MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

risk

Chiropractors are fast giving up the vitalistic and obsolete concepts of their founding fathers, we are told over and over again. But are these affirmations true? There are good reasons to be sceptical. Take this recent paper, for instance.

The objective of this survey was to investigate the proportion of Australian chiropractic students who hold non-evidence-based beliefs in the first year of study and to determine the extent to which they may be involved in non-musculoskeletal health conditions.

Students from two Australian chiropractic programs were invited to answer a questionnaire on how often they would give advice on 5 common health conditions in their future practices, as well as to provide their opinion on whether chiropractic spinal adjustments could prevent or help seven health-related conditions.

The response rate of this survey was 53%. Students were highly likely to offer advice on a range of non-musculoskeletal conditions. The proportions were lowest in first year and highest the final year. For instance, 64% of students in year 4/5 believed that spinal adjustments improve the health of infants. Also, high numbers of students held non-evidence-based beliefs about ‘chiropractic spinal adjustments’ which tended to occur in gradually decreasing in numbers in sequential years, except for 5th and final year, when a reversal of the pattern occurred.

The authors concluded that new strategies are required for chiropractic educators if they are to produce graduates who understand and deliver evidence-based health care and able to be part of the mainstream health care system.

This is an interesting survey, but I think its conclusion is wrong!

  • Educators do not require ‘new strategies’, I would argue; they simply need to take their duty of educating students seriously – educating in this context does not mean brain-washing, it means teaching facts and evidence-based practice. And this is were any concept of true education would run into problems: it would teach students that chiropractic is built on sand.
  • Conclusions need to be based on the data presented. Therefore, the most fitting conclusion, in my view, is that chiropractic students are currently being educated such that, once let loose on the unsuspecting and often all too gullible public, they will be a menace and a serious danger to public health.

You might say that this survey is from Australia and that the findings therefore do not necessarily apply to other countries. Correct! However, I very much fear that elsewhere the situation is similar or perhaps even worse. And my fear does not come out of thin air, it is based on things we have discussed before; see for instance these three posts:

Chiropractic education seems to be a form of religious indoctrination

What are the competencies of a ‘certified paediatric doctor of chiropractic’?

Educating chiros

But I would be more than willing to change my mind – provided someone can show me good evidence to the contrary.

An article in yesterday’ Times makes the surprising claim that ‘doctors turn to herbal cures when the drugs don’t work’. As the subject is undoubtedly relevant to this blog and as the Times is a highly respected newspaper, I think this might be important and will therefore comment (in normal print) on the full text of the article (in bold print):

GPs are increasingly dissatisfied with doling out pills that do not work for illnesses with social and emotional roots, and a surprising number of them end up turning to alternative medicine.

What a sentence! I would have thought that GPs have always been ‘dissatisfied’ with treatments that are ineffective. But who says they turn to alternative medicine in ‘surprising numbers’ (our own survey does not confirm the notion)? And what is a ‘surprising number’ anyway (zero would be surprising, in my view)?

Charlotte Mendes da Costa is unusual in being both an NHS GP and a registered homeopath. Her frustration with the conventional approach of matching a medicine to a symptom is growing as doctors increasingly see the limits, and the risks, of such a tactic.

Do we get the impression that THE TIMES does not know that homeopathy is not herbal medicine? Do they know that ‘matching a medicine to a symptom’ is what homeopaths believe they are doing? Real doctors try to find the cause of a symptom and, whenever possible, treat it.

She asks patients with sore throats questions that few other GPs pose: “What side is it? Is it easier to swallow solids or liquids? What time of day is it worst?” Dr Mendes da Costa is trying to find out which homeopathic remedy to prescribe. But when NHS guidance for sore throats aims mainly to convince patients that they will get better on their own, her questions are just as important as her prescription.

This section makes no sense. Sore throats do get better on their own, that’s a fact. And empathy is not a monopoly of homeopaths. But Dr Mendes Da Costa might be somewhat detached from reality; she once promoted the nonsensical notion that “up to the end of 2010, 156 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy had been carried out with 41% reporting positive effects, whereas only 7% have been negative. The remainder were non-conclusive.” (see more on this particular issue here)

“It’s very difficult to disentangle the effect of listening to someone properly, in a non-judgmental way, and taking a real rather than a superficial interest,” she says. “With a sore throat [I was trained] really only to be interested in, ‘Do they need antibiotics or not?’ ”

In this case, she should ask her money back; her medical school seems to have been rubbish in training her adequately.

This week a Lancet series on back pain said that millions of patients were getting treatments that did them no good. A government review is looking into how one in 11 people has come to be on potentially addictive drugs such as tranquillisers, opioid painkillers and antidepressants.

