MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

rheumatoid arthritis

As I have said on several occasions before: I am constantly on the lookout for new rigorous science that supports the claims of alternative medicine. Thus I was delighted to find a recent and potentially important article with some positive evidence.

Fish oil has been studied extensively in terms of its effects on health. We know that it has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and might thus benefit a wide range of conditions. However, the effects of FO in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have not been examined in the context of contemporary treatment of early RA.

A new study has tried to fill this gap by examining the effects of high versus low dose FO in early RA employing a ‘treat-to-target’ protocol of combination disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

Patients with RA <12 months’ duration and who were DMARD-naïve were enrolled and randomised 2:1 to FO at a high dose or low dose (for masking). These groups, designated FO and control, were given 5.5 or 0.4 g/day, respectively, of the omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid + docosahexaenoic acid. All patients received methotrexate (MTX), sulphasalazine and hydroxychloroquine, and DMARD doses were adjusted according to an algorithm taking disease activity and toxicity into account. DAS28-erythrocyte sedimentation rate, modified Health Assessment Questionnaire (mHAQ) and remission were assessed three monthly. The primary outcome measure was failure of triple DMARD therapy.

In the FO group, failure of triple DMARD therapy was lower (HR=0.28 (95% CI 0.12 to 0.63; p=0.002) unadjusted and 0.24 (95% CI 0.10 to 0.54; p=0.0006) following adjustment for smoking history, shared epitope and baseline anti–cyclic citrullinated peptide. The rate of first American College of Rheumatology (ACR) remission was significantly greater in the FO compared with the control group (HRs=2.17 (95% CI 1.07 to 4.42; p=0.03) unadjusted and 2.09 (95% CI 1.02 to 4.30; p=0.04) adjusted). There were no differences between groups in MTX dose, DAS28 or mHAQ scores, or adverse events.

The authors concluded that FO was associated with benefits additional to those achieved by combination ‘treat-to-target’ DMARDs with similar MTX use. These included reduced triple DMARD failure and a higher rate of ACR remission.

So here we have a dietary supplement that actually might generate more good than harm! There is a mountain of data of good research on the subject. We understand the mechanism of action and we have encouraging clinical evidence. Some people might still say that we do not need to take supplements in order to benefit from the health effects of FO, consuming fatty fish regularly might have the same effects. This is true, of course, but the amount of fish that one would need to eat every day would probably be too large for most people’s taste.

The drawback (from the perspective of alternative medicine) in all this is, of course, that some experts might deny that FO has much to do with alternative medicine. Again: what do we call alternative medicine that works? We call it MEDICINE! And perhaps FO is an excellent example of exactly that.

For this blog, I am constantly on the lookout for ‘positive news’ about alternative medicine. Admittedly, I rarely find any.

All the more delighted I was when I found this new study aimed to analyse the association between dietary long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and incidence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in middle-aged and older women.

Data on diet were collected in 1987 and 1997 via a self-administered food-frequency questionnaire (FFQ). The risk of RA associated with dietary long-chain n-3 PUFAs and fish intake was estimated using Cox proportional hazard regression models, adjusted for age, cigarette smoking, alcohol intake, use of aspirin and energy intake.

The results show that, among 32 232 women born 1914–1948, 205 RA cases were identified during a mean follow-up of 7.5 years. An intake of dietary long-chain n-3 PUFAs (FFQ1997) of more than 0.21 g/day (lowest quintile) was associated with a 35% decreased risk of developing RA compared with a lower intake. Long-term intake consistently higher than 0.21 g/day (according to both FFQ1987 and FFQ1997) was associated with a 52% decreased risk. Consistent long-term consumption (FFQ1987 and FFQ1997) of fish ≥1 serving per week compared with<1 was associated with a 29% decrease in risk.

The authors concluded that this prospective study of women supports the hypothesis that dietary intake of long-chain n-3 PUFAs may play a role in aetiology of RA.

These are interesting findings which originate from a good investigation and which are interpreted with the necessary caution. As all epidemiological data, this study is open to a number of confounding factors, and it is therefore impossible to make firm causal inferences. The results thus do not led themselves to clinical recommendation, but they are an indication that more definitive research is warranted, all the more so since we have plausible mechanisms to explain the observed findings.

