MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

misleading consumers

Cardiovascular (and most other types of) patients frequently use herbal remedies in addition to their prescribed medicines. Can this behaviour create problems? Many experts think so.

The aim of a new study was to investigate the effect of herbal medicine use on medication adherence of cardiology patients. All patients admitted to the outpatient cardiology clinics, who had been prescribed at least one cardiovascular drug before, were asked to complete a questionnaire. Participants were asked if they have used any herbals during the past 12 months with an expectation of beneficial effect on health. Medication adherence was measured by using the Morisky Scale. High adherence was defined as a Morisky score lower than 2 and a score of 2 or more was seen as low adherence.

A total of 390 patients participated in this study; 29.7% of them had consumed herbals in the past 12 months. The median Morisky score was significantly higher in herbal users than non-users. The number of herbals used was moderately correlated with the Morisky score. In stepwise, multivariate logistic regression analysis, herbal use was significantly associated with low medication adherence.

From these findings, the authors conclude that herbal use was found to be independently associated with low medication adherence in our study population.

So far, the main known risk of herbal medicine use was the possibility that there might be herb-drug interactions. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet studied the possibility that herbal medicine users might neglect to take their prescribed drugs. The results of this investigation are somewhat worrying but they do make sense. Some patients who buy and take herbal remedies might think that they do not need to regularly take their prescribed medications because they already take herbal medicine which takes care of their health problem. They might even have been told by their herbalist that the herbal remedies suffice.

If that is so, and if the phenomenon can be confirmed in further investigations, it should be relevant not just in cardiology but in all fields of medicine. And if that is true for herbal remedies, it might also be the case for other types of alternative medicine. In other words, alternative medicine use might be a marker for poor adherence to prescribed medication. I feel that this hypothesis merits further study.

It goes without saying that poor adherence to prescribed drugs can be a very dangerous habit. Clinicians should therefore warn their patients and tell them that herbal remedies are no replacement of prescription drugs.

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.

General practitioners (GPs) play an important role in advising patients on all sorts of matters related to their health, and this includes, of course, the possible risks of electromagnetic fields (EMF). Their views on EMF are thus relevant and potentially influential.

A team of German and Danish researchers therefore conducted a survey comparing GPs using conventional medicine (COM) with GPs using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) concerning their perception of EMF risks. A total of 2795 GPs drawn randomly from lists of German GPs were sent an either long or short self-administered postal questionnaire on EMF-related topics. Adjusted logistic regression models were fitted to assess the association of an education in alternative medicine with various aspects of perceiving EMF risks.

Concern about EMF, misconceptions about EMF, and distrust toward scientific organizations are more prevalent in CAM-GPs. CAM-GPs more often falsely believed that mobile phone use can lead to head warming of more than 1°C, more often distrusted the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, were more often concerned about mobile phone base stations, more often attributed own health complaints to EMF, and more often reported at least 1 EMF consultation. GPs using homeopathy perceived EMF as more risky than GPs using acupuncture or naturopathic treatment.

The authors concluded that concern about common EMF sources is highly prevalent among German GPs. CAM-GPs perceive stronger associations between EMF and health problems than COM-GPs. There is a need for evidence-based information about EMF risks for GPs and particularly for CAM-GPs. This is the precondition that GPs can inform patients about EMF and health in line with current scientific knowledge.

True, the evidence is somewhat contradictory but the majority of independent reviews seem to suggest that EMF constitute little or no health risks. In case you don’t believe me, here are a few conclusions from recent reviews:

But even if someone wants to err on the safe side, and seriously considers the possibility that EMF sources might have the potential to harm our health, a general distrust in scientific organizations, and wrong ideas about modern technologies such as mobile phones are hardly very helpful – in fact, I find them pretty worrying. To learn that CAM-GPs are more likely than COM-GPs to hold such overtly anti-scientific views does not inspire me with trust; to see that homeopaths are the worst culprits is perhaps not entirely unexpected. Almost by definition, critical evaluation of the existing evidence is not a skill that is prevalent amongst homeopaths – if it were, there would be no homeopaths!

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.

Dodgy science abounds in alternative medicine; this is perhaps particularly true for homeopathy. A brand-new trial seems to confirm this view.

The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that homeopathy (H) enhances the effects of scaling and root planing (SRP) in patients with chronic periodontitis (CP).

