MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

scientific misconduct

I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:

  • is on alternative medicine,
  • focusses on acupuncture,
  • is authored by Chinese researchers,
  • was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?

The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!

As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.

The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.

And what is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING!

  • The review is of very poor quality.
  • The primary studies are even worse.
  • The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
  • The conclusions are misleading.

Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.

And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.

In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:

56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.

Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!

And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.

Systematic reviews are aimed at summarising and critically evaluating the evidence on a specific research question. They are the highest level of evidence and are more reliable than anything else we have. Therefore, they represent a most useful tool for both clinicians and researchers.

But there are, of course, exceptions. Take, for instance, this recent systematic review by researchers from the

  • Texas Chiropractic College, Pasadena, the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport,
  • Department of Planning, Policy and Design, University of California, Irvine,
  • VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Tacoma,
  • New York Chiropractic College, Seneca Falls,
  • Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield,
  • University of Western States, Portland.

Its purpose was to evaluate the effectiveness of conservative non-drug, non-surgical interventions, either alone or in combination, for conditions of the shoulder. The review was conducted from March 2016 to November 2016 in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA), and was registered with PROSPERO. Eligibility criteria included randomized controlled trials (RCTs), systematic reviews, or meta-analyses studying adult patients with a shoulder diagnosis. Interventions qualified if they did not involve prescription medication or surgical procedures, although these could be used in the comparison group or groups. At least 2 independent reviewers assessed the quality of each study using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network checklists. Shoulder conditions addressed were

  • shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS),
  • rotator cuff-associated disorders (RCs),
  • adhesive capsulitis (AC),
  • nonspecific shoulder pain.

Twenty-five systematic reviews and 44 RCTs met inclusion criteria. Low- to moderate-quality evidence supported the use of manual therapies for all 4 shoulder conditions. Exercise, particularly combined with physical therapy protocols, was beneficial for SIS and AC. For SIS, moderate evidence supported several passive modalities. For RC, physical therapy protocols were found beneficial but not superior to surgery in the long term. Moderate evidence supported extracorporeal shockwave therapy for calcific tendinitis RC. Low-level laser was the only modality for which there was moderate evidence supporting its use for all 4 conditions.

The authors concluded that the findings of this literature review may help inform practitioners who use conservative methods (eg, doctors of chiropractic, physical therapists, and other manual therapists) regarding the levels of evidence for modalities used for common shoulder conditions.

This review has so many defects that it would be boring to list them here.

The PRISMA guidelines  – I happen to be a co-author – state, for instance, that the abstract (the above text is from the abstract) should provide a structured summary including, as applicable: background; objectives; data sources; study eligibility criteria, participants, and interventions; study appraisal and synthesis methods; results; limitations; conclusions and implications of key findings; systematic review registration number. It is obvious that the review authors have omitted several of these items.

And that is just the abstract!  There is much, much more to criticise in this paper.

The most striking deficit, in my view, is the useless conclusion: the one from the abstract (the part of the paper that will be read most widely) could have been written before the review had even been started. It is therefore not based on the data presented. Crucially it does not match the stated aim of this review (“to evaluate the effectiveness of conservative…interventions”).

But why? Why did the authors bother to follow PRISMA? Why did they formulate this bizarre conclusion in their abstract? Why did they do a review in the first place?

I fear, the answers might be embarrassingly simple:

  • They only pretended to follow PRISMA guidelines because that gives their review a veneer of respectability.
  • They formulated the conclusions because otherwise they would have needed to state that the evidence for manual therapy is less than convincing.
  • They conducted the review to promote chiropractic, and when the data were not as they had hoped for, they just back-paddled in an attempt to hide the truth as much as possible.

If this were an isolated case, I would not have bothered to mention it. But sadly, in the realm of chiropractic (and alternative medicine in general) we currently witness a plethora of rubbish reviews (published by rubbish journals). To the naïve observer, they might look rigorous and therefore they will be taken seriously. The end-effect of this pollution of the literature with rubbish is that we get a false-positive impression about the validity of the treatments in question. Consequently, we will see a host of wrong decisions on all levels of healthcare.

