When we consult a health care provider because we feel unwell, the first step invariably is to arrive at a diagnosis. Sometimes this is fairly obvious but often it is not. Typically the health care provider will do a few tests to aid the process. This may involve doing some physical examinations, or taking a blood sample, or ordering some high tech investigation, like a scan, for instance.
All these tests have to fulfil certain criteria to be valid. The most basic of these is that repeated tests should produce roughly the same result. If not, the test is not reproducible, i.e. it is not better than pure guess-work.
Alternative practitioners often use diagnostic tests that are unknown in conventional medicine. But this fact does not mean that these test do not need to be as valid as any other test used in medicine. If the alternative tests are not reproducible, the diagnosis of the alternative practitioner is likely to be pure invention. And if the diagnosis is just a figment of imagination, the treatment aimed at curing it will be nonsense as well.
So, how reliable are those tests used by alternative practitioners? Amazingly, this fundamental question has attracted very little research. I have repeatedly investigated this area and found that, generally speaking, alternative diagnostic techniques are bogus. And because there is so little research, every new trial of alternative diagnostic methods is important.
A brand-new study assessed the inter-rater reliability of Ayurvedic pulse (nadi), tongue (jivha), and body constitution (prakriti) assessments. Fifteen registered Ayurvedic practitioners with 3-15 years of experience independently examined 20 healthy subjects. Subjects completed self-assessment questionnaires and software analyses for prakriti assessment. Weighted kappa statistics for all 105 pairs of practitioners were computed for the pulse, tongue, and prakriti data sets.
These pairwise kappas ranged from poor to slight, slight to fair, and fair to moderate for pulse, tongue, and prakriti assessments respectively. The average pairwise kappas for pulse, tongue, and prakriti were 0.07, 0.17, and 0.28, respectively. For each data set and pair of practitioners, the null hypothesis of random rating was rejected for just 12 pairs of practitioners for prakriti, one pair of practitioner for pulse examination, and no pairs of practitioner for tongue assessment.
The authors of this investigation conclude that the results demonstrate a low level of reliability for all types of assessment made by doctors.
This is worrying, I think. It is comparable to a situation where you go to see your GP and he measures your blood pressure, or weight, or cholesterol, or any other parameter with a test that produces a different result each time someone tries to repeat it. Your blood pressure could be 160/90 when measured with this fictionally unreliable test and 110/ 60 when repeated two minutes later by the practice nurse, for instance. Any treatment based on such random numbers would be idiotic…and so, it seems, is any Ayurvedic treatment based on the pulse (nadi), tongue (jivha), and body constitution (prakriti).
Several sceptics including myself have previously commented on this GP’s bizarre promotion of bogus therapies, his use of disproven treatments, and his advocacy for quackery. An interview with Dr Michael Dixon, OBE, chair of the ‘College of Medicine’, and advisor to Prince Charles, and chair of NHS Alliance, and president of the ‘NHS Clinical Commissioners’ and, and, and…was published on 15 November. It is such a classic example of indulgence in fallacies, falsehoods and deceptions that I cannot resist adding a few words.
To make it very clear what is what: the interviewer’s questions are in bold Roman; MD’s answers are in simple Roman; and my comments are in bold italic typeface. The interview itself is reproduced without changes or cuts.
How did you take to alternative medicine?
I started trying out alternative medicine after 10 years of practising as a general physician. During this period, I found that conventional medicine was not helping too many patients. There were some (patients) with prolonged headaches, backaches and frequent infections whom I had to turn away without offering a solution. That burnt me out. I started looking for alternative solutions.
The idea of using alternative treatments because conventional ones have their limits is perhaps understandable. But which alternative therapies are effective for the conditions mentioned? Dr Dixon’s surgery offers many alternative therapies which are highly unlikely to be effective beyond placebo, e.g. ‘Thought Field Therapy’, reflexology, spiritual healing or homeopathy.
But alternative medicine has come under sharp criticism. It was even argued that it has a placebo effect?
I don’t mind what people call it as long as it is making patients better. If the help is more psychological than physiological, as they argue, all the better. There are less side-effects, less expenses and help is in your own hands.
I have posted several articles on this blog about this fundamental misunderstanding. The desire to help patients via placebo-effects is no good reason to employ bogus treatments; effective therapies also convey a placebo-response, if administered with compassion. Merely administering placebos means denying patients the specific effects of real medicine and is therefore not ethical.
Why are people unconvinced about alternative medicine?
One, there are vested interests – professional and organizational impact on it. Two, even practitioners in conventional medicine do not know much about it. And most importantly, we need to develop a scientific database for it. In conventional medicine, pharmaceutical companies have the advantage of having funds for research. Alternative medicine lacks that. Have people who say alternative medicine is rubbish ever done research on it to figure out whether it is rubbish? The best way to convince them is through the age-old saying: Seeing is believing.
1) Here we have the old fallacy which assumes that ’the establishment’ (or ‘BIG PHARMA’ ) does not want anyone to know how effective alternative treatments are. In truth, everyone would be delighted to have more effective therapies in the tool-kit and nobody does care at all where they originate from.
2) GPs do not know much about alternative medicine, true. But that does not really explain why they are ‘unconvinced’. The evidence shows that they need more convincing evidence to be convinced.
3) Dixon himself has done almost no research into alternative medicine (I know that because the few papers he did publish were in cooperation with my team). Contrary to what Dixon says, there are mountains of evidence (for instance ~ 20 000 articles on acupuncture and ~5000 on homeopathy in Medline alone); and the most reliable of this evidence usually shows that the alternative therapy in question does not work.
4) Apologists lament the lack of research funds ad nauseam. However, there is plenty of money in alternative medicine; currently it is estimated to be a $ 100 billion per year business worldwide. If they are unable to channel even the tiniest of proportions into a productive research budget, only they are to blame.
