MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

systematic review

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Low back pain (LBP) is a ‘minor complaint’ in the sense that it does not cost patients’ lives. At the same time, LBP is amongst the leading causes of disability and one of the most common reasons for patients to seek primary care. Chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and general practitioners are among those treating LBP patients, but there is only limited evidence regarding the effectiveness offered by these provider groups.

The aim of this systematic review was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and to systematically review economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to other commonly used approaches among adult patients with non-specific LBP.

A comprehensive search strategy was conducted to identify 1) pragmatic randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and/or 2) full economic evaluations of chiropractic care for low back pain compared to standard care delivered by other healthcare providers. Studies published between 1990 and 4th June 2015 were considered. The primary outcomes included pain, functional status and global improvement. Study selection, critical quality appraisal and data extraction were conducted by two independent reviewers. Data from RCTs with low risk of bias were included in a meta-analysis to determine estimates of effect sizes. Cost estimates of full economic evaluations were converted to 2015 USD and results summarized.

Six RCTs and three full economic evaluations were included. Five RCTs with low risk of bias compared chiropractic care to exercise therapy (n = 1), physical therapy (n = 3) and medical care (n = 1). The authors found similar effects for chiropractic care and the other types of care. Three low to high quality full economic evaluations studies (one cost-effectiveness, one cost-minimization and one cost-benefit) compared chiropractic to medical care. Highly divergent conclusions (favours chiropractic, favours medical care, equivalent options) were noted for economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to medical care.

The authors drew the following conclusions: moderate evidence suggests that chiropractic care for LBP appears to be equally effective as physical therapy. Limited evidence suggests the same conclusion when chiropractic care is compared to exercise therapy and medical care although no firm conclusion can be reached at this time. No serious adverse events were reported for any type of care. Our review was also unable to clarify whether chiropractic or medical care is more cost-effective. Given the limited available evidence, the decision to seek or to refer patients for chiropractic care should be based on patient preference and values. Future studies are likely to have an important impact on our estimates as these were based on only a few admissible studies.

This is a thorough and timely review. Its results are transparent and clear, however, its conclusions are, in my view, more than a little odd.

Let me try to re-formulate them such that they are better supported by the actual data: There is no good evidence to suggest that chiropractic care is better or worse that conventional therapeutic approaches currently used for LBP. The pooled sample size dimensions too small to allow any statements about the risks of the various approaches. The data are also too weak for any pronouncements on the relative cost-effectiveness of the various options. Given these limitations, the decision which approach to use should be based on a more comprehensive analysis of the therapeutic risks.

The point I am trying to make is quite simple:

  • The fact that RCTs fail to show adverse effects could be due to the small collective sample size and/or to the well-known phenomenon that, in well-controlled trials, adverse effects tend to be significantly rarer than in routine care.
  • Hundreds of serious adverse events have been reported after chiropractic spinal manipulations; to these we have to add the fact that ~50% of all chiropractic patients suffer from transient, mild to moderate adverse effects after spinal manipulations.
  • If we want to generate a realistic picture of the safety of a therapy, we need to include case-reports, case-series and other non-RCT evidence.
  • Conventional treatments of LBP may not be free of adverse effects, but some are relatively safe.
  • It seems reasonable, necessary and ethical to consider a realistic picture of the relative risks when deciding which therapy amongst equally (in)effective treatments might be best.

To me, all this seems almost painfully obvious, and I ask myself why the authors of this otherwise sound review failed to consider such thoughts. As one normally is obliged to, the authors included a section about the limitations of their review:

Our review has limitations. First, we did not search the grey literature for clinical effectiveness studies. McAuley et al. showed that the inclusion of results from the grey literature tend to decrease effectiveness estimates in meta-analyses because the unpublished studies tend to report smaller treatment effects. Second, critical appraisal requires scientific judgment that may vary among reviewers. This potential bias was minimized by training reviewers to use a standardized critical appraisal tool and using a consensus process among reviewers to reach decisions regarding scientific admissibility. Most of the original between-group differences and pooled estimates in our meta-analysis did not favour a specific provider group, and we believe it is unlikely that the inclusion of unpublished grey literature would change our conclusions. Third, the low number of clinical trials prevents us from conducting a meaningful investigation for publication bias. Fourth, the majority of the included clinical effectiveness studies (three out of five) and all three economic evaluations were conducted in the United States. Caution should therefore be used when generalizing our findings to other settings or jurisdictions. With respect to economic evaluations in particular, local healthcare systems and insurance plans may have a higher impact on cost than the type of healthcare provider.

