Opioid over-use has become a huge problem, particularly in the US. Proponents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – or so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) as I prefer to call it these days – have been keen to suggest that they have a solution to this problem. But is this really true? So far, the evidence was slim, to say the least.
This systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of the integrative medicine (IM) approach or any of the CAM therapies to reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients.
The electronic searches yielded 5,200 citations. Twenty-three studies were selected. Eight studies were randomized controlled trials, 7 were retrospective studies, 4 studies were prospective observational, 3 were cross-sectional, and one was quasi-experimental. The majority of the studies showed that opioid use was reduced significantly after using IM. Cannabinoids were among the most commonly investigated approaches in reducing opioid use, followed by multidisciplinary approaches, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), and acupuncture. The majority of the studies had limitations related to sample size, duration, and study design.
The authors concluded that there is a small but defined body of literature demonstrating positive preliminary evidence that the IM approach including CAM therapies can help in reducing opioid use. As the opioid crisis continues to grow, it is vital that clinicians and patients be adequately informed regarding the evidence and opportunities for IM/CAM therapies for CP.
The authors who are from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Ontario, Canada (and who claim to have no conflict of interest) seem to have forgotten to discuss some not so unimportant details and questions:
- Why did they include studies with extremely weak designs in their review (such studies are likely to produce false positive findings)?
- Why did they consider treatments such as CBT as CAM (most experts would characterise them as conventional psychological therapies)?
- Why did they not conduct a separate analysis of the RCT-evidence (is it because that would not have generated the result they wanted?)?
My reading of the RCTs – the only type of study that might give a reliable answer to the question posed- is that they do not show a opioid-sparing effect of CAM use, particularly if we eliminate those studies that tested treatments which are not truly CAM. In any case, as I have said several times before, the way to avoid over-prescribing opioid is not through using more therapies of doubtful effectiveness but through prescribing less opioids. And to achieve that, doctors should just do what they learnt in medical school (at least I did all those years ago).