5) Have people who say alternative medicine is rubbish ever done research on it to figure out whether it is rubbish? Yes, there is probably nobody on this planet who has done more research on alternative medicine than I have (and DM knows it very well, for about 15 years, he tried everything to be associated with my team). The question I ask myself is: have apologists like Dixon ever done rigorous research or do they even know about the research that is out there?
6) Seeing is believing??? No, no, no! I have written several posts on this fallacy. Experience is no substitute for evidence in clinical medicine.
Will alternative medicine be taught in UK universities?
US already has 16 universities teaching it. The College of Medicine, UK, is fighting hard for it. We are historically drenched in conventional medicine and to think out of the box will take time. But we are at it and hope to have it soon.
1) Yes, the US has plenty of ‘quackademia‘ – and many experts are worried about the appalling lack of academic standards in this area.
2) The College of Medicine, UK, is fighting hard for getting alternative medicine into the medical curriculum. Interesting! Now we finally know what this lobby group really stands for.
3) Of course, we are ‘drenched’ in medicine at medical school. What else should we expose students to?
4) Thinking ‘out of the box’ can be productive and it is something medicine is often very good at. This is how it has evolved during the last 150 years in a breath-taking speed. Alternative medicine, by contrast, has remained stagnant; it is largely a dogma.
What more should India do to promote integrated medicine?
India needs to be prouder of its institutions and more critical of the West. The West has made massive mistakes. It has done very little about long-term diseases and in preventing them. India needs to be more cautious as it will lead the world in some diseases like the diabetes. It should not depend on conventional medicine for everything, but take the best for the worst.
To advise that India should not look towards the ‘West’ for treating diabetes and perhaps use more of their Ayurvedic medicines or homeopathic remedies (both very popular alternatives in India) is a cynical prescription for prematurely ending the lives of millions prematurely.
If we ask how effective spinal manipulation is as a treatment of back pain, we get all sorts of answers. Therapists who earn their money with it – mostly chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists - are obviously convinced that it is effective. But if we consult more objective sources, the picture changes dramatically. The current Cochrane review, for instance, arrives at this conclusion: SMT is no more effective in participants with acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT, or when added to another intervention. SMT also appears to be no better than other recommended therapies.
Such reviews tend to pool all studies together regardless of the nature of the practitioner. But perhaps one type of clinician is better than the next? Certainly many chiropractors are on record claiming that they are the best at spinal manipulations. Yet it is conceivable that physiotherapists who do manipulations without being guided by the myth of ‘adjusting subluxations’ have an advantage over chiropractors. Three very recent systematic reviews might go some way to answer these questions.
The purpose of the first systematic review was to examine the effectiveness of spinal manipulations performed by physiotherapists for the treatment of patients with low back pain. The authors found 6 RCTs that met their inclusion criteria. The most commonly used outcomes were pain rating scales and disability indexes. Notable results included varying degrees of effect sizes favouring spinal manipulations and minimal adverse events resulting from this intervention. Additionally, the manipulation group in one study reported significantly less medication use, health care utilization, and lost work time. The authors concluded that there is evidence to support the use of spinal manipulation by physical therapists in clinical practice. Physical therapy spinal manipulation appears to be a safe intervention that improves clinical outcomes for patients with low back pain.
The second systematic Review was of osteopathic intervention for chronic, non-specific low back pain (CNSLBP). Only two trials met the authors’ inclusion criteria. They had a lack of methodological and clinical homogeneity, precluding a meta-analysis. The trials used different comparators with regards to the primary outcomes, the number of treatments, the duration of treatment and the duration of follow-up. The authors drew the following conclusions: There are only two studies assessing the effect of the manual therapy intervention applied by osteopathic clinicians in adults with CNSLBP. One trial concluded that the osteopathic intervention was similar in effect to a sham intervention, and the other suggests similarity of effect between osteopathic intervention, exercise and physiotherapy. Further clinical trials into this subject are required that have consistent and rigorous methods. These trials need to include an appropriate control and utilise an intervention that reflects actual practice.
The third systematic review sought to determine the benefits of chiropractic treatment and care for back pain on well-being, and aimed to explore to what extent chiropractic treatment and care improve quality of life. The authors identified 6 studies (4 RCTs and two observational studies) of varying quality. There was a high degree of inconsistency and lack of standardisation in measurement instruments and outcome measures. Three studies reported reduced use of other/extra treatments as a positive outcome; two studies reported a positive effect of chiropractic intervention on pain, and two studies reported a positive effect on disability. The authors concluded that it is difficult to defend any conclusion about the impact of chiropractic intervention on the quality of life, lifestyle, health and economic impact on chiropractic patients presenting with back pain.
Yes, yes, yes, I know: the three reviews are not exactly comparable; so we cannot draw firm conclusions from comparing them. Five points seem to emerge nevertheless:
- The evidence for spinal manipulation as a treatment for back pain is generally not brilliant, regardless of the type of therapist.
- There seem to be considerable differences according to the nature of the therapist.
- Physiotherapists seem to have relatively sound evidence to justify their manipulations.
- Chiropractors and osteopaths are not backed by evidence which is as reliable as they so often try to make us believe.
- Considering that the vast majority of serious complications after spinal manipulation has occurred with chiropractors, it would seem that chiropractors are the profession with the worst track record regarding manipulation for back pain.
Some experts concede that chiropractic spinal manipulation is effective for chronic low back pain (cLBP). But what is the right dose? There have been no full-scale trials of the optimal number of treatments with spinal manipulation. This study was aimed at filling this gap by trying to identify a dose-response relationship between the number of visits to a chiropractor for spinal manipulation and cLBP outcomes. A further aim was to determine the efficacy of manipulation by comparison with a light massage control.
The primary cLBP outcomes were the 100-point pain intensity scale and functional disability scales evaluated at the 12- and 24-week primary end points. Secondary outcomes included days with pain and functional disability, pain unpleasantness, global perceived improvement, medication use, and general health status.
