MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

bogus claims

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:

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.
  • 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.

“If ever there was a permanent cure for migraine, homeopathic medicines are the only one that can do this miracle. It may sound like an overstatement and quite quackerish, but it’s true. Long term treatment with homeopathy has an excellent cure for migraine headaches.” Statements like this can be found by the thousands on the internet, not just in relation to migraine but also about osteoarthritis. Both migraine and osteoarthritis are important domains for homeopathy, and most homeopaths would not doubt for a second that they can treat these conditions effectively. This is why it is so important to highlight the few sources which are not misleading consumers into making the wrong therapeutic decisions.

‘Healthcare Improvement Scotland’ (HCIS) have just published advice for patients suffering from migraine and osteoarthritis (the full document with all the evidence can be found here). I think it is worth having a close look and I therefore cite it in full:

Homeopathic remedies are prepared by repeated dilution and vigorous shaking of substances in water. Remedies are prepared from substances that in healthy people cause the signs and symptoms of the condition being treated. The more dilute the remedy is the more potent it becomes so that the most potent remedies are unlikely to contain any of the original substance.

People in Scotland have access to homeopathy through some GPs or a referral to homeopaths in the private sector, regional NHS clinics or the Centre for Integrative Care (CIC) (formerly Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital). Not all NHSScotland health boards provide funding for homeopathy; investment varies widely among those that do, and individual boards have begun to review funding for homeopathy services.

Clinical effectiveness

  • Evidence of clinical effectiveness was reviewed from systematic reviews of four placebo controlled randomised trials of homeopathy for migraine published between 1991 and 1997; and systematic reviews of four active treatment controlled randomised trials of homeopathy for osteoarthritis published between 1983 and 2000. The quality of the evidence was low to moderate.
  • Homeopathy for migraine has not been compared with active treatment in randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Of four RCTs comparing homeopathy with placebo, only one found homeopathy to be superior.
  • Three RCTs in osteoarthritis comparing homeopathy with medicines for pain relief found either no difference between the interventions, or that analgesic treatment had a better effect than homeopathy. A further RCT comparing intra-articular injection of a homeopathic remedy with hyaluronic acid injections showed similar pain reduction in both groups.

Safety

  • Published systematic reviews of homeopathy for migraine and osteoarthritis contain insufficient information to inform conclusions about safety.

Cost effectiveness

  • No evidence on the cost effectiveness of homeopathy for migraine was identified; and the evidence from a single cost-minimisation analysis of one homeopathic preparation for osteoarthritis is not generalisable to the UK.

Context/conclusion

  • Homeopathy for migraine has not been compared with standard care in RCTs and no evidence of cost effectiveness has been identified..
  • There is insufficient evidence to determine whether or not homeopathic treatment for osteoarthritis is clinically effective compared with standard care, and no relevant evidence of cost effectiveness has been identified.
  • The evidence does not support treating migraine or osteoarthritis with homeopathy.

Before the fans of homeopathy start shouting “THIS IS ALL RUBBISH AND DISREGARDS IMPORTANT EVIDENCE!!!”, I should mention that the top experts in homeopathy were asked to contribute their evidence and were unable to find any convincing data that would have changed this negative verdict. And it is important to point out that HCIS is a respected, independent organisation that issues statements based on thorough, unbiased reviews of the evidence.

As I reported a while ago, the Australian ‘NATIONAL HEALTH AND MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL’ has assessed the effectiveness of homeopathy. The evaluation looks like the most comprehensive and most independent in the history of homeopathy. Its draft report  concluded that “the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.”

So, the HCIS is in excellent company and I have no doubt whatsoever that this new statement is correct – but I also have little doubt that homeopaths will dispute it.

 

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.

If you believe herbalists, the Daily Mail or similarly reliable sources, you come to the conclusion that herbal medicines are entirely safe – after all they are natural, and everything that is natural must be safe. However, there is plenty of evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily correct. In fact, herbal medicines can cause harm in diverse ways, e. g. because:

  • one or more ingredients of a plant are toxic,
  • they interact with prescribed drugs,
  • they are contaminated, for instance, with heavy metals,
  • they are adulterated with prescription drugs.

There is no shortage of evidence for any of these 4 scenarios. Here are some very recent and relevant publications:

German authors reviewed recent case reports and case series that provided evidence for herbal hepatotoxicity caused by Chinese herbal mixtures. The implicated remedies were the TCM products Ban Tu Wan, Chai Hu, Du Huo, Huang Qin, Jia Wei Xia Yao San, Jiguja, Kamishoyosan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Lu Cha, Polygonum multiflorum products, Shan Chi, ‘White flood’ containing the herbal TCM Wu Zhu Yu and Qian Ceng Ta, and Xiao Chai Hu Tang. the authors concluded that stringent evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is essential to protect traditional Chinese medicines users from health hazards including liver injury.

