‘Healing, hype or harm? A critical analysis of complementary or alternative medicine’ is the title of a book that I edited and that was published in 2008. Its publication date coincided with that of ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and therefore the former was almost completely over-shadowed by the latter. Consequently few people know about it. This is a shame, I think, and this post is dedicated to encouraging my readers to have a look at ‘Healing, hype or harm?’

One reviewer commented on Amazon about this book as follows: Vital and informative text that should be read by everyone alongside Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ and Singh and Ernt’s ‘Trick or Treatment’. Everyone should be able to made informed choices about the treatments that are peddled to the desperate and gullible. As Tim Minchin famously said ‘What do you call Alternative Medicine that has been proved to work? . . . Medicine!’

This is high praise indeed! But I should not omit the fact that others have commented that they were appalled by our book and found it “disappointing and unsettling”. This does not surprise me in the least; after all, alternative medicine has always been a divisive subject.

The book was written by a total of 17 authors and covers many important aspects of alternative medicine. Some of its most famous contributors are Michael Baum, Gustav Born, David Colquhoun, James Randi and Nick Ross. Some of the most important subjects include:

  • Compassion
  • Quackademia
  • Impartiality
  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • Holism
  • Vitalism
  • Placebo

As already mentioned, our book is already 6 years old; however, this does not mean that it is now out-dated. The subject areas were chosen such that it will be timely for a long time to come. Nor does this book reflect one single point of view; as it was written by over a dozen different experts with vastly different backgrounds, it offers an entire spectrum of views and attitudes. It is, in a word, a book that stimulates critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

I sincerely think you should have a look at it… and, in case you think I am hoping to maximise my income by telling you all this: all the revenues from this book go to charity.

Many experts have warned us that, when we opt for dietary supplements, we might get more than we bargained for. A recent article reminded us that the increased availability and use of botanical dietary supplements and herbal remedies among consumers has been accompanied by an increased frequency of adulteration of these products with synthetic pharmaceuticals. Unscrupulous producers may add drugs and analogues of various classes, such as phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, weight loss, hypoglycemic, antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory agents, or anabolic steroids, to develop or intensify biological effects of dietary supplements or herbal remedies. The presence of such adulterated products in the marketplace is a worldwide problem and their consumption poses health risks to consumers.

Other authors recently warned that these products are often ineffective, adulterated, mislabeled, or have unclear dosing recommendations, and consumers have suffered injury and death as a consequence. When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, it stripped the Food and Drug Administration of its premarket authority, rendering regulatory controls too weak to adequately protect consumers. State government intervention is thus warranted. This article reviews studies reporting on Americans’ use of dietary supplements marketed for weight loss or muscle building, notes the particular dangers these products pose to the youth, and suggests that states can build on their historical enactment of regulatory controls for products with potential health consequences to protect the public and especially young people from unsafe and mislabeled dietary supplements.

A new study has shown that these problems are not just theoretical but are real and common.

Twenty-four products suspected of containing anabolic steroids and sold in fitness equipment shops in the UK were analyzed for their qualitative and semi-quantitative content using full scan gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), accurate mass liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD), UV-Vis, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In addition, X-ray crystallography enabled the identification of one of the compounds, where reference standard was not available.

Of the 24 products tested, 23 contained steroids including known anabolic agents; 16 of these contained steroids that were different to those indicated on the packaging and one product contained no steroid at all. Overall, 13 different steroids were identified; 12 of these are controlled in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Several of the products contained steroids that may be considered to have considerable pharmacological activity, based on their chemical structures and the amounts present.

The authors concluded that such adulteration could unwittingly expose users to a significant risk to their health, which is of particular concern for naïve users.

The Internet offers thousands of supplements for sale; specifically for bodybuilders there are hundreds of supplements all claiming things that are untrue or untested. The lax regulations that exist in this area seem to be often ignored completely. I think it is important to inform customers that most supplements are a waste of money and some even a waste of health.

