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:
- The candles work on a chimney principle, drawing any impurities to the surface where they can be gently removed. They equalise the pressure in the head and ears, making them suitable for most conditions.
- These candles are cleansing, soothing and relaxing which helps with chills / colds, feeling of pressure in the ear, tinnitus and everyday noise / sensory overload.
- As it burns, the cone’s ingredients turn to vapour and the airflow creates a vibrational effect. Warmth, vibration and vapour massage the ear canal breaking down any blockages. Wax, toxins and impurities are then drawn out by suction from the heat and vacuum effect of the burning cone. Ear Candling also stimulates the ear’s circulatory system and upper lymph system aiding the body’s natural healing responses.
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.
- A 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.
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.
We all know, I think, that chronic low back pain (CLBP) is common and causes significant suffering in individuals as well as cost to society. Many treatments are on offer but, as we have seen repeatedly on this blog, not one is convincingly effective and some, like chiropractic, is associated with considerable risks.
Enthusiasts claim that hypnotherapy works well, but too little is known about the minimum dose needed to produce meaningful benefits, the roles of home practice and hypnotizability on outcome, or the maintenance of treatment benefits beyond 3 months. A new trial was aimed at addressing these issues.
One hundred veterans with CLBP participated in a randomized, four parallel group study. The groups were (1) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention without audio recordings for home practice; (2) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings; (3) a two-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings and brief weekly reminder telephone calls; and (4) an eight-session active (biofeedback) control intervention.
Participants in all four groups reported significant pre- to post-treatment improvements in pain intensity, pain interference and sleep quality. The three hypnotherapy groups combined reported significantly more pain intensity reduction than the control group. There was no significant difference among the three hypnotherapy groups. Over half of the participants who received hypnotherapy reported clinically meaningful (≥30%) reductions in pain intensity, and they maintained these benefits for at least 6 months after treatment. Neither hypnotizability nor amount of home practice was associated significantly with treatment outcome.
The authors conclude that two sessions of self-hypnosis training with audio recordings for home practice may be as effective as eight sessions of hypnosis treatment. If replicated in other patient samples, the findings have important implications for the application of hypnosis treatment for chronic pain management.
Even though this trial has several important limitations, I do agree with the authors: these results would be worth an independent replication – not least because self-hypnosis is cheap and does not carry great risks. What would be interesting, in my view, are studies that compare several alternative LBP therapies (e.g. chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, various form of exercise and hypnotherapy) in terms of cost, risks, long-term effectiveness and patients’ preference. I somehow feel that the results of such comparative trials might overturn the often issued recommendations for spinal manipulation, i.e. chiropractic or osteopathy.
Guest post by Michelle Dunbar
According to the CDC, more than 30,000 people died as a result of a drug overdose in 2010. Of those deaths none were attributed to marijuana. Instead the vast majority were linked to drugs that are legally prescribed such as opiates, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, tranquilizers and benzodiazepines. As misuse and abuse of prescription medications continues to rise, the marijuana legalization debate is also heating up.
Nearly 100 years of propaganda, fear mongering and blatant misinformation regarding marijuana has taken its toll on our society. As the veil of lies surrounding marijuana is being lifted, more and more people are pushing for legalization. Marijuana is now legal for both medicinal and recreational use in two states and other states are introducing legislation of their own. Marijuana is approved for medicinal use with a prescription in 21 states and also Washington, D.C. with most other states expected to introduce legislation to approve use for medicinal purposes in the next few years.
Last year Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the medical correspondent for CNN, aired a controversial documentary, “Weed”, where he showed various promising medicinal uses for marijuana. He admits that he was wrong for many years about marijuana legalization, and after doing his own extensive research he is encouraged by the many real life cases he has seen where people with chronic, serious medical issues have been and continue to be helped by marijuana. He noted that marijuana does not have the dangerous side effects that many prescription medications do and that it is actually safer than many drugs being prescribed today. Dr. Gupta said in the program that there is not one documented case where death was due to marijuana overdose and he is right.
