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

Monthly Archives: July 2016

What a silly question! At least this is what most sceptics would say: if we are not sure that it works, we do not need to spend any thoughts on a potential mechanism!

However, in the realm of acupuncture, the potential mode of action remains a hotly debated and fundamentally relevant issue.

The TCM folks, of course, ‘knew’ all along how acupuncture works: it re-balances the life-forces yin and yang. This is a nice theory – it has but one disadvantage: it has no bearing whatsoever on reality. Vitalistic ideas such as this one have long been proven to be nothing but fantasy.

Meanwhile, several more plausible hypotheses have been developed, and hundreds of papers have been published on the subject. One recent article, for instance, suggests a range of mechanisms including microinjury, increased local blood flow, facilitated healing, and analgesia. Acupuncture may trigger a somatic autonomic reflex, thereby affecting the gastric and cardiovascular functions. Acupuncture may also change the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, thereby affecting the emotional state and craving… By affecting other pain-modulating neurotransmitters such as met-enkephalin and substance P along the nociceptive pathway, acupuncture may relieve headache. Acupuncture may affect the hypothalamus pituitary axis and reduce the release of the luteinizing hormone…

Another article states that the Western explanation for acupuncture effectiveness is based upon more than half a century of basic and clinical research, which identified the activation of sensory system and the subsequent activity-dependent regulation of neurotransmitters, neurohormones, and several classes of neuromodulators as plausible mechanism for the acupuncture‘s therapeutic properties. The regulation of neurotrophins’ expression and activity is one of the possible neurophysiological mechanisms underlying acupuncture‘s effects on neuropathic pain, nerve injury, neurodegeneration, and even in the regulation of gonadal functions…

Recently Burnstock proposed that mechanical deformation of the skin by needles and application of heat or electrical current leads to release of large amounts of ATP from keratinocytes, fibroblasts and other cells in skin; the ATP then occupies specific receptor subtypes expressed on sensory nerve endings in the skin and tongue; the sensory nerves send impulses through ganglia to the spinal cord, the brain stem, hypothalamus and higher centres; the brain stem and hypothalamus contain neurons that control autonomic functions, including cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinogenital and musculo-skeletal activity. Impulses generated in sensory fibres in the skin connect with interneurons to modulate (either inhibition or facilitation) the activities of the motoneurons in the brain stem and hypothalamus to change autonomic functions; specifically activated sensory nerves, via interneurons, also inhibit the neural pathways to the pain centres in the cortex.

A brand-new article in the journal SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN puts the hypothesis in perspective:

…scientists have been studying a roster of potential biological pathways by which needling might relieve pain. The most successful of these efforts has centered on adenosine, a chemical believed to ease pain by reducing inflammation. A 2010 mouse study found that acupuncture needles triggered a release of adenosine from the surrounding cells into the extracellular fluid that diminished the amount of pain the rodents experienced. The mice had been injected with a chemical that made them especially sensitive to heat and touch. The researchers reported a 24-fold increase in adenosine concentration in the blood of the animals after acupuncture, which corresponded to a two-thirds reduction in discomfort, as revealed by how quickly they recoiled from heat and touch. Injecting the mice with compounds similar to adenosine had the same effect as acupuncture needling. And injecting compounds that slowed the removal of adenosine from the body boosted the effects of acupuncture by making more adenosine available to the surrounding tissue for longer periods. Two years later a different group of researchers went on to show that an injection of PAP, an enzyme that breaks other compounds in the body down into adenosine, could relieve pain for an extended chunk of time by increasing the amount of adenosine in the surrounding tissue. They dubbed that experimental procedure “PAPupuncture.”

Both sets of findings have excited researchers—and for good reason. The current options for treating pain are limited and rely mostly on manipulating the body’s natural pain-management system, known as the opioid system. Opioid-based painkillers are problematic for several reasons. Not only does their efficacy tend to wane over time, but they have been linked to an epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths across the U.S.—so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently advised doctors to seriously restrict their use. The available nonopioid pain treatments are few; many of them require multiple injections or catheterization to work; and they often come with side effects, such as impaired movement. Adenosine offers an entirely new mechanism to exploit for potential treatments—one that may come with fewer side effects and less potential for addiction. What is more, adenosine can be made to circulate in the body for prolonged stretches. Pharmaceutical companies are actively investigating adenosine-related compounds as potential drugs.