One hundred patients with cLBP were randomized to each of 4 dose levels of care: 0, 6, 12, or 18 sessions of spinal manipulation from a chiropractor. Participants were treated three times per week for 6 weeks. At sessions when manipulation was not assigned, the patients received a focused light massage control. Covariate-adjusted linear dose effects and comparisons with the no-manipulation control group were evaluated at 6, 12, 18, 24, 39, and 52 weeks.
For the primary outcomes, mean pain and disability improvement in the manipulation groups were 20 points by 12 weeks, an effect that was sustainable to 52 weeks. Linear dose-response effects were small, reaching about two points per 6 manipulation sessions at 12 and 52 weeks for both variables. At 12 weeks, the greatest differences compared to the no-manipulation controls were found for 12 sessions (8.6 pain and 7.6 disability points); at 24 weeks, differences were negligible; and at 52 weeks, the greatest group differences were seen for 18 visits (5.9 pain and 8.8 disability points).
The authors concluded that the number of spinal manipulation visits had modest effects on cLBP outcomes above those of 18 hands-on visits to a chiropractor. Overall, 12 visits yielded the most favorable results but was not well distinguished from other dose levels.
This study is interesting because it confirms that the effects of chiropractic spinal manipulation as a treatment for cLBP are tiny and probably not clinically relevant. And even these tiny effects might not be due to the treatment per se but could be caused by residual confounding and bias.
As for the optimal dose, the authors suggest that, on average, 18 sessions might be the best. But again, we have to be clear that the dose-response effects were small and of doubtful clinical relevance. Since the therapeutic effects are tiny, it is obviously difficult to establish a dose-response relationship.
In view of the cost of chiropractic spinal manipulation and the uncertainty about its safety, I would probably not rate this approach as the treatment of choice but would consider the current Cochrane review which concludes that “high quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between spinal manipulation and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain“ Personally, I think it is more prudent to recommend exercise, back school, massage or perhaps even yoga to cLBP-sufferers.
Some sceptics are convinced that, in alternative medicine, there is no evidence. This assumption is wrong, I am afraid, and statements of this nature can actually play into the hands of apologists of bogus treatments: they can then easily demonstrate the sceptics to be mistaken or “biased”, as they would probably say. The truth is that there is plenty of evidence – and lots of it is positive, at least at first glance.
Alternative medicine researchers have been very industrious during the last two decades to build up a sizable body of ‘evidence’. Consequently, one often finds data even for the most bizarre and implausible treatments. Take, for instance, the claim that homeopathy is an effective treatment for cancer. Those who promote this assumption have no difficulties in locating some weird in-vitro study that seems to support their opinion. When sceptics subsequently counter that in-vitro experiments tell us nothing about the clinical situation, apologists quickly unearth what they consider to be sound clinical evidence.
An example is this prospective observational 2011 study of cancer patients from two differently treated cohorts: one cohort with patients under complementary homeopathic treatment (HG; n = 259), and one cohort with conventionally treated cancer patients (CG; n = 380). Its main outcome measures were the change of quality life after 3 months, after one year and impairment by fatigue, anxiety or depression. The results of this study show significant improvements in most of these endpoints, and the authors concluded that we observed an improvement of quality of life as well as a tendency of fatigue symptoms to decrease in cancer patients under complementary homeopathic treatment.
Another, in some ways even better example is this 2005 observational study of 6544 consecutive patients from the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. Every patient attending the hospital outpatient unit for a follow-up appointment was included, commencing with their first follow-up attendance. Of these patients 70.7% (n = 4627) reported positive health changes, with 50.7% (n = 3318) recording their improvement as better or much better. The authors concluded that homeopathic intervention offered positive health changes to a substantial proportion of a large cohort of patients with a wide range of chronic diseases.
The principle that is being followed here is simple:
- believers in a bogus therapy conduct a clinical trial which is designed to generate an apparently positive finding;
- the fact that the study cannot tell us anything about cause and effect is cleverly hidden or belittled;
- they publish their findings in one of the many journals that specialise in this sort of nonsense;
- they make sure that advocates across the world learn about their results;
- the community of apologists of this treatment picks up the information without the slightest critical analysis;
- the researchers conduct more and more of such pseudo-research;
- nobody attempts to do some real science: the believers do not truly want to falsify their hypotheses, and the real scientists find it unreasonable to conduct research on utterly implausible interventions;
- thus the body of false or misleading ‘evidence’ grows and grows;
- proponents start publishing systematic reviews and meta-analyses of their studies which are devoid of critical input;
- too few critics point out that these reviews are fatally flawed – ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’!
- eventually politicians, journalists, health care professionals and other people who did not necessarily start out as believers in the bogus therapy are convinced that the body of evidence is impressive and justifies implementation;
- important health care decisions are thus based on data which are false and misleading.
So, what can be done to prevent that such pseudo-evidence is mistaken as solid proof which might eventually mislead many into believing that bogus treatments are based on reasonably sound data? I think the following measures would be helpful:
- authors should abstain from publishing over-enthusiastic conclusions which can all too easily be misinterpreted (given that the authors are believers in the therapy, this is not a realistic option);
- editors might consider rejecting studies which contribute next to nothing to our current knowledge (given that these studies are usually published in journals that are in the business of promoting alternative medicine at any cost, this option is also not realistic);
- if researchers report highly preliminary findings, there should be an obligation to do further studies in order to confirm or refute the initial results (not realistic either, I am afraid);
- in case this does not happen, editors should consider retracting the paper reporting unconfirmed preliminary findings (utterly unrealistic).
What then can REALISTICALLY be done? I wish I knew the answer! All I can think of is that sceptics should educate the rest of the population to think and analyse such ’evidence’ critically…but how realistic is that?
We have probably all fallen into the trap of thinking that something which has stood the ’test of time’, i.e. something that has been used for centuries with apparent success, must be ok. In alternative medicine, this belief is extremely wide-spread, and one could argue that the entire sector is built on it. Influential proponents of ‘traditional’ medicine like Prince Charles do their best to strengthen this assumption. Sadly, however, it is easily disclosed as a classical fallacy: things that have stood the ‘test of time’ might work, of course, but the ’test of time’ is never a proof of anything.
