Edzard Ernst

MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Here is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that might be new to you – it certainly was to me: etiopathy. Founded in 1963 by the French Christian Trédaniel, etiopathy is a method of reasoning to determine the causes of a health problem and remove them acting on them. Etiopathy seems particularly popular in France, but is now slowly making inroads also elsewhere.

What is it?

This article explains it quite well:

Etiopathy is an alternative medicine which aims to treat everyday ailments without medication, using only manual techniques. Although it has been around for many years, the discipline is only just beginning to find its feet. It is a recognised health profession in several European countries, although there are not many practitioners.

The word etiopathy comes from the Greek word “aïtia”, which means “cause” and “pathos”, which means “suffering”. In short, etiopathy prioritises trying to find the cause for a pathology rather than getting rid of its symptoms.

The ethos of etiopathy is that the only way to prevent a problem from recurring is to treat it at the cause. According to this approach, if we don’t go back to the true source of the problem, patients run the risk of relapse.

The emphasis on diagnosis in etiopathy allows practitioners to treat the majority of common pathologies, thanks to an exclusively manual treatment approach, involving massage of particular points and thus avoiding medication and side effects. Obviously, an etiopath will immediately refer the patient on if they feel that the support of another health professional is required.

Etiopathy can be used to complement classic medical treatment, to help treat fairly benign problems such as:

  • joint problems (sprains, strains, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tarsal tunnel syndrome, etc.)
  • respiratory or ENT problems (asthma, colds, coughs, sinusitis, rhinitis, rhinopharyngitis, etc.)
  • vertebral problems (neuralgia, torticollis, lumbago, chronic lower back pain, etc.)
  • problems during pregnancy (nausea, vomiting, sciatica) and preparation for giving birth
  • digestive problems (bloating, aerophagia, gastro-oesophageal reflux, constipation, diarrhea, etc.)
  • urinary problems (cystitis, prostate problems, incontinence, etc.)
  • gynaecological problems (painful periods, infertility, menopause, organ prolapse, etc.)
  • circulation problems (palpitations, tightness in the chest, heavy legs, Raynaud’s syndrome, etc.)
  • general health problems (migraines, insomnia, anxiety, shingles, etc.)

The goal of etiopathy is to reduce the risk of developing chronic problems or to find a natural solution to avoid surgical intervention.

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Big claims indeed!

But what about plausibility?

What about the evidence?

None!

Naught!

Zero!

Zilch!

Zippo!

Conclusion: etiopathy is a SCAM like many others – plenty of hot air, fantasy and hype combined with an absence of science, evidence and  data.

Maintenance Care is an approach whereby patients have chiropractic manipulations even when symptom-free. Thus, it is an ideal method to keep chiropractors in clover. Previous reviews concluded that evidence behind this strategy is lacking. Since then, more data have emerged. It was therefore timely to review the evidence.

Fourteen original research articles were included in the review. Maintenance Care was defined as a secondary or tertiary preventive approach, recommended to patients with previous pain episodes, who respond well to chiropractic care. Maintenance Care is applied to approximately 30% of Scandinavian chiropractic patients. Both chiropractors and patients believe in the efficacy of Maintenance Care. Four studies investigating the effect of chiropractic Maintenance Care were identified, with disparate results on pain and disability of neck and back pain. However, only one of these studies utilized all the existing evidence when selecting study subjects and found that Maintenance Care patients experienced fewer days with low back pain compared to patients invited to contact their chiropractor ‘when needed’. No studies were found on the cost-effectiveness of Maintenance Care.

The authors concluded that knowledge of chiropractic Maintenance Care has advanced. There is reasonable consensus among chiropractors on what Maintenance Care is, how it should be used, and its indications. Presently, Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method to perform secondary or tertiary prevention in patients with previous episodes of low back pain, who report a good outcome from the initial treatments. However, these results should not be interpreted as an indication for Maintenance Care on all patients, who receive chiropractic treatment.

I have to admit, I have problems with these conclusions.

  1. Maintenance Care is not normally defined as secondary or tertitary prevention. It also includes primary prevention, which means that chiropractors recommend it for just about anyone.  By definition it is long term care, that is not therapeutically necessary, but performed at regular intervals to help prevent injury and enhance quality of life.  This form of care is provided after maximal therapeutic benefit is achieved, without a trial of treatment withdrawal, to prevent symptoms from returning or for those without symptoms to promote health or prevent future problems.
  2.  I am not convinced that the evidence would be positive, even if we confined it to secondary and tertiary prevention.

To explain my last point, let’s have a look at the 4 RCT and check whether they really warrant such a relatively positive conclusion.

FIRST STUDY For individuals with recurrent or persistent non-specific low back pain (LBP), exercise and exercise combined with education have been shown to be effective in preventing new episodes or in reducing the impact of the condition. Chiropractors have traditionally used Maintenance Care (MC), as secondary and tertiary prevention strategies. The aim of this trial was to investigate the effectiveness of MC on pain trajectories for patients with recurrent or persistent LBP.