Remarkably, this section does not mention their useless assessment of the risks with one word. Why? One answer might be found in the small-print of the paper:

The authors … have the following competing interests: MAB: Personal fees from Ordre des chiropraticiens du Québec for one teaching presentation, outside the submitted work. MJS: Position at the Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics is funded by the Danish Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication. RBDS: Nothing to disclose. JB: Nothing to disclose. PH: Nothing to disclose. AB: Position at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University is funded by the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication.

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.

A new Cochrane review evaluated the effectiveness and safety of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) in the treatment of menopausal symptoms. Its authors conducted a thorough search for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the effectiveness of CHM with placebo, hormone therapy (HT), pharmaceutical drugs, acupuncture, or another CHM formula in women suffering from menopausal symptoms.

Two review authors independently assessed 864 studies for eligibility. Data extractions were performed by them with disagreements resolved through group discussion and clarification of data or direct contact with the study authors. Data analyses were performed in accordance with Cochrane Collaboration guidelines.

In total, 22 RCTs (2902 women) could be included. When CHM was compared with placebo (8 RCTs), there was little or no evidence of a difference between the groups for the following outcomes: hot flushes per day (MD 0.00, 95% CI -0.88 to 0.89; 2 trials, 199 women; moderate quality evidence); hot flushes per day assessed by an overall hot flush score in which a difference of one point equates to one mild hot flush per day (MD -0.81 points, 95% CI -2.08 to 0.45; 3 RCTs, 263 women; low quality evidence); and overall vasomotor symptoms per month measured by the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life questionnaire (MENQOL, scale 0 to 6) (MD -0.42 points; 95% CI -1.52 to 0.68; 3 RCTs, 256 women; low quality evidence). In addition, results from individual studies suggested there was no evidence of a difference between the groups for daily hot flushes assessed by severity (MD -0.70 points, 95% CI -1.00, -0.40; 1 RCT, 108 women; moderate quality evidence); or overall monthly hot flushes scores (MD -2.80 points, 95% CI -8.93 to 3.33; 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence); or overall daily night sweats scores (MD 0.07 points, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.33, 1 RCT, 64 women; low quality evidence); or overall monthly night sweats scores (MD 1.30 points, 95% CI -1.76 to 4.36, 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence). However, one study reported that overall monthly vasomotor symptom scores were lower in the CHM group (MD -4.79 points, 95% CI -5.52 to -4.06; 1 RCT, 69 women; low quality evidence).

When CHM was compared with HT (10 RCTs), only two RCTs reported monthly vasomotor symptoms using MENQOL. It was uncertain whether CHM reduces vasomotor symptoms (MD 0.47 points, 95% CI -0.50 to 1.44; 2 RCTs, 127 women; very low quality evidence).

Adverse effects were not fully reported in the included studies. Adverse events reported by women taking CHM included mild diarrhoea, breast tenderness, gastric discomfort and an unpleasant taste. Effects were inconclusive because of imprecise estimates of effects: CHM versus placebo (RR 1.51; 95% CI 0.69 to 3.33; 7 trials, 705 women; I² = 40%); CHM versus HT (RR 0.96; 95% CI 0.66 to 1.39; 2 RCTs, 864 women; I² = 0%); and CHM versus specific conventional medications (such as Fluoxetine and Estazolam) (RR 0.20; 95% CI 0.03 to 1.17; 2 RCTs, 139 women; I² = 61%).

The authors concluded: We found insufficient evidence that Chinese herbal medicines were any more or less effective than placebo or HT for the relief of vasomotor symptoms. Effects on safety were inconclusive. The quality of the evidence ranged from very low to moderate; there is a need for well-designed randomised controlled studies.

This review seems well done and reports clear findings. The fact that there was insufficient evidence for CHM is probably no surprise to most readers of this blog. However, I would like to draw your attention to a finding that could easily be missed: most of the primary studies failed to mention adverse effects; to be perfectly clear: they did not state “there were no adverse effects”, but they simply did not mention the subject of adverse effects at all.

In my view, this is a breach of research ethics. I have been banging on about this phenomenon for some time now, because I think it is important. Many if not most clinical trials in this area neglect reporting adverse effects. This means that we get an entirely misleading impression about the safety of the treatments in question. Reviewers of such studies are bound to conclude that they seem to be safe, while, in fact, researchers have only been withholding crucial information from us.

The solution to this fast-growing problem would be simple: trialists must be forced to fully report adverse effects. This is less complicated that it might seem: journal editors must insist that all authors fully report adverse effects of alternative treatments. Even if there were none at all – a very unlikely proposition if you think about it – they must disclose this fact.