A recent study brought this message home loud and clear. This trial tested the efficacy of Rhodiola crenulata (R. crenulata), a traditional remedy which has been used widely in the Himalayan areas and in Tibet to prevent acute mountain sickness . As no scientific studies of this traditional treatment existed, the researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover RCT to test its efficacy in acute mountain sickness prevention.
Healthy adult volunteers were randomized to two treatment sequences, receiving either 800 mg R. crenulata extract or placebo daily for 7 days before ascent and two days during mountaineering. After a three-month wash-out period, they were crossed over to the alternate treatment. On each occasion, the participants ascended rapidly from 250 m to 3421 m. The primary outcome measure was the incidence of acute mountain sickness with headache and at least one of the symptoms of nausea or vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, or difficulty sleeping.
One hundred and two participants completed the trial. No significant differences in the incidence of acute mountain sickness were found between R. crenulata extract and placebo groups. If anything, the incidence of severe acute mountain sickness with Rhodiola extract was slightly higher compared to the one with placebo: 35.3% vs. 29.4%.
R. crenulata extract was not effective in reducing the incidence or severity of acute mountain sickness as compared to placebo.
Similar examples could be found by the dozen. They demonstrate very clearly that the notion of the ‘test of time’ is erroneous: a treatment which has a long history of usage is not necessarily effective (or safe) – not only that, it might be dangerous. The true value of a therapy cannot be judged by experience, to be sure, we need rigorous clinical trials. Acute mountain sickness is a potentially life-threatening condition for which there are reasonably effective treatments. If people relied on the ‘ancient wisdom’ instead of using a therapy that actually works, they might pay for their error with their lives. The sooner alternative medicine proponents realise that, the better.
According to a recent comment by Dr Larry Dossey, sceptics are afflicted by “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). I thought his opinion was hilariously funny; it shows that this prominent apologist of alternative medicine who claims that he is deeply rooted in the scientific world has, in fact, understood next to nothing about the scientific method. Like all quacks who have run out of rational arguments, he resorts to primitive ad hominem attacks in order to defend his bizarre notions. It also suggests that he could do with a little scepticism himself, perhaps.
In case anyone wonders how the long-obsolete notions of vitalism, which Dossey promotes, not just survive but are becoming again wide-spread, they only need to look into the best-selling books of Dossey and other vitalists. And it is not just lay people, the target audience of such books, who are taken by such nonsense. Health care professionals are by no means immune to these remnants from the prescientific era.
A recent survey is a good case in point. It was aimed at exploring US student pharmacists’ attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and examine factors shaping students’ attitudes. In total, 887 student pharmacists in 10 U.S. colleges/schools of pharmacy took part. Student pharmacists’ attitudes regarding CAM were quantified using the attitudes toward CAM scale (15 items), attitudes toward specific CAM therapies (13 items), influence of factors (e.g., coursework, personal experience) on attitudes (18 items), and demographic characteristics (15 items).
The results show a mean (±SD) score on the attitudes toward CAM scale of 52.57 ± 7.65 (of a possible 75; higher score indicated more favorable attitudes). There were strong indications that students agreed with the concepts of vitalism. When asked about specific CAMs, many students revealed positive views even on the least plausible and least evidence-based modalities like homeopathy or Reiki.
Unsurprisingly, students agreed that a patient’s health beliefs should be integrated in the patient care process and that knowledge about CAM would be required in future pharmacy practice. Scores on the attitudes toward CAM scale varied by gender, race/ethnicity, type of institution, previous CAM coursework, and previous CAM use. Personal experience, pharmacy education, and family background were important factors shaping students’ attitudes.
The authors concluded: Student pharmacists hold generally favorable views of CAM, and both personal and educational factors shape their views. These results provide insight into factors shaping future pharmacists’ perceptions of CAM. Additional research is needed to examine how attitudes influence future pharmacists’ confidence and willingness to talk to patients about CAM.
I find the overwhelmingly positive views of pharmacists on even over quackery quite troubling. One of the few critical pharmacists shares my worries and commented that this survey on CAM attitudes paints a concerning portrait of American pharmacy students. However, limitations in the survey process may have created biases that could have exaggerated the overall perspective presented. More concerning than the results themselves are the researchers’ interpretation of this data: Critical and negative perspectives on CAM seem to be viewed as problematic, rather than positive examples of good critical thinking.
One lesson from surveys like these is they illustrate the educational goals of CAM proponents. Just like “integrative” medicine that is making its ways into academic hospital settings, CAM education on campus is another tactic that is being used by proponents to shape health professional attitudes and perspectives early in their careers. The objective is obvious: normalize pseudoscience with students, and watch it become embedded into pharmacy practice.
Is this going to change? Unless there is a deliberate and explicit attempt to call out and push back against the degradation of academic and scientific standards created by existing forms of CAM education and “integrative medicine” programs, we should expect to see a growing normalizing of pseudoscience in health professions like pharmacy.
I have criticised pharmacists’ attitude and behaviour towards alternative medicine more often than I care to remember. I even contributed an entire series of articles (around 10; I forgot the precise number) to THE PHARMACEUTICAL JOURNAL in an attempt to stimulate their abilities to think critically about alternative medicine. Pharmacists could certainly do with a high dose of “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). In particular, pharmacists who sell bogus remedies, i.e. virtually all retail pharmacists, need to remember that
- they are breaking their own ethical code
- they are putting profit before responsible health care
- by selling bogus products, they give credibility to quackery
- they are risking their reputation as professionals who provide evidence-based advice to the public
- they might seriously endanger the health of many of their customers
In discussions about these issues, pharmacists usually defend themselves and argue that
- those working in retail chains cannot do anything about this situation; head office decides what is sold on their premises and what not
- many medicinal products we sell are as bogus as the alternative medicines in question
- other health care professions are also not perfect, blameless or free of fault and error
- many pharmacists, particularly those not working in retail, are aware of this lamentable situation but cannot do anything about it
- retail pharmacists are both shopkeepers and health care professionals and are trying their very best to cope with this difficult dual role
- we usually appreciate your work and critical comments but, in this case, you are talking nonsense
I do not agree with any of these arguments. Of course, each single individual pharmacist is fairly powerless when it comes to changing the system (but nobody forces anyone to work in a chain that breaks the ethical code of their profession). Yet pharmacists have their professional organisations, and it is up to each individual pharmacist to exert influence, if necessary pressure, via their professional bodies and representatives, such that eventually the system changes. In all this distasteful mess, only one thing seems certain: without a groundswell of opinion from pharmacists, nothing will happen simply because too many pharmacists are doing very nicely with fooling their customers into buying expensive rubbish.
