MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

systematic review

Alternative medicine has the image of being gentle and risk-free; it is therefore frequently used for children. German experts have just published an important article on this rather controversial topic.

They performed a systematic synthesis of all Cochrane reviews in paediatrics assessing the efficacy, clinical implications and limitations of alternative medicine use in children. The main outcome variables were: percentage of reviews concluding that a certain intervention provides a benefit, percentage of reviews concluding that a certain intervention should not be performed, and percentage of studies concluding that the current level of evidence is inconclusive. A total of 135 reviews were included – most from the United Kingdom (29), Australia (24) and China (24). Only 5 (3.7%) reviews gave a recommendation in favour of a certain intervention; 26 (19.4%) issued a conditional positive recommendation. The 5 positive recommendations were:

1) Calcium supplements during pregnancy for prevention of hypertension and related conditions

2) Creatinine supplements for treating muscular disorders

3) Zinc supplements for prevention of pneumonia

4) Probiotics for prevention of upper respiratory infections

5) Acupuncture for prevention of post-operative nausea and vomiting

Nine (6.6%) reviews concluded that certain interventions should not be performed. Ninety-five reviews (70.3%) were inconclusive. The proportion of inconclusive reviews increased over time. The three most common criticisms of the quality of the primary studies included were: more research needed (82), low methodological quality (57) and small number of study participants (48).

The authors concluded: Given the disproportionate number of inconclusive reviews, there is an ongoing need for high quality research to assess the potential role of CAM in children. Unless the study of CAM is performed to the same science-based standards as conventional therapies, CAM therapies risk being perpetually marginalised by mainstream medicine.

As it happens, we published a very similar review two years ago. At the time (and using slightly different inclusion criteria), we identified a total of 17 systematic reviews. They related to acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, massage and yoga. Results were unconvincing for most conditions, but there was some evidence to suggest that acupuncture may be effective for postoperative nausea and vomiting, and that hypnotherapy may be effective in reducing procedure-related pain. Most of the reviews failed to mention the incidence of adverse effects of the alternative treatments in question. Our conclusions were as follows: “Although there is some encouraging evidence for hypnosis, herbal medicine and acupuncture, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that other CAMs are effective for the treatment of childhood conditions. Many of the systematic reviews included in this overview were of low quality, as were the randomised clinical trials within those reviews, further reducing the weight of that evidence. Future research in CAM for children should conform to the reporting standards outlined in the CONSORT and PRISMA guidelines.”

Treating children with unproven or dis-proven therapies is even more problematic than treating adults in this way. The main reason is that children cannot give informed consent. Thus alternative medicine for children can open difficult ethical questions, and sometimes I wonder where the line is between the application of bogus treatments and child-abuse. Examples are parents who opt for homeopathic vaccinations instead of conventional ones, or paediatric cancer patients who are being treated with bogus alternatives such as laetrile.

Why would parents not want the most effective therapy for their children? Why would anyone opt for dubious alternatives? The main reason, I think, must be misinformation. Parents who use alternative medicine are convinced they are effective and safe because they have been misinformed. We only need to google ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE to see for ourselves what utter nonsense and dangerous rubbish is being promoted under this umbrella.

Misinformation is the foremost reason why well-meaning parents (mis-) treat their children with alternative medicine. The results can be disastrous. Misinformation can kill!

A stroke is a condition where brain cells get irreversibly damaged either by a haemorrhage in the brain or by a blood clot cutting off oxygen supply. This process leaves most patients with neurological deficits such as difficulties in moving, speaking, concentrating etc. As other parts of the brain learn to take over, these problems can partly or completely resolve themselves over time, but many patients are left with permanent handicaps. Stroke-rehabilitation can minimise these problems, and there is a long-standing debate as to which measures are most effective. Acupuncture has been discussed as a method to improve the results of stroke-rehabilitation, but the evidence is hotly disputed. This is why a new study in this area is an important contribution to our existing knowledge.

