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

Guest post by Dr. Richard Rawlins MB BS MBA FRCS, Consultant Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgeon

On 14th November 2013 the Daily Telegraph advised that ‘Meditation could help troops overcome the trauma of war: Troops suffering post traumatic stress should take up yoga and acupuncture to get over the horrors of war. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Children’s Fund is urging troops to try alternative therapies to get over psychological disorders when they return from conflict zones. After receiving a Whitehall grant, the charity has written a book aimed at helping families understand and cope with the impact and stresses suffered by troops before, during and after warfare. It suggests servicemen try treatments such as massage, reflexology, reiki and meditation.’

As a former Surgeon Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve I treated servicemen on their return from the Falklands. As a father of a platoon commander who served with the Grenadier Guards in Helmand I support Combat Stress. As a member of the Magic Circle I am well acquainted with methods of deceit, deception and delusion. As a doctor I care and hope to see all patients treated appropriately, but alternative therapies must be considered critically.

To assist management of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the Children’s Fund book provides details of relevant therapies, institutions providing them and knitting patterns for making dolls representing the service personnel and their families. The title Knit the Family is both a suggestion for practical help by making dolls and a metaphor for knitting families back together after deployment. All of which is highly laudable and deserving of substantial support. But…

I do not doubt yoga, meditation, relaxation and doll making can provide valuable emotional support for one of the most pernicious outcomes of combat. I do not doubt that support from an empathic caring practitioner or a conscientious counsellor is of benefit. But what is the added value of pressing on ‘zones’ in the feet? Of positioning hands around a patient and providing them with charms? Of feeling for and adjusting ‘subtle rhythms in cerebro-spinal fluid’? Of inserting needles in the skin? Unless there is evidence that such manoeuvres and modalities actually do provide benefit greater than any other method for producing placebo effects – why spend any valuable funds on such practices? Would not the charitable funds be better spent on psychotherapy, counselling, yoga and meditation? There is no need for CAM therapy. The RN & RM Children’s Fund suggests that complementary and alternative medicine can help PTSD. I know of no evidence alternatives such as reiki, reflexology, CST, acupuncture, Emotional Freedom Techniques (utilising ‘finger tapping’), Thought Field Therapy and Somatic Experiencing all of which are set out in the charity’s book, can provide any benefit. Indeed, the book admits there is no scientific evidence of such benefit. Spending time in a therapeutic relationship helps, but there is no evidence the therapies have any effect on their own account – and there is plenty of evidence they almost certainly do not. That is why they are referred to as being implausible and are termed ‘alternative medicine’.

In order service personnel and their families can give fully informed consent to any proposed treatment they will need to consider the probability that they are wasting time and scarce funds on implausible treatments. And members of the public who might wish to support the charity will need to carefully consider the use to which their funds might be put.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has Guidelines for the management of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and emphasises ‘Families and carers have a central role in supporting people with PTSD and many families may also need support for themselves …Healthcare professionals should identify the need for appropriate information about the range of emotional responses that may develop and provide practical advice on how to access appropriate services for these problems.’

Note that the NICE guidelines, quoted in Knit the Family, require that PTSD support services should be ‘appropriate’. So presumably the Fund has decided that implausible non-evidenced based modalities of treatment are appropriate. But just how did it come to such a decision? I have asked questions on this and a number of other points and await an answer.

And there is more to this matter. Knit the Family acknowledges the support it has received from Whitehall’s Army Covenant Libor Fund and also from the Barcarpel Foundation. Barcarpel’s website tells us it ‘is a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Complementary Medicine’ and ‘has made substantial donations to the Homeopathic Trust for Research & Education as well as establishing the Nelson Barcapel Teaching Fellowship at Exeter, specifically to enable medical practitioners to take the Integrated Healthcare programme.’ ‘Nelson’ not for the Admiral but for the firm which manufactures homeopathic remedies, sponsored the inaugural meeting of the ‘College of Medicine’, and whose Chairman Robert Wilson is also Chairman of Barcarpel. And ‘integrated medicine’ means the incorporation of non-evidenced based therapies with orthodox care. Which might be reasonable if there was evidence CAMs had an effect on PTSD – but there is no such evidence.

Special thanks are given to Jonathan Poston, Chair of the Craniosacral Therapy Association, for assistance with setting up the project; Liz Kalinowska, Fellow of the Craniosacral Therapy Association, for wise advice; Michael Kern, Founder/Principal of Craniosacral Therapy Educational Trust; Cathy Cremer, whose experience with the UK Forces Project has contributed to an understanding of how best to explain the benefits of CST for those suffering from PTSD; Silvana Calzavara whose experience working at Headway East London (acquired brain injury) proved invaluable at the Portsmouth CST clinic; Monica Tomkins, Eva Kretchmar, Sally Christian, Talita Harrison, Cathy Brooks and Simon Copp for their contribution in carrying the CST project forward.’

