MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

risk/benefit

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Dr Gabriella Day is a GP in England who describes herself and her beliefs as follows: “I began training in homeopathy as it is clear that for many conditions conventional treatment options are not effective and can have unwanted side effects. It seemed to me that there must be another way to help people suffering from symptoms such as these… I believe in whole person medicine. No illness exists in isolation. The human body is immensely sophisticated and complicated and we do not understand it fully. Therefore the illness cannot be separated from the person suffering the disease. This may be as simple as stress impairing the immune system to far more complex interactions. Homeopathic treatment seeks to match the underlying disturbance in the system and stimulate the body to correct itself.”

I do not know Dr Day, but she caught my attention recently when she published an article in THE HIPPOCRATIC POST (I had never heard of this publication before!). It is, I think, sufficiently noteworthy to show you some excerpts (the references [in square brackets] were added by me, and they refer to my comments below):

START OF QUOTES

…Homeopathy can be helpful for pretty much any condition [1], whether as the main treatment [1], as a complement to a conventional treatment [2] to speed up the healing process [1], or to lessen the side-effects of a pharmacological medication [1]. It can be helpful in the treatment of emotional problems [1], physical problems [1] and for multi-morbidity patients [1]. I find it an invaluable tool in my GP’s toolbox and regularly see the benefits of homeopathy in the patients I treat [3]…

There are many conditions for which I have found homeopathy to be effective [1]… There are, however, a multitude of symptomatic treatments available to suppress symptoms, both on prescription and over-the-counter. Most symptoms experienced by patients in this context result from the body’s attempt to eliminate the infection. Our immune systems have spent thousands of years refining this response; therefore it seems counter-intuitive to suppress it [4].
For these types of acute conditions homeopathy can work with the body to support it [1]. For instance, homeopathic Arsenicum album (arsenic) is a classic remedy for diarrhoea and vomiting that can be taken alongside essential oral rehydration [1]. And in influenza I’ve found Eupatorium perfoliatum (ague or feverwort) to be very helpful if the patient is suffering with bony pain [3].
…Unless it is clinically imperative for a pharmacological intervention, I will always consider homeopathy first [5] and have successfully prescribed the homeopathic remedy Nux vomica (strychnine) for women suffering from morning sickness [5]. Problems associated with breastfeeding such as mastitis have also responded well to the classic remedies Belladonna (deadly nightshade) and Phytolacca (pokeweed), while I have found Urtica urens (dog nettle) effective in switching off the milk supply to prevent engorgement when the mother stops breastfeeding [3].
…“heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this… Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients [1,3]. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help [3].

Positive side-effects

The beauty of homeopathy is that it combines mental and emotional symptoms with physical symptoms [3]. When the right remedy is found it appears to stimulate the body to recognise how it is being dysfunctional and corrects this, with no suppression, just a correction of the underlying disturbance [3]. Thus homeopathy not only eliminates unwanted symptoms [1], it dramatically improves a patient’s overall well-being [1].
…homeopathy… enables me to reduce the number of painkillers and other drugs I’m prescribing [1,3]. This is particularly true for older multi-morbidity, polypharmacy patients [1] who are often taking huge amounts of medication.
Contrary to what most homeopaths will tell you, I believe homeopathic treatment does have side-effects – positive side-effects! [1] It fosters an enhanced doctor patient relationship [1]. The process of eliciting the relevant information to select a remedy enables me to better understand the patient’s condition and helps me to get to know them better [3]. And the patient, seeing that the doctor is interested in the idiosyncrasies and detail of their disease, finds themselves heard and understood [3]. In short, since training in homeopathy I enjoy my job as a GP and my relationship with patients so much more [3].
Dr Gabriella Day BSc, MBBS, MRCP, DCH, MRCGP, MFHom

END OF QUOTES

MY COMMENTS:

  1. statement without good evidence,
  2. Hahnemann was vehemently against combining homeopathy with other treatments and called clinicians who disregarded this ‘traitors’,
  3. statement of belief,
  4. wrong assumption,
  5. questionable ethics.

I have recently attempted to slip into the brain of lay-homeopaths and shown how illogical, misguided and wrong the arguments of such enthusiasts really are. Surely, the logic of a doctor homeopath must be better, I then thought. Once you have studied medicine, you have learnt an awful lot of things about the body, disease, therapy, etc., etc., I felt.

Judging from the above article, I might have been wrong.

Alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in numerous ways. One important difference is that patients often opt to try this or that product without consulting any healthcare professional at all. In such cases, the pharmacist might be the ONLY professional who can advise the patient who is about to purchase such a product.

This is why the role of the pharmacist in alternative medicine is crucial, arguably more so than in conventional medicine. And this is why I am banging on about pharmacists who far too often behave like shop-keepers and not like ethical healthcare professionals. A new review addresses these issues and provides relevant information.

Pharmacists from the University of Macau in Macau, China conducted a literature review to extract publications from 2000 to 2015 that related pharmacist to alternative medicine products. 41 publications which reported findings from exploratory studies or discussed pharmacists’ responsibilities towards such products were selected for inclusion.

Seven major responsibilities emerged:

  • to acknowledge the use of alternative medicine products;
  • to be knowledgeable about such products;
  • to ensure safe use of such products;
  • to document the use of such products;
  • to report ADRs related to such products;
  • to educate about such products;
  • to collaborate with other health care professionals in respect to such products.

One point that is not directly covered here is the duty of pharmacists to comply with their own ethical codes. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, this would mean in many instances to not sell alternative medicine products at all, because there is no good evidence to show that they are generating more good than harm and thus are potentially harmful as well as wasteful.

Some pharmacists have realised that there is a problem. Some pharmacists are trying to initiate discussions about these issues within their profession. Some pharmacists are urging to change things. Some pharmacists are well-aware that healthcare ethics are being violated on a daily basis.

All this has been going on now for well over a decade.

And has there been any noticeable change?

Not as far as I can see!

Perhaps it is time to realise that not merely the sale of bogus medicines by pharmacists is unethical, but so is dragging one’s feet in initiating improvements.

 

According to Wikipedia, “the Bundesverband der Pharmazeutischen Industrie (BPI) with headquarters in Berlin is an Eingetragener Verein and the German industry association/trade group for the pharmaceutical industry. It represents 240 German pharmaceutical and Biotech companies in with altogether approximately 70,000 employees. BPI has an office in Brussels. The focus of the BPI is on political consulting and public relations on the EU-level.” 

The BPI has recently published a remarkable press-release about homeopathy. As it is in German, I will translate it for you (and append the original text for those who can read German).

HERE WE GO:

Homeopathy is a recognised and proven therapy for patients in Germany [1]. This is demonstrated by a new, BPI-sponsored survey [2]. About half of all questioned had experience with homeopathic remedies [3]. More than 70% of those people are satisfied or very satisfied with their effectiveness and safety [4].

“Homeopathic remedies are important for many patients in Germany”[3], says Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, deputy chair of the BPI. ” If therapists and patients use them correctly, they can support the therapeutic success [5]. Therefore, they should be recognised by conventional medicine as an integrative medicine [5] – that is what patients in Germany clearly want [6].”