This pragmatic, investigator-blinded, two arm randomized controlled trial included consecutive patients (18–65 years old) with non-specific LBP, who had an early favorable response to chiropractic care. After an initial course of treatment, eligible subjects were randomized to either MC or control (symptom-guided treatment). The primary outcome was total number of days with bothersome LBP during 52 weeks collected weekly with text-messages (SMS) and estimated by a GEE model.

Three hundred and twenty-eight subjects were randomly allocated to one of the two treatment groups. MC resulted in a reduction in the total number of days per week with bothersome LBP compared with symptom-guided treatment. During the 12 month study period, the MC group (n = 163, 3 dropouts) reported 12.8 (95% CI = 10.1, 15.5; p = <0.001) fewer days in total with bothersome LBP compared to the control group (n = 158, 4 dropouts) and received 1.7 (95% CI = 1.8, 2.1; p = <0.001) more treatments. Numbers presented are means. No serious adverse events were recorded.

MC was more effective than symptom-guided treatment in reducing the total number of days over 52 weeks with bothersome non-specific LBP but it resulted in a higher number of treatments. For selected patients with recurrent or persistent non-specific LBP who respond well to an initial course of chiropractic care, MC should be considered an option for tertiary prevention.

SECOND STUDY Back and neck pain are associated with disability and loss of independence in older adults. Whether long‐term management using commonly recommended treatments is superior to shorter‐term treatment is unknown. This randomized clinical trial compared short‐term treatment (12 weeks) versus long‐term management (36 weeks) of back‐ and neck‐related disability in older adults using spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) combined with supervised rehabilitative exercises (SRE).

Eligible participants were ages ≥65 years with back and neck disability for ≥12 weeks. Coprimary outcomes were changes in Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) and Neck Disability Index (NDI) scores after 36 weeks. An intent‐to‐treat approach used linear mixed‐model analysis to detect between‐group differences. Secondary analyses included other self‐reported outcomes, adverse events, and objective functional measures.

A total of 182 participants were randomized. The short‐term and long‐term groups demonstrated significant improvements in back disability (ODI score –3.9 [95% confidence interval (95% CI) –5.8, –2.0] versus ODI score –6.3 [95% CI –8.2, –4.4]) and neck disability (NDI score –7.3 [95% CI –9.1, –5.5] versus NDI score –9.0 [95% CI –10.8, –7.2]) after 36 weeks, with no difference between groups (back ODI score 2.4 [95% CI –0.3, 5.1]; neck NDI score 1.7 [95% CI 0.8, 4.2]). The long‐term management group experienced greater improvement in neck pain at week 36, in self‐efficacy at weeks 36 and 52, and in functional ability, and balance.For older adults with chronic back and neck disability, extending management with SMT and SRE from 12 to 36 weeks did not result in any additional important reduction in disability.

THIRD STUDY A prospective single blinded placebo controlled study was conducted. To assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) for the management of chronic nonspecific low back pain (LBP) and to determine the effectiveness of maintenance SMT in long-term reduction of pain and disability levels associated with chronic low back conditions after an initial phase of treatments. SMT is a common treatment option for LBP. Numerous clinical trials have attempted to evaluate its effectiveness for different subgroups of acute and chronic LBP but the efficacy of maintenance SMT in chronic nonspecific LBP has not been studied. Sixty patients, with chronic, nonspecific LBP lasting at least 6 months, were randomized to receive either (1) 12 treatments of sham SMT over a 1-month period, (2) 12 treatments, consisting of SMT over a 1-month period, but no treatments for the subsequent 9 months, or (3) 12 treatments over a 1-month period, along with “maintenance spinal manipulation” every 2 weeks for the following 9 months. To determine any difference among therapies, we measured pain and disability scores, generic health status, and back-specific patient satisfaction at baseline and at 1-, 4-, 7-, and 10-month intervals. Patients in second and third groups experienced significantly lower pain and disability scores than first group at the end of 1-month period (P = 0.0027 and 0.0029, respectively). However, only the third group that was given spinal manipulations (SM) during the follow-up period showed more improvement in pain and disability scores at the 10-month evaluation. In the nonmaintained SMT group, however, the mean pain and disability scores returned back near to their pretreatment level.SMT is effective for the treatment of chronic nonspecific LBP. To obtain long-term benefit, this study suggests maintenance SM after the initial intensive manipulative therapy.

