This is going to be a very short post. Yet, I am sure you agree that my ‘golden rules’ encapsulate the collective wisdom of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM):
- Conventional treatments are dangerous
- Conventional doctors are ignorant
- Natural remedies are by definition good
- Ancient wisdom knows best
- SCAM tackles the roots of all health problems
- Experience trumps evidence
- People vote with their feet (SCAM’s popularity and patients’ satisfaction prove SCAM’s effectiveness)
- Science is barking up the wrong tree (what we need is a paradigm shift)
- Even Nobel laureates and other VIPs support SCAM
- Only SCAM practitioners care about the whole individual (mind, body, and soul)
- Science is not yet sufficiently advanced to understand how SCAM works (the mode of action has not been discovered)
- SCAM even works for animals (and thus cannot be a placebo)
- There is reliable evidence to support SCAM
- If a study of SCAM happens to yield a negative result, it is false-negative (e.g. because SCAM was not correctly applied)
- SCAM is patient-centered
- Conventional medicine is money-orientated
- The establishment is forced to suppress SCAM because otherwise, they would go out of business
- SCAM is reliable, constant, and unwavering (whereas conventional medicine changes its views all the time)
- SCAM does not need a monitoring system for adverse effects because it is inherently safe
- SCAM treatments are individualized (they treat the patient and not just a diagnostic label like conventional medicine)
- SCAM could save us all a lot of money
- There is no health problem that SCAM cannot cure
- Practitioners of conventional medicine have misunderstood the deeper reasons why people fall ill and should learn from SCAM
I am sure that I have forgotten several important rules. If you can think of any, please post them in the comments section.
Two recent reviews have evaluated the evidence for acupuncture as a means of preventing migraine attacks.
The first review assessed the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for the prophylaxis of episodic or chronic migraine in adult patients compared to pharmacological treatment.
The authors included randomized controlled trials published in western languages that compared any treatment involving needle insertion (with or without manual or electrical stimulation) at acupuncture points, pain points or trigger points, with any pharmacological prophylaxis in adult (≥18 years) with chronic or episodic migraine with or without aura according to the criteria of the International Headache Society.
Nine randomized trials were included encompassing 1,484 patients. At the end of the intervention, a small reduction was found in favor of acupuncture for the number of days with migraine per month: (SMD: -0.37; 95% CI -1.64 to -0.11), and for response rate (RR: 1.46; 95% CI 1.16-1.84). A moderate effect emerged in the reduction of pain intensity in favor of acupuncture (SMD: -0.36; 95% CI -0.60 to -0.13), and a large reduction in favor of acupuncture in both the dropout rate due to any reason (RR 0.39; 95% CI 0.18 to 0.84) and the dropout rate due to adverse event (RR 0.26; 95% CI 0.09 to 0.74). The quality of the evidence was moderate for all these primary outcomes. Results at longest follow-up confirmed these effects.
The authors concluded that, based on moderate certainty of evidence, we conclude that acupuncture is mildly more effective and much safer than medication for the prophylaxis of migraine.
The second review aimed to perform a network meta-analysis to compare the effectiveness and acceptability between topiramate, acupuncture, and Botulinum neurotoxin A (BoNT-A).
The authors searched OVID Medline, Embase, the Cochrane register of controlled trials (CENTRAL), the Chinese Clinical Trial Register, and clinicaltrials.gov for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared topiramate, acupuncture, and BoNT-A with any of them or placebo in the preventive treatment of chronic migraine. A network meta-analysis was performed by using a frequentist approach and a random-effects model. The primary outcomes were the reduction in monthly headache days and monthly migraine days at week 12. Acceptability was defined as the number of dropouts owing to adverse events.