Two thirds of the people surveyed think it is important or very important, that therapies like anthroposophical medicine and homeopathy are supported politically next to conventional medicine [7]. More than 70% find it personally important or very important that health insurances pay for selected anthroposophical and homeopathic services [8]. More than 80% said they would favour this. Thus, the majority is for keeping homeopathy amongst the services that can be chosen by the insurances for reimbursement [8].

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: “The survey proves that very many individuals integrate, use and treasure homeopathy as an additional and usually safe therapy [3]. Those who aim at curtailing therapeutic freedom patronise numerous patients in Germany who can benefit from it [9]. There are numerous diseases for which homeopathy can be used as an integrative therapeutic option [10]. Thus, many conventional physicians employ homeopathic and anthroposophic remedies in parallel to guideline-orientated medicine [3, 11].”

(Homöopathie ist eine anerkannte und bewährte Therapieform für Patienten in Deutschland. Das belegt eine neue, vom BPI beauftragte Forsa-Umfrage. Rund die Hälfte der Befragten hat demnach bereits Erfahrung mit homöopathischen Arzneimitteln. Über 70 Prozent von ihnen sind zufrieden oder sehr zufrieden mit der Wirksamkeit und Verträglichkeit.

„Homöopathische Arzneimittel haben für viele Patienten in Deutschland einen hohen Stellenwert“, sagt Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, stellvertretender BPI-Hauptgeschäftsführer. „Wenn Behandler und Patienten sie richtig und verantwortungsvoll einsetzen, kann sie den Therapieerfolg unterstützen. Sie sollte insofern als wichtige Ergänzung der Schulmedizin im Sinne einer Integrativen Medizin anerkannt werden – das wünschen sich die Patienten in Deutschland eindeutig.“

Fast zwei Drittel der von Forsa Befragten finden es wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass sich die Politik neben schulmedizinischen Behandlungsmethoden auch aktiv für Heilmethoden wie etwa Homöopathie oder Anthroposophische Medizin einsetzt. Über 70 Prozent finden es persönlich wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass Krankenkassen ihren Versicherten auch die Kosten für ausgewählte Leistungen aus dem Bereich der homöopathischen Medizin erstatten. Mit über 80 Prozent überdurchschnittlich häufig plädieren Befragte mit Homöopathie-Erfahrung für die Kostenübernahme ausgewählter Leistungen durch die Krankenkassen. Damit stimmt die Mehrheit für den Erhalt der Homöopathie im Rahmen von sogenannten Satzungsleistungen, die von den Krankenkassen individuell festgelegt werden können.

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: „Die Umfrage belegt, dass sehr viele Menschen Homöopathie als ergänzende und in der Regel nebenwirkungsarme Therapieoption in die Behandlung integrieren, sie nutzen und achten. Wer die Therapiefreiheit und -vielfalt beschneiden will, bevormundet zahlreiche Patienten in Deutschland, die davon profitieren können. Es gibt eine Vielzahl an Erkrankungen, bei denen homöopathische Arzneimittel als integraler Bestandteil von Therapien einsetzbar sind. So nutzen viele Schulmediziner neben dem gesamten Spektrum der leitlinienorientierten Medizin gleichzeitig die integrativen Angebote der Homöopathie und Anthroposophischen Medizin.“)

I DO APPOLOGISE FOR MY POOR TRANSLATION; I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND THAT IT IS VERY HARD TO TRANSLATE SOMETHING THAT SIMPLY DOES NOT MAKE SENSE!

I have rarely seen such an unscientific, irrational, nonsensical and promotional comment from an organisation and an individual that should know better. Mr. Gerbsch studied biotechnology and graduated in 1997 in bioprocess engineering. He headed a scientific team following his promotion to director of a trans-departmental research topic with 13 professorships at the Technical University of Berlin. He later took on responsibilities as commissioner, officer and director of various companies. Since 2006, Mr. Gerbsch works as department manager of biotechnology / research & development at BPI and is responsible for the biotechnology department and innovation & research committee.

Here are just a few short points of criticism referring to the numbers I have added in my translation:

  1. Homeopathy is recognised and proven to be a pure placebo-therapy.
  2. A survey of this nature can at best gauge the current opinion.
  3. Fallacy: appeal to popularity.
  4. Perceived effectiveness/safety is not the same as true effectiveness/safety.
  5. There is no good evidence for this statement.
  6. What patients want might be interesting, but it cannot determine what they need; medicine is not a supermarket!
  7. I suspect this is the result of a leading question.
  8. This is where the BPI discloses the aim of the survey and their comment about it: they want the German health insurances to continue paying for homeopathic and anthroposophical placebos because some of their member companies earn their money selling them. In other words, the BPI actively hinder progress.
  9. No, those who advocate not paying for placebos want to encourage progress in healthcare for the benefit of patients and society.
  10. “Can be used” is an interesting phraseology! It is true, one can use homeopathy – but one cannot use it effectively because it has no effect beyond placebo.
  11. Yes, many physicians are sadly more focussed on their own cash-flow than on the best interest of their patients. Not all that different from the BPI, it seems.

It is beyond me how an organisation like the BPI can produce such shamefully misleading, dangerous and unethical drivel. Not one word about the fact that all international bodies have condemned homeopathy as being a useless and dangerous placebo-therapy! Who ever thought that the BPI was an independent organisation (homeopathy manufacturers belong to its membership) has been proven wrong by the above press-release.

The BPI clearly needs reminding of their duty to inform the public responsibly. I recommend that the leading heads of this organisation urgently attend one course on critical thinking followed by another on medical ethics.

Since more than 20 years, I have been writing about the risks of alternative therapies. One of my first papers on this issue was published in 1995 and focussed on acupuncture. Here is its abstract:

The use of acupuncture is widespread. The procedure is often claimed to be totally, or at least reasonably, safe. The published evidence regarding its potential risks is reviewed. The repeated and/or inappropriate use of an acupuncture needle carries the risk of infections. Amongst others, AIDS and hepatitis have been transmitted. Acupuncture needles may also traumatise tissues and organs. Pneumothorax is the most frequent complication caused in this way. Finally, needles may break and fragments can be dislodged into distant organs. A serious and more general concern related to the safety of acupuncture is the competence of the therapist, whether or not medically qualified. The “philosophy” of acupuncture is not in line with orthodox diagnostic skills; therefore acupuncturists can be dangerously unconcerned with diagnostic categories. Thus indirect risks might add significantly to the direct risks of acupuncture. It is concluded that the true risk of acupuncture cannot be estimated. Whatever its extent, it could and probably should be lowered by enforcing educational and clinical standards.

My reason for banging on about the potential harms (direct and indirect risks) of alternative medicine is fairly obvious: I want to alert healthcare professionals and consumers to the fact that these treatments may not be as harmless as they are usually advertised to be. Yet, I have often be called an alarmist fear-monger. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thinking about fear-mongering, I began to ask myself whether those who regularly accuse me are the ones guilty of the deed. Are alternative practitioners fear-mongers? Surely not all of them, but some clearly are. Here are a few of the strategies they use for their fear-mongering.

