Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.

  1. Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
  2. Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
  3. Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
  4. Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
  5. Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
  6. Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
  7. The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.

There must be well over 10 000 clinical trials of acupuncture; Medline lists ~5 000, and many more are hidden in the non-Medline listed literature. That should be good news! Sadly, it isn’t.

It should mean that we now have a pretty good idea for what conditions acupuncture is effective and for which illnesses it does not work. But we don’t! Sceptics say it works for nothing, while acupuncturists claim it is a panacea. The main reason for this continued controversy is that the quality of the vast majority of these 10 000 studies is not just poor, it is lousy.

“Where is the evidence for this outraging statement???” – I hear the acupuncture-enthusiasts shout. Well, how about my own experience as editor-in-chief of FACT? No? Far too anecdotal?

How about looking at Cochrane reviews then; they are considered to be the most independent and reliable evidence in existence? There are many such reviews (most, if not all [co-]authored by acupuncturists) and they all agree that the scientific rigor of the primary studies is fairly awful. Here are the crucial bits of just the last three; feel free to look for more:

All of the studies had a high risk of bias

All included trials had a high risk of bias…

The studies were not judged to be free from bias…

Or how about providing an example? Good idea! Here is a new trial which could stand for numerous others:

This study was performed to compare the efficacy of acupuncture versus corticosteroid injection for the treatment of Quervain’s tendosynovitis (no, you do not need to look up what condition this is for understanding this post). Thirty patients were treated in two groups. The acupuncture group received 5 acupuncture sessions of 30 minutes duration. The injection group received one methylprednisolone acetate injection in the first dorsal compartment of the wrist. The degree of disability and pain was evaluated by using the Quick Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (Q-DASH) scale and the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) at baseline and at 2 weeks and 6 weeks after the start of treatment. The baseline means of the Q-DASH and the VAS scores were 62.8 and 6.9, respectively. At the last follow-up, the mean Q-DASH scores were 9.8 versus 6.2 in the acupuncture and injection groups, respectively, and the mean VAS scores were 2 versus 1.2. Thus there were short-term improvements of pain and function in both groups.

The authors drew the following conclusions: Although the success rate was somewhat higher with corticosteroid injection, acupuncture can be considered as an alternative option for treatment of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.

The flaws of this study are exemplary and numerous:

  • This should have been a study that compares two treatments – the technical term is ‘equivalence trial – and such studies need to be much larger to produce a meaningful result. Small sample sizes in equivalent trials will always make the two treatments look similarly effective, even if one is a pure placebo.
  • There is no gold standard treatment for this condition. This means that a comparative trial makes no sense at all. In such a situation, one ought to conduct a placebo-controlled trial.
  • There was no blinding of patients; therefore their expectation might have distorted the results.
  • The acupuncture group received more treatments than the injection group; therefore the additional attention might have distorted the findings.
  • Even if the results were entirely correct, one cannot conclude from them that acupuncture was effective; the notion that it was similarly ineffective as the injections is just as warranted.

These are just some of the most fatal flaws of this study. The sad thing is that similar criticisms can be made for most of the 10 000 trials of acupuncture. But the point here is not to nit-pick nor to quack-bust. My point is a different and more serious one: fatally flawed research is not just a ‘poor show’, it is unethical because it is a waste of scarce resources and, even more importantly, an abuse of patients for meaningless pseudo-science. All it does is it misleads the public into believing that acupuncture might be good for this or that condition and consequently make wrong therapeutic decisions.

In acupuncture (and indeed in most alternative medicine) research, the problem is so extremely wide-spread that it is high time to do something about it. Journal editors, peer-reviewers, ethics committees, universities, funding agencies and all others concerned with such research have to work together so that such flagrant abuse is stopped once and for all.