The aim of a new meta-analysis was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for amnestic mild cognitive impairment (AMCI), the transitional stage between the normal memory loss of aging and dementia. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture versus medical treatment for AMCI were identified using six electronic databases.

Five RCTs involving a total of 568 subjects were included. The methodological quality of the RCTs was generally poor. Participants receiving acupuncture had better outcomes than those receiving nimodipine with greater clinical efficacy rates (odds ratio (OR) 1.78, 95% CI 1.19 to 2.65; p<0.01), mini-mental state examination (MMSE) scores (mean difference (MD) 0.99, 95% CI 0.71 to 1.28; p<0.01), and picture recognition score (MD 2.12, 95% CI 1.48 to 2.75; p<0.01). Acupuncture used in conjunction with nimodipine significantly improved MMSE scores (MD 1.09, 95% CI 0.29 to 1.89; p<0.01) compared to nimodipine alone. Three trials reported adverse events.

The authors concluded that acupuncture appears effective for AMCI when used as an alternative or adjunctive treatment; however, caution must be exercised given the low methodological quality of included trials. Further, more rigorously designed studies are needed.

Meta-analyses like this one are, in my view, perfect examples for the ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ principle of systematic reviews. This may seem like an unfair statement, so let me justify it by explaining the shortfalls of this specific paper.

The authors try to tell us that their aim was “to estimate the clinical effectiveness and safety of acupuncture…” While it might be possible to estimate the effectiveness of a therapy by pooling the data of a few RCTs, it is never possible to estimate its safety on such a basis. To conduct an assessment of therapeutic safety, one would need sample sizes that go two or three dimensions beyond those of RCTs. Thus safety assessments are best done by evaluating the evidence from all the available evidence, including case-reports, epidemiological investigations and observational studies.

The authors tell us that “two studies did not report whether any adverse events or side effects had occurred in the experimental or control groups.” This is a common and serious flaw of many acupuncture trials, and another important reason why RCTs cannot be used for evaluating the risks of acupuncture. Too many such studies simply don’t mention adverse effects at all. If they are then submitted to systematic reviews, they must generate a false positive picture about the safety of acupuncture. The absence of adverse effects reporting is a serious breach of research ethics. In the realm of acupuncture, it is so common, that many reviewers do not even bother to discuss this violation of medical ethics as a major issue.

The authors conclude that acupuncture is more effective than nimodipine. This sounds impressive – unless you happen to know that nimodipine is not supported by good evidence either. A Cochrane review provided no convincing evidence that nimodipine is a useful treatment for the symptoms of dementia, either unclassified or according to the major subtypes – Alzheimer’s disease, vascular, or mixed Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

The authors also conclude that acupuncture used in conjunction with nimodipine is better than nimodipine alone. This too might sound impressive – unless you realise that all the RCTs in question failed to control for the effects of placebo and the added attention given to the patients. This means that the findings reported here are consistent with acupuncture itself being totally devoid of therapeutic effects.

The authors are quite open about the paucity of RCTs and their mostly dismal methodological quality. Yet they arrive at fairly definitive conclusions regarding the therapeutic value of acupuncture. This is, in my view, a serious mistake: on the basis of a few poorly designed and poorly reported RCTs, one should never arrive at even tentatively positive conclusion. Any decent journal would not have published such misleading phraseology, and it is noteworthy that the paper in question appeared in a journal that has a long history of being hopelessly biased in favour of acupuncture.

Any of the above-mentioned flaws could already be fatal, but I have kept the most serious one for last. All the 5 RCTs that were included in the analyses were conducted in China by Chinese researchers and published in Chinese journals. It has been shown repeatedly that such studies hardly ever report anything other than positive results; no matter what conditions is being investigated, acupuncture turns out to be effective in the hands of Chinese trialists. This means that the result of such a study is clear even before the first patient has been recruited. Little wonder then that virtually all reviews of such trials – and there are dozens of then – arrive at conclusions similar to those formulated in the paper before us.

As I already said: rubbish in, rubbish out!

Several investigations have suggested that chiropractic care can be cost-effective. A recent review of 25 studies, for instance, concluded that cost comparison studies suggest that health care costs were generally lower among patients whose spine pain was managed with chiropractic care. However, its authors cautioned that the studies reviewed had many methodological limitations. Better research is needed to determine if these differences in health care costs were attributable to the type of HCP managing their care.

Better research might come from the US ‘Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ (CMS); they conduced a two-year demonstration of expanded Medicare coverage for chiropractic services in the treatment of beneficiaries with neuromusculoskeletal (NMS) conditions affecting the back, limbs, neck, or head.