It has been estimated that 40 – 70% of all cancer patients use some form of alternative medicine; may do so in the hope this might cure their condition. A recent article by Turkish researchers – yet again – highlights how dangerous such behaviour can turn out to be.

The authors report the cases of two middle-aged women suffering from malignant breast masses. The patients experienced serious complications in response to self-prescribed use of alternative medicine practices to treat their condition in lieu of evidence-based medical treatments. In both cases, the use and/or inappropriate application of alternative medical approaches promoted the progression of malignant fungating lesions in the breast. The first patient sought medical assistance upon development of a fungating lesion, 7∼8 cm in diameter and involving 1/3 of the breast, with a palpable mass of 5×6 cm immediately beneath the wound. The second patient sought medical assistance after developing of a wide, bleeding, ulcerous area with patchy necrotic tissue that comprised 2/3 of the breast and had a 10×6 cm palpable mass under the affected area.

The authors argue that the use of some non-evidence-based medical treatments as complementary to evidence-based medical treatments may benefit the patient on an emotional level; however, this strategy should be used with caution, as the non-evidence-based therapies may cause physical harm or even counteract the evidence-based treatment.

Their conclusions: a malignant, fungating wound is a serious complication of advanced breast cancer. It is critical that the public is informed about the potential problems of self-treating wounds such as breast ulcers and masses. Additionally, campaigns are needed to increase awareness of the risks and life-threatening potential of using non-evidence-based medical therapies exclusively.

I have little to add to this; perhaps just a further reminder that the risk extends, of course, to all serious conditions: even a seemingly harmless but ineffective therapy can become positively life-threatening, if it is used as an alternative to an effective treatment. I am sure that some ‘alternativists’ will claim that I am alarmist; but I am also convinced that they are wrong.

Cardiovascular (and most other types of) patients frequently use herbal remedies in addition to their prescribed medicines. Can this behaviour create problems? Many experts think so.

The aim of a new study was to investigate the effect of herbal medicine use on medication adherence of cardiology patients. All patients admitted to the outpatient cardiology clinics, who had been prescribed at least one cardiovascular drug before, were asked to complete a questionnaire. Participants were asked if they have used any herbals during the past 12 months with an expectation of beneficial effect on health. Medication adherence was measured by using the Morisky Scale. High adherence was defined as a Morisky score lower than 2 and a score of 2 or more was seen as low adherence.

A total of 390 patients participated in this study; 29.7% of them had consumed herbals in the past 12 months. The median Morisky score was significantly higher in herbal users than non-users. The number of herbals used was moderately correlated with the Morisky score. In stepwise, multivariate logistic regression analysis, herbal use was significantly associated with low medication adherence.

From these findings, the authors conclude that herbal use was found to be independently associated with low medication adherence in our study population.

So far, the main known risk of herbal medicine use was the possibility that there might be herb-drug interactions. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet studied the possibility that herbal medicine users might neglect to take their prescribed drugs. The results of this investigation are somewhat worrying but they do make sense. Some patients who buy and take herbal remedies might think that they do not need to regularly take their prescribed medications because they already take herbal medicine which takes care of their health problem. They might even have been told by their herbalist that the herbal remedies suffice.

If that is so, and if the phenomenon can be confirmed in further investigations, it should be relevant not just in cardiology but in all fields of medicine. And if that is true for herbal remedies, it might also be the case for other types of alternative medicine. In other words, alternative medicine use might be a marker for poor adherence to prescribed medication. I feel that this hypothesis merits further study.

It goes without saying that poor adherence to prescribed drugs can be a very dangerous habit. Clinicians should therefore warn their patients and tell them that herbal remedies are no replacement of prescription drugs.

In 2004, I published an article rather boldly entitled ‘Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science’. Here is its summary:

Ear candles are hollow tubes coated in wax which are inserted into patients’ ears and then lit at the far end. The procedure is used as a complementary therapy for a wide range of conditions. A critical assessment of the evidence shows that its mode of action is implausible and demonstrably wrong. There are no data to suggest that it is effective for any condition. Furthermore, ear candles have been associated with ear injuries. The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.