NON-EXISTING DIAGNOSES

Perhaps the most obvious way to instil fear into people is to tell them that they are affected by a disease or condition they do not have. Many alternative practitioners do exactly that!

  • A chiropractor might tell you that you have a subluxation in your spine.
  • A naturopath would inform you that your body is full of toxins.
  • An acupuncturist will tell you that your life energy is blocked.
  • A homeopath might warn you that your vital force is too low.

These diagnoses have one thing in common: they do not exist. They are figments of the therapist’s imagination. And they have another thing in common: the abnormalities need to be corrected, and – surprise, surprise – the very therapy that the practitioner specialises in happens to be just the ticket for that purpose.

  • The chiropractor will tell you that a simple spinal adjustment will solve the problem.
  • The naturopath will inform you that a bit of detox will eliminate the toxins.
  • The acupuncturist will tell you that his needles will de-block your chi.
  • The homeopath will persuade you that he can find the exact remedy to revive your vital force.

And there we have the third thing these diagnoses have in common: they are all treatable, will all result in a nice bill, and will all improve the cash-flow of the therapist.

MEDICALIZING TRIVIALITIES

But often, it is not even necessary for an alternative therapist to completely invent a diagnosis. Patients usually consult an alternative practitioner with some sort of symptom – frequently with what one might call a medical triviality that does not need any treatment at all but can be dealt with differently, for instance, by issuing some life-style advice or just simple re-assurance that nothing major is amiss. But for the fear-monger, this is not enough. He feels the need to administer his therapy, and for that purpose he needs to medicalize trivialities :

  • A low mood thus becomes a clinical depression.
  • A sore back is turned into a nasty lumbago.
  • A tummy upset morphs into a dangerous gastritis.
  • Abdominal unrest is diagnosed to be a leaky gut syndrome.
  • A food aversion turns into a food intolerance, etc., etc.

The common denominator is again the fact that fear is instilled into the patient. And again, a useless therapy is administered, if at all possible in the form of a lengthy series of treatments. This, of course, generates significant benefit – not therapeutic, but financial!

DEMONIZING CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE

But there is always the risk that the patient is wiser than expected. She might be so scared learning of her condition that she decides to see her doctor. That would mean a loss of income which has to be avoided! The trick to achieve this is usually not difficult: conventional healthcare professionals must be demonized.

  • They are not treating the root cause of the problem.
  • They are in the pocket of BIG PHARMA.
  • They prescribe medicines with terrible side-effects.
  • They have no idea about holism.
  • They never have enough time to listen, etc., etc.

I know, some of these criticisms are not entirely incorrect (for instance, many conventional medicines do have serious side-effects but, as I try to point out ad nauseam, we need to consider their risk/benefit balance). But that is hardly the point here; the point is to scare the patient off conventional medicine. Only a person who is convinced that the ‘medical mafia’ is out to get her, will prove to be a loyal customer of all things alternative.

DISEASE PREVENTION

And a loyal customer is someone who comes not just once or twice but regularly, ideally from cradle to grave. The way to achieve this ultimate stimulus of the practitioners cash flow is to convince the patient that she needs regular treatments, even when she feels perfectly alright. The magic word here is PREVENTION! The masters here are the chiropractors, I guess; they promote what they call ‘maintenance care’, i.e. the regular treatment of healthy individuals to keep their spines subluxation-free. It goes without saying that maintenance care is a money-making scam.

The strategy requires two little lies, but that’s forgivable considering the good cause, boosting the income of the practitioner:

  1. Conventional doctors don’t do prevention.
  2. The alternative treatment is an effective preventative.

The first statement can be shown to be an obvious lie. All we know about effective disease prevention today comes from conventional medicine and science; nothing originates from the realm of alternative medicine. Remarkably, the most efficacious preventative measure of all times, immunisation, is frequently defamed and neglected by alternative practitioners.

The second statement is a necessary lie; how else would a patient agree to pay regularly for the practitioner’s services? I am not aware of any alternative therapy that can effectively prevent any disease.

CONCLUSIONS

  • Some alternative practitioners regularly instil fear into consumers.
  • Several strategies are being used for this purpose.
  • They have the aim of maximising the therapists’ income.
  • Fear-mongering is unethical and despicable.
  • Pointing out that a certain therapy might fail to generate more good than harm is not fear-mongering.

In 2006, the World Health Organization and UNICEF created the ‘Global Immunization Vision and Strategy’, a 10-year strategy with 4 main goals:

  1. to immunize more people against more diseases,
  2. to introduce a range of newly available vaccines and technologies,
  3. to integrate other critical health interventions with immunization,
  4. to manage vaccination programmes within the context of global interdependence.

More than a decade later, we have to realise that this vision has been frustrated, not least by fans of alternative medicine (FAMs). They are almost by definition more negative about the value and achievements of conventional medicine and science. This shows in all sorts of ways; the clearest this phenomenon is documented must be the FAMs’ attitude towards immunisations. Few rational thinkers would doubt that vaccinations are amongst the most important achievement in the history of medicine.

Vaccination is a miracle of modern medicine. In the past 50 years, it’s saved more lives worldwide than any other medical product or procedure.”

Yet FAMs are not impressed by such statements and often refuse to have their kids vaccinated according to the recommended schedule. This trend has significantly contributed to vaccination rates that, in some parts of the world, are now dropping so low that our ‘herd immunity’ is jeopardised.

One such place is Germany, and the German government is now making a controversial move against parents who choose to refrain from vaccinating their children. Germany is presently passing a law that will force kindergartens to inform the authorities, if parents don’t provide evidence that they have gotten advice from their doctor on vaccinations for their children.

This study tested chondroitin sulfate 800 mg/day (CS) pharmaceutical-grade in the management of symptomatic knee osteoarthritis. It was designed as a prospective, randomised, 6-month, 3-arm, double-blind, double-dummy, placebo and celecoxib (200 mg/day)-controlled trial.  The primary endpoints were changes in pain on a Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) and in the Lequesne Index (LI). Minimal-Clinically Important Improvement (MCII), Patient-Acceptable Symptoms State (PASS) were used as secondary endpoints.

A total of 604 patients, diagnosed according to American College of Rheumalogy (ACR) criteria, were recruited in five European countries and followed for 182 days. CS and celecoxib showed a greater significant reduction in pain and LI than placebo. In the intention-to-treat (ITT) population, pain reduction in VAS at day 182 in the CS group (−42.6 mm) and in celecoxib group (−39.5 mm) was significantly greater than the placebo group (−33.3 mm) (p=0.001 for CS and p=0.009 for celecoxib). No difference observed between CS and celecoxib. Similar trend for the LI, as reduction in this metric in the CS group (−4.7) and celecoxib group (−4.6) was significantly greater than the placebo group (−3.7) (p=0.023 for CS and p=0.015 for celecoxib). Again, no difference was observed between CS and celecoxib. Both secondary endpoints (MCII and PASS) at day 182 improved significantly in the CS and celecoxib groups. All treatments demonstrated excellent safety profiles.
The authors concluded that a 800 mg/day pharmaceutical-grade CS is superior to placebo and similar to celecoxib in reducing pain and improving function over 6 months in symptomatic knee osteoarthritis (OA) patients. This formulation of CS should be considered a first-line treatment in the medical management of knee OA.