If you are pregnant, a ‘breech presentation’ is not good news. It occurs when the fetus presents ‘bottom-down’ in the uterus. There are three types:

  • Breech with extended legs (frank) – 85% of cases
  • Breech with fully flexed legs (complete)
  • Footling (incomplete) with one or both thighs extended

The significance of breech presentation is its association with higher perinatal mortality and morbidity when compared to cephalic presentations. This is due both to pre-existing congenital malformation, increased incidence of breech in premature deliveries and increased risk of intrapartum trauma or asphyxia. Caesarean section has been adopted as the ‘normal’ mode of delivery for term breech presentations in Europe and the USA, as the consensus is that this reduces the risk of birth-related complications.

But Caesarian section is also not a desirable procedure. Something far less invasive would be much more preferable, of course. This is where the TCM-practitioners come in. They claim they have the solution: moxibustion, i.e. the stimulation of acupuncture points by heat. But does it really work? Can it turn the fetus into the correct position?

This new study aimed to assess the efficacy of moxibustion (heating of the acupuncture needle with an igniting charcoal moxa stick) with acupuncture for version of breech presentations to reduce their rate at 37 weeks of gestation and at delivery. It was a randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind trial including 328 pregnant women recruited in a university hospital center between 33 4/7 and 35 4/7 weeks of gestation. Moxibustion with acupuncture or inactivated laser (placebo) treatment was applied to point BL 67 for 6 sessions. The principal endpoint was the percentage of fetuses in breech presentation at 37 2/7 weeks of gestation.

The results show that the percentage of fetuses in breech presentation at 37 2/7 weeks of gestation was not significantly different in both groups (72.0 in the moxibustion with acupuncture group compared with 63.4% in the placebo group).

The authors concluded that treatment by moxibustion with acupuncture was not effective in correcting breech presentation in the third trimester of pregnancy.

You might well ask why on earth anyone expected that stimulating an acupuncture point would turn a fetus in the mother’s uterus into the optimal position that carries the least risk during the process of giving birth. This is what proponents of this technique say about this approach:

During a TCM consultation to turn a breech baby the practitioner will take a comprehensive case history, make a diagnosis and apply the appropriate acupuncture treatment.  They will assess if moxibustion might be helpful. Practitioners will then instruct women on how to locate the appropriate acupuncture points and demonstrate how to safely apply moxa at home. The acupuncture point UB 67 is the primary point selected for use because it is the most dynamic point to activate the uterus.  Its forte is in turning malpositioned babies.  It is located on the outer, lower edge of both little toenails. According to TCM theory, moxa has a tonifying and warming effect which promotes movement and activity.  The nature of heat is also rising.  This warming and raising effect is utilised to encourage the baby to become more active and lift its bottom up in order to gain adequate momentum to summersault into the head down position. This technique can also be used to reposition transverse presentation, a situation where the baby’s has its shoulder or back pointing down, or is lying sideways across the abdomen.

Not convinced? I can’t say I blame you!

Clearly, we need to know what the totality of the most reliable evidence shows; and what better than a Cochrane review to inform us about it? Here is what it tells us:

Moxibustion was not found to reduce the number of non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with no treatment (P = 0.45). Moxibustion resulted in decreased use of oxytocin before or during labour for women who had vaginal deliveries compared with no treatment (risk ratio (RR) 0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.13 to 0.60). Moxibustion was found to result in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with acupuncture (RR 0.25, 95% CI 0.09 to 0.72). When combined with acupuncture, moxibustion resulted in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth (RR 0.73, 95% CI 0.57 to 0.94), and fewer births by caesarean section (RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.98) compared with no treatment. When combined with a postural technique, moxibustion was found to result in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with the postural technique alone (RR 0.26, 95% CI 0.12 to 0.56).

In other words, there is indeed some encouraging albeit not convincing evidence! How can this be? There is no plausible explanation why this treatment should work!

But there is a highly plausible explanation why the results of many of the relevant trials are false-positive thus rendering a meta-analysis false-positive as well. I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog that practically all Chinese TCM-studies report (false) positive results; and many of the studies included in this review were done in China. The Cochrane review provides a strong hint about the lack of rigor in its ‘plain language summary':

The included trials were of moderate methodological quality, sample sizes in some of the studies were small, how the treatment was applied differed and reporting was limited. While the results were combined they should be interpreted with caution due to the differences in the included studies. More evidence is needed concerning the benefits and safety of moxibustion.