Sadly, since the publication of this paper, ear candles have not become less but more popular. There are about 3 000 000 websites on the subject; most are trying to sell products and make claims which are almost comically misguided; three examples have to suffice:

I said ALMOST comical because such nonsense has, of course a downside. Not only are consumers separated from their cash for no benefit whatsoever, but they are also exposed to danger; again, three examples from the medical literature might explain:

  • Otolaryngologists from London described a case of ear candling presenting as hearing loss, and they concluded that this useless therapy can actually cause damage to the ears.
  • A 50-year-old woman presented to her GP following an episode of ear candling. After 15 minutes, the person performing the candling burned herself while attempting to remove the candle and spilled candle wax into the patient’s right ear canal. On examination, a piece of candle wax was found in the patient’s ear, and she was referred to the local ear, nose, and throat department. Under general aesthetic, a large mass of solidified yellow candle wax was removed from the deep meatus of the ear. The patient had a small perforation in her right tympanic membrane. Results of a pure tone audiogram showed a mild conductive hearing loss on the right side. At a follow-up appointment 1 month later, the perforation was still there, and the patient’s hearing had not improved.
  • case report of a 4-year-old girl from New Zealand was published. The patient was diagnosed to suffer from otitis media. During the course of the ear examination white deposits were noticed on her eardrum; this was confirmed as being caused by ear candling.

I should stress that we do not know how often such events happen; there is no monitoring system, and one might expect that the vast majority of cases do not get published. Most consumers who experience such problems, I would guess, are far to embarrassed to admit that they have been taken in by this sort of quackery.

It was true 10 yeas ago and it is true today: ear candles are a triumph of ignorance over science. But also they are a victory of gullibility over common sense and the unethical exploitation of naive hope by greedy frauds.

An article with this title was published recently by a team from Israel; essentially, it reports two interesting case histories:

Case 1

A 59-year-old male underwent a course of acupuncture for chronic low back pain, by a acupuncturist. During the therapy, the patient noted swelling at the point of puncture, but his therapist dismissed the claim. The region continued to swell, and three days later his family doctor diagnosed cellulitis and prescribed oral amoxicillin with clavulanic acid. The following day the patient’s condition worsened—he started to suffer from chills and more intense pain, so he went to the emergency room. At that stage, the patient had a fever of 37.9°C, a pulse of 119, and a blood pressure of 199/87. Edema was noted over the patient’s entire right flank (Figure 1A). Laboratory results were notable for a level of glucose of 298 mg/dL, sodium of 128 mmol/L, and white blood count (WBC) of 26,500 cells/μL with left shift. An emergency CT revealed an abscess of the abdominal wall involving the muscles, but no intra-abdominal pathology (Figure 1B).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.The patient received broad-spectrum antibiotics and was taken to the operating room for debridement. Upon incision there was subcutaneous edema with no puss, gangrene of the entire external oblique muscle, and an abscess between the external and internal oblique muscles. The muscles were debrided back to healthy, bleeding tissue and the wound copiously irrigated with saline. The wound was left open, with gauze and iodine as a cover. Gram stains and cultures returned group B streptococcus (GBS) sensitive to penicillin, and antibiotic coverage was adjusted accordingly. The patient returned to the operating room for serial debridement until the wound developed healthy granulation tissue. The patient received four units of blood and required 13 days of hospitalization. To date, he suffers from a disfiguring wound of his abdominal wall.

Considering the fact that group B streptococci live primarily in the female vagina, and that the acupuncturist was a young female, it is possible to assume that the cause for this grave illness was due to improper hygiene while treating our patient with acupuncture. Although rare, this tragic consequence of acupuncture has been seen previously by other researchers.

Case 2

A 27-year-old male with chronic cervical and back pain without any previous medical treatment or imaging was referred to a tertiary medical facility. To manage his pain, the patient used the services of a chiropractor who used cervical manipulation. Immediately after such a manipulation, the patient felt a severe cervical pain; 30 minutes after manipulation the patient started feeling paresthesia in his hands and legs. The patient was admitted to an emergency room with symptoms of progressive weakness in all four extremities and weakness. No additional symptoms were seen. Immediate MRI demonstrated an epidural hematoma at the C3-4 level (Figure 2).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The patient underwent immediate surgery to evacuate the hematoma via an anterior approach and C3-4 cage placement. The day after surgery the patient showed a remission of symptoms. At 6 months follow-up his remission was complete.