In my view, this is a good study with clear and useful results: CS seems to be efficacious and safe. Another recent study confirmed the superiority of CS over celecoxib at reducing cartilage volume loss in knee OA patients.

The current Cochrane review does not yet account for the new data; it concluded cautiously positive: A review of randomized trials of mostly low quality reveals that chondroitin (alone or in combination with glucosamine) was better than placebo in improving pain in participants with osteoarthritis in short-term studies. The benefit was small to moderate with an 8 point greater improvement in pain (range 0 to 100) and a 2 point greater improvement in Lequesne’s index (range 0 to 24), both seeming clinically meaningful. These differences persisted in some sensitivity analyses and not others. Chondroitin had a lower risk of serious adverse events compared with control. More high-quality studies are needed to explore the role of chondroitin in the treatment of osteoarthritis. The combination of some efficacy and low risk associated with chondroitin may explain its popularity among patients as an over-the-counter supplement.

The call for more high quality trials was justified but has now been answered. In my view, CS can be considered an evidence-based option in the management of OA.

The new guidelines by the American College of Physicians entitled ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’ have already been the subject of the previous post. Today, I want to have a closer look at a small section of these guidelines which, I think, is crucial. It is entitled ‘HARMS OF NONPHARMACOLOGIC THERAPIES’. I have taken the liberty of copying it below:

“Evidence on adverse events from the included RCTs and systematic reviews was limited, and the quality of evidence for all available harms data is low. Harms were poorly reported (if they were reported at all) for most of the interventions.

Low-quality evidence showed no reported harms or serious adverse events associated with tai chi, psychological interventions, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, ultrasound, acupuncture, lumbar support, or traction (9,95,150,170–174). Low-quality evidence showed that when harms were reported for exercise, they were often related to muscle soreness and increased pain, and no serious harms were reported. All reported harms associated with yoga were mild to moderate (119). Low-quality evidence showed that none of the RCTs reported any serious adverse events with massage, although 2 RCTs reported soreness during or after massage therapy (175,176). Adverse events associated with spinal manipulation included muscle soreness or transient increases in pain (134). There were few adverse events reported and no clear differences between MCE and controls. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation was associated with an increased risk for skin site reaction but not serious adverse events (177). Two RCTs (178,179) showed an increased risk for skin flushing with heat compared with no heat or placebo, and no serious adverse events were reported. There were no data on cold therapy. Evidence was insufficient to determine harms of electrical muscle stimulation, LLLT, percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, interferential therapy, short-wave diathermy, and taping.”

The first thing that strikes me is the brevity of the section. Surely, guidelines of this nature must include a full discussion of the risks of the treatments in question!

The second thing that is noteworthy is the fact that the authors confirm the fact I have been banging on about for years: clinical trials of alternative therapies far too often fail to mention adverse effects.  I have often pointed out that the failure to report adverse effects in clinical trials is an unacceptable violation of medical ethics. By contrast, the guideline authors seem not to feel strongly about this omission.

The third thing that is noteworthy is that the guidelines evaluate the harms of the treatments purely on the basis of the adverse effects reported in the clinical trials and systematic reviews included in their efficacy assessments. This is nonsensical for at least two reasons:

  1. The guideline authors themselves are aware that the trials very often fail to mention adverse effects.
  2. For any assessment of harm, one has to go far beyond the evidence of clinical trials, because trials tend to be too small to pick up rare adverse effects, and because they are always conducted under optimally controlled conditions where adverse effects are less likely to occur than in real life.

Together, these features of the assessment of harms explain why the guideline authors arrive at conclusions which are oddly misguided; I would even feel that they resemble a white-wash. Here are two of the most overt misjudgements:

  • no harms associated with acupuncture,
  • only trivial harm associated with spinal manipulations.

The best evidence we have today shows that acupuncture leads to mild adverse effects in about 10% of all cases and is also associated with very severe complications (e.g. pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, infections, deaths) in an unknown number of patients. More details can be found for instance here, here, here and here.

And the best evidence available shows that spinal manipulation leads to moderately severe adverse effects in ~50% of all cases. In addition, we know of hundreds of cases of very severe complications resulting in stroke, permanent neurological deficits or deaths. More details can be found for instance here, here, here and here.

In the introduction, I stated that this small section of the guidelines is crucial.

Why?

The reason is simple: any responsible therapeutic decision has to be based not just on the efficacy of the treatment in question but on its risk/benefit balance. The evidence shows that the risks of some alternative therapies can be considerable, a fact that is almost totally neglected in the guidelines. Therefore, the recommendations of the new guidelines by the American College of Physicians entitled ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’ are in several aspects not entirely correct and need to be reconsidered.

Concerned about the new ACP guidelines on ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’, Andrea MacGregor asked me to publish her ‘open letter’:

I am a student about to graduate and register as a massage therapist in Canada, and I am writing to express my concern with your recommendation of the use of acupuncture in your new guideline for low-back pain management.

Leading medical and health research experts from around the world, including many who are highly familiar with the use of complementary and alternative therapies, have contributed to a highly informed commentary (attached) assembled by the Friends of Science in Medicine association (Aus.), which supports a strong conclusion that acupuncture is not effective for any specific condition, and that the evidence for it being an effective intervention for low-back pain is not convincing. Another review of acupuncture by FSM concluding that there is a lack of evidence of a therapeutic effect has been endorsed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Respected American medical science writers also maintain that claims of acupuncture’s efficacy are not science-based (examples here and here).

Additionally, previous acupuncture recommendations are being reconsidered by prominent institutions in other parts of the world. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline for NHS patients in the United Kingdom now recommends against the use of acupuncture for low-back pain, following a high-quality review that critically examined the existing evidence regarding the use of acupuncture and found it to be no more effective than a placebo. The Toronto Hospital for Sick Children has also recently removed references on their website that suggested the efficacy of acupuncture in managing specific chronic pain conditions. The World Health Organization has done the same, no longer suggesting that acupuncture is effective for low-back pain and sciatica.

As someone about to enter a field that is frequently associated with, or considered a part of, complementary healthcare, I know how tempting it can be for us, as professionals and as researchers, to exaggerate claims of efficacy and pin some very high hopes on “new possibilities” in physical therapies.

I also know first-hand how misguided and overblown some of these claims and hopes can be. Many of my own peers and instructors are proponents of acupuncture, and it is common for Canadian massage therapists to become licensed acupuncturists (a similar connection between massage and acupuncture communities, of course, also exists in the United States). I have often seen my own mentors and comrades pushing for the use of acupuncture treatments for many chronic and serious conditions for which there is no basis of evidence at all of acupuncture’s efficacy, including systemic, neurological, and developmental conditions. When questioned, they will usually refer to authorities perceived as “legitimate”, including the American College of Physicians, to say that claims of acupuncture “working” are backed by experts— whether their claims are even pain-related or not.

We see a similar situation with advertisers and media using the guise of “expert-backed” legitimization to recommend acupuncture in misleading ways, often to vulnerable people who could be making better-informed and more effective treatment and management choices for their conditions. Many of these advertising and media entities specifically mention the American College of Physicians as lending credence to their claims, sometimes somewhat out of context.

