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

Monthly Archives: April 2018

Most diabetics need life-long medication. Understandably, this makes many fed-up, and some think that perhaps natural remedies might be a less harmful, less intrusive way to control their condition. They don’t have to look far to find an impressively large choice.

This article in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes was aimed at reviewing CAM, including natural health products (NHP) and others, such as yoga, acupuncture, tai chi and reflexology, that have been studied for the prevention and treatment of diabetes and its complications. It claims that, in adults with type 2 diabetes, the following NHP have been shown to lower glycated hemoglobin (A1C) by at least 0.5% in randomized controlled trials lasting at least 3 months:

Ayurveda polyherbal formulation

Citrullus colocynthis

Coccinia cordifolia

Eicosapentaenoic acid

Ganoderma lucidum

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Gynostemma pentaphyllum

Hintonia latiflora

Lichen genus Cladonia BAFS “Yagel-Detox”

Marine collagen peptides

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Oral aloe vera

Pterocarpus marsupium (vijayasar)

Salacia reticulate

Scoparia dulcis porridge

Silymarin

Soybean-derived pinitol extract

Touchi soybean extract

Traditional Chinese medicine herbs:

Berberine

Fructus Mume

Gegen Qinlian Decoction (GQD)

Jianyutangkang (JYTK) with metformin

Jinlida with metformin

Sancaijiangtang

Shen-Qi-Formula (SQF) with insulin

Tang-Min-Ling-Wan (TM81)

Xiaoke (contains glyburide)

Zishentongluo (ZSTL)

Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek)

Even though the authors caution that these remedies should not be recommended for routine use, I fear that such lists do motivate diabetics to give them a try. If they do, the outcome could be that:

  • Nothing at all happens other than the patient wasting some money on useless remedies. The clinical trials on which the above list is based are usually so flimsy that their findings are next to meaningless and quite possibly false-positive.
  • The patient might, if the remedy does affect blood sugar levels, develop hypoglycaemia. If severe, this could be life-threatening.
  • The patient might trust in a natural remedy and thus discontinue the prescribed anti-diabetic medication. In this case, she could develop hyperglycaemia. If severe, this could be life-threatening.

It seems obvious that none of the possible outcomes are in the patients’ interest. I fear that it is dangerous to tempt diabetics with the possibility that a natural remedy. Even if such treatments did work, they are not well-researched, unreliable and do not have sufficiently large effects (a 0.5% decrease of glycated haemoglobin is hardly impressive) to represent realistic options.

I hear this argument so regularly that it might be worth analysing it (yet again) a bit closer.

It is used with the deepest of convictions by proponents of all sorts of quackery who point out that science does not know or explain everything – and certainly not their (very special) therapy. Science is just not sophisticated enough, they say; in fact, a few years ago, it could not even explain how Aspirin works. And just like Aspirin, their very special therapy – let’s call it energy healing (EH) for the sake of this post – does definitely and evidently work. There even is ample proof:

  • Patients get better after using EH, and surely patients don’t lie.
  • Patients pay for EH, and who would pay for something that does not work?
  • EH has survived hundreds of years, and ineffective therapies don’t.
  • EH practitioners have tons of experience and therefore know best.
  • They are respected by very important people and organisations.
  • EH is even reimbursed by some insurance companies.

You have all heard the argument, I’m sure.

How to respond?

The ‘proofs’ listed above are simply fallacies; as such they do not need more detailed discussions, I hope.

But how can we refute the notion that science is not yet sufficiently advanced to explain EH?

The simplest approach might be to explain that science has already tested EH and found it to be ineffective. There really is nothing more to say. And the often-quoted example of Aspirin does clearly not wash. True, a few decades ago, we did not know how it worked. But we always knew that it worked because we conducted clinical trials, and they generated positive results. These findings we the main reasons why scientists wanted to find out how it works, and eventually they did (and even got a Nobel Prize for it). Had the clinical trials not shown effectiveness, nobody would have been interested in alleged mechanisms of action.

With EH, things are different. Rigorous clinical trials of EH have been conducted, and the totality of this evidence fails to show that EH works. Therefore, chasing after a mechanism of action would be silly and wasteful. It’s true, science cannot explain EH, but this is not because it is not yet sophisticated enough; it is because there is nothing to explain. EH has been disproven, and waffling about ‘science is not yet able to explain it’ is either a deliberate lie or a serious delusion.

So far so good. But what if EH had not been submitted to clinical trials?

In such cases, the above line of argument would not work very well.

For instance, as far as I know, there is not a single rigorous clinical trial of crystal healing (CH). Does that mean that perhaps CH-proponents are correct when claiming that it does evidently work and science simply cannot yet understand how?

No, I don’t think so.

Like most of the untested alternative therapies, CH is not based on plausible assumptions. In fact, the implausibility of the underlying assumptions is the reason why such treatments have not and probably never will be submitted to rigorous clinical trials. Why should anyone waste his time and our money running expensive tests on something that is so extremely unlikely? Arguably doing so would even be unethical.