The big question is: HOW DO WE PROTECT OURSELVES FROM THIS DANGEROUS TREND?

I only see one solution: completely disregard certain journals that have been identified to regularly publish nonsense. Sadly, the wider medical community is far from having arrived at this point. As far as I can see, the problem has not even been identified yet as a serious issue that needs addressing. For the foreseeable future, we will probably have to live with this type of pollution of our medical literature.

How often have I pointed out that most studies of chiropractic (and other alternative therapies) are overtly unethical because they fail to report adverse events? And if you think this is merely my opinion, you are mistaken. This new analysis by a team of chiropractors aimed to describe the extent of adverse events reporting in published RCTs of Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT), and to determine whether the quality of reporting has improved since publication of the 2010 Consolidated Standards Of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) statement.

The Physiotherapy Evidence Database and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched for RCTs involving SMT. Domains of interest included classifications of adverse events, completeness of adverse events reporting, nomenclature used to describe the events, methodological quality of the study, and details of the publishing journal. Data were analysed using descriptive statistics. Frequencies and proportions of trials reporting on each of the specified domains above were calculated. Differences in proportions between pre- and post-CONSORT trials were calculated with 95% confidence intervals using standard methods, and statistical comparisons were analysed using tests for equality of proportions with continuity correction.

Of 7,398 records identified in the electronic searches, 368 articles were eligible for inclusion in this review. Adverse events were reported in 140 (38.0%) articles. There was a significant increase in the reporting of adverse events post-CONSORT (p=.001). There were two major adverse events reported (0.3%). Only 22 articles (15.7%) reported on adverse events in the abstract. There were no differences in reporting of adverse events post-CONSORT for any of the chosen parameters.

The authors concluded that although there has been an increase in reporting adverse events since the introduction of the 2010 CONSORT guidelines, the current level should be seen as inadequate and unacceptable. We recommend that authors adhere to the CONSORT statement when reporting adverse events associated with RCTs that involve SMT.

We conducted a very similar analysis back in 2012. Specifically, we evaluated all 60 RCTs of chiropractic SMT published between 2000 and 2011 and found that 29 of them did not mention adverse effects at all. Sixteen RCTs reported that no adverse effects had occurred (which I find hard to believe since reliable data show that about 50% of patients experience adverse effects after consulting a chiropractor). Complete information on incidence, severity, duration, frequency and method of reporting of adverse effects was included in only one RCT. Conflicts of interests were not mentioned by the majority of authors. Our conclusion was that adverse effects are poorly reported in recent RCTs of chiropractic manipulations.

The new paper suggests that the situation has improved a little, yet it is still wholly unacceptable. To conduct a clinical trial and fail to mention adverse effects is not, as the authors of the new article suggest, against current guidelines; it is a clear and flagrant violation of medical ethics. I blame the authors of such papers, the reviewers and the journal editors for behaving dishonourably and urge them to get their act together.

The effects of such non-reporting are obvious: anyone looking at the evidence (for instance via systematic reviews) will get a false-positive impression of the safety of SMT. Consequently, chiropractors are able to claim that very few adverse effects have been reported in the literature, therefore our hallmark therapy SMT is demonstrably safe. Those who claim otherwise are quite simply alarmist.

A recent post discussed a ‘STATE OF THE ART REVIEW’ from the BMJ. When I wrote it, I did not know that there was more to come. It seems that the BMJ is planning an entire series on the state of the art of BS! The new paper certainly looks like it:

Headaches, including primary headaches such as migraine and tension-type headache, are a common clinical problem. Complementary and integrative medicine (CIM), formerly known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), uses evidence informed modalities to assist in the health and healing of patients. CIM commonly includes the use of nutrition, movement practices, manual therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, and mind-body strategies. This review summarizes the literature on the use of CIM for primary headache and is based on five meta-analyses, seven systematic reviews, and 34 randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The overall quality of the evidence for CIM in headache management is generally low and occasionally moderate. Available evidence suggests that traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture, massage, yoga, biofeedback, and meditation have a positive effect on migraine and tension headaches. Spinal manipulation, chiropractic care, some supplements and botanicals, diet alteration, and hydrotherapy may also be beneficial in migraine headache. CIM has not been studied or it is not effective for cluster headache. Further research is needed to determine the most effective role for CIM in patients with headache.