Yes, and how is that an argument for homeopathy? It isn’t! It seems to come from the textbook of fallacies.

And this week a BMJ Open study found that GPs with alternative training prescribed a fifth fewer antibiotics.

That study was akin to showing that butchers sell less vegetables than green-grocers. It provided no argument at all for implying that homeopathy is a valuable therapy.

Doctors seem receptive to alternative approaches: in a poll on its website 70 per cent agreed that doctors should recommend acupuncture to patients in pain. The Faculty of Homeopathy now counts 400 doctors among its 700 healthcare professional members.

Wow! Does the Times journalist know that the ‘Faculty of Homeopathy’ is primarily an organisation for doctor homeopaths? If so, why are these figures anything to write home about? And does the author appreciate that the pole was open not just to doctors but to to anyone (particularly those who were motivated, like acupuncturists)?

This horrifies many academics, who say that there is almost no evidence that complementary therapies work.

It horrifies nobody, I’d say. It puzzles some people, and not just academics. And their claim of a lack of sound evidence is evidence-based.

“It’s a false battle”, says Michael Dixon, a GP who chairs the College of Medicine, which is trying to broaden the focus on treatment to patients’ whole lives. “GPs are practical. If a patient gets better that’s all that matters.”

Here comes the inevitable Dr Dixon (the ‘pyromaniac in a field of straw-men’) with the oldest chestnut in town. But repeating a nonsense endlessly does not render it sensible.

Dr Dixon says there are enormous areas of illness ranging from chronic pain to irritable bowels where few conventional treatments have been shown to be particularly effective, so why not try alternatives with fewer side effects?

Unable to diagnose and treat adequately, let’s all do the next worst thing and apply some outright quackery?!? Logic does not seem to be Dixon’s strong point, does it?

He recommends herbal remedies such as pelargonium — “like a geranium, quite a pretty little flower” — acupressure, and techniques such as self-hypnosis. To those who say these are placebos he replies: so what?

So what indeed! There are over 200 species of pelargonium; only 2 or 3 of them are used in herbal medicine. I don’t suppose Dr Dixon wants to poison us?

“Aromatherapy does work, but only if you believe in it, that’s the way you have to look at it, like a mother kissing knees better.” He continues: “We are healers. That’s what we do as doctors. You can call it theatrical or you can call it a relationship. A lot of patients come in with a metaphor — a headache is actually unhappiness — and the treatment is symbolic.”

It frightens me to know that there are doctors out there who think like this!

What if a patient is seriously ill?

A cancer is a metaphor for what exactly?

As doctors, we have the ethical duty to apply BOTH the science and the art of medicine, BOTH efficacious, evidence-based therapies AND compassion. Can I be so bold as to recommend our book about the ethics of alternative medicine to Dixon?

Such talk makes conventional doctors very nervous. Yet acupuncture illustrates their dilemma. It used to be recommended by the NHS for back pain because patients did improve. Now it is not, after further evidence suggested that patients given placebo “sham acupuncture” did just as well.

No, acupuncture used to be recommended by NICE because there was some evidence; when subsequently more rigorous trials emerged showing that it does NOT work, NICE stopped recommending it. Real medicine develops – it’s only alternative medicine and its proponents that seem to be stuck in the past and resist progress.

Martin Underwood, of the University of Warwick, asks: “So are you going to say, ‘Well, patients get better than they would do otherwise’? Or say it’s all theatrical placebo because it shows no benefit over sham treatment? That’s the question for society.”

Society has long answered it! The answer is called evidence-based medicine. We are not content using quackery for its placebo response; we know that effective treatments do that too, and we want to make progress and improve healthcare of tomorrow.

Although many doctors agree that they need to look at patients more broadly, they insist they do not need to turn to unproven treatments. The magic ingredient, they say, is not an alternative remedy, but time. Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Practices which offer alternative therapies tend to spend longer with patients . . . allowing for more in-depth conversations.”


I am sorry, if this post turned into a bit of a lengthy rant. But it was needed, I think: if there ever was a poorly written, ill focussed, badly researched and badly argued article on alternative medicine, it must be this one.

Did I call the Times a highly respected paper?

I take it back.

The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.

Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP  bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,

The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.

Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:

EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP RISKS COSTS RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE
Advice to stay active +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Education +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Superficial heat +/- Ie Very minor Low to medium Positive (aLBP)
Exercise Limited +/-, routine Very minor Low Positive (pLBP)
CBT Limited +/-, routine None Low to medium Positive (pLBP)
Spinal manipulation +/- +/- vfbmae
sae
High Negative
Massage +/- +/- Very minor High Positive
Acupuncture +/- +/- sae High Questionable
Yoga Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Mindfulness Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Rehab Ie +/- Minor Medium to high Questionable

Routine = consider for routine use

+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment

Ie = insufficient evidence

Limited = limited use in selected patients

vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects

sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record

aLBP = acute low back pain

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.