A recent review of Nigerian anti-diabetic herbal remedies suggested hypoglycemic effect of over 100 plants. One-third of them have been studied for their mechanism of action, while isolation of the bioactive constituent(s) has been accomplished for 23 plants. Several plants showed specific organ toxicity, mostly nephrotoxic or hepatotoxic, with direct effects on the levels of some liver function enzymes. Twenty-eight plants have been identified as in vitro modulators of P-glycoprotein and/or one or more of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, while eleven plants altered the levels of phase 2 metabolic enzymes, chiefly glutathione, with the potential to alter the pharmacokinetics of co-administered drugs

US authors published a case of a 44-year-old female who developed subacute liver injury demonstrated on a CT scan and liver biopsy within a month of using black cohosh to resolve her hot flashes. Since the patient was not taking any other drugs, they concluded that the acute liver injury was caused by the use of black cohosh. The authors concluded: we agree with the United States Pharmacopeia recommendations that a cautionary warning about hepatotoxicity should be labeled on the drug package.

Hong Kong toxicologists recently reported five cases of poisoning occurring as a result of inappropriate use of herbs in recipes or general herbal formulae acquired from books. Aconite poisoning due to overdose or inadequate processing accounted for three cases. The other two cases involved the use of herbs containing Strychnos alkaloids and Sophora alkaloids. These cases demonstrated that inappropriate use of Chinese medicine can result in major morbidity, and herbal formulae and recipes containing herbs available in general publications are not always safe.

Finally, Australian emergency doctors just published this case-report: A woman aged 34 years presented to hospital with a history of progressive shortness of breath, palpitations, decreased exercise tolerance and generalised arthralgia over the previous month. A full blood count revealed normochromic normocytic anaemia and a haemoglobin level of 66 g/L. The blood film showed basophilic stippling, prompting measurement of lead levels. Her blood lead level (BLL) was 105 µg/dL. Mercury and arsenic levels were also detected at very low levels. On further questioning, the patient reported that in the past 6 months she had ingested multiple herbal preparations supplied by an overseas Ayurvedic practitioner for enhancement of fertility. She was taking up to 12 different tablets and various pastes and powders daily. Her case was reported to public health authorities and the herbal preparations were sent for analytical testing. Analysis confirmed high levels of lead (4% w/w), mercury (12% w/w), arsenic and chromium. The lead levels were 4000 times the maximum allowable lead level in medications sold or produced in Australia. Following cessation of the herbal preparations, the patient was commenced on oral chelation therapy, iron supplementation and contraception. A 3-week course of oral DMSA (2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid) was well tolerated; BLL was reduced to 13 µg/dL and haemoglobin increased to 99 g/L. Her symptoms improved over the subsequent 3 months and she remains hopeful about becoming pregnant.

So, how safe are herbal medicines? Unfortunately, the question is unanswerable. Some herbal medicines are quite safe, others are not. But always remember: whenever you administer a treatment you should ask yourself one absolutely crucial question: do the documented benefits outweigh the risks? There are several thousand different herbal medicines, and for less than a dozen of them can the honest answer to this question be YES.

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:

All of the studies had a high risk of bias

All included trials had a high risk of bias…

The studies were not judged to be free from bias…

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.

One alternative therapy that I have so far almost entirely neglected is Ayurveda. It is said to be one of the fastest growing system within this sector. Ayurvedic healing includes herbs, nutrition, panchakarma cleansing, acupressure massage, Yoga, Sanskrit, and Jyotish (Vedic astrology). The website of the ‘Choppra Center’ explains: Recognizing that human beings are part of nature, Ayurveda describes three fundamental energies that govern our inner and outer environments: movement, transformation, and structure. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (Wind), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Earth), these primary forces are responsible for the characteristics of our mind and body. Each of us has a unique proportion of these three forces that shapes our nature. If Vata is dominant in our system, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta predominates in our nature, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented and we have a strong appetite for life. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing. Although each of us has all three forces, most people have one or two elements that predominate.

However, the evidence for its effectiveness is not overwhelming. In 2007, we published a systematic review of Ayurvedic treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Seven studies met our inclusion criteria. Trials tested either Ayurvedic medicine against placebo or other Ayurvedic medicines. Of 3 placebo-controlled RCTs, one high-quality trial did not show benefit of the active treatment against placebo, while another incompletely reported study indicated beneficial effects of an Ayurvedic medicine. A further incompletely reported study showed no significant difference. The remaining 4 trials were difficult to interpret because they tested an Ayurvedic medicine against other Ayurvedic medicines whose effects were not proven. We concluded that there is a paucity of RCTs of Ayurvedic medicines for RA. The existing RCTs fail to show convincingly that such treatments are effective therapeutic options for RA.