My BS-detector struggled with the following statements:

  • integrative medicine (CIM), formerly known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – the fact that CIM is a nonsensical new term has been already mentioned in the previous post;
  • evidence informed modalities – another new term! evidence-BASED would be too much? because it would require using standards that do not apply to CIM? double standards promoted by the BMJ, what next?
  • CIM commonly includes the use of nutrition – yes, so does any healthcare or indeed life!
  • the overall quality of the evidence for CIM in headache management is generally low and occasionally moderate – in this case, no conclusions should be drawn from it (see below);
  • evidence suggests that traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture, massage, yoga, biofeedback, and meditation have a positive effect on migraine and tension headaches – no, it doesn’t (see above)!
  • further research is needed to determine the most effective role for CIM in patients with headache – this sentence does not even make the slightest sense to me; have the reviewers of this article been asleep?

And this is just the abstract!

The full text provides enough BS to fertilise many acres of farmland!

Moreover, the article is badly researched, cherry-picked, poorly constructed, devoid of critical input, and poorly written. Is there anything good about it? You tell me – I did not find much!

My BS-detector finally broke when we came to the conclusions:

The use of CIM therapies has the potential to empower patients and help them take an active role in their care. Many CIM modalities, including mind-body therapies, are both self selected and self administered after an education period. This, coupled with patients’ increased desire to incorporate integrative medicine, should prompt healthcare providers to consider and discuss its inclusion in the overall management strategy. Low to moderate quality evidence exists for the effectiveness of some CIM therapies in the management of primary headache. The evidence for and use of CIM is continuously changing so healthcare professionals should direct their patients to reliable and updated resources, such as NCCIH.

WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE BMJ?

IT USED TO BE A GOOD JOURNAL!

Shiatsu is one of those alternative therapies where there is almost no research. Therefore, every new study is of interest, and I was delighted to find this new trial.

Italian researchers tested the efficacy and safety of combining shiatsu and amitriptyline to treat refractory primary headaches in a single-blind, randomized, pilot study. Subjects with a diagnosis of primary headache and who experienced lack of response to ≥2 different prophylactic drugs were randomized in a 1:1:1 ratio to receive one of the following treatments:

  1. shiatsu plus amitriptyline,
  2. shiatsu alone,
  3. amitriptyline alone

The treatment period lasted 3 months and the primary endpoint was the proportion of patients experiencing ≥50%-reduction in headache days. Secondary endpoints were days with headache per month, visual analogue scale, and number of pain killers taken per month.

After randomization, 37 subjects were allocated to shiatsu plus amitriptyline (n = 11), shiatsu alone (n = 13), and amitriptyline alone (n = 13). Randomization ensured well-balanced demographic and clinical characteristics at baseline.

The results show that all the three groups improved in terms of headache frequency, visual analogue scale score, and number of pain killers and there was no between-group difference in the primary endpoint. Shiatsu (alone or in combination) was superior to amitriptyline in reducing the number of pain killers taken per month. Seven (19%) subjects reported adverse events, all attributable to amitriptyline, while no side effects were related with shiatsu treatment.

The authors concluded that shiatsu is a safe and potentially useful alternative approach for refractory headache. However, there is no evidence of an additive or synergistic effect of combining shiatsu and amitriptyline. These findings are only preliminary and should be interpreted cautiously due to the small sample size of the population included in our study.

Yes, I would advocate great caution indeed!

The results could easily be said to demonstrate that shiatsu is NOT effective. There is NO difference between the groups when looking at the primary endpoint. This plus the lack of a placebo-group renders the findings uninterpretable:

  • If we take the comparison 2 versus 3, this might indicate efficacy of shiatsu.
  • If we take the comparison 1 versus 3, it would indicate the opposite.
  • If we finally take the comparison 1 versus 2, it would suggest that the drug was ineffective.

So, we can take our pick!

Moreover, I do object to the authors’ conclusion that “shiatsu is a safe”. For such a statement, we would need sample sizes that are about two dimensions greater that those of this study.