The aim of this randomised trial was to test the effectiveness of acupuncture in promoting the recovery of patients with ischaemic stroke and to determine whether the outcomes of combined physiotherapy and acupuncture are superior to those with physiotherapy alone. The Chinese investigators recruited 120 patients who received one of three daily treatments: 1) acupuncture, 2) physiotherapy, 3) physiotherapy combined with acupuncture. Motor function in the limbs was measured with the Fugl-Meyer assessment (FMA); the modified Barthel index (MBI) was used to rate activities of daily living; both of these measures are validated and well-established. All evaluations were performed by assessors blinded to treatment allocation.

At baseline, FMA and MBI scores did not significantly differ among the treatment groups. Compared with baseline, on day 28 of therapy, the mean FMA scores of the physiotherapy, acupuncture, and combined treatment groups had increased by 65.6%, 57.7%, and 67.2%, respectively; on day 56, FMA scores had increased by 88.1%, 64.5%, and 88.6%, respectively. The respective MBI scores in the three groups had increased by 85.2%, 60.4%, and 63.4% at day 28 and by 108.0%, 71.2%, and 86.2% at day 56, respectively. However, FMA scores did not significantly differ between the three treatment groups on the 28th day. By the day 56, the FMA and MBI scores of the physiotherapy group were 46.1% and 33.2% greater, respectively, than those in the acupuncture group. No significant differences were seen between the combined treatment group and the other groups. The FMA subscores for the upper extremities did not show significant improvements in any group on day 56.

The authors draw the following conclusion: “Acupuncture is less effective for the outcome measures studied than is physiotherapy. Moreover, the therapeutic effect of combining acupuncture with physiotherapy was not superior to that of physiotherapy alone. A larger-scale clinical trial is necessary to confirm these finding.”

Our own study arrived at similarly disappointing conclusions: “Acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients“. Our review of all 10 sham-controlled RCTs in this area is also in line with the results of this new study: “Our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke”

I am quite sure that some acupuncture-enthusiasts will dispute this evidence. They might argue that I am too critical, the trials were not done optimally, that acupuncturists have seen plenty of good results in their clinical practice, that acupuncture is a complex intervention that does not fit into the straight jacket of an RCT, that this or that “prestigious” organisation recommends acupuncture for stroke patients, that it would be wrong not to give acupuncture a try etc. etc. I would counter that the reliable evidence available to date is sufficiently conclusive to stop claiming that acupuncture is effective and thus give false hope to severely suffering, vulnerable patients. Moreover, I would advocate using the sparse available resources to help stroke victims with treatments that demonstrably work.

One of the best-selling supplements in the UK as well as several other countries is evening primrose oil (EPO). It is available via all sorts of outlets (even respectable pharmacies – or is that supposedly respectable?), and is being promoted for a wide range of conditions, including eczema. The NIH website is optimistic about its efficacy: “Evening primrose oil may have modest benefits for eczema.” Our brand-new Cochrane review was aimed at critically assessing the effects of oral EPO or borage oil (BO) on the symptoms of atopic eczema, and it casts considerable doubt on this somewhat uncritical view.

Here is what we did: We searched six databases as well as online trials registers and checked the bibliographies of included studies for further references to relevant trials. We corresponded with trial investigators and pharmaceutical companies to identify unpublished and ongoing trials. We also performed a separate search for adverse effects. All RCTs investigating oral intake of EPO or BO for eczema were included.

Two experts independently applied eligibility criteria, assessed risk of bias, and extracted data. We pooled dichotomous outcomes using risk ratios (RR), and continuous outcomes using the mean difference (MD). Where possible, we pooled study results using random-effects meta-analysis and tested statistical heterogeneity.

And here is what we found: 27 studies with a total of 1596 participants met our inclusion criteria: 19 studies tested EPO, and 8 studies assessed BO. A meta-analysis of results from 7 studies showed that EPO failed to improve global eczema symptoms as reported by participants and doctors. Treatment with BO also failed to improve global eczema symptoms. 67% of the studies had a low risk of bias for random sequence generation; 44%, for allocation concealment; 59%, for blinding; and 37%, for other biases.

Our conclusions were clear: Oral borage oil and evening primrose oil lack effect on eczema; improvement was similar to respective placebos used in trials. Oral BO and EPO are not effective treatments for eczema.

