Most of the underlying assumptions of alternative medicine (AM) lack plausibility. Whenever this is the case, so the argument put forward by an international team of researchers in a recent paper, there are difficulties involved in obtaining a valid statistical significance in clinical studies.
Using a mostly statistical approach, they argue that, since the prior probability of a research hypothesis is directly related to its scientific plausibility, the commonly used frequentist statistics, which do not account for this probability, are unsuitable for studies exploring matters in various degree disconnected from science. Any statistical significance obtained in this field should be considered with great caution and may be better applied to more plausible hypotheses (like placebo effect) than the specific efficacy of the intervention.
The researchers conclude that, since achieving meaningful statistical significance is an essential step in the validation of medical interventions, AM practices, producing only outcomes inherently resistant to statistical validation, appear not to belong to modern evidence-based medicine.
To emphasize their arguments, the researchers make the following additional points:
- It is often forgotten that frequentist statistics, commonly used in clinical trials, provides only indirect evidence in support of the hypothesis examined.
- The p-value inherently tends to exaggerate the support for the hypothesis tested, especially if the scientific plausibility of the hypothesis is low.
- When the rationale for a clinical intervention is disconnected from the basic principles of science, as in case of complementary alternative medicines, any positive result obtained in clinical studies is more reasonably ascribable to hypotheses (generally to placebo effect) other than the hypothesis on trial, which commonly is the specific efficacy of the intervention.
- Since meaningful statistical significance as a rule is an essential step to validation of a medical intervention, complementary alternative medicine cannot be considered evidence-based.
Further explanations can be found in the discussion of the article where the authors argue that the quality of the hypothesis tested should be consistent with sound logic and science and therefore have a reasonable prior probability of being correct. As a rule of thumb, assuming a “neutral” attitude towards the null hypothesis (odds = 1:1), a p-value of 0.01 or, better, 0.001 should suffice to give a satisfactory posterior probability of 0.035 and 0.005 respectively.
In the area of AM, hypotheses often are entirely inconsistent with logic and frequently fly in the face of science. Four examples can demonstrate this instantly and sufficiently, I think:
- Homeopathic remedies which contain not a single ‘active’ molecule are not likely to generate biological effects.
- Healing ‘energy’ of Reiki masters has no basis in science.
- Meridians of acupuncture are pure imagination.
- Chiropractic subluxation have never been shown to exist.
Positive results from clinical trials of implausible forms of AM are thus either due to chance, bias or must be attributed to more credible causes such as the placebo effect. Since the achievement of meaningful statistical significance is an essential step in the validation of medical interventions, unless some authentic scientific support to AM is provided, one has to conclude that AM cannot be considered as evidence-based.
Such arguments are by no means new; they have been voiced over and over again. Essentially, they amount to the old adage: IF YOU CLAIM THAT YOU HAVE A CAT IN YOUR GARDEN, A SIMPLE PICTURE MAY SUFFICE. IF YOU CLAIM THERE IS A UNICORN IN YOUR GARDEN, YOU NEED SOMETHING MORE CONVINCING. An extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary proof! Put into the context of the current discussion about AM, this means that the usual level of clinical evidence is likely to be very misleading as long as it totally neglects the biological plausibility of the prior hypothesis.
Proponents of AM do not like to hear such arguments. They usually insist on what we might call a ‘level playing field’ and fail to see why their assumptions require not only a higher level of evidence but also a reasonable scientific hypothesis. They forget that the playing field is not even to start with; to understand the situation better, they should read this excellent article. Perhaps its elegant statistical approach will convince them – but I would not hold my breath.
In 2004, I published an article rather boldly entitled ‘Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science’. Here is its summary:
Ear candles are hollow tubes coated in wax which are inserted into patients’ ears and then lit at the far end. The procedure is used as a complementary therapy for a wide range of conditions. A critical assessment of the evidence shows that its mode of action is implausible and demonstrably wrong. There are no data to suggest that it is effective for any condition. Furthermore, ear candles have been associated with ear injuries. The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.
Sadly, since the publication of this paper, ear candles have not become less but more popular. There are about 3 000 000 websites on the subject; most are trying to sell products and make claims which are almost comically misguided; three examples have to suffice:
- The candles work on a chimney principle, drawing any impurities to the surface where they can be gently removed. They equalise the pressure in the head and ears, making them suitable for most conditions.
