MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pseudo-science

Chiropractic may not be effective (as discussed often here); it also is not nearly as safe as chiropractors claim (as discussed often here), but it is excellent for making me – and I hope many others too – laugh heartily. If you doubt it, please read this article:

START OF QUOTE

… “People come in with back pain, but after adjustments, they come back and tell me their sex life is so much better,” says [the chiropractor] Jason Helfrich… “It’s no surprise to us—it’s amazing what the body will do when you take away the pressure on the nervous system.”

… Every function in your body is controlled from the nervous system, but when vertebra are off position—known as a subluxation—the nerves traveling between your brain and your muscles can become blocked, compromising your body’s ability to function as it needs to. Every chiropractor’s goal is to remove these subluxations, since they can both cause pain and impede feeling, Helfrich says. But these fixes help more than just back pain. The lumbar region (your lower back) is a huge hub for the nerves that extend into your reproductive regions. Removing lumbar subluxations can improve nerve flow to your sexual organs, increasing things like blood flow to your clitoris or, for your husband, the penis.

The flow of nerve signals is a two-way street, though, meaning that adjustments also allow your organs to send messages to the brain more easily. This means that you not only do you become physically aroused faster, but your brain also registers that ready-for-action, heightened sense of pleasure more quickly, so you move past the mental obstacles that may be keeping you from orgasming, Helfrich explains… “Libido and fertility require a delicate balance of estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones, many of which are released in the upper cervical and neck area,” he explains. If there are any blockages right out of the brain, the impingement up there will have an effect all the way down… “We want to improve people’s health, and health is about living life as its intended. Having a great sex life is huge part of that,” Helfrich adds. No arguments here!

No arguments here???

Perhaps because anyone with an iota of understanding of human physiology is quite simply speechless after reading such baloney!

Or perhaps any critical thinker would be laughing so much that an argument cannot be formulated!

In my previous post, I reported that the NHS has included homeopathy and herbal medicine on the list of medications that might no longer get reimbursed. The news was reported by most newspapers in the UK. All of the papers correctly quote NHS England giving their reasons for black-listing homeopathy and herbal remedies. Some papers also quote critics of homeopathy providing short ‘sound bites’ and opinions. None of the articles bother to explain in any detail why homeopathy is so ridiculously implausible or how strong the evidence against it has become. In this post, I intend to analyse some of this press coverage by copying those excerpts from the newspaper articles which I find odd or misleading and by adding short comments by myself.

THE DAILY MAIL claimed that homeopathic remedies are treatments using heavily diluted forms of plants, herbs and minerals. This is factually incorrect; think of remedies like X-ray! The Mail also quoted Don Redding, director of policy at National Voices, stating: ‘Whilst some treatments are available to purchase over the counter, that does not mean that everyone can afford them. There will be distinct categories of people who rely on NHS funding for prescriptions of remedies that are otherwise available over the counter. Stopping such prescriptions would break with the principle of an NHS “free at the point of use” and would create a system where access to treatments is based on a person’s ability to pay.’  This argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE INDEPENDENT cited Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, who said: “If patients are in a position that they can afford to buy over the counter medicines and products, then we would encourage them to do so rather than request a prescription – but imposing blanket policies on GPs, that don’t take into account demographic differences across the country, or that don’t allow for flexibility for a patient’s individual circumstances, risks alienating the most vulnerable in society.” Again, this argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH also reported the quote from Don Redding, Director of Policy at National Voices which I cited above.

THE DAILY MIRROR quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society claiming that such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. RPS England Board Chair Sandra Gidley said: “A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. “Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected.” THE MIRROR also reported what had to say and added that the NHS constitution states that: “Access to NHS services is based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay; NHS services are free of charge, except in limited circumstances sanctioned by parliament.”