But as with any systematic paradigm shift, there will always be those whose minds are closed to change. So as the march toward legalization continues, there is new anti-legalization propaganda being written and spread through mainstream and social media. There have been multiple reports out of Colorado that there are now deaths attributed to marijuana overdose. Some say children were involved which automatically evokes feelings of fear in parents across the country. But when I tried to find more reliable sources to verify these articles, none existed. The AP reported on April 2 that a Wyoming college student jumped to his death in Colorado after eating a marijuana cookie while on Spring Break in Colorado. The autopsy listed marijuana intoxication as a “significant contributing factor” in the teen’s death. (Gurman)
Like alcohol, Colorado bans the sale of marijuana and marijuana edibles to people under the age of 21. But much like alcohol, teens that want to get it will always find a way. This young man was just 19, and his death has been ruled accidental. While it is true his death is tragic, is it a reason to reverse the course with marijuana? If you believe this is the case then you must consider the real dangers posed by alcohol. Many people who would like to see marijuana legalized say that it is much safer than the legal drug alcohol. Based solely on the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, especially with young people, they would be right.
According to an article posted on Forbes.com in March of this year, “1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each school year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.” The author, Dr. Robert Glatter, MD attributes these deaths to one of the leading health risks facing our young people, and that is binge drinking. This number is quite small in comparison to emergency room visits and hospitalizations of young people that are a direct result of alcohol use.
Taking the most heat are the marijuana edibles that are now for sale in states where marijuana has become legal. The concern is that children are eating marijuana laced candy and baked goods and becoming ill. This would seem to be confirmed by an article in USA Today that reported that calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison Control is Colorado regarding marijuana ingestion in children had risen to 70 cases last year. While they admitted that this number was low, it was the rapid rise from years previous that caused concern. To put this in perspective, there are approximately 1.4 million pediatric poisonings each year involving prescription medications not including marijuana. (Henry, et.al) That is an average of approximately 28,000 calls per state. Tragically several hundreds of these cases result in deaths of these children, with the highest rates of death involving narcotics, sedatives and anti-depressants. (Henry, et.al.)
Of those 70 cases reported in Colorado involving marijuana, none resulted in death. The results are quite clear marijuana is as safe as prescription drugs are dangerous. For those who want to weigh in on the marijuana legalization debate, it is important to do your research, look at the big picture and put everything in perspective. Alcohol is legal and heavily regulated, yet its use is linked to thousands of deaths each year. Prescription drugs are legal and heavily regulated, yet they too are linked to thousands of deaths each year. Marijuana, on the other hand, is not legal and not available in much of the country, and thus far has not caused one death from overdose ever.
Additionally, research is showing marijuana has promise in treating many diseases more effectively and safely than dangerous prescription medications being used today. From cancer to epilepsy to depression and anxiety, to chronic autoimmune diseases, scientists are just scratching the surface when it comes to the potential life-changing and perhaps even, life-saving uses for marijuana.
Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet. (2014, February 10). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/overdose/facts.html
Glatter, R. (2014, March 11). Spring Break’s Greatest Danger. Forbes. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2014/03/11/spring-breaks-greatest-danger/
Gurman, S. (2014, April 2). Young man leaps to death after eating pot-laced cookie. USA Today. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/02/marijuana-pot-edible-death-colorado-denver/7220685/
Henry, K., & Harris, C. R. (2006). Deadly Ingestions. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 53(2), 293-315.
Hughes, T. (2014, April 2). Colo. Kids getting into parents’ pot-laced goodies. USA Today. Retrieved May 5, 2014 from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/02/marijuana-pot-edibles-colorado/7154651/
The safety of the manual treatments such as spinal manipulation is a frequent subject on this blog. Few experts would disagree with the argument that more good data are needed – and what could be better data than that coming from a randomised clinical trial (RCT)?
The aim of this RCT was to investigate differences in occurrence of adverse events between three different combinations of manual treatment techniques used by manual therapists (i.e. chiropractors, naprapaths, osteopaths, physicians and physiotherapists) for patients seeking care for back and/or neck pain.