As someone with a chronic neurological disorder, I find it troubling to see untrue or exaggerated claims of benefit for incurable or serious conditions when we could be focusing on more accurate ideas and having more honest, realistic discussions of our options. This is also important when it comes to deciding how to best allocate our limited health funding resources. Quite a lot of our insurance and out-of-pocket funds are spent on alternative therapies, and it’s important to see things going to use in a way that’s proportionate and appropriate to the evidence we have.

I hope that you will reconsider your recommendation of a practice that is simply not supported by the majority of the research evidence that exists to date. Patients with complex conditions, including low-back pain, deserve accurate and realistic information regarding their treatment options, especially from such trusted and reputable sources as the American College of Physicians. Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

Andrea MacGregor

Below are informed conclusions on acupuncture from 28 international experts from 10 countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America.

These include:

– Sir Richard John Roberts, English biochemist and molecular biologist, 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine  – Prof Nikolai Bogduk AM, Emeritus Professor of Pain Medicine, University of Newcastle, Australia – Prof Timothy Caulfield,  LLM, FRSC, FCAHS, Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Policy, Trudeau Fellow & Professor, Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, Research Director, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta, Canada – Prof. Assimakis Kanellopoulos, PhD MSc.Prof. Applied Physiotherapy, TEI Lamia, Greece – Prof Lesley Campbell AM, MBBS, FRACP FRCP(UK), Senior Endocrinologist, Diabetes Services, St Vincent’s Hospital, Professor of Medicine, UNSW. Laboratory Co-Head, Clinical Diabetes, Appetite and Metabolism, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, SVH, NSW, Australia – Emeritus Prof Donald M. Marcus, MD, Professor of Medicine and Immunology, Emeritus, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, United States of America (USA) – Dr Michael Vagg, MBBS(Hons) FAFRM(RACP) FFPMANZCA, Consultant in Rehabilitation and Pain Medicine, Barwon Health. Clinical Senior Lecturer, Deakin University School of Medicine. Fellow, Institute for Science in Medicine, Victoria, Australia – Prof Bernie Garrett, The University of British Columbia, School of Nursing, Vancouver, BC, Canada – A/Prof David H Gorski, MD PhD FACS, surgical oncologist, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, Team Leader, Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Team, Co-Leader, Breast Cancer Biology Program, Co-Director, Alexander J Walt Comprehensive Breast Center, Chief, Section of Breast Surgery, A/Professor, Surgery, Wayne State University School of Medicine, , and Professor (Honorary) Hanoi Medical University, USA – Prof Carl Bartecchi, MD, MACP, Distinguished Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, USA – Prof David Colquhoun, FRS, Dept of Pharmacology, UCL United Kingdom (UK) – Prof Edzard Ernst, MD PhD FMEdSci FSB FRCP FRCP(Edin), Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, UK – Prof Marcello Costa FAAS. Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor and Professor of Neurophysiology (2012), Professor of Neurophysiology, Flinders University, Australia. – Emeritus Prof Alastair H MacLennan AO MB CHb MD FRCOG FRANZCOG. The Robinson Research Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia – Prof John M Dwyer AO PhD FRACP FRCPI Doc Uni(Hon) ACU. Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of New South Wales. Founder of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance. Clinical consultant to the NSW Government’s Inter-Agency committee on Health Care Fraud, Australia – A/Prof Steven M Novella, clinical neurologist Yale University School of Medicine, Connecticut,  USA – Prof William M London, EdD, MPH, Department of Public Health, California State University, Los Angeles, USA – Dr Steven Barrett, MD, retired psychiatrist, author, co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), USA – Prof. Steven L. Salzberg, Ph.D., Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, USA – Prof Christopher C French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK – Dr Cees Renckens MD PhD, gynaecologist, past president of the Dutch Society against Quackery, Netherlands  – Dr Alain Braillon. MD PhD. Senior consultant. University hospital, France – Dr John McLennan, MBBS FRACP, Paediatrician, Vic – Prof Shaun Holt, BPharm(hons), MBChB(hons), Medical Researcher, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand – Dr Lloyd B Oppel, MD, MHSc, Canada – Professor Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Southern Denmark & Odense University Hospital, Denmark – Prof Maurizio Pandolfi MD, Florence, former Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology, The University of Lund, Sweden, Italy – Professor Mark Baker, Centre for Clinical Practice Director, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), UK

According to Sir Richard: “From everything I have read about acupuncture I have to conclude that the evidence for efficacy is just not there.  I can believe it has a very strong and effective placebo effect, but if it really worked as advertised why are the numbers of successful outcomes so small when compared to treatments such as drugs that really do work. As a scientist, who likes to see proper experiments carried out so that the results can be judged with a rational analysis, the experiments I have read about just don’t meet even a low bar of acceptability. I certainly do not believe it should be endorsed as an effective treatment by any professional scientific or medical body that values its reputation.”

According to Professor Bogduk: “Although studies have shown that acupuncture “works”, the definition of “works” is generous. Most studies show minimal to no effect greater than that of sham therapy. Needles do not need to be placed at specific points; so, learning about meridians is not required. Effectiveness is marginally greater in those patients who believe in acupuncture or expect it to work. However, no studies have shown that acupuncture stops pain, while also restoring normal function and removing the need for other health care.”

According to Professor Caulfield: “In popular culture, acupuncture is often portrayed as being effective for a range of conditions. It is held up as an alternative medicine success story. In fact, the relevant data are, at best, equivocal. The most rigorous studies, such as those that are well controlled and use sham comparators, have found that in most situations acupuncture is little better than placebo.  More importantly, the supernatural foundations of the practice – that illness can be attributed to an imbalance in a life force energy – has absolutely no scientific basis. Given this reality, public representations of acupuncture that present it as science-based and effective can be deeply misleading.  Policies are needed to counter this noise, including, inter alia, the more aggressive deployment of truth-in-advertising regulations, the enforcement of a conceptually consistent science-based informed consent standard, and the oversight of healthcare professionals by the relevant regulatory entities.”

According to Professor Kanellopoulos: “According to the systematic reviews in the field of acupuncture, the benefits of the method, if any, are nothing more than a temporary placebo effect. From a scientific point of view, acupuncture is based on a theory, which has nothing to do with modern physiology and medicine. From a researcher’s point of view, any presented acupuncture effectiveness is due to methodological errors, data manipulation, statistical artefacts and (purposely?) poorly designed clinical trials in general. Finally, regarding the patient, any symptom’s relief comes from despair and post hoc fallacy. After decades of research and over 3000 clinical trials, any continuation of practicing, advertising, and research in the field of acupuncture is a waste of resources and puts the patients at risk, raising ethical issues for both science and society.”

According to Professor Campbell: “Acupuncture holds great theatrical appeal through its dramatic and historical aspects, particularly to those who feel that conventional medicine has failed to offer pain relief or sufficient improvement in symptoms. However an extensive body of data now exists from rigorous approaches to testing the validity of its claims of benefit actually related to the placement of the needles and not to placebo effect. For example, most recently the beneficial effect achieved in relieving fatigue in Parkinsons Disease (and there was one) was identical in a randomised controlled trial to that of placebo.”