THE NEWS & STAR repeated the above quote from The Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

THE GUERNSEY PRESS repeated what RPS England board chair Sandra Gidley said: “We would encourage people with minor health problems to self-care with the support of a pharmacist and to buy medicines where appropriate and affordable to the individual. However, expecting everyone to pay for medicines for common conditions will further increase health inequalities and worsen the health of patients who cannot afford them. A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected. They should not be denied treatment because of an inability to pay.”

THE TIMES also quoted the RPS and Don Redding misleadingly (see above and below) and concluded their article by citing Cristal Summer, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association saying: Patients will be prescribed more expensive conventional drugs in place of homeopathy, which defeats the object of the exercise. The NHS also claims it wants to reduce the amount of prescription drugs patients take, then stops offering complementary therapies which can help achieve this. This clearly ignores the fact that ‘the object of the exercise’ for any health service must be to provide effective treatments and avoid placebo therapies like homeopathy. 

THE SUN quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society saying such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. But it said banning NHS-funded homeopathy was long overdue. THE SUN continued by citing John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance: “The NHS are absolutely right to look at removing homeopathy from their approved prescription list and it’s astonishing that it hasn’t happened sooner.”

METRO pointed out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and world record sprinter Usain Bolt are all known to swear by homeopathic remedies.

Generally speaking, the newspaper coverage was not bad, in my view. The exception evidently is THE TIMES (see above). Several other articles also have a slight whiff of false balance, introducing seemingly rational counter-arguments where none exist. Even though the headlines invariably focus on homeopathy, some of the quotes used by the papers are clearly about other medicines black-listed. This seems particularly obvious with the quotes by the RPS. Many readers might thus be misled into thinking that there is opposition by reputable organisations to the ban on homeopathy. None of the articles that I read quoted a homeopath at the end saying something like  WE KNOW OF MANY PATIENTS WHOSE LIVES WERE SAVED BY HOMEOPATHY. JUST BECAUSE WE DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS DOES NOT MEAN IT DOES NOT WORK. A BAN WOULD PUT PUBLIC HEALTH AT RISK.

Only a few years ago, this type of conclusion to an article on homeopathy would have been inevitable! Could it be that UK journalists (with the exception of those at THE TIMES?) are slowly learning?

 

This new RCT by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia was aimed at ‘examining the effect of changing treatment timing and the use of manual, electro acupuncture on the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea’. It had four arms:

  1. low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
  2. high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
  3. low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
  4. and high frequency electro acupuncture (HF-EA).

A total of 74 women were given 12 treatments over three menstrual cycles, either once per week (LF groups) or three times in the week prior to menses (HF groups). All groups received a treatment in the first 48 hours of menses. The primary outcome was the reduction in peak menstrual pain at 12 months from trial entry.

During the treatment period and 9 month follow-up all groups showed statistically significant reductions in peak and average menstrual pain compared to baseline. However, there were no differences between groups. Health related quality of life increased significantly in 6 domains in groups having high frequency of treatment compared to two domains in low frequency groups. Manual acupuncture groups required less analgesic medication than electro-acupuncture groups. HF-MA was most effective in reducing secondary menstrual symptoms compared to both–EA groups.

The authors concluded that acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity and duration after three months of treatment and this was sustained for up to one year after trial entry. The effect of changing mode of stimulation or frequency of treatment on menstrual pain was not significant. This may be due to a lack of power. The role of acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials.

If I were not used to reading rubbish research of alternative medicine in general and acupuncture in particular, this RCT would amaze me – not so much because of its design, execution, or write-up, but primarily because of its conclusion (why, oh why, I ask myself, did PLOS ONE publish this paper?). They are, I think, utterly barmy.

Let me explain:

  • acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity” – oh no, it didn’t; at least this is not what the study proves; the fact that pain was perceived as less could be due to a host of factors, for instance regression towards the mean, or social desirability; as there was no proper control group, nobody can tell;
  • the lack of difference between treatments “may be due to a lack of power”. Yes, but more likely it is due to the fact that all versions of a placebo therapy generate similar outcomes.
  • acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials”. Why? Because the authors have a quasi-religious belief in acupuncture? And if they have, why did they not design their study ‘appropriately’?