The demonstration was conducted in 2005–2007 in selected counties of Illinois, Iowa, and Virginia and the entire states of Maine and New Mexico. Medicare claims were compiled for the preceding year and two demonstration years for the demonstration areas and matched comparison areas. The impact of the demonstration was analyzed through multivariate regression analysis with a difference-in-difference framework.

Expanded coverage increased Medicare expenditures by $50 million or 28.5% in users of chiropractic services and by $114 million or 10.4% in all patients treated for NMS conditions in demonstration areas during the two-year period. Results varied widely among demonstration areas ranging from increased costs per user of $485 in Northern Illinois and Chicago counties to decreases in costs per user of $59 in New Mexico and $178 in Scott County, Iowa.

The authors concluded that the demonstration did not assess possible decreases in costs to other insurers, out-of-pocket payments by patients, the need for and costs of pain medications, or longer term clinical benefits such as avoidance of orthopedic surgical procedures beyond the two-year period of the demonstration. It is possible that other payers or beneficiaries saved money during the demonstration while costs to Medicare were increased.

In view of such results, I believe chiropractors should stop claiming that chiropractic care is cost-effective.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a truly fascinating plant with plenty of therapeutic potential. It belongs to the ginger family, Zingiberaceae and is native to southern Asia. Its main active ingredients are curcumin (diferuloylmethane) and the related compounds, demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin (curcuminoids) which are secondary metabolites. Turmeric  has been used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine and has a variety of pharmacologic properties including antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic activities.

In the often weird world of alternative medicine, turmeric is currently being heavily hyped as the new panacea. Take this website, for instance; it promotes turmeric for just about any ailment known to mankind. Here is a short excerpt to give you a flavour (pun intended, turmeric is, of course, a main ingredient in many curries):

It comes at a surprise to a lot of people that herbs can be highly effective, if not more effective, than conventional medications …

To date, turmeric is one of the top researched plants. It was involved in more than 5,600 peer-reviewed and published biomedical studies. In one research project that extended over a five year period, it was found that turmeric could potentially be used in preventive and therapeutic applications. It was also noted that it has 175 beneficial effects for psychological health…

The 14 Medications it Mimics

Or should we say the 14 medications that mimic turmeric, since turmeric has been around much longer than any chemical prescription drug. Here’s a quick look at some of them:

  • Lipitor: This is a cholesterol drug that is used to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress inside of patients suffering from type 2 diabetes. When the curcuminoid component inside of turmeric is properly prepared, it can offer the same effects (according to a study published in 2008).
  • Prozac: This is an antidepressant that has been overused throughout the past decade. In a study published back in 2011, turmeric was shown to offer beneficial effects that helped to reduce depressive behaviors (using animal models).
  • Aspirin: This is a blood thinner and pain relief drug. In a study done in 1986, it was found that turmeric has similar affects, which makes it a candidate for patients that are susceptible to vascular thrombosis and arthritis.
  • Metformin: This is a drug that treats diabetes. It is used to activate AMPK (to increase uptake of glucose) and helps to suppress the liver’s production of glucose. In a study published in 2009, it was found that curcumin was 500 to 100,000 times more effective at activating AMPK ad ACC.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: This includes medications like ibuprofen, aspirin and dexamethasone, which are designed to reduce inflammation. Again, in 2004, it was proven that curcumin was an effective alternative option to these chemical drugs.
  • Oxaliplatin: This is a chemotherapy drug. A study done in 2007 showed that curcumin is very similar to the drug, acting as an antiproliferative agent in colorectal cell lines.
  • Corticosteroids: This is a steroid medication, which is used to treat inflammatory eye diseases. In 1999, it was found that curcumin was effective at managing this chronic condition. Then in 2008, curcumin was used in an animal model that proved it could also aid in therapy used to protect patients from lung transplantation-associated injuries by “deactivating” inflammatory genes.

Turmeric Fights Drug-Resistant Cancers… it’s been shown that curcumin can battle against cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation…

END OF QUOTE

As I said, turmeric is fascinating and promising, but such hype is clearly counter-productive and dangerous. As so often, the reality is much more sobering than the fantasy of uncritical quacks. Research is currently very active and has produced a host of interesting findings. Here are the conclusions (+links) of a few, recent reviews:

Overall, there is early evidence that turmeric/curcumin products and supplements, both oral and topical, may provide therapeutic benefits for skin health. However, currently published studies are limited and further studies will be essential to better evaluate efficacy and the mechanisms involved.

This meta-analysis of RCTs suggested a significant effect of curcumin in lowering circulating TNF-α concentration.

While statistical significant differences in outcomes were reported in a majority of studies, the small magnitude of effect and presence of major study limitations hinder application of these results.

