In the past, I have been involved in several court cases where patients had complained about mistreatment by charlatans. Similarly I have acted as an expert witness for the General Medical Council in similar circumstances.
So, it is true, quacks are sometimes being held to account by their victims. But, generally speaking, patients seem to complain very rarely when they fall in the hands of even the most incompetent of quacks.
Here is one telling reminder showing how long it can take until a complaint is finally filed.
Dr Julian Kenyon is, according to his website, an integrated medicine physician and Medical Director of the Dove Clinic for Integrated Medicine, Winchester and London. Dr Julian Kenyon is Founder-Chairman of the British Medical Acupuncture Society in 1980 and Co-Founder of the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine in Southampton and London where he worked for many years before starting The Dove Clinic in 2000. He is also Founder/President of the British Society for Integrated Medicine and is an established authority in the field of complementary treatment approaches for a wide range of medical conditions. He has written approximately 20 books and has had many academic papers published in peer review journals* and has several patents to his name. He graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and subsequently with a research degree, Doctor of Medicine. In 1972, he was appointed a Primary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.
*[I found only 4 on Medline]
Kenyon has been on sceptics’ radar for a very long time. For instance, he is one of the few UK doctors who use ‘LIVE BLOOD ANALYSIS’, a bogus diagnostic method that can harm patients through false-negative or false-positive diagnoses. A 2003 undercover investigation for BBC 1 South’s ‘Inside Out’ accused Dr Julian Kenyon of using yet another spurious diagnostic test at his clinic near Winchester. Kenyon has, for many years, been working together with George Lewith, another of the country’s ‘leading’ complementary doctors. In 1994, the two published an article about their co-operation; here is its abstract:
This paper outlines the main research effort that has taken place within the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine over the last 10 years. It demonstrates the Centre’s expertise and interest in a whole variety of areas, including the social implications and development of complementary medicine, clinical trial methodology, the evaluation of complementary medical machinery, the effects of electromagnetic fields on health and the investigation of the subtle energetic processes involved in complementary medicine. Our future plans are outlined.
Lewith and Kenyon have been using a technique called electrodermal testing for more than 20 years. Considering the fact that the two doctors authored a BMJ paper which concluded that electrodermal machines couldn’t detect environmental allergies, this seems more than a little surprising.
Using secret filming, ‘Inside Out’ showed Dr Kenyon testing a six-year-old boy and then deciding that he is sensitive to dust mites. Later, Dr Kenyon insists that he made his diagnosis purely on the boy’s symptoms and that he didn’t use the machine to test for dust mites. The BBC then took the boy for a conventional skin prick test, which suggested he didn’t have any allergies at all. But Dr Kenyon then says the conventional test may not be accurate: “He may be one of the 10% who actually are negative to the skin tests but benefit from measures to reduce dust mite exposure.”
Despite this very public disclosure, Kenyon was able to practice unrestrictedly for many years.
In December 2014, it was reported in the Hampshire Chronicle that Dr Kenyon eventually did, after a complaint from a patient, end up in front of the General Medical Council’s conduct tribunal. The panel heard that, after a 20-minute consultation, which cost £300, Dr Kenyon told one terminally-ill man with late-stage cancer: “I am not claiming we can cure you, but there is a strong possibility that we would be able to increase your median survival time with the relatively low-risk approaches described here.” He also made bold statements about the treatment’s supposed benefits to an undercover reporter who posed as the husband of a woman with breast cancer.
After considering the full details of the case, Ben Fitzgerald, for the General Medical Council, had called for Dr Kenyon to be suspended, but the panel’s chairman Dr Surendra Kumar said Dr Kenyon’s misconduct was not serious enough to warrant a ban. The panel eventually imposed restrictions on Kenyon’s licence lasting for 12 months.
I estimate that patients are exposed to quackery from doctors and alternative practitioners thousands of times every day. Why then, I ask myself, do so few of them complain? Here are some of the possible answers to this important question:
- They do not dare to.
- They feel embarrassed.
- They don’t know how to.
- They cannot be bothered and fear the agro.
- They fail to identify quackery and fall for the nonsense they are being told.
- They even might perceive benefit from treatments which, in fact, are pure quackery.
Whatever the reasons, I think it is regrettable that not far more quacks are held to account – regardless of whether the charlatan in question as studied medicine or not. If you disagree, consider this: not filing a complaint means that many more patients will be put at risk.
