MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some osteopaths – similar to their chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic, etc. colleagues – claim they can treat almost any condition under the sun. Even gynaecological ones? Sure! But is the claim true? Let’s find out.

The aim of this recent review was to evaluate the effects of the osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) on women with gynaecological and obstetric disorders. An extensive search from inception to April 2014 was conducted on MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane library using MeSH and free terms. Clinical studies investigating the effect of OMT in gynaecologic and obstetric conditions were included as well as unpublished works. Reviews and personal contributions were excluded. Studies were screened for population, outcome, results and adverse effects by two independent reviewers using an ad-hoc data extraction form. The high heterogeneity of the studies led to a narrative review.

In total, 24 studies were included. They addressed the following conditions: back pain and low back functioning in pregnancy, pain and drug use during labor and delivery, infertility and subfertility, dysmenorrhea, symptoms of (peri)menopause and pelvic pain. Overall, OMT was considered to be effective for pregnancy related back pain. For all other gynaecological and obstetrical conditions the evidence was considered to be uncertain. Only three studies mentioned adverse events after OMT.

The authors concluded that, although positive effects were found, the heterogeneity of study designs, the low number of studies and the high risk of bias of included trials prevented any indication on the effect of osteopathic care. Further investigation with more pragmatic methodology, better and detailed description of interventions and systematic reporting of adverse events are recommended in order to obtain solid and generalizable results.

Given the fact that the lead authors of this review come from the “Accademia Italiana Osteopatia Tradizionale, Pescara, Italy, we can probably answer the question in the title of this blog with a straight NO. I see no reason why OMT should work for gynaecological conditions, and I am not in the least surprised to read that there is no clinical evidence for this notion. Sadly, this is unlikely to stop osteopaths to claim otherwise and continue to prey on the desperate and the gullible.

One might thus say that this review is totally unremarkable – but I would beg to differ: it highlights yet again one very important finding, namely the fact that trials of alternative therapies far too often fail to report adverse effects. I have stated this often already, but I will say it again: THIS OMISSION IS A VIOLATION OF RESEARCH ETHICS WHICH GIVES US A FALSE POSITIVE OVERALL PICTURE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE.

We have become used to bogus claims made by homeopaths – far too much so, I would argue. Therefore, we let the vast majority of their bogus claims pass without serious objections. Yet exposing bogus claims would be an important task, particularly when they relate to serious conditions. Doing this might even save lives!

According to the website of the ‘HOMEOPATHIC DOCTOR’, homeopathy is mild in nature and tends to modify the body’s natural immunity. It is the responsibility of the immune system of the body to protect it from all sorts of damage, whether from bacteria or viruses or from any other disease. It also helps in repairing any damage that may occur at any time. Homeopathic medicines help strengthen the natural immunity of the body so that it can perform its natural functions in a more efficient manner.

5 Best Homeopathic remedies for Ulcerative Colitis

In my experience, homeopathic medicines like Merc Sol, Baptisia, Nux Vomica, Arsenic Album and Phosphorus have been found to be quite effective in the treatment of Ulcerative Colitis…

Merc Sol- One of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis with blood and tenesmus

When there is too much bleeding with tenesmus and other symptoms, Merc Sol is one of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis. There are frequent stools with blood being discharged almost every time. The patient is a sweaty sort of patient who keeps on sweating most of the time. Creeping sort of chilliness may be felt in the back.

Nux Vomica- One of the best homeopathic remedies for ulcerative colitis due to high life

When the problem has occurred from living a high life, Nux Vomica is one of the best homeopathic remedies for ulcerative colitis. Excess of alcohol, stimulants like tea and coffee, late night partying and other habits incident to modern lifestyle can contribute to such a problem. The patient is usually a chilly sort of patient who cannot tolerate cold. He is unusually angry and that too at trifles.