Because of this paucity of reliable evidence, any new assessments are welcome.

The aim of this article was to review and meta-analyze the effectiveness and safety of different Ayurvedic interventions in patients with osteoarthritis (OA). 138 electronic databases were searched through August 2013. Randomized controlled trials, randomized crossover studies, cluster-randomized trials, and non-randomized controlled clinical trials were eligible. Adults with pre-diagnosed OA were included as participants.

Interventions were included as Ayurvedic, if they were explicitly labeled as such. The main outcome measures were pain, physical function, and global improvement. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane risk of bias tool.

19 randomized and 14 non-randomized controlled trials on 12 different drugs and 3 non-pharmaceutical interventions with a total of 2,952 patients were included. For the compound preparation, Rumalaya, large and apparently unbiased effects beyond placebo were found for pain (standardized mean difference [SMD] -3.73; 95 % confidence interval [CI] -4.97, -2.50; P < 0.01) and global improvement (risk ratio 12.20; 95 % CI 5.83, 25.54; P < 0.01).

There was also some evidence that effects of the herbal compound preparation Shunti-Guduchi are comparable to those of glucosamine for pain (SMD 0.08; 95 % CI -0.20, 0.36; P = 0.56) and function (SMD 0.15; 95 % CI -0.12, 0.36; P = 0.41).

Based on single trials, positive effects were found for the compound preparations RA-11, Reosto, and Siriraj Wattana. For Boswellia serrata, Lepidium Sativum, a Boswellia serrata containing multicomponent formulation and the compounds Nirgundi Taila, Panchatikta Ghrita Guggulu, and Rhumayog, and for non-pharmacological interventions like Ayurvedic massage, steam therapy, and enema, no evidence for significant effects against potential methodological bias was found.

No severe adverse events were observed in any of the trials.

The authors concluded that the drugs Rumalaya and Shunti-Guduchi seem to be safe and effective drugs for treatment of OA-patients, based on these data. However, several limitations relate to clinical research on Ayurveda. Well-planned, well-conducted and well-published trials are warranted to improve the evidence for Ayurvedic interventions.

I am, of course, pleased that other too have noticed the paucity of good evidence and recommend more and better research into this area. There are, however, several things that worry me about this systematic review:

  • How can there be a total absence of adverse effects? Even placebos would generate some.
  • The conclusion that Rumalaya and Shunti-Guduchi are safe does not seem justified on the basis of just a few trials.
  • My own review found quite encouraging effects for Boswellia serrate.
  • 138 electronic databases? I did not even know that so many existed!
  • I am also concerned by the way the treatments found to be ‘safe and effective’ are being promoted on the internet:

Rumalaya is a phytopharmaceutical formulation that relieves joint and bone ache associated with various orthopedic ailments. Its natural ingredients possess potent anti-inflammatory properties that alleviate pain. As an immunomodulator, Rumalaya modulates both the humoral and cell-mediated immune response to aches and pain. The medicine has strong anti-arthritic properties that work to combat arthritis.

Indications:

  • Rheumatic arthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cervical and lumbar spondylosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Arthralgia
  • Gout
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Traumatic inflammatory conditions like fibrositis, bursitis, synovitis, capsulitis, tenosynovitis, myositis and sciatica.

I fail to see good evidence to support most of these claims.

Lastly, I find that the authors fail to warn the public in sufficiently strong terms of some of the drawbacks of Ayurvedic medicines. Many of them seem not to be safe. One of several problems is that they have been shown to be often contaminated/adulterated with toxic substances such as heavy metals.

My conclusion about the value of Ayurvedic medicines is therefore not so optimistic: EFFICACY IS USUALLY MORE THAN DOUBTFUL, WHILE RISKS ARE WELL-DOCUMENTED.

Reiki is a Japanese technique which, according to a proponent, … is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy…

A treatment feels like a wonderful glowing radiance that flows through and around you. Reiki treats the whole person including body, emotions, mind and spirit creating many beneficial effects that include relaxation and feelings of peace, security and wellbeing. Many have reported miraculous results.

Reiki is a simple, natural and safe method of spiritual healing and self-improvement that everyone can use. It has been effective in helping virtually every known illness and malady and always creates a beneficial effect. It also works in conjunction with all other medical or therapeutic techniques to relieve side effects and promote recovery [my emphasis].

Many websites give much more specific information about the health effects of Reiki:

Some Of The Reiki Healing Health Benefits 

  • Creates deep relaxation and aids the body to release stress and tension,
  • It accelerates the body’s self-healing abilities,
  • Aids better sleep,
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Can help with acute (injuries) and chronic problems (asthma, eczema, headaches, etc.) and aides the breaking of addictions,
  • Helps relieve pain,
  • Removes energy blockages, adjusts the energy flow of the endocrine system bringing the body into balance and harmony,
  • Assists the body in cleaning itself from toxins,
  • Reduces some of the side effects of drugs and helps the body to recover from drug therapy after surgery and chemotherapy,
  • Supports the immune system,
  • Increases vitality and postpones the aging process,
  • Raises the vibrational frequency of the body,
  • Helps spiritual growth and emotional clearing.