And when eventually something does happen, it will almost certainly be a slow and long process until quackery has been fully expelled from retail pharmacies. My big concern is not so much the slowness of the process but the fact that, currently, I see virtually no groundswell of opinion that might produce anything. For the foreseeable future pharmacists seem to have decided to be content with a role as shopkeepers who do not sufficiently care about healthcare-ethics to change the status quo.
Has it ever occurred to you that much of the discussion about cause and effect in alternative medicine goes in circles without ever making progress? I have come to the conclusion that it does. Here I try to illustrate this point using the example of acupuncture, more precisely the endless discussion about how to best test acupuncture for efficacy. For those readers who like to misunderstand me I should explain that the sceptics’ view is in capital letters.
At the beginning there was the experience. Unaware of anatomy, physiology, pathology etc., people started sticking needles in other people’s skin, some 2000 years ago, and observed that they experienced relief of all sorts of symptoms.When an American journalist reported about this phenomenon in the 1970s, acupuncture became all the rage in the West. Acupuncture-fans then claimed that a 2000-year history is ample proof that acupuncture does work.
BUT ANECDOTES ARE NOTORIOUSLY UNRELIABLE!
Even the most enthusiastic advocates conceded that this is probably true. So they documented detailed case-series of lots of patients, calculated the average difference between the pre- and post-treatment severity of symptoms, submitted it to statistical tests, and published the notion that the effects of acupuncture are not just anecdotal; in fact, they are statistically significant, they said.
BUT THIS EFFECT COULD BE DUE TO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CONDITION!
“True enough”, grumbled the acupuncture-fans and conducted the very first controlled clinical trials. Essentially they treated one group of patients with acupuncture while another group received conventional treatments as usual. When they analysed the results, they found that the acupuncture group had improved significantly more. “Now do you believe us?”, they asked triumphantly, “acupuncture is clearly effective”.
NO! THIS OUTCOME MIGHT BE DUE TO SELECTION BIAS. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT.
The acupuncturists felt slightly embarrassed because they had not thought of that. They had allocated their patients to the treatment according to patients’ choice. Thus the expectation of the patients (or the clinician) to get relief from acupuncture might have been the reason for the difference in outcome. So they consulted an expert in trial-design and were advised to allocate not by choice but by chance. In other words, they repeated the previous study but randomised patients to the two groups. Amazingly, their RCT still found a significant difference favouring acupuncture over treatment as usual.
BUT THIS DIFFERENCE COULD BE CAUSED BY A PLACEBO-EFFECT!
Now the acupuncturists were in a bit of a pickle; as far as they could see, there was no good placebo for acupuncture! Eventually some methodologist-chap came up with the idea that, in order to mimic a placebo, they could simply stick needles into non-acupuncture points. When the acupuncturists tried that method, they found that there were improvements in both groups but the difference between real acupuncture and placebo was tiny and usually neither statistically significant nor clinically relevant.
NOW DO YOU CONCEDE THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT?
Absolutely not! The results merely show that needling non-acupuncture points is not an adequate placebo. Obviously this intervention also sends a powerful signal to the brain which clearly makes it an effective intervention. What do you expect when you compare two effective treatments?
IF YOU REALLY THINK SO, YOU NEED TO PROVE IT AND DESIGN A PLACEBO THAT IS INERT.
At that stage, the acupuncturists came up with a placebo-needle that did not actually penetrate the skin; it worked like a mini stage dagger that telescopes into itself while giving the impression that it penetrated the skin just like the real thing. Surely this was an adequate placebo! The acupuncturists repeated their studies but, to their utter dismay, they found again that both groups improved and the difference in outcome between their new placebo and true acupuncture was minimal.
WE TOLD YOU THAT ACUPUNCTURE WAS NOT EFFECTIVE! DO YOU FINALLY AGREE?
Certainly not, they replied. We have thought long and hard about these intriguing findings and believe that they can be explained just like the last set of results: the non-penetrating needles touch the skin; this touch provides a stimulus powerful enough to have an effect on the brain; the non-penetrating placebo-needles are not inert and therefore the results merely depict a comparison of two effective treatments.
YOU MUST BE JOKING! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PROVE THAT BIZARRE HYPOTHESIS?
We had many discussions and consensus meeting amongst the most brilliant brains in acupuncture about this issue and have arrived at the conclusion that your obsession with placebo, cause and effect etc. is ridiculous and entirely misplaced. In real life, we don’t use placebos. So, let’s instead address the ‘real life’ question: is acupuncture better than usual treatment? We have conducted pragmatic studies where one group of patients gets treatment as usual and the other group receives acupuncture in addition. These studies show that acupuncture is effective. This is all the evidence we need. Why can you not believe us?
NOW WE HAVE ARRIVED EXACTLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE BEEN A LONG TIME AGO. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU OBVIOUSLY CANNOT DEMONSTRATE THAT ACUPUNCTURE CAUSES CLINICAL IMPROVEMENT. THEREFORE YOU OPT TO PRETEND THAT CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU USE SOME IMITATION OF SCIENCE TO ‘PROVE’ THAT YOUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS ARE CORRECT. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE AT ALL.