The literature includes several reports of SSPE immediately following a chiropractic manipulation that was considered the cause of this event. The authors of this case report concluded that chiropractic procedures can be dangerous when performed by practitioners who might be only partially trained, who might tend to perform an insufficient patient examination before the procedure, and thus endanger their patients.

On this blog, I have repeatedly warned that not all alternative treatments are free of risks. These two cases are impressive reminders of this undeniable fact.

I am sure that most proponents of alternative medicine will try to claim that

  • such complications are true rarities,
  • I am alarmist to keep alerting my readers to such events,
  • conventional medicine is dimensions more harmful,
  • the above cases are caused by poor practice.

However, I feel compelled to stress that there are no adequate post-marketing surveillance systems in alternative medicine and that the true frequencies of such events are therefore unknown. It seems therefore imperative (and not alarmist) to publicize such risks as widely as possible – in the hope that alternative practitioners, one day, might do the ethically and morally correct thing and implement proper surveillance of their practices.

If you believe herbalists, the Daily Mail or similarly reliable sources, you come to the conclusion that herbal medicines are entirely safe – after all they are natural, and everything that is natural must be safe. However, there is plenty of evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily correct. In fact, herbal medicines can cause harm in diverse ways, e. g. because:

  • one or more ingredients of a plant are toxic,
  • they interact with prescribed drugs,
  • they are contaminated, for instance, with heavy metals,
  • they are adulterated with prescription drugs.

There is no shortage of evidence for any of these 4 scenarios. Here are some very recent and relevant publications:

German authors reviewed recent case reports and case series that provided evidence for herbal hepatotoxicity caused by Chinese herbal mixtures. The implicated remedies were the TCM products Ban Tu Wan, Chai Hu, Du Huo, Huang Qin, Jia Wei Xia Yao San, Jiguja, Kamishoyosan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Lu Cha, Polygonum multiflorum products, Shan Chi, ‘White flood’ containing the herbal TCM Wu Zhu Yu and Qian Ceng Ta, and Xiao Chai Hu Tang. the authors concluded that stringent evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is essential to protect traditional Chinese medicines users from health hazards including liver injury.

A recent review of Nigerian anti-diabetic herbal remedies suggested hypoglycemic effect of over 100 plants. One-third of them have been studied for their mechanism of action, while isolation of the bioactive constituent(s) has been accomplished for 23 plants. Several plants showed specific organ toxicity, mostly nephrotoxic or hepatotoxic, with direct effects on the levels of some liver function enzymes. Twenty-eight plants have been identified as in vitro modulators of P-glycoprotein and/or one or more of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, while eleven plants altered the levels of phase 2 metabolic enzymes, chiefly glutathione, with the potential to alter the pharmacokinetics of co-administered drugs

US authors published a case of a 44-year-old female who developed subacute liver injury demonstrated on a CT scan and liver biopsy within a month of using black cohosh to resolve her hot flashes. Since the patient was not taking any other drugs, they concluded that the acute liver injury was caused by the use of black cohosh. The authors concluded: we agree with the United States Pharmacopeia recommendations that a cautionary warning about hepatotoxicity should be labeled on the drug package.

Hong Kong toxicologists recently reported five cases of poisoning occurring as a result of inappropriate use of herbs in recipes or general herbal formulae acquired from books. Aconite poisoning due to overdose or inadequate processing accounted for three cases. The other two cases involved the use of herbs containing Strychnos alkaloids and Sophora alkaloids. These cases demonstrated that inappropriate use of Chinese medicine can result in major morbidity, and herbal formulae and recipes containing herbs available in general publications are not always safe.