- These candles are cleansing, soothing and relaxing which helps with chills / colds, feeling of pressure in the ear, tinnitus and everyday noise / sensory overload.
- As it burns, the cone’s ingredients turn to vapour and the airflow creates a vibrational effect. Warmth, vibration and vapour massage the ear canal breaking down any blockages. Wax, toxins and impurities are then drawn out by suction from the heat and vacuum effect of the burning cone. Ear Candling also stimulates the ear’s circulatory system and upper lymph system aiding the body’s natural healing responses.
I said ALMOST comical because such nonsense has, of course a downside. Not only are consumers separated from their cash for no benefit whatsoever, but they are also exposed to danger; again, three examples from the medical literature might explain:
- Otolaryngologists from London described a case of ear candling presenting as hearing loss, and they concluded that this useless therapy can actually cause damage to the ears.
- A 50-year-old woman presented to her GP following an episode of ear candling. After 15 minutes, the person performing the candling burned herself while attempting to remove the candle and spilled candle wax into the patient’s right ear canal. On examination, a piece of candle wax was found in the patient’s ear, and she was referred to the local ear, nose, and throat department. Under general aesthetic, a large mass of solidified yellow candle wax was removed from the deep meatus of the ear. The patient had a small perforation in her right tympanic membrane. Results of a pure tone audiogram showed a mild conductive hearing loss on the right side. At a follow-up appointment 1 month later, the perforation was still there, and the patient’s hearing had not improved.
- A case report of a 4-year-old girl from New Zealand was published. The patient was diagnosed to suffer from otitis media. During the course of the ear examination white deposits were noticed on her eardrum; this was confirmed as being caused by ear candling.
I should stress that we do not know how often such events happen; there is no monitoring system, and one might expect that the vast majority of cases do not get published. Most consumers who experience such problems, I would guess, are far to embarrassed to admit that they have been taken in by this sort of quackery.
It was true 10 yeas ago and it is true today: ear candles are a triumph of ignorance over science. But also they are a victory of gullibility over common sense and the unethical exploitation of naive hope by greedy frauds.
DOCTOR Jeffrey Collins, a chiropractor from the Chicago area, just sent me an email which, I think, is remarkable and hilarious - so much so that I want to share it with my readers. Here it is in its full length and beauty:
If you really think you can resolve all back pain syndromes with a pill then you are dumber than you look. I’ve been a chiropractor for 37 years and the primary difference between seeing me vs. an orthopedic surgeon for back pain is simple. When you have ANY fixation in the facet joint, the motor untitled is compromised. These are the load bearing joints in the spine and only an idiot would not realize they are the primary source of pain. The idea of giving facet blocks under fluoroscopy is so dark ages. Maybe you could return to blood letting. The fact that you attack chiropractors as being dangerous when EVERY DAY medical doctors kill people but that’s OK in the name of science. Remember Vioxx? Oh yeah that drug killed over 80,000 patients that they could find. It was likely double that. Oddly I have treated over 10,000 in my career and nobody died. Not one. I guess I was just lucky. I went to Palmer in Iowa. The best chiropractors come out of there. I should qualify that. The ones that have a skill adjusting the spine.
I will leave you with this as a simple analogy most patients get. Anyone who has ever “cracked their knuckles” will tell you that they got immediate relief and joint function was restored instanter. That’s chiropractic in a nutshell. Not complicated and any chiropractor worth his salt can do that for 37 years without one adverse incident. A monkey could hand out pain pills and you know it. Only in America do you have to get a script to get to a drugstore so everybody gets a cut. What a joke. Somehow mitigating pain makes you feel better about yourselves when you are the real sham. Funny how chiropractors pay the LOWEST malpractice rates in the country. That must be luck as well. Where’s your science now? I would love to debate a guy like you face to face. If you ever come to Chicago email me and let’s meet. Then again guys like you never seem to like confrontation.
I’ve enjoyed this and glad I found your site. Nobody reads the crap that you write and I found this by mistake. Keep the public in the dark as long as you can. It’s only a matter of time before it’s proven DRUGS ARE WORTHLESS.
I am pleased that DOCTOR Collins had fun. Now let me try to have some merriment as well.