Participants were recruited among patients seeking care at the educational clinic of the Scandinavian College of Naprapathic Manual Medicine in Stockholm. 767 patients were randomized to one of three treatment arms:
- manual therapy (i.e. spinal manipulation, spinal mobilization, stretching and massage) (n = 249),
- manual therapy excluding spinal manipulation (n = 258)
- manual therapy excluding stretching (n = 260).
Treatments were provided by students in the seventh semester (of total 8). Adverse events were monitored via a questionnaire after each return visit and categorized in to five levels:
- short minor,
- long minor,
- short moderate,
- long moderate,
This was based on the duration and/or severity of the event.
The most common adverse events were soreness in muscles, increased pain and stiffness. No differences were found between the treatment arms concerning the occurrence of these adverse event. Fifty-one percent of patients, who received at least three treatments, experienced at least one adverse event after one or more visits. Women more often had short moderate adverse events, and long moderate adverse events than men.
The authors conclude that adverse events after manual therapy are common and transient. Excluding spinal manipulation or stretching do not affect the occurrence of adverse events. The most common adverse event is soreness in the muscles. Women reports more adverse events than men.
What on earth is naprapathy? I hear you ask. Here is a full explanation from a naprapathy website:
Naprapathy is a form of bodywork that is focused on the manual manipulation of the spine and connective tissue. Based on the fundamental principles of osteopathy and chiropractic techniques, naprapathy is a holistic and integrative approach to restoring whole health. In fact, naprapathy often incorporates multiple, complimentary therapies, such as massage, nutritional counseling, electrical muscle stimulation and low-level laser therapy.
Naprapathy also targets vertebral subluxations, or physical abnormalities present that suggest a misalignment or injury of the spinal vertebrae. This analysis is made by a physical inspection of the musculoskeletal system, as well as visual observation. The practitioner will also conduct a lengthy interview with the client to help determine stress level and nutritional status as well. An imbalance along one or more of these lines may signal trouble within the musculoskeletal structure.
The naprapathy practitioner is particularly skilled in identifying restricted or stressed components of the fascial system, or connective tissue. It is believed that where constriction of muscles, ligaments, and tendons exists, there is impaired blood flow and nerve functioning. Naprapathy attempts to correct these blockages through hands-on manipulation and stretching of connective tissue. However, since this discipline embodies a holistic approach, the naprapathy practitioner is also concerned with their client’s emotional health. To that end, many practitioners are also trained in psychotherapy and even hypnotherapy.
So, now we know!
We also know that the manual therapies tested here cause adverse effects in about half of all patients. This figure ties in nicely with the ones we had regarding chiropractic: ~ 50% of all patients suffer mild to moderate adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulation which usually last 2-3 days and can be strong enough to affect their quality of life. In addition very serious complications have been noted which luckily seem to be much rarer events.
In my view, this raises the question: DO THESE TREATMENTS GENERATE MORE GOOD THAN HARM? I fail to see any good evidence to suggest that they do – but, of course, I would be more than happy to revise this verdict, provided someone shows me the evidence.
Chiropractors are notorious for their overuse and misuse of x-rays for non-specific back and neck pain as well as other conditions. A recent study from the US has shown that the rate of spine radiographs within 5 days of an initial patient visit to a chiropractor is 204 per 1000 new patient examinations. Considering that X-rays are not usually necessary for patients with non-specific back pain, such rates are far too high. Therefore, a team of US/Canadian researchers conducted a study to evaluate the impact of web-based dissemination of a diagnostic imaging guideline discouraging the use of spine x-rays among chiropractors.
They disseminated an imaging guideline online in April 2008. Administrative claims data were extracted between January 2006 and December 2010. Segmented regression analysis with autoregressive error was used to estimate the impact of guideline recommendations on the rate of spine x-rays. Sensitivity analysis considered the effect of two additional quality improvement strategies, a policy change and an education intervention.
The results show a significant change in the level of spine x-ray ordering weeks after introduction of the guidelines (-0.01; 95% confidence interval=-0.01, -0.002; p=.01), but no change in trend of the regression lines. The monthly mean rate of spine x-rays within 5 days of initial visit per new patient exams decreased by 10 per 1000, a 5.26% relative decrease after guideline dissemination.
