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

acupuncture

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Alternative practitioners practise highly diverse therapies. They seem to have nothing in common – except perhaps that ALL of them are allegedly stimulating our self-healing powers (and except that most proponents are latently or openly against vaccinations). And it is through these self-healing powers that the treatments in question cure anything and become a true panacea. When questioned what these incredible powers really are, most practitioners would (somewhat vaguely) name the immune system as the responsible mechanism. With this post, I intend to provide a short summary of the evidence on this issue:

Acupuncture: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Aromatherapy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Bioresonance: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Chiropractic: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Detox: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Energy healing: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Feldenkrais: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Gua sha: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Herbal medicine: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Homeopathy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Macrobiotics: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Naturopathy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Osteopathy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Power bands: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Reiki: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Reflexology: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Shiatsu: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Tai chi: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

TCM: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.

Vibrational therapy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.


Vaccinations: very good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.


THE END

Why  do most alternative practitioners  show such dogged determination not to change their view of the efficacy of their therapy, even if  good evidence shows that it is a placebo? This is the question that I have been pondering for some time. I have seen many doctors change their mind about this or that treatment in the light of new evidence. In fact, I have not seen one who has not done so at some stage. Yet I have never seen an alternative therapist change his/her mind about his/her alternative therapy. Why is that?

You might say that the answers are obvious:

  • because they have heavily invested in their therapy, both emotionally and financially;
  • because their therapy has ‘stood the test of time’;
  • because they believe what they were taught;
  • because they are deluded, not very bright, etc.;
  • because they need to earn a living.

All of these reasons may apply. But do they really tell the whole story? While contemplating about this question, I thought of something that had previously not been entirely clear to me: they simply KNOW that the evidence MUST be wrong.

Let me try to explain.

Consider an acupuncturist (I could have chosen almost any other type of alternative practitioner) who has many years of experience. He has grown to be a well-respected expert in the world of acupuncture. He sits on various committees and has advised important institutions. He knows the literature and has treated thousands of patients.

This experience has taught him one thing for sure: his patients do benefit from his treatment. He has seen it happening too many times; it cannot be a coincidence. Acupuncture works, no question about it.

And this is also what the studies tell him. Even the most sceptical scientist cannot deny the fact that patients do get better after acupuncture. So, what is the problem?

The problem is that sceptics say that this is due to a placebo effect, and many studies seem to confirm this to be true. Yet, our acupuncturist completely dismisses the placebo explanation.

Why?

  • Because he has heavily invested in their therapy? Perhaps.
  • Because acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’? Perhaps.
  • Because he believes what he has been taught? Perhaps.
  • Because he is deluded, not very bright, etc.? Perhaps.
  • Because he needs to earn a living? Perhaps.

But there is something else.

He has only ever treated his patients with acupuncture. He has therefore no experience of real medicine, or other therapeutic options. He has no perspective. Therefore, he does not know that patients often get better, even if they receive an ineffective treatment, even if they receive no treatment, and even if they receive a harmful treatment. Every improvement he notes in his patients, he relates to his acupuncture. Our acupuncturist never had the opportunity to learn to doubt cause and effect in his clinical routine. He never had to question the benefits of acupuncture. He never had to select from a pool of therapies the optimal one, because he only ever used acupuncture.

It is this lack of experience that never led him to think critically about acupuncture. He is in a similar situation as physicians were 200 years ago; they only (mainly) had blood-letting, and because some patients improved with it, they had no reason to doubt it. He only ever saw his successes (not that all his patients improved, but those who did not, did not return). He simply KNOWS that acupuncture works, because his own, very limited experience never forced him to consider anything else. And because he KNOWS, the evidence that does not agree with his knowledge MUST be wrong.

I am of course exaggerating and simplifying in order to make a point. And please don’t get me wrong.

I am not saying that doctors cannot be stubborn. And I am not saying that all alternative practitioners have such limited experience and are unable to change their mind in the light of new evidence. However, I am trying to say that many alternative practitioners have a limited perspective and therefore find it impossible to be critical about their own practice.

If I am right, there would be an easy (and entirely alternative) cure to remedy this situation. We should sent our acupuncturist to a homeopath (or any other alternative practitioner whose practice he assumes to be entirely bogus) and ask him to watch what kind of therapeutic success the homeopath is generating. The acupuncturist would soon see that it is very similar to his own. He would then have the choice to agree that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective in curing illness, or that the homeopath relies on the same phenomenon as his own practice: placebo.

Sadly, this is not going to happen, is it?

 

My previous post praised the validity and trustworthiness of Cochrane reviews. This post continues in the same line.

Like osteoarthritis, acute stroke has been a condition for which acupuncture-fans prided themselves of being able to produce fairly good evidence. A Cochrane review of 2005, however, was inconclusive and concluded that the number of patients is too small to be certain whether acupuncture is effective for treatment of acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke. Larger, methodologically-sound trials are required.