We all know that there is a plethora of interventions for and specialists in low back pain (chiropractors, osteopaths, massage therapists, physiotherapists etc., etc.); and, depending whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, each of these therapies is as good or as useless as the next. Today, a widely-publicised series of articles in the Lancet confirms that none of the current options is optimal:

Almost everyone will have low back pain at some point in their lives. It can affect anyone at any age, and it is increasing—disability due to back pain has risen by more than 50% since 1990. Low back pain is becoming more prevalent in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) much more rapidly than in high-income countries. The cause is not always clear, apart from in people with, for example, malignant disease, spinal malformations, or spinal injury. Treatment varies widely around the world, from bed rest, mainly in LMICs, to surgery and the use of dangerous drugs such as opioids, usually in high-income countries.

The Lancet publishes three papers on low back pain, by an international group of authors led by Prof Rachelle Buchbinder, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, which address the issues around the disorder and call for worldwide recognition of the disability associated with the disorder and the removal of harmful practices. In the first paper, Jan Hartvigsen, Mark Hancock, and colleagues draw our attention to the complexity of the condition and the contributors to it, such as psychological, social, and biophysical factors, and especially to the problems faced by LMICs. In the second paper, Nadine Foster, Christopher Maher, and their colleagues outline recommendations for treatment and the scarcity of research into prevention of low back pain. The last paper is a call for action by Rachelle Buchbinder and her colleagues. They say that persistence of disability associated with low back pain needs to be recognised and that it cannot be separated from social and economic factors and personal and cultural beliefs about back pain.

Overview of interventions endorsed for non-specific low back pain in evidence-based clinical practice guidelines (Danish, US, and UK guidelines)

In this situation, it makes sense, I think, to opt for a treatment (amongst similarly effective/ineffective therapies) that is at least safe, cheap and readily available. This automatically rules out chiropractic, osteopathy and many others. Exercise, however, does come to mind – but what type of exercise?

The aim of this meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials was to gain insight into the effectiveness of walking intervention on pain, disability, and quality of life in patients with chronic low back pain (LBP) at post intervention and follow ups.

Six electronic databases (PubMed, Science Direct, Web of Science, Scopus, PEDro and The Cochrane library) were searched from 1980 to October 2017. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in patients with chronic LBP were included, if they compared the effects of walking intervention to non-pharmacological interventions. Pain, disability, and quality of life were the primary health outcomes.

Nine RCTs were suitable for meta-analysis. Data was analysed according to the duration of follow-up (short-term, < 3 months; intermediate-term, between 3 and 12 months; long-term, > 12 months). Low- to moderate-quality evidence suggests that walking intervention in patients with chronic LBP was as effective as other non-pharmacological interventions on pain and disability reduction in both short- and intermediate-term follow ups.

The authors concluded that, unless supplementary high-quality studies provide different evidence, walking, which is easy to perform and highly accessible, can be recommended in the management of chronic LBP to reduce pain and disability.

I know – this will hardly please the legions of therapists who earn their daily bread with pretending their therapy is the best for LBP. But healthcare is clearly not about the welfare of the therapists, it is/should be about patients. And patients should surely welcome this evidence. I know, walking is not always easy for people with severe LBP, but it seems effective and it is safe, free and available to everyone.

My advice to patients is therefore to walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.

“In my medical practice, writes Sheila Patel, M.D. on the website of Deepak Chopra, I always take into consideration the underlying dosha of a patient, or what their main imbalance is, when choosing treatments out of the many options available. For example, if I see someone who has the symptoms of hypertension as well as a Kapha imbalance, I may prescribe a diuretic, since excess water is more likely to be a contributing factor.  I would also encourage more exercise or physical activity, since lack of movement is often a causative factor for these individuals.  However, in a Vata-type person with hypertension, a diuretic may actually cause harm, as the Vata system tends to have too much dryness (air and space). I’ve observed that Vatas often have more side effects and electrolyte imbalances due to the diuretic medication.  For these individuals, a beta-blocker may be a better choice, as this “slows” down the excitatory pathways in the body. In addition, I recommend meditation and calming activities to settle the excess energy as an adjunct to (or at times, instead of) the medicine. Alternatively, for someone with hypertension who is predominantly a Pitta type or who has a Pitta imbalance, I may choose a calcium-channel blocker, as this medication may be more beneficial in regulating the process of “energy exchange” in the body, which is represented by the fire element of Pitta. This is just one example of the way in which we can tailor our choice of medication to best suit the individual.