The following is a guest post by Preston H. Long. It is an excerpt from his new book entitled ‘Chiropractic Abuse—A Chiropractor’s Lament’. Preston H. Long is a licensed chiropractor from Arizona. His professional career has spanned nearly 30 years. In addition to treating patients, he has testified at about 200 trials, performed more than 10,000 chiropractic case evaluations, and served as a consultant to several law enforcement agencies. He is also an associate professor at Bryan University, where he teaches in the master’s program in applied health informatics. His new book is one of the very few that provides an inside criticism of chiropractic. It is well worth reading, in my view.
Have you ever consulted a chiropractor? Are you thinking about seeing one? Do you care whether your tax and health-care dollars are spent on worthless treatment? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, there are certain things you should know.
1. Chiropractic theory and practice are not based on the body of knowledge related to health, disease, and health care that has been widely accepted by the scientific community.
Most chiropractors believe that spinal problems, which they call “subluxations,” cause ill health and that fixing them by “adjusting” the spine will promote and restore health. The extent of this belief varies from chiropractor to chiropractor. Some believe that subluxations are the primary cause of ill health; others consider them an underlying cause. Only a small percentage (including me) reject these notions and align their beliefs and practices with those of the science-based medical community. The ramifications and consequences of subluxation theory will be discussed in detail throughout this book.
2. Many chiropractors promise too much.
The most common forms of treatment administered by chiropractors are spinal manipulation and passive physiotherapy measures such as heat, ultrasound, massage, and electrical muscle stimulation. These modalities can be useful in managing certain problems of muscles and bones, but they have little, if any, use against the vast majority of diseases. But chiropractors who believe that “subluxations” cause ill health claim that spinal adjustments promote general health and enable patients to recover from a wide range of diseases. The illustrations below reflect these beliefs. The one to the left is part of a poster that promotes the notion that periodic spinal “adjustments” are a cornerstone of good health. The other is a patient handout that improperly relates “subluxations” to a wide range of ailments that spinal adjustments supposedly can help. Some charts of this type have listed more than 100 diseases and conditions, including allergies, appendicitis, anemia, crossed eyes, deafness, gallbladder problems, hernias, and pneumonia.
A 2008 survey found that exaggeration is common among chiropractic Web sites. The researchers looked at the Web sites of 200 chiropractors and 9 chiropractic associations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each site was examined for claims suggesting that chiropractic treatment was appropriate for asthma, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash, headache/migraine, and lower back pain. The study found that 95% of the surveyed sites made unsubstantiated claims for at least one of these conditions and 38% made unsubstantiated claims for all of them.1 False promises can have dire consequences to the unsuspecting.
3. Our education is vastly inferior to that of medical doctors.
I rarely encountered sick patients in my school clinic. Most of my “patients” were friends, students, and an occasional person who presented to the student clinic for inexpensive chiropractic care. Most had nothing really wrong with them. In order to graduate, chiropractic college students are required to treat a minimum number of people. To reach their number, some resort to paying people (including prostitutes) to visit them at the college’s clinic.2
Students also encounter a very narrow range of conditions, most related to aches and pains. Real medical education involves contact with thousands of patients with a wide variety of problems, including many severe enough to require hospitalization. Most chiropractic students see patients during two clinical years in chiropractic college. Medical students also average two clinical years, but they see many more patients and nearly all medical doctors have an additional three to five years of specialty training before they enter practice.
Chiropractic’s minimum educational standards are quite low. In 2007, chiropractic students were required to evaluate and manage only 15 patients in order to graduate. Chiropractic’s accreditation agency ordered this number to increase to 35 by the fall of 2011. However, only 10 of the 35 must be live patients (eight of whom are not students or their family members)! For the remaining cases, students are permitted to “assist, observe, or participate in live, paper-based, computer-based, distance learning, or other reasonable alternative.”3 In contrast, medical students see thousands of patients.
Former National Council Against Health Fraud President William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., has noted that chiropractic school prepares its students to practice “conversational medicine”—where they glibly use medical words but lack the knowledge or experience to deal appropriately with the vast majority of health problems.4 Dr. Stephen Barrett reported a fascinating example of this which occurred when he visited a chiropractor for research purposes. When Barrett mentioned that he was recovering from an attack of vertigo (dizziness), the chiropractor quickly rattled off a textbook-like list of all the possible causes. But instead of obtaining a proper history and conducting tests to pinpoint a diagnosis, he x-rayed Dr. Barrett’s neck and recommended a one-year course of manipulations to make his neck more curved. The medical diagnosis, which had been appropriately made elsewhere, was a viral infection that cleared up spontaneously in about ten days.5
4. Our legitimate scope is actually very narrow.
Appropriate chiropractic treatment is relevant only to a narrow range of ailments, nearly all related to musculoskeletal problems. But some chiropractors assert that they can influence the course of nearly everything. Some even offer adjustments to farm animals and family pets.
5. Very little of what chiropractors do has been studied.
Although chiropractic has been around since 1895, little of what we do meets the scientific standard through solid research. Chiropractic apologists try to sound scientific to counter their detractors, but very little research actually supports what chiropractors do.
6. Unless your diagnosis is obvious, it’s best to get diagnosed elsewhere.
During my work as an independent examiner, I have encountered many patients whose chiropractor missed readily apparent diagnoses and rendered inappropriate treatment for long periods of time. Chiropractors lack the depth of training available to medical doctors. For that reason, except for minor injuries, it is usually better to seek medical diagnosis first.
