MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

symptom-relief

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This new RCT by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia was aimed at ‘examining the effect of changing treatment timing and the use of manual, electro acupuncture on the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea’. It had four arms:

  1. low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
  2. high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
  3. low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
  4. and high frequency electro acupuncture (HF-EA).

A total of 74 women were given 12 treatments over three menstrual cycles, either once per week (LF groups) or three times in the week prior to menses (HF groups). All groups received a treatment in the first 48 hours of menses. The primary outcome was the reduction in peak menstrual pain at 12 months from trial entry.

During the treatment period and 9 month follow-up all groups showed statistically significant reductions in peak and average menstrual pain compared to baseline. However, there were no differences between groups. Health related quality of life increased significantly in 6 domains in groups having high frequency of treatment compared to two domains in low frequency groups. Manual acupuncture groups required less analgesic medication than electro-acupuncture groups. HF-MA was most effective in reducing secondary menstrual symptoms compared to both–EA groups.

The authors concluded that acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity and duration after three months of treatment and this was sustained for up to one year after trial entry. The effect of changing mode of stimulation or frequency of treatment on menstrual pain was not significant. This may be due to a lack of power. The role of acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials.

If I were not used to reading rubbish research of alternative medicine in general and acupuncture in particular, this RCT would amaze me – not so much because of its design, execution, or write-up, but primarily because of its conclusion (why, oh why, I ask myself, did PLOS ONE publish this paper?). They are, I think, utterly barmy.

Let me explain:

  • acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity” – oh no, it didn’t; at least this is not what the study proves; the fact that pain was perceived as less could be due to a host of factors, for instance regression towards the mean, or social desirability; as there was no proper control group, nobody can tell;
  • the lack of difference between treatments “may be due to a lack of power”. Yes, but more likely it is due to the fact that all versions of a placebo therapy generate similar outcomes.
  • acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials”. Why? Because the authors have a quasi-religious belief in acupuncture? And if they have, why did they not design their study ‘appropriately’?

The best conclusion I can suggest for this daft trial is this: IN THIS STUDY, THE PRIMARY ENDPOINT SHOWED NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 4 TREATMENT GROUPS. THE RESULTS ARE THEREFORE FULLY COMPATIBLE WITH THE NOTION THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS A PLACEBO THERAPY.

Something along these lines would, in my view, have been honest and scientific. Sadly, in acupuncture research, we very rarely get such honest science and the ‘National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia’ has no track record of being the laudable exception to this rule.

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.

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.

This double-blind RCT aimed to test the efficacy of self-administered acupressure for pain and physical function in adults with knee osteoarthritis (KOA).

150 patients with symptomatic KOA participated and were randomized to

  1. verum acupressure,
  2. sham acupressure,
  3. or usual care.

Verum and sham, but not usual care, participants were taught to self-apply acupressure once daily, five days/week for eight weeks. Assessments were collected at baseline, 4 and 8 weeks. The numeric rating scale (NRS) for pain was administered during weekly phone calls. Outcomes included the WOMAC pain subscale (primary), the NRS and physical function measures (secondary). Linear mixed regression was conducted to test between group differences in mean changes from baseline for the outcomes at eight weeks.

Compared with usual care, both verum and sham participants experienced significant improvements in WOMAC pain, NRS pain and WOMAC function at 8 weeks. There were no significant differences between verum and sham acupressure groups in any of the outcomes.

The authors concluded that self-administered acupressure is superior to usual care in pain and physical function improvement for older people with KOA. The reason for the benefits is unclear and placebo effects may have played a role.

Another very odd conclusion!

The authors’ stated aim was to TEST THE EFFICACY OF ACUPRESSURE. To achieve this aim, they rightly compared it to a placebo (sham) intervention. This comparison did not show any differences between the two. Ergo, the only correct conclusion is that acupressure is a placebo.

I know, the authors (sort of) try to say this in their conclusions: placebo effects may have played a role. But surely, this is more than a little confusing. Placebo effects were quite evidently the sole cause of the observed outcomes. Is it ethical to confuse the public in this way, I wonder.