So, would I recommend moxibustion for breech conversion? I don’t think so!

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is often promoted as an effective therapy for cancer, and are numerous controlled clinical studies published in Chinese literature, yet no systematic analysis has been done of this body of evidence. This systematic review summarizes the evidence from controlled clinical studies published in Chinese on this subject.

The researchers looked for controlled clinical studies of TCM therapies for all kinds of cancers published in Chinese in four main Chinese electronic databases and found 2964 reports including 2385 randomized clinical trials and 579 non-randomized controlled studies.

The top seven cancer types treated were lung cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, esophagus cancer, colorectal cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer. The majority of studies (72%) applied TCM therapy combined with conventional treatments, whilst fewer (28%) applied only TCM therapy in the experimental groups. Herbal medicine was the most frequently tested TCM therapy (2677 studies, 90.32%).

The most frequently reported outcome was clinical symptom improvement (1667 studies, 56.24%) followed by biomarker indices (1270 studies, 42.85%), quality of life (1129 studies, 38.09%), chemo/radiotherapy induced side effects (1094 studies, 36.91%), tumor size (869 studies, 29.32%) and safety (547 studies, 18.45%). Completeness and adequacy of reporting appeared to improve with time.

The authors of this paper drew the following conclusion: data from controlled clinical studies of TCM therapies in cancer treatment is substantial, and different therapies are applied either as monotherapy or in combination with conventional medicine. Reporting of controlled clinical studies should be improved based on the CONSORT and TREND Statements in future. Further studies should address the most frequently used TCM therapy for common cancers and outcome measures should address survival, relapse/metastasis and quality of life.

Almost 3000 controlled clinical trials! This number is likely to impress many people – unless, of course, one knows that the quality of these studies is dismal. Interestingly, no formal assessment of study quality was included in this analysis. But it was mentioned that only 63 of these trials reported patient-blinding, and only 5 were deemed to be “relatively well designed” by the authors of this paper (who, incidentally, are strong proponents of TCM).

What I find the most interesting aspect of this article is the fact that the authors fail to mention how many of the studies reported a positive result – in a way, they don’t need to: there is plenty of evidence to show that virtually all of the Chinese studies of TCM are positive. In my view, this invalidates this body of evidence completely.

Analysis like the present one tend to lead us up the garden path. They suggest that there is a realistic hope for effective new treatments hidden in this difficult to access, large amount of data. This might lead other researchers to try to replicate some of the original studies. I fear that they would be wasting their time. From all I know, they are irreproducible.

Tai Chi has been suggested to have many health benefits. Might it even prolong life? There are many enthusiasts who claim just that, but is there any evidence?

This study is a retrospective cross-sectional investigation to compare the rejuvenating and anti-ageing effects among a Tai Chi group (TCC) and a brisk walking group (BW) and a no exercise habit group (NEH) of volunteers. Thirty-two participants were separated into three groups: the TCC group (practicing TC for more than 1 year), the BW group (practicing BW for more than 1 year), and the NEH group. The CD34+ cell counts in peripheral blood of the participants was determined, and the Kruskal‐Wallis test was used to evaluate and compare the antiaging effects of the three groups. The results show that the participants in the TCC group (N = 10) outperformed the NEH group (N = 12) with respect to the number of CD34+ progenitor cells. No significant difference was found between the TCC group and the BW group. The authors of this study conclude that TCC practice sustained for more than 1 year may be an intervention against aging as effective as BW in terms of its benefits on the improvement of CD34+ number.

I was alerted to this new paper by several rather sensational headlines in the daily press which stated that Tai chi (TC) had anti-aging effects. So I searched for the press release about the article where I found the following quotes:

“It is possible that Tai Chi may prompt vasodilation and increase blood flow,” said Lin. “Considering that BW may require a larger space or more equipment, Tai Chi seems to be an easier and more convenient choice of anti-aging exercise.” “This study provides the first step into providing scientific evidence for the possible health benefits of Tai Chi.” said Dr. Paul R. Sanberg, distinguished professor at the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, Morsani College of Medicine, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. “Further study of how Tai Chi can elicit benefit in different populations and on different parameters of aging are necessary to determine its full impact.”