The authors concluded that Web-based guideline dissemination was associated with an immediate reduction in spine x-ray claims. Sensitivity analysis suggests our results are robust. This passive strategy is likely cost-effective in a chiropractic network setting.
These findings are encouraging because they suggest that at least some chiropractors are capable of learning, even if this means altering their practice against their financial interests – after all, there is money to be earned with x-ray investigations! At the same time, the results indicate that, despite sound evidence, chiropractors still order far too many x-rays for non-specific back pain. I am not aware of any recent UK data on chiropractic x-ray usage, but judging from old evidence, it might be very high.
It would be interesting to know why chiropractors order spinal x-rays for patients with non-specific back pain or other conditions. A likely answer is that they need them for the diagnosis of spinal ‘subluxations’. To cite just one of thousands of chiropractors with the same opinion: spinography is a necessary part of the chiropractic examination. Detailed analysis of spinographic film and motion x-ray studies helps facilitate a specific and timely correction of vertebral subluxation by the Doctor of Chiropractic. The correction of a vertebral subluxation is called: Adjustment.
This, of course, merely highlights the futility of this practice: despite the fact that the concept is still deeply engrained in the teaching of chiropractic, ‘subluxation’ is a mystical entity or dogma which “is similar to the Santa Claus construct”, characterised by a “significant lack of evidence to fulfil the basic criteria of causation”. But even if chiropractic ‘subluxation’ were real, it would not be diagnosable with spinal x-ray investigations.
The inescapable conclusion from all this, I believe, is that the sooner chiropractors abandon their over-use of x-ray studies, the better for us all.
Even relatively well-informed people tend to think that homeopathy might be quirky and useless but, so what, it cannot do any harm. This is perhaps true for the homeopathic remedies but it does certainly not apply to the homeopaths. As soon as there is a public health problem, homeopaths claim that their approach offers a solution – never mind the evidence to the contrary. Just look at what they presently try to sell us in terms of cold and flu treatments!
The often criminal fight of homeopaths against public health is nowhere clearer than with their never-ending propaganda against the most successful public health measure in the history of medicine, immunisation. Some professional organisations of homeopathy have issued politically correct statements about this and thus feel they are out of the firing line. But, as far as I can see, most homeopaths are against vaccinations. Their arguments are wilfully misguided; here are just a few examples:
- It is well known that measles is an important development milestone in the life and maturing processes in children. Why would anybody want to stop or delay the maturation processes of children and of their immune systems?
- Homoeopathy offers an option for disease prevention and cure. There is scientific evidence in favour of homoeopathy for prevention of diseases.
- Seek out homeopathic, osteopathic, naturopathic, or Chinese medical constitutional treatment to boost your child’s immune system and help them be as healthy as they can be.
- If your children do get sick, use homeopathy to help their immune system get over it. Homeopathy is very effective in epidemics of acute illness. Either see a homeopath, buy a book on homeopathic acute care, or take a class on acute homeopathic prescribing.
- It is possible to prevent post-vaccination damage by giving the homeopathic dilution of the vaccine shortly before and after the vaccination in the C200 dilution.
- there are many recorded cases of people making dramatic recoveries with homeopathic medicines following a bad reaction to a vaccination. Expert advice from a registered homeopath is usually required.
- As you would keep your children away from toxic chemicals in the environment as much as possible, inform yourself about the toxicity of the solutions that are being injected into their bloodstream. It’s up to you to find the information: no one loves your children the way you do.
If you think I cherry-picked these quotes, you are mistaken. I simply used the citations as they appeared on my computer screen after a simple Google search. You might try this yourself because there are hundreds, if not thousands more to be discovered.