Few subjects lead to such heated debate as the risk of stroke after chiropractic manipulations (if you think this is an exaggeration, look at the comment sections of previous posts on this subject). Almost invariably, one comes to the conclusion that more evidence would be helpful for arriving at firmer conclusions. Before this background, this new publication by researchers (mostly chiropractors) from the US ‘Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice’ is noteworthy.
The purpose of this study was to quantify the risk of stroke after chiropractic spinal manipulation, as compared to evaluation by a primary care physician, for Medicare beneficiaries aged 66 to 99 years with neck pain.
The researchers conducted a retrospective cohort analysis of a 100% sample of annualized Medicare claims data on 1 157 475 beneficiaries aged 66 to 99 years with an office visit to either a chiropractor or to a primary care physician for neck pain. They compared hazard of vertebrobasilar stroke and any stroke at 7 and 30 days after office visit using a Cox proportional hazards model. We used direct adjusted survival curves to estimate cumulative probability of stroke up to 30 days for the 2 cohorts.
The findings indicate that the proportion of subjects with a stroke of any type in the chiropractic cohort was 1.2 per 1000 at 7 days and 5.1 per 1000 at 30 days. In the primary care cohort, the proportion of subjects with a stroke of any type was 1.4 per 1000 at 7 days and 2.8 per 1000 at 30 days. In the chiropractic cohort, the adjusted risk of stroke was significantly lower at 7 days as compared to the primary care cohort (hazard ratio, 0.39; 95% confidence interval, 0.33-0.45), but at 30 days, a slight elevation in risk was observed for the chiropractic cohort (hazard ratio, 1.10; 95% confidence interval, 1.01-1.19).
The authors conclude that, among Medicare B beneficiaries aged 66 to 99 years with neck pain, incidence of vertebrobasilar stroke was extremely low. Small differences in risk between patients who saw a chiropractor and those who saw a primary care physician are probably not clinically significant.
I do, of course, applaud any new evidence on this rather ‘hot’ topic – but is it just me, or are the above conclusions a bit odd? Five strokes per 1000 patients is definitely not “extremely low” in my book; and furthermore I do wonder whether all experts would agree that a doubling of risk at 30 days in the chiropractic cohort is “probably not clinically significant” – particularly, if we consider that chiropractic spinal manipulation has so very little proven benefit.
My message to (chiropractic) researchers is simple: PLEASE REMEMBER THAT SCIENCE IS NOT A TOOL FOR CONFIRMING BUT FOR TESTING HYPOTHESES.
The very first article on a subject related to alternative medicine with a 2015 date that I came across is a case-report. I am afraid it will not delight our chiropractic friends who tend to deny that their main therapy can cause serious problems.
In this paper, US doctors tell the story of a young woman who developed headache, vomiting, diplopia, dizziness, and ataxia following a neck manipulation by her chiropractor. A computed tomography scan of the head was ordered and it revealed an infarct in the inferior half of the left cerebellar hemisphere and compression of the fourth ventricle causing moderately severe, acute obstructive hydrocephalus. Magnetic resonance angiography showed severe narrowing and low flow in the intracranial segment of the left distal vertebral artery. The patient was treated with mannitol and a ventriculostomy. Following these interventions, she made an excellent functional recovery.
The authors of the case-report draw the following conclusions: This report illustrates the potential hazards associated with neck trauma, including chiropractic manipulation. The vertebral arteries are at risk for aneurysm formation and/or dissection, which can cause acute stroke.
I can already hear the counter-arguments: this is not evidence, it’s an anecdote; the evidence from the Cassidy study shows there is no such risk!
Indeed the Cassidy study concluded that vertebral artery accident (VBA) stroke is a very rare event in the population. The increased risks of VBA stroke associated with chiropractic and primary care physician visits is likely due to patients with headache and neck pain from VBA dissection seeking care before their stroke. We found no evidence of excess risk of VBA stroke associated chiropractic care compared to primary care. That, of course, was what chiropractors longed to hear (and it is the main basis for their denial of risk) – so much so that Cassidy et al published the same results a second time (most experts feel that this is a violation of publication ethics).
But repeating arguments does not make them more true. What we should not forget is that the Cassidy study was but one of several case-control studies investigating this subject. And the totality of all such studies does not deny an association between neck manipulation and stroke.