The best conclusion I can suggest for this daft trial is this: IN THIS STUDY, THE PRIMARY ENDPOINT SHOWED NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 4 TREATMENT GROUPS. THE RESULTS ARE THEREFORE FULLY COMPATIBLE WITH THE NOTION THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS A PLACEBO THERAPY.

Something along these lines would, in my view, have been honest and scientific. Sadly, in acupuncture research, we very rarely get such honest science and the ‘National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia’ has no track record of being the laudable exception to this rule.

I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:

  • is on alternative medicine,
  • focusses on acupuncture,
  • is authored by Chinese researchers,
  • was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?

The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!

As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.

The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.

And what is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING!

  • The review is of very poor quality.
  • The primary studies are even worse.
  • The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
  • The conclusions are misleading.

Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.

And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.

In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:

56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.

Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!

And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.

Systematic reviews are aimed at summarising and critically evaluating the evidence on a specific research question. They are the highest level of evidence and are more reliable than anything else we have. Therefore, they represent a most useful tool for both clinicians and researchers.

But there are, of course, exceptions. Take, for instance, this recent systematic review by researchers from the

  • Texas Chiropractic College, Pasadena, the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport,
  • Department of Planning, Policy and Design, University of California, Irvine,
  • VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Tacoma,
  • New York Chiropractic College, Seneca Falls,
  • Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield,
  • University of Western States, Portland.

Its purpose was to evaluate the effectiveness of conservative non-drug, non-surgical interventions, either alone or in combination, for conditions of the shoulder. The review was conducted from March 2016 to November 2016 in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA), and was registered with PROSPERO. Eligibility criteria included randomized controlled trials (RCTs), systematic reviews, or meta-analyses studying adult patients with a shoulder diagnosis. Interventions qualified if they did not involve prescription medication or surgical procedures, although these could be used in the comparison group or groups. At least 2 independent reviewers assessed the quality of each study using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network checklists. Shoulder conditions addressed were

  • shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS),
  • rotator cuff-associated disorders (RCs),
  • adhesive capsulitis (AC),
  • nonspecific shoulder pain.

Twenty-five systematic reviews and 44 RCTs met inclusion criteria. Low- to moderate-quality evidence supported the use of manual therapies for all 4 shoulder conditions. Exercise, particularly combined with physical therapy protocols, was beneficial for SIS and AC. For SIS, moderate evidence supported several passive modalities. For RC, physical therapy protocols were found beneficial but not superior to surgery in the long term. Moderate evidence supported extracorporeal shockwave therapy for calcific tendinitis RC. Low-level laser was the only modality for which there was moderate evidence supporting its use for all 4 conditions.

The authors concluded that the findings of this literature review may help inform practitioners who use conservative methods (eg, doctors of chiropractic, physical therapists, and other manual therapists) regarding the levels of evidence for modalities used for common shoulder conditions.

This review has so many defects that it would be boring to list them here.

The PRISMA guidelines  – I happen to be a co-author – state, for instance, that the abstract (the above text is from the abstract) should provide a structured summary including, as applicable: background; objectives; data sources; study eligibility criteria, participants, and interventions; study appraisal and synthesis methods; results; limitations; conclusions and implications of key findings; systematic review registration number. It is obvious that the review authors have omitted several of these items.

And that is just the abstract!  There is much, much more to criticise in this paper.

The most striking deficit, in my view, is the useless conclusion: the one from the abstract (the part of the paper that will be read most widely) could have been written before the review had even been started. It is therefore not based on the data presented. Crucially it does not match the stated aim of this review (“to evaluate the effectiveness of conservative…interventions”).

But why? Why did the authors bother to follow PRISMA? Why did they formulate this bizarre conclusion in their abstract? Why did they do a review in the first place?

