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.
Today is WORLD CANCER DAY.
Yesterday I prepared you for this event by alerting you to a disgusting cancer scam, and today I want to contrast this with more encouraging news from the strange world of alternative medicine. So I searched Medline for a fitting, recent publication showing at least some value of an alternative therapy. Believe me, such papers are few and far between.
But here is one:
The aim of this Cochrane review was to assess effects of yoga on health-related quality of life, mental health and cancer-related symptoms among women with a diagnosis of breast cancer who are receiving active treatment or have completed treatment. The authors conducted extensive literature searches and applied no language restrictions. RCTs were eligible, if they (1) compared yoga interventions to no therapy or to any other active therapy in women with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and (2) assessed at least one of the primary outcomes on patient-reported instruments, including health-related quality of life, depression, anxiety, fatigue or sleep disturbances.
Two review authors independently collected data on methods and results. The risk of publication bias was assessed through visual analysis of funnel plot symmetry and heterogeneity between studies. Subgroup analyses were conducted for current treatment status, time since diagnosis, stage of cancer and type of yoga intervention.
Twenty-four studies with a total of 2166 participants were included, 23 of which provided data for meta-analysis. Thirteen studies had low risk of selection bias, five studies reported adequate blinding of outcome assessment and 15 studies had low risk of attrition bias. Seventeen studies that compared yoga versus no therapy provided moderate-quality evidence showing that yoga improved health-related quality of life, reduced fatigue and reduced sleep disturbances in the short term. There was an overall low risk of publication bias.
Yoga did not appear to reduce depression or anxiety in the short term and had no medium-term effects on health-related quality of life or fatigue. Four studies that compared yoga versus psychosocial/educational interventions provided moderate-quality evidence indicating that yoga can reduce depression, anxiety and fatigue in the short term. Very low-quality evidence showed no short-term effects on health-related quality of life or sleep disturbances. Three studies that compared yoga to exercise presented very low-quality evidence showing no short-term effects on health-related quality of life or fatigue. No trial provided safety-related data.
The authors concluded that moderate-quality evidence supports the recommendation of yoga as a supportive intervention for improving health-related quality of life and reducing fatigue and sleep disturbances when compared with no therapy, as well as for reducing depression, anxiety and fatigue, when compared with psychosocial/educational interventions. Very low-quality evidence suggests that yoga might be as effective as other exercise interventions and might be used as an alternative to other exercise programmes.
As I said, this is most encouraging. Many women are attracted by yoga, and the news that it can improve their symptoms is clearly positive. I have said it often, but I say it again: in supportive and palliative cancer care there might be an important role for several forms of CAM. One has to make sure though that they do not interfere with conventional treatments, and – this is very important – cancer patients must not be misled to believe that they can be used to treat or cure cancer. Finally, patients should not pitch their hopes too high: the effect sizes of alternative treatments in cancer care are invariably small or modest which means that they can help to reduce symptoms but are unlikely to get rid of them completely.
On an even more sober note, I have to reiterate that none of the trials included in the above review reported safety data (yoga is not totally devoid of adverse-effects!). This is an almost stereotypical finding when assessing clinical trials of alternative therapies. It discloses a clear and unacceptable breach of publication ethics. How can we ever get a realistic impression of the risks of alternative medicine, if adverse effects remain unreported? It is high time that researchers, authors, journal editors and reviewers get this message and behave accordingly.
Acupuncture for hot flushes?
I know, to rational thinkers this sounds bizarre – but, actually, there are quite a few studies on the subject. Enough evidence for me to have published not one but four different systematic reviews on the subject.
The first (2009) concluded that “the evidence is not convincing to suggest acupuncture is an effective treatment of hot flash in patients with breast cancer. Further research is required to investigate whether there are specific effects of acupuncture for treating hot flash in patients with breast cancer.”
The second (also 2009) concluded that “sham-controlled RCTs fail to show specific effects of acupuncture for control of menopausal hot flushes. More rigorous research seems warranted.”
