MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

systematic review

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Many people suffering from depression or anxiety are tempted to try alternative therapies. One of those is Reiki, a 2500 year old treatment described as a vibrational or subtle energy therapy, and is most commonly facilitated by light touch on or above the body. On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed Reiki and the fact that there is no good evidence for this utterly implausible approach (e.g. here, here and here). Yet, there have been reports of Reiki alleviating anxiety and depression – but what does the totality of the available evidence show when it is submitted to an impartial assessment?

This Cochrane review was aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of Reiki for treating anxiety and depression in people aged 16 and over.

Literature searches were conducted in the Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL – all years), the Cochrane Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis Review Group’s Specialised Register (CCDANCTR – all years), EMBASE, (1974 to November 2014), MEDLINE (1950 to November 2014), PsycINFO (1967 to November 2014) and AMED (1985 to November 2014). Additional searches were carried out on the World Health Organization Trials Portal (ICTRP) together with ClinicalTrials.gov to identify any ongoing or unpublished studies. All searches were up to date as of 4 November 2014.

Randomised trials were considered in adults with anxiety or depression or both, with at least one arm treated with Reiki delivered by a trained Reiki practitioner. The two authors independently decided on inclusion/exclusion of studies and extracted data. A prior analysis plan had been specified.

The researchers found three studies for inclusion in the review. One recruited males with a biopsy-proven diagnosis of non-metastatic prostate cancer who were not receiving chemotherapy and had elected to receive external-beam radiation therapy; the second study recruited community-living participants who were aged 55 years and older; the third study recruited university students.These studies included subgroups with anxiety and depression as defined by symptom scores and provided data separately for those subgroups. As this included only 25 people with anxiety and 17 with depression and 20 more with either anxiety or depression, but which was not specified, the results could only be reported narratively.

The findings did not show any evidence that Reiki is either beneficial or harmful in this population. The risk of bias for the included studies was generally rated as unclear or high for most domains, which reduced the certainty of the evidence.

The authors of this Cochrane review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to say whether or not Reiki is useful for people over 16 years of age with anxiety or depression or both.

This is a very diplomatic way of expressing the truth, I think. A more forceful conclusion might have been that THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE THAT REIKI IS EFFECTIVE. GIVEN THE TOTAL LACK OF BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, THIS FINDING IS NOT SURPRISING. FUTURE RESEARCH INTO THIS AREA DOES NOT SEEM WARRANTED.

As I grew up in Germany, it was considered entirely normal that I was given homeopathic remedies when ill. I often wondered whether, with the advent of EBM, this has changed. A recent paper provides an answer to this question.

In this nationwide German survey, data were collected from 3013 children on their utilization of medicinal products, including homeopathic and other alternative remedies.

In all, 26% of the reported 2489 drugs were from the realm of alternative medicine. The 4-week prevalence for homeopathy was 7.5%. Of the drugs identified as alternative, 53.7% were homeopathic remedies, and 30.8% were herbal drugs. Factors associated with higher medicinal use of alternative remedies were female gender, residing in Munich, and higher maternal education. A homeopathy user utilized on average homeopathic remedies worth EUR 15.28. The corresponding figure for herbal drug users was EUR 16.02, and EUR 18.72 for overall medicinal CAM users. Compared with data from 4 years before, the prevalence of homeopathy use had declined by 52%.

The authors concluded that CAM use among 15-year-old children in the GINIplus cohort is popular, but decreased noticeably compared with children from the same cohort at the age of 10 years. This is possibly mainly because German health legislation normally covers CAM for children younger than 12 years only.

The survey shows that homeopathy is still a major player in the health care of German children. From the point of view of a homeopath, this makes a lot of sense: children are supposed to respond particularly well to homeopathy. But is that really true? The short answer is NO.

Our systematic review of all relevant studies tells it straight: The evidence from rigorous clinical trials of any type of therapeutic or preventive intervention testing homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments is not convincing enough for recommendations in any condition.

In other words, the evidence is very much at odds with the practice. This begs the question, I think, HOW SHOULD WE INTERPRET THIS DISCREPANCY?

