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

This recent Cochrane review assessed the effects of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for post-caesarean pain. Randomised clinical trials (RCTs), including quasi-RCTs and cluster-RCTs, comparing SCAM, alone or associated with other forms of pain relief, versus other treatments or placebo or no treatment, for the treatment of post-CS pain were included.

A total of 37 studies (3076 women) investigating 8 different SCAM therapies for post-CS pain relief were found. There was substantial heterogeneity among the trials. The primary outcome measures were pain and adverse effects. Secondary outcome measures included vital signs, rescue analgesic requirement at 6 weeks after discharge; all of which were poorly reported or not reported at all.

Acupuncture/acupressure

The quality of the RCTs was low. Whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) have any effect on pain. Acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) may reduce pain at 12 hours (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.64 to 0.07; 130 women; 2 studies; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (SMD -0.63, 95% CI -0.99 to -0.26; 2 studies; 130 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) have any effect on the risk of adverse effects.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (mean difference (MD) -2.63 visual analogue scale (VAS), 95% CI -3.48 to -1.77; 3 studies; 360 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -3.38 VAS, 95% CI -3.85 to -2.91; 1 study; 200 women; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether aromatherapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety) compared with placebo plus analgesia.

Electromagnetic therapy

Electromagnetic therapy may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (MD -8.00, 95% CI -11.65 to -4.35; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -13.00 VAS, 95% CI -17.13 to -8.87; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence).

Massage

There were 6 RCTs (651 women), 5 of which were quasi-RCTs, comparing massage (foot and hand) plus analgesia versus analgesia. All the evidence relating to pain, adverse effects (anxiety), vital signs and rescue analgesic requirement was very low-certainty.

Music therapy

Music therapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -0.84, 95% CI -1.23 to -0.46; participants = 115; studies = 2; I2 = 0%; low-certainty evidence), 24 hours (MD -1.79, 95% CI -2.67 to -0.91; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence), and also when compared with analgesia at one hour (MD -2.11, 95% CI -3.11 to -1.10; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -2.69, 95% CI -3.67 to -1.70; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether music therapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety), when compared with placebo plus analgesia because the quality of evidence is very low.

Reiki

The investigators were uncertain whether Reiki plus analgesia compared with analgesia alone has any effect on pain, adverse effects, vital signs or rescue analgesic requirement because the quality of evidence is very low (one study, 90 women). Relaxation Relaxation may reduce pain compared with standard care at 24 hours (MD -0.53 VAS, 95% CI -1.05 to -0.01; 1 study; 60 women; low-certainty evidence).

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

TENS (versus no treatment) may reduce pain at one hour (MD -2.26, 95% CI -3.35 to -1.17; 1 study; 40 women; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -1.10 VAS, 95% CI -1.37 to -0.82; 3 studies; 238 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -0.70 VAS, 95% CI -0.87 to -0.53; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce heart rate (MD -7.00 bpm, 95% CI -7.63 to -6.37; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence) and respiratory rate (MD -1.10 brpm, 95% CI -1.26 to -0.94; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether TENS plus analgesia (versus analgesia) has any effect on pain at six hours or 24 hours, or vital signs because the quality of evidence is very low (two studies, 92 women).

The authors concluded that some SCAM therapies may help reduce post-CS pain for up to 24 hours. The evidence on adverse events is too uncertain to make any judgements on safety and we have no evidence about the longer-term effects on pain. Since pain control is the most relevant outcome for post-CS women and their clinicians, it is important that future studies of SCAM for post-CS pain measure pain as a primary outcome, preferably as the proportion of participants with at least moderate (30%) or substantial (50%) pain relief. Measuring pain as a dichotomous variable would improve the certainty of evidence and it is easy to understand for non-specialists. Future trials also need to be large enough to detect effects on clinical outcomes; measure other important outcomes as listed in this review, and use validated scales.

I feel that the Cochrane Collaboration does itself no favours by publishing such poor reviews. This one is both poorly conceived and badly reported. In fact, I see little reason to deal with pain after CS differently than with post-operative pain in general. Some of the modalities discussed are not truly SCAM. Most of the secondary endpoints are irrelevant. The inclusion of adverse effects as a primary endpoint seems nonsensical considering that SCAM studies are notoriously bad at reporting them. Many of the allegedly positive findings rely on trial designs that cannot control for placebo effects (e.g A+B versus B); therefore they tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the therapy.

Most importantly, the conclusions are not helpful. I would have simply stated that none of the SCAM modalities are supported by convincing evidence as treatments for pain control after CS.

4 Responses to So-called alternative medicine for post-caesarean pain? A Cochrane review

  • There is a clear bias when reporting on SCAM. I have found the theatrical placebo called acupuncture recommended as something to try in Consumer Reports. In the age of alternate facts this is not helpful. In medicine the use of placebo with claims of effectiveness is considered unethical and a violation of informed consent. This sort of “research” allows a way around this quandary as long as one avoids blogs like this one.

  • Edzard,

    I see little reason to deal with pain after CS differently than with post-operative pain in general

    I am inclined to disagree with you here. One important difference here is that post caesarean section the woman is likely to be breast-feeding and the transmission of drugs to the infant via the milk is an important consideration, particularly with regard to the use of opiates and other sedating pharmaceuticals.

    There are other factors that have a bearing on pain here, too, such as the likelihood of higher oxytocin levels associated with breast-feeding a new baby which may induce a feeling of well-being (reducing pain). It is also important that the immediate post-operative management doesn’t do anything which might interfere with the bonding process between mother and child, and some mothers might prefer to have more pain rather than miss out on their first moments with their baby.

    Ultimately pain is something perceived and reported by the patient, and not something that can be readily measured (and retrospective assessment, even going back only half-an-hour or so, is notoriously inaccurate). This perception is strongly affected by expectations and other psychological factors, and the disruption caused by the arrival of a new baby can distract from pain or alternatively exacerbate it depending on the situation. I don’t think post-caesarean pain can readily be compared with pain from elective surgery (e.g. for a hernia or a knee replacement), from emergency surgery (e.g. for a perforated bowel) or from cancer surgery, which are all liable to leave the patient in completely different psychological states.

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