But however promising adenosine may be as a treatment, the findings from this research do not prove that acupuncture itself “works.” For one thing, the researchers did not show that the release of adenosine was specific to acupuncture. Acupuncture needles might cause adenosine to flood the surrounding tissue, but so might a hard pinch, or applied pressure, or any number of other physical insults. In fact, both of the studies found that when adenosine was turned on in mouse tissue by other mechanisms, the pain response was equal to or better than the response generated by acupuncture. For another thing, the study results offered no support for the use of acupuncture to treat any of the other conditions for which the procedure is often advertised. A localized adenosine response may mitigate localized pain. That does not mean it can also cure insomnia or infertility.

It may well be that the reams of research scientists have done on acupuncture have lit the path toward improved understanding of—and eventually better treatments for—intractable pain. But it may also be time to take whatever bread crumbs have been laid out by that work and move on.

END OF QUOTE

As we see, there is no shortage of potential explanations as to HOW acupuncture works. The most plausible theory still is that it works largely or even exclusively via a placebo effect.

Due to this type of mechanistic research, acupuncture has gained much credibility. The question is, does it deserve it? In my view, it would be much more fruitful to first make sure THAT acupuncture works (beyond a placebo response) and, if so, for what conditions. The question HOW it works is unquestionably interesting but in the final analysis it probably is secondary.

Informed consent is a basic ethical principle and a precondition for any medical or surgical procedure (e. g. a therapeutic intervention or a diagnostic test). Essentially, there are 4 facets of informed consent:

  1. the patient must have decision-making capacity,
  2. the patient’s decision must be free from coercion or manipulation,
  3. all relevant information must be disclosed to the patient,
  4. the patient must not merely be told but must understand what he/she has been told.

It seems to me that points 1, 2 and 4 are more or less the same in alternative as in conventional medicine. Point 3, however, has fundamentally different implications in the two types of healthcare.

What is meant by ‘all relevant information’? There seems to be general agreement that this should include the following elements:

  1. the indication,
  2. the nature of the procedure,
  3. its potential benefits,
  4. its risks,
  5. other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all.

If we carefully consider these 5 elements of ‘all relevant information’, we soon realise why there might be profound differences between alternative and conventional medicine. These differences relate not so much to the nature of the procedures but to the competence of the clinicians.

At medical school, doctors-to-be learn the necessary facts that should enable them to adequately deal with the 5 elements listed above. (This does not necessarily mean that, in conventional medical or surgical practice, informed consent is always optimal. But there is little doubt that, in theory, it could be optimal.)

By contrast, alternative practitioners have not normally been to medical school and will have gone through an entirely different type of training. Therefore, the question arises whether – even in theory – they are able to transmit to their patients all essential information as outlined above.

Let’s try to address this question by looking at concrete cases: a patient with frequent headaches consults an alternative practitioner for help. For the sake of argument, the practitioner could be:

  • a chiropractor,
  • an acupuncturist,
  • a homeopath,
  • a naturopath,
  • a traditional herbalist.

Are these alternative practitioners able to convey all the relevant information to their patient before starting their respective treatments?

THE CHIROPRACTOR

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? In all likelihood he would treat the headache as though it was caused by a spinal subluxation. If our patient were suffering from a brain tumour, for instance, this might dangerously delay the diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Many chiropractors deny any risk of spinal manipulation.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? Probably yes for cervicogenic headache. No for most other differential diagnoses.

THE TRADITIONAL ACUPUNCTURIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? The patient might be treated for an assumed ‘energy blockage’; other diagnoses might not be given adequate consideration.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Perhaps.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No

THE CLASSICAL HOMEOPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No, for a classical homeopath, the totality of the symptoms is the only valid diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? Doubtful.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE NATUROPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? Doubtful.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE TRADITIONAL HERBALIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

The answers provided above are based on my experience of more than 20 years with alternative practitioners; I am aware of the degree of simplification required to give short, succinct replies. The answers are, of course, assumptions as well as generalisations. There may well be individual practitioners who would do better (or worse) than the fictitious average I had in mind when answering the questions. Moreover, one would expect important national differences.

If my experience-based assumptions are not totally incorrect, their implications could be most significant. In essence they suggest that, in alternative medicine, fully informed consent can rarely, if ever, be provided. In turn, this means that the current practice of alternative medicine cannot be in line with the most fundamental requirements of medical ethics.

There is very little research on any of these  issues, and thus hardly any reliable evidence. Therefore, this post is simply meant as a deliberately provocative essay to stimulate debate – debate which, in my view, is urgently required.