With highly implausible therapies we need no trials, and we do not need to fear that science is not yet sufficiently advance to explain them. In fact, science is sufficiently advanced to be certain that there can be no explanation that is in line with the known laws of nature.

Sadly, some truly deluded fans of CH might still not be satisfied and respond to our reasoning that we need a ‘paradigm shift’. They might say that science cannot explain CH because it is stuck in the straightjacket of an obsolete paradigm which does not cater for phenomena like CH.

Yet this last and desperate attempt of the fanatics is not a logical refuge. Paradigm shifts are not required because some quack thinks so, they are needed only if data have been emerging that cannot possibly be explained within the current paradigm. But this is never the case in alternative medicine. We can explain all the experience of advocates, positive results of researchers and ‘miracle’ cures of patients that are being reported. We know that the experiences are real, but are sure that their explanations of the experience are false. They are not due to the treatment per se but to other phenomena such as placebo effects, natural history, regression towards the mean, spontaneous recovery, etc.

So, whichever way we turn things, and whichever way enthusiasts of alternative therapies twist them, their argument that ‘SCIENCE IS NOT YET ABLE TO EXPLAIN’ is simply wrong.

Generally speaking, Cochrane reviews provide the best (most rigorous, transparent and independent) evidence on the effectiveness of medical or surgical interventions. It is therefore important to ask what they tell us about homeopathy. In 2010, I did exactly that and published it as an overview of the current best evidence. At the time, there were 6 relevant Cochrane reviews. They covered the following conditions: cancer, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, dementia, influenza and induction of labour. And their results were clear: they did not show that homeopathic medicines have effects beyond placebo.

Now a further Cochrane review has been published.

Does it change this situation?

This systematic review assessed the effectiveness and safety of oral homeopathic medicinal products compared with placebo or conventional therapy to prevent and treat acute respiratory tract infections (ARTIs) in children. The researchers conducted extensive literature searches, checked references, and contacted study authors to identify additional studies. They included all double-blind, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or double-blind cluster-RCTs comparing oral homeopathy medicinal products with identical placebo or self selected conventional treatments to prevent or treat ARTIs in children aged 0 to 16 years.

Eight RCTs of 1562 children receiving oral homeopathic medicinal products or a control treatment (placebo or conventional treatment) for upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs). Four treatment studies examined the effect on recovery from URTIs, and four studies investigated the effect on preventing URTIs after one to three months of treatment and followed up for the remainder of the year. Two treatment and two prevention studies involved homeopaths individualising treatment for children. The other studies used predetermined, non-individualised treatments. All studies involved highly diluted homeopathic medicinal products.

Several key limitations to the included studies were identified, in particular methodological inconsistencies and high attrition rates, failure to conduct intention-to-treat analysis, selective reporting, and apparent protocol deviations. The authors deemed three studies to be at high risk of bias in at least one domain, and many had additional domains with unclear risk of bias. Three studies received funding from homeopathy manufacturers; one reported support from a non-government organisation; two received government support; one was co-sponsored by a university; and one did not report funding support.

Methodological inconsistencies and significant clinical and statistical heterogeneity precluded robust quantitative meta-analysis. Only four outcomes were common to more than one study and could be combined for analysis. Odds ratios (OR) were generally small with wide confidence intervals (CI), and the contributing studies found conflicting effects, so there was little certainty that the efficacy of the intervention could be ascertained.

All studies assessed as at low risk of bias showed no benefit from oral homeopathic medicinal products; trials at uncertain and high risk of bias reported beneficial effects. The authors found low-quality evidence that non-individualised homeopathic medicinal products confer little preventive effect on ARTIs (OR 1.14, 95% CI 0.83 to 1.57). They also found low-quality evidence from two individualised prevention studies that homeopathy has little impact on the need for antibiotic usage (N = 369) (OR 0.79, 95% CI 0.35 to 1.76).

The authors also assessed adverse events, hospitalisation rates and length of stay, days off school (or work for parents), and quality of life, but were not able to pool data from any of these secondary outcomes. There is insufficient evidence from two pooled individualised treatment studies (N = 155) to determine the effect of homeopathy on short-term cure (OR 1.31, 95% CI 0.09 to 19.54; very low-quality evidence) and long-term cure rates (OR 1.01, 95% CI 0.10 to 9.96; very low-quality evidence). Adverse events were reported inconsistently; however, serious events were not reported. One study found an increase in the occurrence of non-severe adverse events in the treatment group.

The authors concluded that pooling of two prevention and two treatment studies did not show any benefit of homeopathic medicinal products compared to placebo on recurrence of ARTI or cure rates in children. We found no evidence to support the efficacy of homeopathic medicinal products for ARTIs in children. Adverse events were poorly reported, so conclusions about safety could not be drawn.

In their paper, the authors state that “there are no established explanatory models for how highly diluted homeopathic medicinal products might work. For this reason, homeopathy remains highly controversial because the key concepts governing this form of medicine are not consistent with the established laws of conventional therapeutics.” In other words, there is no reason why highly diluted homeopathic remedies should work. Yet, remarkably, when asked what conditions responds best to homeopathy, most homeopaths would probably include ARTI of children.