A few possibilities come into mind, and I would be grateful to hear from my readers which they think might be correct:

  • Homeopathy is used as a ‘benign placebo’ [clinicians know that most paediatric conditions are self-limiting and thus prefer to give placebos rather than drugs that can cause adverse effects].
  • Doctors prescribe homeopathy mainly because the kids’ parents insist on them.
  • Doctors believe that homeopathic remedies are more than just placebos [in which case they are clearly ill-informed].
  • German doctors do not believe in scientific evidence and prefer to rely on their intuition.
  • This high level of homeopathy usage misleads the next generation into believing in quackery.
  • It amounts to child abuse and should be stopped.

Distant healing is one of the most bizarre yet popular forms of alternative medicine. Healers claim they can transmit ‘healing energy’ towards patients to enable them to heal themselves. There have been many trials testing the effectiveness of the method, and the general consensus amongst critical thinkers is that all variations of ‘energy healing’ rely entirely on a placebo response. A recent and widely publicised paper seems to challenge this view.

This article has, according to its authors, two aims. Firstly it reviews healing studies that involved biological systems other than ‘whole’ humans (e.g., studies of plants or cell cultures) that were less susceptible to placebo-like effects. Secondly, it presents a systematic review of clinical trials on human patients receiving distant healing.

All the included studies examined the effects upon a biological system of the explicit intention to improve the wellbeing of that target; 49 non-whole human studies and 57 whole human studies were included.

The combined weighted effect size for non-whole human studies yielded a highly significant (r = 0.258) result in favour of distant healing. However, outcomes were heterogeneous and correlated with blind ratings of study quality; 22 studies that met minimum quality thresholds gave a reduced but still significant weighted r of 0.115.

Whole human studies yielded a small but significant effect size of r = .203. Outcomes were again heterogeneous, and correlated with methodological quality ratings; 27 studies that met threshold quality levels gave an r = .224.

From these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: Results suggest that subjects in the active condition exhibit a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database suggests that the effect is not dependent upon the previous inclusion of suspect studies and is robust enough to accommodate some high profile failures to replicate. Both databases show problems with heterogeneity and with study quality and recommendations are made for necessary standards for future replication attempts.

In a press release, the authors warned: the data need to be treated with some caution in view of the poor quality of many studies and the negative publishing bias; however, our results do show a significant effect of healing intention on both human and non-human living systems (where expectation and placebo effects cannot be the cause), indicating that healing intention can be of value.

My thoughts on this article are not very complimentary, I am afraid. The problems are, it seems to me, too numerous to discuss in detail:

  • The article is written such that it is exceedingly difficult to make sense of it.
  • It was published in a journal which is not exactly known for its cutting edge science; this may seem a petty point but I think it is nevertheless important: if distant healing works, we are confronted with a revolution in the understanding of nature – and surely such a finding should not be buried in a journal that hardly anyone reads.
  • The authors seem embarrassingly inexperienced in conducting and publishing systematic reviews.
  • There is very little (self-) critical input in the write-up.
  • A critical attitude is necessary, as the primary studies tend to be by evangelic believers in and amateur enthusiasts of healing.
  • The article has no data table where the reader might learn the details about the primary studies included in the review.
  • It also has no table to inform us in sufficient detail about the quality assessment of the included trials.
  • It seems to me that some published studies of distant healing are missing.
  • The authors ignored all studies that were not published in English.
  • The method section lacks detail, and it would therefore be impossible to conduct an independent replication.
  • Even if one ignored all the above problems, the effect sizes are small and would not be clinically important.
  • The research was sponsored by the ‘Confederation of Healing Organisations’ and some of the comments look as though the sponsor had a strong influence on the phraseology of the article.

Given these reservations, my conclusion from an analysis of the primary studies of distant healing would be dramatically different from the one published by the authors: DESPITE A SIZABLE AMOUNT OF PRIMARY STUDIES ON THE SUBJECT, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF DISTANT HEALING REMAINS UNPROVEN. AS THIS THERAPY IS BAR OF ANY BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, FURTHER RESEARCH IN THIS AREA SEEMS NOT WARRANTED.