Finally, Australian emergency doctors just published this case-report: A woman aged 34 years presented to hospital with a history of progressive shortness of breath, palpitations, decreased exercise tolerance and generalised arthralgia over the previous month. A full blood count revealed normochromic normocytic anaemia and a haemoglobin level of 66 g/L. The blood film showed basophilic stippling, prompting measurement of lead levels. Her blood lead level (BLL) was 105 µg/dL. Mercury and arsenic levels were also detected at very low levels. On further questioning, the patient reported that in the past 6 months she had ingested multiple herbal preparations supplied by an overseas Ayurvedic practitioner for enhancement of fertility. She was taking up to 12 different tablets and various pastes and powders daily. Her case was reported to public health authorities and the herbal preparations were sent for analytical testing. Analysis confirmed high levels of lead (4% w/w), mercury (12% w/w), arsenic and chromium. The lead levels were 4000 times the maximum allowable lead level in medications sold or produced in Australia. Following cessation of the herbal preparations, the patient was commenced on oral chelation therapy, iron supplementation and contraception. A 3-week course of oral DMSA (2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid) was well tolerated; BLL was reduced to 13 µg/dL and haemoglobin increased to 99 g/L. Her symptoms improved over the subsequent 3 months and she remains hopeful about becoming pregnant.

So, how safe are herbal medicines? Unfortunately, the question is unanswerable. Some herbal medicines are quite safe, others are not. But always remember: whenever you administer a treatment you should ask yourself one absolutely crucial question: do the documented benefits outweigh the risks? There are several thousand different herbal medicines, and for less than a dozen of them can the honest answer to this question be YES.

Some time ago, the NYT carried an article entitled HOW YOGA CAN WRECK YOUR BODY. While this might be just a trifle alarmist, it seems clear that injuries can occur and do occur more and more – not least because yoga has become so very popular. It seems relevant therefore to ask what the risks truly are. A recent article might be useful in this respect.

The aim of this study was to examine whether a national sample of yoga practitioners would report discontinued use of yoga due to injury from the practice, assess what injuries resulted in discontinued use, determine what injuries were most common and identify injuries requiring medical attention. The authors used a secondary data analysis of a nationally representative sample of 23,393 adults from the United States.

The results indicate that less than 1% of individuals who had ever practiced yoga (n = 2230) reported an injury from yoga that led to discontinued use. Of those reporting injury, less than one-third (n = 4) reported seeking medical attention. The most commonly reported side-effect of yoga was back pain. Approximately, half of those reporting back pain sought medical attention.

The authors concluded that injury due to yoga is an infrequent barrier to continued practice and severe injury due to yoga is rare.

So, yoga is fairly safe but, in rare cases, injuries can occur. If you are interested in preventing such harm, there are some precautions you can take to make sure you do not sustain injuries.

And one last thing: in my experience,  many yoga make quite absurd claims – so, if it sounds to be too good to be true, it probably is.

What is the best treatment for the millions of people who suffer from chronic low back pain (CLBP)? If we are honest, no therapy has yet been proven to be overwhelmingly effective. Whenever something like that happens in medicine, we have a proliferation of interventions which all are promoted as effective but which, in fact, work just marginally. And sure enough, in the case of CLBP, we have a constantly growing list of treatments none of which is really convincing.

One of the latest additions to this list is PILATES.

Pilates? What is this ? One practitioner describes it as follows: In Pilates, we pay a lot of attention to how our body parts are lined up in relation to each other, which is our alignment. We usually think of our alignment as our posture, but good posture is a dynamic process, dependent on the body’s ability to align its parts to respond to varying demands effectively. When alignment is off, uneven stresses on the skeleton, especially the spine, are the result. Pilates exercises, done with attention to alignment, create uniform muscle use and development, allowing movement to flow through the body in a natural way.

For example, one of the most common postural imbalances that people have is the tendency to either tuck or tilt the pelvis. Both positions create weaknesses on one side of the body and overly tight areas on the other. They deny the spine the support of its natural curves and create a domino effect of aches and pains all the way up the spine and into the neck. Doing Pilates increases the awareness of the proper placement of the spine and pelvis, and creates the inner strength to support the natural curves of the spine. This is called having a neutral spine and it has been the key to better backs for many people.