This comment is a classic in several ways, for instance, it
- starts with a frightfully primitive insult,
- boasts of the author’s authority (37 years of experience) without mentioning anything that remotely resembles real evidence,
- provides pseudoscientific explanations for quackery,
- returns to insults (only an idiot … return to blood letting),
- uses classical fallacies (…medical doctors kill people),
- returns to more boasting about authority (I went to Palmer in Iowa. The best chiropractors come out of there…),
- injects a little conspiracy theory (…everybody gets a cut),
- returns to insults (…you are the real sham… guys like you never seem to like confrontation.)
- and ends with an apocalyptic finish: It’s only a matter of time before it’s proven DRUGS ARE WORTHLESS.
I should not mock DOCTOR Collins, though; I should be thankful to him for at least two reasons. Firstly, he confirmed my theory that “Ad hominem attacks are signs of victories of reason over unreason“. Secondly, he made a major contribution to my enjoyment of this otherwise somewhat dreary bank holiday, and I hope the same goes for my readers.
Twenty years ago, when I started my Exeter job as a full-time researcher of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), I defined the aim of my unit as applying science to CAM. At the time, this intention upset quite a few CAM-enthusiasts. One of the most prevalent arguments of CAM-proponents against my plan was that the study of CAM with rigorous science was quite simply an impossibility. They claimed that CAM included mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and other complex interventions which cannot not be put into the ‘straight jacket’ of conventional research, e. g. a controlled clinical trial. I spent the next few years showing that this notion was wrong. Gradually and hesitantly CAM researchers seemed to agree with my view – not all, of course, but first a few and then slowly, often reluctantly the majority of them.
What followed was a period during which several research groups started conducting rigorous tests of the hypotheses underlying CAM. All too often, the results turned out to be disappointing, to say the least: not only did most of the therapies in question fail to show efficacy, they were also by no means free of risks. Worst of all, perhaps, much of CAM was disclosed as being biologically implausible. The realization that rigorous scientific scrutiny often generated findings which were not what proponents had hoped for led to a sharp decline in the willingness of CAM-proponents to conduct rigorous tests of their hypotheses. Consequently, many asked whether science was such a good idea after all.
But that, in turn, created a new problem: once they had (at least nominally) committed themselves to science, how could they turn against it? The answer to this dilemma was easier that anticipated: the solution was to appear dedicated to science but, at the same time, to argue that, because CAM is subtle, holistic, complex etc., a different scientific approach was required. At this stage, I felt we had gone ‘full circle’ and had essentially arrived back where we were 20 years ago - except that CAM-proponents no longer rejected the scientific method outright but merely demanded different tools.
A recent article may serve as an example of this new and revised stance of CAM-proponents on science. Here proponents of alternative medicine argue that a challenge for research methodology in CAM/ICH* is the growing recognition that CAM/IHC practice often involves complex combination of novel interventions that include mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and others. Critics argue that the reductionist placebo controlled randomized control trial (RCT) model that works effectively for determining efficacy for most pharmaceutical or placebo trial RCTs may not be the most appropriate for determining effectiveness in clinical practice for either CAM/IHC or many of the interventions used in primary care, including health promotion practices. Therefore the reductionist methodology inherent in efficacy studies, and in particular in RCTs, may not be appropriate to study the outcomes for much of CAM/IHC, such as Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) or other complex non-CAM/IHC interventions—especially those addressing comorbidities. In fact it can be argued that reductionist methodology may disrupt the very phenomenon, the whole system, that the research is attempting to capture and evaluate (i.e., the whole system in its naturalistic environment). Key issues that surround selection of the most appropriate methodology to evaluate complex interventions are well described in the Kings Fund report on IHC and also in the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) guidelines for evaluating complex interventions—guidelines which have been largely applied to the complexity of conventional primary care and care for patients with substantial comorbidity. These reports offer several potential solutions to the challenges inherent in studying CAM/IHC. [* IHC = integrated health care]
Let’s be clear and disclose what all of this actually means. The sequence of events, as I see it, can be summarized as follows:
- We are foremost ALTERNATIVE! Our treatments are far too unique to be subjected to reductionist research; we therefore reject science and insist on an ALTERNATIVE.
- We (well, some of us) have reconsidered our opposition and are prepared to test our hypotheses scientifically (NOT LEAST BECAUSE WE NEED THE RECOGNITION THAT THIS MIGHT BRING).
- We are dismayed to see that the results are mostly negative; science, it turns out, works against our interests.