Twenty years ago, I published a short article in the British Journal of Rheumatology. Its title was ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, THE BABY AND THE BATH WATER. Reading it again today – especially in the light of the recent debate (with over 700 comments) on acupuncture – indicates to me that very little has since changed in the discussions about alternative medicine (AM). Does that mean we are going around in circles? Here is the (slightly abbreviated) article from 1995 for you to judge for yourself:

“Proponents of alternative medicine (AM) criticize the attempt of conducting RCTs because they view this is in analogy to ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. The argument usually goes as follows: the growing popularity of AM shows that individuals like it and, in some way, they benefit through using it. Therefore it is best to let them have it regardless of its objective effectiveness. Attempts to prove or disprove effectiveness may even be counterproductive. Should RCTs prove that a given intervention is not superior to a placebo, one might stop using it. This, in turn, would be to the disadvantage of the patient who, previous to rigorous research, has unquestionably been helped by the very remedy. Similar criticism merely states that AM is ‘so different, so subjective, so sensitive that it cannot be investigated in the same way as mainstream medicine’. Others see reasons to change the scientific (‘reductionist’) research paradigm into a broad ‘philosophical’ approach. Yet others reject the RCTs because they think that ‘this method assumes that every person has the same problems and there are similar causative factors’.

The example of acupuncture as a (popular) treatment for osteoarthritis, demonstrates the validity of such arguments and counter-arguments. A search of the world literature identified only two RCTs on the subject. When acupuncture was tested against no treatment, the experimental group of osteoarthritis sufferers reported a 23% decrease of pain, while the controls suffered a 12% increase. On the basis of this result, it might seem highly unethical to withhold acupuncture from pain-stricken patients—’if a patient feels better for whatever reason and there are no toxic side effects, then the patient should have the right to get help’.

But what about the placebo effect? It is notoriously difficult to find a placebo indistinguishable to acupuncture which would allow patient-blinded studies. Needling non-acupuncture points may be as close as one can get to an acceptable placebo. When patients with osteoarthritis were randomized into receiving either ‘real acupuncture or this type of sham acupuncture both sub-groups showed the same pain relief.

These findings (similar results have been published for other AMs) are compatible only with two explanations. Firstly acupuncture might be a powerful placebo. If this were true, we need to establish how safe acupuncture is (clearly it is not without potential harm); if the risk/benefit ratio is favourable and no specific, effective form of therapy exists one might still consider employing this form as a ‘placebo therapy’ for easing the pain of osteoarthritis sufferers. One would also feel motivated to research this powerful placebo and identify its characteristics or modalities with the aim of using the knowledge thus generated to help future patients.

Secondly, it could be the needling, regardless of acupuncture points and philosophy, that decreases pain. If this were true, we could henceforward use needling for pain relief—no special training in or equipment for acupuncture would be required, and costs would therefore be markedly reduced. In addition, this knowledge would lead us to further our understanding of basic mechanisms of pain reduction which, one day, might evolve into more effective analgesia. In any case the published research data, confusing as they often are, do not call for a change of paradigm; they only require more RCTs to solve the unanswered problems.

Conducting rigorous research is therefore by no means likely to ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’. The concept that such research could harm the patient is wrong and anti-scientific. To follow its implications would mean neglecting the ‘baby in the bath water’ until it suffers serious damage. To conduct proper research means attending the ‘baby’ and making sure that it is safe and well.

According to Bloomberg Markets, A Nelson & Co Ltd. manufactures and markets natural healthcare products. The company offers arnica creams that provide natural first aid for bruises; plant and flower based remedies that help in managing the emotional demands of everyday life; and over-the-counter homeopathic medicines for everyday ailments, such as relief from travel sickness and relief for the symptoms of hay fever. It also provides hemorrhoid relief creams and soothing hygienic wipes; anti-blemish range products for various skin types and age groups; multi-purpose cream that helps to soothe and restore skin; iron supplements; teething granules that provide relief from the symptoms and discomfort of teething; a range of creams, ointments, and sprays for a range of common skin conditions/complaints; and a range of commonly used herbal remedies. The company offers products for ailments, including aches and pains, mild anxiety, babies and children, colds and minor infections, digestion, emotional health, energy, everyday stresses, first aid, getting older, pets, quit smoking, skin, sleep, travel, and women’s health. It also operates a clinic; and a pharmacy that offers homeopathy and complementary healthcare products. The company offers its products through its pharmacy in the United Kingdom; and distributors in Europe, Latin America, and internationally. It also serves customers online. The company was formerly known as Armbrecht, Nelson & Co. The company was founded in 1860 and is based in London, United Kingdom with subsidiary offices in Boston, Massachusetts; and Hamburg, Germany. A Nelson & Co Ltd. operates as a subsidiary of Nelson and Russell Holdings Ltd.