7. We offer lots of unnecessary services.
Many chiropractors, particularly those who find “subluxations” in everyone, routinely advise patients to come for many months, years, and even for their lifetime. Practice-builders teach how to persuade people they need “maintenance care” long after their original problem has resolved. In line with this, many chiropractors offer “discounts” to patients who pay in advance and sign a contract committing them for 50 to 100 treatments. And “chiropractic pediatric specialists” advise periodic examinations and spinal adjustments from early infancy onward. (This has been aptly described as “womb to tomb” care.) Greed is not the only factor involved in overtreatment. Many who advise periodic adjustments are “true believers.” In chiropractic school, one of my classmates actually adjusted his newborn son while the umbilical cord was still attached. Another student had the school radiology department take seven x-rays of his son’s neck to look for “subluxations” presumably acquired during the birth process. The topic of unnecessary care is discussed further in Chapter 8.
8. “Cracking” of the spine doesn’t mean much.
Spinal manipulation usually produces a “popping” or “cracking” sound similar to what occurs when you crack your knuckles. Both are due to a phenomenon called cavitation, which occurs when there is a sudden decrease in joint pressure brought on by the manipulation. That allows dissolved gasses in the joint fluid to be released into the joint itself. Chiropractors sometimes state that the noise means that something therapeutic has taken place. However, the noise has no health-related significance and does not indicate that anything has been realigned. It simply means that gas was allowed to escape under less pressure than normal. Knuckles do not “go back into place” when you crack them, and neither do spinal bones.
9. If the first few visits don’t help you, more treatment probably won’t help.
I used to tell my patients “three and through.” If we did not see significant objective improvement in three visits, it was time to move on.
10. We take too many x-rays.
No test should be done unless it is likely to provide information that will influence clinical management of the patient. X-ray examinations are appropriate when a fracture, tumor, infection, or neurological defect is suspected. But they are not needed for evaluating simple mechanical-type strains, such as back or neck pain that develops after lifting a heavy object.
The average number of x-rays taken during the first visit by chiropractors whose records I have been asked to review has been about eleven. Those records were sent to me because an insurance company had flagged them for investigation into excessive billing, so this number of x-rays is much higher than average. But many chiropractors take at least a few x-rays of everyone who walks through their door.
There are two main reasons why chiropractors take more x-rays than are medically necessary. One is easy money. It costs about 35¢ to buy an 8- x 10-inch film, for which they typically charge $40. In chiropractic, the spine encompasses five areas: the neck, mid-back, low-back, pelvic, and sacral regions. That means five separate regions to bill for—typically three to seven views of the neck, two to six for the low back, and two for each of the rest. So eleven x-ray films would net the chiropractor over $400 for just few minutes of work. In many accident cases I have reviewed, the fact that patients had adequate x-ray examinations in a hospital emergency department to rule out fractures did not deter the chiropractor from unnecessarily repeating these exams.
Chiropractors also use x-ray examinations inappropriately for marketing purposes. Chiropractors who do this point to various things on the films that they interpret as (a) subluxations, (b) not enough spinal curvature, (c) too much spinal curvature, and/or (d) “spinal decay,” all of which supposedly call for long courses of adjustments with periodic x-ray re-checks to supposedly assess progress. In addition to wasting money, unnecessary x-rays entail unnecessary exposure to the risks of ionizing radiation.
11. Research on spinal manipulation does not reflect what takes place in most chiropractic offices.
Research studies that look at spinal manipulation are generally done under strict protocols that protect patients from harm. The results reflect what happens when manipulation is done on patients who are appropriately screened—usually by medical teams that exclude people with conditions that would make manipulation dangerous. The results do not reflect what typically happens when patients select chiropractors on their own. The chiropractic marketplace is a mess because most chiropractors ignore research findings and subject their patients to procedures that are unnecessary and/or senseless.
12. Neck manipulation is potentially dangerous.
Certain types of chiropractic neck manipulation can damage neck arteries and cause a stroke. Chiropractors claim that the risk is trivial, but they have made no systematic effort to actually measure it. Chapter 9 covers this topic in detail.
13. Most chiropractors don’t know much about nutrition.
Chiropractors learn little about clinical nutrition during their schooling. Many offer what they describe as “nutrition counseling.” But this typically consists of superficial advice about eating less fat and various schemes to sell you supplements that are high-priced and unnecessary.
14. Chiropractors who sell vitamins charge much more than it costs them.
Chiropractors who sell vitamins typically recommend them unnecessarily and charge two to three times what they pay for them. Some chiropractors center their practice around selling vitamins to patients. Their recommendations are based on hair analysis, live blood analysis, applied kinesiology muscle-testing or other quack tests that will be discussed later in this book. Patients who are victimized this way typically pay several dollars a day and are encouraged to stay on the products indefinitely. In one case I investigated, an Arizona chiropractor advised an 80+-year-old grandma to charge more than $10,000 for vitamins to her credit cards to avoid an impending stroke that he had diagnosed by testing a sample of her pubic hair. No hair test can determine that a stroke is imminent or show that dietary supplements are needed. Doctors who evaluated the woman at the Mayo Clinic found no evidence to support the chiropractor’s assessment.
15. Chiropractors have no business treating young children.
The pediatric training chiropractors receive during their schooling is skimpy and based mainly on reading. Students see few children and get little or no experience in diagnosing or following the course of the vast majority of childhood ailments. Moreover, spinal adjustment has no proven effectiveness against childhood diseases. Some adolescents with spinal stiffness might benefit from manipulation, but most will recover without treatment. Chiropractors who claim to practice “chiropractic pediatrics” typically aim to adjust spines from birth onward and are likely to oppose immunization. Some chiropractors claim they can reverse or lessen the spinal curvature of scoliosis, but there is no scientific evidence that spinal manipulation can do this.6
16. The fact that patients swear by us does not mean we are actually helping them.
Satisfaction is not the same thing as effectiveness. Many people who believe they have been helped had conditions that would have resolved without treatment. Some have had treatment for dangers that did not exist but were said by the chiropractor to be imminent. Many chiropractors actually take courses on how to trick patients to believe in them. (See Chapter 8)
17. Insurance companies don’t want to pay for chiropractic care.
Chiropractors love to brag that their services are covered by Medicare and most insurance companies. However, this coverage has been achieved though political action rather than scientific merit. I have never encountered an insurance company that would reimburse for chiropractic if not forced to do so by state laws. The political pressure to mandate chiropractic coverage comes from chiropractors, of course, but it also comes from the patients whom they have brainwashed.