According to Professor Donald M. Marcus: “When trials of acupuncture for relief of pain of osteoarthritis of the knee or back pain include a sham acupuncture control, there is no clinically relevant difference in efficacy between the conventional and sham procedures. A number of sham procedures have been used, including toothpicks in a plastic guide tube in a study of back pain. It’s evident that relief of pain, and probably other complaints, by acupuncture is mediated by a placebo mechanism. Since there is no scientific evidence supporting its efficacy, medical insurance should not pay for acupuncture treatments. Moreover, it is unethical to deceive patients by providing a placebo treatment without disclosure.”

According to pain specialist Dr Vagg: “Due to the lack of a scientifically plausible mechanism, and the poor quality of the bulk of the research concerning acupuncture in its many and varied forms, no credible body of pain medicine researchers or clinicians has endorsed any type of acupuncture as a recommended treatment for any identifiable group of patients with persistent pain. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that further research of high quality will change this conclusion, given that high-quality, randomized and double-blinded studies have uniformly shown that any form of acupuncture is indistinguishable from placebo, making further research unwarranted.”

According to Professor Garrett: “Current levels of evidence on acupuncture as a therapeutic intervention for any condition is very poor. Most studies reported  are of very poor quality and are not reliable. Unfortunately, there is a strong element of propaganda in the dissemination of support for acupuncture in China, as it is a part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine supported by the government there. As such, much research has been demonstrated to involve data fabrication and extreme levels of confirmation bias. There are also strong ethical concerns about research involving acupuncture in China for anesthesia or other conditions where there is no established clinical theoretical basis for its use, and far better established therapeutics are available. Overall the current state of evidence on acupuncture is that the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment of any health condition remains unproven, and the only good quality trials have identified it has no better outcomes than placebo. Therefore, any claims of efficacy made against specific medical conditions are deceptive.”

According to Professor Gorski: “Acupuncture seems to garner more belief because it seems more plausible. The reason is that, unlike many other alternative therapies, acupuncture actually involves a physical act, namely inserting needles into the skin. However, it is also the case that the more acupuncture has been studied, the more it has become clear that it is, as David Colquhoun and Steve Novella put it, nothing more than a theatrical placebo. Indeed, as acupuncture is more rigorously studied in randomized clinical trials with proper controls and proper blinding, the more its seeming effects disappear, so that it becomes indistinguishable from placebo. Nor is it without risk, either. Recommending acupuncture to treat any condition is, from an ethical and scientific view, indefensible.”

According to Professor Bartecchi: “Acupuncture has no medical value other than that of a placebo. Acupuncture as viewed by many of us in academic medicine is merely an elaborate, theatrical placebo, a pre-scientific superstition which lacks a plausible mechanism. It really fits the bill as an alternative medicine hoax.”

According to Professor Colquhoun: “After over 3000 trials, some of them very well designed, there is still argument about the effectiveness of acupuncture.  If that were the case for a new drug, it would long since have been abandoned. The literature suggests that acupuncture has only a small and variable placebo effect: too small to be of noticeable benefit to patients. Most of its apparent effects result from a statistical artefact, regression to the mean. The continued use of acupuncture probably arises from the lack of effective treatments for conditions like non-specific low back pain. That cannot be justified, Neither is it worth spending yet more money on further research. The research has been done and it failed to produce convincing evidence.”

According to Professor Ernst: “The current evidence on acupuncture is mixed. Many trials are less than rigorous and thus not reliable. Much of the research comes from China where data fabrication has been disclosed to be at epidemic levels; it would therefore be a mistake to rely on studies from China which almost invariably report positive results.  If we account for such caveats and critically review the literature, we arrive at the following conclusions: – Acupuncture is clearly not free of risks, some of which are serious;  – The effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment of any condition remains unproven, and – The current research in this area is mostly pseudo-research aimed at promoting rather than testing acupuncture”.

According to Professor Costa: “Acupuncture as a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine is not based on science simply because, as for all pre-scientific medicines, whether Greco-Roman-European, Indian or any other, none are founded on any evidence. As a Neuroscientist, I teach medical and non medical students the very foundations of how the nervous system works and how sensory stimulation affects the brain. There simply is no evidence that twigging the skin with needles or, for that matter with toothpicks, does any more than create an expectation to feel better. This is the well-known placebo effect. Selling placebos under the disguise of medicine is totally unethical.”

According to Professor MacLennan: “Acupuncture is elaborate quackery and like many placebos sold by those without responsibility for or knowledge of the wide range of health disorders and disease it can be dangerous. Dangerous because acupuncture may delay correct diagnosis and therapy, dangerous because it may delay possible evidence-based therapies and allow progression of disorders present and dangerous because it sucks limited health resources from the community.   Acupuncturists derive their income from elaborate subterfuge, taking advantage of the gullible unwell who are desperate, uneducated and seek a magic cure. If there is a placebo effect it is usually temporary, and eventually disappointment from lack of long term effect may lead to secondary depression in the patient.    According to Professor Dwyer: “Modern understanding of human anatomy and the distribution and function of the components of the human nervous system make a nonsense of theories that suggest there are invisible meridians criss-crossing the body wherein there are trigger spots which, when stimulated, can produce an array of benefits remote from that site. Scientists however, while dismissing the prescientific explanations offered by traditional Chinese medicine, have sought other reasons why acupuncture might provide clinical benefits particularly the relief of pain. Numerous theories have been addressed by numerous studies with many being conducted using disciplined scientific methods. The conclusions leave us with no doubt that acupuncture provides the scenario for a superb theatrical placebo; no more.”

According to Dr Novella:  “Pain is a big problem. If you read about pain management centers, you might think it had been solved. It has not. And when no effective treatment exists for a medical problem, it leads to a tendency to clutch at straws. Research has shown that acupuncture is little more than such a straw. It is clear from meta-analyses that results of acupuncture trials are variable and inconsistent, even for single conditions. After thousands of trials of acupuncture and hundreds of systematic reviews, arguments continue unabated. In 2011, Pain published an editorial that summed up the present situation well.”

According to Professor London & Dr Barrett: “The optimistic article by Vickers et al did not consider an important point. Research studies may not reflect what takes place in most acupuncturist offices. Most acupuncturists are graduates of “oriental medical schools,” where they learn about 5element theory, “energy” flow through meridians, and other fanciful traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) concepts that do not correspond with scientific knowledge of anatomy, physiology, or pathology. Practitioners of TCM typically rely on inappropriate diagnostic procedures (pulse and tongue diagnosis) and prescribe herbal mixtures that have not been sufficiently studied. Diagnoses based on TCM such as “Qi stagnation,” “blood stagnation,” “kidney Qi deficiency,” and “yin deficiency” may not jeopardize patients who are treated in an academic setting, where they have received a medical diagnosed before entering the study. But what about people with conditions that TCM-trained acupuncturists are not qualified or inclined to diagnose? Real-world evaluations of acupuncture should also consider the cost of unnecessary treatment.”