In the journal ‘Chemist and Druggist’ we find an article informing us that, in 1930, Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy was approached by Dr Edward Bach who wanted help making and selling his products. He had created 38 flower remedies to rebalance emotions and later created an emergency remedy, a combination of five flower remedies that became Rescue. The relationship between Nelsons and the Dr Edward Bach Centre, based at Dr Bach’s former home at Mount Vernon in Oxfordshire, continues to this day and both the Bach Original Flower Remedies and Rescue are key ranges for Nelsons.

Nelson’s homeopathic pharmacy has a proud history:

Ernst Louis Armbrecht, a German pharmacist and disciple of Samuel Hahnemann, came to London and founded Nelsonsin 1860. Since then, Nelsons has been supplying homeopathic medicines. “Our wish today” they state “is the same as 152 years ago: to make homeopathy accessible and to provide the highest standards of medicine and advice.”

The highest standards of medicine and advice? It seems that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) disagrees. A recent ASA Adjudication on A Nelson & Co Ltd deals with an advertisement by Nelsons for ‘Bach Rescue Night’ which stated “I CAN’T SWITCH OFF…The RESCUE NIGHT range helps your mind switch off, so you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep”

A freelance health writer had challenged whether the claims “I can’t switch off … Rescue Night range helps your mind switch off, so you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep” was an authorised health claim in the EU Register of Nutrition and Health Claims for Foods (the EU Register).

The ASA noted that, according to EC Regulation 1924/2006 on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods (the Regulation), which was reflected in the CAP Code, only health claims which appeared on the list of authorised health claims (the Register) could be made in ads promoting foods, including food supplements. Health claims were defined as those that stated, suggested or implied that a relationship existed between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health.

The ASA furthermore stated: We acknowledged Rescue Remedy’s assertion that their ad had not made specific claims to aid sleep or that it improved sleep. However, we considered that the use of visuals such as a crescent moon and stars on a dark background, that the letter ‘O’ in the word “OFF” resembled a simple on/ off light switch image, the text “… you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep” and the name of the product “Rescue Night” was likely to give the impression to consumers that it was a product that would aid sleep or that it would help consumers fall asleep easily. We understood that ‘unwanted thoughts’ was one reason why consumers might find it difficult to get to sleep and, again, considered this added to the impression that the product would contribute positively to sleep. We therefore considered that the ad made a health claim related to sleep involving a food item.

We understood that some Bach Flower Remedies contained levels of alcohol which would preclude them from bearing health claims altogether, however, we noted that Bach Rescue Night was alcohol free. We acknowledged Rescue Remedy’s points regarding EFSA and ‘on hold’ claims for botanicals. We understood that ‘on hold’ claims for such botanicals could be used in marketing, provided such use had the same meaning as the proposed claim and they were used in compliance with applicable existing national provisions (in this case the CAP Code). However, Rescue Remedy did not provide evidence that relevant proposed claims for white chestnut, or any of the other product ingredients were ‘on hold’. Nevertheless, we understood that there were no ‘on hold’ claims entered onto the Register for white chestnut or the other product ingredients. Furthermore, ‘on hold’ claims should also be supported with adequate substantiation which we did not receive.

Because the ad made health claims relating to Bach Rescue Night as a sleep aid and we had not seen evidence that relevant claims for the botanical ingredients contained in the product were ‘on hold’, we concluded that the ad breached the Code.

The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 15.1, 15.1.1 and 15.7 (Food, food supplements and associated health or nutritional claims).

The ASA ruled that the ad must not appear again in its current form. We told A Nelson & Co Ltd t/a rescueremedy.co.uk not to make health claims for botanical ingredients if they did not comply with the requirements of the Regulation.

I am afraid that such a ruling will have very little effect on the sale of Bach Flower Remedies. In case you have any doubt, I should mention that these inventions of Dr Bach are not supported by good evidence. Here is the abstract of my systematic review on the subject:

Bach flower remedies continue to be popular and its proponents make a range of medicinal claims for them. The aim of this systematic review was to critically evaluate the evidence for these claims. Five electronic databases were searched without restrictions on time or language. All randomised clinical trials of flower remedies were included. Seven such studies were located. All but one were placebo-controlled. All placebo-controlled trials failed to demonstrate efficacy. It is concluded that the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos.

Bach Flower Remedies have no effect whatsoever!