The third (again 2009) concluded that “the evidence is not convincing to suggest acupuncture is an effective treatment for hot flush in patients with prostate cancer. Further research is required to investigate whether acupuncture has hot-flush-specific effects.”
The fourth (2013), a Cochrane review, “found insufficient evidence to determine whether acupuncture is effective for controlling menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, there was no evidence of a significant difference in their effect on menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with no treatment there appeared to be a benefit from acupuncture, but acupuncture appeared to be less effective than HT. These findings should be treated with great caution as the evidence was low or very low quality and the studies comparing acupuncture versus no treatment or HT were not controlled with sham acupuncture or placebo HT. Data on adverse effects were lacking.”
And now, there is a new systematic review; its aim was to evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture for treatment of hot flash in women with breast cancer. The searches identified 12 relevant articles for inclusion. The meta-analysis without any subgroup or moderator failed to show favorable effects of acupuncture on reducing the frequency of hot flashes after intervention (n = 680, SMD = − 0.478, 95 % CI −0.397 to 0.241, P = 0.632) but exhibited marked heterogeneity of the results (Q value = 83.200, P = 0.000, I^2 = 83.17, τ^2 = 0.310). The authors concluded that “the meta-analysis used had contradictory results and yielded no convincing evidence to suggest that acupuncture was an effective treatment of hot flash in patients with breast cancer. Multi-central studies including large sample size are required to investigate the efficiency of acupuncture for treating hot flash in patients with breast cancer.”
What follows from all this?
- The collective evidence does NOT seem to suggest that acupuncture is a promising treatment for hot flushes of any aetiology.
- The new paper is unimpressive, in my view. I don’t see the necessity for it, particularly as it fails to include a formal assessment of the methodological quality of the primary studies (contrary to what the authors state in the abstract) and because it merely includes articles published in English (with a therapy like acupuncture, such a strategy seems ridiculous, in my view).
- I predict that future studies will suggest an effect – as long as they are designed such that they are open to bias.
- Rigorous trials are likely to show an effect beyond placebo.
- My own reviews typically state that MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED. I regret such statements and would today no longer issue them.
I have blogged about the herbal antidepressant before; for instance about the fact that it can cause potentially dangerous herb-drug interactions. When taken alone, however, it seems to be both safe and efficacious in reducing the symptoms of depression. This notion has just been confirmed yet again.
A new systematic review evaluated St. John’s wort (SJW) for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). The objectives of this review were to (1) evaluate the efficacy and safety of SJW in adults with MDD compared to placebo and active comparator and (2) evaluate whether the effects vary by severity of MDD.
The authors searched 9 electronic databases and existing reviews to November 2014. Two independent reviewers screened the citations, abstracted the data, and assessed the risk of bias. They included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) examining the effect of at least a 4-week administration of SJW on depression outcomes against placebo or active comparator in adults with MDD. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool and USPSTF criteria. Quality of evidence (QoE) was assessed using the GRADE approach.
Thirty-five studies examining 6993 patients met inclusion criteria; 8 studies evaluated a SJW extract that combined 0.3 % hypericin and 1-4 % hyperforin. SJW was associated with more treatment responders than placebo (relative risk [RR] 1.53; 95 % confidence interval [CI] 1.19, 1.97; I(2) 79 %; 18 RCTs; N = 2922, moderate QoE; standardized mean differences [SMD] 0.49; CI 0.23, 0.74; 16 RCTs; I(2) 89 %, N = 2888, moderate QoE). Compared to antidepressants, SJW participants were less likely to experience adverse events (OR 0.67; CI 0.56, 0.81; 11 RCTs; moderate QoE) with no difference in treatment effectiveness (RR 1.01; CI 0.90, 1.14; 17 RCTs, I(2) 52 %, moderate QoE; SMD -0.03; CI -0.21, 0.15; 14 RCTs; I(2) 74 %; N = 2248, moderate QoE) in mild and moderate depression.