FORTH STUDY Evidence indicates that supervised home exercises, combined or not with manual therapy, can be beneficial for patients with non-specific chronic neck pain (NCNP). The objective of the study is to investigate the efficacy of preventive spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) compared to a no treatment group in NCNP patients. Another objective is to assess the efficacy of SMT with and without a home exercise program.Ninety-eight patients underwent a short symptomatic phase of treatment before being randomly allocated to either an attention-group (n = 29), a SMT group (n = 36) or a SMT + exercise group (n = 33). The preventive phase of treatment, which lasted for 10 months, consisted of meeting with a chiropractor every two months to evaluate and discuss symptoms (attention-control group), 1 monthly SMT session (SMT group) or 1 monthly SMT session combined with a home exercise program (SMT + exercise group). The primary and secondary outcome measures were represented by scores on a 10-cm visual analog scale (VAS), active cervical ranges of motion (cROM), the neck disability index (NDI) and the Bournemouth questionnaire (BQ). Exploratory outcome measures were scored on the Fear-avoidance Behaviour Questionnaire (FABQ) and the SF-12 Questionnaire. Our results show that, in the preventive phase of the trial, all 3 groups showed primary and secondary outcomes scores similar to those obtain following the non-randomised, symptomatic phase. No group difference was observed for the primary, secondary and exploratory variables. Significant improvements in FABQ scores were noted in all groups during the preventive phase of the trial. However, no significant change in health related quality of life (HRQL) was associated with the preventive phase. This study hypothesised that participants in the combined intervention group would have less pain and disability and better function than participants from the 2 other groups during the preventive phase of the trial. This hypothesis was not supported by the study results. Lack of a treatment specific effect is discussed in relation to the placebo and patient provider interactions in manual therapies. Further research is needed to delineate the specific and non-specific effects of treatment modalities to prevent unnecessary disability and to minimise morbidity related to NCNP. Additional investigation is also required to identify the best strategies for secondary and tertiary prevention of NCNP.

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I honestly do not think that the findings from these 4 small trials justify the far-reaching conclusion that Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method… For that statement to be evidence-based, one would need to see more and better studies. Therefore, the honest conclusion, I think, is that maintenance care is not supported by sound evidence for effectiveness; as chiropractic manipulations are costly and not risk-free, its risk/benefit balance fails to be positive. Therefore, this approach cannot be recommended.

Having mentioned the report on chiropractic for children by SAVER CARE VICTORIA (SCV) several times before, I now better reveal its contents. Here are important excerpts from it, but I encourage everyone to read the full document:

Review of evidence of harm

An extensive search was undertaken to identify evidence of harm sustained by children who had received spinal manipulation. This included a literature review by Cochrane Australia, capture of patient complaints and practitioner notification data from Australian complaints and regulatory agencies, capture of Australian insurance claim data from the primary insurers for registered chiropractors, and stakeholder feedback from both online consultations. This extensive search identified very little evidence of patient harm occurring in Australia. In particular, there were no patient complaints or practitioner notifications that arose from significant harm to a child following spinal manipulation.

Three individual case reports were the only evidence of serious harm identified. Each of these reports related to spinal manipulative techniques performed outside of Australia and not limited to chiropractors. The practices described in these reports are not reflective of Australian chiropractic techniques. This does not mean spinal manipulation in children is not associated with any risk of any adverse effects. An extensive literature review did identify transient or minor adverse events but the prevalence was very low, albeit possibly more common in very young children.

There are two principle reasons why the search did not find strong evidence of harm in Australia. First, it is unlikely that spinal manipulation, as defined within the scope of the review, is a technique that is being routinely applied in Australia to young children or those with an immature spine. Second, skilled chiropractic care requires the practitioner to modify the force applied based on the age and developmental stage of the child. This means that children, particularly very young children, under the care of an Australian chiropractor are not likely to be receiving high impact manipulations.

Nonetheless, it is clear that spinal manipulation in children is not wholly without risk. Any risk associated with care, no matter how uncommon or minor, must be considered in light of any potential or likely benefits. This is particularly important in younger children, especially those under the age of 2 years in whom minor adverse events may be more common.

Review of evidence of effectiveness

SCV commissioned Cochrane Australia to undertake a systematic review of the effectiveness and safety of spinal manipulation of children under 12 years for any condition or symptom, irrespective of the profession providing treatment.

The major finding of this review is that the evidence base for spinal manipulation in children is very poor. In particular, no studies have been performed in Australia.

Specifically, the comprehensive review of the literature failed to identify any strong evidence for the effectiveness of spinal manipulation for a variety of conditions for which children are widely offered chiropractic manipulations. These conditions included colic, enuresis, back/neck pain, headache, asthma, otitis media, cerebral palsy, hyperactivity and torticollis.

There was low certainty (weak) evidence that spinal manipulation may be beneficial for modestly reducing crying time in children with colic, or for reducing the number of wet nights in children with enuresis. For both conditions the evidence was also consistent with either no or worsening effects.

For the other conditions – headache, asthma, otitis media, cerebral palsy, hyperactivity, and torticollis – there was no evidence that spinal manipulation was effective.

Based on this review of effectiveness, spinal manipulation of children cannot be recommended for:

  • headache
  • asthma
  • otitis media
  • cerebral palsy
  • hyperactivity disorders
  • torticollis.

The possible, but unlikely, benefits of spinal manipulation in the management of colic or enuresis should be balanced by the possibility, albeit rare, of minor harm.