So, what might be an acceptable conclusion from this trial? I see only one that is in accordance with the design and the results of this study:

 

POORLY DESIGNED RESEARCH CANNOT LEAD TO ANY CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THERAPEUTIC EFFICACY OR SAFETY. IT IS A WASTE OF RESOURCES AND A VIOLATION OF RESEARCH ETHICAL.

The aim of this pragmatic study was “to investigate the effectiveness of acupuncture in addition to routine care in patients with allergic asthma compared to treatment with routine care alone.”

Patients with allergic asthma were included in a controlled trial and randomized to receive up to 15 acupuncture sessions over 3 months plus routine care, or to a control group receiving routine care alone. Patients who did not consent to randomization received acupuncture treatment for the first 3 months and were followed as a cohort. All trial patients were allowed to receive routine care in addition to study treatment. The primary endpoint was the asthma quality of life questionnaire (AQLQ, range: 1–7) at 3 months. Secondary endpoints included general health related to quality of life (Short-Form-36, SF-36, range 0–100). Outcome parameters were assessed at baseline and at 3 and 6 months.

A total of 1,445 patients were randomized and included in the analysis (184 patients randomized to acupuncture plus routine care and 173 to routine care alone, and 1,088 in the nonrandomized acupuncture plus routine care group). In the randomized part, acupuncture was associated with an improvement in the AQLQ score compared to the control group (difference acupuncture vs. control group 0.7 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.5–1.0]) as well as in the physical component scale and the mental component scale of the SF-36 (physical: 2.5 [1.0–4.0]; mental 4.0 [2.1–6.0]) after 3 months. Treatment success was maintained throughout 6 months. Patients not consenting to randomization showed similar improvements as the randomized acupuncture group.

The authors concluded that in patients with allergic asthma, additional acupuncture treatment to routine care was associated with increased disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared to treatment with routine care alone.

We have been over this so many times (see for instance here, here and here) that I am almost a little embarrassed to explain it again: it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. The currently most popular way to achieve this aim in alternative medicine research is to do a ‘A+B versus B’ study, where A = the experimental treatment, and B = routine care. As A always amounts to more than nothing – in the above trial acupuncture would have placebo effects and the extra attention would also amount to something – A+B must always be more than B alone. The easiest way of thinking of this is to imagine that A and B are both finite amounts of money; everyone can understand that A+B must always be more than B!

Why then do acupuncture researchers not get the point? Are they that stupid? I happen to know some of the authors of the above paper personally, and I can assure you, they are not stupid!

So, why?

I am afraid there is only one reason I can think of: they know perfectly well that such an RCT can only produce a positive finding, and precisely that is their reason for conducting such a study. In other words, they are not using science to test a hypothesis, they deliberately abuse it to promote their pet therapy or hypothesis.

As I stated above, it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. Yet, it is arguably also unethical, perhaps even fraudulent, to do this. In my view, such RCTs amount to pseudoscience and scientific misconduct.

‘What Doctors Don’t Tell You’ (WDDTY) have been shown to be strangely economical with the truth many times before (for instance here, here and here). Now they have published an article entitled ‘Ombudsman investigates ‘flawed’ homeopathic study that claimed it doesn’t work’ It attacks in no uncertain terms the ‘NHMRC Statement on Homeopathy and NHMRC Information Paper – Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions’ which I believe to be a sound evaluation of homeopathy and therefore have mentioned repeatedly on this blog. Here is what WDDTY stated:

START OF QUOTE

A major and influential review of homeopathy concluded that the controversial therapy doesn’t work—but it was so riddled with error and bad science that it’s sparked an official ombudsman investigation.

The world’s media announced that homeopathy was a scam after the Australia government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published its findings in 2015 that “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”

But now the Commonwealth Ombudsman is investigating the review’s procedures after receiving reports of inaccuracies, mishandling of evidence and conflicts of interest.

The review has been triggered by the Australian Homeopathic Association (AHA), supported by the Homeopathic Research Institute (HRI), which began questioning the review’s processes after several solid studies that demonstrated homeopathy’s benefits had been overlooked.