The very wide-spread notion that EPO is effective for eczema and a range of other conditions was originally promoted by the researcher turned entrepreneur, D F Horrobin, who claimed that several human diseases, including eczema, were due to a lack of fatty acid precursors and could thus be effectively treated with EPO. In the 1980s, Horrobin began to sell EPO supplements without having conclusively demonstrated their safety and efficacy; this led to confiscations and felony indictments in the US. As chief executive of Scotia Pharmaceuticals, Horrobin obtained licences for several EPO-preparations which later were withdrawn for lack of efficacy. Charges of mismanagement and fraud led to Horrobin being ousted as CEO by the board of the company. Later, Horrobin published a positive meta-analysis of EPO for eczema where he excluded the negative results of the largest published trial, but included results of 7 of his own unpublished studies. When scientists asked to examine the data, Horrobin’s legal team convinced the journal to refuse the request.

The evidence for EPO is negative not just for eczema. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single disease or symptom for which it demonstrably works. Our own review of the data concluded ” EPO has not been established as an effective treatment for any condition”

Our new Cochrane review might help to put this long saga to rest. In my view, it is a fascinating tale of a scientist being blinded by creed and ambition. The results of such errors can be dramatic. Horrobin misled all of us: patients, health care professionals, scientists, regulators, decision makers, businessmen. This caused unnecessary expense and set back research efforts in a multitude of areas. I find the tale also fascinating from other perspectives; for instance, it begs the question why so many ‘respectable’ manufacturers and retailers are still allowed to make money on EPO. Is it not time to debunk the EPO-myth and say it as clearly as possible: EPO helps only those who financially profit from misleading the public?

If we believe homeopaths, we might get the impression that homeopathy is firmly established in mainstream health care. “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” To convince skeptics, we might want to have a bit more than wishful thinking.

We have just published a systematic review in order to instill some evidence into this debate. Our aim was to evaluate all the data from recent surveys of GPs and assess their involvement with and attitudes towards homeopathy. We searched 7 electronic databases to identify all relevant articles. Data extraction was conducted by three independent reviewers. Thirteen surveys met the inclusion criteria. Their findings suggest that less than 10% of GPs treated patients with homeopathy; referral rates varied hugely and ranged from 4.6% to 73%.

Two surveys also assessed GPs’ endorsement of homeopathy; they suggested that less than 15% of GPs were endorsing homeopathy. One survey asked about GPs’ personal usage of homeopathy and reported less than 10% had used this form of therapy on themselves. 

Three surveys investigated adverse events (AEs) from homeopathic treatments. One was solely focussed on AEs which were classified as “serious” (either life threatening or likely to cause disability or sever morbidity) or non-serious. In total, 21 “indirect” serious AEs were reported (e.g., stopping medication, refusing immunisation, refusing cancer treatment, delaying diagnosis). Another survey found that 14% of GPs reported AEs following homeopathic treatment within a year. Other authors reported that the discontinuation of conventional asthma treatment in favour of a homeopathic remedy had led to cardiovascular arrest.

These data shed a much more sober light on the use of homeopathy in the UK. They fail to show that homeopathy is well-accepted by British GPs. More importantly perhaps they disclose serious problems with the use of homeopathy.

This post has an odd title and addresses an odd subject. I am sure some people reading it will ask themselves “has he finally gone potty; is he a bit xenophobic, chauvinistic, or what?” I can assure you none of the above is the case.

Since many years, I have been asked to peer-review Chinese systematic reviews and meta-analyses of TCM-trials submitted to various journals and to the Cochrane Collaboration for publication, and I estimate that around 300 such articles are available today. Initially, I thought they were a valuable contribution to our knowledge, particularly for the many of us who cannot read Chinese languages. I hoped they might provide reliable information about this huge and potentially important section of the TCM-evidence. After doing this type of work for some time, I became more and more frustrated; now I have decided not to accept this task any longer – not because it is too much trouble, but because I have come to the conclusion that these articles are far less helpful than I had once assumed; in fact, I now fear that they are counter-productive.

In order to better understand what I mean, it might be best to use an example; this recent systematic review seems as good for that purpose as any.