A typical and interesting example of a homeopathic anti-vaccinationist is Oksana Frolov, D.Hom. graduate of Saint Petersburg, Russia, I.P.Pavlov State Medical University, General Medicine, and graduate of Los Angeles School of Homeopathy. She states that, although I do hold a medical degree, I am not a licensed medical health provider in the United States. As a homeopathic practitioner, I will provide you with the treatment which is alternative or complementary to healing arts that are licensed by the State of California. On her blog, she provides detailed advice for people who might be uncertain whether to vaccinate their children: immunisation… can cause some very serious side effects including permanent brain damage, epilepsy, autism, and mental retardation. With so many vaccinations being required, doctors often have to administer several shots at a time, which can often result in a disaster. Vaccines, along with the elements that are supposed to create the antibodies, also contain mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde, animal tissue, animal blood, human cell from aborted babies, potatoes, yeast, lactose, phenol, antibiotics and unrelated species of germs that inadvertently get into the vaccines. Do you really want all this to be injected into your child just to prevent him or her from having a chicken pox? Vaccines are said to work by stimulating the body to produce antibodies, which are supposed to protect us from an invasion of harmful germs. Childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, affect the immune system in a way that makes most people immune to them for the rest of their lives. Vaccinations, on the other hand, create an artificial immunity that wears off and allows the person to catch the disease later in life….
Homeopathy has proved to be very effective in treatment of childhood diseases, as well as other infections. From its earliest days, homeopathy has been able to treat epidemic disease, such as cholera, typhus, yellow fever, and diphtheria, with a substantial rate of success, when compared to conventional treatments.
Doctors who practice homeopathy usually claim that only non-medically qualified homeopaths hold such deranged views. Dr Frolov shows us that this assumption is clearly not true. In my experience, most homeopaths, medical or not, advise their patients against immunizations or are at least very cagey about this subject in order to raise doubts in concerned parents. Professional organisations of homeopaths usually hide behind some powerless statement in favour of informed choice; yet they must be well-aware that many of their members fail to abide by it. And what do they do about it? Nothing!
Yes, I am afraid the fight of many homeopaths against public health is active, incessant and often criminal. Of course, they do not for one second believe that they are doing anything wrong; on the contrary, they are convinced of their good intentions. As Bert Brecht once wrote, THE OPPOSITE OF GOOD IS NOT EVIL, BUT GOOD INTENTIONS.
Having disclosed in my previous post that, on 1 October, I have been in full-time alternative medicine research for exactly 20 years, I thought it might be interesting to briefly reflect on these two decades. One thing I ought to make clear from the beginning: I truly enjoy my work (well, ~90% of it anyway). When I came to Exeter, I never expected it to get so fascinating, and I am surprised to see how it gripped me.
A PERIOD OF TWO HALVES
One could divide these two decades in two periods of roughly equal length. The first half was characterised by defining my aims, assembling a team, getting the infrastructure sorted and doing plenty of research. I had made it very clear from the beginning that I was not going to promote alternative medicine; my aim was to critically evaluate it. Once I realised how controversial and high profile some of our work could become, I made a conscious effort to keep out of any disputes and tried to avoid the limelight. I wanted to first do my ‘homework’, analyse the evidence, produce own results and be quite sure of my own position before I entered into any public controversies. During this time, we therefore almost exclusively published in medical journals, lectured to medical audiences and generally kept as low a public profile as possible.
The second half was characterised by much more research and my increasing willingness to stick my head out and stand up publicly for the findings I had reasons to be confident about. The evidence had reached a point where it was simply no longer possible nor ethical to keep silent. I felt we had a moral duty to speak up and present the evidence clearly; and that often meant going public: after all, alternative medicine is an area where the public often make the therapeutic decisions without consulting a health care professional – so they need accurate and reliable information. Therefore, I began publishing in the daily papers, lecturing to lay audiences more regularly and addressing the public in many other ways.
THE PLEASURE OF SUPPORTING YOUNG SCIENTISTS
One of the most gratifying aspects of directing a research team is to meet and befriend scientists from all over the world. When several independent analyses had shown that our team had grown into the most productive research unit in alternative medicine worldwide, we started receiving numerous requests from young scientists across the globe to join us. Many of those individuals later went back to their home countries to occupy key positions in research. Our concept of critical evaluation thus spread around the world – at least this is what I hope when I feel optimistic about our achievements.