- We need to reconsider our position.
- We find it inconceivable that our treatments do not work; all the negative scientific results must therefore be wrong.
- We always said that our treatments are unique; now we realize that they are far too holistic and complex to be submitted to reductionist scientific methods.
- We still believe in science (or at least want people to believe that we do) - but we need a different type of science.
- We insist that RCTs (and all other scientific methods that fail to demonstrate the value of CAM) are not adequate tools for testing complex interventions such as CAM.
- We have determined that reductionist research methods disturb our subtle treatments.
- We need pragmatic trials and similarly ‘soft’ methods that capture ‘real life’ situations, do justice to CAM and rarely produce a negative result.
What all of this really means is that, whenever the findings of research fail to disappoint CAM-proponents, the results are by definition false-negative. The obvious solution to this problem is to employ different (weaker) research methods, preferably those that cannot possibly generate a negative finding. Or, to put it bluntly: in CAM, science is acceptable only as long as it produces the desired results.
Linus Carl Pauling (1901 – 1994), the American scientist, peace activist, author, and educator who won two Nobel prizes, was one of the most influential chemists in history and ranks among the most important scientists of the 20th century. Linus Pauling’s work on vitamin C, however, generated considerable controversy. Pauling wrote many papers and a popular book, Cancer and Vitamin C. Vitamin C, we know today, protects cells from oxidative DNA damage and might thereby block carcinogenesis. Pauling popularised the regular intake of vitamin C; eventually he published two studies of end-stage cancer patients; their results apparently showed that vitamin C quadrupled survival times. A re-evaluation, however, found that the vitamin C groups were less sick on entry to the study. Later clinical trials concluded that there was no benefit to high-dose vitamin C. Since then, the established opinion is that the best evidence does not support a role for high dose vitamin C in the treatment of cancer. Despite all this, high dose IV vitamin C is in unexpectedly wide use by CAM practitioners.
Yesterday, new evidence has been published in the highly respected journal ‘Nature’; does it vindicate Pauling and his followers?
Chinese oncologists conducted a meta-analysis to assess the association between vitamin C intake and the risk to acquire lung cancer. Pertinent studies were identified by a searches of several electronic databases through December of 2013. Random-effect model was used to combine the data for analysis. Publication bias was estimated using Begg’s funnel plot and Egger’s regression asymmetry test.
Eighteen articles reporting 21 studies involving 8938 lung cancer cases were included in this meta-analysis. Pooled results suggested that highest vitamin C intake level versus lowest level was significantly associated with the risk of lung cancer. The effect was largest in investigations from the United States and in prospective studies. A linear dose-response relationship was found, with the risk of lung cancer decreasing by 7% for every 100 mg/day increase in the intake of vitamin C . No publication bias was found.
The authors conclude that their analysis suggested that the higher intake of vitamin C might have a protective effect against lung cancer, especially in the United States, although this conclusion needs to be confirmed.
Does this finding vindicate Pauling’s theory? Not really.
Even though the above-quoted conclusions seem to suggest a causal link, we are, in fact, far from having established one. The meta-analysis pooled mainly epidemiological data from various studies. Such investigations are doubtlessly valuable but they are fraught with uncertainties and cannot prove causality. For instance, there could be dozens of factors that have confounded these data in such a way that they produce a misleading result. The simplest explanation of the meta-analytic results might be that people who have a very high vitamin C intake tend to have generally healthier life-styles than those who take less vitamin C. When conducting a meta-analysis, one does, of course, try to account for such factors; but in many cases the necessary information to do that is not available, and therefore uncertainty persists.
In other words, the authors were certainly correct when stating that their findings needed to be confirmed. Pauling’s theory cannot be vindicated by such reports – in fact, the authors do not even mention Pauling with one word.
For every condition which is not curable by conventional medicine there are dozens of alternative treatments that offer a cure or at least symptomatic relief. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is such a disease. It is hard to find an alternative therapy that is not being promoted for MS.
Acupuncture is, of course, no exception. It is widely promoted for treating MS symptoms and many MS patients spend lots of money hoping that it does. The US ‘National MS Society’, For instance claim that acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression. There is no evidence, however, that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of MS exacerbations or slow the progression of disability. And the ‘British Acupuncture Council’ state that acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression.
Such claims seem a little over-optimistic; let’s have a look what the evidence really tells us.