The authors also point out that “The results of this review are consistent with all previous systematic reviews on homeopathy. Funders and study investigators contemplating any further research in this area need to consider whether further research will advance our knowledge, given the uncertain mechanism of action and debate about how the lack of a measurable dose can make them effective. The studies we identified did not use a uniform approach to choosing and measuring outcomes or assigning appropriate time points for outcome measurement. The use of validated symptom scales would facilitate future meta-analyses. It is unclear if there is any benefit from individualised (classical) homeopathy over the use of commercially available products.”

Even though I agree with the authors on most of their views and comment their excellent work, I would be more outspoken regarding the need of further research. In my view, it would be a foolish, wasteful and therefore unethical activity to fund, plan or conduct further research in this area.

The UK ‘COLLEGE OF MEDICINE’ has recently (and very quietly) renamed itself; it now is THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMIH). This takes it closer to its original intentions of being the successor of the PRINCE OF WALES FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE (PWFIM), the organisation that had to be shut down amidst charges of fraud and money-laundering. Originally, the name of COMIH was to be COLLEGE OF INTEGRATED HEALTH (as opposed to disintegrated health?, I asked myself at the time).

Under the leadership of Dr Michael Dixon, OBE (who also led the PWFIM into its demise), the COMIH pursues all sots of activities. One of them seems to be publishing ‘cutting-edge’ articles.

A recent and superb example is on the fascinating subject of ‘holistic dentistry‘:

START OF QUOTE

Professor Sonia Williams … explores how integrated oral health needs to consider the whole body, not just the dentition…

Complementary and alternative approaches can also be considered as complementary to ‘mainstream’ care, with varying levels of evidence cited for their benefit.

Dental hypnosis (British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis) can help support patients including those with dental phobia or help to reduce pain experience during treatment.

Acupuncture in dentistry (British Society of Dental Acupuncture) can, for instance, assist with pain relief and allay the tendency to vomit during dental care.  There is also a British Homeopathic Dental Association.

For the UK Faculty of General Dental Practitioners, holistic dentistry refers to strengthening the link between general and oral health.

For some others, the term also represents an ‘alternative’ form of dentistry, which may concern itself with the avoidance and elimination of ‘toxic’ filling materials, perceived potential harm from fluoride and root canal treatments and with treating dental malocclusion to put patients back in ‘balance’.

In the USA, there is a Holistic Dental Association, while in the UK, there is the British Society for Mercury-free Dentistry. Unfortunately the evidence base for many of these procedures is weak.

Nevertheless, pressure to avoid mercury in dental restorative materials is becoming mainstream.

In summary, integrated health and care in dentistry can mean different things to different people. The weight of evidence supports the contention that the mouth is an integral part of the body and that attention to the one without taking account of the other can have adverse consequences.

END OF QUOTE

Do I get this right? ‘Holistic dentistry’ in the UK means the recognition that my mouth belongs to my body, and the adoption of a few dubious treatments with w ‘weak’ evidence base?

Well, isn’t this just great? I had no idea that my mouth belongs to my body. And clearly the non-holistic dentists in the UK are oblivious to this fact as well. I am sooooooo glad we got this cleared up.

Thanks COMIH!!!

And what about the alternative treatments used by holistic dentists?

The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis (Scotland) inform us on their website that a trained medical and dental hypnotherapists can help you to deal with a large variety of challenges that you face in your everyday life e.g.

Asthma Migraines
Anxiety & Stress Smoking Cessation
Dental Problems Insomnia
Weight Problems Psychosexual Disorders
Depression Pain Management
Irritable Bowel  And many other conditions

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Society of Dental Acupuncture claim on their website that the typical conditions that may be helped by acupuncture are:

  • TMJ (jaw joint) problems
  • Facial pain
  • Muscle spasm in the head and neck
  • Stress headaches & Migraine
  • Rhinitis & sinusitis
  • Gagging
  • Dry mouth problems
  • Post-operative pain
  • Dental anxiety

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Homeopathic Dental Association claim on their website that studies have shown improved bone healing around implants with Symphytum and reduced discomfort and improved healing time with ulcers and beneficial in oral lichen planus.

I hasten to add that none of these claims are not supported by sound evidence.

The COMIH article is entitled “The mouth reflects whole body health – but what does integrated care mean for dentists?’ So, what does it mean? Judging from this article, it means an amalgam (pun intended) of platitudes, bogus claims and outright nonsense.

Pity that they did not change their name to College of Medicine and Integrated Care – I could have abbreviated it as COMIC!

Daniel P Wirth used to be THE star amongst researchers and proponents of paranormal healing. About 15 years ago, there was nobody who had published more studies of it than Wirth. The extraordinary phenomenon was not just the number of studies, but also the fact that these trials all reported positive findings.

