Alternative medicine has no shortage of research that suggests it to be effective. Almost invariably, however, one finds – when looking a bit more carefully at such investigations – that the positive conclusions are not warranted by the data. Here is an excellent, recent example:
This new study, authored by two Turkish nurses, was an RCT where the patients were randomly assigned to either an aromatherapy massage (n = 17), reflexology (n = 17) or the control group (n = 17). Aromatherapy massage was applied to both knees of subjects in group 1 for 30 minutes. Reflexology was administered to both feet of subjects in group 2 for 40 minutes during weekly home visits. The subjects of group 3, the control group, received no intervention.
Fifty-one subjects with rheumatoid arthritis were recruited from a university hospital rheumatology clinic in Turkey between July 2014 and January 2015 for this trial. Data were collected by personal information form, DAS28 index, Visual Analog Scale and Fatigue Severity Scale. Pain and fatigue scores were measured at baseline and within an hour after each intervention for 6 weeks.
Pain and fatigue scores significantly decreased in the aromatherapy massage and reflexology groups compared with the control group (p < .05). The reflexology intervention started to decrease pain and fatigue scores earlier than aromatherapy massage (week 1 vs week 2 for pain, week 1 vs week 4 for fatigue) (p < .05).
The authors concluded that aromatherapy massage and reflexology are simple and effective non-pharmacologic nursing interventions that can be used to help manage pain and fatigue in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
I am sure that most readers have spotted the snag: the two interventions generated better outcomes than no therapy. It is quite simply wrong to assume that this outcome is specifically related to the two treatments. Both of these treatments are fairly agreeable and generate expectations, involve touch, attention and care. In my view, it is these latter factors which together have caused the better outcomes. And this is, of course, entirely unrelated to any specific effects of the two therapies.
This might well be trivial, but if such sloppy conclusions pollute the literature to the extend that they currently do in the realm of alternative medicine, it becomes important.
Reflexology is the treatment of reflex zones, usually on the sole of the feet, with manual massage and pressure. Reflexologists assume that certain zones correspond to certain organs, and that their treatment can influence the function of these organs. Thus reflexology is advocated for all sorts of conditions. Proponents are keen to point out that their approach has many advantages: it is pleasant (the patient feels well with the treatment and the therapist feels even better with the money), safe and cheap, particularly if the patient does the treatment herself.
Self-administered foot reflexology could be practical because it is easy to learn and not difficult to apply. But is it also effective? A recent systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of self-foot reflexology for symptom management.
Participants were healthy persons not diagnosed with a specific disease. The intervention was foot reflexology administered by participants, not by practitioners or healthcare providers. Studies with either between groups or within group comparison were included. The electronic literature searches utilized core databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane, and CINAHL Chinese (CNKI), Japanese (J-STAGE), and Korean databases (KoreaMed, KMbase, KISS, NDSL, KISTI, and OASIS)).
Three non-randomized trials and three before-and-after studies met the inclusion criteria. No RCTs were located. The results of these studies showed that self-administered foot reflexology resulted in significant improvement in subjective outcomes such as perceived stress, fatigue, and depression. However, there was no significant improvement in objective outcomes such as cortisol levels, blood pressure, and pulse rate. We did not find any randomized controlled trial.
The authors concluded that this study presents the effectiveness of self-administered foot reflexology for healthy persons’ psychological and physiological symptoms. While objective outcomes showed limited results, significant improvements were found in subjective outcomes. However, owing to the small number of studies and methodological flaws, there was insufficient evidence supporting the use of self-performed foot reflexology. Well-designed randomized controlled trials are needed to assess the effect of self-administered foot reflexology in healthy people.
I find this review quite interesting, but I would draw very different conclusions from its findings.
The studies that are available turned out to be of very poor methodological quality: they lack randomisation or rely on before/after comparisons. This means they are wide open to bias and false-positive results, particularly in regards to subjective outcome measures. Predictably, the findings of this review confirm that no effects are seen on objective endpoints. This is in perfect agreement with the hypothesis that reflexology is a pure placebo. Considering the biological implausibility of the underlying assumptions of reflexology, this makes sense.