Its Chinese authors “hypothesized that the eligible trials would provide evidence of the effect of Chinese herbs on bone mineral density (BMD) and the therapeutic benefits of Chinese medicine treatment in patients with bone loss. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were thus retrieved for a systematic review from Medline and 8 Chinese databases. The authors identified 12 RCTs involving a total of 1816 patients. The studies compared Chinese herbs with placebo or standard anti-osteoporotic therapy. The pooled data from these RCTs showed that the change of BMD in the spine was more pronounced with Chinese herbs compared to the effects noted with placebo. Also, in the femoral neck, Chinese herbs generated significantly higher increments of BMD compared to placebo. Compared to conventional anti-osteoporotic drugs, Chinese herbs generated greater BMD changes.

In their abstract, the part on the paper that most readers access, the authors reached the following conclusions: “Our results demonstrated that Chinese herb significantly increased lumbar spine BMD as compared to the placebo or other standard anti-osteoporotic drugs.” In the article itself, we find this more detailed conclusion: “We conclude that Chinese herbs substantially increased BMD of the lumbar spine compared to placebo or anti-osteoporotic drugs as indicated in the current clinical reports on osteoporosis treatment. Long term of Chinese herbs over 12 months of treatment duration may increase BMD in the hip more effectively. However, further studies are needed to corroborate the positive effect of increasing the duration of Chinese herbs on outcome as the results in this analysis are based on indirect comparisons. To date there are no studies available that compare Chinese herbs, Chinese herbs plus anti-osteoporotic drugs, and anti-osteoporotic drug versus placebo in a factorial design. Consequently, we are unable to draw any conclusions on the possible superiority of Chinese herbs plus anti-osteoporotic drug versus anti-osteoporotic drug or Chinese herb alone in the context of BMD.

Most readers will feel that this evidence is quite impressive and amazingly solid; they might therefore advocate routinely using Chinese herbs for the common and difficult to treat problem of osteoporosis. The integration of TCM might avoid lots of human suffering, prolong the life of many elderly patients, and save us all a lot of money. Why then am I not at all convinced?

The first thing to notice is the fact that we do not really know which of the ~7000 different Chinese herbs should be used. The article tells us surprisingly little about this crucial point. And even, if we manage to study this question in more depth, we are bound to get thoroughly confused; there are simply too many herbal mixtures and patent medicines to easily identify the most promising candidates.

The second and more important hurdle to making sense of these data is the fact that most of the primary studies originate from inaccessible Chinese journals and were published in Chinese languages which, of course, few people in the West can understand. This is entirely our fault, some might argue, but it does mean that we have to believe the authors, take their words at face value, and cannot check the original data. You may think this is fine, after all, the paper has gone through a rigorous peer-review process where it has been thoroughly checked by several top experts in the field. This, however, is a fallacy; like you and me, the peer-reviewers might not read Chinese either! (I don’t, and I reviewed quite a few of these papers; in some instances, I even asked for translations of the originals to do the job properly but this request was understandably turned down) In all likelihood, the above paper and most similar articles have not been properly peer-reviewed at all.

The third and perhaps most crucial point can only be fully appreciated, if we were able to access and understand the primary studies; it relates to the quality of the original RCTs summarised in such systematic reviews. The abstract of the present paper tells us nothing at all about this issue. In the paper, however, we do find a formal assessment of the studies’ risk of bias which shows that the quality of the included RCTs was poor to very poor. We also find a short but revealing sentence: “The reports of all trials mentioned randomization, but only seven described the method of randomization.” This remark is much more significant than it may seem: we have shown that such studies use such terminology in a rather adventurous way; reviewing about 2000 of these allegedly randomised trials, we found that many Chinese authors call a trial “randomised” even in the absence of a control group (one cannot randomise patients and have no control group)! They seem to like the term because it is fashionable and makes publication of their work easier. We thus have good reason to fear that some/many/most of the studies were not RCTs at all.

The fourth issue that needs mentioning is the fact that very close to 100% of all Chinese TCM-trials report positive findings. This means that either TCM is effective for every indication it is tested for (most unlikely, not least because there are many negative non-Chinese trials of TCM), or there is something very fundamentally wrong with Chinese research into TCM. Over the years, I have had several Chinese co-workers in my team and was invariably impressed by their ability to work hard and efficiently; we often discussed the possible reasons for the extraordinary phenomenon of 0% negative Chinese trials. The most plausible answer they offered was this: it would be most impolite for a Chinese researcher to produce findings which contradict the opinion of his/her peers.