Overall, scientific literature shows that curcumin possesses anti-diabetic effects and mitigates diabetes complications.

The highlighted studies in the review provide evidence of the ability of curcumin to reduce the body’s natural response to cutaneous wounds such as inflammation and oxidation. The recent literature on the wound healing properties of curcumin also provides evidence for its ability to enhance granulation tissue formation, collagen deposition, tissue remodeling and wound contraction. It has become evident that optimizing the topical application of curcumin through altering its formulation is essential to ensure the maximum therapeutical effects of curcumin on skin wounds.

What emerges from a critical reading of the evidence is that turmeric has potential in several different areas. Generally speaking, clinical trials are still thin on the ground, not of sufficient rigor and therefore not conclusive. In other words, it is far too early to state or imply that we all should rush to the next health food store and buy the supplements.

On the contrary, at this stage, I would even warn people not to be seduced by the unprofessional hype and wait until we know more – much more. There might be risks associated with ingesting turmeric at high doses over long periods of time. And there are fundamental open questions about oral intake. One recent review cautioned: …its extremely low oral bioavailability hampers its application as therapeutic agent.

WATCH THIS SPACE!

 

The German Association of Homeopaths (Deutscher Zentralverein Homoeopathischer Aerzte) just issued a press-release explaining that they have recently determined that homeopathy works.

Well, aren’t we relieved!

Otherwise, we would have had to assume they are all quacks.

Their statement is based on what they consider a thorough analysis of the published evidence. As the whole document is about 60 pages long, I will not bother you with all the details. Instead, I will focus on what they say about systematic reviews/meta-analyses in the press-release:

Eine Betrachtung der Meta-Analysen zur Homöopathie zeigt überwiegend statistisch signifikante Ergebnisse gegenüber Placebo, die auf eine spezifische Wirksamkeit potenzierter Arzneien hinweisen. Je nach den verwendeten Selektionskriterien werden hierbei unterschiedliche Studien in die Auswertung eingeschlossen. Diese Befunde werden von den Autoren der jeweiligen Meta-Analysen zum Teil stark relativiert. Die angeführten Vorbehalte entsprechen hierbei nicht immer den üblichen wissenschaftlichen Standards.

Let me translate this for you: An assessment of the meta-analyses of homeopathy shows mostly significant results compared to placebo which indicates a specific effectiveness of potentised remedies. Depending on the selection criteria, various studies are included in the evaluation. These results are relativized by the authors of the respective meta-analyses. The listed caveats do not always reflect the usual scientific standards.

You think my English has deteriorated or my brain gone soft? No, it’s their German! It makes almost no sense at all.

Therefore, I am afraid, we need to briefly go into the hefty document after all. Their chapter on meta-analyses concludes as follows: Insgesamt ergibt sich hinsichtlich der bis dato publizierten maßgeblichen Meta-Analysen zur Homöopathie, dass in vier von fünf Fällen tendenziell eine spezifische Wirksamkeit potenzierter Arzneimittel über Placebo hinaus erkennbar ist. That makes (linguistically) a little more sense: Overall, it emerges that the currently published decisive meta-analyses show, in 4 of 5 cases, that a specific effectiveness of potentised remedies is noticeable.

In other words, it is now proven, homeopathic remedies work beyond placebo!!!

But how can this be?

Did the NHMRC not just do a similar analysis concluding that “the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered… 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.

Obviously ‘down under’ they don’t know how to evaluate published data!

Or could it be that the Germans are mistaken? Or are they perhaps joking?

Let’s have a look!

The Germans selected (cherry-picked) 5 meta-analyses which they believed to be ‘decisive’, while the Australian panel of independent experts (funded by government) assessed 57 meta-analyses and systematic reviews (all they found via extensive literature searches).

But the German evaluation was done by homeopaths (and financed by a homeopathic lobby group)! And they understand homeopathy best and would not have a bias or conflict of interest, would they?

[FOR A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS, SEE HERE (in German)]

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition characterised by oligo-amenorrhoea, infertility and hirsutism. Conventional treatment of PCOS includes a range of oral pharmacological agents, lifestyle changes and surgical modalities. Some studies have suggested that acupuncture might be helpful but the evidence is often flawed and the results are mixed. What is needed in such a situation is, of course, a systematic review.

The aim of this new Cochrane review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture treatment of oligo/anovulatory women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). The authors identified relevant studies from databases including the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), Ovid MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CNKI and trial registries. The data are current to 19 October 2015.

They included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that studied the efficacy of acupuncture treatment for oligo/anovulatory women with PCOS. We excluded quasi- or pseudo-RCTs. Primary outcomes were live birth and ovulation (primary outcomes), and secondary outcomes were clinical pregnancy, restoration of menstruation, multiple pregnancy, miscarriage and adverse events. We assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE methods.