“In contrast with conventional medicine, which until very recently has assumed that a given disorder or disease is the same in all people, Ayurveda places great importance on recognizing the unique qualities of individual human beings. Ayurveda’s understanding of constitutional types or doshas offers us a remarkably accurate way to pinpoint what is happening inside each individual, allowing us to customize treatment and offer specific lifestyle recommendations to prevent disease and promote health and longevity. Keeping the doshas balanced is one of the most important factors in keeping the whole mind-body system in balance.  When our mind-body system is in balance and we are connecting to our inner wisdom and intelligence, then we are most able to realize our full human potential and achieve our optimal state of being…”

END OF QUOTE

From such texts, some might conclude that Ayurvedic medicine is gentle and kind (personally, I am much more inclined to feel that Ayurvedic medicine is full of BS). This may be true or not, but Ayurvedic medicines are certainly anything but gentle and kind. In fact, they can be positively dangerous. I have repeatedly blogged about their risks, in particular the risk of heavy metal poisoning (see here, here, and here, for instance).

My 2002 systematic review summarised the evidence available at the time and concluded that heavy metals, particularly lead, have been a regular constituent of traditional Indian remedies. This has repeatedly caused serious harm to patients taking such remedies. The incidence of heavy metal contamination is not known, but one study shows that 64% of samples collected in India contained significant amounts of lead (64% mercury, 41% arsenic and 9% cadmium). These findings should alert us to the possibility of heavy metal content in traditional Indian remedies and motivate us to consider means of protecting consumers from such risks.

Meanwhile, new data have emerged and a new article with important information has recently been published by authors from the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health , College of Public Health, The University of Iowa and the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa, USA. They present an analysis based on reports of toxic metals content of Ayurvedic products obtained during an investigation of lead poisoning among users of Ayurvedic medicine. Samples of Ayurvedic formulations were analysed for metals and metalloids following established US. Environmental Protection Agency methods. Lead was found in 65% of 252 Ayurvedic medicine samples with mercury and arsenic found in 38 and 32% of samples, respectively. Almost half of samples containing mercury, 36% of samples containing lead, and 39% of samples containing arsenic had concentrations of those metals per pill that exceeded, up to several thousand times, the recommended daily intake values for pharmaceutical impurities.

The authors concluded that lack of regulations regarding manufacturing and content or purity of Ayurvedic and other herbal formulations poses a significant global public health problem.

I could not have said it better myself!

The plethora of dodgy meta-analyses in alternative medicine has been the subject of a recent post – so this one is a mere update of a regular lament.

This new meta-analysis was to evaluate evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of lumbar disc herniation (LDH). (Call me pedantic, but I prefer meta-analyses that evaluate the evidence FOR AND AGAINST a therapy.) Electronic databases were searched to identify RCTs of acupuncture for LDH, and 30 RCTs involving 3503 participants were included; 29 were published in Chinese and one in English, and all trialists were Chinese.

The results showed that acupuncture had a higher total effective rate than lumbar traction, ibuprofen, diclofenac sodium and meloxicam. Acupuncture was also superior to lumbar traction and diclofenac sodium in terms of pain measured with visual analogue scales (VAS). The total effective rate in 5 trials was greater for acupuncture than for mannitol plus dexamethasone and mecobalamin, ibuprofen plus fugui gutong capsule, loxoprofen, mannitol plus dexamethasone and huoxue zhitong decoction, respectively. Two trials showed a superior effect of acupuncture in VAS scores compared with ibuprofen or mannitol plus dexamethasone, respectively.

The authors from the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Jinan University, Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, concluded that acupuncture showed a more favourable effect in the treatment of LDH than lumbar traction, ibuprofen, diclofenac sodium, meloxicam, mannitol plus dexamethasone and mecobalamin, fugui gutong capsule plus ibuprofen, mannitol plus dexamethasone, loxoprofen and huoxue zhitong decoction. However, further rigorously designed, large-scale RCTs are needed to confirm these findings.