In view of these concerns, can we trust the conclusions of such systematic reviews? I don’t think so – and this is why I have problems with research of this nature. If there are good reasons to doubt their conclusions, these reviews might misinform us systematically, they might not further but hinder progress, and they might send us up the garden path. This could well be in the commercial interest of the Chinese multi-billion dollar TCM-industry, but it would certainly not be in the interest of patients and good health care.

Some national and international guidelines advise physicians to use spinal manipulation for patients suffering from acute (and chronic) low back pain. Many experts have been concerned about the validity of this advice. Now an up-date of the Cochrane review on this subject seems to provide clarity on this rather important matter.

Its aim was to assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) as a treatment of acute low back pain. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) testing manipulation/mobilization in adults with  low back pain of less than 6-weeks duration were included. The primary outcome measures were pain, functional status and perceived recovery. Secondary endpoints were return-to-work and quality of life. Two authors independently conducted the study selection, risk of bias assessment and data extraction. The effects were examined for SMT versus  inert interventions, sham SMT,  other interventions, and for SMT as an adjunct to other forms of treatment.

The researchers identified 20 RCTs with a total number of 2674 participants, 12 (60%) RCTs had not been included in the previous version of this review. Only 6 of the 20 studies had a low risk of bias. For pain and functional status, there was low- to very low-quality evidence suggesting no difference in effectiveness of SMT compared with inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy. There was varying quality of evidence suggesting no difference in effectiveness of SMT compared with other interventions. Data were sparse for recovery, return-to-work, quality of life, and costs of care.

The authors draw the following conclusion: “SMT is no more effective for acute low back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy. SMT also seems to be no better than other recommended therapies. Our evaluation is limited by the few numbers of studies; therefore, future research is likely to have an important impact on these estimates. Future RCTs should examine specific subgroups and include an economic evaluation.”

In other words, guidelines that recommend SMT for acute low back pain are not based on the current best evidence. But perhaps the situation is different for chronic low back pain? The current Cochrane review of 26 RCTs is equally negative: “High quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. Determining cost-effectiveness of care has high priority. Further research is likely to have an important impact on our confidence in the estimate of effect in relation to inert interventions and sham SMT, and data related to recovery.”

This clearly begs the question why many of the current guidelines seem to mislead us. I am not sure I know the answer to this one; however I suspect that the panels writing the guidelines might have been dominated by chiropractors and osteopaths or their supporters who have not exactly made a name for themselves for being impartial. Whatever the reason, I think it is time for a re-think and for up-dating guidelines which are out of date and misleading.

Similarly, it might be time to question for what conditions chiropractors and osteopaths, the two professions who use spinal manipulation/mobilisation most, do actually offer anything of real value at all. Back pain and SMT are clearly their domains; if it turns out that SMT is not evidence-based for back pain, what is left? There is no good evidence for anything else, as far as I can see. To make matters worse, there are quite undeniable risks associated with SMT. The conclusion of such considerations is, I fear, obvious: the value of and need for these two professions should be re-assessed.

Many cancer patients will suffer from severe, debilitating fatigue during the course of their illness. The exact cause of this common symptom is not entirely clear. Most likely it is due to a combination of the cancer and the treatments used to cure it. Managing cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is thus an important part of the palliative and supportive care of cancer patients. Acupuncture is often advocated for this purpose and many centres use it routinely. The question therefore is, does it work?

The most recent trial on this subject was aimed at assessing the effectiveness of maintenance acupuncture in the management of CRF; acupuncture or self-acupuncture/self-needling was compared with no such treatment. Breast cancer patients who previously had received acupuncture were randomized to have 4 acupuncturist-delivered weekly sessions, 4 self-administered weekly acupuncture sessions (self-needling); or no acupuncture at all. The primary outcome-measure was general fatigue, while mood, quality of life and safety served as secondary endpoints. In total, 197 patients were randomized: 65 to therapist-delivered sessions, 67 to self-acupuncture/self-needling and 65 to no further acupuncture. The results failed to demonstrate significant inter-group differences in any of the parameters evaluated. The authors concluded that “maintenance acupuncture did not yield important improvements beyond those observed after an initial clinic-based course of acupuncture“.