At the time, this puzzled me a lot. I had conducted two trials of paranormal healing myself; and, in both, cases the results had turned out to be negative (see here and here). Thus I made several attempts to contact Wirth or his co-authors hoping to better understand the phenomenon. Yet I never received a reply and became increasingly suspicious of their research.

In 2004, it was announced that Wirth together with one of his co-workers had been arrested and later imprisoned for fraud. Several of his 20 papers published in various journals were subsequently withdrawn. I remember writing to several journal editors myself urging them to follow suit so that, in future, the literature would not be polluted with dubious studies. Eventually, we all forgot about the whole story.

Recently, I took a renewed interest in paranormal healing. To my surprise, I found that several of Wirth’s papers are still listed on Medline:

1 Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Report of a masked, randomized trial.

Cha KY, Wirth DP.

J Reprod Med. 2001 Sep;46(9):781-7. Erratum in: J Reprod Med. 2004 Oct;49(10):100A. Lobo, RA [removed].

PMID: 11584476

2 Multisite electromyographic analysis of therapeutic touch and qigong therapy.

Wirth DP, Cram JR, Chang RJ.

J Altern Complement Med. 1997 Summer;3(2):109-18.

PMID: 9395700

3 Multisite surface electromyography and complementary healing intervention: a comparative analysis.

Wirth DP, Cram JR.

J Altern Complement Med. 1997 Winter;3(4):355-64.

PMID: 9449057

4 Wound healing and complementary therapies: a review.

Wirth DP, Richardson JT, Eidelman WS.

J Altern Complement Med. 1996 Winter;2(4):493-502. Review.

PMID: 9395679

5 The significance of belief and expectancy within the spiritual healing encounter.

Wirth DP.

Soc Sci Med. 1995 Jul;41(2):249-60.

PMID: 7667686

6 Complementary healing intervention and dermal wound reepithelialization: an overview.

Wirth DP.

Int J Psychosom. 1995;42(1-4):48-53.

PMID: 8582812

7 The psychophysiology of nontraditional prayer.

Wirth DP, Cram JR.

Int J Psychosom. 1994;41(1-4):68-75.

PMID: 7843870

8 Complementary healing therapies.

Wirth DP, Barrett MJ.

Int J Psychosom. 1994;41(1-4):61-7.

PMID: 7843869

Multi-site electromyographic analysis of non-contact therapeutic touch.

Wirth DP, Cram JR.

Int J Psychosom. 1993;40(1-4):47-55.

PMID: 8070986

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Of these 9 papers, only the first one in the list carries a note indicating that the paper has been removed. In other words, 8 of Wirth’s articles are still available as though they are fine and proper.

The situation is even worse on ‘Research Gate’. Here we find all of the following articles with no indication of any suspicion of fraud:

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Article: Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization-Embryo Transfer? Report of a Masked, Randomized Trial

KY Cha · Daniel P. Wirth · RA Lobo

Abstract: To assess the potential effect of intercessory prayer (IP) on pregnancy rates in women being treated with in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer (IVF-ET). Prospective, double-blind, randomized clinical trial in which patients and providers were not informed about the intervention. Statisticians and investigators were masked until all the data had been collected and clinical outcomes were known. The setting was an IVF-ET program at Cha Hospital, Seoul, Korea. IP was carried out by prayer…

Article · Oct 2001 · The Journal of reproductive medicine

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Article: Exploring Further Menstruation and Spiritual Healing

Daniel P. Wirth

Article · Apr 1997 · Alternative and Complementary Therapies

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Article: Multisite Surface Electromyography and Complementary Healing Intervention: A Comparative Analysis

Daniel P. Wirth · Jeffrey R. Cram

Abstract: A comparative analysis was conducted on a series of three experimental studies that examined the effect of various local and nonlocal (distant) complementary healing methods on multisite surface electromyographic (sEMG) and autonomic measures. The series concentrated sEMG electrode placement on specific neuromuscular paraspinal centers (cervical [C4], thoracic [T6], and lumbar [L3]), along with the frontalis region, due to the fact that these sites corresponded to the location of individual…

Article · Feb 1997 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine

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Article: Multisite Electromyographic Analysis of Therapeutic Touch and Qigong Therapy

Daniel P. Wirth · Jeffrey R. Cram · Richard J. Chang

Abstract: The influence of complementary healing treatment on paraspinal electromagnetic activity at specific neuromuscular sites was examined in an exploratory pilot study that used a multisite surface electromyographic (sEMG) assessment procedure. The study was a replication and extension of previous research that indicated that complementary healing had a significant effect in normalizing the activity of the “end organ” for the central nervous system (CNS). Multisite sEMG electrodes were placed on…

Article · Feb 1997 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine

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Article: Non-contact Therapeutic Touch intervention and full thickness cutaneous wounds: A replication

Daniel P Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · Robert D. Martinez · William S. Eidelman · Maria E.L. Lopez

Abstract: The study described here utilized a randomized double-blind methodological protocol in order to examine the effect of non-contact therapeutic touch (NCTT) on the healing rate of full-thickness human dermal wounds. This study is the fifth experiment in a series of extensions based on the original research design, and is an exact methodological replication of the second study in the series. Thirty-two healthy subjects were randomly divided into treatment and control groups and biopsies were…