Why do I call this meta-analysis ‘dodgy’? I have several reasons, 10 to be exact:

  1. There is no plausible mechanism by which acupuncture might cure LDH.
  2. The types of acupuncture used in these trials was far from uniform and  included manual acupuncture (MA) in 13 studies, electro-acupuncture (EA) in 10 studies, and warm needle acupuncture (WNA) in 7 studies. Arguably, these are different interventions that cannot be lumped together.
  3. The trials were mostly of very poor quality, as depicted in the table above. For instance, 18 studies failed to mention the methods used for randomisation. I have previously shown that some Chinese studies use the terms ‘randomisation’ and ‘RCT’ even in the absence of a control group.
  4. None of the trials made any attempt to control for placebo effects.
  5. None of the trials were conducted against sham acupuncture.
  6. Only 10 studies 10 trials reported dropouts or withdrawals.
  7. Only two trials reported adverse reactions.
  8. None of these shortcomings were critically discussed in the paper.
  9. Despite their affiliation, the authors state that they have no conflicts of interest.
  10. All trials were conducted in China, and, on this blog, we have discussed repeatedly that acupuncture trials from China never report negative results.

And why do I find the journal ‘dodgy’?

Because any journal that publishes such a paper is likely to be sub-standard. In the case of ‘Acupuncture in Medicine’, the official journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, I see such appalling articles published far too frequently to believe that the present paper is just a regrettable, one-off mistake. What makes this issue particularly embarrassing is, of course, the fact that the journal belongs to the BMJ group.

… but we never really thought that science publishing was about anything other than money, did we?

What an odd title, you might think.

Systematic reviews are the most reliable evidence we presently have!

Yes, this is my often-voiced and honestly-held opinion but, like any other type of research, systematic reviews can be badly abused; and when this happens, they can seriously mislead us.

new paper by someone who knows more about these issues than most of us, John Ioannidis from Stanford university, should make us think. It aimed at exploring the growth of published systematic reviews and meta‐analyses and at estimating how often they are redundant, misleading, or serving conflicted interests. Ioannidis demonstrated that publication of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has increased rapidly. In the period January 1, 1986, to December 4, 2015, PubMed tags 266,782 items as “systematic reviews” and 58,611 as “meta‐analyses.” Annual publications between 1991 and 2014 increased 2,728% for systematic reviews and 2,635% for meta‐analyses versus only 153% for all PubMed‐indexed items. Ioannidis believes that probably more systematic reviews of trials than new randomized trials are published annually. Most topics addressed by meta‐analyses of randomized trials have overlapping, redundant meta‐analyses; same‐topic meta‐analyses may exceed 20 sometimes.

Some fields produce massive numbers of meta‐analyses; for example, 185 meta‐analyses of antidepressants for depression were published between 2007 and 2014. These meta‐analyses are often produced either by industry employees or by authors with industry ties and results are aligned with sponsor interests. China has rapidly become the most prolific producer of English‐language, PubMed‐indexed meta‐analyses. The most massive presence of Chinese meta‐analyses is on genetic associations (63% of global production in 2014), where almost all results are misleading since they combine fragmented information from mostly abandoned era of candidate genes. Furthermore, many contracting companies working on evidence synthesis receive industry contracts to produce meta‐analyses, many of which probably remain unpublished. Many other meta‐analyses have serious flaws. Of the remaining, most have weak or insufficient evidence to inform decision making. Few systematic reviews and meta‐analyses are both non‐misleading and useful.

The author concluded that the production of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has reached epidemic proportions. Possibly, the large majority of produced systematic reviews and meta‐analyses are unnecessary, misleading, and/or conflicted.

Ioannidis makes the following ‘Policy Points’:

  • Currently, there is massive production of unnecessary, misleading, and conflicted systematic reviews and meta‐analyses. Instead of promoting evidence‐based medicine and health care, these instruments often serve mostly as easily produced publishable units or marketing tools.
  • Suboptimal systematic reviews and meta‐analyses can be harmful given the major prestige and influence these types of studies have acquired.
  • The publication of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses should be realigned to remove biases and vested interests and to integrate them better with the primary production of evidence.

Obviously, Ioannidis did not have alternative medicine in mind when he researched and published this article. But he easily could have! Virtually everything he stated in his paper does apply to it. In some areas of alternative medicine, things are even worse than Ioannidis describes.

Take TCM, for instance. I have previously looked at some of the many systematic reviews of TCM that currently flood Medline, based on Chinese studies. This is what I concluded at the time:

Why does that sort of thing frustrate me so much? Because it is utterly meaningless and potentially harmful:

  • I don’t know what treatments the authors are talking about.
  • Even if I managed to dig deeper, I cannot get the information because practically all the primary studies are published in obscure journals in Chinese language.
  • Even if I  did read Chinese, I do not feel motivated to assess the primary studies because we know they are all of very poor quality – too flimsy to bother.
  • Even if they were formally of good quality, I would have my doubts about their reliability; remember: 100% of these trials report positive findings!
  • Most crucially, I am frustrated because conclusions of this nature are deeply misleading and potentially harmful. They give the impression that there might be ‘something in it’, and that it (whatever ‘it’ might be) could be well worth trying. This may give false hope to patients and can send the rest of us on a wild goose chase.