Come to think of it, this is not entirely true: they obviously keep the ASA busy, they exploit the gullible public, and they are clearly good for the cash flow at Nelson’s.

I reported previously on this blog that the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) has made the most thorough and independent assessment of homeopathy in the history of this form of alternative therapy. The report published at the time was preliminary, and further evidence from parties that were critical of it needed to be taken into account.

Today (11/3/2015), the NH&MRC has released its final report on homeopathy. In essence, it concluded that there is no scientific basis for homeopathy and no quality evidence of its efficacy.

The report is similar in its conclusions to the UK Government Science and Technology 2010 Report on Homeopathy.

The summary of the report sates the following:

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.

Professor Warwick Anderson, CEO of the Council, commented: “All medical treatments and interventions should be underpinned by reliable evidence. NH&MRC’s review shows that there is no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy works better than a placebo.”
The report confirms what many scientific and public health experts have maintained since about 200 years, that not only does homeopathy not work, if it did, chemistry, physics and physiology could not.

“In short, the continued promotion of homeopathy would represent a commercial scam preying on the gullible,” said Professor John Dwyer AO, President of Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM), a non-industry aligned advocacy group for quality evidence in health. “Worse still, as a placebo therapy, harm may occur when it replaces effective therapies, as those given homeopathic treatments may wrongly think that they and their children are protected from serious infections,” he added.

The report emphasises that ‘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’.

“With so many pressures on the Australian health dollar the Government must stop subsidising unproven alternative therapies such as homeopathy through student loans for homeopathy and similar courses,” said Professor Rob Morrison OAM, Co-Vice President of FSM, “The government should also not subsidise health funds offering cover for pseudoscientific electives of this kind,” said Professor Morrison. “The government should at least mandate that health funds offer a cheaper option that does not include ‘belief based’ therapies,” he said.

“It is completely unprofessional and unethical now for pharmacies to sell homeopathic products,” said Emeritus Professor Alastair MacLennan AO, Co-Vice President of FSM, “These products should now be removed from pharmacies and retail outlets”.

Reflexology is the treatment of reflex zones, usually on the sole of the feet, with manual massage and pressure. Reflexologists assume that certain zones correspond to certain organs, and that their treatment can influence the function of these organs. Thus reflexology is advocated for all sorts of conditions. Proponents are keen to point out that their approach has many advantages: it is pleasant (the patient feels well with the treatment and the therapist feels even better with the money), safe and cheap, particularly if the patient does the treatment herself.

Self-administered foot reflexology could be practical because it is easy to learn and not difficult to apply. But is it also effective? A recent systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of self-foot reflexology for symptom management.

Participants were healthy persons not diagnosed with a specific disease. The intervention was foot reflexology administered by participants, not by practitioners or healthcare providers. Studies with either between groups or within group comparison were included. The electronic literature searches utilized core databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane, and CINAHL Chinese (CNKI), Japanese (J-STAGE), and Korean databases (KoreaMed, KMbase, KISS, NDSL, KISTI, and OASIS)).

Three non-randomized trials and three before-and-after studies met the inclusion criteria. No RCTs were located. The results of these studies showed that self-administered foot reflexology resulted in significant improvement in subjective outcomes such as perceived stress, fatigue, and depression. However, there was no significant improvement in objective outcomes such as cortisol levels, blood pressure, and pulse rate. We did not find any randomized controlled trial.

The authors concluded that this study presents the effectiveness of self-administered foot reflexology for healthy persons’ psychological and physiological symptoms. While objective outcomes showed limited results, significant improvements were found in subjective outcomes. However, owing to the small number of studies and methodological flaws, there was insufficient evidence supporting the use of self-performed foot reflexology. Well-designed randomized controlled trials are needed to assess the effect of self-administered foot reflexology in healthy people.

I find this review quite interesting, but I would draw very different conclusions from its findings.

The studies that are available turned out to be of very poor methodological quality: they lack randomisation or rely on before/after comparisons. This means they are wide open to bias and false-positive results, particularly in regards to subjective outcome measures. Predictably, the findings of this review confirm that no effects are seen on objective endpoints. This is in perfect agreement with the hypothesis that reflexology is a pure placebo. Considering the biological implausibility of the underlying assumptions of reflexology, this makes sense.