So, 13 years later, we do have more evidence, and it would be interesting to know what the best evidence tells us today. This new review will tell us because it is the update of the previous Cochrane Review originally published in 2005.

The authors sought randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of acupuncture started within 30 days from stroke onset compared with placebo or sham acupuncture or open control (no placebo) in people with acute ischemic or haemorrhagic stroke, or both. Needling into the skin was required for acupuncture. Comparisons were made versus (1) all controls (open control or sham acupuncture), and (2) sham acupuncture controls.

Two review authors applied the inclusion criteria, assessed trial quality and risk of bias, and extracted data independently. They contacted study authors to ask for missing data and assessed the quality of the evidence by using the GRADE approach. The primary outcome was defined as death or dependency at the end of follow-up.

In total, 33 RCTs with 3946 participants were included. Twenty new trials with 2780 participants had been completed since the previous review. Outcome data were available for up to 22 trials (2865 participants) that compared acupuncture with any control (open control or sham acupuncture) but for only six trials (668 participants) that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture control. The authors downgraded the evidence to low or very low quality because of risk of bias in included studies, inconsistency in the acupuncture intervention and outcome measures, and imprecision in effect estimates.

When compared with any control (11 trials with 1582 participants), findings of lower odds of death or dependency at the end of follow-up and over the long term (≥ three months) in the acupuncture group were uncertain (odds ratio [OR] 0.61, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.46 to 0.79; very low-quality evidence; and OR 0.67, 95% CI 0.53 to 0.85; eight trials with 1436 participants; very low-quality evidence, respectively) and were not confirmed by trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture (OR 0.71, 95% CI 0.43 to 1.18; low-quality evidence; and OR 0.67, 95% CI 0.40 to 1.12; low-quality evidence, respectively).In trials comparing acupuncture with any control, findings that acupuncture was associated with increases in the global neurological deficit score and in the motor function score were uncertain (standardized mean difference [SMD] 0.84, 95% CI 0.36 to 1.32; 12 trials with 1086 participants; very low-quality evidence; and SMD 1.08, 95% CI 0.45 to 1.71; 11 trials with 895 participants; very low-quality evidence).

These findings were not confirmed in trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture (SMD 0.01, 95% CI -0.55 to 0.57; low-quality evidence; and SMD 0.10, 95% CI -0.38 to 0.17; low-quality evidence, respectively).Trials comparing acupuncture with any control reported little or no difference in death or institutional care at the end of follow-up (OR 0.78, 95% CI 0.54 to 1.12; five trials with 1120 participants; low-quality evidence), death within the first two weeks (OR 0.91, 95% CI 0.33 to 2.55; 18 trials with 1612 participants; low-quality evidence), or death at the end of follow-up (OR 1.08, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.58; 22 trials with 2865 participants; low-quality evidence).

The incidence of adverse events (eg, pain, dizziness, fainting) in the acupuncture arms of open and sham control trials was 6.2% (64/1037 participants), and 1.4% of these (14/1037 participants) discontinued acupuncture. When acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture, findings for adverse events were uncertain (OR 0.58, 95% CI 0.29 to 1.16; five trials with 576 participants; low-quality evidence).

The authors concluded that this updated review indicates that apparently improved outcomes with acupuncture in acute stroke are confounded by the risk of bias related to use of open controls. Adverse events related to acupuncture were reported to be minor and usually did not result in stopping treatment. Future studies are needed to confirm or refute any effects of acupuncture in acute stroke. Trials should clearly report the method of randomization, concealment of allocation, and whether blinding of participants, personnel, and outcome assessors was achieved, while paying close attention to the effects of acupuncture on long-term functional outcomes.

These cautious conclusions might be explained by the fact that Chinese researchers are reluctant to state anything overtly negative about any TCM therapy. Recently, one expert who spoke out was even imprisoned for criticising a TCM product! But in truth, this review really shows that acupuncture has no convincing effect in acute stroke.

And for me, this conclusion is fascinating. I have been involved in acupuncture/stroke research since the early 1990s.

Our RCT produced a resounding negative result concluding that acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients.

Our 1996 systematic review concluded that the evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct for stroke rehabilitation is encouraging but not compelling.

By 2001, more data had become available but the conclusion became even less encouraging: there is no compelling evidence to show that acupuncture is effective in stroke rehabilitation.

Finally, by 2010, there were 10 RCT and we were able to do a meta-analysis of the data. We concluded that our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke.

Yes, my reviews were on slightly different research questions. Yet, they do reveal how a critical assessment of the slowly emerging evidence had to arrive at more and more negative conclusions about the role of acupuncture in the management of stroke patients. For a long time, this message was in stark contrast to what acupuncture-fans were claiming. I wonder whether they will now finally change their mind.