Personally, I find both the press release and the original conclusions of the authors quite amazing. If anyone wanted to write a textbook on how not to do such things, he/she could use them as excellent examples.

Seen with just a tinge of critical thinking the paper reports a flimsy case-control study comparing three obviously self-selected groups of people who had chosen to follow different exercise regimen for several months. In all likelihood they also differed in terms of life-style, nutrition, sleeping pattern, alcohol intake, smoking habits and a million other things. These rather tiny groups were then compared according to a surrogate measure for ageing and some differences were identified.


To conclude from this, or even to imply, that TC has anti-ageing effects is as far-fetched as claiming the tooth fairy has money problems.

This story could be just funny or trivial or boring – however, I think, it is also a bit worrying. It shows, I fear, how uncritical researchers in conjunction with some naïve press officer are able to induce silly journalists and headline-writers to mislead the public.

Imagine an area of therapeutics where 100% of all findings of hypothesis-testing research is positive, i.e. comes to the conclusion that the treatment in question is effective. Theoretically, this could mean that the therapy is a miracle cure which is useful for every single condition in every single setting. But sadly, there are no miracle cures. Therefore something must be badly and worryingly amiss with the research in an area that generates 100% positive results.

Acupuncture is such an area; we and others have shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. In other words, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive – even more extreme: one does not need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the research has started. But you might not believe my research nor that of others. We might be chauvinist bastards who want to discredit Chinese science. In this case, you might perhaps believe Chinese researchers.

In this systematic review, all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. A total of 840 RCTs were found, including 727 RCTs comparing acupuncture with conventional treatment, 51 RCTs with no treatment controls, and 62 RCTs with sham-acupuncture controls. Among theses 840 RCTs, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The percentages of RCTs concealment of the information on withdraws or sample size calculations were 43.7%, 5.9%, 4.9%, 9.9%, and 1.7% respectively.

The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.

I applaud the authors’ courageous efforts to conduct this analysis, but I do not agree with their conclusion. The question why all Chinese acupuncture trials are positive has puzzled me since many years, and I have quizzed numerous Chinese colleagues why this might be so. The answer I received was uniformly that it would be very offensive for Chinese researchers to conceive a study that does not confirm the views held by their peers. In other words, acupuncture research in China is conducted to confirm the prior assumption that this treatment is effective. It seems obvious that this is an abuse of science which must cause confusion.

Whatever the reasons for the phenomenon, and we can only speculate about them, the fact has been independently confirmed several times and is now quite undeniable: acupuncture trials from China – and these constitute the majority of the evidence-base in this area – cannot be trusted. The only way to adequately deal with this problem that I can think of is to discard them outright.

In China (and increasingly elsewhere too), the gentle, meditative exercise of tai chi is being promoted and used for disease prevention, particularly for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). But are these exercises effective? We carried out a Cochrane review to find out.

We searched both English language and Asian electronic databases as well as trial registers and reference lists for relevant studies. No language restrictions were applied. We considered randomised clinical trials (RCTs) of tai chi lasting at least three months and involving healthy adults or adults at high risk of CVD. The comparison groups received no or only minimal interventions. Our outcome measures were CVD clinical events and CVD risk factors. We excluded trials involving multifactorial lifestyle interventions or focusing on weight loss. Two reviewers independently selected trials for inclusion, abstracted the data and assessed the risk of bias of each included study.

We identified 13 trials with a total of 1520 participants and three on-going studies. All of them had at least one domain with unclear risk of bias, and some were at high risk of bias. Duration and style of tai chi differed between trials. Seven studies recruited 903 healthy participants, the other studies recruited people with hypertension, elderly people at high risk of falling, and people with ‘liver or kidney yin deficiency syndromes’.