 

Medical ethics are central to any type of healthcare – and this includes, of course, alternative medicine. The American Medical Association (AMA) have just published their newly revised code of ethics, AMA Principles of Medical Ethics.

It has long been my impression that, in alternative medicine, ethics receive no or far too little attention. Some alternative practitioners thrive to be able to call themselves ‘physicians’. Therefore, it seems interesting to ask whether they would also be able to comply with the ethical duties of a physician as outlined by the AMA.

The following 9 points are taken without change from the new AMA code; in brackets I have put my own, very brief comments pertaining to alternative practitioners. There is much more to be said about each of these points, of course, and I encourage my readers to do so in the comments section.

  1. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights. [Most alternative practitioners use unproven treatments; I doubt whether this can be called ‘competent medical care’.]
  2. A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence, or engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities. [Treating patients with unproven therapies in the absence of fully informed consent is arguably unprofessional, dishonest and deceptive. Crucially, alternative practitioners never object to even the worst excesses of quackery that occur in their realm.]
  3. A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient. [Treatment with unproven therapies can hardly be in the best interest of the patient.]
  4. A physician shall respect the rights of patients, colleagues, and other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences and privacy within the constraints of the law. [The right of patients includes full informed consent which is, according to my impression, rare in alternative medicine.]
  5. A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated. [Alternative medicine is frequently out of line with or even opposed to medical knowledge.]
  6. A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care.
  7. A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health. [Some activities of some alternative practitioners are directly opposed to public health, for instance when they advise against immunising children.]
  8. A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount. [Arguably this is not possible when using unproven therapies.]
  9. A physician shall support access to medical care for all people. [Some alternative practitioners advise their patients against accessing conventional healthcare.]

As I stated above, medical ethics are neglected in alternative medicine. The 9 points of the AMA together with my comments go some way towards explaining why this is so. If ethical principles were applied to alternative medicine, much of it would have to stop instantly.

The UK petition to ban homeopathy for animals has so far achieved well over 3 000 signatures. Remarkably, it also prompted a reaction from the Faculty of Homeopathy which I reproduce here in full:

Response to petition calling on the RCVS to ban homeopathy

Homeopathy has a long history of being used successfully in veterinary practice for both domestic and farm animals. The EU recommends its use in its regulations on organic farms and is funding research into veterinary homeopathy as a way of reducing antibiotic use in livestock. It is nonsense to suggest that responsible pet owners and farmers are unable to distinguish between effective and ineffective medicines; they continue to use homeopathy because they see its benefits.

Membership of the Faculty of  Homeopathy (VetMFHom) is bestowed on qualified veterinary surgeons who have completed a minimum of three years study of homeopathy and after a rigorous examination procedure. It differentiates the qualified veterinary homeopath from an unlicensed healer.

In a statement, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said “… homeopathy is currently accepted by society and recognised by UK medicines legislation, and does not, in itself, cause harm to animals”. Before going on to say it could see no justification for banning veterinary surgeons from practising homeopathy.

In an age when antibiotic resistance is such an important issue, veterinary surgeons and farmers who have found they can limit the use of these drugs by using homeopathy should be applauded and not attacked.


Peter Gregory
BVSc MRCVS VetFFHom
Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy

 

Such sentiments resonate with those of the UK’s most influential supporter of homeopathy, Prince Charles. Speaking at a global leaders summit on antimicrobial resistance, Prince Charles  recently warned that Britain faced a “potentially disastrous scenario” because of the “overuse and abuse” of antibiotics. The Prince explained that he had switched to organic farming on his estates because of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance and now treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication. “As some of you may be aware, this issue has been a long-standing and acute concern to me,” he told delegates from 20 countries at The Royal Society in London. “I have enormous sympathy for those engaged in the vital task of ensuring that, as the world population continues to increase unsustainably and travel becomes easier, antibiotics retain their availability to overcome disease… It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.”

It seems that both Prince Charles and Peter Gregory believe that homeopathy can be employed to reduce the use of antibiotics in animals. So, let’s analyse this hypothesis a little closer.

The way I see it, the belief must be based on one of two assumptions:

  1. Homeopathic remedies are effective in treating or preventing bacterial infections.
  2. If farmers administer homeopathic remedies to their life-stock, they are less likely to administer unnecessary antibiotics.

Assumption No 1 can be rejected without much further debate; there is no evidence whatsoever that homeopathic remedies have antibiotic efficacy. In fact, the consensus today is that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.