I fear, the answers might be embarrassingly simple:

  • They only pretended to follow PRISMA guidelines because that gives their review a veneer of respectability.
  • They formulated the conclusions because otherwise they would have needed to state that the evidence for manual therapy is less than convincing.
  • They conducted the review to promote chiropractic, and when the data were not as they had hoped for, they just back-paddled in an attempt to hide the truth as much as possible.

If this were an isolated case, I would not have bothered to mention it. But sadly, in the realm of chiropractic (and alternative medicine in general) we currently witness a plethora of rubbish reviews (published by rubbish journals). To the naïve observer, they might look rigorous and therefore they will be taken seriously. The end-effect of this pollution of the literature with rubbish is that we get a false-positive impression about the validity of the treatments in question. Consequently, we will see a host of wrong decisions on all levels of healthcare.

The big question is: HOW DO WE PROTECT OURSELVES FROM THIS DANGEROUS TREND?

I only see one solution: completely disregard certain journals that have been identified to regularly publish nonsense. Sadly, the wider medical community is far from having arrived at this point. As far as I can see, the problem has not even been identified yet as a serious issue that needs addressing. For the foreseeable future, we will probably have to live with this type of pollution of our medical literature.

I was surprised to receive this email yesterday: “Hello Edzard Ernst, You may remember I got in touch last week regarding losing a loved one to the ravages of drugs or alcohol. I just wanted to remind you that Narconon is here to help. For over fifty years Narconon drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres have been successfully reversing the tide of addiction for men and woman from all walks of life. The Narconon programme has saved them from the misery of addiction, and the potential of an early grave. We not only address the cause of the addiction, we resolve them…”

The email was signed by a man from ‘Narconon International’. First I thought someone has been counting the empty bottles in my bin, then I read it again and noticed the word ‘NARCONON’ and remembered that I once wrote about it. A quick search located my article from THE GUARDIAN 2012:

Imagine a therapy that “enables an individual to rid himself of the harmful effects of drugs, toxins and other chemicals that lodge in the body and create a biochemical barrier to spiritual well-being“. If you were told that the treatment was entirely natural and had already “enabled hundreds of thousands to free themselves from the harmful effects of drugs and toxins and so achieve spiritual gains”, wouldn’t you be tempted to try it?

Who doesn’t want a body free of nasty chemicals? And who wouldn’t be delighted at the chance to counter a growing threat to an “advancement in mental … wellbeing”?

These claims are being made for the “Purification Rundown” (“Purif” for short) and the closely related Narconon detox programmes, which mainly consist of regular exercise, sauna and nutrition, with industrial doses of vitamins and minerals added for good measure. Some of the claims are quite specific: the Purif programme is supposed to increase your IQ, reduce the level of cancer-causing agents in your body, and even enable you to lose weight easily and quickly. The Narconon programme is more specifically targeted at drug and alcohol dependency and is claimed to have an impressive success rate of 75%.

Both programmes were developed by L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) and are currently marketed by the Church of Scientology. The CoS is not generally known to be an organisation that promotes healthcare programmes. Hubbard, the pulp-fiction writer who founded the CoS, portrayed himself somewhat over-optimistically as a pioneer, innovator and nuclear physicist.

He taught his followers that, at their core, humans contain a “thetan”. After creating the universe, thetans accidentally became trapped in physical bodies and, through scientology, we can restore the immortal, omnipotent, god-like powers of the “thetan” within us. Weird stuff that is the preserve of Hollywood eccentrics, you might think, but perhaps the CoS’s detox-ventures are an attempt to conquer new territory?

A typical course of treatment lasts several weeks and consists of many hours of exercise and sauna every day. This regimen is supplemented with megadoses of vitamins and minerals, which can cause problems. Niacin, one vitamin that is given in high doses as part of the regimen, can be particularly dangerous. The US National Institutes of Health warns that at high doses it can cause “liver problems, gout, ulcers of the digestive tract, loss of vision, high blood sugar, irregular heartbeat, and other serious problems.” It should not be taken by people who already have liver damage.