Much more important is the fact that a re-analysis of the Cassidy data found that prior studies grossly misclassified cases of cervical dissection and mistakenly dismissed a causal association with manipulation. The authors of this new paper found a classification error of cases by Cassidy et al and they re-analysed the Cassidy data, which reported no association between spinal manipulation and cervical artery dissection (odds ratio [OR] 5 1.12, 95% CI .77-1.63). These re-calculated results reveal an odds ratio of 2.15 (95% CI.98-4.69). For patients less than 45 years of age, the OR was 6.91 (95% CI 2.59-13.74). The authors of the re-analysis conclude as follows: If our estimates of case misclassification are applicable outside the VA population, ORs for the association between SMT exposure and CAD are likely to be higher than those reported using the Rothwell/Cassidy strategy, particularly among younger populations. Future epidemiologic studies of this association should prioritize the accurate classification of cases and SMT exposure.
I think they are correct; but my conclusion of all this would be more pragmatic and much simpler: UNTIL WE HAVE CONVINCING EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY, WE HAVE TO ASSUME THAT CHIROPRACTIC NECK MANIPULATION CAN CAUSE A STROKE.
Few subjects make chiropractors more uneasy than a discussion of the safety of their spinal manipulations. Many chiropractors flatly deny that there are any risks at all. However, the evidence seems to tell a different story.
The purpose of a new review was to summarise the literature for cases of adverse events in infants and children treated by chiropractors or other manual therapists, identifying treatment type and if a preexisting pathology was present. English language, peer-reviewed journals and non-peer-reviewed case reports discussing adverse events (ranging from minor to serious) were systematically searched from inception of the relevant searchable bibliographic databases through March 2014. Articles not referring to infants or children were excluded.
Thirty-one articles met the selection criteria. A total of 12 articles reporting 15 serious adverse events were found. Three deaths occurred under the care of various providers (1 physical therapist, 1 unknown practitioner, and 1 craniosacral therapist) and 12 serious injuries were reported (7 chiropractors/doctors of chiropractic, 1 medical practitioner, 1 osteopath, 2 physical therapists, and 1 unknown practitioner). High-velocity, extension, and rotational spinal manipulation was reported in most cases, with 1 case involving forcibly applied craniosacral dural tension and another involving use of an adjusting instrument. Underlying preexisting pathology was identified in a majority of the cases.
The authors concluded that published cases of serious adverse events in infants and children receiving chiropractic, osteopathic, physiotherapy, or manual medical therapy are rare. The 3 deaths that have been reported were associated with various manual therapists; however, no deaths associated with chiropractic care were found in the literature to date. Because underlying preexisting pathology was associated in a majority of reported cases, performing a thorough history and examination to exclude anatomical or neurologic anomalies before applying any manual therapy may further reduce adverse events across all manual therapy professions.
This review is a valuable addition to our knowledge about the risks of spinal manipulations. My own review summarised 26 deaths after chiropractic manipulations. In several of these instances, the age of the patient had not been reported. Therefore the above conclusion (no deaths associated with chiropractic) seems a little odd.
The following text is a shortened version of the discussion of my review which, I think, addresses most of the pertinent issues.
… numerous deaths have been associated with chiropractic. Usually high-velocity, short-lever thrusts of the upper spine with rotation are implicated. They are believed to cause vertebral arterial dissection in predisposed individuals which, in turn, can lead to a chain of events including stroke and death. Many chiropractors claim that, because arterial dissection can also occur spontaneously, causality between the chiropractic intervention and arterial dissection is not proven. However, when carefully evaluating the known facts, one does arrive at the conclusion that causality is at least likely. Even if it were merely a remote possibility, the precautionary principle in healthcare would mean that neck manipulations should be considered unsafe until proven otherwise. Moreover, there is no good evidence for assuming that neck manipulation is an effective therapy for any medical condition. Thus, the risk-benefit balance for chiropractic neck manipulation fails to be positive.
Reliable estimates of the frequency of vascular accidents are prevented by the fact that underreporting is known to be substantial. In a survey of UK neurologists, for instance, under-reporting of serious complications was 100%. Those cases which are published often turn out to be incomplete. Of 40 case reports of serious adverse effects associated with spinal manipulation, nine failed to provide any information about the clinical outcome. Incomplete reporting of outcomes might therefore further increase the true number of fatalities.