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As pointed out repeatedly, one reason for not finding many reports of adverse effects might be very simple: UNDER-REPORTING! In any case, no good evidence for benefit + a finite risk = a negative risk/benefit balance. And a negative risk/benefit balance, of course, means that we should advise against chiropractic spinal manipulation for children. I am pleased to report that SCV agree; their 1st recommendation is: spinal manipulation … should not be provided to children under 12 years of age.

Tiger Balm (TB) ointments are Chinese topical remedies, often used for pain relief available as over-the-counter medications. TB is clearly popular, but does it work? The aim of this systematic review was to find out by assessing the efficacy, safety and tolerability of TB ointments.

A total of 12 studies were included (five on TB ointments efficacy, whereas seven on their safety and tolerability). Two cases of dermatitis and one of cheilitis likely ascribable to the use of TB ointments have been reported. Based on available studies, it might be estimated that around 4% [95% CI, 3%-5%] of patients with history of contact skin allergy could be positive if patch tested with TB ointments, therefore caution is recommended in the use of TB among these subjects.

The authors concluded that, according to retrieved evidence, TB ointments might be useful for the management of pain due to tension headache, and they seem capable of increasing leg blood flow if combined with massage. Considering available evidence on topical products with camphor, TB ointments shouldn’t be used in children, as well as in pregnant or lactating women. Chronic use, large amounts of balm, and the application on damaged skin must be avoided too. Further studies are recommended.

I had to laugh out loud when reading these conclusions:

  1.  That TB MIGHT be useful is hardly worth writing home about. A systematic review should tell us whether there is any good evidence THAT it is useful.
  2.  That TB seems capable of increasing leg blood flow is also nonsense. Firstly, anything increases blood flow IF COMBINED WITH MASSAGE. Secondly, why would anyone want to increase leg blood flow? Ahh of course: if you have leg ischaemia, e. g. in intermittent claudication. But then increasing blood flow of the skin of the leg is likely to be counter-productive, as this would shunt blood away from the already oxygen-starved muscles.

So, what evidence is there that TB might be effective? It turns out that there is all of ONE small randomised clinical trial that is over 20 years old which delivers a positive result. In view of this, I find it hard to resist re-writing the conclusions as follows:

TB IS A CHINESE REMEDY THAT CAN CAUSE ADVERSE EFFECTS AND FOR WHICH THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE OF EFFICACY. ITS RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE IS THEREFORE NOT DEMONSTRABLY POSITIVE.

This survey investigated how many chiropractors in the Canadian province of Alberta promote a theory of subluxation, which health ailments or improvements were linked to subluxation, and whether the subluxation discourse was used to promote chiropractic for particular demographics.

Using the search engine on the Canadian Chiropractic Associations’ website, the researchers made a list of all clinics in Alberta. They then used Google searches to obtain a URL for each clinic with a website, totalling 324 URLs for 369 clinics. They then searched on each website for “subluxation” and performed content analysis on the related content.

One hundred twenty-one clinics’ websites (33%) presented a theory of vertebral subluxation. The ailments and improvements discussed in relation to subluxation were wide-ranging; they included the following:

  • ADHD,
  • allergies,
  • asthma,
  • autism,
  • back pain,
  • bed wetting
  • blood pressure,
  • cold,
  • colitis,
  • constipation,
  • diarrhoea,
  • dizziness,
  • ear infection,
  • epilepsy,
  • fatigue,
  • fever,
  • flu,
  • headache,
  • heart disease,
  • hormonal imbalance,
  • inflammation,
  • learning problems,
  • menstrual cramps,
  • MS,
  • nausea,
  • pain,
  • Parkinson’s disease,
  • problems with hearing,
  • problems with vision,
  • prostate cancer,
  • respiratory disease,
  • sciatica,
  • scoliosis,
  • sleeping problems,
  • spinal decay,
  • sudden infant death syndrome,
  • and many more.

The marketing of chiropractic for children was observed on 8% of the clinic websites.

The researchers concluded that, based on the controversy surrounding vertebral subluxation, the substantial number of clinic websites aligning their practice with vertebral subluxation should cause concern for regulatory bodies.

Why do so many chiropractors cling so tightly to the long obsolete concept of subluxation? The way I see it there are at least three reasons:

  1.  If they abandoned subluxation, they would quickly become physiotherapists, only with a much reduced scope of practice.
  2. Using the subluxation myth avoids the need of the knowledge of any complicated pathophysiology.
  3.  Subluxation is ever so good for business, as it renders chiropractic manipulation a cure all.

D. D. Palmer, the magnetic healer who invented chiropractic about 120 years ago, claimed that a vital energy, which he called the “innate”, controls all body functions. In the presence of “vertebral subluxation,” it cannot work adequately, he postulated. In other words, subluxations block the flow of the innate which, in turn, is the cause of all disease. Palmer therefore developed spinal manipulations to correct such subluxations and de-block the flow of the innate. Palmer defined chiropractic as a system of healing based on the premise that the body requires unobstructed flow through the nervous system of innate intelligence. This effectively makes the adjustment of subluxation a panacea.

