It has been estimated that 40 – 70% of all cancer patients use some form of alternative medicine; may do so in the hope this might cure their condition. A recent article by Turkish researchers - yet again - highlights how dangerous such behaviour can turn out to be.
The authors report the cases of two middle-aged women suffering from malignant breast masses. The patients experienced serious complications in response to self-prescribed use of alternative medicine practices to treat their condition in lieu of evidence-based medical treatments. In both cases, the use and/or inappropriate application of alternative medical approaches promoted the progression of malignant fungating lesions in the breast. The first patient sought medical assistance upon development of a fungating lesion, 7∼8 cm in diameter and involving 1/3 of the breast, with a palpable mass of 5×6 cm immediately beneath the wound. The second patient sought medical assistance after developing of a wide, bleeding, ulcerous area with patchy necrotic tissue that comprised 2/3 of the breast and had a 10×6 cm palpable mass under the affected area.
The authors argue that the use of some non-evidence-based medical treatments as complementary to evidence-based medical treatments may benefit the patient on an emotional level; however, this strategy should be used with caution, as the non-evidence-based therapies may cause physical harm or even counteract the evidence-based treatment.
Their conclusions: a malignant, fungating wound is a serious complication of advanced breast cancer. It is critical that the public is informed about the potential problems of self-treating wounds such as breast ulcers and masses. Additionally, campaigns are needed to increase awareness of the risks and life-threatening potential of using non-evidence-based medical therapies exclusively.
I have little to add to this; perhaps just a further reminder that the risk extends, of course, to all serious conditions: even a seemingly harmless but ineffective therapy can become positively life-threatening, if it is used as an alternative to an effective treatment. I am sure that some ‘alternativists’ will claim that I am alarmist; but I am also convinced that they are wrong.
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:
- The candles work on a chimney principle, drawing any impurities to the surface where they can be gently removed. They equalise the pressure in the head and ears, making them suitable for most conditions.
- These candles are cleansing, soothing and relaxing which helps with chills / colds, feeling of pressure in the ear, tinnitus and everyday noise / sensory overload.
- As it burns, the cone’s ingredients turn to vapour and the airflow creates a vibrational effect. Warmth, vibration and vapour massage the ear canal breaking down any blockages. Wax, toxins and impurities are then drawn out by suction from the heat and vacuum effect of the burning cone. Ear Candling also stimulates the ear’s circulatory system and upper lymph system aiding the body’s natural healing responses.
I said ALMOST comical because such nonsense has, of course a downside. Not only are consumers separated from their cash for no benefit whatsoever, but they are also exposed to danger; again, three examples from the medical literature might explain:
- Otolaryngologists from London described a case of ear candling presenting as hearing loss, and they concluded that this useless therapy can actually cause damage to the ears.
- A 50-year-old woman presented to her GP following an episode of ear candling. After 15 minutes, the person performing the candling burned herself while attempting to remove the candle and spilled candle wax into the patient’s right ear canal. On examination, a piece of candle wax was found in the patient’s ear, and she was referred to the local ear, nose, and throat department. Under general aesthetic, a large mass of solidified yellow candle wax was removed from the deep meatus of the ear. The patient had a small perforation in her right tympanic membrane. Results of a pure tone audiogram showed a mild conductive hearing loss on the right side. At a follow-up appointment 1 month later, the perforation was still there, and the patient’s hearing had not improved.
- A case report of a 4-year-old girl from New Zealand was published. The patient was diagnosed to suffer from otitis media. During the course of the ear examination white deposits were noticed on her eardrum; this was confirmed as being caused by ear candling.
I should stress that we do not know how often such events happen; there is no monitoring system, and one might expect that the vast majority of cases do not get published. Most consumers who experience such problems, I would guess, are far to embarrassed to admit that they have been taken in by this sort of quackery.
It was true 10 yeas ago and it is true today: ear candles are a triumph of ignorance over science. But also they are a victory of gullibility over common sense and the unethical exploitation of naive hope by greedy frauds.
An article with this title was published recently by a team from Israel; essentially, it reports two interesting case histories:
A 59-year-old male underwent a course of acupuncture for chronic low back pain, by a acupuncturist. During the therapy, the patient noted swelling at the point of puncture, but his therapist dismissed the claim. The region continued to swell, and three days later his family doctor diagnosed cellulitis and prescribed oral amoxicillin with clavulanic acid. The following day the patient’s condition worsened—he started to suffer from chills and more intense pain, so he went to the emergency room. At that stage, the patient had a fever of 37.9°C, a pulse of 119, and a blood pressure of 199/87. Edema was noted over the patient’s entire right flank (Figure 1A). Laboratory results were notable for a level of glucose of 298 mg/dL, sodium of 128 mmol/L, and white blood count (WBC) of 26,500 cells/μL with left shift. An emergency CT revealed an abscess of the abdominal wall involving the muscles, but no intra-abdominal pathology (Figure 1B).