This review is focussed on deaths after chiropractic, yet neck manipulations are, of course, used by other healthcare professionals as well. The reason for this focus is simple: chiropractors are more frequently associated with serious manipulation-related adverse effects than osteopaths, physiotherapists, doctors or other professionals. Of the 40 cases of serious adverse effects mentioned above, 28 can be traced back to a chiropractor and none to a osteopath. A review of complications after spinal manipulations by any type of healthcare professional included three deaths related to osteopaths, nine to medical practitioners, none to a physiotherapist, one to a naturopath and 17 to chiropractors. This article also summarised a total of 265 vascular accidents of which 142 were linked to chiropractors. Another review of complications after neck manipulations published by 1997 included 177 vascular accidents, 32 of which were fatal. The vast majority of these cases were associated with chiropractic and none with physiotherapy. The most obvious explanation for the dominance of chiropractic is that chiropractors routinely employ high-velocity, short-lever thrusts on the upper spine with a rotational element, while the other healthcare professionals use them much more sparingly.[REFERENCES FOR THE ABOVE STATEMENTS CAN BE FOUND IN MY REVIEW]
Adverse events have been reported extensively following chiropractic. About 50% of patients suffer side-effects after seeing a chiropractor. The majority of these events are mild, transitory and self-limiting. However, chiropractic spinal manipulations, particularly those of the upper spine, have also been associated with very serious complications; several hundred such cases have been reported in the medical literature and, as there is no monitoring system to record these instances, this figure is almost certainly just the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Despite these facts, little is known about patient filed compensation claims related to the chiropractic consultation process. The aim of a new study was to describe claims reported to the Danish Patient Compensation Association and the Norwegian System of Compensation to Patients related to chiropractic from 2004 to 2012.
All finalized compensation claims involving chiropractors reported to one of the two associations between 2004 and 2012 were assessed for age, gender, type of complaint, decisions and appeals. Descriptive statistics were used to describe the study population.
338 claims were registered in Denmark and Norway between 2004 and 2012 of which 300 were included in the analysis. 41 (13.7%) were approved for financial compensation. The most frequent complaints were worsening of symptoms following treatment (n = 91, 30.3%), alleged disk herniations (n = 57, 19%) and cases with delayed referral (n = 46, 15.3%). A total financial payment of €2,305,757 (median payment €7,730) were distributed among the forty-one cases with complaints relating to a few cases of cervical artery dissection (n = 11, 5.7%) accounting for 88.7% of the total amount.
The authors concluded that chiropractors in Denmark and Norway received approximately one compensation claim per 100.000 consultations. The approval rate was low across the majority of complaint categories and lower than the approval rates for general practitioners and physiotherapists. Many claims can probably be prevented if chiropractors would prioritize informing patients about the normal course of their complaint and normal benign reactions to treatment.
Despite its somewhat odd conclusion (it is not truly based on the data), this is a unique article; I am not aware that other studies of chiropractic compensation claims exist in an European context. The authors should be applauded for their work. Clearly we need more of the same from other countries and from all professions doing manipulative therapies.
In the discussion section of their article, the authors point out that Norwegian and Danish chiropractors both deliver approximately two million consultations annually. They receive on average 42 claims combined suggesting roughly one claim per 100.000 consultations. By comparison, Danish statistics show that in the period 2007–2012 chiropractors, GPs and physiotherapists (+ occupational therapists) received 1.76, 1.32 and 0.52 claims per 100.000 consultations, respectively with approval rates of 13%, 25% and 21%, respectively. During this period these three groups were reimbursed on average €58,000, €29,000 and €18,000 per approved claim, respectively.
These data are preliminary and their interpretation might be a matter of debate. However, one thing seems clear enough: contrary to what we frequently hear from apologists, chiropractors do receive a considerable amount of compensation claims which means many patients do get harmed.
Dietary supplements (DS) are heavily promoted usually with the claim that they have stood the test of time and that they are natural and hence harmless. Unsurprisingly, their use has become very wide-spread. A new study determined the use of DSs, factors associated with DS use, and reasons for use among U.S. college students.