Amongst the ~90 staff who have worked with me during the last 20 years, we had many enthusiastic and gifted scientists. I owe thanks to all of those who advanced our research and helped us to make progress through critical evaluation. Unfortunately, we also had a few co-workers who, despite of our best efforts, proved to be unable of critical thinking, and more than once this created unrest, tension and trouble. When I analyse these cases in retrospect, I realise how quasi-religious belief must inevitably get in the way of good science. If a person is deeply convinced about the value of his/her particular alternative therapy and thus decides to become a researcher in order to prove his/her point, serious problems are unavoidable.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGES
But generally speaking, my team worked both very well and extremely hard. Perhaps the best evidence for that statement is the fact that we published more than 1000 articles in the peer review literature, including ~30 clinical trials and 300 systematic reviews/meta-analyses. If I had to extract what I consider to be the three the most important messages from these papers, I might make the following points:
- The concepts that underpin alternative treatments are often not plausible and must be assessed critically.
- Most claims made for alternative medicine are unproven and quite a few should be regarded as disproven.
- Very few alternative therapies demonstrably generate more good than harm.
Looking back to those 20 years, I am struck by the frequency with which I encountered intellectual dishonesty and denial of facts and evidence. Medical research, I had previously assumed is a rather dry and unemotional business – not so when it comes to research into alternative medicine! Here it is dominated by people who carry so much emotional baggage that rational analysis becomes the exception rather than the rule.
The disappointment of alternative medicine apologists had been noticeable virtually from the start; they had quickly realised that I was not in the business of promoting quackery. My remit was to test hypotheses, and when you do that, you have to try to falsify them. To those who fail to understand the rules of science – and that is the vast majority of alternative medicine fans – this process can appear like a negative, perhaps even destructive activity. Consequently, some people began to suspect that I was working against their interests. In fact, as a researcher, I had little patience with such people’s petty interests; all I wanted is to do good science, hopefully for the benefit of the patient.
These sentiments grew dramatically during the second decade when I began to go public with the evidence which often failed to confirm the expectations of alternative medicine enthusiasts. To see the truth published in relatively obscure medical journals might have already been tough for them; to see it in the daily papers or hear it on the radio from someone whom they could not easily accuse of incompetence was obviously more than the evangelic believers could take. Their relatively cautious attitude towards our work soon changed into overt aggression, particularly after our book ‘TRICK OR TREATMENT…‘. The second decade was therefore also characterised by numerous attacks, challenges, defamations and conflicts, not least the ‘run ins’ with Prince Charles and his sycophants. Unfortunately, my own University as well as my newly formed Medical School had no stomach for such battles; the top officials of both institutions seemed more concerned about their knighthoods than about defending me against obviously malicious attacks which could only have one aim: to silence me.
But silence they did me not! It is simply not in my character to give up when I know that I have done nothing wrong and fighting ‘the good fight’. On the contrary, each attack merely strengthened my resolve to fight harder for what I knew was right, ethical and necessary. Eventually, my peers became so frustrated with my resilience that they pulled the plug: they stopped all support. This meant my team had to be dismissed and I had to go into early retirement.
Since about a year, I am ‘Emeritus Professor’, a status which has disadvantages (no co-workers to help with the research, no salary) but also important advantages. I can finally speak the truth without fearing that some administrator suffering from acute ‘knighthood starvation syndrome’ is going to try to discipline me for my actions.
This blog, I think, is pretty good evidence for the fact that I continue to enjoy my work in alternative medicine. I cannot promise to do another 20 years but, for the time being, I continue to be research-active and am involved in numerous other activities. Currently I am also writing a book which will provide a full account of those remarkable last 20 years (almost finished but I have no publisher yet) and I am working on the concept of another book that deals with alternative medicine in more general terms. They did not silence me yet, and I do not assume they will soon.
Colonic irrigation is the alternative therapy of celebrities (and those who like to imitate them): they tend to use it for all sorts of ailments, predominantly for loosing weight. And it works! When they have paid for the session, they are relieved of some cash as well as of about half a kilo of body weight. By the time they wake up the next morning, the money is still gone, but the weight is back. This is a most effective method for getting rid of some £s, but NOT an effective way for shedding a few pounds.