I have said it often, and I say it again: I do like well-conducted systematic reviews; and Cochrane reviews are usually the best, i. e. most transparent, most thorough and least biased. Thus, I was pleased to see a new Cochrane review of acupuncture aimed at assessing the benefits and harms of acupuncture in patients with hip OA.

The authors included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, another active treatment, or no specific treatment; and RCTs that evaluated acupuncture as an addition to another treatment. Major outcomes were pain and function at the short term (i.e. < 3 months after randomization) and adverse events.

Six RCTs with 413 participants were included. Four RCTs included only people with OA of the hip, and two included a mix of people with OA of the hip and knee. All RCTs included primarily older participants, with a mean age range from 61 to 67 years, and a mean duration of hip OA pain from two to eight years. Approximately two-thirds of participants were women. Two RCTs compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture; the other four RCTs were not blinded. All results were evaluated at short-term (i.e. four to nine weeks after randomization).In the two RCTs that compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture, the sham acupuncture control interventions were judged believable, but each sham acupuncture intervention was also judged to have a risk of weak acupuncture-specific effects, due to placement of non-penetrating needles at the correct acupuncture points in one RCT, and the use of penetrating needles not inserted at the correct points in the other RCT. For these two sham-controlled RCTs, the risk of bias was low for all outcomes.

The combined analysis of two sham-controlled RCTs gave moderate quality evidence of little or no effect in reduction in pain for acupuncture relative to sham acupuncture. Due to the small sample sizes in the studies, the confidence interval includes both the possibility of moderate benefit and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture (120 participants; Standardized Mean Difference (SMD) -0.13, (95% Confidence Interval (CI) -0.49 to 0.22); 2.1 points greater improvement with acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture on 100 point scale (i.e., absolute percent change -2.1% (95% CI -7.9% to 3.6%)); relative percent change -4.1% (95% CI -15.6% to 7.0%)). Estimates of effect were similar for function (120 participants; SMD -0.15, (95% CI -0.51 to 0.21)). No pooled estimate, representative of the two sham-controlled RCTs, could be calculated or reported for the quality of life outcome.

The four other RCTs were unblinded comparative effectiveness RCTs, which compared (additional) acupuncture to four different active control treatments. There was low quality evidence that addition of acupuncture to the routine primary care that RCT participants were receiving from their physicians was associated with statistically significant and clinically relevant benefits, compared to the routine primary physician care alone, in pain (1 RCT; 137 participants; mean percent difference -22.9% (95% CI -29.2% to -16.6%); relative percent difference -46.5% (95% CI -59.3% to -33.7%)) and function (mean percent difference -19.0% (95% CI -24.41 to -13.59); relative percent difference -38.6% (95% CI -49.6% to -27.6%)). There was no statistically significant difference for mental quality of life and acupuncture showed a small, significant benefit for physical quality of life.

The effects of acupuncture compared with either advice plus exercise or NSAIDs are uncertain. The authors are also uncertain whether acupuncture plus patient education improves pain, function, and quality of life, when compared to patient education alone.

In general, the overall quality of the evidence for the four comparative effectiveness RCTs was low to very low, mainly due to the potential for biased reporting of patient-assessed outcomes due to lack of blinding and sparse data.

Information on safety was reported in 4 RCTs. Two RCTs reported minor side effects of acupuncture, which were primarily minor bruising, bleeding, or pain at needle insertion sites.

The authors concluded that acupuncture probably has little or no effect in reducing pain or improving function relative to sham acupuncture in people with hip osteoarthritis. Due to the small sample size in the studies, the confidence intervals include both the possibility of moderate benefits and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture. One unblinded trial found that acupuncture as an addition to routine primary physician care was associated with benefits on pain and function. However, these reported benefits are likely due at least partially to RCT participants’ greater expectations of benefit from acupuncture. Possible side effects associated with acupuncture treatment were minor.

This is an excellent review of data that (because of contradictions, methodological limitations, heterogeneity etc.) are not easy to evaluate fairly. The review shows that previous verdicts about acupuncture for osteoarthritis might have been too optimistic. Acupuncture has no or only very small specific therapeutic effects. As we have much better therapeutic options for this condition, it means that acupuncture can no longer be recommended as an effective therapy.

That surely must be big news in the little world of acupuncture!

I have been personally involved in several similar reviews:

In 1997, I concluded that the most rigorous studies suggest that acupuncture is not superior to sham-needling in reducing pain of osteoarthritis: both alleviate symptoms to roughly the same degree.

In 2006, the balance of evidence seemed to have shifted and more positive data had emerged; consequently our review concluded that sham-controlled RCTs suggest specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with peripheral joint OA. Considering its favourable safety profile acupuncture seems an option worthy of consideration particularly for knee OA. Further studies are required particularly for manual or electro-acupuncture in hip OA.