My conclusions of this review would therefore be as follows: THE RESULTS ARE IN KEEPING WITH REFLEXOLOGY BEING A PURE PLACEBO.
Reflexology? Isn’t that an alternative therapy? And as such, a physiotherapist would not normally use it, most of us might think.
Well, think again! Here is what the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists writes about reflexology:
Developed centuries ago in countries such as China, Egypt and India, reflexology is often referred to as a ‘gentle’ and ‘holistic’ therapy that benefits both mind and body. It centres on the feet because these are said by practitioners to be a mirror, or topographical map, for the rest of the body. Manipulation of certain pressure, or reflex, points is claimed to have an effect on corresponding zones in the body. The impact, say reflexologists, extends throughout – to bones, muscles, organs, glands, circulatory and neural pathways. The head and hands can also be massaged in some cases. The treatment is perhaps best known for use in connection with relaxation and relief from stress, anxiety, pain, sleep disorders, headaches, migraine, menstrual and digestive problems. But advocates say it can be used to great effect far more widely, often in conjunction with other treatments.
Reflexology, or Reflex Therapy (RT) as some physiotherapists prefer to call it, clearly is approved by the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. And what evidence do they have for it?
One hundred members of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Reflex Therapy (ACPIRT) participated in an audit to establish a baseline of practice. Findings indicate that experienced therapists use RT in conjunction with their professional skills to induce relaxation (95%) and reduce pain (86%) for patients with conditions including whiplash injury and chronic pain. According to 68% of respondents, RT is “very good,” “good” or “as good as” orthodox physiotherapy practices. Requiring minimal equipment, RT may be as cost effective as orthodox physiotherapy with regards to duration and frequency of treatment.
But that’s not evidence!!! I hear you grumble. No, it isn’t, I agree.
Is there good evidence to show that RT is effective?
I am afraid not!
My own systematic review concluded that the best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.
Does that mean that the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists promotes quackery?
I let my readers answer that question.
Many proponents of alternative medicine seem somewhat suspicious of research; they have obviously understood that it might not produce the positive result they had hoped for; after all, good research tests hypotheses and does not necessarily confirm beliefs. At the same time, they are often tempted to conduct research: this is perceived as being good for the image and, provided the findings are positive, also good for business.
Therefore they seem to be tirelessly looking for a study design that cannot ‘fail’, i.e. one that avoids the risk of negative results but looks respectable enough to be accepted by ‘the establishment’. For these enthusiasts, I have good news: here is the study design that cannot fail.
It is perhaps best outlined as a concrete example; for reasons that will become clear very shortly, I have chosen reflexology as a treatment of diabetic neuropathy, but you can, of course, replace both the treatment and the condition as it suits your needs. Here is the outline:
- recruit a group of patients suffering from diabetic neuropathy – say 58, that will do nicely,
- randomly allocate them to two groups,
- the experimental group receives regular treatments by a motivated reflexologist,
- the controls get no such therapy,
- both groups also receive conventional treatments for their neuropathy,
- the follow-up is 6 months,
- the following outcome measures are used: pain reduction, glycemic control, nerve conductivity, and thermal and vibration sensitivities,
- the results show that the reflexology group experience more improvements in all outcome measures than those of control subjects,
- your conclusion: This study exhibited the efficient utility of reflexology therapy integrated with conventional medicines in managing diabetic neuropathy.
This method is fool-proof, trust me, I have seen it often enough being tested, and never has it generated disappointment. It cannot fail because it follows the notorious A+B versus B design (I know, I have mentioned this several times before on this blog, but it is really important, I think): both patient groups receive the essential mainstream treatment, and the experimental group receives a useless but pleasant alternative treatment in addition. The alternative treatment involves touch, time, compassion, empathy, expectations, etc. All of these elements will inevitably have positive effects, and they can even be used to increase the patients’ compliance with the conventional treatments that is being applied in parallel. Thus all outcome measures will be better in the experimental compared to the control group.
The overall effect is pure magic: even an utterly ineffective treatment will appear as being effective – the perfect method for producing false-positive results.