To put it simply: subluxation is the carte blanche required for making unlimited bogus claims, while ripping off the public.

 

Arianne Shahvisi is a lecturer in Ethics and Medical Humanities at the Brighton & Sussex Medical School. She has long had an interest is so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – see here, for instance. Now she has published another most intriguing paper.

In it, she explains that scientific medicine (SM) neglects the needs of women relative to those of men. Subsequently she discusses the many limitations of SCAM and describe concerns about its use. Despite SCAM’s shortcommings, it is the domain of women who not only use it more frequently than men but also tend to be the practitioners practising SCAM. Arianne Shahvisi argues that, despite being chosen by women in reaction to the shortcomings of SM, SCAM cannot offer greater patient autonomy and is more liable to be exploitative.

Here conclusions are unusually long and I provide them here in full (after changing her abbreviation ‘AM’ to mine ‘SCAM’):

Within this paper I have made the following argument: SM is patriarchal and under-serves women; women dominate SCAM, both as users and service providers; women who choose SCAM often cite dissatisfaction with SM and the desire for greater autonomy and personalization within the clinical encounter. Based on these premises, it is likely that women use SCAM because it promises to offer greater autonomy and personalization than SM. This segues into a second argument: autonomy in healthcare requires informed consent; informed consent is not possible for SCAM therapies since mechanisms are either not known or not plausible, and there is no evidence base. These premises entail that SCAM cannot help patients to realize autonomy. Combining these two conclusions, it seems that SCAM does not offer the control and autonomy that is sought. Whilst it may be argued that SCAM offers personalization and a satisfactory therapeutic encounter, it must also be noted that forfeiting an evidence base, plausible mechanisms, and the ability to make autonomous decisions is a heavy loss to patients and one for which SM must take some responsibility.

I have attempted to motivate each of the above premises in the preceding sections. In this section I reflect on the implications of these conclusions and make recommendations to ensure that women’s health needs are more adequately met.

First, to the extent that rejection of SM may be seen as a form of resistance, the cost of that resistance is borne largely by the resistors themselves. Those who begin witha sense of dissatisfaction with SM—in many cases stemming from SM’s failure to provide them with adequate healthcare or to inspire trust in its own decency—end up with healthcare that is on many counts less adequate.

With the ascendance of a post-factual culture, arguments relying on evidence, reproducibility, and consistency are liable to have ever less traction. By corollary, the features that have typically worked against SCAM—its lack of an evidence base—are likely to pose less of a barrier to its uptake. This ought to be a grave public health concern, since the well-being of entire populations depends on medicine earning and retaining the trust of all. To see this, one need only consider how easily herd immunity is lost when trust in vaccination is undermined, putting entire populations at risk of disease outbreaks (Casidayetal.2006). Recommending against vaccination is common amongst SCAM practitioners (especially within chiropractic, homoeopathy, and naturopathy) whose philosophies so often rely on emphasizing, and in many cases overstating, iatrogenic risk (Ernst 2001).

Not much can be done now to atone for medicine’s history except to openly accept its shortcomings and under take particular effortS to re-engage marginal health populations. While it is easy to suggest that researchers should be devoting more time to women’s health issues and their treatments, the bench-to-bedside timeline is long, and more immediate efforts are also necessary. As Ernst (2010) has noted, concentrating on the therapeutic relationship within SM seems like the most constructive way forward. Although patients often look to SM for the ‘science of medicine’, clearly many are turning to SCAM for the ‘art of medicine^ (Ernst 2010, 1473)—for a compassionate clinical encounter in which patients are humanized and power differentials are flattened. While SM may have the upper hand in terms of mechanisms, an evidence base, and social capital, there are inadequacies in the patient–practitioner relationship, and in this respect there is much to learn from SCAM modalities, where the therapeutic relationship is key to their appeal. Even the most resolute SCAM user inevitably encounters SM professionals on occasion. Provided broader pressures on health workers permit them the time and space, those encounters present the possibility of demonstrating that SM can be person-centred, equitable, and sensitive to the differential needs of marginalized patient groups.

As I described in section 4, many of those who choose SCAM do so following a long period of unsatisfactory encounters with medical professionals as they pursue the treatment or resolution of long-term chronic ailments (Furnham and Vincent 2000; Cant and Sharma 2004). The majority of these patients are women. While SCAM practitioners are unlikely to offer therapies that are effective beyond placebo, they are able to offer consultations which are longer, more participatory, and more personalized. It is likely that most of the placebo effect is interpersonal and stems from the ritual of healing within encounters with practitioners, rather than from any specific therapy (Miller et al. 2009). There is some evidence that open label placebos still confer a placebo effect, which suggests that the therapeutic relationship plays a significant role (Kaptchuk et al. 2010). In light of these insights, Blease (2012) suggests that the placebo effect instead be referred to as the ‘positive care effect’. Given the importance of communication and autonomy amongst patients choosing SCAM, it is interesting to note that a surgical study shows that the extent of the positive care effect is contingent on the quality of the clinical encounter, with communication skills aimed at empowering patients being predictive of better clinical outcomes (Trummer et al. 2006).