Numerous synonyms for colonic irrigation exist, e.g. colonic treatment, colon cleansing, rectal irrigation, colon therapy, colon hydrotherapy, colonic. The treatment is based on the ancient but obsolete theory of ‘autointoxication’, i.e. the body is assumed to poison itself with, ‘autotoxins’ which, in turn, cause various illnesses. So, it is implausible and there is also no evidence to suggest it is effective. But this does not stop professional organisations to make claims which are good for business.
My analysis of the claims made by professional organisations of practitioners of colonic irrigation across the globe aimed at assessing the therapeutic claims made by these institutions. Six such organisations were identified, and the contents of their websites were studied. The results showed that all of the six organisations make therapeutic claims on their websites. Frequently mentioned themes are ‘detoxification’, normalisation of intestinal functions, treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases and body weight reduction. The claims are mostly confined to symptomatic improvements – but there are exceptions, e.g. prevention of bowel cancer or sorting out Irritable Bowel Syndrome ‘once and for all’ . Other therapeutic claims pertain to asthma, menstrual irregularities, circulatory disorders, skin problems, improvement in energy levels and no longer requiring pharmacotherapy. All these claims represent testable hypotheses.
The question therefore arises whether these hypotheses have been tested and, if so, what the results of such investigations suggest? The use of colonic irrigation by alternative practitioners for any indications is not supported by any sound evidence at all. There are simply no trials to show effectiveness. Even worse is the fact that, although touted as safe, colonic irrigation can lead to serious complications.
The conclusion is therefore simple: colonic irrigation is neither demonstrably effective nor safe, and the information supplied by its professional organisations is therefore a significant contributor to the sea of misinformation in the realm of alternative medicine.
One of the most gratifying aspect of my work in Exeter was being able to offer posts to visiting researchers from across the world. Some of these co-workers, after returning to their home countries, became prominent scientists in their own right, and quite a few remained in contact and continued to collaborate with me or with members of my team. In one of these collaborative projects, we wanted to investigate adverse events attributed to traditional medical treatments in the Republic of Korea.
For this purpose, we reviewed adverse events recorded in the Republic of Korea, between 1999 and 2010, by the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Agency or the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine. Records of adverse events attributed to the use of traditional medical practices, including reports of medicinal accidents and consumers’ complaints, were evaluated.
Overall, 9624 records of adverse events were identified. Liver problems after the administration of herbal medicines were the most frequently reported adverse events. Only eight of the adverse events were recorded by the pharmacovigilance system run by the Food and Drug Administration. Of the 9624 events, 1389 – mostly infections, cases of pneumothorax and burns – were linked to physical therapies (n = 285) or acupuncture/moxibustion (n = 1104).
We concluded that traditional medical practices often appear to have adverse effects, yet almost all of the adverse events attributed to such practices between 1999 and 2010 were missed by the national pharmacovigilance system. The Consumer Agency and the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine should be included in the national pharmacovigilance system.
The assumption that alternative treatments are entirely harmless is widespread, not least because it is incessantly promoted via millions of web-site, thousands of books, newspaper articles, VIPs like Prince Charles etc. etc. Consumers are incessantly being told that NATURAL = SAFE. Yet, if we look closely, most alternative treatments are not natural and, as this investigation demonstrates, they are certainly not devoid of risks.
I already see the apologists preparing to comment that, compared to conventional therapies, alternative treatments are very safe. So let me pre-empt this fallacy by pointing out (yet again) that 1) in the absence of adequate surveillance systems, nobody can say how frequent adverse-effects of alternative treatments really are, and that 2) even severe adverse effects can normally be tolerated, if the treatment in question has been shown to be efficacious.
So, instead of commenting on my repeated reports about the risks of alternative medicine, I invite, in fact, I challenge my critics to answer this simple question: For how many alternative therapies is there a well-documented positive risk/benefit balance?