Article · Oct 1996 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine

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Article: Wound Healing and Complementary Therapies: A Review

Daniel P. Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · William S. Eidelman

Abstract: A series of five innovative experiments conducted by Wirth et al. which examined the effect of various complementary healing interventions on the reepithelialization rate of full thickness human dermal wounds was assessed as to specific methodological and related factors. The treatment interventions utilized in the series included experimental derivatives of the Therapeutic Touch (TT), Reiki, LeShan, and Intercessory Prayer techniques. The results of the series indicated statistical…

Article · Feb 1996 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine

———-

Article: Haematological indicators of complementary healing intervention

Daniel P. Wirth · Richard J. Chang · William S. Eidelman · Joanne B. Paxton

Abstract: The effect of Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, LeShan, and Qigong Therapy in combination on haematological measures was examined in an exploratory pilot study utilizing a randomized, double-blind, within-subject, crossover design. Fourteen subjects were randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions for two one-hour evaluation sessions separated by a 24-hour period. Six blood samples were taken from each subject — three during the treatment condition and three during the control condition —…

Article · Jan 1996 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine

———-

Article: The significance of belief and expectancy within the spiritual healing encounter

Daniel P. Wirth

Abstract: Historically, traditional cultures recognized the importance of belief and expectancy within the healing encounter and created complex rituals and ceremonies designed to elicit or foster the expectancy and participation of both the healer and patient, as well as the community as a whole. This holistic approach to health care was a fundamental component in the spiritual healing rituals of virtually all traditional native cultures. The focus of the current study was to assess the impact of…

Article · Aug 1995 · Social Science & Medicine

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Article: Non-contact Therapeutic Touch and wound re-epithelialization: An extension of previous research

Daniel P. Wirth · Margaret J Barrett · William S. Eidelman

Abstract: The results demonstrated a non-significant effect for the treatment versus control groups. Several factors may have contributed to the non-significance, including: the ineffectiveness of the healers, the inhibitive or dampening effect of plastic, the use of self-regulatory techniques, the dependent variable examined, the type of dressing utilized, the influence of distance, and the healers’ belief as to the effect of distance. Future studies would benefit by examining the methodological…

Article · Oct 1994 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine

———-

Article: The effect of complementary healing therapy on postoperative pain after surgical removal of impacted third molar teeth

Daniel P. Wirth · David R. Brenlan · Richard J. Levine · Christine M. Rodriguez

Abstract: This study utilized a randomized, double-blind, within subject, crossover design to examine the effect of Reiki and LeShan healing in combination on iatrogenic pain experienced after unilateral operative extraction of the lower third molar. Two separate operations were performed on 21 patients with bilateral, asymptomatic, impacted lower third molar teeth. The patients were randomly assigned to the treatment or control condition prior to the first operation. For the second operation,…

Article · Jul 1993 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine

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Article: Full thickness dermal wounds treated with non-contact Therapeutic Touch: a replication and extension

Daniel P. Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · William S. Eidelman · Alice C. O’Malley

Abstract: The effect of non-contact Therapeutic Touch (NCTT) therapy on the healing rate of full thickness human dermal wounds was examined in a double-blind, placebo controlled study. Punch biopsies were performed on the lateral deltoid in 24 healthy subjects who were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Active and control treatments were comprised of daily sessions of 5 min of exposure to a hidden NCTT practitioner or control exposure. Placebo effects and the possible influences of…

Article · Jul 1993 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine

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Article: The Effect of Alternative Healing Therapy on the Regeneration Rate of Salamander Forelimbs

DANIEL P. WIRTH · CATHY A. JOHNSON · JOSEPH S. HORVATH

Article · Jan 1992

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Article: Complementary Healing Therapy For Patients With Type I Diabetes Mellitus

DANIEL P. WIRTH · BARBARA J. MITCHELL

Abstract: The effect of Noncontact Therapeutic Touch (NCTT) therapy and Intercessory Prayer (IP) on patient determined insulin dosage was exam- ined in an exploratory pilot study which utilized a randomized, double-blind, within subject, crossover design. Sixteen type I diabetes mellitus patients were examined and treated daily by NCTT and IP healers for a duration of two weeks. Each patient underwent two separate sessions-one in the treat- ment condition and one in the control condition-with the…

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What is even worse, Wirth’s papers continue to get cited. In other words, Wirth’s research lives on regardless of the fact that it is highly dubious.

In my view, it is long over-due for all journal-editors to fully and completely delete Wirth’s dubious papers. This is particularly true since several experts have alerted them to the problem. Furthermore, I submit that failing to take action  amounts to unethical behaviour which is quite simply unacceptable.