 

 

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.

 

This new systematic review by proponents of homeopathy (and supported by a grant from the Manchester Homeopathic Clinic) tested the null hypothesis that “the main outcome of treatment using a non-individualised (standardised) homeopathic medicine is indistinguishable from that of placebo“. An additional aim was to quantify any condition-specific effects of non-individualised homeopathic treatment. In reporting this paper, I will stay very close to the published text hoping that this avoids both misunderstandings and accusations of bias on my side:

Literature search strategy, data extraction and statistical analysis followed the methods described in a pre-published protocol. A trial comprised ‘reliable evidence’ if its risk of bias was low or it was unclear in one specified domain of assessment. ‘Effect size’ was reported as standardised mean difference (SMD), with arithmetic transformation for dichotomous data carried out as required; a negative SMD indicated an effect favouring homeopathy.

The authors excluded the following types of trials: studies of crossover design; of radionically prepared homeopathic medicines; of homeopathic prophylaxis; of homeopathy combined with other (complementary or conventional) intervention; for other specified reasons. The final explicit exclusion criterion was that there was obviously no blinding of participants and practitioners to the assigned intervention.

Forty-eight different clinical conditions were represented in 75 eligible RCTs; 49 were classed as ‘high risk of bias’ and 23 as ‘uncertain risk of bias’; the remaining three trials displayed sufficiently low risk of bias to be designated reliable evidence. Fifty-four trials had extractable data: pooled SMD was -0.33 (95% confidence interval (CI) -0.44, -0.21), which was attenuated to -0.16 (95% CI -0.31, -0.02) after adjustment for publication bias. The three trials with reliable evidence yielded a non-significant pooled SMD: -0.18 (95% CI -0.46, 0.09). There was no single clinical condition for which meta-analysis produced reliable evidence.

A meta-regression was performed to test specifically for within-group differences for each sub-group. The results showed that there were no significant differences between studies that were and were not:

  • included in previous meta-analyses (p = 0.447);
  • pilot studies (p = 0.316);
  • greater than the median sample (p = 0.298);
  • potency ≥ 12C (p = 0.221);
  • imputed for meta-analysis (p = 0.384);
  • free from vested interest (p = 0.391);
  • acute/chronic (p = 0.796);
  • different types of homeopathy (p = 0.217).

After removal of ‘C’-rated trials, the pooled SMD still favoured homeopathy for all sub-groups, but was statistically non-significant for 10 of the 18 (included in previous meta-analysis; pilot study; sample size > median; potency ≥12C; data imputed; free of vested interest; not free of vested interest; combination medicine; single medicine; chronic condition). There remained no significant differences between sub-groups—with the exception of the analysis for sample size > median (p = 0.028).

Meta-analyses were possible for eight clinical conditions, each analysis comprising two to 5 trials. A statistically significant pooled SMD, favouring homeopathy, was observed for influenza (N = 2), irritable bowel syndrome (N = 2), and seasonal allergic rhinitis (N = 5). Each of the other five clinical conditions (allergic asthma, arsenic toxicity, infertility due to amenorrhoea, muscle soreness, post-operative pain) showed non-significant findings. Removal of ‘C’-rated trials negated the statistically significant effect for seasonal allergic rhinitis and left the non-significant effect for post-operative pain unchanged; no higher-rated trials were available for additional analysis of arsenic toxicity, infertility due to amenorrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome. There were no ‘C’-rated trials to remove for allergic asthma, influenza, or muscle soreness. Thus, influenza was the only clinical condition for which higher-rated trials indicated a statistically significant effect; neither of its contributing trials, however, comprised reliable evidence.

The authors concluded that the quality of the body of evidence is low. A meta-analysis of all extractable data leads to rejection of our null hypothesis, but analysis of a small sub-group of reliable evidence does not support that rejection. Reliable evidence is lacking in condition-specific meta-analyses, precluding relevant conclusions. Better designed and more rigorous RCTs are needed in order to develop an evidence base that can decisively provide reliable effect estimates of non-individualised homeopathic treatment.