Assumption No 2, however, might be more plausible and therefore deserves further scrutiny.  If we do not tell the farmers nor the vets that homeopathic remedies are placebos, if, in other words, we mislead them to think they are efficacious medicines, they might give them to their animals instead of antibiotics. Consequently, the usage of antibiotics in animals would decrease. This strategy sounds plausible but, on second thought, it has many serious drawbacks:

  1. The truth has a high value in itself which we would disregard at our peril.
  2. One might not be able to keep the truth from the farmers and even less able to hide it from vets.
  3. If we mislead farmers and vets, we must also mislead the rest of the population; this means lots of people might start using homeopathic placebos even for serious conditions.
  4. Misleading farmers, vets and the rest of the population is clearly unethical.
  5. Misleading farmers and vets in this way might not be necessary; if there is abuse of antibiotics in farming, we ought to tackle this phenomenon directly.
  6. Misleading farmers and vets might be dangerous for at least two reasons: firstly, animals who truly need antibiotics would not receive adequate treatment; secondly, farmers and vets might eventually become convinced that homeopathy is efficacious and would therefore use it in all sorts of situations, even for serious diseases of humans.

Whichever way I twist and turn the assumption No 2, I fail to arrive at anything remotely sensible. But this leaves me with a huge problem: I would have to conclude that both the Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy and the heir to the throne are bonkers… and, surely, this cannot be right either!!!

 

Yesterday, a press-release reached me announcing that a Chinese herbal medicine, ‘Phynova Joint and Muscle Relief Tablets’, containing the active ingredient Sigesbeckia, is now on sale in the UK for the first time in Boots The Chemist: 

Sigesbeckia is the first traditional Chinese treatment granted a traditional herbal registration (THR) under the traditional herbal medicines product directive in the UK, by drug safety watchdog the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).  Oxford based Phynova which manufactures the product was granted the UK licence last year. 

Containing 500mg of the active ingredient, Phynova Joint and Muscle Relief Tablets are specially formulated for the relief of backache, arthritis, minor sports injuries, rheumatic or muscular pains and general aches and pains in muscles or joints.  Two tablets are taken each day, one in the morning and one in the evening. They have no known side effects and are non-addictive. .. 

The product, which retails at £19.99 for one month’s supply of 60 tablets, is available in 950 UK Boots outlets and online via Click and Collect from all stores.  It will be sold both Over the Counter (OTC) by pharmacist staff and off the shelf as part of Boots’ pain relief fixture… 

END OF QUOTE

What on earth is a ‘joint and muscle relief’? Personally I do not want to be relieved of my joints and muscles!!!

Yes, I know, they probably mean ‘joint and muscle pain relief’ but were not allowed to say so because this is a medical indication.

And what about the claim of ‘no side-effects’; is it possible that a pharmacological treatment has positive effects without any risks at all? This is not what they told me during my pharmacology course, if I remember correctly. And anyway, even placebos have side-effects!

I admit, I was puzzled.

The covering letter of the press-release provided more amazement: it informed me that “Phynova joint and muscle relief contains the active ingredient Sigesbeckia which has been through clinical trials and has been used for pain relief in China for hundreds of years…” It was the remark about clinical trials (PLURAL!!!) that caught my interest most.

So, I looked up ‘Sigesbeckia’ on Medline and found as good as nothing. This is mainly because the plant is spelled correctly ‘Siegesbeckia’ in honour of the famous botanist Siegesbeck.

Looking up ‘Siegesbeckia’, I found many pre-clinical studies but no clinical trials.

Next I searched for a comment from the MHRA and discovered that their account makes it very clear that a licence has been granted to this product “exclusively upon long standing use… and not upon data from clinical trials.”

So, who is right?

Are there clinical trials of this product or not? And, if there are any, where are they?

Perhaps someone from Phynova can enlighten us?

 

Yes, I know, lately I have been neglecting my ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’. This is entirely my fault; there are so many candidates waiting to be admitted that, I have been hesitant as to who should be next. Today, I came across an article about Deepak Chopra and his latest book, Super Genes. It tells “how lifestyle shifts can help you reboot your health at a genetic level.” If it were just for this single sentence, he would deserve to be admitted – no, not into what you just thought, into the ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’, of course’.

I will save you the expense of buying his book (don’t worry, Deepak is already a multi-millionaire) by repeating what the article said about his ‘6 pillars of wellbeing’ (another cracker!!!):

DIET

• A typical modern diet is very likely to cause inflammation, which research has linked to many chronic diseases and obesity.