Two review authors independently selected the studies, extracted data and assessed risk of bias. They calculated Mantel-Haenszel odds ratios (ORs) and mean difference (MD) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs).

Five RCTs with 413 women were included. They compared true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture (two RCTs), true acupuncture versus relaxation (one RCT), true acupuncture versus clomiphene (one RCT) and electroacupuncture versus physical exercise (one RCT). Four of the studies were at high risk of bias in at least one domain. No study reported live birth rate. Two studies reported clinical pregnancy and found no evidence of a difference between true acupuncture and sham acupuncture (OR 2.72, 95% CI 0.69 to 10.77, two RCTs, 191 women, very low quality evidence). Three studies reported ovulation. One RCT reported number of women who had three ovulations during three months of treatment but not ovulation rate. One RCT found no evidence of a difference in mean ovulation rate between true and sham acupuncture (MD -0.03, 95% CI -0.14 to 0.08, one RCT, 84 women, very low quality evidence). However, one other RCT reported very low quality evidence to suggest that true acupuncture might be associated with higher ovulation frequency than relaxation (MD 0.35, 95% CI 0.14 to 0.56, one RCT, 28 women). Two studies reported menstrual frequency. One RCT reported true acupuncture reduced days between menstruation more than sham acupuncture (MD 220.35, 95% CI 252.85 to 187.85, 146 women). One RCT reported electroacupuncture increased menstrual frequency more than no intervention (0.37, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.53, 31 women). There was no evidence of a difference between the groups in adverse events. Evidence was very low quality with very wide CIs and very low event rates. Overall evidence was low or very low quality. The main limitations were failure to report important clinical outcomes and very serious imprecision.

The authors concluded that, thus far, only a limited number of RCTs have been reported. At present, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of acupuncture for treatment of ovulation disorders in women with PCOS.

This is, in my view, a rigorous assessment of the evidence leading to a clear conclusion. Foremost, I applaud the authors from the Faculty of Science, University of Technology Sydney for using such clear language. Such clarity seems to be getting a rare event in reviews of alternative medicine. To demonstrated this point, here are the most recent 5 systematic reviews which came up on my screen when I searched today Medline for ‘complementary alternative medicine, systematic review’.

The combination of TGP and LEF in treatment of RA presented the characteristics of notably decreasing the levels of laboratory indexes and higher safety in terms of liver function. However, this conclusion should be further investigated based on a larger sample size.

Compared to control groups, both MA and EA were more effective in improving AHI and mean SaO2. In addition, MA could further improve apnea index and hypopnea index compared to control.

CHM as an adjunctive therapy is associated with a decreased risk of in-hospital mortality compared with WT in patients with AKI. Further studies with high quality and large sample size are needed to verify our conclusions.

clinicians may consider Tai Chi as a viable complementary and alternative medicine for chronic pain conditions.

As an important supplementary treatment, TCM may provide benefits in repair of injured spinal cord. With a general consensus that future clinical approaches will be diversified and a combination of multiple strategies, TCM is likely to attract greater attention in SCI treatment.

I think the phenomenon is fairly obvious: authors of such papers are far too often not able or willing to express the bottom line of their work openly. As systematic reviews are supposed to be the ultimate type of evidence, this trend is very worrying, I think. In my view, such conclusions merely display the bias of the authors. If the evidence is not convincingly positive (which it very rarely is), authors have an ethical obligation to clearly say so.

If they don’t do it, journal editors have the duty to correct the error. If neither of these actions happen, funding agencies should make sure that such teams get no further research money until they can demonstrate that they have learnt the lesson.

This may sound a bit drastic but I think such steps would be both necessary and urgent. The problem is now extremely common, and if we do not quickly implement some effective preventative measures, our scientific literature will become contaminated to the point of becoming useless. This surely would be a disaster that affects us all.

There can, of course, be several reasons for the evidence being not positive:

  • there can be a paucity of data
  • the results might be contradictory
  • the trials might be open to bias
  • some of the primary data might look suspicious

In all of these cases, the evidence would be not convincingly positive, and it would be wrong and unhelpful not to be frank about it. Beating about the bush, like so many authors nowadays do, is misleading, unhelpful, unethical and borderline fraudulent. Therefore it constitutes a disservice to everyone concerned.