But this is just one single of several available studies. Acupuncture-fans might suspect me of cherry-picking a largely negative study. If we want a fair verdict, we must consider the totality of the evidence. The aim of our systematic review was therefore to critically evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture (AT) for CRF based on all the trial data available to us.

Fourteen databases were searched from their respective inception to November 2012. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of AT for the treatment of CRF were considered for inclusion. The risk of bias/methodological quality was assessed using the method suggested by the Cochrane Collaboration. Seven RCTs met the eligibility criteria. Most were small pilot studies with serious methodological flaws. Four of them showed effectiveness of AT or AT in addition to usual care (UC) over sham AT, UC, enhanced UC, or no intervention for alleviating CRF. Three RCTs failed to demonstrate an effect of AT over sham treatment.

Our conclusion had to be cautious: “Overall, the quantity and quality of RCTs included in the analysis were too low to draw meaningful conclusions. Even in the positive trials, it remained unclear whether the observed outcome was due to specific effects of AT or nonspecific effects of care. Further research is required to investigate whether AT demonstrates specific effects on CRF

There will, of course, be those who claim that no trial evidence is needed in this case; if a cancer-patient benefits from the treatment, she should have it regardless of whether it works as a placebo or has effects beyond that. I do sympathize with this attitude but should point out that there are a number of points to consider when making it:

1) Acupuncture is not risk-free.

2) There are other treatments against CRF; if we blindly advocate acupuncture, we might not offer the best option to our patients.

3) If we spend our limited resources on acupuncture, we might not afford treatments which are more effective.

4) If we are happy using acupuncture because it conveys a sizable placebo-effect, how will we make progress in finding treatments that are more effective?

It is therefore difficult to decide whether or not to recommend acupuncture for CRF. There are some arguments for both sides. Skeptics or critical thinkers or clinicians adhering to the principles of evidence-based medicine are unlikely to condone it, and some people might accuse them for cruelly  and heartlessly denying severely ill patients help which they so badly need. Personally, I fail to see what is cruel or heartless in insisting that these patients receive the treatment which demonstrably works best – and that does not seem to be acupuncture.

Chiropractors have become (in)famous for making claims which  contradict the known facts. One claim that we find with unfailing regularity is that “regular chiropractic treatments will improve your quality of life“. There are uncounted websites advertising this notion, and most books on the subject promote it as well, some are even entirely dedicated to the theme. Here is a quote from a typical quote from one site chosen at random: “Quality of life chiropractic care is the pinnacle of chiropractic care within the chiropractic paradigm.  It does not solely rely on pain or postural findings, but rather on how a persons life can be positively influenced through regular adjustments… A series of regular adjustments is programmed and continual advice on life improvement is given.  It is designed as a long term approach and gains its strength from the regularity of its delivery.”

Given the ubiquitous nature of such claims, and given the fact that many chiropractic clients have back problems which reduce their quality of life, and given that back pain is just about the only condition for which chiropractors might have something to offer, it seems relevant to ask the following question: what is the evidence that chiropractic interventions affect the quality of life of back pain sufferers?

Some time ago, an Italian randomised clinical trial compared chiropractic spinal manipulations with sham-manipulations in patients affected by back pain and sciatica. Its results were disappointing and showed “no significant differences in quality of life and psychosocial scores.” But this is just one (potentially cherry-picked) study, I hear my chiropractic friends object. What we quite clearly need, is someone who takes the trouble to evaluate the totality of the available evidence.