College students (N = 1248) at 5 U.S. universities were surveyed. Survey questions included descriptive demographics, types and frequency of DS used, reasons for use and money spent on supplements. Supplements were classified using standard criteria. Logistic regression analyses examined relationships between demographic and lifestyle factors and DS use.
Sixty-six percent of college students surveyed used DS at least once a week, and 12% consumed 5 or more supplements a week. Forty-two percent used multivitamins/multiminerals, 18% vitamin C, 17% protein/amino acids and 13% calcium at least once a week. Factors associated with supplement use included dietary patterns, exercise, and tobacco use. Students used supplements to promote general health (73%), provide more energy (29%), increase muscle strength (20%), and enhance performance (19%).
The authors of this survey concluded that college students appear more likely to use DS than the general population and many use multiple types of supplements weekly. Habits established at a young age persist throughout life. Therefore, longitudinal research should be conducted to determine whether patterns of DS use established early in adulthood are maintained throughout life. Adequate scientific justification for widespread use of DS in healthy, young populations is lacking.
Another new study investigated the use of DSs in 334 dancers from 53 countries, who completed a digitally based 35-question survey detailing demographic information and the use of DSs. Supplement use was prevalent amongst this international cohort, with 48% reporting regular DSs use. Major motives for supplement use were to improve health, boost immunity, and reduce fatigue. Forty-five percent believed that dancing increased the need for supplementation, whilst 30% recognized that there were risks associated with DSs.
The most frequently consumed DSs were vitamin C (60%), multivitamins (67%), and caffeine (72%). A smaller group of participants declared the use of whey protein (21%) or creatine (14%). Supplements were mainly obtained from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health-food stores. Dancers recognized their lack of knowledge in DSs use and relied on peer recommendations instead of sound evidence-based advice from acknowledged nutrition or health care professionals.
The authors concluded that this study demonstrates that DSs use is internationally prevalent amongst dancers. Continued efforts are warranted with regard to information dissemination.
Finally, a third study investigated use of DSs in patients in Japan. This survey was completed by 2732 people, including 599 admitted patients, 1154 ambulatory patients, and 979 healthy subjects who attended a seminar about DSs. At the time of the questionnaire, 20.4% of admitted patients, 39.1% of ambulatory patients, and 30.7% of healthy subjects were using DSs, which including vitamin/mineral supplements, herbal extracts, its ingredients, or food for specified health uses.
The primary purpose for use in all groups was health maintenance, whereas 3.7% of healthy subjects, 10.0% of ambulatory patients, and 13.2% of admitted patients used DSs to treat diseases. In addition, 17.7% of admitted patients and 36.8% of ambulatory patients were using DSs concomitantly with their medications. However, among both admitted patients and ambulatory patients, almost 70% did not mention DSs use to their physicians. Overall, 3.3% of all subjects realized adverse effects associated with DSs.
The authors concluded that communication between patients and physicians is important to avoid health problems associated with the use of DSs.
There is little doubt, DSs are popular with all sorts of populations and have grown into a multi billion dollar industry. There is also no doubt that the use of only very few DSs are evidence-based (and if so, in only relatively rare situations). And there can be no doubt that many DSs can do harm. What follows is simple: for the vast majority of DSs the benefits do not demonstrably out-weigh the risks.
If that is true, we have to ask ourselves: Why are they so popular?
The answer, I think, is because of the very phenomenon I am constantly trying to fight on this blog – IRRESPONSIBLE CHARLATANS PULLING WOOL OVER CONSUMERS EYES.
Getting good and experienced lecturers for courses is not easy. Having someone who has done more research than most working in the field and who is internationally known, might therefore be a thrill for students and an image-boosting experience of colleges. In the true Christmas spirit, I am today making the offer of being of assistance to the many struggling educational institutions of alternative medicine .
A few days ago, I tweeted about my willingness to give free lectures to homeopathic colleges (so far without response). Having thought about it a bit, I would now like to extend this offer. I would be happy to give a free lecture to the students of any educational institution of alternative medicine. I suggest to
- do a general lecture on the clinical evidence of the 4 major types of alternative medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy) or
- give a more specific lecture with in-depth analyses of any given alternative therapy.
I imagine that most of the institutions in question might be a bit anxious about such an idea, but there is no need to worry: I guarantee that everything I say will be strictly and transparently evidence-based. I will disclose my sources and am willing to make my presentation available to students so that they can read up the finer details about the evidence later at home. In other words, I will do my very best to only transmit the truth about the subject at hand.