• To reduce inflammation, add prebiotics – substances that buffer the body from inflammation – such as oatmeal, pulpy orange juice, bran cereal and bananas to your breakfast.

• Consume probiotics – foods that contain active bacteria – once a day for gut health. These foods include active yoghurt, pickles and sauerkraut.

• Eat mindfully – eat only when you’re genuinely hungry and stop when you are full.

• Reduce snacking by eating only one measured portion in a bowl; never eat straight from a bag or packet.

STRESS

• Three factors generally lie behind the problem of chronic stress: repetition, unpredictability and a lack of control. Think of a dog barking outside your window; you don’t know when it will end and you have no way of stopping it.

• Decrease background noise and distractions at work. Also, avoid multitasking by dealing with one thing at a time.

• Leave work on time at least three times a week and don’t bring work home. Leave the office at the office.

• Avoid people who are sources of pressure and conflict. Even normal office behaviour, such as forming cliques and gossiping, is a source of stress that has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

• If you struggle to deal with negative emotions, ask your doctor about cognitive behaviour therapy.

EXERCISE

• The secret to exercise is this: keep going and don’t stop. It’s better to be active all your life at a lower level, rather than to be at a near professional-level in high school, say, and then stop completely.

• At work get up and move around once an hour and devote half your lunch break to movement, even if it’s walking around the block.

• Be in nature more: go outside for five to 10 minutes three times a day.

• Acquire more active friends and join them in their activities. Plan a shared exercise activity with your spouse or friends twice a week.

• Make leisure time more creative – think beyond TV or internet.

• Volunteer to help the needy with housecleaning, painting and repairs.

This will serve as both exercise and a morale boost.

MEDITATION

• Meditate every day for 10 minutes.

Sit with your eyes closed in a quiet place, put your attention on the tip of your nose and focus on the sensation of your breath coming in and out of your nostrils.

• Don’t look at meditation as an aid for the bad days you experience (“I’m feeling good today, so I don’t need to meditate”). It should be a lifelong practice.

• Take 10 minutes out of your lunch break to sit alone with eyes closed, preferably outside in nature.

• Notice what a relief it is to take big deep breaths when you are upset or nervous, and how ragged your breath becomes when you are anxious or stressed.

• Join an organised meditation course in your area. Search for meetup.com to find local groups that meet all around the country.

SLEEP

• Make your bedroom as dark as possible. If total darkness is impossible, wear a sleep mask.

• Drink a glass of warm almond milk, which is rich in calcium and promotes melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

• Experiment with herbal teas associated with good sleep such as chamomile, valerian, passionflower, lavender and kava kava.

• Explore abhyanga, a self-massage technique that uses warmed sesame oil, lightly massaged into arms, legs, neck and torso (go to YouTube to see tutorials).

• Don’t ignore insomnia. In some studies sleep disorders have been associated with triggering Alzheimer’s disease and are also associated with high blood pressure.

EMOTIONS

• Take responsibility for your feelings. Wellbeing depends upon happiness, yet most people don’t really make that connection.

• Write down five specific things that make you happy and, on a daily basis, do at least one of them.

• Set a “good news policy” at meal times, whether it’s the radio station you choose to listen to or the topic of conversation around the table.

• Explore a time in your past when you were happy and learn from it, whether that means re-embracing an old hobby or getting in touch with an old friend.

• Become comfortable with delayed gratification – consider how your choices will make you feel in the future as well as today.

END OF QUOTE

My favourite website about Deepak Chopra is the one by Tom Williamson. It states that “it has been said by some that the thoughts and tweets of Deepak Chopra are indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order, particularly the tweets tagged with “#cosmisconciousness”. This site aims to test that claim! Each “quote” is generated from a list of words that can be found in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter stream randomly stuck together in a sentence.” It seems to me that Deepak himself might have made ample use of this site for writing his latest book, and if you should ever run out of platitudes or empty phrases, this site will serve you well.

Deepak has published plenty of best-sellers, but he has as good as nothing to show for himself in the peer-reviewed medical literature. (When you are that famous, you obviously don’t need to bother anymore with trivia such as evidence, science and all that jazz.) This means that I had to deviate from my usual admission criteria for the “prophet of alternative medicine”, as Deepak likes to be called. But he is well worth making an exception, I am sure you agree, he is the absolute super-star!

Super-star of what?

I let you decide!