The purpose of this brand-new review was to assess the literature on the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating MS. A literature search resulted in 12 peer-reviewed articles on the subject that examined the use of acupuncture to treat MS related quality of life, fatigue, spasticity, and pain. The majority of the studies were poorly designed-without control, randomization, or blinding. Description of the subjects, interventions, and outcome measures as well as statistical analysis were often lacking or minimal.
The authors concluded that although many of the studies suggested that acupuncture was successful in improving MS related symptoms, lack of statistical rigor and poor study design make it difficult to draw any conclusions about the true effectiveness of this intervention in the MS population. Further studies with more rigorous designs and analysis are needed before accurate claims can be made as to the effectiveness of acupuncture in this population.
And what about other alternative therapies? Our own systematic review of the subject included 12 randomized controlled trials: nutritional therapy (4), massage (1), Feldenkrais bodywork (1), reflexology (1), magnetic field therapy (2), neural therapy (1) and psychological counselling (2). But the evidence was not compelling for any of these therapies, with many trials suffering from significant methodological flaws. There is evidence to suggest some benefit of nutritional therapy for the physical symptoms of MS. Magnetic field therapy and neural therapy appear to have a short-term beneficial effect on the physical symptoms of MS. Massage/bodywork and psychological counselling seem to improve depression, anxiety and self-esteem.
That was some time ago, and it is therefore reasonable to ask: has the evidence changed? Thankfully, the ‘American Academy of Neurology’ has just published the following guidelines entitles complementary and alternative medicine in multiple sclerosis:
Clinicians might offer oral cannabis extract for spasticity symptoms and pain (excluding central neuropathic pain) (Level A). Clinicians might offer tetrahydrocannabinol for spasticity symptoms and pain (excluding central neuropathic pain) (Level B). Clinicians should counsel patients that these agents are probably ineffective for objective spasticity (short-term)/tremor (Level B) and possibly effective for spasticity and pain (long-term) (Level C). Clinicians might offer Sativex oromucosal cannabinoid spray (nabiximols) for spasticity symptoms, pain, and urinary frequency (Level B). Clinicians should counsel patients that these agents are probably ineffective for objective spasticity/urinary incontinence (Level B). Clinicians might choose not to offer these agents for tremor (Level C). Clinicians might counsel patients that magnetic therapy is probably effective for fatigue and probably ineffective for depression (Level B); fish oil is probably ineffective for relapses, disability, fatigue, MRI lesions, and quality of life (QOL) (Level B); ginkgo biloba is ineffective for cognition (Level A) and possibly effective for fatigue (Level C); reflexology is possibly effective for paresthesia (Level C); Cari Loder regimen is possibly ineffective for disability, symptoms, depression, and fatigue (Level C); and bee sting therapy is possibly ineffective for relapses, disability, fatigue, lesion burden/volume, and health-related QOL (Level C). Cannabinoids may cause adverse effects. Clinicians should exercise caution regarding standardized vs nonstandardized cannabis extracts and overall CAM quality control/nonregulation. Safety/efficacy of other CAM/CAM interaction with MS disease-modifying therapies is unknown.
Interestingly, on yesterday it was announced that the NHS in Wales has just made available a cannabis-based spray for MS-sufferers (I should mention that most cannabis-based preparations are not full plant extracts and thus by definition not herbal but conventional medicines).
It would be wonderful, if other alternative therapies were of proven benefit to MS-sufferers. But sadly, this does not seem to be the case. I think it is better to be truthful about this than to raise false hopes of desperate patients.
Readers of this blog will know that few alternative treatments are more controversial and less plausible than homeopathy. Therefore they might be interested to read about the latest attempt of homeopathy-enthusiasts to convince the public that, despite all the clinical evidence to the contrary, homeopathy does work.
The new article was published in German by Swiss urologist and is a case-report describing a patient suffering from paralytic ileus. This condition is a typical complication of ileocystoplasty of the bladder, the operation the patient had undergone. The patient had also been suffering from a spinal cord injury which, due to a pre-existing neurogenic bowel dysfunction, increases the risk of paralytic ileus.
The paraplegic patient developed a massive paralytic ileus after ileocystoplasty and surgical revision. Conventional stimulation of bowel function was unsuccessful. But after adjunctive homeopathic treatment normalization of bowel function was achieved.