So, to ease the task of future authors of such papers, I decided give them a text for a proper EVIDENCE-BASED conclusion which they can adapt to fit every review. This will save them time and, more importantly perhaps, it will save everyone who might be tempted to read such futile articles the effort to study them in detail. Here is my suggestion for a conclusion soundly based on the evidence, not matter what TCM subject the review is about:

OUR SYSTEMATIC REVIEW HAS SHOWN THAT THERAPY ‘X’ AS A TREATMENT OF CONDITION ‘Y’ IS CURRENTLY NOT SUPPORTED BY SOUND EVIDENCE.

On another occasion, I stated that I am getting very tired of conclusions stating ‘…XY MAY BE EFFECTIVE/HELPFUL/USEFUL/WORTH A TRY…’ It is obvious that the therapy in question MAY be effective, otherwise one would surely not conduct a systematic review. If a review fails to produce good evidence, it is the authors’ ethical, moral and scientific obligation to state this clearly. If they don’t, they simply misuse science for promotion and mislead the public. Strictly speaking, this amounts to scientific misconduct.

In yet another post on the subject of systematic reviews, I wrote that if you have rubbish trials, you can produce a rubbish review and publish it in a rubbish journal (perhaps I should have added ‘rubbish researchers).

And finally this post about a systematic review of acupuncture: it is almost needless to mention that the findings (presented in a host of hardly understandable tables) suggest that acupuncture is of proven or possible effectiveness/efficacy for a very wide array of conditions. It also goes without saying that there is no critical discussion, for instance, of the fact that most of the included evidence originated from China, and that it has been shown over and over again that Chinese acupuncture research never seems to produce negative results.

The main point surely is that the problem of shoddy systematic reviews applies to a depressingly large degree to all areas of alternative medicine, and this is misleading us all.

So, what can be done about it?

My preferred (but sadly unrealistic) solution would be this:

STOP ENTHUSIASTIC AMATEURS FROM PRETENDING TO BE RESEARCHERS!

Research is not fundamentally different from other professional activities; to do it well, one needs adequate training; and doing it badly can cause untold damage.

Newsweek recently reported that a herbalist has been charged with the death of a 13-year-old diabetic boy. Allegedly, the therapist replaced the boy’s insulin with herbal remedies. Tim Morrow, 83, was charged with

  1. child abuse causing death
  2. and with practicing medicine without a license.

Morrow stated that god had guided him to use herbs rather than conventional medicine and that he successfully treated treat his own prostate cancer in this way. Marrow can be seen on multiple YouTube videos from his ‘University of Common Sense’ promoting his bizarre ideas of health and disease.

Perhaps god also guided Marrow to make lots of money? He runs regular seminars and a thriving herbal on-line business, the ‘Common Sense Herbal Products‘. There are few ailments, for which ‘Common Sense Herbal Products’ do not seem to offer a herbal cure.

One of the remedies, ‘Pancreas Reg‘, for instance, claims to “act as natural insulin”. The 270 Tablets tub of this product costs US $74.22. It is easy to see, I find, how bold claims attract gullible customers depriving them not just of their money but also of their health.

Morrow started treating the boy suffering from Type 1 diabetes after he met his mother at one of his seminars. When the boy subsequently became semi-comatose, Morrow told his parents to treat their son with his herbal remedies rather than insulin which had been prescribed by qualified medical doctors. The boy, Edgar L., died only hours later. There is little doubt that he would have survived, if he had undergone conventional treatment, the medical examiner concluded.

“The allegations in this case underscore the serious health and safety risks of taking medical advice from someone who lacks a license and the proper training that goes with it,” the medical examiner said in a statement. “No family should have to suffer the tragedy of losing a child because of irresponsible, un-credentialed medical advice.”

On this blog, during lectures etc., I often stress that by far the biggest danger of seemingly harmless alternative therapies is that they are used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions. Diabetes is such a condition, and there are numerous instances where the advice of incompetent practitioners has endangered the lives of diabetics.