According to Professor Salzberg: “Acupuncture is a pre-scientific practice that persists only because of relentless and often very clever marketing by its proponents. The claimed mechanisms by which acupuncture works are clearly and obviously false: modern physiology, neurology, cell biology, and other scientific disciplines explain how pain signals are transmitted in the body, and none of them support the supposed “qi” or energy fields flowing along “meridians,” as acupuncturists describe them. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that acupuncture doesn’t work for any medical condition. Acupuncture proponents ignore the evidence and persist, primarily because they profit from their practices. There are also documented risks of complications from acupuncture, ranging from infections to punctured lungs. For these and other reasons, recommending acupuncture for any patient is simply unethical. Acupuncturists make profits by putting patients at risk.”

According to Professor French: “Acupuncture has been extensively evaluated with respect to its possible therapeutic effectiveness for a wide range of disorders. The overall conclusion from meta-analyses of such studies is that any beneficial effects reported are small in terms of effect size and probably best accounted for in terms of statistical artefacts and placebo effects, etc. In general, the higher the quality of the study, the less likely are any beneficial effects to be reported. In light of this, it would be unwise and unethical to recommend acupuncture as the treatment of choice for any condition.”

According to Dr Renckens: “In 1683 the Dutch physician Willem ten Rhijne published the first book in the western world in which the word ‘acupuncture’ was mentioned, which referred to – as the Dutch title of the book was – ‘The Chinese and Japanese way of curing all diseases and especially the podagra by burning moxa and stabbing the Golden Needle’. This exotic treatment did not gain any popularity in the Netherlands and was mainly ridiculed. This heavenly situation remained unchanged until Nixon’s trip to China (1972) and the ‘successful’ acupuncture-treatment of the journalist James Reston of the New York Times. His story in that influential newspaper caused worldwide interest in acupunctures possible benefits. Also in the Netherlands and as early as 1989 a series of systematic reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture in a number of diseases was published in the Huisarts & Wetenschap, a journal of GP’s in the Dutch language (Ter Riet et al. H&W,1989;32:308-312).Their final conclusion was: ‘the main achievement of Chinese acupuncture is to have discovered a number of spots on the human body into which needles can be safely inserted’. The huge amount of scientific research into acupuncture has since been unable to undermine this right conclusion.”
According to Dr Braillon: “No discrimination!  The US Federal Trade Commission announced that homeopathic drugs should “be held to the same truthin-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits”; very soon, homeopathic products will include statements indicating: “There is no scientific evidence backing homeopathic health claims” and “Homeopathic claims are based only on theories from the 1700s that are not accepted by modern medical experts.”  In Australia, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners formally recommended GPs to ban homeopathic products from their prescriptions and pharmacists to ban them from their shelves. The same should be required for acupuncture.”

According to Dr McLennon: “Despite claims for effectiveness, there have been very few studies of acupuncture on children that have confirmed significant benefits.  Conditions such as headache, abdominal pain, bed wetting and fibromyalgia and behaviour problems such as ADHD have been investigated. More trials with better structure have universally been recommended. A double blinded trial on the treatment of headaches with laser acupuncture illustrates the problems. The number of patients was quite small (21 in each arm), the diagnoses were reasonable medically but required rediagnosis to fit Traditional Chinese Medicine criteria and treatments were individualised based on these diagnoses. It was not made clear whether the patients were completely blinded i.e. unaware they received active treatment or placebo. Until blinding can be guaranteed, trials of acupuncture will remain inconclusive.”
According to Professor Holt: “Unlike some alternative therapies, acupuncture has been extensively studied for many medical conditions and a summary would be that the higher the quality of the study, the less likely it is that a benefit other than a placebo effect is found. Studies have shown conclusively that a key aspect of acupuncture, putting needles into energy lines for medical benefits, is not true, and the same effect is elicited wherever the needles are placed. Acupuncture is not a science-based practice, can cause side effects and is not recommended for any medical condition.”

According to Dr Oppel: “It is extremely concerning that there remains no plausible rationale for a mechanism of action of acupuncture.  It is noteworthy that different schools of acupuncture offer contradictory patterns of treatment. It should not go without notice that acupuncture has been so well-researched that there are hundreds , if not thousands, of clinical trials now available Unfortunately, although there is no compelling evidence of effectiveness for any of the myriad of conditions where  acupuncture is claimed to be of benefit, poor quality unreplicated trials continue to be put forward by proponents as proof of acupuncture’s effectiveness. Critical thinkers will also take note that while the large majority of acupuncture trials are positive, the vast majority of properly controlled trials are not.   We are in a situation now where we have excellent evidence that acupuncture is not effective.”

According to Professor Hróbjartsson: “While there have been many trials done with acupuncture, most of them are small pilot studies and large scale high quality trials are rare. Some studies have reported measurable effects, but the mechanism is not yet understood, the size of the effect is small and it is possible that a large part of the effect or all of the effect is placebo. It is obvious that you would see a physiological effect when you stick a needle into your body, the question is whether that has a measurable clinical effect. There is insufficient evidence to say that electro acupuncture is any more or any less effective.”

According to Professor Pandolfi: “With a rationale completely disconnected from the basic principles of science acupuncture cannot be considered as belonging to modern evidence–based medicine.”

According to Professor Baker: “Millions of people are affected every year by these often debilitating and distressing conditions. For most their symptoms improve in days or weeks. However for some, the pain can be distressing and persist for a long time. Regrettably there is a lack of convincing evidence of effectiveness for some widely used treatments. For example acupuncture is no longer recommended for managing low back pain with or without sciatica. This is because there is not enough evidence to show that it is more effective than sham treatment.”

The BMJ has always been my favourite Medical journal. (Need any proof for this statement? A quick Medline search tells me that I have over 60 publications in the BMJ.) But occasionally, the BMJ also disappoints me a great deal.

One of the most significant disappointments was recently published under the heading of STATE OF THE ART REVIEW. A review that is ‘state of the art’ must fulfil certain criteria; foremost it should be informative, unbiased and correct. The paper I am discussing here has, I think, neither of these qualities. It is entitled ‘Management of chronic pain using complementary and integrative medicine’, and here is its abstract:

Complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) encompasses both Western-style medicine and complementary health approaches as a new combined approach to treat a variety of clinical conditions. Chronic pain is the leading indication for use of CIM, and about 33% of adults and 12% of children in the US have used it in this context. Although advances have been made in treatments for chronic pain, it remains inadequately controlled for many people. Adverse effects and complications of analgesic drugs, such as addiction, kidney failure, and gastrointestinal bleeding, also limit their use. CIM offers a multimodality treatment approach that can tackle the multidimensional nature of pain with fewer or no serious adverse effects. This review focuses on the use of CIM in three conditions with a high incidence of chronic pain: back pain, neck pain, and rheumatoid arthritis. It summarizes research on the mechanisms of action and clinical studies on the efficacy of commonly used CIM modalities such as acupuncture, mind-body system, dietary interventions and fasting, and herbal medicine and nutrients.