Nobody wants to hire a lecturer without having at least a rough outline of what he will be talking about – fair enough! Here I present a short summary of the lecture as I envisage it:
- I will start by providing a background about myself, my qualifications and my experience in researching and lecturing on the matter at hand.
- This will be followed by a background on the therapies in question, their history, current use etc.
- Next I would elaborate on the main assumptions of the therapies in question and on their biological plausibility.
- This will be followed by a review of the claims made for the therapies in question.
- The main section of my lecture would be to review the clinical evidence regarding the efficacy of therapies in question. In doing this, I will not cherry-pick my evidence but rely, whenever possible, on authoritative systematic reviews, preferably those from the Cochrane Collaboration.
- This, of course, needs to be supplemented by a review of safety issues.
- If wanted, I could also say a few words about the importance of the placebo effect.
- I also suggest to discuss some of the most pertinent ethical issues.
- Finally, I would hope to arrive at a few clear conclusions.
You see, all is entirely up to scratch!
Perhaps you have some doubts about my abilities to lecture? I can assure you, I have done this sort of thing all my life, I have been a professor at three different universities, and I will probably manage a lecture to your students.
A final issue might be the costs involved. As I said, I would charge neither for the preparation (this can take several days depending on the exact topic), nor for the lecture itself. All I would hope for is that you refund my travel (and, if necessary over-night) expenses. And please note: this is time-limited: approaches will be accepted until 1 January 2015 for lectures any time during 2015.
I can assure you, this is a generous offer that you ought to consider seriously – unless, of course, you do not want your students to learn the truth!
(In which case, one would need to wonder why not)
Acupuncture seems to be as popular as never before – many conventional pain clinics now employ acupuncturists, for instance. It is probably true to say that acupuncture is one of the best-known types of all alternative therapies. Yet, experts are still divided in their views about this treatment – some proclaim that acupuncture is the best thing since sliced bread, while others insist that it is no more than a theatrical placebo. Consumers, I imagine, are often left helpless in the middle of these debates. Here are 7 important bits of factual information that might help you make up your mind, in case you are tempted to try acupuncture.
- Acupuncture is ancient; some enthusiast thus claim that it has ‘stood the test of time’, i. e. that its long history proves its efficacy and safety beyond reasonable doubt and certainly more conclusively than any scientific test. Whenever you hear such arguments, remind yourself that the ‘argumentum ad traditionem’ is nothing but a classic fallacy. A long history of usage proves very little – think of how long blood letting was used, even though it killed millions.
- We often think of acupuncture as being one single treatment, but there are many different forms of this therapy. According to believers in acupuncture, acupuncture points can be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Finally, some clinicians employ the traditional Chinese approach based on the assumption that two life forces are out of balance and need to be re-balanced, while so-called ‘Western’ acupuncturists adhere to the concepts of conventional medicine and claim that acupuncture works via scientifically explainable mechanisms that are unrelated to ancient Chinese philosophies.
- Traditional Chinese acupuncturists have not normally studied medicine and base their practice on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between yin and yang which has no basis in science. This explains why acupuncture is seen by traditional acupuncturists as a ‘cure all’ . In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological explanations as to how acupuncture might work. However, it is important to note that, even though they may appear plausible, these explanations are currently just theories and constitute no proof for the validity of acupuncture as a medical intervention.
- The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition affecting mankind; according to the more modern view, it is effective for a relatively small range of conditions only. On closer examination, the vast majority of these claims can be disclosed to be based on either no or very flimsy evidence. Once we examine the data from reliable clinical trials (today several thousand studies of acupuncture are available – see below), we realise that acupuncture is associated with a powerful placebo effect, and that it works better than a placebo only for very few (some say for no) conditions.
- The interpretation of the trial evidence is far from straight forward: most of the clinical trials of acupuncture originate from China, and several investigations have shown that very close to 100% of them are positive. This means that the results of these studies have to be taken with more than a small pinch of salt. In order to control for patient-expectations, clinical trials can be done with sham needles which do not penetrate the skin but collapse like miniature stage-daggers. This method does, however, not control for acupuncturists’ expectations; blinding of the therapists is difficult and therefore truly double (patient and therapist)-blind trials of acupuncture do hardly exist. This means that even the most rigorous studies of acupuncture are usually burdened with residual bias.