Now, it seems that my initial conclusion of 1996 was more realistic. To me this is a fascinating highlight on the fact that in EBM, we change our minds based on the current best evidence. By contrast, in alternative medicine, as we have often lamented on this blog, minds do not easily change and all too often dogma seems to reign.

The new Cochrane review is important in several ways. Firstly, it affirms an appropriately high standard for such reviews. Secondly, it originates from a research team that has, in the past, been outspokenly pro-acupuncture; it is therefore unlikely that the largely negative findings were due to an anti-acupuncture bias. Thirdly – and most importantly – osteoarthritis has been THE condition for which even critical reviewers had to admit that there was at least some good, positive evidence.

It seems therefore, that yet again a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact.

Does acupuncture increase birth rates after IVF?

You might be correct when pointing out that this is a rhetorical question.

Why should acupuncture increase the live birth rates after in vitro fertilization (IVF)?

Because it re-balances yin and yang?

Give me a break!!!

Yet acupuncture is widely used by women undergoing IVF, and therefore, we perhaps ought to know whether it works.

Laudably someone has conducted a trial so that we know the answer.

This study determined the efficacy of acupuncture compared with a sham acupuncture control performed during IVF on live births. It was designed as a single-blind, parallel-group RCT, including 848 women undergoing a fresh IVF cycle, and conducted at 16 IVF centres in Australia and New Zealand between June 29, 2011, and October 23, 2015, with 10 months of pregnancy follow-up until August 2016.

The women received either acupuncture (n = 424) or a sham acupuncture control (n = 424). The first treatment was administered between days 6 to 8 of follicle stimulation, and two treatments were administered prior to and following embryo transfer. The sham control used a non-invasive needle placed away from acupuncture points. The primary outcome was live birth, defined as the delivery of one or more living infants at greater than 20 weeks’ gestation or birth weight of at least 400 g.

Among the 848 women, 24 withdrew consent, and 824 were included in the study, 607 proceeded to an embryo transfer, and 809 (98.2%) had data available on live birth outcomes. Live births occurred among 74 of 405 women (18.3%) receiving acupuncture compared with 72 of 404 women (17.8%) receiving sham control.

The authors concluded that among women undergoing IVF, administration of acupuncture vs sham acupuncture at the time of ovarian stimulation and embryo transfer resulted in no significant difference in live birth rates. These findings do not support the use of acupuncture to improve the rate of live births among women undergoing IVF.

This is a clear result and technically a fairly decent study. I say ‘fairly decent’ because, had the result been positive, one would have to question the efficacy blinding as well as the fact that the acupuncturists might have (inadvertently?) influenced their verum-patients such that they were less anxious and thus produced better outcomes. Moreover, the trial was under-powered, and its publication so long after the end of the study is odd, in my view.

There have, of course, been plenty of trials and even systematic reviews of this topic. Here are the conclusions of the three most recent reviews:

Yet the authors state that “the evidence for efficacy is conflicting”.

Why?

The above conclusions seem crystal clear and not at all conflicting!

Is it because the authors needed to justify the no doubt huge costs for their study?

Is it because conducting such a trial while the evidence is already clear (and negative) is arguably not ethical?

Is it because the authors needed this alleged ‘uncertainty’ for getting their trial in a major journal?

I am, of course, not sure – but I am quite sure of one thing: the evidence that acupuncture is useless for IVF was already pretty clear when they started their study.

And pretending otherwise amounts to telling porkies, doesn’t it?

And telling porkies is unethical, isn’t it?

Prof Ke’s Asante Academy (Ke claims that asante is French and means good health – wrong, of course, but that’s the least of his errors) offers many amazing things, and I do encourage you to have a look at his website. Prof Ke is clearly not plagued by false modesty; he informs us that “I am proud to say that we have gained a reputation as one of the leading Chinese Medicine clinics and teaching institutes in the UK and Europe. One CEO from a leading Acupuncture register commented that we were the best in the country. One doctor gave up his medical job in a European country to come study Chinese medicine at Middlesex University (our partner) – he said simply it was because of Asante. Our patients, from royalty and celebrities to hard working people all over the world, have praised us highly for successfully treating their wide-ranging conditions, including infertility, skin problems, pain and many others. We are also very pleased to have pioneered Acupuncture service in the NHS and for over a decade we have seen tens of thousands of NHS patients in hospitals.”

He provides treatments for any condition you can imagine, courses in various forms of TCM, a range of videos (they are particularly informative), as well as interesting explanations and treatment plans for dozens of conditions. From the latter, I have chosen just two diseases and quote some extracts to give you a vivid impression of the Ke’s genius:

CANCER

There are some ways in which Chinese medicine can help cancer cases where Western medicine cannot. Various herbal prescriptions have been shown to help in bolstering the immune system and some herbs can actually attack the abnormal cells and viruses which are responsible for certain types of cancer.