With such remarkable claims being made, I had to look into this extraordinary treatment.

In 2008, I had a co-worker in my team who was (still is, I think) a Reiki healer. He also happened to be a decent scientist, and we thus decided to conduct a systematic review summarising the evidence for the effectiveness of Reiki. We searched the literature using 23 databases from their respective inceptions through to November 2007 (search again 23 January 2008) without language restrictions. Methodological quality was assessed using the Jadad score. The searches identified 205 potentially relevant studies. Nine randomised clinical trials (RCTs) met our inclusion criteria. Two RCTs suggested beneficial effects of Reiki compared with sham control on depression, while one RCT did not report intergroup differences. For pain and anxiety, one RCT showed intergroup differences compared with sham control. For stress and hopelessness, a further RCT reported effects of Reiki and distant Reiki compared with distant sham control. For functional recovery after ischaemic stroke there were no intergroup differences compared with sham. There was also no difference for anxiety between groups of pregnant women undergoing amniocentesis. For diabetic neuropathy there were no effects of reiki on pain. A further RCT failed to show the effects of Reiki for anxiety and depression in women undergoing breast biopsy compared with conventional care.

Overall, the trial data for any one condition were scarce and independent replications were not available for any condition. Most trials suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting. We therefore concluded that the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of Reiki remains unproven.

But this was in 2008! In the meantime, the evidence might have changed. Here are two recent publications which, I think, are worth having a look at:

The first article is a case-report of a nine-year-old female patient with a history of perinatal stroke, seizures, and type-I diabetes was treated for six weeks with Reiki. At the end of this treatment period, there was a decrease in stress in both the child and the mother, as measured by a modified Perceived Stress Scale and a Perceived Stress Scale, respectively. No change was noted in the child’s overall sense of well-being, as measured by a global questionnaire. However, there was a positive change in sleep patterns on 33.3% of the nights as reported on a sleep log kept by the mother. The child and the Reiki Master (a Reiki practitioner who has completed all three levels of Reiki certification training, trains and certifies individuals in the practice of Reiki, and provides Reiki to individuals) experienced warmth and tingling sensations on the same area of the child during the Reiki 7 minutes of each session. There were no reports of seizures during the study period.

The author concluded that Reiki is a useful adjunct for children with increased stress levels and sleep disturbances secondary to their medical condition. Further research is warranted to evaluate the use of Reiki in children, particularly with a large sample size, and to evaluate the long-term use of Reiki and its effects on adequate sleep.

In my view, this article is relevant because it typifies the type of research that is being done in this area and the conclusions that are being drawn from it. It should be clear to anyone who has the slightest ability of critical thinking that a case report of this nature tells us as good as nothing about the effectiveness of a therapy. Considering that Reiki is just about the least plausible intervention anyone can think of, the child’s condition in all likelihood improved not because of the Reiki healing but because of a myriad of unrelated factors; just think of placebo-effects, regression towards the mean, natural history of the condition, concomitant treatments, etc.

The plausibility of energy/biofield/spiritual healing such as Reiki is also the focus of the second remarkable article that was just published. It reports a systematic review of studies designed to examine whether bio-field therapists undergo physiological changes as they enter the healing state (remember: the Reiki healer in the above study experienced ‘warmth and tingling sensations’ during therapies). If reproducible changes could be identified, the authors argue, they might serve as markers to reveal events that correlate with the healing process.

Databases were searched for controlled or non-controlled studies of bio-field therapies in which physiological measurements were made on practitioners in a healing state. Design and reporting criteria, developed in part to reflect the pilot nature of the included studies, were applied using a yes (1.0), partial (0.5), or no (0) scoring system.

Of 67 identified studies, the inclusion criteria were met by 22, 10 of which involved human patients. Overall, the studies were of moderate to poor quality and many omitted information about the training and experience of the healer. The most frequently measured biomarkers were electroencephalography (EEG) and heart rate variability (HRV). EEG changes were inconsistent and not specific to bio-field therapies. HRV results suggest an aroused physiology for Reconnective Healing, Bruyere healing, and Hawaiian healing, but no changes were detected for Reiki or Therapeutic Touch.

The authors of this paper concluded that despite a decades-long research interest in identifying healing-related biomarkers in bio-field healers, little robust evidence of unique physiological changes has emerged to define the healers׳ state.

Now, let me guess why this is so. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to come up with the suggestion that no robust evidence for Reiki and all the other nonsensical forms of healing can be found for one disarmingly simple reason: NO SUCH EFFECTS EXIST.

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