A total of 15 RCTs (n = 2545) could be included. Eleven RCTs were at low risk of bias. The network meta-analyses (n = 2061) showed that acupuncture (2061 participants; standardized mean difference [SMD] -1.61, 95% CI: -2.35 to -0.87) and topiramate (582 participants; SMD -0.4, 95% CI: -0.75 to -0.04) ranked the most effective in the reduction of monthly headache days and migraine days, respectively; but they were not significantly superior over BoNT-A. Topiramate caused the most treatment-related adverse events and the highest rate of dropouts owing to adverse events.
The authors concluded that Topiramate and acupuncture were not superior over BoNT-A; BoNT-A was still the primary preventive treatment of chronic migraine. Large-scale RCTs with direct comparison of these three treatments are warranted to verify the findings.
Unquestionably, these are interesting findings. How reliable are they? Acupuncture trials are in several ways notoriously tricky, and many of the primary studies were of poor quality. This means the results are not as reliable as one would hope. Yet, it seems to me that migraine prevention is one of the indications where the evidence for acupuncture is strongest.
A second question might be practicability. How realistic is it for a patient to receive regular acupuncture sessions for migraine prevention? And finally, we might ask how cost-effective acupuncture is for that purpose and how its cost-effectiveness compares to other options.
Fibromyalgia (FM) is one of the most frequent generalized pain disorders. It accounts for a sizable proportion of healthcare costs. Despite extensive research, the etiology (the ‘root cause’) of FM remains unknown – except, of course, to SCAM practitioners!
And almost every one of them claims to treat the ‘root cause’ of the condition. Which must mean that they are able to tackle its etiology, usually some disturbance of the ‘vital force’ or ‘energy’ flow. To patients, this sadly sounds impressive.
But what, if the etiology of FM is something entirely different?
New research shows that most (if not all) patients with FM belong to a distinct population that can be segregated from a control group by their glycated haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels, a surrogate marker of insulin resistance (IR). This was demonstrated by analysing the data after introducing an age stratification correction into a linear regression model. This strategy showed highly significant differences between FM patients and control subjects (p < 0.0001 and p = 0.0002, for two separate control populations, respectively).
A subgroup of FM patients meeting criteria for pre-diabetes or diabetes (patients with HbA1c values of 5.7% or greater) who had undergone treatment with metformin showed dramatic improvements of their widespread myofascial pain. This was shown comparing pre and post-treatment numerical pain rating scale (NPRS). Response to metformin plus standard treatment (ST) was followed by complete resolution of the pain (report of 0 of 10 in the NPRS) in 8 of 16 patients who had been treated with metformin (50%), a degree of improvement never observed before in such a large proportion of FM patients subjected to any available treatment. In contrast, patients treated with ST alone improved, but complete resolution of pain was generally not observed. Interestingly, some patients responded only to metformin and not to ST with NSRIs or membrane stabilizing agents. Importantly, there was a long-term retention of the analgesic effect of metformin.
The authors concluded that these findings suggest a pathogenetic relationship between FM and IR, which may lead to a radical paradigm shift in the management of this disorder.
From my perspective, these findings also suggest that all the many SCAMs allegedly claiming to tackle the ‘root cause’ of FM have been barking up the wrong tree. In fact, all these claims of SCAM practitioners about treating the ‘root causes’ can easily be disclosed as a simple (and sadly effective) marketing gimmick. Six years ago, I even challenged the world of SCAM to name a single treatment that treats the ‘root cause’ of any disease. As yet, nobody has come forward with a convincing suggestion.
During Voltaire’s time, this famous quote was largely correct. But today, things are very different, and I often think this ‘bon mot’ ought to be re-phrased into ‘The art of alternative medicine consists in amusing the patient, while medics cure the disease’.
To illustrate this point, I shall schematically outline the story of a patient seeking care from a range of clinicians. The story is invented but nevertheless based on many real experiences of a similar nature.
Tom is in his mid 50s, happily married, mildly over-weight and under plenty of stress. In addition to holding a demanding job, he has recently moved home and, as a consequence of lots of heavy lifting, his whole body aches. He had previous episodes of back trouble and re-starts the exercises a physio once taught him. A few days later, the back-pain has improved and most other pains have subsided as well. Yet a dull and nagging pain around his left shoulder and arm persists.