Chinese Medicine treatment aims first to increase the body’s own defence mechanisms, then to kill the cancer cells. Effective though radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be, they tend to have a drastic effect on the body generally and patients often feel very tired and weak, suffer from stress, anxiety, fear, insomnia and loss of appetite. Chinese Medicine practitioners regard strengthening the patient psychologically and physically to be of primary importance.

Chinese Medicine herbal remedies can help reduce or eliminate the side-effects from radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Astragalus will help raise the blood cell count, the sickness caused by chemotherapy can be relieved with fresh ginger and orange peel, and acupuncture can also help. To attack the cancer itself, depending on type and location, different herbs will be used.

A Chinese Medicine practitiioner will decide whether the illness is the result of qi energy deficiency, blood deficiency or yin or yang deficiencyGinseng,astragalusChinese angelicacooked rehmannia rootwolfberry rootChinese yam and many tonic herbs may be used. But it is vital to remember that no one tonic is good for everybody. All treatments are dependent upon the individual. Some anti-cancer herbs used are very strong and sometimes make people sick, but this is because one poison is being used against another. How they work, and how clinically effective they are, is still being researched. No claims can be made for them based on modern scientific evaluation.

Acupuncture and meditation are also very important parts of the Chinese Medicine traditional approach to the treatment of cancer. These alleviate pain and induce a sense of calmness, instill confidence and build up the spirit of the body, so that patients do not need to take so many painkillers. In China, they have many meditation programmes which are used to treat cancer.

MENINGITIS

Chinese Medicine herbal treatment for meningitis has been very successful in China. In the recent past there were many epidemics, particularly in the north, and the hospitals routinely used Chinese herbs as treatment, with a high degree of success. One famous remedy in Chinese Medicine is called White Tiger Decoction, the main ingredients of which are gypsum and rice. These are simple things but they reduce the high fever and clear the infection from the brain. Modern medicine and Chinese Medicine used together is the most effective treatment.

END OF QUOTES

Ghosh, I am so glad that finally someone explained these things to me, and so logically and simply too. I used to have doubts about the value of TCM for these conditions, but now I am convinced … so much so that I go on Medline to find the scientific work of Prof Ke. But what, what, what? That is not possible; such a famous professor and no publications?

I conclude that my search skills are inadequate and throw myself into studying the plethora of courses Ke offers for the benefit of mankind:

Since 2000, Asanté Academy has officially collaborated with Middlesex University in running and teaching the BSc and MSc in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

  • BSc Degrees in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • MSc Degree in Chinese Medicine
  • Professional Practice in Herbal Medicine, Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture

But perhaps this is a bit too arduous; maybe so-called diploma courses suit me better? Personally, I am tempted by the ‘24-day Certificate Course in TCM Acupuncture‘ – it’s a bargain, just £ 2,880!

PS

Prof Ke, if you read these lines, would you please tell us where and when you got your professorship? Your otherwise ostentatious website seems to fail to disclose this detail.

An article in yesterday’ Times makes the surprising claim that ‘doctors turn to herbal cures when the drugs don’t work’. As the subject is undoubtedly relevant to this blog and as the Times is a highly respected newspaper, I think this might be important and will therefore comment (in normal print) on the full text of the article (in bold print):

GPs are increasingly dissatisfied with doling out pills that do not work for illnesses with social and emotional roots, and a surprising number of them end up turning to alternative medicine.

What a sentence! I would have thought that GPs have always been ‘dissatisfied’ with treatments that are ineffective. But who says they turn to alternative medicine in ‘surprising numbers’ (our own survey does not confirm the notion)? And what is a ‘surprising number’ anyway (zero would be surprising, in my view)?

Charlotte Mendes da Costa is unusual in being both an NHS GP and a registered homeopath. Her frustration with the conventional approach of matching a medicine to a symptom is growing as doctors increasingly see the limits, and the risks, of such a tactic.

Do we get the impression that THE TIMES does not know that homeopathy is not herbal medicine? Do they know that ‘matching a medicine to a symptom’ is what homeopaths believe they are doing? Real doctors try to find the cause of a symptom and, whenever possible, treat it.

She asks patients with sore throats questions that few other GPs pose: “What side is it? Is it easier to swallow solids or liquids? What time of day is it worst?” Dr Mendes da Costa is trying to find out which homeopathic remedy to prescribe. But when NHS guidance for sore throats aims mainly to convince patients that they will get better on their own, her questions are just as important as her prescription.