Arsenic Album – One of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis with anxiety and restlesness

When the predominant symptoms are the mental symptoms of anxiety and restlessness, Arsenic Album is one of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis. The patient gets anxious, worried and restless for no rhyme or reason. There may be weakness which may be disproportionately more than the problem. There is increased thirst for water, though the patient takes a small quantity or a sip at a time.

Baptisia – One of the best homeopathic remedy for ulcerative colitis with low grade fever

When there is low grade fever present along with other symptoms, Baptisia is one of the best homeopathic remedy for ulcerative colitis. The patient has great muscular soreness all over the body as if bruised and beaten. Appetite is reduced or next to nil. At the same time, there is constant desire for water. Stools are very offensive, thin and watery.

Phosphorus – One of the best homeopathic medicine for ulcerative colitis with increased thirst for cold water

When there is intense thirst for cold water, Phosphorus is one of the best homeopathic medicine for ulcerative colitis. The patient is usually tall and thin. The diarrhoea is copious. Stool is watery and profuse bleeding may be present. Patient feels too weak and more so after passing a stool.

The ‘HOMEOPATHIC DOCTOR’s first statement was ‘in my experience…’? Unfortunately most patients will not understand what this expression truly means when written by a homeopath. It means THERE IS NOT A JOT OF EVIDENCE FOR ANY OF THIS. Had he stated this clearly, it would probably have been the only correct sentence in the whole article.

People who understand medicine a bit might laugh at such deluded clinicians and their weird, unethical recommendations. However, patients who are chronically ill and therefore desperate might take them seriously and follow their advice. Patients who suffer from potentially life-threatening diseases like ulcerative colitis might then cause serious damage to themselves or even die.

And this is precisely the reason why I will continue to expose these charlatans for what they are: irresponsible, unethical, uninformed, dangerous quacks

Chiropractors may not be good at treating diseases or symptoms, but they are certainly good at promoting their trade. As this trade hardly does more good than harm, one could argue that chiropractors are promoting bogus and potentially harmful treatments to fill their own pockets.

Does that sound too harsh? If you think so, please read what Canadian researchers have just published:

This study aimed to investigate the presence of critiques and debates surrounding efficacy and risk of Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT) on the social media platform Twitter. Specifically, it examined whether there is presence of debate and whether critical information is being widely disseminated.

An initial corpus of 31,339 tweets was compiled through Twitter’s Search Application Programming Interface using the query terms “chiropractic,” “chiropractor,” and “spinal manipulation therapy.” Tweets were collected for the month of December 2015. Post removal of tweets made by bots and spam, the corpus totalled 20,695 tweets, of which a sample (n=1267) was analysed for sceptical or critical tweets.

The results showed that there were 34 tweets explicitly containing scepticism or critique of SMT, representing 2.68% of the sample (n=1267). As such, there is a presence of 2.68% of tweets in the total corpus, 95% CI 0-6.58% displaying explicitly sceptical or critical perspectives of SMT. In addition, there are numerous tweets highlighting the health benefits of SMT for health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), immune system, and blood pressure that receive scant critical attention. The presence of tweets in the corpus highlighting the risks of “stroke” and “vertebral artery dissection” is also minute (0.1%).

The authors drew the following conclusions: In the abundance of tweets substantiating and promoting chiropractic and SMT as sound health practices and valuable business endeavors, the debates surrounding the efficacy and risks of SMT on Twitter are almost completely absent. Although there are some critical voices of SMT proving to be influential, issues persist regarding how widely this information is being disseminated.

I have no doubt that this paper will be sharply criticised by chiropractors, other manipulators and lobbyists of quackery. Yet I think it is an interesting and innovative approach to describe what is and is not being said on public media. The fact that chiropractors hardly ever publicly criticise or challenge each other on Twitter or elsewhere for even the most idiotic claims is, in my view, most telling.

Few people would doubt that such platforms have become hugely important in forming public opinions, and it seems safe to assume that consumers views about SMT are strongly influenced by what they read on Twitter. If we accept this position, we also have to concede that Twitter et al. are a potential danger to public health.