Seven fatalities of people undergoing the Narconon programme are currently being investigated in Oklahoma, although the CoS says these deaths are not connected with the treatment regimen itself.

Whatever the truth regarding these deaths, a review of the evidence about the treatment regimen’s effectiveness – carried out by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services in 2008 – found no good evidence that the Narconon programme works:

There is currently no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of Narconon as a primary or secondary drug prevention program. This is partly due to the insufficient research evidence about Narconon and partly due to the non-experimental nature of the few studies that exist.

The claim that such detox treatments eliminate toxins from the body is, of course, easily testable. All we would need to do is define what toxin we are talking about and measure the change in levels of that toxin compared with a control group of volunteers who did not receive the detox.

But such studies are not available. Why? Do the marketing men believe in their own claims? Maybe they feel that profits and evidence are like fire and water? Or possibly the thetans have an aversion to science?

If you think that the Purif, Narconon or any other form of alternative detox eliminates toxins, you might be mistaken. Most clients have lost some money, many have lost their ability to think straight, some may even have lost their lives. But there is no reliable evidence that they have actually lost any toxins.

END OF MY 2012 ARTICLE

In 2012, I found no evidence to suggest that NARCONON works. Now, I looked again and found this article reporting a non-randomised, controlled study:

“In 2004, Narconon International developed a multi-module, universal prevention curriculum for high school ages based on drug abuse etiology, program quality management data, prevention theory and best practices. We review the curriculum and its rationale and test its ability to change drug use behavior, perceptions of risk/benefits, and general knowledge. After informed parental consent, approximately 1000 Oklahoma and Hawai’i high school students completed a modified Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) Participant Outcome Measures for Discretionary Programs survey at three testing points: baseline, one month later, and six month follow-up. Schools assigned to experimental conditions scheduled the Narconon curriculum between the baseline and one-month follow-up test; schools in control conditions received drug education after the six-month follow-up. Student responses were analyzed controlling for baseline differences using analysis of covariance. At six month follow-up, youths who received the Narconon drug education curriculum showed reduced drug use compared with controls across all drug categories tested. The strongest effects were seen in all tobacco products and cigarette frequency followed by marijuana. There were also significant reductions measured for alcohol and amphetamines. The program also produced changes in knowledge, attitudes and perception of risk. The eight-module Narconon curriculum has thorough grounding in substance abuse etiology and prevention theory. Incorporating several historically successful prevention strategies this curriculum reduced drug use among youths.”

The question arises: would I send anyone to the NARCONON programme?

My answer is NO!

Not because the trial is lousy (which it is) and not because the programme is too expensive (which it is); I would not send anyone to any institution that has even the slightest links to Scientology.

 

“Highly diluted homeopathic remedies cannot possibly work beyond a placebo effect because there is nothing in them”. This is the argument, we often hear. It is, I think correct. But homeopaths have always disagreed. Hahnemann claimed that the healing power of his remedies was due to a ‘vital force’, and for a long time his followers repeated this mantra. Nowadays, it sounds too obsolete to be taken seriously, and homeopaths came up with new theories as to how their remedies work. The current favourite is the ‘nano-theory’.

This article explains it quite well: “… some of the most exciting findings have been in the world of tiny nano-particles.   Nano-particles are described as particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size.  For an idea of scale, a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.  A single atom is one-tenth of a nanometer, and subatomic particles are still smaller than that.  Quantum mechanics (the study of these very small particles) has shown that these tiny particles can and do have impact our macro world, and can be useful in everything from medical PET scans to quantum computing. But the breakthrough that I’m most excited about is the latest study around nano-particles which has shown that at the very highest prescription strength dilutions of a homeopathic substance (50M) there are still nano-particles of the original substance that exist.  Further, not only did researchers discover that these particles exist, but they showed that they had demonstrable effects when tests were run on homeopathic dilutions versus a control substance…”

Right!