Focusing on the U.K. healthcare system, I therefore recommend that general practitioners, who are the gatekeepers of the medical profession, make efforts to address the inadequacies in the clinical encounter, specifically for those with long-term health conditions or medically unexplained symptoms. As it stands, general practitioners in the United Kingdom spend ten minutes with each patient and are encouraged to focus on a single health issue. It is therefore unsurprising to note that dissatisfaction with the clinical encounter is shared by clinicians. In a recent survey, 55 per cent of general practice surgeries in the United Kingdom reported concerns about the quality of care they could provide and described their workload as unmanageable most of the time; 13 per cent reported that it was unmanageable all of the time (Iacobucci 2016). In another study, 68 percent  of general practitioners expressed the view that care could be improved by longer, higher-quality consultations, while 67 percent felt that patients with long-term conditions should be afforded longer consultations (Rimmer 2015). It has been demonstrated that longer consultation times correlate with a greater likelihood of taking a thorough medical history and conducting examinations in accordance with good practice, a lower prescribing rate, a greater likelihood of offering advice about preventative healthcare, and fewer follow-up consultations (Wilson and Childs 2002).

General practitioners are currently able to make referrals to specialists in various clinical disciplines. In addition to lengthening standard consultation times, the option of making general referrals may be a constructive way forward, i.e. arranging for the patient to have a lengthier consultation with a general practitioner rather than being siloed into a specialist referral (which is liable to be  an even less holistic encounter) or sent away. Given the importance of the therapeutic encounter, it is also worth considering increasing the number of talking therapies referrals for long-term physical health problems. As it stands, talking therapies are recommended within the U.K. National Health Service for a range of social, mental, and physical conditions. This could be broadened, so that those whose physical symptoms are not being satisfactorily resolved within the biomedical paradigm are able to benefit from a personalized therapeutic relationship which does not rely on implausible mechanisms (NHS Choices 2016).

That women may be less likely to benefit from medicine and therefore more likely to spend time and money  seeking therapies whose claims are questionable, whose benefits are negligible, and whose potential for exploitation is considerable, is a grave matter. Researchers and clinicians must take responsibility by consciously modernizing biomedicine to ensure that its goods are accessible to all and that the benefits of a positive therapeutic encounter are acknowledged and prioritized in the delivery of care.

One does not need to be a feminist to see that Arianne Shahvisi is correct in her line of arguing. Her insights are important and very well-put. Yet, they represent merely one aspect of SCAM, and there are many others. For instance, many consumers are not motivated to try SCAM by a disenchantment with SM. In fact, most of the research shows that this is not the main reason for becoming a SCAM proponent.

But, whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that those who subscribe to SCAM are getting a poor bargain. Arianne Shahvisi is therefore entirely correct in demanding that SM has to get its act together to avoid this from happening. I must have written and said it hundreds of times: whatever SCAM is, it is a poignant criticism of SM which must be used constructively for improving SM.

I receive all the energy I need by charging my butthole in the sunlight!

Actually, I don’t, but some people do!

The new so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) of ‘perineum sunning’ has become all the rage. It gives an entirely new meaning to the word ‘holism’. And, like all good SCAMs, it has a long tradition. This article explains:

Butt chugging, or ‘perineum sunning’, is the latest wellness and health trend to take over Instagram, but should you be stripping off?

What if I told you there was a 30-second trick to having a healthier libido, getting deeper sleep, boosting your creativity, super-charging your focus and having more balanced hormone function?

Well, apparently all you need to do is remove your Bonds and let your nether regions soak in some vitamin D. Gird your loins, friends, apparently “butt chugging” is a legitimate wellness trend and we’re completely and utterly perplexed.

Bringing “butt chugging”, or “perineum sunning” if you want to get official about it, into the cultural lexicon is self-proclaimed healer, teacher and micro-influencer Metaphysical Meagan. This week, the superfood lover went veritably viral after preaching about the “profound” benefits of perineum sunning on Instagram. Cue: much laughter, then much confusion.

 

A fan explained on Instagram:

30 seconds of sunlight on your butthole is the equivalent of a full day of sunlight with your clothes on,” and that it is “an ancient Taoist practice that’s been around for a while!” (Yes, because that is what “ancient” means.) A few weeks after her initial post, presumably because more and more people went to her page to comment after finding various jokes about it online, Metaphysical Meagan posted the photo on Instagram for a second time, now with an outrageously long caption meant to correct any misinformation. She explains that suntanning your asshole is meant to promote the “health & longevity of the physical body,” increase “creativity and creative output” and aid “in a healthy libido & balanced sexual energy.” It is definitely “NOT TO TAN YOUR BUTTHOLE‼️‼️” Also, “sunscreen is not required.