The authors conclude that adjunctive homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment option in patients with complex bowel dysfunction after abdominal surgery who do not adequately respond to conventional treatment.
YES, you did read correctly: homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment…
In case anyone doubts that this is more than a trifle too optimistic, let me suggest three much more plausible reasons why the patient’s bowel function finally normalised:
- It could have been a spontaneous recovery (in most cases, even severe ones, this is what happens).
- It could have been all the conventional treatments aimed at stimulating bowel function.
- It could have been a mixture of the two.
The article made me curious, and I checked whether the authors had previously published other material on homeopathy. Thus I found two further articles in a very similar vein:
We present the clinical course of a patient with an epididymal abscess caused by multiresistant bacteria. As the patient declined surgical intervention, a conservative approach was induced with intravenous antibiotic treatment. As the clinical findings did not ameliorate, adjunctive homeopathic treatment was used. Under combined treatment, laboratory parameters returned to normal, and the epididymal abscess was rapidly shrinking. After 1 week, merely a subcutaneous liquid structure was detected. Fine-needle aspiration revealed sterile purulent liquid, which was confirmed by microbiological testing when the subcutaneous abscess was drained. Postoperative course was uneventful.
As the risk for recurrent epididymitis is high in persons with spinal cord injury, an organ-preserving approach is justified even in severe cases. Homeopathic treatment was a valuable adjunctive treatment in the above-mentioned case. Therefore, prospective studies are needed to further elucidate the future opportunities and limitations of classical homeopathy in the treatment of urinary tract infections.
Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI) in patients with spinal cord injury are a frequent clinical problem. Often, preventive measures are not successful. We present the case reports of five patients with recurrent UTI who received additional homeopathic treatment. Of these patients, three remained free of UTI, whereas UTI frequency was reduced in two patients. Our initial experience with homeopathic prevention of UTI is encouraging. For an evidence-based evaluation of this concept, prospective studies are required.
It seems clear that all of the three more plausible explanations for the patients’ recovery listed above also apply to these two cases.
One might not be far off speculating that J Pannek, the first author of all these three articles, is a fan of homeopathy (this suspicion is confirmed by a link between him and the HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH INSTITUE: Prof Jürgen Pannek on the use of homeopathy for prophylaxis of UTI’s in patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction). If that is so, I wonder why he does not conduct a controlled trial, rather than publishing case-report after case-report of apparently successful homeopathic treatments. Does he perhaps fear that his effects might dissolve into thin air under controlled conditions?
Case-reports of this nature can, of course, be interesting and some might even deserve to be published. But it would be imperative to draw the correct conclusions. Looking at the three articles above, I get the impression that, as time goes by, the conclusions of Prof Pannek et al (no, I know nobody from this group of authors personally) are growing more and more firm on less and less safe ground.
In my view, responsible authors should have concluded much more cautiously and reasonably. In the case of the paralytic ileus, for instance, they should not have gone further than stating something like this: adjunctive homeopathic therapy might turn out to be a promising treatment option for such patients. Despite the implausibility of homeopathy, this case-report might deserve to be followed up with a controlled clinical trial. Without such evidence, firm conclusions are clearly not possible.
There must be well over 10 000 clinical trials of acupuncture; Medline lists ~5 000, and many more are hidden in the non-Medline listed literature. That should be good news! Sadly, it isn’t.
It should mean that we now have a pretty good idea for what conditions acupuncture is effective and for which illnesses it does not work. But we don’t! Sceptics say it works for nothing, while acupuncturists claim it is a panacea. The main reason for this continued controversy is that the quality of the vast majority of these 10 000 studies is not just poor, it is lousy.
“Where is the evidence for this outraging statement???” – I hear the acupuncture-enthusiasts shout. Well, how about my own experience as editor-in-chief of FACT? No? Far too anecdotal?