The researchers, dentists from Brazil, randomised 50 patients with CP to one of two treatment groups: SRP (C-G) or SRP + H (H-G). Assessments were made at baseline and after 3 and 12 months of treatment. The local and systemic responses to the treatments were evaluated after one year of follow-up. The results showed that both groups displayed significant improvements, however, the H-G group performed significantly better than C-G group.

The authors concluded that homeopathic medicines, as an adjunctive to SRP, can provide significant local and systemic improvements for CP patients.

Really? I am afraid, I disagree!

Homeopathic medicines might have nothing whatsoever to do with this result. Much more likely is the possibility that the findings are caused by other factors such as:

  • placebo-effects,
  • patients’ expectations,
  • improved compliance with other health-related measures,
  • the researchers’ expectations,
  • the extra attention given to the patients in the H-G group,
  • disappointment of the C-G patients for not receiving the additional care,
  • a mixture of all or some of the above.

I should stress that it would not have been difficult to plan the study in such a way that these factors were eliminated as sources of bias or confounding. But this study was conducted according to the A+B versus B design which we have discussed repeatedly on this blog. In such trials, A is the experimental treatment (homeopathy) and B is the standard care (scaling and root planning). Unless A is an overtly harmful therapy, it is simply not conceivable that A+B does not generate better results than B alone. The simplest way to comprehend this argument is to imagine A and B are two different amounts of money: it is impossible that A+B is not more that B!

It is unclear to me what relevant research question such a study design actually does answer (if anyone knows, please tell me). It seems obvious, however, that it cannot test the hypothesis that homeopathy (H) enhances the effects of scaling and root planing (SRP). This does not necessarily mean that the design is necessarily useless.  But at the very minimum, one would need an adequate research question (one that matches this design) and adequate conclusions based on the findings.

The fact that the conclusions drawn from a dodgy trial are inadequate and misleading could be seen as merely a mild irritation. The facts that, in homeopathy, such poor science and misleading conclusions emerge all too regularly, and that journals continue to publish such rubbish are not just mildly irritating; they are annoying and worrying – annoying because such pseudo-science constitutes an unethical waste of scarce resources; worrying because it almost inevitably leads to wrong decisions in health care.

“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.

Readers of this blog will know that few alternative treatments are more controversial and less plausible than homeopathy. Therefore they might be interested to read about the latest attempt of homeopathy-enthusiasts to convince the public that, despite all the clinical evidence to the contrary, homeopathy does work.

The new article was published in German by Swiss urologist and is a case-report describing a patient suffering from paralytic ileus. This condition is a typical complication of ileocystoplasty of the bladder, the operation the patient had undergone. The patient had also been suffering from a spinal cord injury which, due to a pre-existing neurogenic bowel dysfunction, increases the risk of paralytic ileus.

The paraplegic patient developed a massive paralytic ileus after ileocystoplasty and surgical revision. Conventional stimulation of bowel function was unsuccessful. But after adjunctive homeopathic treatment normalization of bowel function was achieved.

The authors conclude that adjunctive homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment option in patients with complex bowel dysfunction after abdominal surgery who do not adequately respond to conventional treatment.

YES, you did read correctly: homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment

In case anyone doubts that this is more than a trifle too optimistic, let me suggest three much more plausible reasons why the patient’s bowel function finally normalised:

  • It could have been a spontaneous recovery (in most cases, even severe ones, this is what happens).
  • It could have been all the conventional treatments aimed at stimulating bowel function.
  • It could have been a mixture of the two.

The article made me curious, and I checked whether the authors had previously published other material on homeopathy. Thus I found two further articles in a very similar vein:

Article No 2 (dated 2014):

We present the clinical course of a patient with an epididymal abscess caused by multiresistant bacteria. As the patient declined surgical intervention, a conservative approach was induced with intravenous antibiotic treatment. As the clinical findings did not ameliorate, adjunctive homeopathic treatment was used. Under combined treatment, laboratory parameters returned to normal, and the epididymal abscess was rapidly shrinking. After 1 week, merely a subcutaneous liquid structure was detected. Fine-needle aspiration revealed sterile purulent liquid, which was confirmed by microbiological testing when the subcutaneous abscess was drained. Postoperative course was uneventful.