So, the claim is that, during the process of potentisation of a homeopathic remedy, nano-particles of the original stock are formed. Therefore, even ultra-molecular dilutions are not devoid of material but do contain tiny bits of what is says on the bottle. This is the reason why homeopaths now claim WE WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG; HOMEOPATHY WORKS!!!

I Have several problems with this assumption:

  • The nano-particles have been shown by just 1 or 2 research groups. I would like to see independent confirmations of their findings because I am not convinced that this is not simply an artefact without real meaning.
  • Even if we accept the ‘nano-theory’ for a moment, there are numerous other issues.
  • What about the many homeopathic remedies that use stock which is not material by nature, for instance, X-ray, luna, etc.? Do we need to assume that there are also nano-particles of non-materials?
  • And for remedies that are based on a material stock (like arnica or nux vomica, or Berlin Wall, for instance), how do the nano-particles generate heath effects? How do a few nano-particles of arnica make cuts and bruises heal faster? How do nano-particles of nux vomica stop a patient from vomiting? How do nano-particles of the Berlin Wall do anything at all?

If the ‘nano-theory’ were true (which I doubt very much), it totally fails to provide an explanation as to how homeopathy works. This explanation would still need to be identified for each of the thousands of different remedies in separate investigations.

If nano-particles are truly generated during the potentisation process, it proves almost nothing. All it would show is that shaken water differs from unshaken water. The water in my kitchen sink also differs from pure water; this, however, does not mean that it has healing properties.

My conclusion: there is no plausible mode of action of highly diluted homeopathic remedies.

The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.

A recent article is a case in point, I think.

START OF QUOTE

Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.

Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK,  although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.

The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.

Key findings  

Herbs for high blood pressure

The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.

Herbs for diabetes

The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.

Herbs for cholesterol 

The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.

Herbs for heart disease

Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.

Limitations with trials

But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.

END OF QUOTE

Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.

None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.

With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.

In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.

As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:

START OF QUOTE

…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.

First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…

Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.

END OF QUOTE

Sound advice indeed.

Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!

Quackademia is an apt term for the teaching or promotion of quackery in universities. Sadly, this is a serious problem, and we have therefore discussed it already several times (see here, here and here). If you have read my memoir, you know that I had my fair share of quackademia ‘hands-on’, so to speak. This article from Australia has more on the subject:

START OF QUOTE

Friends of Science in Medicine have complained that alternative practitioners who speak at events were then using the names and logos of universities on their promotional material. Edith Cowan University recently cancelled a workshop promoting pranic crystal healing — which claims to use crystals to energise and heal the body — after complaints from FSM that it had no scientific basis. The university also cancelled Brisbane-based nutrition author Christine Cronau, who was due to promote her low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet on June 25. In response to a website petition calling on the university to cancel Cronau’s seminar, ECU said it rejected the booking because “it does not align with our evidence-based approach to dietetics teaching and research”.

The talk has been moved to Murdoch University, which, despite being lobbied to cancel the booking, said in a statement this week that it would go ahead. Murdoch said it promoted critical thinking and learning through discussion, debate and exposure to alternatives points of view. “One way to achieve this is to welcome other voices on campus in the form of guest speakers or visiting lecturers,” the statement said. “The university takes a common sense approach to the debate of controversial issues and we encourage respectful and insightful debate of thought- provoking topics.”

FSM president John Dwyer said universities should review the content of external health seminars before they hired out their venues. “We don’t have an issue with free speech, but some of the material is just not scientific,” Professor Dwyer said. “Often universities don’t know about the nature of the pseudo-scientific events they are hosting.”

Cronau said she was disappointed ECU had cancelled her talk but her faith in common sense had been restored by Murdoch University. “My approach has actually become a lot less controversial, so I don’t know why it has generated such comments,” she said.