How about looking at Cochrane reviews then; they are considered to be the most independent and reliable evidence in existence? There are many such reviews (most, if not all [co-]authored by acupuncturists) and they all agree that the scientific rigor of the primary studies is fairly awful. Here are the crucial bits of just the last three; feel free to look for more:
Or how about providing an example? Good idea! Here is a new trial which could stand for numerous others:
This study was performed to compare the efficacy of acupuncture versus corticosteroid injection for the treatment of Quervain’s tendosynovitis (no, you do not need to look up what condition this is for understanding this post). Thirty patients were treated in two groups. The acupuncture group received 5 acupuncture sessions of 30 minutes duration. The injection group received one methylprednisolone acetate injection in the first dorsal compartment of the wrist. The degree of disability and pain was evaluated by using the Quick Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (Q-DASH) scale and the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) at baseline and at 2 weeks and 6 weeks after the start of treatment. The baseline means of the Q-DASH and the VAS scores were 62.8 and 6.9, respectively. At the last follow-up, the mean Q-DASH scores were 9.8 versus 6.2 in the acupuncture and injection groups, respectively, and the mean VAS scores were 2 versus 1.2. Thus there were short-term improvements of pain and function in both groups.
The authors drew the following conclusions: Although the success rate was somewhat higher with corticosteroid injection, acupuncture can be considered as an alternative option for treatment of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
The flaws of this study are exemplary and numerous:
- This should have been a study that compares two treatments – the technical term is ‘equivalence trial – and such studies need to be much larger to produce a meaningful result. Small sample sizes in equivalent trials will always make the two treatments look similarly effective, even if one is a pure placebo.
- There is no gold standard treatment for this condition. This means that a comparative trial makes no sense at all. In such a situation, one ought to conduct a placebo-controlled trial.
- There was no blinding of patients; therefore their expectation might have distorted the results.
- The acupuncture group received more treatments than the injection group; therefore the additional attention might have distorted the findings.
- Even if the results were entirely correct, one cannot conclude from them that acupuncture was effective; the notion that it was similarly ineffective as the injections is just as warranted.
These are just some of the most fatal flaws of this study. The sad thing is that similar criticisms can be made for most of the 10 000 trials of acupuncture. But the point here is not to nit-pick nor to quack-bust. My point is a different and more serious one: fatally flawed research is not just a ‘poor show’, it is unethical because it is a waste of scarce resources and, even more importantly, an abuse of patients for meaningless pseudo-science. All it does is it misleads the public into believing that acupuncture might be good for this or that condition and consequently make wrong therapeutic decisions.
In acupuncture (and indeed in most alternative medicine) research, the problem is so extremely wide-spread that it is high time to do something about it. Journal editors, peer-reviewers, ethics committees, universities, funding agencies and all others concerned with such research have to work together so that such flagrant abuse is stopped once and for all.
Niacin – also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid - is a natural compound (formula C
2 ) and an essential nutrient for humans. It is water-soluble, which means it is not stored in the body. Excess amounts of the vitamin leave the body through the urine. That means we need a continuous supply of niacin in your diet.
Niacin is found in variety of foods, including liver, chicken, beef, fish, cereal, peanuts and legumes. It can also be synthesized from tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in protein. Niacin has long been an accepted treatment for high cholesterol. It is well-documented to increase the levels of high-density cholesterol (HDL or “good cholesterol”) and to decrease the levels of low-density cholesterol (LDL or “bad cholesterol”).
But what do these effects really mean? Do they translate into true health benefits? A brand-new study casts doubt on the value of niacin therapy:
After a pre-randomization run-in phase to standardize the background statin-based LDL cholesterol-lowering therapy and to establish participants’ ability to take extended-release niacin without clinically significant adverse effects, the researchers randomly assigned 25,673 adults with vascular disease to receive 2 g of extended-release niacin and 40 mg of laropiprant or a matching placebo daily. The primary outcome was the first major vascular event (non-fatal myocardial infarction, death from coronary causes, stroke, or arterial revascularization).
During a median follow-up period of 3.9 years, participants who were assigned to extended-release niacin-laropiprant had an LDL cholesterol level that was 10 mg per deciliter (0.25 mmol/l) lower and an HDL cholesterol level that was 6 mg per deciliter (0.16 mmol/l) higher than the levels in those assigned to placebo. Thus the lipid-effects of previous studies were confirmed.
However, assignment to niacin-laropiprant, as compared with assignment to placebo, had no significant effect on the incidence of major vascular events Niacin-laropiprant was associated with an increased incidence of disturbances in diabetes control that were considered to be serious and with an increased incidence of diabetes diagnoses as well as increases in serious adverse events associated with the gastrointestinal system, the musculoskeletal system, the skin and infections and bleeding.