The authors concluded that SJW monotherapy for mild and moderate depression is superior to placebo in improving depression symptoms and not significantly different from antidepressant medication. However, evidence of heterogeneity and a lack of research on severe depression reduce the quality of the evidence. Adverse events reported in RCTs were comparable to placebo and fewer compared with antidepressants. However, assessments were limited due to poor reporting of adverse events and studies were not designed to assess rare events. Consequently, the findings should be interpreted with caution.
This is an excellent review from a reputable and independent team. The findings are therefore trustworthy.
Does that mean that we can now recommend SJW for patients suffering from depression?
Perhaps – but we need to keep an eye on the interaction issue. As a sole treatment, SJW is much safer than conventional antidepressants. But if a patient takes other medicines, we ought to be very careful.
Other currently unresolved issues are the questions of which extract and which dose. At present, there is not enough evidence to provide conclusive answers to either of these, and therefore the enthusiasm of many doctors for prescribing SJW is understandably limited.
Irrespective of these problems, I have to say that SJW is without question one of the biggest ‘success stories’ from the realm of alternative medicine. Pity that there are not more of them!
A website I recently came across promised to teach me 7 things about acupuncture. This sort of thing is always of interest to me; so I read them with interest and found them so remarkable that I decided to reproduce them here:
1. Addiction recovery
Acupuncture calms and relaxes the mind making it easier for people to overcome addictions to drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol by reducing the anxiety and stress they feel when quitting.
2. Helps the body heal itself
The body contains natural pain relief chemicals, such as endorphins and has an amazing capacity for self-healing. Acupuncture helps stimulate the natural healing mechanisms and causes the body to manufacture pain relieving chemicals.
3. Builds a stronger immune system
The body’s immune system is negatively affected by stress, poor diet, illness and certain medical treatments, but acupuncture targets the underlying imbalances naturally and helps it to regain balance.
4. Eliminate that killer hangover
While it may not have been the best choice to finish off that bottle of wine, acupuncture can help the body detox and flush out the morning side effects.
5. Mood stabilizer
If you find yourself snapping at friends, family, or co-workers for unexplained reasons, acupuncture can get to the root of the problem, find the imbalance and help your body return to a healthier state of mind.
6. Chronic stomach problems
Some people suffer from stomach problems and never find the cause. Acupuncture targets your whole body, including the digestive tract and helps it to work in harmony with the rest of the body’s systems.
7. Coping with death
Grief can have an overwhelming effect on the body and manifest itself physically. Acupuncture helps reduce the anxiety of dealing with loss and help you cope with the stress.
END OF QUOTE
The ‘7 things’ are remarkably mislabelled – they should be called 7 lies! Let me explain:
- There are several Cochrane reviews on the subject of acupuncture for various addictions. Here are their conclusions: There is currently no evidence that auricular acupuncture is effective for the treatment of cocaine dependence. The evidence is not of high quality and is inconclusive. Further randomised trials of auricular acupuncture may be justified. There is no clear evidence that acupuncture is effective for smoking cessation. There is currently no evidence that auricular acupuncture is effective for the treatment of cocaine dependence. The evidence is not of high quality and is inconclusive. Further randomised trials of auricular acupuncture may be justified.
- Even if the ‘endorphin story’ is true (in my view, it’s but a theory), there is no good evidence that acupuncture enhances our body’s self-healing mechanisms via endorphins or any other mechanism.
- Stronger immune system? My foot! I have no idea where this claim comes from, certainly not from anything resembling good evidence.
- Acupuncture for hangover or detox? This is just a stupid joke with no evidential support. I imagine, however, that it is superb marketing.
- The same applies to acupuncture to ‘stabilize’ your mood.
- Unexplained stomach problems? Go and see a doctor! Here is the conclusion of a Cochrane review related to IBS which is one of the more common unexplained stomach complaint: Sham-controlled RCTs have found no benefits of acupuncture relative to a credible sham acupuncture control for IBS symptom severity or IBS-related quality of life.
- I am not aware of any good evidence to show that acupuncture could ease the grieving process; I even doubt that this would be such a good or desirable thing: grieving is a necessary and essential process.