Figure 1.The patient received broad-spectrum antibiotics and was taken to the operating room for debridement. Upon incision there was subcutaneous edema with no puss, gangrene of the entire external oblique muscle, and an abscess between the external and internal oblique muscles. The muscles were debrided back to healthy, bleeding tissue and the wound copiously irrigated with saline. The wound was left open, with gauze and iodine as a cover. Gram stains and cultures returned group B streptococcus (GBS) sensitive to penicillin, and antibiotic coverage was adjusted accordingly. The patient returned to the operating room for serial debridement until the wound developed healthy granulation tissue. The patient received four units of blood and required 13 days of hospitalization. To date, he suffers from a disfiguring wound of his abdominal wall.
Considering the fact that group B streptococci live primarily in the female vagina, and that the acupuncturist was a young female, it is possible to assume that the cause for this grave illness was due to improper hygiene while treating our patient with acupuncture. Although rare, this tragic consequence of acupuncture has been seen previously by other researchers.
A 27-year-old male with chronic cervical and back pain without any previous medical treatment or imaging was referred to a tertiary medical facility. To manage his pain, the patient used the services of a chiropractor who used cervical manipulation. Immediately after such a manipulation, the patient felt a severe cervical pain; 30 minutes after manipulation the patient started feeling paresthesia in his hands and legs. The patient was admitted to an emergency room with symptoms of progressive weakness in all four extremities and weakness. No additional symptoms were seen. Immediate MRI demonstrated an epidural hematoma at the C3-4 level (Figure 2).
The patient underwent immediate surgery to evacuate the hematoma via an anterior approach and C3-4 cage placement. The day after surgery the patient showed a remission of symptoms. At 6 months follow-up his remission was complete.
The literature includes several reports of SSPE immediately following a chiropractic manipulation that was considered the cause of this event. The authors of this case report concluded that chiropractic procedures can be dangerous when performed by practitioners who might be only partially trained, who might tend to perform an insufficient patient examination before the procedure, and thus endanger their patients.
On this blog, I have repeatedly warned that not all alternative treatments are free of risks. These two cases are impressive reminders of this undeniable fact.
I am sure that most proponents of alternative medicine will try to claim that
- such complications are true rarities,
- I am alarmist to keep alerting my readers to such events,
- conventional medicine is dimensions more harmful,
- the above cases are caused by poor practice.
However, I feel compelled to stress that there are no adequate post-marketing surveillance systems in alternative medicine and that the true frequencies of such events are therefore unknown. It seems therefore imperative (and not alarmist) to publicize such risks as widely as possible – in the hope that alternative practitioners, one day, might do the ethically and morally correct thing and implement proper surveillance of their practices.
Some time ago, the NYT carried an article entitled HOW YOGA CAN WRECK YOUR BODY. While this might be just a trifle alarmist, it seems clear that injuries can occur and do occur more and more – not least because yoga has become so very popular. It seems relevant therefore to ask what the risks truly are. A recent article might be useful in this respect.
The aim of this study was to examine whether a national sample of yoga practitioners would report discontinued use of yoga due to injury from the practice, assess what injuries resulted in discontinued use, determine what injuries were most common and identify injuries requiring medical attention. The authors used a secondary data analysis of a nationally representative sample of 23,393 adults from the United States.
The results indicate that less than 1% of individuals who had ever practiced yoga (n = 2230) reported an injury from yoga that led to discontinued use. Of those reporting injury, less than one-third (n = 4) reported seeking medical attention. The most commonly reported side-effect of yoga was back pain. Approximately, half of those reporting back pain sought medical attention.
The authors concluded that injury due to yoga is an infrequent barrier to continued practice and severe injury due to yoga is rare.
So, yoga is fairly safe but, in rare cases, injuries can occur. If you are interested in preventing such harm, there are some precautions you can take to make sure you do not sustain injuries.
And one last thing: in my experience, many yoga make quite absurd claims – so, if it sounds to be too good to be true, it probably is.