My conclusions of this review would therefore be as follows: THE RESULTS ARE IN KEEPING WITH REFLEXOLOGY BEING A PURE PLACEBO.

The discussion whether acupuncture is more than a placebo is as long as it is heated. Crucially, it is also quite tedious, tiresome and unproductive, not least because no resolution seems to be in sight. Whenever researchers develop an apparently credible placebo and the results of clinical trials are not what acupuncturists had hoped for, the therapists claim that the placebo is, after all, not inert and the negative findings must be due to the fact that both placebo and real acupuncture are effective.

Laser acupuncture (acupoint stimulation not with needle-insertion but with laser light) offers a possible way out of this dilemma. It is relatively easy to make a placebo laser that looks convincing to all parties concerned but is a pure and inert placebo. Many trials have been conducted following this concept, and it is therefore highly relevant to ask what the totality of this evidence suggests.

A recent systematic review did just that; specifically, it aimed to evaluate the effects of laser acupuncture on pain and functional outcomes when it is used to treat musculoskeletal disorders.

Extensive literature searches were used to identify all RCTs employing laser acupuncture. A meta-analysis was performed by calculating the standardized mean differences and 95% confidence intervals, to evaluate the effect of laser acupuncture on pain and functional outcomes. Included studies were assessed in terms of their methodological quality and appropriateness of laser parameters.

Forty-nine RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Two-thirds (31/49) of these studies reported positive effects. All of them were rated as being of high methodological quality and all of them included sufficient details about the lasers used. Negative or inconclusive studies mostly failed to demonstrate these features. For all diagnostic subgroups, positive effects for both pain and functional outcomes were more consistently seen at long-term follow-up rather than immediately after treatment.

The authors concluded that moderate-quality evidence supports the effectiveness of laser acupuncture in managing musculoskeletal pain when applied in an appropriate treatment dosage; however, the positive effects are seen only at long-term follow-up and not immediately after the cessation of treatment.

Surprised? Well, I am!

This is a meta-analysis I always wanted to conduct and never came round to doing. Using the ‘trick’ of laser acupuncture, it is possible to fully blind patients, clinicians and data evaluators. This eliminates the most obvious sources of bias in such studies. Those who are convinced that acupuncture is a pure placebo would therefore expect a negative overall result.

But the result is quite clearly positive! How can this be? I can see three options:

  • The meta-analysis could be biased and the result might therefore be false-positive. I looked hard but could not find any significant flaws.
  • The primary studies might be wrong, fraudulent etc. I did not see any obvious signs for this to be so.
  • Acupuncture might be more than a placebo after all. This notion might be unacceptable to sceptics.

I invite anyone who sufficiently understands clinical trial methodology to scrutinise the data closely and tell us which of the three possibilities is the correct one.

Chinese proprietary herbal medicines (CPHMs) are a well-established and a hugely profitable part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with a long history in China and elsewhere; they are used for all sorts of conditions, not least for the treatment of common cold. Many CPHMs have been listed in the ‘China national essential drug list’ (CNEDL), the official reference published by the Chinese Ministry of Health. One would hope that such a document to be based on reliable evidence – but is it?

The aim of a recent review was to provide an assessment on the potential benefits and harms of CPHMs for common cold listed in the CNEDL.

The authors of this assessment were experts from the Chinese ‘Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine’ and one well-known researcher of alternative medicine from the UK. They searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, SinoMed, CNKI, VIP, China Important Conference Papers Database, China Dissertation Database, and online clinical trial registry websites from their inception to 31 March 2013 for clinical studies of CPHMs listed in the CNEDL for common cold.

Of the 33 CPHMs listed in the 2012 CNEDL for the treatment of common cold, only 7 had any type of clinical trial evidence at all. A total of 6 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and 7 case series (CSs) could be included in the assessments.

All these studies had been conducted in China and published in Chinese. All of them were burdened with poor study design and low methodological quality, and all had to be graded as being associated with a very high risk of bias.

The authors concluded that the use of CPHMs for common cold is not supported by robust evidence. Further rigorous well designed placebo-controlled, randomized trials are needed to substantiate the clinical claims made for CPHMs.

I should state that it is, in my view, most laudable that the authors draw such a relatively clear, negative conclusion. This does certainly not happen often with papers originating from China, and George Lewith, the UK collaborator in this article, is also not known for his critical attitude towards alternative medicine. But there are other, less encouraging issues here to mention.