So, what we have here are essentially 7 fat lies. Yes, I know, the literature and the internet are full of them. And I suspect that they are a prominent reason why acupuncture is fairly popular today. Lies are a major marketing tool of acupuncturists – but that does not mean that we should let them get away with them!
Bogus claims may be good for the cash flow of alternative practitioners, but they are certainly not good for our health and well-being; in fact, they can cost lives!!!
IN THIS SPIRIT, LET ME ADD SEVEN THINGS YOU DO NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE
- Traditional acupuncture is based on complete hocus pocus and is therefore implausible.
- ‘Western’ acupuncture is based on endorphin and other theories, which are little more than that and at best THEORIES.
- Acupuncture is often promoted as a ‘cure all’ which is implausible and not supported by evidence.
- Meridians, acupoints chi and all the other things acupuncturists claim to exist are pure fantasy.
- For a small list of symptoms, acupuncture is backed up by some evidence, but this is less than convincing and could well turn out to rely on little more than placebo.
- The claim of acupuncturists that acupuncture is entirely safe is false.
- Acupuncture studies from China cannot be trusted.
In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.
According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”
The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”
This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.
Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.
Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:
- the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
- the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
- the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
- the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
- not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
- the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
- there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.
My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.
Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.
In part one, we have dealt with three common tricks used by quacks to convince the public to consult them and to keep coming back for more. It has been pointed out to me that some of these tricks are used not just by alternative practitioners but also by real physicians. This is, of course, absolutely true. A quack can be defined as “a person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically medicine.” Therefore real doctors can be real quacks, of course. I happen to have an interest mainly in alternative medicine; that’s why I write about these type of quacks (if it helps keeping you blood pressure within the limits of normal, I can tell you that I occasionally also published about quackery in mainstream medicine, for instance here).
Anyway, now it is time to continue this series of posts by discussing three further common deceptions used by quacks.
A CURE TAKES A LONG TIME
Imagine a scenario where, even after, several therapy sessions, a patient’s condition has not improved. Let’s assume the problem is back pain, and that it has not improved a bit despite the treatments and the money spent on it. Surely, many patients in such a situation are sooner or later going to give up. They will have had enough! And this is, of course, a serious threat to the practitioner’s cash flow.
Luckily, there is a popular ploy to minimize the risk: the practitioner merely has to explain that the patient’s condition has been going on for a very long time (if, in the above scenario, this were not the case, the practitioner would explain that the pain might be relatively recent but the underlying condition is chronic). This means that a cure will also have to take a very long time – after all, Rome was not built in one day!
This plea to carry on with the ineffective treatments despite any improvement of symptoms is usually not justifiable on medical grounds. It is, however, entirely justifiable on the basis of financial considerations of the practitioners. They rely on their patients’ regular payments and will therefore think of all sorts of means to achieve this aim.
Take my advice and see a clinician who can help you within a reasonable and predictable amount of time.
IT’S DUE TO THE POISONS YOUR DOCTOR GAVE YOU
In the pursuit of a healthy cash-flow, almost all means seem to be allowed – even the fabrication of the bogus notion that the reasons for the patient’s problem were the poisonous drugs prescribed by her doctor who, of course, is in cahoots with BIG PHARMA. Alternative medicine thrives on conspiracy theories, and the one of the evil ‘medical mafia’ is one of the all-time favourites. It enables scrupulous practitioners to instil a good dose of fear into the minds of their patients, a fear that minimises the risk of them returning to real medicine.
My advice is that alternative practitioners who habitually use this or any other conspiracy theory should be avoided at all costs.
The notion that alternative medicine takes care of the whole person is a most attractive and powerful ploy. Never mind that nothing could be further from being holistic than, for instance, diagnosing conditions by looking at a patient’s iris (iridology), or focussing on her spine (chiropractic, osteopathy), or massaging the soles of her feet (reflexology). And never mind that any type of good conventional medicine is by definition holistic. What counts is the label, and ‘holistic’ is a most desirable one, indeed. Nothing sells quackery better than holism.