END OF QUOTE

I find this story interesting. It reveals several things:

  • Quacks love to infiltrate universities; this gives them a veneer of respectability, they think.
  • This discloses their schizophrenic attitude to the ‘scientific establishment’ in an exemplary fashion: they often are fiercely against science but, at the same time, they are only too happy to jump at opportunities of decorating themselves with scientific feathers.
  • Universities are run like businesses these days. They tend to take the money where they can get it. Issues like scientific credibility rarely figure high on the agenda.
  • When challenged, universities claim they are favouring free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate.
  • This usually is but a lame excuse.

I remember protesting while at Exeter against a weekend course of pure quackery which the organisers were advertising under the logo of my university. My protest fell on deaf ears, and my peers pretended to favour free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate. After I had retired, the University of Exeter even allowed quacks to infiltrate and made this surprising announcement: Our complementary therapists will be offering 15-20 minute taster sessions in our complementary therapies yurt. The therapy taster sessions on offer will include: shaitsu bodywork, reflexology, indian head Massage, seated back massage and much more. To take advantage of these free taster sessions just pop along to the yurt on the day of the festival.

But the Australian events also offer a glimmer of hope in this usually bleak situation. Sometimes our protests do have an effect! I therefore urge everyone to not give up. Quackademia is a pest, and for the sake of future generations, we must not allow it to infest our universities.

According to Wikipedia, “the Bundesverband der Pharmazeutischen Industrie (BPI) with headquarters in Berlin is an Eingetragener Verein and the German industry association/trade group for the pharmaceutical industry. It represents 240 German pharmaceutical and Biotech companies in with altogether approximately 70,000 employees. BPI has an office in Brussels. The focus of the BPI is on political consulting and public relations on the EU-level.” 

The BPI has recently published a remarkable press-release about homeopathy. As it is in German, I will translate it for you (and append the original text for those who can read German).

HERE WE GO:

Homeopathy is a recognised and proven therapy for patients in Germany [1]. This is demonstrated by a new, BPI-sponsored survey [2]. About half of all questioned had experience with homeopathic remedies [3]. More than 70% of those people are satisfied or very satisfied with their effectiveness and safety [4].

“Homeopathic remedies are important for many patients in Germany”[3], says Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, deputy chair of the BPI. ” If therapists and patients use them correctly, they can support the therapeutic success [5]. Therefore, they should be recognised by conventional medicine as an integrative medicine [5] – that is what patients in Germany clearly want [6].”

Two thirds of the people surveyed think it is important or very important, that therapies like anthroposophical medicine and homeopathy are supported politically next to conventional medicine [7]. More than 70% find it personally important or very important that health insurances pay for selected anthroposophical and homeopathic services [8]. More than 80% said they would favour this. Thus, the majority is for keeping homeopathy amongst the services that can be chosen by the insurances for reimbursement [8].

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: “The survey proves that very many individuals integrate, use and treasure homeopathy as an additional and usually safe therapy [3]. Those who aim at curtailing therapeutic freedom patronise numerous patients in Germany who can benefit from it [9]. There are numerous diseases for which homeopathy can be used as an integrative therapeutic option [10]. Thus, many conventional physicians employ homeopathic and anthroposophic remedies in parallel to guideline-orientated medicine [3, 11].”

(Homöopathie ist eine anerkannte und bewährte Therapieform für Patienten in Deutschland. Das belegt eine neue, vom BPI beauftragte Forsa-Umfrage. Rund die Hälfte der Befragten hat demnach bereits Erfahrung mit homöopathischen Arzneimitteln. Über 70 Prozent von ihnen sind zufrieden oder sehr zufrieden mit der Wirksamkeit und Verträglichkeit.