No studies reported on cardiovascular mortality, all-cause mortality or non-fatal events as most studies were short-term. There was also considerable heterogeneity between studies, which meant that it was not possible to combine studies statistically for cardiovascular risk. Nine trials measured systolic blood pressure (SBP), and 6 of them found reductions in SBP. Two trials found no clear evidence of a difference, and one trial found an increase in SBP with tai chi. A similar pattern was seen for diastolic blood pressure (DBP): three trials found a reduction in DBP, while three found no clear evidence of a difference.

Three trials reported lipid levels and two found reductions in total cholesterol, LDL-C and triglycerides, while the third study found no clear evidence of a difference between groups on lipid levels. Quality of life was measured in only one trial: tai chi improved quality of life at three months. None of the included trials reported on adverse events, costs or occurrence of type 2 diabetes.

From these findings, we drew the following conclusions: “There are currently no long-term trials examining tai chi for the primary prevention of CVD. Due to the limited evidence available currently no conclusions can be drawn as to the effectiveness of tai chi on CVD risk factors. There was some suggestion of beneficial effects of tai chi on CVD risk factors but this was not consistent across all studies. There was considerable heterogeneity between the studies included in this review and studies were small and at some risk of bias. Results of the ongoing trials will add to the evidence base but additional longer-term, high-quality trials are needed.”

These findings are somewhat disappointing. Tai chi might convey many health benefits, but whether a reduction of cardiovascular risk is amongst them seems doubtful. Even if a risk reduction were established beyond doubt, one would need to ask whether its effect size is larger than that achievable through regular conventional exercise. In my view, this is unlikely.

A recent meta-analysis evaluated the efficacy of acupuncture for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and arrived at bizarrely positive conclusions.

The authors state that they searched 4 electronic databases for double-blind, placebo-controlled trials investigating the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of IBS. Studies were screened for inclusion based on randomization, controls, and measurable outcomes reported.

Six RCTs were included in the meta-analysis, and 5 articles were of high quality.  The pooled relative risk for clinical improvement with acupuncture was 1.75 (95%CI: 1.24-2.46, P = 0.001). Using two different statistical approaches, the authors confirmed the efficacy of acupuncture for treating IBS and concluded that acupuncture exhibits clinically and statistically significant control of IBS symptoms.

As IBS is a common and often difficult to treat condition, this would be great news! But is it true? We do not need to look far to find the embarrassing mistakes and – dare I say it? – lies on which this result was constructed.

The largest RCT included in this meta-analysis was neither placebo-controlled nor double blind; it was a pragmatic trial with the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design. Here is the key part of its methods section: 116 patients were offered 10 weekly individualised acupuncture sessions plus usual care, 117 patients continued with usual care alone. Intriguingly, this was the ONLY one of the 6 RCTs with a significantly positive result!

The second largest study (as well as all the other trials) showed that acupuncture was no better than sham treatments. Here is the key quote from this trial: there was no statistically significant difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

So, let me re-write the conclusions of this meta-analysis without spin, lies or hype: These results of this meta-analysis seem to indicate that:

  1. currently there are several RCTs testing whether acupuncture is an effective therapy for IBS,
  2. all the RCTs that adequately control for placebo-effects show no effectiveness of acupuncture,
  3. the only RCT that yields a positive result does not make any attempt to control for placebo-effects,
  4. this suggests that acupuncture is a placebo,
  5. it also demonstrates how misleading studies with the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design can be,
  6. finally, this meta-analysis seems to be a prime example of scientific misconduct with the aim of creating a positive result out of data which are, in fact, negative.

It is almost 10 years ago that Prof Kathy Sykes’ BBC series entitled ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE was aired. I had been hired by the BBC as their advisor for the programme and had tried my best to iron out the many mistakes that were about to be broadcast. But the scope for corrections turned out to be narrow and, at one stage, the errors seemed too serious and too far beyond repair to continue with my task. I had thus offered my resignation from this post. Fortunately this move led to some of my concerns being addressed after all, and they convinced me to remain in post.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Kathy presented the opening scene of a young women undergoing open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. All the BBC had ever shown me and asked me to advise on was the text – I had never seen the images. Kathy’s text included the statement that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  I had not objected to this statement in the firm belief that the images of the film would back up this extraordinary claim. As it turned out, it did not; the patient clearly had all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines and, in the film, these were openly in the view of Kathy Sykes.