And now we hopefully all understand why this study design is so very popular in alternative medicine. It looks solid – after all, it’s an RCT!!! – and it thus convinces even mildly critical experts of the notion that the useless treatment is something worth while. Consequently the useless treatment will become accepted as ‘evidence-based’, will be used more widely and perhaps even reimbursed from the public purse. Business will be thriving!
And why did I employ reflexology for diabetic neuropathy? Is that example not a far-fetched? Not a bit! I used it because it describes precisely a study that has just been published. Of course, I could also have taken the chiropractic trial from my last post, or dozens of other studies following the A+B versus B design – it is so brilliantly suited for misleading us all.
Reflexology is one of the most popular of all alternative therapies. Anyone who has ever had a session knows why: it is a strangely pleasant and oddly agreeable experience. Reflexologists massage your feet which can be mildly painful but usually is quite relaxing. They look for and subsequently focus on areas of tenderness believing they correspond to specific organs or whole organ systems. Even though few reflexologists would admit to it, they tend to make vague and unreliable diagnoses: if they feel something unusual at a certain point of the sole of your foot, they assume that a certain inner organ is in trouble. Reflexologists even have maps where the sole of a foot is depicted showing which area corresponds to which organ.
The treatment might be enjoyable but the assumptions that underpin it are nonsensical for at least two reasons: firstly, there are no nerve or other connections between a specific area on the sole of a foot and a certain organ. Secondly, the maps which reflexologists employ differ and fail to agree which area corresponds to which organ. Thus there are inconsistencies within the realm of reflexology and there are inconsistencies in relation to the known facts regarding physiology, anatomy etc.
Proponents of reflexology are quite undisturbed by these problems and seem to believe that not their assumptions but science must be wrong. After all, reflexology does work! That is to say that patients perceive benefit from it, pay out of their own pocket for the experience and tend to come back for more.
Several years ago, we asked 8 UK professional organisations of reflexology which conditions they thought could be treated effectively with reflexology. We gave them a list of 25 conditions to chose from, many of which were serious, e.g. cancer and AIDS. Collectively, the organisations felt that 22 of these illnesses would respond to reflexology.
But this is opinion, not evidence! What do the trial data tell us? Is reflexology more than a placebo?
As with many other areas of alternative medicine, controlled clinical trials are scarce; but this is not to say that none at all are available. Our own trial of reflexology for menopausal symptoms failed to show that this therapy has any effects beyond placebo. More recently, we published a systematic review to evaluate all of the 23 studies that had been published at that stage. They related to a wide range of medical conditions and their methodological quality was often poor. Nine high quality randomised clinical trials (RCTs) generated negative findings. Eight RCTs suggested that reflexology is effective for the following conditions: diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, cancer patients, multiple sclerosis, symptomatic idiopathic detrusor over-activity and dementia. These studies, however, were wide open to bias. Therefore, our conclusions had to be cautious: the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition.
For you and me, this simply means that there is currently no good evidence to suggest that reflexology works. But the story does not end here. There will be more studies and enthusiasts are most likely to concede that our conclusions were incorrect. In fact, a further trial has just become available.
This new single-blind, randomized and placebo controlled study included 20 moderately to severely affected multiple sclerosis patients. Each participant received for 8 weeks, 1 hour per week of either reflexology or sham reflexology. The primary outcome measure was the Multiple Sclerosis Impact Scale at baseline, 8 weeks and 16 weeks. The results revealed improvements in both groups but no statistically significant differences between the two groups at either 8 or 16 weeks. The conclusions of the investigators were clear: The results do not support the use of reflexology for symptom relief in a more disabled multiple sclerosis population and are strongly suggestive of a placebo response.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a relaxing foot-massage; it is agreeable, no doubt, and if someone wants to pay for the luxury, why not? By contrast, there is a lot wrong with reflexology, I think. A foot-massage is not administered under the pretence of generating any specific therapeutic effects. Reflexologists, however, claim they can exert highly specific effects on inner organs, influence the natural history of a wide range of diseases, and provide reliable diagnoses. They thus mislead their clients. This is not just wrong, it also has the potential to do serious harm. I believe it is time to end this nonsense.