Three examples will have to suffice as examples of the plethora of such unethical neglect:

  • In homeopathy, diabetes is seen as a reflection of the body’s inability to function optimally. There is an imbalance that results in the body’s incapacity to effectively utilize the insulin that it produces, or to produce sufficient insulin for its needs. While symptoms often disappear after conventional treatment, the vital force does not. Homoeopathy can be used effectively in the treatment of diabetes. Here we mainly concentrate on functioning of the pancreas in efficient insulin production. The metabolic condition of a patient suffering from diabetes requires both therapeutic and nutritional measures to correct the illness. Homeopathy can regulate sugar metabolism while helping to resolve the metabolic disturbances that lead to diabetes. Furthermore, homeopathy helps stimulate the body’s self-healing powers in order to prevent complications such as open leg sores and other dysfunctions of the blood vessel, loss of vision, kidney failure. Homeopathic treatment does not target one illness, an organ, a body part or a symptom. Remedies are prescribed based on an assembly of presenting symptoms, their stresses in life.”
  • Management of Blood sugar. The commonly used remedies are Uranium Nitricum, Phosphoric Acid, Syzygium Jambolanum, Cephalandra Indica etc. These are classical Homeopathic remedies. These are used in physiologically active doses such as Mother tincture, 3x etc. depending up on the level of the blood sugar and the requirement of the patient. Several pharmaceutical companies have also brought in propriety medicines with a combination of the few Homeopathic medicines. Biochemic remedies which is a part of Homeopathy advocates Biocombination No 7 as a specific for Diabetes. Another Biochemic medicine Natrum Phos 3x is widely used with a reasonable success in controlling the blood sugar. Scientific studies on the impact of homeopathic medicines in bringing down blood sugar are limited, but many of the above remedies have some positive effects either as a stand-alone remedy or as an adjunct along with other medications.”
  • Modern medicine has no  permanent cure for diabetes but alternative medicines like yoga ,mudra,ayurveda is very useful to control and even cure diabetes.Ayurveda is an alternative medicine to cure diabetes.”

But these are very rare instances!!!

That’s what apologists usually respond.

Yet, the truth is that NOBODY knows how often such harm occurs.

Why?

There is no monitoring system anywhere that would provide such information.

The ‘European Scientific Cooperative on Anthroposophic Medicinal Products‘ claim that there is a need for a regulatory framework for anthroposophic medicinal products (AMPs) in Europe. The existing regulatory requirements for conventional medicinal products are not appropriate for AMPs. Special registration procedures exist in some countries for homeopathic products and in the European Union for herbal products. However, these procedures only apply to a proportion of AMPs and the particular properties of AMPs are only in part accounted for. Suitable registration procedures especially for AMPs exist only in Germany and Switzerland.

The European Commission has acknowledged the existence of therapy systems, whose products have no adequate regulation, and it has proposed that the suitability of a separate legal framework for products of certain traditions such as Anthroposophic Medicine should be assessed. This statement should be seen in the context of developments in international trade, whereby representatives of therapy systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda wish to market their products in Europe.

It seems obvious that the safety of AMPs must be demonstrated, if regulators are to comply with the wishes of the AMP-industry. In other words, they require evidence. As luck has it, a recent paper provides just what they need.

The main objective of this analysis was to determine the frequency of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) to AMPs, relative to the number of AMP prescriptions.

The researchers conducted a prospective pharmacovigilance study with the patients of physicians in outpatient care in Germany. Diagnoses and prescriptions were extracted from the electronic medical records. A total of 38 German physicians trained in AM were asked to link all AMP prescriptions to the respective indications (diagnoses), and to document all serious ADRs as well as all ADRs of intensity III–IV. In addition, a subgroup of 7 ‘prescriber physicians’ agreed to also document all non-serious ADRs of any intensity. The study was conducted under routine care conditions with ADRs identified at ordinary follow-up consultations, without any additional scheduled follow-up visits. Physicians were remunerated with 15 Euro for each ADR report but not for their regular participation; patients received no remuneration. Patients were eligible for this analysis, if they had one or more AMP prescription in the years 2001–2010, followed by one or more physician visit.

A total of 44,662 patients with 311,731 AMP prescriptions, comprising 1722 different AMPs, were included. One hundred ADRs to AMPs occurred, caused by 83 different AMPs. ADR intensity was mild, moderate, and severe in 50% (n = 50/100), 43%, and 7% of cases, respectively; one ADR was serious. ADRs of any intensity occurred in 0.071% (n = 67/94,734) of AMP prescriptions and in 0.502% (n = 65/12,956) of patients prescribed AMPs. The highest ADR frequency was 0.290% of prescriptions for one specific AMP. Among all patients, serious ADRs occurred in 0.0003% (n = 1/311,731) of prescriptions and 0.0022% (n = 1/44,662) of patients.

The authors concluded that in this analysis from a large sample, ADRs to AMP therapy in outpatient care were rare; ADRs of high intensity as well as serious ADRs were very rare.