The NHMRC review team set arbitrary parameters that only studies that involved more than 150 people—and which met standards that even drug trials rarely achieve—would be considered. Those requirements reduced the number of qualifying studies to just five—from an initial pool of more than 1,800 trials—and none of these showed that homeopathy was effective.

One of the NHMRC’s own reviewers produced a mysterious first report that has never been published, and hasn’t been released despite Freedom of Information requests.

And the AHA has discovered that Prof Peter Brooks, chair of the NHMRC committee that carried out the homeopathy review, never declared that he was a member of the anti-homeopathy lobby group, Friends of Science in Medicine.

There are solid studies that demonstrate homeopathy is effective against childhood diarrhea, sinusitis and hay fever—but they all involve fewer than 150 people, said HRI chief executive Rachel Roberts. “The public has a right to know that there are high quality studies showing homeopathy works for some medical conditions—information that was lost only due to NHMRC’s mishandling of the evidence.”

The homeopaths aren’t alone in challenging the NHMRC review: Australia’s independent Cochrane Centre said its conclusions are not an accurate reflection of the evidence, and a second expert also said he felt “uncertain of the definitive nature of the report’s conclusions.”

END OF QUOTE

As it happens, I am in contact with the lead author of this report, Paul Glasziou, not least because he very kindly wrote the foreword for my book HOMEOPATHY, THE UNDILUTED FACTS. So, we corresponded and discussed the latest WDDTY diatribe. Thus I am now in a position to put a few things straight (I hope Paul does not mind).

ISSUE 1. – The NHMRC review team set arbitrary parameters that only studies involving more than 150 people—and which met standards that even drug trials rarely achieve—would be considered.

The truth is that report focused on systematic reviews of trials, not individual trials. The 57 included systematic reviews found 176 individual trials which covered 61 conditions: an average of about 3 trials per condition. But some conditions only had 1 trial, and one small trial would, of course, not be considered a reasonable basis for reliable conclusions. GRADE – the international standard for assessing evidence – downgrades reviews for “imprecision” – the GRADE Handbook suggests “whenever there are sample sizes that are less than 400, review authors and guideline developers should certainly consider rating down for imprecision.” Hence the criterion of 150 which the Australians decided to use is considerably more lenient than the current GRADE guideline.

ISSUE 2 – Those requirements reduced the number of qualifying studies to just five—from an initial pool of more than 1,800 trials—and none of these showed that homeopathy was effective.

This is simply not correct. The report found 57 systematic reviews that contained 176 individual trials, not 5. These 176 trials, which covered 61 conditions, formed the body of evidence for the NHMRC report’s conclusions.

ISSUE 3 – There are solid studies that demonstrate homeopathy is effective against childhood diarrhoea, sinusitis and hay fever—but they all involve fewer than 150 people, said HRI chief executive Rachel Roberts.

The NHMRC report focused on systematic reviews that covered all trials for individual conditions. Given the conventional p-value of 0.05, one would expect 1 in 20 single trials to be “false positives”. So with 176 trials, we expect about 9 “false positive” trials. But using systematic reviews that combine all trials for individual conditions, reduces this risk of false positives. Most national evidence review bodies require more than 1 trial, e.g, the FDA requires 2 positive trials, whereas many others require a systematic review which has at least 2 trials. Replication of findings is obviously a cornerstone of science.

ISSUE 4 The homeopaths aren’t alone in challenging the NHMRC review: Australia’s independent Cochrane Centre said its conclusions are not an accurate reflection of the evidence, and a second expert also said he felt “uncertain of the definitive nature of the report’s conclusions.”

The truth is that the Cochrane Centre, which provided an independent check during the processes of the NHMRC review, concluded that “Overall, the conclusions arising from the review appear justified based on the evidence presented.”

I REST MY CASE.

The title of the press-release was impressive: ‘Columbia and Harvard Researchers Find Yoga and Controlled Breathing Reduce Depressive Symptoms’. It certainly awoke my interest and I looked up the original article. Sadly, it also awoke the interest of many journalists, and the study was reported widely – and, as we shall see, mostly wrongly.