The full text of this article is such that I could take issue with almost every second statement in it. Obviously, this would be too long and too boring for this blog. So, to keep it crisp and entertaining, let me copy the (tongue in cheek) ‘letter to the editor’ some of us published in the BMJ as a response to the review:

“Alternative facts are fashionable in politics these days, so why not also in healthcare? The article by Chen and Michalsen on thebmj.com provides a handy set of five instructions for smuggling alternative facts into medicine.

1. Create your own terminology: the term ‘complementary and integrated medicine’ (CIM) is nonsensical. Integrated medicine (a hotly disputed field) already covers complementary and conventional medicine.

2. Pretend to be objective: Chen and Michalsen elaborate on the systematic searches they conducted. But they omit hundreds of sources which do not support their message, which cherry-picks only evidence for the efficacy of the treatments they promote.

3. Avoid negativity: they bypass any material that might challenge what they include. For instance, when discussing therapeutic risks, they omit the disturbing lack of post-marketing surveillance: the reason we lack information on adverse events. They even omit to mention the many fatalities caused by their ‘CIM’.

4. Create an impression of thoroughness: Chen and Michalsen cite a total of 225 references. This apparent scholarly attention to detail masks their misuse of many of they list. Reference 82, for example, is employed to back up the claim that “satisfaction was lowest among complementary medicine users with rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, or connective tissue diseases”. In fact, it shows nothing of the sort.

5. Back up your message with broad generalisations: Chen and Michalsen conclude that “Taken together, CIM has an increasing role in the management of chronic pain, but high quality research is needed”. The implication is that all the CIMs mentioned in their figure 1 are candidates for pain control – even discredited treatments such as homeopathy.

In our view, these authors render us a service: they demonstrate to the novice how alternative facts may be used in medicine.”

James May, Edzard Ernst, Nick Ross, on behalf of HealthWatch UK

END OF QUOTE

I am sure you have your own comments and opinions, and I encourage you to post them here or (better) submit them to the BMJ or (best) both.

The question whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is effective for acute low back pain is still discussed controversially. Chiropractors (they use SMT more regularly than other professionals) try everything to make us believe it does work, while the evidence is far less certain. Therefore, it is worth considering the best and most up-to-date data.

The  aim of this paper was to systematically review studies of the effectiveness and harms of SMT for acute (≤6 weeks) low back pain. The research question was straight forward: Is the use of SMT in the management of acute (≤6 weeks) low back pain associated with improvements in pain or function?

A through literature search was conducted to locate all relevant papers. Study quality was assessed using the Cochrane Back and Neck (CBN) Risk of Bias tool. The evidence was assessed using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) criteria. The main outcome measures were pain (measured by either the 100-mm visual analog scale, 11-point numeric rating scale, or other numeric pain scale), function (measured by the 24-point Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire or Oswestry Disability Index [range, 0-100]), or any harms measured within 6 weeks.

Of 26 eligible RCTs identified, 15 RCTs (1711 patients) provided moderate-quality evidence that SMT has a statistically significant association with improvements in pain (pooled mean improvement in the 100-mm visual analog pain scale, −9.95 [95% CI, −15.6 to −4.3]). Twelve RCTs (1381 patients) produced moderate-quality evidence that SMT has a statistically significant association with improvements in function (pooled mean effect size, −0.39 [95% CI, −0.71 to −0.07]). Heterogeneity was not explained by type of clinician performing SMT, type of manipulation, study quality, or whether SMT was given alone or as part of a package of therapies. No RCT reported any serious adverse event. Minor transient adverse events such as increased pain, muscle stiffness, and headache were reported 50% to 67% of the time in large case series of patients treated with SMT.

The authors concluded that among patients with acute low back pain, spinal manipulative therapy was associated with modest improvements in pain and function at up to 6 weeks, with transient minor musculoskeletal harms. However, heterogeneity in study results was large.

This meta-analysis has been celebrated by chiropractors around the world as a triumph for their hallmark therapy, SMT. But there have also been more cautionary voices – not least from the lead author of the paper. Patients undergoing spinal manipulation experienced a decline of 1 point in their pain rating, says Dr. Paul Shekelle, an internist with the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Rand Corporation who headed the study. That’s about the same amount of pain relief as from NSAIDs, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. The study also found spinal manipulation modestly improved function. On average, patients reported greater ease and comfort engaging in two day-to-day activities — such as finding they could walk more quickly, were having less difficulty turning over in bed or were sleeping more soundly.

It’s not clear exactly how spinal manipulation relieves back pain. But it may reposition the small joints in the spine in a way that causes less pain, according to Dr. Richard Deyo, an internist and professor of evidence-based medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University. Deyo wrote an editorial published along with the study. Another possibility, Deyo says, is that spinal manipulation may restore some material in the disk between the vertebrae, or it may simply relax muscles, which could be important. There may also be mind-body interaction that comes from the “laying of hands” or a trusting relationship between patients and their health care provider, he says.

Deyo notes that there are many possible treatments for lower back pain, including oral medicine, injected medicine, corsets, traction, surgery, acupuncture and massage therapy. But of about 200 treatment options, “no single treatment is clearly superior,” he says.

In another comment by Paul Ingraham the critical tone was much clearer: “Claiming it as a victory is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of making lemonade out of science lemons! But I can understand the mistake, because the review itself does seem positive at first glance: the benefits of SMT are disingenuously summarized as “statistically significant” in the abstract, with no mention of clinical significance (effect size; see Statistical Significance Abuse). So the abstract sounds like good news to anyone but the most wary readers, while deep in the main text the same results are eventually conceded to be “clinically modest.” But even even that seems excessively generous: personally, I need at least a 2-point improvement in pain on a scale of 10 to consider it a “modest” improvement! This is not a clearly positive review: it shows weak evidence of minor efficacy, based on “significant unexplained heterogeneity” in the results. That is, the results were all over the place — but without any impressive benefits reported by any study — and the mixture can’t be explained by any obvious, measurable factor. This probably means there’s just a lot of noise in the data, too many things that are at least as influential as the treatment itself. Or — more optimistically — it could mean that SMT is “just” disappointingly mediocre on average, but might have more potent benefits in a minority of cases (that no one seems to be able to reliably identify). Far from being good news, this review continues a strong trend (eg Rubinstein 2012) of damning SMT with faint praise, and also adds evidence of backfiring to mix. Although fortunately “no RCT reported any serious adverse event,” it seems that minor harms were legion: “increased pain, muscle stiffness, and headache were reported 50% to 67% of the time in large case series of patients treated with SMT.” That’s a lot of undesirable outcomes. So the average patient has a roughly fifty-fifty chance of up to roughly maybe a 20% improvement… or feeling worse to some unknown degree! That does not sound like a good deal to me. It certainly doesn’t sound like good medicine.”

END OF QUOTE

As I have made clear in many previous posts, I do fully agree with these latter statements and would add just three points:

  1. We know that many of the SMT studies completely neglect reporting adverse effects. Therefore it is hardly surprising that no serious complications were on record. Yet, we know that they do occur with sad regularity.
  2. None of the studies controlled for placebo effects. It is therefore possible – I would say even likely – that a large chunk of the observed benefit is not due to SMT per se but to a placebo response.
  3. It seems more than questionable whether the benefits of SMT outweigh its risks.
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