18. Lots of chiropractors do really strange things.
The chiropractic profession seems to attract people who are prone to believe in strange things. One I know of does “aura adjustments” to treat people’s “bruised karma.” Another rents out a large crystal to other chiropractors so they can “recharge” their own (smaller) crystals. Another claims to get advice by “channeling” a 15th Century Scottish physician. Another claimed to “balance a woman’s harmonics” by inserting his thumb into her vagina and his index finger into her anus. Another treated cancer with an orange light that was mounted in a wooden box. Another did rectal exams on all his female patients. Even though such exams are outside the legitimate scope of chiropractic, he also videotaped them so that if his bills for this service were questioned, he could prove that he had actually performed what he billed for.
19. Don’t expect our licensing boards to protect you.
Many chiropractors who serve on chiropractic licensing boards harbor the same misbeliefs that are rampant among their colleagues. This means, for example, that most boards are unlikely to discipline chiropractors for diagnosing and treating imaginary “subluxations.”
20. The media rarely look at what we do wrong.
The media rarely if ever address chiropractic nonsense. Reporting on chiropractic is complicated because chiropractors vary so much in what they do. (In fact, a very astute observer once wrote that “for every chiropractor, there is an equal and opposite chiropractor.”) Consumer Reports published superb exposés in 1975 and 1994, but no other print outlet has done so in the past 35 years. This lack of information is the main reason I have written this book.
1. Ernst E, Gilbey A. Chiropractic claims in the English-speaking world. New Zealand Medical Journal 123:36–44, 2010.
2. Bernet J. Affidavit, April 12, 1996. Posted to Chirobase Web site.
3. Standards for Doctor of Chiropractic Programs and Requirements for Institutional Status. Council on Chiropractic Education, Scottsdale, Arizona, Jan 2007.
4. Jarvis WT. Why becoming a chiropractor may be risky. Chirobase Web site, October 5, 1999.
5. Barrett S. My visit to a “straight” chiropractor. Quackwatch Web site, Oct 10, 2002.
6. Romano M, Negrini S. Manual therapy as a conservative treatment for idiopathic scoliosis: A review. Scoliosis 3:2, 2008.
In 1747, James Lind conducted what may well be the first documented controlled clinical trial in the history of medicine. He treated a small group of healthy sailors with a range of different remedies to see whether one of these regimen might be effective in preventing scurvy. The results showed that lemon and lime juice – effectively vitamin C – did the trick. This trial changed the world: it saved tens of thousands of lives, gave Britain the advantage at sea needed to become a dominant empire, and set medicine on the track to eventually become evidence-based.
Of course, Lind did not know that the effective principle in his lemon/lime juice was vitamin C. The Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi discovered vitamin C only ~200 years later and received the Nobel Prize for it in 1937. Since then, research has been buoyant, and vitamin C has been advocated for almost every condition one can think of. Looking at some of the claims made for it, I get the impression that more charlatans have jumped on the vitamin C band-waggon than the old vehicle can support. In alternative medicine, high-dose IV vitamin C is a popular variation of Lind’s concept, not least for the treatment of cancer.
Researchers from the NIH in the US surveyed attendees at annual CAM Conferences in 2006 and 2008, and determined sales of intravenous vitamin C by major U.S. manufacturers/distributors. They also queried practitioners for adverse effects, compiled published cases, and analyzed FDA’s Adverse Events Database. Of 199 survey respondents (out of 550), 172 practitioners had administered IV vitamin C to 11,233 patients in 2006 and to 8876 patients in 2008. The average dose was 28 grams every 4 days, with a mean of 22 treatments per patient. Estimated yearly doses used (as 25g/50ml vials) were 318,539 in 2006 and 354,647 in 2008. Manufacturers’ yearly sales were 750,000 and 855,000 vials, respectively. Common reasons for treatment included infection, cancer, and fatigue. Of 9,328 patients for whom data was available, 101 had adverse effects, mostly minor, including lethargy/fatigue in 59 patients, change in mental status in 21 patients and vein irritation/phlebitis in 6 patients. Publications documented serious adverse events, including two deaths. The FDA Adverse Events Database was uninformative.
The authors of this paper conclude that high dose IV vitamin C is in unexpectedly wide use by CAM practitioners. Other than the known complications of IV vitamin C in those with renal impairment or glucose 6 phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, high dose intravenous vitamin C appears to be remarkably safe. Physicians should inquire about IV vitamin C use in patients with cancer, chronic, untreatable, or intractable conditions and be observant of unexpected harm, drug interactions, or benefit.
I find these results somewhat worrying. Desperate cancer patients are constantly being told that they can fight the disease with high-dose vitamin C, for instance on the >9 million (!) websites on this subject. One site, for instance, leaves little doubt about the efficacy of vitamin C as a treatment for cancer: First shown to be a powerful anti-cancer agent in 1971, it wasn’t until 20 years later that vitamin C started to be accepted by the mainstream medical profession. Eating a vitamin C-rich diet substantially reduces the risk of cancer, and high intakes – above 5000mg a day (the equivalent of 100 oranges) – substantially increases the life expectancy of cancer patients.
Statements like this one give false hope to cancer patients which is unethical and cruel and might hasten the death of many. The reality is quite different and provides little reason for such hope. Here are just a few conclusions from recent scientific analyses on this or closely related topics:
We could not find evidence that antioxidant supplements prevent gastrointestinal cancers. On the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality. The potential cancer preventive effect of selenium should be studied in adequately conducted randomised trial
The question whether the regular intake of high doses of vitamin C have a preventative effect for certain cancers is currently open. But there is no good reason to suggest that high dose IV vitamin C is an effective treatment for any cancer. To pretend otherwise, as so many alternative practitioners seem to do, is less than responsible – in fact, it is a hallmark for cancer quackery.