So, perineum sunning is an ancient Taoist practice. That makes sense: rituals and exercises aimed at aligning oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, at undertaking ecstatic spiritual journeys, or at improving physical health are all-important elements of Taoism. And if it’s got such a noble, long tradition, perineum sunning must be good, mustn’t it? No evidence needed!

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing this SCAM. But now I am tempted, of course. As soon as the sun is out, I will try it in my garden. I do wonder, however, what the neighbours will think!

On this blog and elsewhere, I have repeatedly claimed that as early as 2002 I published data to show that UK homeopaths advise their patients against vaccinations.

So sorry, but this not entirely true!

The truth is that I had forgotten about this article published 1995 in the British Journal of General Practice. As it is quite short and reveals several interesting facts, allow me to provide it here in full:

Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.

The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five). They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.

The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.

Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem.

The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’ Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?

Yes indeed! These findings indicate that there may be a problem with non-medically trained homeopaths in the UK. It is good to see that now (24 years later) the NHS has taken note of it. At the same time, it is not at all good to see that non-medically trained homeopaths and their professional organisations have managed to remain in complete denial of it.

The UK homeopathy sector have issued a joint statement. The reason for this action is a series of allegedly negative press stories about homeopathy. Here is the full statement:

Homeopathy registers including the Society of Homeopaths, Faculty of Homeopathy and Alliance of Registered Homeopaths in conjunction with other homeopathy partners have come together to provide clarification for patients seeking advice and homeopathy treatment.

The joint homeopathy sector statement

“Recent media reports have incorrectly linked homeopathy to the anti-vaccination movement. A registered homeopath provides care according to the guidelines outlined in the Code of Practice of their registering body. This code ensures that the homeopath operates professionally, safely, and within their bounds of competence. Homeopathic medicines are prescribed on an individual basis to match a patient’s specific symptoms. Questions about vaccination from the public to a registered homeopath should be deferred to those medically trained to answer them, such as GPs.”

Emily Buttrum Chief Executive of the Society of Homeopaths commented that she was positive the joint statement would bring the homeopathic community together and protect the future of homeopathy and in turn patient choice. The joint statement reflects the Society’s clear guidance on professional standards.

The Society’s position statements may be viewed here 

The Homeopathy sector statement may be viewed here 

_____________________________________________________________

When homeopaths try to issue a serious ‘statement’, hilarity is rarely very far. Let me suggest what, in my view, the main reasons for hilarity are in the recent outburst:

  • Homeopaths and homeopathic organisations are hubs of anti-vaccination propaganda. To deny this means being in denial.
  • The anti-vaccination stance of UK lay homeopaths has  repeatedly been demonstrated (we have shown this already in 2002).
  • The recent media reports were not incorrect.
  • These reports were necessary steps to protect the public from charlatans.
  • Homeopaths provide care according to guidelines, unless they violate them.
  • Violations have happened repeatedly.
  • The homeopathic organisations have a long history of failing to adequately address this problem.
  • Arguably, homeopaths do not operate within any bounds of competence; if they did, they would not prescribe ineffective treatments.
  • Homeopathic remedies are individualised, except in ‘clinical homeopathy’ where they are not.
  • Questions about vaccination should be referred to GPs; except they are often not, as the recent evidence has shown.

I am glad to hear that Mrs Buttrum believes that a bunch of pranks, porkies and outright falsehoods will bring homeopaths together. In fact, I am optimistic they will, not lease because, for more than 200 years, homeopathy is being held together by little more than that.

On 6 November the Guardian published an article in which acupuncture and its risks were briefly mentioned. It prompted a complaint by the British Acupuncture Council which, I think, is sufficiently interesting to merit a discussion. The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) has a membership of around 3,000 professionally qualified acupuncturists. It is the UK’s largest professional/ self-regulatory body for the practice of traditional acupuncture. Here is their complaint in full:

Re: Guardian article ‘Doctors call for tighter regulation of traditional Chinese medicine’, published 6 November 2019. We wish to respond to the article referenced above, specifically with regards to the two sentences relating to the safety of acupuncture. We request you correct the misleading comments made in the article and publish this letter online.

1. ‘And acupuncture, they will say, “is not necessarily harmless.”’

Yes, of course it may not be harmless: it involves piercing the skin with a sharp object. Hence the need for proper training of acupuncturists, together with evidenced guidelines, a robust code of safe practice and regulatory teeth. These components are all in place for members of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC). Acupuncture has not been taken into state control in the UK precisely because it has been found to be so safe; instead, the BAcC is entrusted with self-regulation and is an accredited member of the Professional Standards Authority. Statements about the safety of acupuncture commonly conclude: ‘Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention’ (White 2001).