 

Politeness means showing consideration for others and observing accepted social rules. Those who know me personally would probably confirm that I am a fairly polite person. And I had always hoped that politeness might also become a feature of how all of us deal with each other on this blog. Sadly this has not proven to be so.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that I am blameless. Firstly I see all the comments before they get posted, and secondly I too have been rather the opposite of polite at times. How come?

My excuse is that I too often let myself get carried away. From my perspective, the typical exchange ending in impoliteness develops as follows:

  1. My post is formulated such that it provokes some strong reaction. I know, I do this all the time, and I cannot promise that I will not do it in the future. This is because I believe – and experience tells me that I am correct – that one has to provoke in order to get some reaction.
  2. The person I provoked posts a comment that challenges me or someone else to respond. The nature of the comment is often such that it comes close to a personal attack. For instance, someone might state that I was fired from my Exeter post, that I am paid by the pharmaceutical industry, that I don’t know my subject, etc.
  3. Often, I do not respond at all to this sort of thing. But sometimes I conclude that facts need to be corrected, and regrettably, I correct them with more provocation.
  4. This then gets up the nose of the commenter and he or she feels hurt and points out that the discourse has become less than polite – which, of course, is correct.

This is not to excuse anyone or anything; it is just to show how things happen.

The way I see it, there is a bit of a conundrum here: if I write a post without any provocation [which I have done often], there will be no feedback or comments at all [which also happens occasionally]. If I use the method of deliberately provoking people, things can easily escalate. The secret is obviously to get the dose right.

So, when I get it wrong, do blame me!

Politeness is undoubtedly desirable and we should all aim to be polite on this blog and elsewhere. At the same time, we should remember that politeness is not a virtue; it is simply following rules without requiring any moral judgment. Politeness is an artifice. The essence of politeness is form; the essence of virtue is character. A polite bastard is still a bastard! And an impolite man of virtue is still a man of virtue.

Impoliteness may be hurtful but the truth is sometimes hurtful too. And there is a danger in going too far in both directions; exaggerated politeness is close to insincerity. If it were a choice between politeness and truth, I would always opt for the latter.

But luckily this is rarely the case; one can usually have both!

Why am I rambling on about such an issue? Because I want to appeal to all who write and comment here – not least myself – that politeness is a very good thing and enables a better exchange than we sometimes had on this blog. So, lets not escalate things again, let’s understand little provocations for what they are meant to be: a stimulus to have an open, challenging but nevertheless polite debate.

Nobody can doubt that, during the last 200 years, conventional medicine has made monumental progress. Homeopathy, however, has remained more or less like Hahnemann invented it. But now it seems as though homeopathy can celebrate an unprecedented step ahead. As so often in medicine, it originates from a commercial enterprise.

Genexa is a US firm that produces natural health products. On their website, they state that “At Genexa, we believe medicine should be free from unhealthy fillers and toxins”. They recently published a press-release introducing a line of homeopathic medicines certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Non-GMO Project verified. They are keen to point out that these products “do not contain any genetically modified ingredients.” In fact, several of their remedies do not contain any active ingredients to speak of: they are homeopathic!

“We are extremely proud of our organic and non-GMO certifications – the seals are prominently featured on all our products and website for easy label reading and patient education,” stated David Johnson, CEO of Genexa, in their press-release. “Our quality standards are among the highest in the over-the-counter medicine industry.”

Genexa’s 11 homeopathic formulations are being advertised for the treatment of common health issues such as flu, cold, allergies, stress, pain, leg cramps, sleeplessness and jet lag. An entire line of products is, according to the press-release, specially formulated for children and includes treatments for cold, allergy and calming.

Genexa’s CMO proudly announced that “It’s important to us that our retail customers feel confident in the products and know they can trust they are purchasing medicines free from unhealthy fillers and toxins and simply focus on healing.” Presumably that trust must include the trust into the efficacy of the homeopathic remedies! Yes, I am pleased to report that, apparently it does; elsewhere they confirm this by stating that “Genexa holds itself to the highest standards in both quality and ethics.” The highest standards of ethics surely include that the remedies in question are demonstrably efficacious.

But how can we be sure? Are any of these homeopathic remedies supported by reasonably strong evidence? Oddly enough, despite all these affirmations, I did get my doubts when I tried to dig a bit deeper.