I am sure that this paper will lead to lively discussions in the comments section of this blog. I will therefore restrict my comments to a bare minimum.

In my view, this new meta-analysis essentially yield a negative result and confirms most previous, similar reviews.

  • It confirms Linde’s conclusion that “insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition”.
  • It confirms Linde’s conclusion that “there was clear evidence that studies with better methodological quality tended to yield less positive results”.
  • It confirms Kleinjen’s conclusion that “most trials are of low methodological quality”.
  • It also confirms the results of the meta-analysis by Shang et al (much-maligned by homeopaths) than “finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”
  • Finally, it confirms the conclusion of the analysis of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council: “Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.”

Another not entirely unimportant point that often gets missed in these discussions is this: even if we believe (which I do not) the most optimistic interpretation of these (and similar data) by homeopaths, we ought to point out that there is no evidence whatsoever that homeopathy cures anything. At the very best it provides marginal symptomatic relief. Yet, the claim of homeopaths that we hear constantly is that homeopathy is a causal and curative therapy.

The first author of the new meta-analysis is an employee of the Homeopathy Research Institute. We might therefore forgive him that he he repeatedly insists on dwelling on largely irrelevant (i. e. based on unreliable primary studies) findings. It seems obvious that firm conclusions can only be based on reliable data. I therefore disregard those analyses and conclusions that include such studies.

In the discussion, the authors of the new meta-analysis confirm my interpretation this by stating that they “reject the null hypothesis (non-individualised homeopathy is indistinguishable from placebo) on the basis of pooling all studies, but fail to reject the null hypothesis on the basis of the reliable evidence only.” And, in the long version of their conclusions, we find this remarkable statement: “Our meta-analysis of the current reliable evidence base therefore fails to reject the null hypothesis that the outcome of treatment using a non-individualised homeopathic medicine is not distinguishable from that using placebo.” A most torturous way of stating the obvious: the more reliable data show no difference between homeopathy and placebo.

Acupuncture is little more than a theatrical placebo! If we confront an acupuncture fan with this statement, he/she is bound to argue that there are some indications for which the evidence is soundly positive. One of these conditions, they would claim, is nausea and vomiting. But how strong are these data? A new study sheds some light on this question.

The objective of this RCT was to evaluate if consumption of antiemetics and eating capacity differed between patients receiving verum acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or standard care only during radiotherapy. Patients were randomized to verum (n = 100) or sham (n = 100) acupuncture (telescopic blunt sham needle) (12 sessions) and registered daily their consumption of antiemetics and eating capacity. A standard care group (n = 62) received standard care only.

The results show that more patients in the verum and the sham acupuncture group did not need any antiemetic medications, as compared to the standard care group after receiving 27 Gray dose of radiotherapy. More patients in the verum and the sham acupuncture group were capable of eating as usual, compared to the standard care group. Patients receiving acupuncture had lower consumption of antiemetics and better eating capacity than patients receiving standard antiemetic care, plausible by nonspecific effects of the extra care during acupuncture.

The authors concluded that patients receiving acupuncture had lower consumption of antiemetics and better eating capacity than patients receiving standard antiemetic care, plausible by nonspecific effects of the extra care during acupuncture.

I find these conclusions odd because they seem to state that acupuncture was more effective than standard care. Subsequently – almost as an afterthought – they mention that its effects are brought about by nonspecific effects. This is grossly misleading, in my view.

The study was designed as a comparison between real and sham acupuncture, and the standard care group was not a randomised comparison group. Therefore, the main result and conclusion has to focus on the comparison between verum and sham acupuncture. This comparison shows that the two did not produce different result. Therefore, the study shows that acupuncture was not effective.

A much more reasonable conclusion would have been: THIS STUDY FAILED TO FIND SIGNIFICANT EFFECTS OF ACUPUNCTURE BEYOND PLACEBO.

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?

What next?

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.
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