So we see that a group of enthusiasts for CST have inveigled their way into the Children’s Fund and are set on promoting the use of this implausible therapy for some of our most vulnerable patients. An insurgency if ever there was one. They have not been able to offer any evidence that ‘subtle rhythms’ can be felt in the cerebro-spinal fluid, let alone manipulative methods can influence the flow of cerebro-spinal fluid. And if they are not doing that, they are not doing CST. The care and attention provided by these practitioners can be applauded, but not the methods they purport to use. In which case, why use them? Would the Children’s Fund not do better to spend its funds on plausible evidence based therapies? How has the Fund assessed whether or not the promoters of CST and other CAMs are quacks? Or whether or not they are frauds? The public who are considering donations need to be reassured. The service personnel who so deservedly need support should be treated with honestly, integrity and probity – not metaphysics.

4 Responses to Overcome the trauma of war with unproven treatments?

  • It might be an idea to write to the Ministry of Defence for its view on the matter. Interestingly, in 2011, it refused free chiropractic care for veterans that was worth £4.5 million:
    http://www.hands-for-heroes.org/mod-refuses-care.html

    It said that the Government was firmly committed to ethically sound evidence based therapies where there was evidence that they worked, and that such evidence was usually obtained from reports of suitably designed studies in the published peer reviewed medical literature. As chiropractic care had not been endorsed by the NHS, it considered that it was not appropriate for it to raise awareness of ‘Hands for Heroes’ amongst Serving and ex-Service personnel. See here:
    http://www.hands-for-heroes.org/support-files/mod-reply-may-11.pdf

  • Haha, I read the title as Overcome the trauma of war with unproven treatments?

    That said, anyone with half a brain knows that Reiki and such are bonkers. What doesn’t the government start with providing the highly effective Star Trek treatment? Just watch Star Trek (there are 704 episodes and 12 movies), and all post-traumatisms will disappear, leading to a serene personality. There is ample evidence that it works, because I am always calm and content after viewing an episode. The only side-effect would be snoring, after seeing the same episode for the 57th time.

    There you have it. Star Trek therapy. The best there is.

    More fundamental: It suggests servicemen try treatments such as massage, reflexology, reiki and meditation.

    I think that is downright sinister. We now blame early pioneers, such as Edward Jenner, for their unethical behaviour, but we actually pay for encouraging the use of unproven ‘treatments’ for serious conditions as PTSD?

  • Please take care note the confusing conflation by the Daily Telegraph piece of modalities which do have evidence based effects – massage and meditation, with those which do not: reflexology and reiki. Also the conflation of type I effects and type II effects as one whole of each modality. This conflation is of course deliberate and designed to confuse and obscure the fact that these modalities are ‘alternative’ for very good reasons.

    I do not doubt all will have the type I effect of helping patients ‘feel better’ by a constructive therapeutic encounter with an empathic caring practitioner.

    The issue for the RN & RM Children’s Fund is whether they have any evidence that the specific modality and practice of needling, hand positioning, foot pressue, skull pressure, actually has any type II effect on a specific disease process or condition. I have asked them for such evidence as they have which led them to suppose Cranio-Sacral Therapy could help. I await an answer. Patients, all health professionals, charity donors and, as Blue Wode points out, the Ministry of Defence must be fully and properly informed about this important advance in the care of some of our most deserving service personel.

    Apart from any thing else, the patients will have to give fully informed consent and be reassured that in having their ‘subtle rhythms retuned’ by skull pressure there is no chance of a malign retuning worsening their condition. I assume health and safety checks have been carried out – as is required by any NHS institution introducing novel and new techniques.

    Unless and until I am advised to the contrary I take that aside from benefits of a therapeutic relationship, the evidence of the harm caused by CST techniques of rhtyhm tuning is the same as the evidence of the benefit.

  • SCAM (Integrative Medicine) is not the only insidious umbrella of quackery purporting to treat serious mental health conditions. Life Coaches and other such “gurus” frequently rely on NLP to make themselves a successful business out of unsubstantiated claims for efficacy.

    “Neuro Linguistic Programming: Mental health veterans therapy fear”, BBC News 2013-10-22:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-24617644

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Neurolinguistic_programming
    http://skepdic.com/neurolin.html

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