Niacin – also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid - is a natural compound (formula C
2 ) and an essential nutrient for humans. It is water-soluble, which means it is not stored in the body. Excess amounts of the vitamin leave the body through the urine. That means we need a continuous supply of niacin in your diet.
Niacin is found in variety of foods, including liver, chicken, beef, fish, cereal, peanuts and legumes. It can also be synthesized from tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in protein. Niacin has long been an accepted treatment for high cholesterol. It is well-documented to increase the levels of high-density cholesterol (HDL or “good cholesterol”) and to decrease the levels of low-density cholesterol (LDL or “bad cholesterol”).
But what do these effects really mean? Do they translate into true health benefits? A brand-new study casts doubt on the value of niacin therapy:
After a pre-randomization run-in phase to standardize the background statin-based LDL cholesterol-lowering therapy and to establish participants’ ability to take extended-release niacin without clinically significant adverse effects, the researchers randomly assigned 25,673 adults with vascular disease to receive 2 g of extended-release niacin and 40 mg of laropiprant or a matching placebo daily. The primary outcome was the first major vascular event (non-fatal myocardial infarction, death from coronary causes, stroke, or arterial revascularization).
During a median follow-up period of 3.9 years, participants who were assigned to extended-release niacin-laropiprant had an LDL cholesterol level that was 10 mg per deciliter (0.25 mmol/l) lower and an HDL cholesterol level that was 6 mg per deciliter (0.16 mmol/l) higher than the levels in those assigned to placebo. Thus the lipid-effects of previous studies were confirmed.
However, assignment to niacin-laropiprant, as compared with assignment to placebo, had no significant effect on the incidence of major vascular events Niacin-laropiprant was associated with an increased incidence of disturbances in diabetes control that were considered to be serious and with an increased incidence of diabetes diagnoses as well as increases in serious adverse events associated with the gastrointestinal system, the musculoskeletal system, the skin and infections and bleeding.
Based of these data, the authors arrived at the following conclusion: among participants with atherosclerotic vascular disease, the addition of extended-release niacin-laropiprant to statin-based LDL cholesterol-lowering therapy did not significantly reduce the risk of major vascular events but did increase the risk of serious adverse events.
This extremely well-done trial is a poignant reminder of the fact that, in health care, we must never take our assumptions for granted. Here the underlying assumption was that the Niacin-induced lipid changes lead to a reduction of cardiovascular risks. Not only it proved to be erroneous but, through serious adverse effects, Niacin actually decreased patients’ health status.
The lessons from all this are straight forward, I think:
- ‘Natural’ does not necessarily mean safe.
- Long-established does not necessarily mean efficacious.
- Assumptions are merely assumptions, nothing more; if we want to make sure that they hold, we need to test them.
- When we finally do test assumptions, we better do it rigorously.
‘Red ginseng’ is an herbal medicine prepared by steaming raw ginseng. This process is believed to increase its pharmacological activity. Further conversion through fermentation is thought to increase its intestinal absorption and bioactivity to diminish its toxicity.
Red ginseng (RG) is traditionally used for diabetes. Our own systematic review of 4 RCTs concluded that the evidence for the effectiveness of RG in controlling glucose in type 2 diabetes is not convincing. Few included studies with various treatment regimens prohibit definitive conclusions. More rigorous studies are needed to clarify the effects of RG on this condition.
Now a new RCT has become available. This study was conducted to investigate the effects of daily supplementation with fermented red ginseng (FRG) on blood sugar levels in subjects with impaired fasting glucose or type 2 diabetes. It was a four-week long, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Forty-two subjects with impaired fasting glucose or type 2 diabetes were randomly allocated to two groups assigned to consume either placebo or FRG three times per day for 4 weeks. Fasting and postprandial glucose profiles during meal tolerance tests were assessed before and after the intervention.
Compared to the placebo, FRG supplementation led to a significant reduction in postprandial glucose levels and to an increase in postprandial insulin levels. There also was a significant improvement in the area under the curve (AUC) in the FRG group. However, fasting glucose, insulin, and lipid profiles did not differ from the placebo group.
The authors of this trial concluded that daily supplementation with FRG lowered postprandial glucose levels in subjects with impaired fasting glucose or type 2 diabetes.
What should we make of these findings? Do they indicate that FRG might be an alternative to conventional anti-diabetic drugs? I would caution that we have tons of data for the latter, while we know far too little about FRG to recommend it for routine use.
On the contrary, the findings could suggest that diabetic patients who are well-controlled with diet or anti-diabetic medication should be avoiding ginseng products. If they actually work, they might significantly interfere with their metabolic control which, in turn, could even endanger their lives.