Most AMPs are highly diluted, and therefore, one would not expect frequent or serious ADRs. Yet, I still find these incidence figures mysterious. The reason is simple: even the ARDs of pure placebos (such as most AMPs) are known to be much more frequent. In other words, the nocebo-effects of drugs are much more common than these results seem to reflect.

This, I think, leads to one of two possible conclusions:

  1. AMPs are somehow miraculously exempt from the known facts of ADRs.
  2. There is something fundamentally wrong with this study.

I let you decide which is the case.

Oh, I almost forgot. At the end of this paper there is a not unimportant note:

The EvaMed study was funded by the Software AG-Stiftung. This analysis and publication was commissioned by the European Scientific Cooperative on Anthroposophic Medicinal Products (http://www.escamp.org) with financial support from foundations (Christophorus-Stiftung, Damus-Donata-Stiftung, Ekhagastiftelsen, Mahle-Stiftung, Software AG-Stiftung) and manufacturers (Wala, Weleda). The sponsors had no influence on the planning or conduct of the EvaMed study; the collection, preparation, analysis or interpretation of data for this paper; nor on the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript.

Rapidly rising in popularity, kratom is hailed by some as a readily available pain remedy that is safer than traditional opioids, an effective addiction withdrawal aid and a pleasurable recreational tonic. But kratom also is assailed as a dangerous and unregulated drug that can be purchased on the Internet, a habit-forming substance that authorities say can result in opioid-like abuse and death.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced that the herbal supplement kratom possesses the properties of an opioid, thus escalating the government’s effort to slow usage of this alternative pain reliever. The FDA states that the number of deaths associated with kratom use has increased to a total of 44, up from a total of 36 since the FDA’s November 2017 report. In the majority of deaths that FDA attributes to kratom, subjects ingested multiple substances with known risks, including alcohol. The presence of multiple drugs makes it difficult to determine the role any one of them played.

So, what is kratom, and why might it be dangerous?

A recent review explains that the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa (commonly known as kratom), a tree endogenous to parts of Southeast Asia, have been used traditionally for their stimulant, mood-elevating, and analgesic effects. The plant’s active constituents, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, have been shown to modulate opioid receptors, acting as partial agonists at mu-opioid receptors and competitive antagonists at kappa- and delta-opioid receptors. Both alkaloids are G protein-biased agonists of the mu-opioid receptor and therefore, may induce less respiratory depression than classical opioid agonists. The Mitragyna alkaloids also appear to exert diverse activities at other brain receptors (including adrenergic, serotonergic, and dopaminergic receptors), which may explain the complex pharmacological profile of raw kratom extracts. Kratom exposure alone has not been causally associated with human fatalities to date. However, further research is needed to clarify the complex mechanism of action of the Mitragyna alkaloids and unlock their full therapeutic potential.

Another review adds that, by the early 2000s, kratom was increasingly used in the US as a natural remedy to improve mood and quality of life and as substitutes for prescription and illicit opioids for managing pain and opioid withdrawal by people seeking abstinence from opioids. There has been no documented threat to public health that would appear to warrant emergency scheduling of the products and placement in Schedule I of the CSA carries risks of creating serious public health problems. Banning kratom, risks creating public health problems that do not presently exist.

A third review explains that there are no published human pharmacologic, pharmacokinetic, or drug interaction studies on kratom or mitragynine, making it virtually impossible to fully understand kratom‘s therapeutic potential and risks and the populations most likely to benefit or experience harm from its use. Kratom has been used to ameliorate opioid withdrawal symptoms but also induces withdrawal. Human pharmacologic, pharmacokinetic and clinical data are of low quality precluding any firm conclusions regarding safety and efficacy. Kratom does cause a host of adverse effects without clear guidance for how they should be treated. There are numerous assessments where people have been unable to stop using kratom therapy and withdrawal signs and symptoms are problematic. Kratom does not appear in normal drug screens and, when taken with other substances of abuse, may not be recognized.

A systematic review evaluated all studies on kratom use and mental health published between January 1960 and July 2017. Its findings indicate kratom‘s potential as a harm reduction tool, most notably as a substitute for opioids among people who are addicted. Kratom also enhances mood and relieves anxiety among many users. For many, kratom‘s negative mental health effects – primarily withdrawal symptoms – appear to be mild relative to those of opioids. For some users, however, withdrawal is highly uncomfortable and maintaining abstinence becomes difficult.

In Europe, as of 2011, kratom has become a controlled drug in Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Sweden. In the UK, since 2016, the sale, import, and export of kratom are prohibited.

On balance, my conclusion is that we urgently need more data and meanwhile should avoid this ‘herbal drug’.

 

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