As the risk for recurrent epididymitis is high in persons with spinal cord injury, an organ-preserving approach is justified even in severe cases. Homeopathic treatment was a valuable adjunctive treatment in the above-mentioned case. Therefore, prospective studies are needed to further elucidate the future opportunities and limitations of classical homeopathy in the treatment of urinary tract infections.

Article No 3 (dated 2012):

Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI) in patients with spinal cord injury are a frequent clinical problem. Often, preventive measures are not successful. We present the case reports of five patients with recurrent UTI who received additional homeopathic treatment. Of these patients, three remained free of UTI, whereas UTI frequency was reduced in two patients. Our initial experience with homeopathic prevention of UTI is encouraging. For an evidence-based evaluation of this concept, prospective studies are required.

It seems clear that all of the three more plausible explanations for the patients’ recovery listed above also apply to these two cases.

One might not be far off speculating that J Pannek, the first author of all these three articles, is a fan of homeopathy (this suspicion is confirmed by a link between him and the HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH INSTITUE: Prof Jürgen Pannek on the use of homeopathy for prophylaxis of UTI’s in patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction). If that is so, I wonder why he does not conduct a controlled trial, rather than publishing case-report after case-report of apparently successful homeopathic treatments. Does he perhaps fear that his effects might dissolve into thin air under controlled conditions?

Case-reports of this nature can, of course, be interesting and some might even deserve to be published. But it would be imperative to draw the correct conclusions. Looking at the three articles above, I get the impression that, as time goes by, the conclusions of Prof Pannek et al (no, I know nobody from this group of authors personally) are growing more and more firm on less and less safe ground.

In my view, responsible authors should have concluded much more cautiously and reasonably. In the case of the paralytic ileus, for instance, they should not have gone further than stating something like this: adjunctive homeopathic therapy might turn out to be a promising treatment option for such patients. Despite the implausibility of homeopathy, this case-report might deserve to be followed up with a controlled clinical trial. Without such evidence, firm conclusions are clearly not possible.

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.

Blinding patients in clinical trials is a key methodological procedure for minimizing bias and thus making sure that the results are reliable. In alternative medicine, blinding is not always straight forward, and many studies are therefore not patient-blinded. We all know that this can introduce bias into a trial, but how large is its effect on study outcomes?

This was the research question addressed by a recent systematic review of randomized clinical trials with one sub-study (i.e. experimental vs control) involving blinded patients and another, otherwise identical, sub-study involving non-blinded patients. Within each trial, the researchers compared the difference in effect sizes (i.e. standardized mean differences) between the two sub-studies. A difference <0 indicates that non-blinded patients generated a more optimistic effect estimate. The researchers then pooled the differences with random-effects inverse variance meta-analysis, and explored reasons for heterogeneity.

The main analysis included 12 trials with a total of 3869 patients. Ten of these RCTs were studies of acupuncture. The average difference in effect size for patient-reported outcomes was -0.56 (95% confidence interval -0.71 to -0.41), (I(2 )= 60%, P = 0.004), indicating that non-blinded patients exaggerated the effect size by an average of 0.56 standard deviation, but with considerable variation. Two of the 12 trials also used observer-reported outcomes, showing no indication of exaggerated effects due lack of patient blinding.

There was an even larger effect size difference in the 10 acupuncture trials [-0.63 (-0.77 to -0.49)], than in the two non-acupuncture trials [-0.17 (-0.41 to 0.07)]. Lack of patient blinding was also associated with increased attrition rates and the use of co-interventions: ratio of control group attrition risk 1.79 (1.18 to 2.70), and ratio of control group co-intervention risk 1.55 (0.99 to 2.43).

The authors conclude that this study provides empirical evidence of pronounced bias due to lack of patient blinding in complementary/alternative randomized clinical trials with patient-reported outcomes.

This is a timely, rigorous and important analysis. In alternative medicine, we currently see a proliferation of trials that are not patient-blinded. We always suspected that they are at a high risk of generating false-positive results – now we know that this is, in fact, the case.

What should we do with this insight? In my view, the following steps would be wise:

  1. Take the findings from the existing trials that are devoid of patient-blinding with more than just a pinch of salt.
  2. Discourage the funding of future studies that fail to include patient-blinding.
  3. If patient-blinding is truly and demonstrably impossible – which is not often the case – make sure that the trialists at least include blinding of the assessors of the primary outcome measures.
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