I have written about the use of homeopathy in France before (as I now live half of my time in France, this is a subject of considerable interest to me). After decades of deafening silence and uncritical acceptance by the French public, it seems that finally some change to the better might be on its way. Recently, a sizable number of prominent doctors protested publicly against the fact that, despite its implausibility and the lack of proof of efficacy, homeopathy continues to be reimbursed in France and scarce funds are being wasted on it. This action seems to have put pressure on officials to respond.

Yesterday (just in time for the ‘HOMEOPATHIC AWARENESS WEEK’) the French minister of health was quoted making a statement on homeopathy. Here is my translation of what Agnès Buzyn was quoted saying:

“There is a continuous evaluation of the medicines we call complementary. A working group* at the head office of my department checks that all these practices are not dangerous. If a therapy continues to be beneficial without being harmful, it continues to be reimbursed… The French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.”

Agnès Buzyn

  • I would like to know who they are, how they can be contacted, and whether they would consider recruiting my assistance in evaluating alternative therapies.

So, if I understand her correctly, Agnès Buzyn believes that:

  1. the French people are fond of homeopathy;
  2. homeopathy is a placebo-therapy;
  3. homeopathy does no harm;
  4. homeopathy can even prevent harm from conventional medicine;
  5. on balance, therefore, homeopathy should continue to be reimbursed in France.

My views of this type of reasoning have been expressed repeatedly. Nevertheless, I will briefly state them again:

  1. true but not relevant; healthcare is not a popularity contest; and the current popularity is essentially the result of decades of systematic misinformation of consumers;
  2. correct;
  3. wrong: we have, on this blog, discussed ad nauseam how homeopathy can cause serious harm; for instance, whenever it replaces effective treatments, it can cause serious harm and might even kill patients;
  4. if doctors harm patients by needlessly prescribing harmful treatments, we need to re-train them and stop this abuse; using homeopathy is not the solution to bad medicine;
  5. wrong: the reimbursement of homeopathy is a waste of money and undermines evidence-based medicine.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Politicians are usually not good at understanding science or scientific evidence. They (have to?) think in time spans from one election to the next. And they are, of course, keenly aware that, in order to stay in power, they rely on the vote of the people. Therefore, the popularity of homeopathy (even though it is scientifically irrelevant) is a very real factor for them. This means that, on a political level, homeopathy is sadly much more secure than it should be. In turn, this means we need to:

  • use different arguments when arguing with politicians (for instance, the economic impact of wasting money on placebo-therapies, or the fact that systematically misinforming the public is highly unethical and counter-productive),
  • and make politicians understand science better than they do at present, perhaps even insist that ministers are experts in their respective areas (i. e. a minister of health fully understands the fundamental issues of healthcare).

Does that mean the new developments in the realm of French homeopathy are all doomed to failure?

No, I don’t think so – at least (and at last) we have a vocal group of doctors protesting against wasteful nonsense, and a fairly sound and accurate statement from a French minister of health:

HOMEOPATHY, IT’S PROBABLY A PLACEBO EFFECT!

 

It’s still ‘HOMEOPATHIC AWARENESS WEEK’. What better time for introducing you to one of the most bewildering aspect of this bizarre therapy?

Homeopathy is not just being promoted as a treatment for humans and animals, it is also advocated for plants. There are plenty of websites about this that give concrete advice such as this one: “Try the key symptom of a remedy that you would normally give to a person, on plants. For example, in cases of freezing where the leaves turn to a light or silvery colour, use Aconite 200 CH. When the leaves are more of a reddish colour use Belladonna 200 CH. Just like with a feverish child. If the child is pale then you know it is an Aconite fever. If is extremely red on the other hand, like a hot tomato, then the remedy is Belladonna. And you see this on the leaves too. You simply convert it one to one.”

Given this school of thought within homeopathy (not even Hahnemann would have dreamt this up), it seems only logical to use plants also for attempts to prove that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more than pure placebos.

Weird?

Not to homeopaths!

Not even to some academic researchers within the realm of homeopathy.

The authors of this systematic review evaluated publications on plant-based test systems. A literature search was conducted in online databases and specific journals, including publications from 2008 to 2017 dealing with plant-based test systems in homeopathic basic research. To be included, they had to contain statistical analysis and fulfil quality criteria according to a pre-defined manuscript information score (MIS). Publications scoring at least 5 points (maximum 10 points) were assumed to be adequate. They were analysed for the use of adequate controls, outcome and reproducibility.

Seventy-four publications on plant-based test systems were found. Thirty-nine publications were either abstracts or proceedings of conferences and were excluded. From the remaining 35 publications, 26 reached a score of 5 or higher in the MIS. Adequate controls were used in 13 of these publications. All of them described specific effects of homeopathic preparations. The publication quality still varied: a substantial number of publications (23%) did not adequately document the methods used. Four reported on replication trials. One replication trial found effects of homeopathic preparations comparable to the original study. Three replication trials failed to confirm the original study but identified possible external influencing factors. Five publications described novel plant-based test systems. Eight trials used systematic negative control experiments to document test system stability.

The authors concluded that, regarding research design, future trials should implement adequate controls to identify specific effects of homeopathic preparations and include systematic negative control experiments. Further external and internal replication trials, and control of influencing factors, are needed to verify results. Standardised test systems should be developed.