2. ‘…A review in 2017 found many injuries, infections and adverse reactions.’
That first part of your acupuncture safety comment was a direct quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, which was the focus of the article, but it then departs from the script to manufacture the colourful soundbite above. You refer to the same acupuncture safety overview paper (Chan et al 2017) that FEAM/EASAC drew on, but then substantially misrepresent its content and messages. It is neither a quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, nor from the overview paper. In fact, the latter sums up the findings of the 17 included reviews thus:  ‘However, all the reviews have suggested that adverse events are rare and often minor.’ Your statement about many injuries, infections and adverse reactions gives a very different message to the paper’s authors.
The Guardian article appears to have been written with little understanding of the science involved in investigating medical adverse events. In particular, it is impossible to establish the significance of the numbers of adverse events reported without knowing how many treatments they came from. Chan et al (2017) noted that incidence rates could not be calculated ‘because many adverse events came from case reports and many of the reviews did not include full details about the number of participants in their included studies’. The 17 reviews between them covered literature from 1950 to 2014 and countries across the globe, so potentially millions and millions of treatments. No wonder they turned up plenty of incidents!
One of the ‘gold standard’ acupuncture safety reviews (Xu et al 2013), which was included in Chan’s overview, provides the following information on this issue:

‘Incidence rates for major AEs [adverse events] of acupuncture are best estimated from large prospective surveys of practitioners. Four recent surveys of acupuncture safety among regulated, qualified practitioners, two conducted in Germany (Melchart 2004; Witt 2009), and two in the United Kingdom (MacPherson 2001; White 2001), confirm that serious adverse events after acupuncture are uncommon. Indeed, of these surveys, covering more than 3 million acupuncture treatments all together, there were no deaths or permanent disabilities, and all those with AEs fully recovered (Witt 2011). Thus, it can be concluded that acupuncture has a very low rate of AEs, when conducted among licensed, qualified practitioners in the West.’

The overview authors also raised this concern: ‘A major limitation of the presented information was that no causality could be determined’. In other words there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link.
Your article (and indeed the FEAM/EASAC statement) completely omits perhaps the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? It is most often used by people for chronic pain. The evidence base for this is good (Vickers 2018) and supports acupuncture’s effectiveness compared to conventional treatments (Trinh 2019). The potential harms of opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are well known and acupuncture is associated with fewer adverse events than medications in controlled trials across a wide range of conditions (Cao 2018; Xu 2018; Lu 2016).  It was estimated that one in 1,200 people taking NSAIDS for at least two months will die of gastrointestinal complications (Tramer 2000). Six percent of hospitalisations in developed countries are due to adverse drug reactions (Angamo 2016).

On safety grounds there is no comparison: no serious adverse events were reported in a survey covering 34,407 acupuncture treatments given by BAcC members (Macpherson 2001). Of the mild transient reactions reported, the most frequent were ‘feeling relaxed’, and ‘feeling energised’. This is not to downplay the potential harms, for they can be serious, but as with any medical intervention there should be a proper assessment of how likely this is, which the Guardian article signally failed to do.
Yours sincerely

Mark Bovey Research Manager British Acupuncture Council

___________________________________________________________________________

I had no involvement in the Guardian article; I nevertheless feel that several things need to be pointed out about this bizarre complaint:

  1. The quote attributed to White A is, in fact, by White, Hayhoe, Hart and Ernst (yes, petty point), and our investigation showed (not petty point) that there were 43 significant minor adverse events reported, a rate of 14 per 10,000, of which 13 (30%) interfered with daily activities. One patient suffered a seizure (probably reflex anoxic) during acupuncture, but no adverse event was classified as serious. Avoidable events included forgotten patients, needles left in patients, cellulitis and moxa burns. This, I think, entirely justifies the words -is not necessarily harmless – published by the Guardian.
  2. The complaint states that there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link. What this seems to imply is this: the BAcC claim that causality of adverse effects remains speculative, while having failed to establish a surveillance system that could establish their causality more firmly. Perhaps the BAcC should file a complaint about themselves?
  3. The BAcC claim that the author of the Guardian article lacks understanding of the science of adverse effect reporting. However, I get the impression that the lack of understanding is embarrassingly evident on the side of the BAcC.
  4. The BAcC then highlight the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? This is more than a little odd. Firstly, such comparisons hardly were the aim of the Guardian article. Secondly, such comparisons only make sense with options that have a comparable risk/benefit profile. As the benefits of acupuncture for most conditions are still debatable, and since its risks are finite, its risk/benefit balance might not be clearly positive. Therefore, such comparisons are of doubtful value and could easily turn out to generate unfavourable evidence against acupuncture.
  5. Comparisons to opioids or NSAIDS are evidently nonsensical for the reason just mentioned.
  6. The Guardian article’s comments on acupuncture risks were of a general nature and were unelated to any specific issues about BAcC members. There are many non-medically trained acupuncturists – both in the UK and abroad – who might represent a substantially higher risk. Therefore the Guardian should not be criticised but praised for publishing words of caution.

The BAcC state that this is not to downplay the potential harms, yet I fear that this is precisely what they are trying to do. Until there is a post-marketing surveillance system, it would be honest and ethical to admit that the risks of acupuncture are essentially not known.

In my view, the complaint has no reasonable basis, tells us more about the BAcC than the Guardian, and should not be acted upon by the Guardian.

 

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