A recent comment to a blog-post about alternative treatments for cancer inspired me to ponder a bit. I think it is noteworthy because it exemplifies so many of the comments I hear in the realm of alternative medicine on an almost daily basis. Here is the comment in question:

“Yes…it appears that the medical establishment have known for years that chemotherapy a lot of the time kills patients faster than if they were untreated…what’s more, it worsens a person’s quality of life in which many die directly of the severe effects on the endocrine, immune system and more…cancers often return in more aggressive forms metastasising with an increased risk of apoptosis. In other words it makes things worse whereas there are many natural remedies which not only do no harm but accumulating evidence points to their capacity to fight cancer…some of it is bullshit whilst some holds some truth!! So turning away from toxic treatments that kill towards natural approaches that are showing more hope with the backing of trials kinda reverses the whole argument of this article.”

The comment first annoyed me a bit, of course, but later it made me think and consider the differences between conspiracy theories, assumptions, opinions, evidence and scientific facts. Let’s tackle each of these in turn.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

A conspiracy theory is an explanatory or speculative theory suggesting that two or more persons, or an organization, have conspired to cause or cover up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an event or situation typically regarded as illegal or harmful.

Part of the above comment bears some of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory: “…the medical establishment have known for years that chemotherapy a lot of the time kills patients faster than if they were untreated…” The assumption here is that the conventional healthcare practitioners are evil enough to knowingly do harm to their patients. Such conspiracy theories abound in the realm of alternative medicine; they include the notions that

  • BIG PHARMA is out to kill us all in order to maximize their profits,
  • the ‘establishment’ is suppressing any information about the benefits of alternative treatments,
  • vaccinations are known to be harmful but nevertheless being forced on to our children,
  • drug regulators are in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry,
  • doctors accept bribes for prescribing dangerous drugs
  • etc. etc.

In a previous blog-post, I have discussed the fact that the current popularity of alternative medicine is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of alternative treatments. It is therefore hardly surprising that conspiracy theories like the above are voiced regularly on this blog and elsewhere.

ASSUMPTION

An assumption is something taken for granted or accepted as true without proof.

The above comment continues stating that “…[chemotherapy] makes things worse whereas there are many natural remedies which not only do no harm but accumulating evidence points to their capacity to fight cancer…” There is not proof for these assertions, yet the author takes them for granted. If one were to look for the known facts, one would find the assumptions to be erroneous: chemotherapy has saved countless lives and there simply are no natural remedies that will cure any form of cancer. In the realm of alternative medicine, this seems to worry few, and assumptions of this or similar nature are being made every day. Sadly the plethora of assumptions or bogus claims eventually endanger public health.

OPINION

An opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective.

The above comment continues with the opinion that “…turning away from toxic treatments that kill towards natural approaches that are showing more hope with the backing of trials kinda reverses the whole argument of this article.” In general, alternative medicine is based on opinions of this sort. On this blog, we have plenty of examples for that in the comments section. This is perhaps understandable; evidence is usually in short supply, and therefore it often is swiftly replaced with often emotionally loaded opinions. It is even fair to say that much of alternative medicine is, in truth, opinion-based healthcare.

EVIDENCE

Evidence is anything presented in support of an assertion. This support may be strong or weak. The strongest type of evidence is that which provides direct proof of the truth of an assertion.

One remarkable feature of the above comment is that it is bar of any evidence. In a previous post, I have tried to explain the nature of evidence regarding the efficacy of medical interventions:

The multifactorial nature of any clinical response requires controlling for all the factors that might determine the outcome other than the treatment per se. Ideally, we would need to create a situation or an experiment where two groups of patients are exposed to the full range of factors (e. g. placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean), and the only difference is that one group does receive the treatment, while the other one does not. And this is precisely the model of a controlled clinical trial.

Such studies are designed to minimise all possible sources of bias and confounding. By definition, they have a control group which means that we can, at the end of the treatment period, compare the effects of the treatment in question with those of another intervention, a placebo or no treatment at all.

Many different variations of the controlled trial exist so that the exact design can be adapted to the requirements of the particular treatment and the specific research question at hand. The over-riding principle is, however, always the same: we want to make sure that we can reliably determine whether or not the treatment was the cause of the clinical outcome.

Causality is the key in all of this; and here lies the crucial difference between clinical experience and scientific evidence. What clinician witness in their routine practice can have a myriad of causes; what scientists observe in a well-designed efficacy trial is, in all likelihood, caused by the treatment. The latter is evidence, while the former is not.

Don’t get me wrong; clinical trials are not perfect. They can have many flaws and have rightly been criticised for a myriad of inherent limitations. But it is important to realise that, despite all their short-comings, they are far superior than any other method for determining the efficacy of medical interventions.

There are lots of reasons why a trial can generate an incorrect, i.e. a false positive or a false negative result. We therefore should avoid relying on the findings of a single study. Independent replications are usually required before we can be reasonably sure.