In the discussion section of their paper, the authors mention that the CNEDL has been approved by the Chinese Ministry of Public Health and is currently regarded as the accepted reference point for the medicines used in China. They also explain that the CNEDL was officially launched and implemented in August 2009. The CNEDL is now up-dated every 3 years, and its 2012 edition contains 520 medicines, including 203 CPHMs. The CPHMs listed in CNEDL cover 137 herbal remedies for internal medicine, 11 for surgery, 20 for gynaecology, 7 for ophthalmology, 13 for otorhinolaryngology and 15 for orthopaedics and traumatology.

Moreover, the authors inform us that about 3,100 medical and clinical experts had been recruited to evaluate the safety, effectiveness and costs of CPHMs. The selection process of medicines into CNEDL was strictly in accordance with the principle that they ‘must be preventive and curative, safe and effective, affordable, easy to use, think highly of both Chinese and Western medicine’. A detailed procedure for evaluation is, however, not available because the files are confidential.

The authors finally state that their paper demonstrates that the selection of CPHMs into the CNEDL is less likely to be ‘evidence-based’ and revealed the sharp contrast between the policy and priority given to by the Chinese government to Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM).

This surely must be a benign judgement, if there ever was one! I would say that the facts disclosed in this review show that TCM seems to exist in a strange universe where commercial interests are officially allowed to reign supreme over patients’ interests and public health.

Neck pain is a common problem which often causes significant disability. Chiropractic manipulation has become one of the most popular forms of alternative treatment for such symptoms. This seems surprising considering that neck manipulations are neither convincingly effective nor free of adverse effects.

The current Cochrane review on this subject could not be clearer: “Done alone, manipulation and/or mobilization were not beneficial; when compared to one another, neither was superior.” In the absence of compelling evidence for efficacy, any risk of neck manipulation would tilt the risk/benefit balance into the negative.

Adverse effects of neck manipulations range from mild symptoms, such as local neck tenderness or stiffness, to more severe injuries involving the spinal cord, peripheral nerve roots, and arteries within the neck. A recent paper reminds us that another serious complication has to be added to this already long list: phrenic nerve injury.

The phrenic nerve is responsible for controlling the contractions of the diaphragm, which allows the lungs to take in and release air and make us breathe properly. The phrenic nerve is formed from C3, C4, and C5 nerve fibres and descends along the anterior surface of the scalenus anterior muscle before entering the thorax to supply motor and sensory input to the diaphragm. Its anatomic location in the neck leaves it vulnerable to traumatic injury. Phrenic nerve injury can result in paralysis of the diaphragm and often leads to deteriorating function of the diaphragm, which can lead to partial or complete paralysis of the muscle and, as a result, serious breathing problems.

Patients who experience such problems may require emergency medical treatment or surgery. Sudden, severe damage to the phrenic nerve can make it impossible for the diaphragm to contract on its own. In order to make sure that the patient can breathe, a breathing tube needs to be inserted, a process called intubation. Artificial respiration would then be required.

American neurologists published a case report of a healthy man who consulted a chiropractor for his neck pain. Predictably, the chiropractor employed cervical manipulation to treat this condition. The result was bilateral diaphragmatic paralysis.

Similar cases have been reported previously, for instance, here and here and here and here. Damage to other nerves has also been documented to be a possible complication of spinal manipulation, for instance, here and here.

The authors of this new case report conclude that physicians must be aware of this complication and should be cautious when recommending spinal manipulation for the treatment of neck pain, especially in the presence of preexisting degenerative disease of the cervical spine.

I know what my chiropractic friends will respond to this post:

  • I am alarmist,
  • I cherry-pick articles that are negative for their profession,
  • these cases are extreme rarities,
  • conventional medicine is much more dangerous.

To this I reply: Imagine a conventional therapy about which the current Cochrane review says that it has no proven effect for the condition in question. Imagine further that this therapy causes mild to moderate adverse effects in about 50% of all patients in addition to very dramatic complications which are probably rare but, as no monitoring system exists, of unknown frequency. Imagine now that the professionals using this treatment more regularly than any other clinicians steadfastly deny that the risk/benefit balance is way out of kilter.

Would you call someone who repeatedly tries to warn the public of this situation ‘alarmist’?

Would you not consider the professionals who continue to practice the therapy in question to be irresponsible?

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