A most encouraging development for alternative medicine, one could conclude. But is this really true? Most experts would be surprised, I think, to find that PUFA-consumption should fall under the umbrella of alternative medicine. Remember: What do we call alternative medicine that works? It is called MEDICINE!

One alternative therapy that I have so far almost entirely neglected is Ayurveda. It is said to be one of the fastest growing system within this sector. Ayurvedic healing includes herbs, nutrition, panchakarma cleansing, acupressure massage, Yoga, Sanskrit, and Jyotish (Vedic astrology). The website of the ‘Choppra Center’ explains: Recognizing that human beings are part of nature, Ayurveda describes three fundamental energies that govern our inner and outer environments: movement, transformation, and structure. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (Wind), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Earth), these primary forces are responsible for the characteristics of our mind and body. Each of us has a unique proportion of these three forces that shapes our nature. If Vata is dominant in our system, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta predominates in our nature, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented and we have a strong appetite for life. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing. Although each of us has all three forces, most people have one or two elements that predominate.

However, the evidence for its effectiveness is not overwhelming. In 2007, we published a systematic review of Ayurvedic treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Seven studies met our inclusion criteria. Trials tested either Ayurvedic medicine against placebo or other Ayurvedic medicines. Of 3 placebo-controlled RCTs, one high-quality trial did not show benefit of the active treatment against placebo, while another incompletely reported study indicated beneficial effects of an Ayurvedic medicine. A further incompletely reported study showed no significant difference. The remaining 4 trials were difficult to interpret because they tested an Ayurvedic medicine against other Ayurvedic medicines whose effects were not proven. We concluded that there is a paucity of RCTs of Ayurvedic medicines for RA. The existing RCTs fail to show convincingly that such treatments are effective therapeutic options for RA.

Because of this paucity of reliable evidence, any new assessments are welcome.

The aim of this article was to review and meta-analyze the effectiveness and safety of different Ayurvedic interventions in patients with osteoarthritis (OA). 138 electronic databases were searched through August 2013. Randomized controlled trials, randomized crossover studies, cluster-randomized trials, and non-randomized controlled clinical trials were eligible. Adults with pre-diagnosed OA were included as participants.

Interventions were included as Ayurvedic, if they were explicitly labeled as such. The main outcome measures were pain, physical function, and global improvement. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane risk of bias tool.

19 randomized and 14 non-randomized controlled trials on 12 different drugs and 3 non-pharmaceutical interventions with a total of 2,952 patients were included. For the compound preparation, Rumalaya, large and apparently unbiased effects beyond placebo were found for pain (standardized mean difference [SMD] -3.73; 95 % confidence interval [CI] -4.97, -2.50; P < 0.01) and global improvement (risk ratio 12.20; 95 % CI 5.83, 25.54; P < 0.01).

There was also some evidence that effects of the herbal compound preparation Shunti-Guduchi are comparable to those of glucosamine for pain (SMD 0.08; 95 % CI -0.20, 0.36; P = 0.56) and function (SMD 0.15; 95 % CI -0.12, 0.36; P = 0.41).

Based on single trials, positive effects were found for the compound preparations RA-11, Reosto, and Siriraj Wattana. For Boswellia serrata, Lepidium Sativum, a Boswellia serrata containing multicomponent formulation and the compounds Nirgundi Taila, Panchatikta Ghrita Guggulu, and Rhumayog, and for non-pharmacological interventions like Ayurvedic massage, steam therapy, and enema, no evidence for significant effects against potential methodological bias was found.

No severe adverse events were observed in any of the trials.

The authors concluded that the drugs Rumalaya and Shunti-Guduchi seem to be safe and effective drugs for treatment of OA-patients, based on these data. However, several limitations relate to clinical research on Ayurveda. Well-planned, well-conducted and well-published trials are warranted to improve the evidence for Ayurvedic interventions.

I am, of course, pleased that other too have noticed the paucity of good evidence and recommend more and better research into this area. There are, however, several things that worry me about this systematic review:

  • How can there be a total absence of adverse effects? Even placebos would generate some.
  • The conclusion that Rumalaya and Shunti-Guduchi are safe does not seem justified on the basis of just a few trials.
  • My own review found quite encouraging effects for Boswellia serrate.
  • 138 electronic databases? I did not even know that so many existed!
  • I am also concerned by the way the treatments found to be ‘safe and effective’ are being promoted on the internet:

Rumalaya is a phytopharmaceutical formulation that relieves joint and bone ache associated with various orthopedic ailments. Its natural ingredients possess potent anti-inflammatory properties that alleviate pain. As an immunomodulator, Rumalaya modulates both the humoral and cell-mediated immune response to aches and pain. The medicine has strong anti-arthritic properties that work to combat arthritis.