He is tempted to see his GP, but his wife is fiercely alternative. She was also the one who dissuaded Tom from taking Statins for his high cholesterol and put him on Garlic pills instead. Now she gives Tom a bottle of her Rescue Remedy, but after a week of taking it Tom’s condition is unchanged. His wife therefore persuades him to consult alternative practitioners for his ‘shoulder problem’. Thus he sees a succession of her favourite clinicians.
THE CHIROPRACTOR examines Tom’s spine and diagnoses subluxations to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of spinal manipulations and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE ENERGY HEALER diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital energy as the root cause of his persistent pain. Tom thus receives a series of healing sessions and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE REFLEXOLOGIST examines Tom’s foot and diagnoses knots on the sole of his foot to cause energy blockages which are the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of most agreeable foot massages and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE ACUPUNCTURIST examines Tom’s pulse and tongue and diagnoses a chi deficiency to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of acupuncture treatments and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE NATUROPATH examines Tom and diagnoses some form of auto-intoxication as the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a full program of detox and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE HOMEOPATH takes a long and detailed history and diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital force to be the root cause of his pain. Tom thus receives a homeopathic remedy tailor-made for his needs and feels a little improved after taking it for a few days. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore tries to make another appointment for him.
But this time, Tom had enough. His pain has not really improved and he is increasingly feeling unwell.
At the risk of a marital dispute, he consults his GP. The doctor looks up Tom’s history, asks a few questions, conducts a brief physical examination, and arranges for Tom to see a specialist. A cardiologist diagnoses Tom to suffer from coronary heart disease due to a stenosis in one of his coronary arteries. She explains that Tom’s dull pain in the left shoulder and arm is a rather typical symptom of this condition.
Tom has to have a stent put into the affected coronary artery, receives several medications to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and is told to take up regular exercise, lose weight and make several other changes to his stressful life-style. Tom’s wife is told in no uncertain terms to stop dissuading her husband from taking his prescribed medicines, and the couple are both sent to see a dietician who offers advice and recommends a course on healthy cooking. Nobody leaves any doubt that not following this complex (holistic!) package of treatments and advice would be a serious risk to Tom’s life.
It has taken a while, but finally Tom is pain-free. More importantly, his prognosis has dramatically improved. The team who now look after him have no doubt that a major heart attack had been imminent, and Tom could easily have died had he continued to listen to the advice of multiple non-medically trained clinicians.
The root cause of his condition was misdiagnosed by all of them. In fact, the root cause was the atherosclerotic degeneration in his arteries. This may not be fully reversible, but even if the atherosclerotic process cannot be halted completely, it can be significantly slowed down such that he can live a full life.
My advice based on this invented and many real stories of a very similar nature is this:
- alternative practitioners are often good at pampering their patients;
- this may contribute to some perceived clinical improvements;
- in turn, this perceived benefit can motivate patients to continue their treatment despite residual symptoms;
- alternative practitioner’s claims about ‘root causes’ and holistic care are usually pure nonsense;
- their pampering may be agreeable, but it can undoubtedly cost lives.