Recently, Australian researchers published a review which did just that. Its authors conducted thorough literature searches to find all relevant studies on the subject. Of the 1,165 articles they located, 12 investigations of varying quality were retained, representing 6 studies, 4 randomised clinical trial and two observational studies. There was a high degree of inconsistency and lack of standardisation in measurement instruments and outcome measures. Three studies reported reduced use of additional treatments as a positive outcome; two studies reported a positive effect of chiropractic interventions on pain, and two studies reported a positive effect on disability. The 6 studies reviewed concentrated on the impact of chiropractic care on physical health and disability, rather than the wider holistic view which was the focus of the review. On the basis of this evidence, the authors conclude that “it is difficult… to defend any conclusion about the impact of chiropractic intervention on the quality of life, lifestyle, health and economic impact on chiropractic patients presenting with back pain.”

So….

What should we make of all this? I don’t know about you, but I fear the notion that chiropractic improves the quality of life of back pain patients is just another of these many bogus assumptions which chiropractors across the globe seem to promote, advertise and make a living from.

My aim with this blog is to eventually cover most of the 400 or so different alternative therapies and diagnostic techniques. So far, I have focused on some of the most popular modalities; and this means, I have neglected many others. Today, it is time, I think, to discuss aromatherapy, after all, it is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine in the UK.

Aromatherapists use essential oils, and this is where the confusion starts. They are called “essential” not because humans cannot do without them, like essential nutrients, for instance; they are called “essential” because they are made of flower ESSENCES. The man who ‘discovered’ aromatherapy was a chemist who accidentally had burnt his hand and put some lavender essence on the burn. It healed very quickly, and he thus concluded that essential oils can be useful therapeutics.

Today’s aromatherapists would rarely use the pure essential oil; they dilute it in an inert carrier oil and usually apply it via a very gentle massage to the skin. They believe that specific oils have specific effects for specific conditions. As these oils contain pharmacologically active ingredients, some of these assumptions might even be correct. The question, however, is one of concentration. Do these ingredients reach the target organ in sufficient quantities? Are they absorbed through the skin at all? Does smelling them have a sufficiently large effect to produce the claimed benefit?

The ‘acid test’ for any therapeutic claim is, as always, the clinical trial. As it happens a new paper has just become available. The aim of this randomised study was to determine the effects of inhalation aromatherapy on pregnant women. Essential oils with high linalool and linalyl acetate content were selected and among these the one preferred by the participant was used. Thirteen pregnant women in week 28 of a single pregnancy were randomly assigned into an aromatherapy and a control group. The main outcome measures were several validated scores to assess mood and the heart-rate variability. The results showed significant differences in the Tension-Anxiety score and the Anger-Hostility score after aromatherapy. Heart rate variability changes indicated that the parasympathetic nerve activity increased significantly in the verum group. The authors concluded that aromatherapy inhalation was effective and suggest that more research is warranted.

I have several reasons for mentioning this study here.

1st research into aromatherapy is rare and therefore any new trial of this popular treatment might be important.

2nd aromatherapy is mostly (but not in this study) used in conjunction with a gentle, soothing massage; any outcome of such an intervention is difficult to interpret: we cannot then know whether it was the massage or the oil that produced the observed effect. The present trial is different and might allow conclusions specifically about the effects of the essential oils.

3rd the study displays several classic methodological mistakes which are common in trials of alternative medicine. By exposing them, I hope that they might become less frequent in future.

The most obvious flaw is its tiny sample size. What is an adequate size, people often ask. This question is unfortunately unanswerable. To determine the adequate sample size, it is best to conduct a pilot study or use published data to calculate the required number of patients needed for the specific trial you are planning. Any statistician will be able to help you with this.

The second equally obvious flaw relates to the fact that the results and the conclusions of this study were based on comparing the outcome measures before with those after the interventions within one intervention group. The main reason for taking the trouble of running a control group in a clinical trial is that the findings from the experimental group are compared to those of the control group. Only such inter-group comparisons can tell us whether the results were actually caused by the intervention and not by other factors such as the passage of time, a placebo-effect etc.

In the present study, the authors seem to be aware of their mistake and mention that there were no significant differences in outcomes when the two groups were compared. Yet they fail to draw the right conclusion from this fact. It means that their study demonstrated that aromatherapy inhalation had no effect on the outcomes studied.

So, what does the reliable trial evidence on aromatherapy tell us?

A clinical trial in which I was involved failed to show that it improves the mood or quality of life of cancer patients. But one swallow does not make a summer; what do systematic reviews of all available trials indicate?