Take the homeopathic remedy called SLEEPOLOGY, for instance. The website informs us that “This homeopathic formulation consists of nine leading remedies designed to treat sleeplessness, inability to fall asleep, frequent waking, restless sleep and sleeplessness from stress, exhaustion, nervousness, excitability, restlessness, worries, irritability, and pain.” So, it’s a complex homeopathic remedy with 9 different ingredients. But is there any evidence of efficacy for this mixture? I am not aware of any clinical trials that have tested its efficacy. But I must be wrong, because on the website we are being told that “Clinical trials have demonstrated efficacy for treating sleeplessness for piper methysticum, and valeriana officinalis.” That may be so, but the trials were done with herbal extracts, not with homeopathic potencies! Could the statement therefore be more than a little misleading?

On the internet, I found all sorts of fascinating bits about the new homeopathic lines (my compliments to the PR firm that organised the launch!); for instance the revelation that: “The company’s proprietary medicines were created by and are regularly reviewed and enhanced by its chief medical officer, Dr. Todd Rowe*, a nationally respected physician with an expertise in homeopathic medicine formulation. Working with the Genexa team, Dr. Rowe and his team of chemists and pharmacists spent hundreds of hours meticulously formulating and testing the products. The result is a line of effective, potent medicines that are certified organic by the USDA and non-GMO verified by the Non-GMO Project. “Our formulations are based on tried and true principles for miasmatic and energetic balance, so that the remedies potentiate each other and promote the most positive patient outcomes,” said Dr. Rowe. “These powerful medicines work with your body to help it heal itself.”” However, I was unable to find out which potencies are being used for the Genexa homeopathic products. This information might not be that relevant: according to the homeopathic ‘like cures like’ principle, the effects of a substance are reversed through potentiation. This is why coffee, for instance, is potentised by homeopath to generate a sleeping remedy. Does it not follow then that, potentising two or more herbal ingredients that have hypnotic effects (as in SLEEPOLOGY), must generate a remedy for preventing sleep? A similarly puzzling lack of ‘homeopathic logic’ seems to apply to several other products in Genexa’s line of homeopathic remedies.

I have to admit, I am confused.

Could it be that the ‘breakthrough’ turns out to be a breakdown of ‘homeopathic logic’?

Let’s hope someone from Genexa reads these lines and can enlighten us.

[*he is the President of the American Medical College of Homeopathy]

It would be easy to continue this series on ‘tricks of the trade’ for quite a while. But this might get boring, and I have therefore decided to call it a day. So here is the last instalment (feel free to post further tricks that you may know of [in the comments section below]):

CRITICS DON’T UNDERSTAND

It is almost inevitable that, sooner or later, someone will object to some aspect of alternative medicine. In all likelihood, his or her arguments are rational and based on evidence. If that happens, the practitioner has several options to save his bacon (and income). One of the easiest and most popular is to claim that “of course, you cannot agree with me because you do not understand!”

The practitioner now needs to explain that, in order to achieve the level of expertise he has acquired, one has to do much more than to rationalise or know about science. In fact, one has to understand the subject on a much deeper level. One has to immerse oneself into it, open one’s mind completely and become a different human being altogether. This cannot be achieved by scientific study alone; it requires years of meditative work. And not everyone has the ability to go down this difficult path. It takes a lot of energy, insight and vision to become a true healer. A true Deepak Chopra is not born but trained through hard work, dedication and concentration.

Critics who disagree are really to be pitied. They fail to exist on quite the same level as those who ‘are in the know’. Therefore one must not get annoyed with those who disagree, they cannot understand because they have not seen the light.

My advice is to start thinking critically and read up about the NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY; this will quickly enable you to look beyond the charisma of these gurus and expose their charlatanry to the full.

RESEARCH IS BEING SUPRESSED

Some critics stubbornly insist on evidence for the therapeutic claims made by quacks. That attitude can be awkward for the alternative practitioner – because usually there is no good evidence.

Cornered in this way, quacks often come up with a simple but effective conspiracy theory: the research has been done and it has produced fabulous results, but it has been supressed by… well, by whoever comes to mind. Usually BIG PHARMA or ‘the scientific establishment’ have to be dragged out into the frame again.

According to this theory, the pharmaceutical industry (or whoever comes in handy) was so shaken by the findings of the research that they decided to make it disappear. They had no choice, really; the alternative therapy in question was so very effective that it would have put BIG PHARMA straight out of business for ever. As we all know BIG PHARMA to be evil to the core, they had no ethical or moral qualms about committing such a crime to humanity. Profits must come before charity!

My advice is to explain to such charlatans that such conspiracy theories do, in fact, merely prove is that the quack’s treatment is not effective against their prosecution complex.