According to Bloomberg Markets, A Nelson & Co Ltd. manufactures and markets natural healthcare products. The company offers arnica creams that provide natural first aid for bruises; plant and flower based remedies that help in managing the emotional demands of everyday life; and over-the-counter homeopathic medicines for everyday ailments, such as relief from travel sickness and relief for the symptoms of hay fever. It also provides hemorrhoid relief creams and soothing hygienic wipes; anti-blemish range products for various skin types and age groups; multi-purpose cream that helps to soothe and restore skin; iron supplements; teething granules that provide relief from the symptoms and discomfort of teething; a range of creams, ointments, and sprays for a range of common skin conditions/complaints; and a range of commonly used herbal remedies. The company offers products for ailments, including aches and pains, mild anxiety, babies and children, colds and minor infections, digestion, emotional health, energy, everyday stresses, first aid, getting older, pets, quit smoking, skin, sleep, travel, and women’s health. It also operates a clinic; and a pharmacy that offers homeopathy and complementary healthcare products. The company offers its products through its pharmacy in the United Kingdom; and distributors in Europe, Latin America, and internationally. It also serves customers online. The company was formerly known as Armbrecht, Nelson & Co. The company was founded in 1860 and is based in London, United Kingdom with subsidiary offices in Boston, Massachusetts; and Hamburg, Germany. A Nelson & Co Ltd. operates as a subsidiary of Nelson and Russell Holdings Ltd.
In the journal ‘Chemist and Druggist’ we find an article informing us that, in 1930, Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy was approached by Dr Edward Bach who wanted help making and selling his products. He had created 38 flower remedies to rebalance emotions and later created an emergency remedy, a combination of five flower remedies that became Rescue. The relationship between Nelsons and the Dr Edward Bach Centre, based at Dr Bach’s former home at Mount Vernon in Oxfordshire, continues to this day and both the Bach Original Flower Remedies and Rescue are key ranges for Nelsons.
Nelson’s homeopathic pharmacy has a proud history:
Ernst Louis Armbrecht, a German pharmacist and disciple of Samuel Hahnemann, came to London and founded Nelsonsin 1860. Since then, Nelsons has been supplying homeopathic medicines. “Our wish today” they state “is the same as 152 years ago: to make homeopathy accessible and to provide the highest standards of medicine and advice.”
The highest standards of medicine and advice? It seems that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) disagrees. A recent ASA Adjudication on A Nelson & Co Ltd deals with an advertisement by Nelsons for ‘Bach Rescue Night’ which stated “I CAN’T SWITCH OFF…The RESCUE NIGHT range helps your mind switch off, so you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep”
A freelance health writer had challenged whether the claims “I can’t switch off … Rescue Night range helps your mind switch off, so you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep” was an authorised health claim in the EU Register of Nutrition and Health Claims for Foods (the EU Register).
The ASA noted that, according to EC Regulation 1924/2006 on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods (the Regulation), which was reflected in the CAP Code, only health claims which appeared on the list of authorised health claims (the Register) could be made in ads promoting foods, including food supplements. Health claims were defined as those that stated, suggested or implied that a relationship existed between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health.
The ASA furthermore stated: We acknowledged Rescue Remedy’s assertion that their ad had not made specific claims to aid sleep or that it improved sleep. However, we considered that the use of visuals such as a crescent moon and stars on a dark background, that the letter ‘O’ in the word “OFF” resembled a simple on/ off light switch image, the text “… you can enjoy a natural night’s sleep” and the name of the product “Rescue Night” was likely to give the impression to consumers that it was a product that would aid sleep or that it would help consumers fall asleep easily. We understood that ‘unwanted thoughts’ was one reason why consumers might find it difficult to get to sleep and, again, considered this added to the impression that the product would contribute positively to sleep. We therefore considered that the ad made a health claim related to sleep involving a food item.
We understood that some Bach Flower Remedies contained levels of alcohol which would preclude them from bearing health claims altogether, however, we noted that Bach Rescue Night was alcohol free. We acknowledged Rescue Remedy’s points regarding EFSA and ‘on hold’ claims for botanicals. We understood that ‘on hold’ claims for such botanicals could be used in marketing, provided such use had the same meaning as the proposed claim and they were used in compliance with applicable existing national provisions (in this case the CAP Code). However, Rescue Remedy did not provide evidence that relevant proposed claims for white chestnut, or any of the other product ingredients were ‘on hold’. Nevertheless, we understood that there were no ‘on hold’ claims entered onto the Register for white chestnut or the other product ingredients. Furthermore, ‘on hold’ claims should also be supported with adequate substantiation which we did not receive.