According to its authors, the aims of this study were “to assess the effects of an intervention of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing at five breaths per minute on depressive symptoms and to determine optimal intervention yoga dosing for future studies in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD)”.

Thirty two subjects were randomized to either the high-dose group (HDG) or low-dose group (LDG) for a 12-week intervention of three or two intervention classes per week, respectively. Eligible subjects were 18–64 years old with MDD, had baseline Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) scores ≥14, and were either on no antidepressant medications or on a stable dose of antidepressants for ≥3 months. The intervention included 90-min classes plus homework. Outcome measures were BDI-II scores and intervention compliance.

Fifteen HDG and 15 LDG subjects completed the intervention. BDI-II scores at screening and compliance did not differ between groups. BDI-II scores declined significantly from screening (24.6 ± 1.7) to week 12 (6.0 ± 3.8) for the HDG (–18.6 ± 6.6; p < 0.001), and from screening (27.7 ± 2.1) to week 12 (10.1 ± 7.9) in the LDG. There were no significant differences between groups, based on response (i.e., >50% decrease in BDI-II scores; p = 0.65) for the HDG (13/15 subjects) and LDG (11/15 subjects) or remission (i.e., number of subjects with BDI-II scores <14; p = 1.00) for the HDG (14/15 subjects) and LDG (13/15 subjects) after the 12-week intervention, although a greater number of subjects in the HDG had 12-week BDI-II scores ≤10 (p = 0.04).

The authors concluded that this dosing study provides evidence that participation in an intervention composed of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms for individuals with MDD, both on and off antidepressant medications. The HDG and LDG showed no significant differences in compliance or in rates of response or remission. Although the HDG had significantly more subjects with BDI-II scores ≤10 at week 12, twice weekly classes (plus home practice) may rates of response or remission. Although the HDG, thrice weekly classes (plus home practice) had significantly more subjects with BDI-II scores ≤10 at week 12, the LDG, twice weekly classes (plus home practice) may constitute a less burdensome but still effective way to gain the mood benefits from the intervention. This study supports the use of an Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing intervention as a treatment to alleviate depressive symptoms in MDD.

The authors also warn that this study must be interpreted with caution and point out several limitations:

  • the small sample size,
  • the lack of an active non-yoga control (both groups received Iyengar yoga plus coherent breathing),
  • the supportive group environment and multiple subject interactions with research staff each week could have contributed to the reduction in depressive symptoms,
  • the results cannot be generalized to MDD with more acute suicidality or more severe symptoms.

In the press-release, we are told that “The practical findings for this integrative health intervention are that it worked for participants who were both on and off antidepressant medications, and for those time-pressed, the two times per week dose also performed well,” says The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Editor-in-Chief John Weeks

At the end of the paper, we learn that the authors, Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg, teach and have published Breath∼Body∼Mind©, a technique that uses coherent breathing. Dr. Streeter is certified to teach Breath∼Body∼Mind©. No competing financial interests exist for the remaining authors.

Taking all of these issues into account, my take on this study is different and a little more critical:

  • The observed effects might have nothing at all to do with the specific intervention tested.
  • The trial was poorly designed.
  • The aims of the study are not within reach of its methodology.
  • The trial lacked a proper control group.
  • It was published in a journal that has no credibility.
  • The limitations outlined by the authors are merely the tip of an entire iceberg of fatal flaws.
  • The press-release is irresponsibly exaggerated.
  • The authors have little incentive to truly test their therapy and seem to use research as a means of promoting their business.

Aromatherapy is popular and pleasant – but does it have real health effects? The last time I tried to find an answer to this question was in 2012. At that time, our systematic review concluded that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.” But 5 years can be a long time in research, and more up-to-date information would perhaps be helpful.

This systematic review of 2017 aimed to provide an analysis of the clinical evidence on the efficacy of aromatherapy specifically for depressive symptoms on any type of patients. The authors searched 5 databases for relevant studies Outcome measures included scales measuring depressive symptoms levels. Twelve randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were included. Aromatherapy was administered by inhalation (5 studies) or massage (7 studies). Seven RCTs showed improvement in depressive symptoms. The quality of half of the studies was low, and the administration protocols varied considerably among the studies. Different assessment tools were employed in the studies. In 6 of the RCTs, aromatherapy was compared to no intervention.