CRITICS ARE BOUGHT AND CORRUPT

If  critics of alternative medicine become threatening to the quackery trade, an easy and much-used method is to discredit them by spreading lies about them. If the above-mentioned ploy “they cannot understand” fails to silence the nasty critics, the next step must be to claim they are corrupt. Why else would they spend their time exposing quackery?

Many people – alternative practitioners included – can only think of financial motivations; the possibility that someone might do a job for altruistic reasons does not occur to them. Therefore, it sounds most plausible that the critics of alternative medicine are doing it for money – after all, the quacks also quack for money.

My advice to potential users of alternative medicine who are confused by such allegations: do your own research and find out for yourself who is bought by whom and who has a financial interest in quackery selling well.

EVEN NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS AGREE WITH US

It is true, there are some Nobel Prize winners who defend homeopathy or other bogus treatments. Whenever this happens, the apologists of alternative medicine have a field day. They then cite the Nobel laureate ad nauseam and imply that his or her views prove their quackery to be correct.

Little do they know that they are merely milking yet another classical fallacy and that such regrettable events merely demonstrate that even bright people can make mistakes.

My advice is to check what the Nobel laureate actually said – more often than not, it turns out that a much-publicised quote is, in fact, a misquote – and what his or her qualifications are for making such a statement; a Nobel Prize in literature, for instance, is not a sufficient qualification for commenting on healthcare issues.

AS I ALRADY SAID: IF YOU KNOW OF MORE ‘TRICKS OF THE QUACKARY TRADE’, PLEASE POST THEM BELOW.

This series of post is quite good fun – at least for me who is writing it.  But I also hope that it is useful to those readers who are tempted to consult alternative practitioners. My intention is to stimulate people’s ability to think critically and to provide some sort of guide for patients which might help them in deciding which practitioners to avoid.

In this spirit, I now offer you the next instalment of three ‘tricks of the trade’:

 

NATURAL IS GOOD

Everyone working in advertising will confirm: the ‘natural label’ is a great asset for boosting sales of all sorts of things. Practitioners of alternative medicine have long appreciated this fact and exploited it to the best of their abilities. They stress the ‘naturalness’ of their treatments ad nauseam, and more often than not they use the term misleadingly.

For instance, there is nothing natural to thrust a patients spine beyond the physiological range of motion [chiropractic]; there is nothing natural in endlessly diluting and shaking remedies which may or may not have their origin in a natural substance [homeopathy]; there is nothing natural in sticking needles into the skin of patients [acupuncture].

Moreover, the notion of a benign ‘mother nature’ is naïvely misleading. Ask those who have been at sea during a storm or who have been struck by lightning.

My advice is to see through transparent marketing slogans and to tell the anyone who goes on about the ‘naturalness’ of his therapy to buzz off.

ENERGY

When one goes to a meeting of alternative practitioners, the term ‘energy’ is mentioned more often than at a board meeting of EDF. The difference is that the alternative brigade does not mean really energy when they speak of energy; they mean ‘vital force’ or one of the many related terms from other traditions.

Practitioners do prefer to use ‘energy’ because this sounds modern and impressive to many consumers. Crucially, it avoids disclosing how deeply steeped the therapists are in vitalism and vitalistic ideas. Whereas rational thinkers have discarded such concepts more than a century ago, alternative medicine advocates find it hard to do the same – if they did, there would be little else to underpin their various ‘philosophies’.

My advice is to avoid clinicians who are ‘vitalists’ because adhering to long obsolete concepts is a sure sign of dangerous backward thinking.

STIMULATING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

‘Your immune system need stimulating!’ – how often have we heard that from practitioners of alternative medicine? By contrast, conventional clinicians are most reserved about such aims; they might try to stimulate the immune system in certain, rare circumstances. Quite often they need to achieve the opposite effect and use powerful drugs to suppress the immune system. But even when they aim at stimulating the immune system of a patient, they would not use any of the treatments alternative practitioners swear by.

How come? There are several reasons:

  1. The alternative ‘immune stimulants’ do not really stimulate the immune system.
  2. Stimulating the immune system is rarely a desirable therapeutic aim.
  3. Stimulating a normal immune system is hardly possible.
  4. For many of us, stimulating the immune system might even be a very risky business (if it were at all achievable).

My advice is to ask your practitioner precisely why he wants to stimulate your immune system. If he can give you a good reason, ask him to try stimulating his own immune system first and to show you the proof that his therapy can do such a thing.

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