This overt contradiction annoyed not just me but several other people as well. One of them was Simon Singh who filed an official complaint against the BBC for misleading the public, and eventually won his case.

The notion that acupuncture can serve as an alternative to anaesthesia or other surgical conditions crops up with amazing regularity. It is important not least because is often used as a promotional tool with the implication that, IF ACUPUNCTURE CAN ACHIVE SUCH DRAMATIC EFFECTS, IT MUST BE AN INCREDIBLY USEFUL TREATMENT! It is therefore relevant to ask what the scientific evidence tells us about this issue.

This was the question we wanted to address in a recent publication. Specifically, our aim was to summarise recent systematic reviews of acupuncture for surgical conditions.

Thirteen electronic databases were searched for relevant reviews published since 2000. Data were extracted by two independent reviewers according to predefined criteria. Twelve systematic reviews met our inclusion criteria. They related to the prevention or treatment of post-operative nausea and vomiting as well as to surgical or post-operative pain. The reviews drew conclusions which were far from uniform; specifically for surgical pain the evidence was not convincing. We concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention in surgical settings.”

So, Kathy Sykes’ comment was misguided in more than just one way: firstly, the scene she described in the film did not support what she was saying; secondly, the scientific evidence fails to support the notion that acupuncture can be used as an alternative to analgesia during surgery.

This story has several positive outcomes all the same. After seeing the BBC programme, Simon Singh contacted me to learn my views on the matter. This prompted me to support his complaint against the BBC and helped him to win this case. Furthermore, it led to a co-operation and friendship which produced our book TRICK OR TREATMENT.

The news that the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) positively affects cancer survival might come as a surprise to many readers of this blog; but this is exactly what recent research has suggested. As it was published in one of the leading cancer journals, we should be able to trust the findings – or shouldn’t we?

The authors of this new study used the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database to conduct a retrospective population-based cohort study of patients with advanced breast cancer between 2001 and 2010. The patients were separated into TCM users and non-users, and the association between the use of TCM and patient survival was determined.

A total of 729 patients with advanced breast cancer receiving taxanes were included. Their mean age was 52.0 years; 115 patients were TCM users (15.8%) and 614 patients were TCM non-users. The mean follow-up was 2.8 years, with 277 deaths reported to occur during the 10-year period. Multivariate analysis demonstrated that, compared with non-users, the use of TCM was associated with a significantly decreased risk of all-cause mortality (adjusted hazards ratio [HR], 0.55 [95% confidence interval, 0.33-0.90] for TCM use of 30-180 days; adjusted HR, 0.46 [95% confidence interval, 0.27-0.78] for TCM use of > 180 days). Among the frequently used TCMs, those found to be most effective (lowest HRs) in reducing mortality were Bai Hua She She Cao, Ban Zhi Lian, and Huang Qi.

The authors of this paper are initially quite cautious and use adequate terminology when they write that TCM-use was associated with increased survival. But then they seem to get carried away by their enthusiasm and even name the TCM drugs which they thought were most effective in prolonging cancer survival. It is obvious that such causal extrapolations are well out of line with the evidence they produced (oh, how I wished that journal editors would finally wake up to such misleading language!) .

Of course, it is possible that some TCM drugs are effective cancer cures – but the data presented here certainly do NOT demonstrate anything like such an effect. And before such a far-reaching claim is being made, much more and much better research would be necessary.

The thing is, there are many alternative and plausible explanations for the observed phenomenon. For instance, it is conceivable that users and non-users of TCM in this study differed in many ways other than their medication, e.g. severity of cancer, adherence to conventional therapies, life-style, etc. And even if the researchers have used clever statistical methods to control for some of these variables, residual confounding can never be ruled out in such case-control studies.

Correlation is not causation, they say. Neglect of this elementary axiom makes for very poor science – in fact, it produces dangerous pseudoscience which could, like in the present case, lead a cancer patient straight up the garden path towards a premature death.

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