The first systematic review was probably the one we published in 2000. We then located 12 randomised clinical trials: six of them had no independent replication; six related to the relaxing effects of aromatherapy combined with massage. These 6 studies collectively suggested that aromatherapy massage has a mild but short-lasting anxiolytic effect. These effects of aromatherapy are probably not strong enough for it to be considered for the treatment of anxiety. We concluded that the hypothesis that it is effective for any other indication is not supported by the findings of rigorous clinical trials.

Since then several other systematic reviews have emerged. We therefore decided to summarise their findings in an overview of all available reviews. We searched 12 electronic databases and our departmental files without restrictions of time or language. The methodological quality of all systematic reviews was evaluated independently by two authors. Of 201 potentially relevant publications, 10 met our inclusion criteria. Most of the systematic reviews were of poor methodological quality. The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia. For none of the conditions was the evidence convincing. Our conclusions therefore had to be cautious: due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.

Finally, we also investigated the safety of aromatherapy by assessing all published data regarding adverse effects. Forty two primary reports met our inclusion criteria. In total, 71 patients had experienced adverse effects after aromatherapy which ranged from mild to severe and included one fatality. The most common adverse effect was dermatitis. Lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil and ylang-ylang were the most common essential oils responsible for adverse effects. We concluded that aromatherapy has the potential to cause adverse effects some of which are serious. Their frequency remains unknown.

And what is the conclusion of all this? To me, it seems fairly straight forward: Aromatherapy is not demonstrably effective for any condition. It also is not entirely free of risks. Its risk/benefit profile is thus not positive which can only mean that it is not a useful or recommendable treatment for anybody who is ill.

As I have mentioned before, I like positive news as much as the next person. Therefore, I am constantly on the look-out for recently published, sound evidence suggesting that  some form of alternative medicine is effective and safe for this or that condition. This new systematic review fits that description, I am pleased to report.

Its authors evaluated the effectiveness of massage therapy (MT) for neck and shoulder pain. Their extensive literature searches identified 12 high-quality studies. The meta-analyses showed significant effects of MT for neck pain and shoulder pain compared to inactive therapies. MT did not yield better effects for neck pain or shoulder pain than other active therapies administered to the control groups. Shoulder function was not significantly affected by MT. The authors concluded that “MT may provide immediate effects for neck and shoulder pain. However, MT does not show better effects on pain than other active therapies. No evidence suggests that MT is effective in functional status”.

Massage therapy is thus a promising treatment, particularly as this systematic review is by no means the only piece of encouraging evidence. It is not better than other effective treatments, but it is not associated with frequent or serious adverse effects. This means that the demonstrable benefits are likely to outweigh its risks; in other words, the risk benefit balance is positive. Regular readers of this blog will appreciate the importance of this point.

Massage is practiced by several professions: mostly, of course, by massage therapists, but occasionally also by nurses, osteopath, chiropractors etc. Chiropractors, in particular, have recently tried to make much – I think too much – of this fact. They tend to claim that, as they use treatments which are evidence-based, such as massage, chiropractic is an evidence-based profession. I think this is akin to surgeons claiming that all of surgery is evidence-based because surgeons use medications which effectively reduce post-operative pain. Chiropractors foremost employ spinal manipulation and surgeons foremost use surgery; if they want us to believe that their practice is evidence-based, they need to show us the evidence for their hall-mark interventions. In the case of surgery, the evidence is mostly established; in the case of chiropractic, it is mostly not.

Massage is backed by reasonably sound evidence not just for neck and shoulder pain but for a range of other conditions as well. WHAT DO WE CALL AN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE THAT WORKS? WE CALL IT MEDICINE!

So why is massage not a mainstream therapy? The answer is simple: in many countries, massage therapy has long been considered to be entirely conventional. Twenty years ago, I was chair of rehabilitation medicine at the university of Vienna. Amongst my staff, there always were about 5-8 full time massage therapists and nobody thought this to be unusual in any way. Similarly, in Germany, massage is entirely conventional.

Perhaps it is time that the English-speaking countries catch up with Europe when it comes to massage therapy and the evidence that supports it?

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