YES, you did read correctly: homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment

In case anyone doubts that this is more than a trifle too optimistic, let me suggest three much more plausible reasons why the patient’s bowel function finally normalised:

  • It could have been a spontaneous recovery (in most cases, even severe ones, this is what happens).
  • It could have been all the conventional treatments aimed at stimulating bowel function.
  • It could have been a mixture of the two.

The article made me curious, and I checked whether the authors had previously published other material on homeopathy. Thus I found two further articles in a very similar vein:

Article No 2 (dated 2014):

We present the clinical course of a patient with an epididymal abscess caused by multiresistant bacteria. As the patient declined surgical intervention, a conservative approach was induced with intravenous antibiotic treatment. As the clinical findings did not ameliorate, adjunctive homeopathic treatment was used. Under combined treatment, laboratory parameters returned to normal, and the epididymal abscess was rapidly shrinking. After 1 week, merely a subcutaneous liquid structure was detected. Fine-needle aspiration revealed sterile purulent liquid, which was confirmed by microbiological testing when the subcutaneous abscess was drained. Postoperative course was uneventful.

As the risk for recurrent epididymitis is high in persons with spinal cord injury, an organ-preserving approach is justified even in severe cases. Homeopathic treatment was a valuable adjunctive treatment in the above-mentioned case. Therefore, prospective studies are needed to further elucidate the future opportunities and limitations of classical homeopathy in the treatment of urinary tract infections.

Article No 3 (dated 2012):

Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI) in patients with spinal cord injury are a frequent clinical problem. Often, preventive measures are not successful. We present the case reports of five patients with recurrent UTI who received additional homeopathic treatment. Of these patients, three remained free of UTI, whereas UTI frequency was reduced in two patients. Our initial experience with homeopathic prevention of UTI is encouraging. For an evidence-based evaluation of this concept, prospective studies are required.

It seems clear that all of the three more plausible explanations for the patients’ recovery listed above also apply to these two cases.

One might not be far off speculating that J Pannek, the first author of all these three articles, is a fan of homeopathy (this suspicion is confirmed by a link between him and the HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH INSTITUE: Prof Jürgen Pannek on the use of homeopathy for prophylaxis of UTI’s in patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction). If that is so, I wonder why he does not conduct a controlled trial, rather than publishing case-report after case-report of apparently successful homeopathic treatments. Does he perhaps fear that his effects might dissolve into thin air under controlled conditions?

Case-reports of this nature can, of course, be interesting and some might even deserve to be published. But it would be imperative to draw the correct conclusions. Looking at the three articles above, I get the impression that, as time goes by, the conclusions of Prof Pannek et al (no, I know nobody from this group of authors personally) are growing more and more firm on less and less safe ground.

In my view, responsible authors should have concluded much more cautiously and reasonably. In the case of the paralytic ileus, for instance, they should not have gone further than stating something like this: adjunctive homeopathic therapy might turn out to be a promising treatment option for such patients. Despite the implausibility of homeopathy, this case-report might deserve to be followed up with a controlled clinical trial. Without such evidence, firm conclusions are clearly not possible.

Did I previously imply that osteopaths are not very research-active? Shame on me!

Here are two brand-new studies by osteopaths and they both seem to show that their treatments work.

Impressed?

Well, perhaps we better have a closer look at them before we start praising osteopathic research efforts.

THE FIRST STUDY

Researchers from the ‘European Institute for Evidence Based Osteopathic Medicine’ in Chieti, Italy, investigated the effect of  osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) on the length of hospital-stay (LOHS) in premature infants. They conducted an RCT on 110 preterm newborns admitted to a single specialised unit. Thus the subjects with a gestational age between 28 and 38 weeks were randomized to receive either just routine care, or routine care with OMT for the period of hospitalization. Endpoints were differences in LOHS and daily weight gain. The results showed a mean difference in LOHS between the OMT and the control group: -5.906 days (95% C.I. -7.944, -3.869; p<0.001). However, OMT was not associated with any change in daily weight gain.

The authors’ conclusion was bold: OMT may have an important role in the management of preterm infants hospitalization.

THE SECOND STUDY

The second investigation suggested similarly positive effects of OMT on LOHS in a different setting. Using a retrospective cohort study, US osteopaths wanted to determine whether there is a relationship between post-operative use of OMT and post-operative outcomes in gastrointestinal surgical patients, including time to flatus, clear liquid diet, and bowel movement [all indicators for the length of the post-operative ileus] as well as LOHS. They thus assessed the records of 55 patients who underwent a major gastrointestinal operation in a hospital that had been routinely offering OMT to its patients. The analyses showed that 17 patients had received post-operative OMT and 38 had not.The two groups were similar in terms of all variables the researchers managed to assess. The time to bowel movement and to clear liquid diet did not differ significantly between the groups. The mean time to flatus was 4.7 days in the non-OMT group and 3.1 days in the OMT group (P=.035). The mean post-operative hospital LOHS was also reduced significantly with OMT, from 11.5 days in the non-OMT group to 6.1 days in the OMT group (P=.006).

The authors concluded that OMT applied after a major gastrointestinal operation is associated with decreased time to flatus and decreased postoperative hospital LOHS.

WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE OF THESE RESULTS?

Some people may have assumed that OMT is for bad backs; these two studies imply, however, that it can do much more. If the findings are correct, they have considerable implications: shortening the time patients have to spend in hospital would not only decrease individual suffering, it would also save us all tons of money! But do these results hold water?