Based of these data, the authors arrived at the following conclusion: among participants with atherosclerotic vascular disease, the addition of extended-release niacin-laropiprant to statin-based LDL cholesterol-lowering therapy did not significantly reduce the risk of major vascular events but did increase the risk of serious adverse events.
This extremely well-done trial is a poignant reminder of the fact that, in health care, we must never take our assumptions for granted. Here the underlying assumption was that the Niacin-induced lipid changes lead to a reduction of cardiovascular risks. Not only it proved to be erroneous but, through serious adverse effects, Niacin actually decreased patients’ health status.
The lessons from all this are straight forward, I think:
- ‘Natural’ does not necessarily mean safe.
- Long-established does not necessarily mean efficacious.
- Assumptions are merely assumptions, nothing more; if we want to make sure that they hold, we need to test them.
- When we finally do test assumptions, we better do it rigorously.
When someone has completed a scientific project, it is customary to publish it ['unpublished science is no science', someone once told me many years ago]. To do so, he needs to write it up and submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of this journal will then submit it to a process called ‘peer review’.
What does ‘peer review’ entail? Well, it means that 2-3 experts are asked to critically assess the paper in question, make suggestions as to how it can be improved and submit a recommendation as to whether or not the article deserves to be published.
Peer review has many pitfalls but, so far, nobody has come up with a solution that is convincingly better. Many scientists are under pressure to publish ['publish or perish'], and therefore some people resort to cheating. A most spectacular case of fraudulent peer review has been reported recently in this press release:
London, UK (08 July 2014) – SAGE announces the retraction of 60 articles implicated in a peer review and citation ring at the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). The full extent of the peer review ring has been uncovered following a 14 month SAGE-led investigation, and centres on the strongly suspected misconduct of Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education, Taiwan (NPUE) and possibly other authors at this institution.
In 2013 the then Editor-in-Chief of JVC, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh,and SAGE became aware of a potential peer review ring involving assumed and fabricated identities used to manipulate the online submission system SAGE Track powered by ScholarOne Manuscripts™. Immediate action was taken to prevent JVC from being exploited further, and a complex investigation throughout 2013 and 2014 was undertaken with the full cooperation of Professor Nayfeh and subsequently NPUE.
In total 60 articles have been retracted from JVC after evidence led to at least one author or reviewer being implicated in the peer review ring. Now that the investigation is complete, and the authors have been notified of the findings, we are in a position to make this statement.
While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.
Unbelievable? Perhaps, but sadly it is true; some scientists seem to be criminally ingenious when it comes to getting their dodgy articles into peer-reviewed journals.
And what does this have to do with ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, you may well ask. The Journal of Vibration and Control is not even medical and certainly would never consider publishing articles on alternative medicine. Such papers go to one of the many [I estimate more that 1000] journals that cover either alternative medicine in general or any of the modalities that fall under this wide umbrella. Most of these journals, of course, pride themselves with being peer-reviewed – and, at least nominally, that is correct.
I have been on the editorial board of most of the more important journals in alternative medicine, and I cannot help thinking that their peer review process is not all that dissimilar from the fraudulent scheme set up by Peter Chen and disclosed above. What happens in alternative medicine is roughly as follows:
- a researcher submits a paper for publication,
- the editor sends it out for peer review,
- the peer reviewers are either those suggested by the original author or members of the editorial board of the journal,
- in either case, the reviewers are more than likely to be uncritical and recommend publication,
- in the end, peer review turns out to be a farcical window dressing exercise with no consequence,
- thus even very poor research and pseudo-research are being published abundantly.
The editorial boards of journals of alternative medicine tend to be devoid of experts who are critical about the subject at hand. If you think that I am exaggerating, have a look at the editorial board members of ‘HOMEOPATHY’ (or any other journal of alternative medicine) and tell me who might qualify as a critic of homeopathy. When the editor, Peter Fisher, recently fired me from his board because he felt I had tarnished the image of homeopathy, this panel lost the only person who understood the subject matter and, at the same time, was critical about it (the fact that the website still lists me as an editorial board member is merely a reflection of how slow things are in the world of homeopathy: Fisher fired me more than a year ago).
The point I am trying to make is simple: peer review is never a perfect method but when it is set up to be deliberately uncritical, it cannot possibly fulfil its function to prevent the publication of dodgy research. In this case, the quality of the science will be inadequate and generate false-positive messages that mislead the public.