The survey is, however, not flawless, and the authors are the first to point that out: Given the nature of Twitter discussions and the somewhat limited access provided by Twitter’s API, it can be challenging to capture a comprehensive collection of tweets on any topic. In addition, other potential terms such as “chiro” and “spinal adjustment” are present on Twitter, which may produce datasets with somewhat different results. Finally, although December 2015 was chosen at random, there is nothing to suggest that other time frames would be significantly similar or different. Despite these limitations, this study highlights the degree to which discussions of risk and critical views on efficacy are almost completely absent from Twitter. To this I would add that a comparison subject like nursing or physiotherapy might have been informative, and that somehow osteopaths have been forgotten in the discussion.

The big question, of course, is: what can be done about creating more balance on Twitter and elsewhere? I wish I had a practical answer. In the absence of such a solution, all I can offer is a plea to everyone who is able of critical thinking to become as active as they can in busting myths, disclosing nonsense and preventing the excesses of harmful quackery.

Let’s all work tirelessly and effectively for a better and healthier future!

In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.

According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”

The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”

This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.

Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.

Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:

  • the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
  • the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
  • the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
  • the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
  • not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
  • the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
  • there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.

My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.

Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.

Highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos; that statement is by no means new and has been discussed here so many times that it hardly needs repeating. It follows that those who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, claim that such remedies are efficacious for any condition or symptom are misleading the public.

What, in the realm of homeopathy, could be worse?

The answer is fairly clear, I think: those who promote homeopathy for immunizations; i.e. those ‘experts’ who advocate HOMEOPROPHYLAXIS; they are clearly worse, much worse.

On this blog, I have repeatedly warned consumers of this nonsense (see for instance here, here, here, here and here), yet the Internet remains full of promotion of this dangerous quackery. Few charlatans are as despicable as the author of this recent article:

…Energy medicine is becoming more sought after and used. Homeopathy is one such form of energy medicine used by over 500 million people worldwide. Within homeopathy is the practice of a safe and natural disease prevention method called homeoprophylaxis, or “HP.”

HP involves the safe use of either diluted and potentized disease products or materials from animal, mineral, or vegetable sources to elicit an immune response in order to educate the immune system before encountering a disease. Due to the ultra-high dilution, the final product contains no molecules of the original source, rendering it completely harmless. It is energetic instead of material and operates by way of its frequency.

Energetic Medicine

This energetic frequency “educates” the immune system to recognize a disease when met in the environment and effectively mount an immune response in the most natural way. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. This is not philosophy. This is physics.”

Just like cell phones receive a radio frequency, interpret it, and deliver it to the user in a form that can be understood, HP delivers the energetic spectrum of a targeted disease. The human body, just like the phone, is able to receive and respond to the energetic signature and produce a beneficial response.

This signature is delivered on tiny sugar pellets, by mouth, one disease at a time, and is devoid of adjuvents, preservatives, or antibiotics of any kind. It is not grown on foreign mediums, but contains only the frequency of the disease.

This is how illness occurs in nature. Pure and simple. The developing immune system contracts a disease, mounts an immune response, resolves the illness, and is left with lifelong immunity to a specific virus. No chemicals, no confusion, no system overload! HP confers all of the benefits with none of the risks…

Is HP for Me?

With any aspect of your health, or the health of your children, it’s essential to do your homework and carefully gather all the information you can before making choices. HP is not a “replacement” for vaccination. It is a conscious method to enhance immunity that employs energetic principles. Applications for epidemics and childhood diseases are based upon sound homeopathic principles and common sense. It is utilized and appreciated by many people around the world and shown to be safe and effective…

The time will come when we recognize that trying to eliminate disease is an infantile attempt to declare superiority over other lifeforms. The human body is 9/10ths bacteria, viruses, and other organisms that live symbiotically within us. Living in harmony with these organisms is the only answer to the survival of our species. HP honours this relationship. More people are finding it as they seek a better way…

END OF QUOTE

And here are the facts about HP:

  • there is no reason why it should work; it is not biological plausible,
  • there is no clinical evidence that it does work,
  • the stories HP-fans tell us about epidemics where HP has been employed successfully are unconvincing nonsense,
  • this means that HP is not evidence-based,
  • to mislead people into thinking otherwise is criminally irresponsible, in my view,
  • such bogus claims could cost the lives of millions, if HP truly became wide-spread.