This section makes no sense. Sore throats do get better on their own, that’s a fact. And empathy is not a monopoly of homeopaths. But Dr Mendes Da Costa might be somewhat detached from reality; she once promoted the nonsensical notion that “up to the end of 2010, 156 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy had been carried out with 41% reporting positive effects, whereas only 7% have been negative. The remainder were non-conclusive.” (see more on this particular issue here)

“It’s very difficult to disentangle the effect of listening to someone properly, in a non-judgmental way, and taking a real rather than a superficial interest,” she says. “With a sore throat [I was trained] really only to be interested in, ‘Do they need antibiotics or not?’ ”

In this case, she should ask her money back; her medical school seems to have been rubbish in training her adequately.

This week a Lancet series on back pain said that millions of patients were getting treatments that did them no good. A government review is looking into how one in 11 people has come to be on potentially addictive drugs such as tranquillisers, opioid painkillers and antidepressants.

Yes, and how is that an argument for homeopathy? It isn’t! It seems to come from the textbook of fallacies.

And this week a BMJ Open study found that GPs with alternative training prescribed a fifth fewer antibiotics.

That study was akin to showing that butchers sell less vegetables than green-grocers. It provided no argument at all for implying that homeopathy is a valuable therapy.

Doctors seem receptive to alternative approaches: in a poll on its website 70 per cent agreed that doctors should recommend acupuncture to patients in pain. The Faculty of Homeopathy now counts 400 doctors among its 700 healthcare professional members.

Wow! Does the Times journalist know that the ‘Faculty of Homeopathy’ is primarily an organisation for doctor homeopaths? If so, why are these figures anything to write home about? And does the author appreciate that the pole was open not just to doctors but to to anyone (particularly those who were motivated, like acupuncturists)?

This horrifies many academics, who say that there is almost no evidence that complementary therapies work.

It horrifies nobody, I’d say. It puzzles some people, and not just academics. And their claim of a lack of sound evidence is evidence-based.

“It’s a false battle”, says Michael Dixon, a GP who chairs the College of Medicine, which is trying to broaden the focus on treatment to patients’ whole lives. “GPs are practical. If a patient gets better that’s all that matters.”

Here comes the inevitable Dr Dixon (the ‘pyromaniac in a field of straw-men’) with the oldest chestnut in town. But repeating a nonsense endlessly does not render it sensible.

Dr Dixon says there are enormous areas of illness ranging from chronic pain to irritable bowels where few conventional treatments have been shown to be particularly effective, so why not try alternatives with fewer side effects?

Unable to diagnose and treat adequately, let’s all do the next worst thing and apply some outright quackery?!? Logic does not seem to be Dixon’s strong point, does it?

He recommends herbal remedies such as pelargonium — “like a geranium, quite a pretty little flower” — acupressure, and techniques such as self-hypnosis. To those who say these are placebos he replies: so what?

So what indeed! There are over 200 species of pelargonium; only 2 or 3 of them are used in herbal medicine. I don’t suppose Dr Dixon wants to poison us?

“Aromatherapy does work, but only if you believe in it, that’s the way you have to look at it, like a mother kissing knees better.” He continues: “We are healers. That’s what we do as doctors. You can call it theatrical or you can call it a relationship. A lot of patients come in with a metaphor — a headache is actually unhappiness — and the treatment is symbolic.”

It frightens me to know that there are doctors out there who think like this!

What if a patient is seriously ill?

A cancer is a metaphor for what exactly?

As doctors, we have the ethical duty to apply BOTH the science and the art of medicine, BOTH efficacious, evidence-based therapies AND compassion. Can I be so bold as to recommend our book about the ethics of alternative medicine to Dixon?

Such talk makes conventional doctors very nervous. Yet acupuncture illustrates their dilemma. It used to be recommended by the NHS for back pain because patients did improve. Now it is not, after further evidence suggested that patients given placebo “sham acupuncture” did just as well.

No, acupuncture used to be recommended by NICE because there was some evidence; when subsequently more rigorous trials emerged showing that it does NOT work, NICE stopped recommending it. Real medicine develops – it’s only alternative medicine and its proponents that seem to be stuck in the past and resist progress.

Martin Underwood, of the University of Warwick, asks: “So are you going to say, ‘Well, patients get better than they would do otherwise’? Or say it’s all theatrical placebo because it shows no benefit over sham treatment? That’s the question for society.”

Society has long answered it! The answer is called evidence-based medicine. We are not content using quackery for its placebo response; we know that effective treatments do that too, and we want to make progress and improve healthcare of tomorrow.

Although many doctors agree that they need to look at patients more broadly, they insist they do not need to turn to unproven treatments. The magic ingredient, they say, is not an alternative remedy, but time. Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Practices which offer alternative therapies tend to spend longer with patients . . . allowing for more in-depth conversations.”


I am sorry, if this post turned into a bit of a lengthy rant. But it was needed, I think: if there ever was a poorly written, ill focussed, badly researched and badly argued article on alternative medicine, it must be this one.

Did I call the Times a highly respected paper?

I take it back.

The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.

Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP  bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,

The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.

Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:

EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP RISKS COSTS RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE
Advice to stay active +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Education +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Superficial heat +/- Ie Very minor Low to medium Positive (aLBP)
Exercise Limited +/-, routine Very minor Low Positive (pLBP)
CBT Limited +/-, routine None Low to medium Positive (pLBP)
Spinal manipulation +/- +/- vfbmae
sae
High Negative
Massage +/- +/- Very minor High Positive
Acupuncture +/- +/- sae High Questionable
Yoga Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Mindfulness Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Rehab Ie +/- Minor Medium to high Questionable

Routine = consider for routine use

+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment

Ie = insufficient evidence

Limited = limited use in selected patients

vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects

sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record

aLBP = acute low back pain

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.

I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.

The plethora of dodgy meta-analyses in alternative medicine has been the subject of a recent post – so this one is a mere update of a regular lament.

This new meta-analysis was to evaluate evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of lumbar disc herniation (LDH). (Call me pedantic, but I prefer meta-analyses that evaluate the evidence FOR AND AGAINST a therapy.) Electronic databases were searched to identify RCTs of acupuncture for LDH, and 30 RCTs involving 3503 participants were included; 29 were published in Chinese and one in English, and all trialists were Chinese.

The results showed that acupuncture had a higher total effective rate than lumbar traction, ibuprofen, diclofenac sodium and meloxicam. Acupuncture was also superior to lumbar traction and diclofenac sodium in terms of pain measured with visual analogue scales (VAS). The total effective rate in 5 trials was greater for acupuncture than for mannitol plus dexamethasone and mecobalamin, ibuprofen plus fugui gutong capsule, loxoprofen, mannitol plus dexamethasone and huoxue zhitong decoction, respectively. Two trials showed a superior effect of acupuncture in VAS scores compared with ibuprofen or mannitol plus dexamethasone, respectively.

The authors from the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Jinan University, Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, concluded that acupuncture showed a more favourable effect in the treatment of LDH than lumbar traction, ibuprofen, diclofenac sodium, meloxicam, mannitol plus dexamethasone and mecobalamin, fugui gutong capsule plus ibuprofen, mannitol plus dexamethasone, loxoprofen and huoxue zhitong decoction. However, further rigorously designed, large-scale RCTs are needed to confirm these findings.

Why do I call this meta-analysis ‘dodgy’? I have several reasons, 10 to be exact:

  1. There is no plausible mechanism by which acupuncture might cure LDH.
  2. The types of acupuncture used in these trials was far from uniform and  included manual acupuncture (MA) in 13 studies, electro-acupuncture (EA) in 10 studies, and warm needle acupuncture (WNA) in 7 studies. Arguably, these are different interventions that cannot be lumped together.
  3. The trials were mostly of very poor quality, as depicted in the table above. For instance, 18 studies failed to mention the methods used for randomisation. I have previously shown that some Chinese studies use the terms ‘randomisation’ and ‘RCT’ even in the absence of a control group.
  4. None of the trials made any attempt to control for placebo effects.
  5. None of the trials were conducted against sham acupuncture.
  6. Only 10 studies 10 trials reported dropouts or withdrawals.
  7. Only two trials reported adverse reactions.
  8. None of these shortcomings were critically discussed in the paper.
  9. Despite their affiliation, the authors state that they have no conflicts of interest.
  10. All trials were conducted in China, and, on this blog, we have discussed repeatedly that acupuncture trials from China never report negative results.

And why do I find the journal ‘dodgy’?

Because any journal that publishes such a paper is likely to be sub-standard. In the case of ‘Acupuncture in Medicine’, the official journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, I see such appalling articles published far too frequently to believe that the present paper is just a regrettable, one-off mistake. What makes this issue particularly embarrassing is, of course, the fact that the journal belongs to the BMJ group.

… but we never really thought that science publishing was about anything other than money, did we?

What an odd title, you might think.

Systematic reviews are the most reliable evidence we presently have!

Yes, this is my often-voiced and honestly-held opinion but, like any other type of research, systematic reviews can be badly abused; and when this happens, they can seriously mislead us.

new paper by someone who knows more about these issues than most of us, John Ioannidis from Stanford university, should make us think. It aimed at exploring the growth of published systematic reviews and meta‐analyses and at estimating how often they are redundant, misleading, or serving conflicted interests. Ioannidis demonstrated that publication of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has increased rapidly. In the period January 1, 1986, to December 4, 2015, PubMed tags 266,782 items as “systematic reviews” and 58,611 as “meta‐analyses.” Annual publications between 1991 and 2014 increased 2,728% for systematic reviews and 2,635% for meta‐analyses versus only 153% for all PubMed‐indexed items. Ioannidis believes that probably more systematic reviews of trials than new randomized trials are published annually. Most topics addressed by meta‐analyses of randomized trials have overlapping, redundant meta‐analyses; same‐topic meta‐analyses may exceed 20 sometimes.