Mumbo-jumbo? Perhaps; in any case, we need evidence! Is there any at all? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Recently, someone even published a proper systematic review.

This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of Pilates exercise in people with chronic low back pain (CLBP).

A search for RCTs was undertaken in 10 electronic. Two independent reviewers did the selection of evidence and evaluated the quality of the primary studies. To be included, relevant RCTs needed to be published in the English language. From 152 studies, 14 RCTs could be included.

The methodological quality of RCTs ranged from “poor” to “excellent”. A meta-analysis of RCTs was not undertaken due to the heterogeneity of RCTs. Pilates exercise provided statistically significant improvements in pain and functional ability compared to usual care and physical activity between 4 and 15 weeks, but not at 24 weeks. There were no consistent statistically significant differences in improvements in pain and functional ability with Pilates exercise, massage therapy, or other forms of exercise at any time period.

The authors drew the following conclusions: Pilates exercise offers greater improvements in pain and functional ability compared to usual care and physical activity in the short term. Pilates exercise offers equivalent improvements to massage therapy and other forms of exercise. Future research should explore optimal Pilates exercise designs, and whether some people with CLBP may benefit from Pilates exercise more than others.

So, Pilates can be added to the long list of treatments that work for CLBP, albeit not convincingly better than most other therapies on offer. Does that mean these options are all as good or as bad as the next? I don’t think so.

Let’s assume chiropractic/osteopathic manipulations, massage and various forms of exercise are all equally effective. How do we decide which is more commendable than the next? We clearly need to take other important factors into account:

  • cost
  • risks
  • acceptability for patients
  • availability

If we use these criteria, it becomes instantly clear that chiropractic and osteopathy are not favourites in this race for the most commendable CLBP-treatment. They are neither cheap nor free of risks. Massage is virtually risk-free but not cheap. This leaves us with various forms of exercise, including Pilates. But which exercise is better than the next? At present, we do not know, and therefore the last two factors are crucial: if people love doing Pilates and if they easily stick with it, then Pilates is fine.

I am sure chiropractors will (yet again) disagree with me but, to me, this logic could hardly be more straight forward.

On this blog, I have repeatedly stressed that there is reasonably good evidence to show that some herbal medicines are effective. The one that is probably supported with better evidence than any other is St. John’s wort (SJW). The first systematic review of SJW was published in 1995 and concluded that SJW is an effective symptomatic treatment for various forms of depressions. Meanwhile, many more trials have become available, and the current Cochrane review concludes that the available evidence suggests that the hypericum extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants. 

This must be good news for many patients; particularly the fact that SJW is much safer than synthetic antidepressants seems attractive. But don’t be fooled – SJW may still cause harm. If taken on its own, it is almost as safe as placebo, but when it is combined with other drugs, it can powerfully interact and significantly lower the plasma level of a wide range of prescription medicines.

Some proponents of alternative medicine have suggested that this caution is alar@BocktheRobber mist, and they insist that, actually, the danger is minimal. Are they correct? We need data, I think, not opinion.

A new article provides new insights.

The objective of this study was to assess how often SJW is prescribed with medications that may interact dangerously with it. The researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of nationally representative data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. The study setting was U.S. non-federal outpatient physician offices. Patients who were prescribed SJW between 1993 and 2010 were the subjects. The outcome measures were medications co-prescribed with SJW.

Twenty-eight percent of SJW visits involved a drug that has potentially dangerous interaction with SJW. These included selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, benzodiazepines, warfarin, statins, verapamil, digoxin, and oral contraceptives.

The authors concluded that SJW is frequently used in potentially dangerous combinations. Physicians should be aware of these common interactions and warn patients appropriately.

There is little to add – perhaps just this: the awareness of physicians is undoubtedly desirable, but it is not enough; as SJW and other herbal medicines are usually self-prescribed, consumers’ awareness of the risks associated with herbal medicines is at least as important, I think.

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