- Few acupuncturists warn their patients of possible adverse effects; this may be because the side-effects of acupuncture (they occur in about 10% of all patients) are mostly mild. However, it is important to know that very serious complications of acupuncture are on record as well: acupuncture needles can injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg.
- Given that, for the vast majority of conditions, there is no good evidence that acupuncture works beyond a placebo response, and that acupuncture is associated with finite risks, it seems to follow that, in most situations, the risk/benefit balance for acupuncture fails to be convincingly positive.
While the previous post was about seeing a traditional herbalist (who prescribe their own herbal mixtures, tailor-made for each individual patient), this post provides essential information for those consumers who are tempted to take a commercially available herbal remedy available in pharmacies, health food shops, over the Internet etc. These remedies are usually bought by consumers and then be self-administered, or (less frequently) they might be prescribed/recommended/sold by a clinician such as a doctor, naturopath, chiropractor etc. Typically, they contain just one (or relatively few) herbal extracts and are used under similar assumptions as conventional medicines: one (hopefully well-tested) remedy is employed for treating a defined condition, diagnosed according to validated and generally accepted criteria (for instance, St John’s Wort for depression or Devil’s claw for back pain). This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘rational phytotherapy’ – it is certainly more rational than the traditional herbalism referred to in my previous post. The manufacture, promotion and sale of commercial herbal remedies (in many countries marketed as ‘dietary supplements’) has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Here are a few essentials you ought to know before you decide to take such an herbal remedy:
- Many people claim that herbal medicine is effective because many of our modern drugs are based on plants. The latter part of this claim is true, of course, but this does not necessarily mean that herbal remedies are effective. The drugs derived from plants contain one single, well-defined, extensively researched molecule (by definition, this makes them conventional drugs and not herbal remedies), while herbal remedies are based on entire (parts of) plants; thus they contain many pharmacologically active molecules. This often means that it is difficult or impossible to tell what dose of which ingredient is being administered and what pharmacological actions can be expected.
- Even though national regulations differ greatly, herbal remedies generally do not have to be supported by evidence for efficacy in order to be legally available. This means that a given remedy might or might not have been tested in clinical trials to determine whether it works for the condition advertised. In fact, only very few (less than 30, I estimate) herbal remedies are supported by sound evidence for efficacy; thousands do not meet this criterion.
- The extremely wide-spread notion that herbal remedies are by definition natural and therefore safe is nothing but a promotional myth. Plants contain many chemicals which can have pharmacological activity. This means they might be therapeutic, but it also means that they might be toxic (traditionally the most powerful poisons originated from the plant kingdom). If anyone uses the ‘natural = safe fallacy’ remind him/her of hemlock, poison ivy etc.
- In addition to potential toxicity of an herbal ingredient, there are other important safety issues to be considered. Most importantly, herbal remedies can interact with prescribed medicines. For instance, St John’s Wort (one of the best-studied herbal remedies in this respect) powerfully interacts with about 50% of all prescription drugs – in fact, it lowers their level in the blood which means that a patient on anti-coagulants would lose her anti-coagulant protection and might suffer from a (potentially fatal) blood clot.
- In many countries, including the US, the regulation of herbal remedies is so lax, that there is no guarantee that an herbal remedy which is being legally sold is safe. The regulators are only allowed to intervene once there are reports of adverse effects. This means that the burden of proof of safety is effectively reversed which obviously exposes consumers to incalculable risks.
- The quality of the herbal product is equally poorly regulated in most countries. A plethora of investigations in the US, for instance, has shown that the dose of the herbal ingredient printed on the label of a commercial product can range virtually from 0 – 100%. Similarly there is little safe-guard that the ingredients listed on the label correspond to the ones in the preparation. This means that it is worth purchasing not just well-researched herbal remedies but also those marketed by high quality manufacturers via respectable outlets.
- Any regulation of herbal remedies, even the European one that is often praised as protecting consumers adequately, is null and void once consumers go on the Internet and purchase their herbal remedies from one of the many dubious sources found there in truly alarming profusion. Bogus claims, inferior quality and even outright dangerous products abound, and it is often impossible to tell the acceptable from the fraudulent product.
Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.
- Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
- Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
- Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
- Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
- Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
- Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
- The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.