What is the best treatment for the millions of people who suffer from chronic low back pain (CLBP)? If we are honest, no therapy has yet been proven to be overwhelmingly effective. Whenever something like that happens in medicine, we have a proliferation of interventions which all are promoted as effective but which, in fact, work just marginally. And sure enough, in the case of CLBP, we have a constantly growing list of treatments none of which is really convincing.
One of the latest additions to this list is PILATES.
Pilates? What is this ? One practitioner describes it as follows: In Pilates, we pay a lot of attention to how our body parts are lined up in relation to each other, which is our alignment. We usually think of our alignment as our posture, but good posture is a dynamic process, dependent on the body’s ability to align its parts to respond to varying demands effectively. When alignment is off, uneven stresses on the skeleton, especially the spine, are the result. Pilates exercises, done with attention to alignment, create uniform muscle use and development, allowing movement to flow through the body in a natural way.
For example, one of the most common postural imbalances that people have is the tendency to either tuck or tilt the pelvis. Both positions create weaknesses on one side of the body and overly tight areas on the other. They deny the spine the support of its natural curves and create a domino effect of aches and pains all the way up the spine and into the neck. Doing Pilates increases the awareness of the proper placement of the spine and pelvis, and creates the inner strength to support the natural curves of the spine. This is called having a neutral spine and it has been the key to better backs for many people.
Mumbo-jumbo? Perhaps; in any case, we need evidence! Is there any at all? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Recently, someone even published a proper systematic review.
This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of Pilates exercise in people with chronic low back pain (CLBP).
A search for RCTs was undertaken in 10 electronic. Two independent reviewers did the selection of evidence and evaluated the quality of the primary studies. To be included, relevant RCTs needed to be published in the English language. From 152 studies, 14 RCTs could be included.
The methodological quality of RCTs ranged from “poor” to “excellent”. A meta-analysis of RCTs was not undertaken due to the heterogeneity of RCTs. Pilates exercise provided statistically significant improvements in pain and functional ability compared to usual care and physical activity between 4 and 15 weeks, but not at 24 weeks. There were no consistent statistically significant differences in improvements in pain and functional ability with Pilates exercise, massage therapy, or other forms of exercise at any time period.
The authors drew the following conclusions: Pilates exercise offers greater improvements in pain and functional ability compared to usual care and physical activity in the short term. Pilates exercise offers equivalent improvements to massage therapy and other forms of exercise. Future research should explore optimal Pilates exercise designs, and whether some people with CLBP may benefit from Pilates exercise more than others.
So, Pilates can be added to the long list of treatments that work for CLBP, albeit not convincingly better than most other therapies on offer. Does that mean these options are all as good or as bad as the next? I don’t think so.
Let’s assume chiropractic/osteopathic manipulations, massage and various forms of exercise are all equally effective. How do we decide which is more commendable than the next? We clearly need to take other important factors into account:
- acceptability for patients
If we use these criteria, it becomes instantly clear that chiropractic and osteopathy are not favourites in this race for the most commendable CLBP-treatment. They are neither cheap nor free of risks. Massage is virtually risk-free but not cheap. This leaves us with various forms of exercise, including Pilates. But which exercise is better than the next? At present, we do not know, and therefore the last two factors are crucial: if people love doing Pilates and if they easily stick with it, then Pilates is fine.
I am sure chiropractors will (yet again) disagree with me but, to me, this logic could hardly be more straight forward.
My 2008 evaluation of chiropractic concluded that the concepts of chiropractic are not based on solid science and its therapeutic value has not been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. It also pointed out that the advice of chiropractors often is dangerous and not in the best interest of the patient: many chiropractors have a very disturbed attitude towards immunisation: anti-vaccination attitudes till abound within the chiropractic profession. Despite a growing body of evidence about the safety and efficacy of vaccination, many chiropractors do not believe in vaccination, will not recommend it to their patients, and place emphasis on risk rather than benefit.