The devil’s advocate in me cannot help but being more than a little sceptical. I fail to see how OMT might shorten LOHS; it just does not seem plausible! Moreover, some of the results seem too good to be true. Could there be any alternative explanations for the observed findings?

The first study, I think, might merely demonstrate that more time spent handling  premature babies provides a powerful developmental stimulus. Therefore the infants are quicker ready to leave hospital compared to those children who did not receive this additional boost. But the effect might not at all be related to OMT per se; if, for instance, the parents had handled their children for the same amount of time, the outcome would probably have been quite similar, possibly even better.

The second study is not an RCT and therefore it tells us little about cause and effect. We might speculate, for instance, that those patients who elected to have OMT were more active, had lived healthier lives, adhered more rigorously to a pre-operative diet, or differed in other variables from those patients who chose not to bother with OMT. Again, the observed difference in the duration of the post-operative ileus and consequently the LOHS would be entirely unrelated to OMT.

I suggest therefore to treat these two studies with more than just a pinch of salt. Before hospitals all over the world start employing osteopaths right, left and centre in order to shorten their average LOHS, we might be well advised to plan and conduct a trial that avoids the pitfalls of the research so far. I would bet a fiver that, once we do a proper independent replication, we will find that both investigations did, in fact, generate false positive results.

My conclusion from all this is simple: RESEARCH CAN SOMETIMES BE MISLEADING, AND POOR QUALITY RESEARCH IS ALMOST INVARIABLY MISLEADING.

Postoperative ileus (POI), the phenomenon that after an operation the intestines tend to be inactive for a few days, can cause intense pain and thus contributes significantly to human suffering. It also prolongs hospital stay and increases the risks of post-operative complications. There is no known effective treatment for POI.

In China, POI is often treated with acupuncture, and due to this fact acupuncture became known in the West: James Reston, a journalist who accompanied Nixon on his first trip to China, had to have an appendectomy in a Beijing hospital, he subsequently suffered from POI, was treated with acupuncture and moxibustion, experienced symptom-relief, and subsequently wrote about it in the New York Times. This was the beginning of the present acupuncture-boom.

Since then, thousands of acupuncture trials have been published but, intriguingly, very few have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture for POI. Now researchers from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York have conducted a randomized, sham-controlled trial to test whether acupuncture reduces POI more effectively than sham acupuncture.

Ninety colon cancer patients undergoing elective colectomy were randomized to receive 30 min of true or sham acupuncture twice daily during their first three postoperative days. GI-3 (the later of the following two events: time that the patient first tolerated solid food, AND time that the patient first passed flatus OR a bowel movement) and GI-2 (the later of the following two events: time patient first tolerated solid food AND time patient first passed a bowel movement) were determined. Pain, nausea, vomiting, and use of pain medications were evaluated daily for the first three postoperative days. Eighty-one patients received the allocated intervention: 39 the true acupuncture and 42 the sham acupuncture. The mean time to GI-3 was 149 hours and 146 hours for the acupuncture group and the sham acupuncture group. No significant differences were found between groups for secondary endpoints.

The authors’ conclusion was clear: True acupuncture as provided in this study did not reduce POI more significantly than sham acupuncture.

So, did a mere misunderstanding start the present acupuncture boom? POI inevitably normalises with time. Did the journalist just imagine that acupuncture helped, while nature cured the condition? It would seem so, according to this study. But perhaps things are not just black or white. Almost at the same time as the New York trial, another study was emerged.

Researchers from Hong Kong conducted an RCT with 165 patients undergoing elective laparoscopic surgery for colonic and upper rectal cancer. Patients were assigned randomly to receive electroacupuncture (n = 55) or sham acupuncture (n = 55), once daily from postoperative days 1-4, or no acupuncture (n = 55). The primary outcome was time to defecation. Secondary outcomes included postoperative analgesic requirement, time to ambulation, and length of hospital stay. The results showed that patients who received electroacupuncture had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received no acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 122.1 ± 53.5 h) and length of hospital stay (6.5 ± 2.2 vs 8.5 ± 4.8 days). Patients who received electroacupuncture also had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received sham acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 107.5 ± 46.2 h). Electroacupuncture was more effective than no or sham acupuncture in reducing postoperative analgesic requirement and time to ambulation.

The Chinese researchers’ conclusion is equally clear: electroacupuncture reduced the duration of postoperative ileus, time to ambulation, and postoperative analgesic requirement, compared with no or sham acupuncture, after laparoscopic surgery for colorectal cancer.

The only other trial I know in this area failed to show that acupuncture shortens POI. What should we make of these data? A systematic review would be nice, of course, but, to the best of my knowledge, none is currently available.

Is this a question of everyone being able to pick and chose the evidence they like? Is it a question of who we trust, the researchers in New York or those in China? Is it a question of where the treatment was done authentically? Is it a question of critically analysing which study had the higher risks of bias? Or is it a question of simply saying that two negative studies are more than one positive trial?

Confused? Me too, a little!

Whatever answers we chose, several things seems fairly certain to me. It would be wrong to say that there is good evidence for acupuncture as a treatment of POI. And the acupuncture-boom that ensued after Reston’s article was to a very large degree built on a simple misunderstanding: POI is a condition that resolves literally into thin air whether we treat it or not.

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