I cannot think of anything in the realm of homeopathy that is more irresponsible than the promotion of HP.

The Subject of the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ has recently been the topic of one of my blog-posts. In Germany, it has been a taboo for decades, but now the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’ (FAZ) have courageously addressed the problem. In today’s article, the FAZ reports that, Josef Hecken, the chair of the an organisation called ‘Selbstverwaltung im Gesundheitswesen’ (self-administration in healthcare), demands that “health-insurers should be forbidden to pay for treatments that are not supported by evidence.” Hecken, is also the chair of the Gemeinsamen Bundesausschusses, an umbrella organisation of doctors, insurers and hospitals which determines which services are paid for and which not. He stated that even paying for homeopathy out of your own pocket when treating diseases like cancer must be forbidden and stressed that “this is not about well-being but human lives.”

Hecken’s views are partly supported by Rudolf Henke, the chair of both a German doctor’s union and of the Marburger Bund, a union of hospitals: “the regulations regarding the Heilpraktiker have to be re-considered entirely… I do not believe it to be acceptable that Heilpraktiker are able to treat cancer patients.”

These remarks relate to the deaths that recently occurred in a clinic led by a Heilpraktiker. About two thirds of all German health insurers seem to pay for consultations with a Heilpraktiker. Vis a vis the fact that most of their treatments are not evidence-based, this situation seems intolerable and deeply unethical.

Hecken’s stance seems clear, rational and, in view of the popularity of homeopathy in Germany, even courageous: “The government should charge the ‘Gemeinsamen Bundesausschuss’ or another organisation with the task of conducting a meta-analysis on the evidence of homeopathy and then draw the appropriate conclusions… We have reached a point where we need a public discussion, and I am prepared to take the flack.”

A new Cochrane review evaluated the effectiveness and safety of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) in the treatment of menopausal symptoms. Its authors conducted a thorough search for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the effectiveness of CHM with placebo, hormone therapy (HT), pharmaceutical drugs, acupuncture, or another CHM formula in women suffering from menopausal symptoms.

Two review authors independently assessed 864 studies for eligibility. Data extractions were performed by them with disagreements resolved through group discussion and clarification of data or direct contact with the study authors. Data analyses were performed in accordance with Cochrane Collaboration guidelines.

In total, 22 RCTs (2902 women) could be included. When CHM was compared with placebo (8 RCTs), there was little or no evidence of a difference between the groups for the following outcomes: hot flushes per day (MD 0.00, 95% CI -0.88 to 0.89; 2 trials, 199 women; moderate quality evidence); hot flushes per day assessed by an overall hot flush score in which a difference of one point equates to one mild hot flush per day (MD -0.81 points, 95% CI -2.08 to 0.45; 3 RCTs, 263 women; low quality evidence); and overall vasomotor symptoms per month measured by the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life questionnaire (MENQOL, scale 0 to 6) (MD -0.42 points; 95% CI -1.52 to 0.68; 3 RCTs, 256 women; low quality evidence). In addition, results from individual studies suggested there was no evidence of a difference between the groups for daily hot flushes assessed by severity (MD -0.70 points, 95% CI -1.00, -0.40; 1 RCT, 108 women; moderate quality evidence); or overall monthly hot flushes scores (MD -2.80 points, 95% CI -8.93 to 3.33; 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence); or overall daily night sweats scores (MD 0.07 points, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.33, 1 RCT, 64 women; low quality evidence); or overall monthly night sweats scores (MD 1.30 points, 95% CI -1.76 to 4.36, 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence). However, one study reported that overall monthly vasomotor symptom scores were lower in the CHM group (MD -4.79 points, 95% CI -5.52 to -4.06; 1 RCT, 69 women; low quality evidence).