Most alternative practitioners call themselves holistic and they rub the holism into the minds of their patients whenever and however they can. This insistence on holism has the added advantage that they have seemingly plausible excuses for their therapeutic failures.
Imagine a patient consulting a practitioner with depression and, even after prolonged treatment, her condition is unchanged. Even in such a situation, the holistic practitioner does not need to despair: he will point out that he never treats diagnostic labels but always the whole person. Therefore, the patient’s depression might not have changed, but surely other issues have improved… and, if the patient introspects a little, she might find that her appetite has improved, that her indigestion is better, or that her tennis elbow is less painful (some things always change given enough time). The holism of quacks may be a false pretence, but its benefits for the practitioner are obvious.
My advice: take holism from quacks with a pinch of salt.
The subject of placebo is a complex but fascinating one, particularly for those interested in alternative medicine. Most sceptics believe that alternative therapies rely heavily, if not entirely, on the placebo effect. Some alternative practitioners, when unable to produce convincing evidence that their treatment is effective, seem to have now settled to admitting that their therapy works (mostly or entirely) via a placebo effect. They the hasten to add that this is perfectly fine, because it is just an explanation as to how it works – a mechanism of action, in other words. Causing benefit via a placebo effect still means, they insist, that their therapy is effective.
In a previous post, I have tried to demonstrate that this belief is erroneous and where the notion comes from. It originates, I believe, from a mistaken definition of ‘effectiveness’: for many alternative practitioners ‘effectiveness’ encompasses the specific plus the non-specific (e. g. placebo) effects of their therapy. In real medicine, ‘effectiveness’ is the degree to which a treatment works under real life conditions.
The ‘alternative’ definition is, of course, incorrect but alternative practitioners stubbornly refuse to acknowledge this fact. Here are just two reasons why it cannot be right:
- If it were correct, it would be hardly conceivable to think of a treatment that is NOT effective. Applied with empathy and compassion, virtually all treatments – however devoid of specific effects – will produce a placebo effect. Thus they will all be effective, and the term would be superfluous because ‘treatment’ would automatically mean ‘effective’. An ineffective treatment would, in other words, be a contradiction in terms.
- If it were correct, any pharmaceutical or devices company could legally market ineffective drugs or gadgets and rightly claim (or even prove) that they are effective. Any such therapy could very easily be shown to generate a placebo-effect under the right circumstances; and as long as this is the case, it would be certifiably effective.
I do sympathise with alt med enthusiasts who find this hard or even impossible to accept. They see almost every day how their placebo-therapy benefits their patients. (It seems worth remembering that not just the placebo phenomenon but several other factors are involved in such outcomes – take, for instance, the natural history of the disease and the regression towards the mean.) And they might think that my arguments are nothing but a devious attempt do away with the beneficial power of the placebo.
The truth, however, is that nobody wants to do anything of the sort; we all want to help patients as much as possible, and that does, of course, include the use of the placebo effect. In clinical practice, we usually want to maximise the placebo effect where possible. But for this goal, we do not require placebo therapies. If we administer a specifically effective therapy with compassion, we undoubtedly also generate a placebo response. In addition, our patients would benefit from the specific effects of the prescribed therapy. Both elements are essential for an optimal therapeutic response, and I don’t know any conventional healthcare professionals who do not aim at this optimal outcome.
Giving just placebos will not normally generate an optimal outcome, and therefore it cannot truly be in the interest of the patient. It is also ethically problematic because it usually entails a degree of deception of the patient. Moreover, placebo effects are unreliable and usually of short duration. Foremost, they do not normally cure a disease; they may alleviate symptoms but they almost never tackle their causes. These characteristics hardly make placebos an acceptable choice for routine clinical practice.
The bottom line is clear and simple: a drug that is not better than placebo can only be classified as being ineffective. The same applies to all non-drug therapies. Double standards are not acceptable in healthcare. And the demonstration of a placebo effect does not turn an ineffective therapy into an effective one.
I know that many alternative practitioners do not agree with this line of thought – so, let’s hear their counter-arguments.