Really, just one (!) replication trial found effects of homeopathic preparations comparable to the original study? And yet the authors do not arrive at the only possible conclusion that is based on the actual data presented?

THE AVAILABLE EVIDENCE FAILS TO SHOW THAT PLANT-BASED TEST SYSTEMS PROVIDE SOUND EVIDENCE TO SUGGEST THAT THEY ARE USEFUL OR THAT HIGHLY DILUTED HOMEOPATHICS ARE DIFFERENT FROM PLACEBOS.

But there are other things which seem odd here. The very first two sentences of the abstract of the above article read as follows: Plant-based test systems have been described as a useful tool for investigating possible effects of homeopathic preparations. The last reviews of this research field were published in 2009/2011.

This is odd because there is a very similar review dated 2015 (what is more, it is by some of the authors who also did the new review); it concluded: Plant models appear to be a useful approach for investigating basic research questions relating to homeopathic preparations, but more independent replication trials are needed in order to verify the results found in single experiments. Adequate controls and SNC experiments should be implemented on a routine basis to exclude false-positive results.

Why do the authors mislead us so badly?

Ahh, I see! They are affiliated to the following institutions:

  • Centre for Complementary Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Institute for Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology, University of Freiburg, Germany
  • Institute of Integrative Medicine, University of Witten/Herdecke, Witten, Germany
  • Institute of Complementary Medicine, University of Bern, Switzerland.
  • Hiscia Institute, Arlesheim, Switzerland
  • Crystal Lab, Landgoed Roepaen, Ottersum, Netherlands.

Could they have an interest in perpetuating the notion of homeopathy (for plants)?

Could it be that these researchers are less than objective?

So what?

No reason to make a fuss, because no harm done!

Not entirely true: some might choke laughing about the idea of treating plants with highly diluted, shaken water.

This week, I find it hard to decide where to focus; with all the fuzz about ‘Homeopathy Awareness Week’ it is easy to forget that our friends, the chiros are celebrating  Chiropractic Awareness Week (9-15 April). On this occasion, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), for instance, want people to keep moving to make a positive impact on managing and preventing back and neck pain.

Good advice! In a recent post, I even have concluded that people should “walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.” The reason for my advice is based on the fact that there is precious little evidence that the spinal manipulations of chiropractors make much difference plus some worrying indications that they may cause serious damage.

It seems to me that, by focussing their PR away from spinal manipulations and towards the many other things chiropractors sometimes do – they often call this ‘adjunctive therapies’ – there is a tacit admission here that the hallmark intervention of chiros (spinal manipulation) is of dubious value.

A recent article entitled ‘Spinal Manipulative Therapy and Other Conservative Treatments for Low Back Pain: A Guideline From the Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative’ seems to confirm this impression. Its objective was to develop a clinical practice guideline on the management of acute and chronic low back pain (LBP) in adults. The specific aim was to develop a guideline to provide best practice recommendations on the initial assessment and monitoring of people with low back pain and address the use of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) compared with other commonly used conservative treatments.

The topic areas were chosen based on an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality comparative effectiveness review, specific to spinal manipulation as a non-pharmacological intervention. The panel updated the search strategies in Medline and assessed admissible systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials. Evidence profiles were used to summarize judgments of the evidence quality and link recommendations to the supporting evidence. Using the Evidence to Decision Framework, the guideline panel determined the certainty of evidence and strength of the recommendations. Consensus was achieved using a modified Delphi technique. The guideline was peer reviewed by an 8-member multidisciplinary external committee.

For patients with acute (0-3 months) back pain, we suggest offering advice (posture, staying active), reassurance, education and self-management strategies in addition to SMT, usual medical care when deemed beneficial, or a combination of SMT and usual medical care to improve pain and disability. For patients with chronic (>3 months) back pain, we suggest offering advice and education, SMT or SMT as part of a multimodal therapy (exercise, myofascial therapy or usual medical care when deemed beneficial). For patients with chronic back-related leg pain, we suggest offering advice and education along with SMT and home exercise (positioning and stabilization exercises).

The authors concluded that a multimodal approach including SMT, other commonly used active interventions, self-management advice, and exercise is an effective treatment strategy for acute and chronic back pain, with or without leg pain.

I find this paper most interesting and revealing. Considering that it originates from the ‘Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative’, it is remarkably shy about recommending SMT – after all their vision is “To enhance the health of Canadians by fostering excellence in chiropractic care.” They are thus not likely to be overly critical of the treatment chiropractors use most, i. e. SMT.

Perhaps this is also the reason why, in their conclusion, they seem to have rather a large blind spot, namely the risks of SMT. I have commented on this issue more often than I care to remember. Most recently, I posted this:

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

 

HAPPY CHIROPRACTIC AWARENESS WEEK EVERYONE!

Samuel Hahnemann published a lot, but his main ideas about homeopathy are summarised in his ‘Organon‘ which has thus become ‘the bible’ for all homeopaths. They regularly refer to this book, yet I sometimes get the impression that many of them have even read it.