When CHM was compared with HT (10 RCTs), only two RCTs reported monthly vasomotor symptoms using MENQOL. It was uncertain whether CHM reduces vasomotor symptoms (MD 0.47 points, 95% CI -0.50 to 1.44; 2 RCTs, 127 women; very low quality evidence).

Adverse effects were not fully reported in the included studies. Adverse events reported by women taking CHM included mild diarrhoea, breast tenderness, gastric discomfort and an unpleasant taste. Effects were inconclusive because of imprecise estimates of effects: CHM versus placebo (RR 1.51; 95% CI 0.69 to 3.33; 7 trials, 705 women; I² = 40%); CHM versus HT (RR 0.96; 95% CI 0.66 to 1.39; 2 RCTs, 864 women; I² = 0%); and CHM versus specific conventional medications (such as Fluoxetine and Estazolam) (RR 0.20; 95% CI 0.03 to 1.17; 2 RCTs, 139 women; I² = 61%).

The authors concluded: We found insufficient evidence that Chinese herbal medicines were any more or less effective than placebo or HT for the relief of vasomotor symptoms. Effects on safety were inconclusive. The quality of the evidence ranged from very low to moderate; there is a need for well-designed randomised controlled studies.

This review seems well done and reports clear findings. The fact that there was insufficient evidence for CHM is probably no surprise to most readers of this blog. However, I would like to draw your attention to a finding that could easily be missed: most of the primary studies failed to mention adverse effects; to be perfectly clear: they did not state “there were no adverse effects”, but they simply did not mention the subject of adverse effects at all.

In my view, this is a breach of research ethics. I have been banging on about this phenomenon for some time now, because I think it is important. Many if not most clinical trials in this area neglect reporting adverse effects. This means that we get an entirely misleading impression about the safety of the treatments in question. Reviewers of such studies are bound to conclude that they seem to be safe, while, in fact, researchers have only been withholding crucial information from us.

The solution to this fast-growing problem would be simple: trialists must be forced to fully report adverse effects. This is less complicated that it might seem: journal editors must insist that all authors fully report adverse effects of alternative treatments. Even if there were none at all – a very unlikely proposition if you think about it – they must disclose this fact.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to enjoy food and drink to one’s heart content and, once the pounds are piling up, simply swallow a pill and the weight goes down to normal? There are plenty of such pills on the market, but here I advise you to avoid them – mainly for two reasons.

The first is that they do not work. On this blog, we have discussed this before. The claims made for weight loss supplements are bogus. The manufacturers promise substantial body weight reductions not because their product is effective but because they want your money. So, unless you want to donate your cash to quacks, don’t buy such rubbish.

The second reason is probably even more compelling: weight-loss supplements endanger your health. A new paper tells us more about their risks. This investigation was aimed at identifying banned and discouraged-use ingredients, such as ephedra, 1,3-dimethylamylamine, and beta-methyl-phenylethylamine, in readily available weight loss dietary supplements within a 10-mile radius of Regis University.

A list of banned and discouraged-use ingredients was compiled with the use of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dietary supplement website which provides information on supplement ingredients that are no longer legal or are advised against owing to adverse event reporting. Investigators visited all retail outlet stores within a 10-mile radius of Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Retail chains were not duplicated and only one of each chain was evaluated.

A total of 51 weight loss supplement products from retail stores were found with banned or discouraged-use substances listed on their labels. At least one banned ingredient was found to be listed on the product labels in 17 of the 51 studied supplements (33%). At least one discouraged-use ingredient was found in 46 of the 51 products (90%). Retail outlet stores dedicated to supplements and sports nutrition alone were found to have the greatest number of weight loss supplements that included banned and discouraged-use ingredients.