Yes, we discussed this study on a previous blog post. But, as it is ‘ACUPUNCTURE AWARENESS WEEK’ in the UK, and because of another reason (which will become clear in a minute) I decided to revisit the trial.
In case you have forgotten, here is its abstract once again:
Background: Hot flashes (HFs) affect up to 75% of menopausal women and pose a considerable health and financial burden. Evidence of acupuncture efficacy as an HF treatment is conflicting.
Objective: To assess the efficacy of Chinese medicine acupuncture against sham acupuncture for menopausal HFs.
Design: Stratified, blind (participants, outcome assessors, and investigators, but not treating acupuncturists), parallel, randomized, sham-controlled trial with equal allocation. (Australia New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry: ACTRN12611000393954)
Setting: Community in Australia.
Participants: Women older than 40 years in the late menopausal transition or postmenopause with at least 7 moderate HFs daily, meeting criteria for Chinese medicine diagnosis of kidney yin deficiency.
Interventions: 10 treatments over 8 weeks of either standardized Chinese medicine needle acupuncture designed to treat kidney yin deficiency or noninsertive sham acupuncture.
Measurements: The primary outcome was HF score at the end of treatment. Secondary outcomes included quality of life, anxiety, depression, and adverse events. Participants were assessed at 4 weeks, the end of treatment, and then 3 and 6 months after the end of treatment. Intention-to-treat analysis was conducted with linear mixed-effects models.
Results: 327 women were randomly assigned to acupuncture (n = 163) or sham acupuncture (n = 164). At the end of treatment, 16% of participants in the acupuncture group and 13% in the sham group were lost to follow-up. Mean HF scores at the end of treatment were 15.36 in the acupuncture group and 15.04 in the sham group (mean difference, 0.33 [95% CI, −1.87 to 2.52]; P = 0.77). No serious adverse events were reported.
Limitation: Participants were predominantly Caucasian and did not have breast cancer or surgical menopause.
Conclusion: Chinese medicine acupuncture was not superior to noninsertive sham acupuncture for women with moderately severe menopausal HFs.
When I first discussed this trial, I commented that the trial has several strengths: it includes a large sample size and the patients were adequately blinded to eliminate the effects of expectations. It was published in a top journal, and we can therefore assume that it was properly peer-reviewed. Combined with the evidence from our previous systematic review, this indicates that acupuncture has no effect beyond placebo.
The reason for bringing it up again is that a comment about the study has recently appeared, not just any old comment but one from the British Medical Acupuncture Society. It is, in my view, gratifying and interesting. It was published on ‘facebook’ and is therefore in danger of getting forgotten. I hope to preserve it by citing it in full.
Here it is:
A large rigorous trial published in a prestigious general medical journal, and the usual mantra rings out – acupuncture is no better than sham. In this case there was not a fraction of difference from a non-penetrating sham in a two-armed trial with over 300 women. Ok,…so we have known for some time that we really need 400 in each arm to demonstrate the usual difference over sham seen in meta-analysis in pain conditions, but there really was not even a sniff of a difference here. So is that it for acupuncture in hot flushes? Well, we have a 40% symptom reduction in both groups, and a strong conviction from some practitioners that it really seems to work. Is 40% enough for a strong conviction? I have heard some dramatic stories from medical acupuncturist colleagues that really would be hard to dismiss as non-specific effects, and from others I have heard relative ambivalence about the effects in hot flushes.
Personally I always try to consider mechanisms, and I wish researchers in the field would do the same before embarking on their trials. That is not intended as a criticism of this trial, but some consideration of mechanisms might allow us to explain all our data, including the contribution of this trial.
Acupuncture has recognised effects that are local to the needle, in the spinal cord (mainly in the segments stimulated) and in the brain (as well as humoral effects in CSF and blood). The latter are probably the mildest of the three categories, and require the best group of patient responders for them to be observable in clinical practice.