Some fields produce massive numbers of meta‐analyses; for example, 185 meta‐analyses of antidepressants for depression were published between 2007 and 2014. These meta‐analyses are often produced either by industry employees or by authors with industry ties and results are aligned with sponsor interests. China has rapidly become the most prolific producer of English‐language, PubMed‐indexed meta‐analyses. The most massive presence of Chinese meta‐analyses is on genetic associations (63% of global production in 2014), where almost all results are misleading since they combine fragmented information from mostly abandoned era of candidate genes. Furthermore, many contracting companies working on evidence synthesis receive industry contracts to produce meta‐analyses, many of which probably remain unpublished. Many other meta‐analyses have serious flaws. Of the remaining, most have weak or insufficient evidence to inform decision making. Few systematic reviews and meta‐analyses are both non‐misleading and useful.

The author concluded that the production of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has reached epidemic proportions. Possibly, the large majority of produced systematic reviews and meta‐analyses are unnecessary, misleading, and/or conflicted.

Ioannidis makes the following ‘Policy Points’:

  • Currently, there is massive production of unnecessary, misleading, and conflicted systematic reviews and meta‐analyses. Instead of promoting evidence‐based medicine and health care, these instruments often serve mostly as easily produced publishable units or marketing tools.
  • Suboptimal systematic reviews and meta‐analyses can be harmful given the major prestige and influence these types of studies have acquired.
  • The publication of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses should be realigned to remove biases and vested interests and to integrate them better with the primary production of evidence.

Obviously, Ioannidis did not have alternative medicine in mind when he researched and published this article. But he easily could have! Virtually everything he stated in his paper does apply to it. In some areas of alternative medicine, things are even worse than Ioannidis describes.

Take TCM, for instance. I have previously looked at some of the many systematic reviews of TCM that currently flood Medline, based on Chinese studies. This is what I concluded at the time:

Why does that sort of thing frustrate me so much? Because it is utterly meaningless and potentially harmful:

  • I don’t know what treatments the authors are talking about.
  • Even if I managed to dig deeper, I cannot get the information because practically all the primary studies are published in obscure journals in Chinese language.
  • Even if I  did read Chinese, I do not feel motivated to assess the primary studies because we know they are all of very poor quality – too flimsy to bother.
  • Even if they were formally of good quality, I would have my doubts about their reliability; remember: 100% of these trials report positive findings!
  • Most crucially, I am frustrated because conclusions of this nature are deeply misleading and potentially harmful. They give the impression that there might be ‘something in it’, and that it (whatever ‘it’ might be) could be well worth trying. This may give false hope to patients and can send the rest of us on a wild goose chase.

So, to ease the task of future authors of such papers, I decided give them a text for a proper EVIDENCE-BASED conclusion which they can adapt to fit every review. This will save them time and, more importantly perhaps, it will save everyone who might be tempted to read such futile articles the effort to study them in detail. Here is my suggestion for a conclusion soundly based on the evidence, not matter what TCM subject the review is about:

OUR SYSTEMATIC REVIEW HAS SHOWN THAT THERAPY ‘X’ AS A TREATMENT OF CONDITION ‘Y’ IS CURRENTLY NOT SUPPORTED BY SOUND EVIDENCE.

On another occasion, I stated that I am getting very tired of conclusions stating ‘…XY MAY BE EFFECTIVE/HELPFUL/USEFUL/WORTH A TRY…’ It is obvious that the therapy in question MAY be effective, otherwise one would surely not conduct a systematic review. If a review fails to produce good evidence, it is the authors’ ethical, moral and scientific obligation to state this clearly. If they don’t, they simply misuse science for promotion and mislead the public. Strictly speaking, this amounts to scientific misconduct.

In yet another post on the subject of systematic reviews, I wrote that if you have rubbish trials, you can produce a rubbish review and publish it in a rubbish journal (perhaps I should have added ‘rubbish researchers).

And finally this post about a systematic review of acupuncture: it is almost needless to mention that the findings (presented in a host of hardly understandable tables) suggest that acupuncture is of proven or possible effectiveness/efficacy for a very wide array of conditions. It also goes without saying that there is no critical discussion, for instance, of the fact that most of the included evidence originated from China, and that it has been shown over and over again that Chinese acupuncture research never seems to produce negative results.

The main point surely is that the problem of shoddy systematic reviews applies to a depressingly large degree to all areas of alternative medicine, and this is misleading us all.

So, what can be done about it?

My preferred (but sadly unrealistic) solution would be this:

STOP ENTHUSIASTIC AMATEURS FROM PRETENDING TO BE RESEARCHERS!

Research is not fundamentally different from other professional activities; to do it well, one needs adequate training; and doing it badly can cause untold damage.

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