I did! Most recently, I re-studied it when writing my own book ‘HOMEOPATHY, THE UNDILUTED FACTS‘. And I have to say, it is rather boring, full of contradictions and obsolete nonsense.

To mark Samuel’s birthday – he was born on 10 April 1755 in Meissen – I take the liberty of quoting directly from Dudgeon’s translation of the 1st edition of the Organon:

  • In no way whatever can [a] disease itself be recognized.
  • This eternal, universal law of nature [the like cures like assumption]…
  • …only one disease can exist in the body at any one time…
  • …if an acute infection attacks an organism already suffering from a similar acute disease, then the stronger infection uproots the weaker entirely and removes it homoeopathically.
  • …diseases are only destroyed by similar diseases.
  • …it is certain that a suitably selected homoeopathic remedy gently destroys and removes disease…
  • …aggravation during the first hours… is, in fact, a very good prognostic sign…
  • …even the smallest dose of a homoeopathic remedy always causes a small homoeopathic aggravation…
  • …we should always choose the very smallest doses…
  • …hardly any dose of the homoeopathically selected remedy can be so small as not to be stronger than the natural disease…
  • If dilution is also employed… an excessive effect is easily produced.
  • …a single drop of a tincture to a pound of water and shaking vigorously… will produce more effect than a single dose of eight drops of the tincture.
  • …this action must be called spirit-like.

For homeopaths, these quotes (should) depict some of the central assumptions of homeopathy. For non-homeopaths, they are just gibberish that makes no sense whatsoever. Time has moved on, and most of us have moved with it. Yet homeopaths still live by (and from)  the errors of 200 years ago.

Hahnemann died on 2 July 1843 in Paris. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but perhaps we should, in future, rather celebrate this date? It could be a celebration of the progress we made since (and because) we have recognised Hahnemann’s errors.

 

 

Today, enthusiasts of homeopathy celebrate the start of the HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK. Let’s join them by re-addressing one of their favourite themes: their personal experience with homeopathy.

Most homeopathy-fans argue that the negative scientific evidence must be wrong because they have had positive experiences. Whenever I give a lecture, for instance, there will be at least one person in the audience who presents such an experience (and I too could contribute a few such stories from my own past). Such ‘case reports’ can, of course, be interesting, illuminating or leading to further research, but they can never be conclusive.

This concept is often profoundly confusing for patients and consumers. They tend to feel that I am doubting their words, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their experience is certainly true – what might be false is their interpretation of it. I think, I better explain this in more detail using a concrete, published example.

After the publication of our 2003 RCT of homeopathic Arnica which showed that two different potencies have effects that do not differ from those of placebo, I received lots of angry responses from people who told me that they had the opposite experience or observed positive outcomes on their pets. In my subsequent publication in the journal ‘Homeopathy‘ entitled ‘The benefits of Arnica: 16 case reports‘, I have tried my best to explain their experiences in the light of our finding that highly diluted homeopathic Arnica is a placebo:

Sixteen case reports of the apparent benefits of Arnica … raise several relevant points. Firstly, topical Arnica preparations are often wrongly equated with homeopathic Arnica, the subject of our trial. The former are herbal preparations (ie not homeopathically diluted), which have undisputed pharmacological activity. Taken orally they would even be toxic. Thus all Arnica for oral administration must be highly diluted and has therefore no pharmacological effects. The case reports show that many lay people seem to be unclear about the difference between herbal and homeopathic Arnica.

Secondly, if animals seem to respond to homeopathic Arnica, as claimed in several of the case reports, this is not necessarily a proof of its effectiveness. Animals are not immune to placebo effects. Think of Pavlov’s experiments and the fact that conditioning is clearly an element in the placebo response.

Thirdly, the natural history of the condition can mimic clinical improvement caused by therapy. Many of the 16 cases summarized can be explained through a placebo response or the natural history of disease or the combination of both phenomena…

Many of the letters I received were outspoken to say the least. The authors stated that they were ‘appalled’, ‘saddened and angry’ by our research. Others implied that I was paid by the pharmaceutical industry to abolish homeopathy in the UK. One person felt that ‘it is highly irresponsible to dismiss a natural healing remedy with no evidence at all’. I believe the case reports … convey an important message about the power of belief, anecdotes, placebos and expectation.

END OF QUOTE

The thing about case reports and personal experiences is quite simply this: they may seem almost overwhelmingly convincing, but they can NEVER serve as a proof that the treatment in question was effective. The reason for this fact could not be more simple. Any therapeutic response is due to a complex combination of factors: placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression to the mean, etc.

See it this way: you wake up one morning with an enormous hangover. You try to identify the cause of it. Was it the beer you had in the pub? The wine you drank before you went out? Or the whiskey you consumed before you went to bed? Perhaps you think it was the Cognac you enjoyed at a friend’s house? Only one thing is for sure: it was not the glass of shaken water you drank during the night.

 

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