Menopausal hot flushes are explained by the effects of reduced oestrogens on the thermoregulatory centre in the anterior hypothalamus. It is certainly plausible that the neuro-inhibitory effects of endogenous opioids such as beta-endorphin, which we know can be released by acupuncture stimulation in experimental settings, could stablise neurones in the anterior hypothalamus that have become irritable due to a sudden drop in oestrogens.
So are endogenous opioids always released by acupuncture? Well, they and their effects seem to be measurable in experiments that use what I call proper acupuncture. That is, strong stimulation to deep somatic tissue. In the laboratory, and indeed in my clinic, this is only usually achieved in a palatable manner by electroacupuncture to muscle, although repeated manual stimulation every few minutes may have similar effects.
Ee et al used a relatively gentle acupuncture protocol, so they may have only generated measurable effects, based on mechanistic speculation, in the most responsive patients, perhaps less than 10%.
What does all this tell us? Well this trial clearly demonstrates that gentle acupuncture protocols generate effects in women with hot flushes via context rather than penetrating needling. In conditions that rely on central effects, I think we still need to consider stronger stimulation protocols and enriched enrollment in trials, ie preselecting responders before randomisation.
In my original comment I also predicted: “One does not need to be a clairvoyant to predict that acupuncturists will now find what they perceive as a flaw in the new study and claim that its results were false-negative.”
I am so glad Mike Cummings and the BMAS rushed to prove me right.
It’s so nice to know one can rely on someone in these uncertain times!
Alternative medicine (AM) use has become popular among patients with cancer. I find this very easy to understand: faced with such a grave diagnosis, who would not be tempted to try everything that is being promoted as being helpful. And, by Jove, promoted it is! But does it do any good?
The evidence clearly shows that no form of AM is capable of changing the natural history of any form of cancer. This means the millions of websites that imply otherwise are criminally wrong and frightfully dangerous.
But some AMs might still be useful, namely for improving symptoms, well-being and quality of life (QOL) as supportive or palliative therapies. Unfortunately the evidence for this assumption is less sound than AM fans try to make us believe. Before this background, better research is needed and more trials would be welcome. A brand-new paper might tell us more.
The purposes of this study were to compare the QOL in CAM users and non-CAM users and to determine whether AM use influences QOL among breast cancer patients during chemotherapy.
A cross-sectional survey was conducted at two outpatient chemotherapy centers. A total of 546 patients completed the questionnaires on AM use. QOL was evaluated based on the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) core quality of life (QLQ-C30) and breast cancer-specific quality of life (QLQ-BR23) questionnaires.
A total of 70.7% of patients were identified as AM users. There was no significant difference in global health status scores and in all 5 subscales of the QLQ C30 functional scales between AM users and non-AM users. On the QLQ-C30 symptom scales, AM users (44.96±3.89) had significantly (p = 0.01) higher mean scores for financial difficulties than non-AM users (36.29±4.81). On the QLQ-BR23 functional scales, AM users reported significantly higher mean scores for sexual enjoyment (6.01±12.84 vs. 4.64±12.76, p = 0.04) than non-AM users. On the QLQ-BR23 symptom scales, AM users reported higher systemic therapy side effects (41.34±2.01 vs. 37.22±2.48, p = 0.04) and breast symptoms (15.76±2.13 vs. 11.08±2.62, p = 0.02) than non-AM users. Multivariate logistic regression analysis indicated that the use of CAM modality was not significantly associated with higher global health status scores (p = 0.71).
The authors drew the following conclusions: While the findings indicated that there was no significant difference between users and non-users of AM in terms of QOL, AM may be used by health professionals as a surrogate to monitor patients with higher systemic therapy side effects and breast symptoms. Furthermore, given that AM users reported higher financial burdens (which may have contributed to increased distress), patients should be encouraged to discuss the potential benefits and/or disadvantages of using AM with their healthcare providers.
One needs to caution, of course, that this was not an RCT, and therefore cause and effect cannot be taken for granted. Nevertheless, I believe, that these findings should make us think critically about the wide-spread notion that the supportive and palliative use of AM leads to an improvement of QOL in cancer patients.