Because the ad made health claims relating to Bach Rescue Night as a sleep aid and we had not seen evidence that relevant claims for the botanical ingredients contained in the product were ‘on hold’, we concluded that the ad breached the Code.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 15.1, 15.1.1 and 15.7 (Food, food supplements and associated health or nutritional claims).
The ASA ruled that the ad must not appear again in its current form. We told A Nelson & Co Ltd t/a rescueremedy.co.uk not to make health claims for botanical ingredients if they did not comply with the requirements of the Regulation.
I am afraid that such a ruling will have very little effect on the sale of Bach Flower Remedies. In case you have any doubt, I should mention that these inventions of Dr Bach are not supported by good evidence. Here is the abstract of my systematic review on the subject:
Bach flower remedies continue to be popular and its proponents make a range of medicinal claims for them. The aim of this systematic review was to critically evaluate the evidence for these claims. Five electronic databases were searched without restrictions on time or language. All randomised clinical trials of flower remedies were included. Seven such studies were located. All but one were placebo-controlled. All placebo-controlled trials failed to demonstrate efficacy. It is concluded that the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos.
Bach Flower Remedies have no effect whatsoever!
Come to think of it, this is not entirely true: they obviously keep the ASA busy, they exploit the gullible public, and they are clearly good for the cash flow at Nelson’s.
Whenever I have the occasion to discuss with practitioners of alternative medicine the pros and cons of their methods, I hear sooner or later the argument “WE TREAT THE ROOT CAUSES OF DISEASE !!!” This remark emerges regularly regardless of the type of treatment the practitioner uses, and regardless of what disease we might have been talking about.
The statement is regularly pronounced with such deep conviction (and almost audible exclamation marks) that I am inclined to conclude these practitioners fully and wholeheartedly believe it. The implication usually is that, in conventional medicine, we only treat the symptoms of our patients. Quite often, this latter notion is not just gently implied but also forcefully expressed.
I have often wondered where this assumption and the fierce conviction with which it is expressed come from. The answer, I have come to conclude after many years of having such debates, is quite simple: it is being taught over and over again during the practitioners’ training, and it constitutes a central message of most ‘textbooks’ for the aspiring alternative practitioner.
It is not difficult to find the actual origin of all this. The notion that alternative practitioners treat the root causes is clearly based on the practitioners’ understanding of aetiology. If a traditional acupuncturist, for instance, becomes convinced that all disease is the expression of an imbalance of life-forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces thus restoring health, he must automatically assume that he is treating the root causes of any condition. If a chiropractor believes that all diseases are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it must seem logical to him that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever complaint his patient is suffering from. If a Bowen therapist is convinced that “the Bowen Technique aims to balance the whole person, not just the symptoms“, he is bound to be equally sure that “practically any problem can potentially be addressed” by this intervention.
Let us assume for a minute that all these practitioners are correct in believing that their interventions are causal treatments, i.e. therapies directed against the cause of a disease. Successful treatment of any root cause can only mean that the therapy in question completely heals the problem at hand. If we abolish the cause of a disease, we would expect the disease to disappear for good.
This, I think, begs a crucial question: ARE THERE ANY DISEASES WHICH ARE REPRODUCIBLY CURED BY AN ALTERNATIVE THERAPY?
I have contemplated it frequently and discussed it often with practitioners but, so far, I have not identified a single one. I have no problem naming diseases which conventional medicine can cure – but, in alternative medicine, I only draw blanks. Even those alternative therapies which might be effective are not causal but symptomatic by nature. Honestly, I have not yet come across a single alternative treatment for which there is compelling evidence proving that it can produce more than symptom-relief.
But, of course, I might be wrong, over-critical, blind, bought by the pharmaeutical industry, dishonest or stupid. So, the purpose of this post is to clarify this issue once and for all. I herewith invite practitioners to name a disease for which there is sound evidence proving that it can be cured by their therapy.