Unfortunately, the findings of these replications do not always confirm the results of the previous study. Whenever we are faced with conflicting results, it is tempting to cherry-pick those studies which seem to confirm our prior belief – tempting but very wrong. In order to arrive at the most reliable conclusion about the efficacy of any treatment, we need to consider the totality of the reliable evidence. This goal is best achieved by conducting a systematic review.

In a systematic review, we assess the quality and quantity of the available evidence, try to synthesise the findings and arrive at an overall verdict about the efficacy of the treatment in question. Technically speaking, this process minimises selection and random biases. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses [these are systematic reviews that pool the data of individual studies] therefore constitute, according to a consensus of most experts, the best available evidence for or against the efficacy of any treatment.

SCIENTIFIC FACTS

Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experiments or other means).

Some facts related to the subject of alternative medicine have already been mentioned:

  • chemotherapy prolongs survival of many cancer patients;
  • no alternative therapy has achieved anything remotely similar.

The comment above that motivated me to write this somewhat long-winded post is devoid of facts. This is just one more feature that makes it so typical of the comments by proponents of alternative medicine we see with such embarrassing regularity.

My last post was about a researcher who manages to produce nothing but positive findings with the least promising alternative therapy, homeopathy. Some might think that this is an isolated case or an anomaly – but they would be wrong. I have previously published about researchers who have done very similar things with homeopathy or other unlikely therapies. Examples include:

Claudia Witt

George Lewith

John Licciardone

But there are many more, and I will carry on highlighting their remarkable work. For example, the research of a German group headed by Prof Gustav Dobos, one of the most prolific investigator in alternative medicine at present.

For my evaluation, I conducted a Medline search of the last 10 of Dobos’ published articles and excluded those not assessing the effectiveness of alternative therapies such as surveys, comments, etc. Here they are with their respective conclusions and publication dates:

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW COMPARING DIFFERENT YOGA STYLES (2016)

RCTs with different yoga styles do not differ in their odds of reaching positive conclusions. Given that most RCTs were positive, the choice of an individual yoga style can be based on personal preferences and availability.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF YOGA FOR WEIGHT LOSS (2016)

Despite methodological drawbacks, yoga can be preliminarily considered a safe and effective intervention to reduce body mass index in overweight or obese individuals.

REVIEW OF INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE IN GYNAECOLOGICAL ONCOLOGY (2016)

…there is published, positive level I evidence for a number of CAM treatment forms.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF MINDFULNESS FOR PSYCHOSES (2016)

Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions can be recommended as an additional treatment for patients with psychosis.

RCT OF CABBAGE LEAF WRAPS FOR OSTEOARTHOSIS (2016)

Cabbage leaf wraps are more effective for knee osteoarthritis than usual care, but not compared with diclofenac gel. Therefore, they might be recommended for patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF HERBAL MEDICINES FOR COUGH (2015)

This review found strong evidence for A. paniculata and ivy/primrose/thyme-based preparations and moderate evidence for P. sidoides being significantly superior to placebo in alleviating the frequency and severity of patients’ cough symptoms. Additional research, including other herbal treatments, is needed in this area.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF DIETARY APPROACHES FOR METABOLIC SYNDROME (2016)

Dietary approaches should mainly be tried to reduce macronutrients and enrich functional food components such as vitamins, flavonoids, and unsaturated fatty acids. People with Metabolic Syndrome will benefit most by combining weight loss and anti-inflammatory nutrients.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF MIND BODY MEDICINE FOR CORONARY HEART DISEASE (2015)

In patients with CHD, MBM programs can lessen the occurrence of cardiac events, reduce atherosclerosis, and lower systolic blood pressure, but they do not reduce mortality. They can be used as a complement to conventional rehabilitation programs.

CRANIOSACRAL THERAPY (CST) FOR BACK PAIN (2016)

CST was both specifically effective and safe in reducing neck pain intensity and may improve functional disability and the quality of life up to 3 months after intervention.

REVIEW OF INTEGRATED MEDICINE FOR BREAST CANCER (2015)

Study data have shown that therapy- and disease-related side effects can be reduced using the methods of integrative medicine. Reported benefits include improving patients’ wellbeing and quality of life, reducing stress, and improving patients’ mood, sleeping patterns and capacity to cope with disease.

Amazed?

Dobos seems to be an ‘all-rounder’ whose research tackles a wide range of alternative treatments. That is perhaps unremarkable – but what I do find remarkable is the impression that, whatever he researches, the results turn out to be pretty positive. This might imply one of two things, in my view:

I let my readers chose which possibility they deem to be more likely.

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