In case you wonder where this odd behaviour comes from, you best look into the history of chiropractic. D. D. Palmer, the magnetic healer who ‘invented’ chiropractic about 120 years ago, left no doubt about his profound disgust for immunisation: “It is the very height of absurdity to strive to ‘protect’ any person from smallpox and other malady by inoculating them with a filthy animal poison… No one will ever pollute the blood of any member of my family unless he cares to walk over my dead body… ” (D. D. Palmer, 1910)
D. D. Palmer’s son, B. J. Palmer (after literally walking [actually it was driving] over his father’s body) provided a much more detailed explanation for chiropractors’ rejection of immunisation: “Chiropractors have found in every disease that is supposed to be contagious, a cause in the spine. In the spinal column we will find a subluxation that corresponds to every type of disease… If we had one hundred cases of small-pox, I can prove to you, in one, you will find a subluxation and you will find the same condition in the other ninety-nine. I adjust one and return his function to normal… There is no contagious disease… There is no infection…The idea of poisoning healthy people with vaccine virus… is irrational. People make a great ado if exposed to a contagious disease, but they submit to being inoculated with rotten pus, which if it takes, is warranted to give them a disease” (B. J. Palmer, 1909)
Such sentiments and opinions are still prevalent in the chiropractic profession – but today they are expressed in a far less abrupt, more politically correct language: The International Chiropractors Association recognizes that the use of vaccines is not without risk. The ICA supports each individual’s right to select his or her own health care and to be made aware of the possible adverse effects of vaccines upon a human body. In accordance with such principles and based upon the individual’s right to freedom of choice, the ICA is opposed to compulsory programs which infringe upon such rights. The International Chiropractors Association is supportive of a conscience clause or waiver in compulsory vaccination laws, providing an elective course of action for all regarding immunization, thereby allowing patients freedom of choice in matters affecting their bodies and health.
Not all chiropractors share such opinions. The chiropractic profession is currently divided over the issue of immunisation. Some chiropractors now realise that immunisations have been one of the most successful interventions ever for public health. Many others, however, do still vehemently adhere to the gospel of the Palmers. Statements like the following abound:
Vaccines. What are we taught? That vaccines came on the scene just in time to save civilization from the ravages of infectious diseases. That vaccines are scientifically formulated to confer immunity to certain diseases; that they are safe and effective. That if we stop vaccinating, epidemics will return…And then one day you’ll be shocked to discover that … your “medical” point of view is unscientific, according to many of the world’s top researchers and scientists. That many state and national legislatures all over the world are now passing laws to exclude compulsory vaccines….
Our original blood was good enough. What a thing to say about one of the most sublime substances in the universe. Our original professional philosophy was also good enough. What a thing to say about the most evolved healing concept since we crawled out of the ocean. Perhaps we can arrive at a position of profound gratitude if we could finally appreciate the identity, the oneness, the nobility of an uncontaminated unrestricted nervous system and an inviolate bloodstream. In such a place, is not the chiropractic position on vaccines self-evident, crystal clear, and as plain as the sun in the sky?
Yes, I do agree: the position of far too many chiropractors is ‘crystal clear’ – unfortunately it is also dangerously wrong.
On this blog, I have repeatedly stressed that there is reasonably good evidence to show that some herbal medicines are effective. The one that is probably supported with better evidence than any other is St. John’s wort (SJW). The first systematic review of SJW was published in 1995 and concluded that SJW is an effective symptomatic treatment for various forms of depressions. Meanwhile, many more trials have become available, and the current Cochrane review concludes that the available evidence suggests that the hypericum extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants.
This must be good news for many patients; particularly the fact that SJW is much safer than synthetic antidepressants seems attractive. But don’t be fooled – SJW may still cause harm. If taken on its own, it is almost as safe as placebo, but when it is combined with other drugs, it can powerfully interact and significantly lower the plasma level of a wide range of prescription medicines.
Some proponents of alternative medicine have suggested that this caution is alar@BocktheRobber mist, and they insist that, actually, the danger is minimal. Are they correct? We need data, I think, not opinion.
A new article provides new insights.
The objective of this study was to assess how often SJW is prescribed with medications that may interact dangerously with it. The researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of nationally representative data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. The study setting was U.S. non-federal outpatient physician offices. Patients who were prescribed SJW between 1993 and 2010 were the subjects. The outcome measures were medications co-prescribed with SJW.
Twenty-eight percent of SJW visits involved a drug that has potentially dangerous interaction with SJW. These included selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, benzodiazepines, warfarin, statins, verapamil, digoxin, and oral contraceptives.
The authors concluded that SJW is frequently used in potentially dangerous combinations. Physicians should be aware of these common interactions and warn patients appropriately.
There is little to add – perhaps just this: the awareness of physicians is undoubtedly desirable, but it is not enough; as SJW and other herbal medicines are usually self-prescribed, consumers’ awareness of the risks associated with herbal medicines is at least as important, I think.