The authors of this paper draw the following conclusions: the FDA has taken action to remove some weight loss supplements from the market that contain banned ingredients. Unfortunately, based on the findings of this study, it is evident that products containing these ingredients remain on the market today.

You might think that these findings apply only to the US, however, I am afraid, you would be mistaken. People buy such bogus supplements on the Internet where national regulations can easily be circumvented. Thus the trade in weight-loss supplements is thriving regardless of what the FDA or any other regulatory agency might do about them.

The solution is simple: avoid such products!

No, I don’t want to put you off your breakfast… but you probably have seen so many pictures of attractive athletes with cupping marks and read articles about the virtues of this ancient therapy, that I feel I have to put this into perspective:

Cupping burnsI am sure you agree that this is slightly less attractive. But, undeniably, these are also cupping marks. So, if you read somewhere that this treatment is entirely harmless, take it with a pinch of salt.

Cupping has existed for centuries in most cultures, and there are several variations of the theme. We differentiate between wet and dry cupping. The above picture is of wet cupping gone wrong. What the US Olympic athletes currently seem to be so fond of is dry cupping.

The principles of both forms are similar. In dry cupping, a vacuum cup is placed over the skin which provides enough suction to create a circular bruise. Eventually the vacuum diminishes, and the cup falls off; what is left is the mark. In wet cupping, the procedure is much the same, except that the skin is injured before the cup is placed. The suction then pulls out a small amount of blood. Obviously the superficial injury can get infected, and that is what we see on the above picture.

In the homeopathic hospital where I worked ~40 years ago, we did a lot of both types of cupping. We used it mostly for musculoskeletal pain. Our patients responded well.

But why? How does cupping work?

The answer is probably more complex than you expect. It clearly has a significant placebo effect. Athletes are obviously very focussed on their body, and they are therefore the ideal placebo-responders. Evidently, my patients 40 years ago also responded to all types of placebos, even to the homeopathic placebos which they received ‘en masse’.

But there might be other mechanisms as well. A TCM practitioner will probably tell you that cupping unblocks the energy flow in our body. This might sound very attractive to athletes or consumers, and therefore could even enhance the placebo response, but it is nevertheless nonsense.

The most plausible mode of action is ‘counter-irritation’: if you have a pain somewhere, a second pain elsewhere in your body can erase the original pain. You might have a headache, for instance, and if you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, the headache is gone, at least for a while. Cupping too would cause mild to moderate pain, and this is a distraction from the muscular pain the athletes aim to alleviate.

When I employed cupping 40 years ago, there was no scientific evidence testing its effects. Since a few years, however, clinical trials have started appearing. Many are from China, and I should mention that TCM studies from China almost never report a negative result. According to the Chinese, TCM (including cupping) works for everything. More recently,also some trials from other parts of the world have emerged. They have in common with the Chinese studies that they tend to report positive findings and that they are of very poor quality. (One such trial has been discussed previously on this blog.) In essence, this means that we should not rely on their conclusions.

A further problem with clinical trails of cupping is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to control for the significant placebo effects that this treatment undoubtedly generates. There is no placebo that could mimic all the features of real cupping in clinical trials; and there is no easy way to blind either the patient or the therapist.

So, we are left with an ancient treatment backed by a host of recent but flimsy studies and a growing craze for cupping fuelled by the Olympic games. What can one conclude in such a situation?

Personally, I would, whenever possible, recommend treatments that work beyond a placebo effect, because the placebo response tends to be unreliable and is usually of short duration – and I am not at all sure that cupping belongs into this category. I would also avoid wet cupping, because it can cause substantial harm. Finally, I would try to keep healthcare costs down; cupping itself is cheap but the therapist’s time might be expensive.

In a nutshell: would I recommend cupping? No, not any more than using a hammer for counter irritation! Will the Olympic athletes care a hoot about my recommendations? No, probably not!

 

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