Despite these caveats, the authors concluded that aromatherapy showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms in a wide variety of subjects. Particularly, aromatherapy massage showed to have more beneficial effects than inhalation aromatherapy.

Apart from the poor English, this paper is irritating because of the almost total lack of critical input. Given that half of the trials were of poor quality (only one was given the full points on the quality scale) and many totally failed to control for placebo-effects, I think that calling aromatherapy an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms is simply not warranted. In fact, it is highly misleading and, given the fact that depression is a life-threatening condition, it seems unethical and dangerous.

Considering these facts, my conclusion remains that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition, including depression.”

Dana Ullman is an indefatigable promotor of bogus claims and an unwitting contributor of hilarity. Therefore he has become a regular feature of this blog (see for instance here, here and here). His latest laughable assertion is that lead and other poisonings can be successfully treated with homeopathy.

Just to make sure: lead poisoning is no joke. The greatest risk is to brain development in babies, where irreversible damage can occur. Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults. Very high lead levels may cause seizures, unconsciousness and death.

In view of this, Ullman’s claim is surprising, to say the least. In order to persuade the unsuspecting public of his notion, Ullman first cites a review of basic research on homeopathy and toxins published in Human and Experimental Toxicology. “Of forty high-quality studies, 27 showed positive results from homeopathic treatment”, Ullman states.

Now, now, now Dana!

Has your mom not taught you that telling porkies is forbidden?

Or did you perhaps miss this line in the article’s abstract? “The quality of evidence in these studies was low with only 43% achieving one half of the maximum possible quality score and only 31% reported in a fashion that permitted re-evaluation of the data. Very few studies were independently replicated using comparable models.”

Hardly ‘high quality studies’, wouldn’t you agree?

But this review was of pre-clinical studies; what about the much more important clinical evidence?

Here Ullman cites one trial where a potentized homeopathic remedy, Arsenicum Album 30C, was administered to  55 people who were entered into a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. According to Ullman, the homeopathically treated group “experienced higher excretion of arsenic in their urine for the first eleven days, compared to those given a placebo.”

Na, na, na, Dana, this is getting serious!!!

Another porky – and not even a little one.

The authors of this study clearly stated that, at the end of the 11-day RCT, there was no significant difference between the homeopathy and the placebo group: “The differences in the concentration between the two groups (drug versus placebo) were generally a little higher during the first week, but subsequently the differences were not so palpable, particularly at the 11th day.” And for those who are a bit slow on the uptake, they even included a graph that makes it abundantly clear.

The only other clinical study cited by Ullman in support of his surprising claim is a double-blind randomized trial which was conducted with 131 workers who suffered lead poisoning at the Ajax battery plant in Bauru, São Paulo State, Brazil. Subjects were prescribed homeopathic doses of lead (Plumbum metallicum 15C) or placebo which they took orally for 35 days. The results of this RCT show that homeopathy is not better than placebo.

So, we seem to have all of two RCTs on the subject (I did a quick Medline-search and also found no further RCTs), and both are negative.

Anyone who is not given to compulsive porky-telling would, I guess, conclude from this evidence that people suffering from lead poisoning should urgently see conventional experts and avoid homeopaths at all costs – not so Dana Ullman who boldly concludes his article with these words:

“As an adjunct to conventional medical treatment, professional homeopathic care is recommended for people who have been exposed (or think they have been exposed) to toxic substances… Even if you do not have a professional homeopath in your town, many homeopathic practitioners “see” their patients via Skype or do consultations over the telephone. Unlike acupuncturists, who put needles in you, or chiropractors, who adjust your spine, homeopaths are not “hands-on”: they simply need to conduct a detailed interview… If your symptoms are serious or potentially serious, it is important to see a professional homeopath and/or physician. While a homeopath will commonly prescribe a safe homeopathic dose of the toxic substance to which one was exposed, the homeopath may instead decide that a different substance more closely matches the patient’s unique symptoms…”

It takes a lot these days to make me speechless but there, Dana, you almost succeeded!

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