„Homöopathische Arzneimittel haben für viele Patienten in Deutschland einen hohen Stellenwert“, sagt Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, stellvertretender BPI-Hauptgeschäftsführer. „Wenn Behandler und Patienten sie richtig und verantwortungsvoll einsetzen, kann sie den Therapieerfolg unterstützen. Sie sollte insofern als wichtige Ergänzung der Schulmedizin im Sinne einer Integrativen Medizin anerkannt werden – das wünschen sich die Patienten in Deutschland eindeutig.“

Fast zwei Drittel der von Forsa Befragten finden es wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass sich die Politik neben schulmedizinischen Behandlungsmethoden auch aktiv für Heilmethoden wie etwa Homöopathie oder Anthroposophische Medizin einsetzt. Über 70 Prozent finden es persönlich wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass Krankenkassen ihren Versicherten auch die Kosten für ausgewählte Leistungen aus dem Bereich der homöopathischen Medizin erstatten. Mit über 80 Prozent überdurchschnittlich häufig plädieren Befragte mit Homöopathie-Erfahrung für die Kostenübernahme ausgewählter Leistungen durch die Krankenkassen. Damit stimmt die Mehrheit für den Erhalt der Homöopathie im Rahmen von sogenannten Satzungsleistungen, die von den Krankenkassen individuell festgelegt werden können.

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: „Die Umfrage belegt, dass sehr viele Menschen Homöopathie als ergänzende und in der Regel nebenwirkungsarme Therapieoption in die Behandlung integrieren, sie nutzen und achten. Wer die Therapiefreiheit und -vielfalt beschneiden will, bevormundet zahlreiche Patienten in Deutschland, die davon profitieren können. Es gibt eine Vielzahl an Erkrankungen, bei denen homöopathische Arzneimittel als integraler Bestandteil von Therapien einsetzbar sind. So nutzen viele Schulmediziner neben dem gesamten Spektrum der leitlinienorientierten Medizin gleichzeitig die integrativen Angebote der Homöopathie und Anthroposophischen Medizin.“)

I DO APPOLOGISE FOR MY POOR TRANSLATION; I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND THAT IT IS VERY HARD TO TRANSLATE SOMETHING THAT SIMPLY DOES NOT MAKE SENSE!

I have rarely seen such an unscientific, irrational, nonsensical and promotional comment from an organisation and an individual that should know better. Mr. Gerbsch studied biotechnology and graduated in 1997 in bioprocess engineering. He headed a scientific team following his promotion to director of a trans-departmental research topic with 13 professorships at the Technical University of Berlin. He later took on responsibilities as commissioner, officer and director of various companies. Since 2006, Mr. Gerbsch works as department manager of biotechnology / research & development at BPI and is responsible for the biotechnology department and innovation & research committee.

Here are just a few short points of criticism referring to the numbers I have added in my translation:

  1. Homeopathy is recognised and proven to be a pure placebo-therapy.
  2. A survey of this nature can at best gauge the current opinion.
  3. Fallacy: appeal to popularity.
  4. Perceived effectiveness/safety is not the same as true effectiveness/safety.
  5. There is no good evidence for this statement.
  6. What patients want might be interesting, but it cannot determine what they need; medicine is not a supermarket!
  7. I suspect this is the result of a leading question.
  8. This is where the BPI discloses the aim of the survey and their comment about it: they want the German health insurances to continue paying for homeopathic and anthroposophical placebos because some of their member companies earn their money selling them. In other words, the BPI actively hinder progress.
  9. No, those who advocate not paying for placebos want to encourage progress in healthcare for the benefit of patients and society.
  10. “Can be used” is an interesting phraseology! It is true, one can use homeopathy – but one cannot use it effectively because it has no effect beyond placebo.
  11. Yes, many physicians are sadly more focussed on their own cash-flow than on the best interest of their patients. Not all that different from the BPI, it seems.

It is beyond me how an organisation like the BPI can produce such shamefully misleading, dangerous and unethical drivel. Not one word about the fact that all international bodies have condemned homeopathy as being a useless and dangerous placebo-therapy! Who ever thought that the BPI was an independent organisation (homeopathy manufacturers belong to its membership) has been proven wrong by the above press-release.

The BPI clearly needs reminding of their duty to inform the public responsibly. I recommend that the leading heads of this organisation urgently attend one course on critical thinking followed by another on medical ethics.

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