Indications:

  • Rheumatic arthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cervical and lumbar spondylosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Arthralgia
  • Gout
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Traumatic inflammatory conditions like fibrositis, bursitis, synovitis, capsulitis, tenosynovitis, myositis and sciatica.

I fail to see good evidence to support most of these claims.

Lastly, I find that the authors fail to warn the public in sufficiently strong terms of some of the drawbacks of Ayurvedic medicines. Many of them seem not to be safe. One of several problems is that they have been shown to be often contaminated/adulterated with toxic substances such as heavy metals.

My conclusion about the value of Ayurvedic medicines is therefore not so optimistic: EFFICACY IS USUALLY MORE THAN DOUBTFUL, WHILE RISKS ARE WELL-DOCUMENTED.

The fish oil (FO) story began when a young Danish doctor noticed that there were no heart attacks in Greenland. Large epidemiological studies were initiated, mechanistic investigations followed, and a huge amount of fascinating data emerged. Today, we know more about FO than most other dietary supplements.

Fish oil contains large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which are thought to be beneficial in treating hypertriglyceridemia,  preventing heart disease.  In addition, FO is often recommended for a wide variety of other conditions, such as  cancer, depression, and macular degeneration. Perhaps the most compelling evidence exists in the realm of inflammatory diseases; the mechanism of action of FO is well-studied and includes powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

Australian rheumatologists just published a study of FO supplements for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Specifically, they examined  the effects of high versus low dose FO in early RA employing a ‘treat-to-target’ protocol of combination disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

Patients with chronic RA <12 months’ who were DMARD-naïve were enrolled and randomised 2:1 to FO at a high dose or plaacebo (low dose FO for masking). These groups were given 5.5 or 0.4 g/day, respectively, of  eicosapentaenoic acid + docosahexaenoic acid. All patients received methotrexate (MTX), sulphasalazine and hydroxychloroquine, and DMARD doses were adjusted according to an algorithm taking disease activity and toxicity into account. DAS28-erythrocyte sedimentation rate, modified Health Assessment Questionnaire (mHAQ) and remission were assessed three monthly. The primary outcome measure was failure of triple DMARD therapy.

The results indicate that, the FO group, failure of triple DMARD therapy was lower (HR=0.28 (95% CI 0.12 to 0.63; p=0.002) unadjusted and 0.24 (95% CI 0.10 to 0.54; p=0.0006) following adjustment for smoking history, shared epitope and baseline anti–cyclic citrullinated peptide. The rate of first American College of Rheumatology (ACR) remission was significantly greater in the FO compared with the control group (HRs=2.17 (95% CI 1.07 to 4.42; p=0.03) unadjusted and 2.09 (95% CI 1.02 to 4.30; p=0.04) adjusted). There were no differences between groups in MTX dose, DAS28 or mHAQ scores, or adverse events.

The authors conclude that FO was associated with benefits additional to those achieved by combination ‘treat-to-target’ DMARDs with similar MTX use. These included reduced triple DMARD failure and a higher rate of ACR remission.

These findings are most encouraging, particularly as they collaborate those of systematic reviews which concluded that evidence is seen for a fairly consistent, but modest, benefit of marine n-3 PUFAs on joint swelling and pain, duration of morning stiffness, global assessments of pain and disease activity, and use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and …there is evidence from 6 of 14 randomized controlled trials supporting a favourable effect of n-3 LCP supplementation in decreasing joint inflammation in RA. And you don’t need to buy the supplements either; regularly eating lots of fatty fish like mackerel, sardine or salmon has the same effects.

So, here we have an alternative, ‘natural’, dietary supplement or diet that is supported by reasonably sound evidence for efficacy, that has very few adverse effects (the main one being contamination of the supplement with toxins), that generates a host of potentially useful effects on other organ systems, that is affordable, that has a plausible mechanism of action…. Hold on, I hear some people interrupting me, FO is not an alternative medicine, it is mainstream! Exactly, an alternative medicine that works is called….MEDICINE.

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