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

alternative medicine

Five years ago to the day, Simon Singh and I published an article in The Daily Mail to promote our book TRICK OR TREATMENT… which was then about to be launched. We recently learnt that our short article prompted a “confidential” message by the BRITISH CHIROPRACTIC ASSOCIATION to all its members. “Confidential” needs to be put in inverted commas because it is readily available on the Internet. I find it fascinating and of sufficient public interest to reproduce it here in full. I have not altered a thing in the following text, except putting it in italics and putting the section where the BCA quote our text in bold for clarity.

CONFIDENTIAL FOR BCA MEMBERS ONLY

Information for BCA members regarding an article in the Daily Mail – April 8th 2008

A double page spread appeared in the edition of the Daily Mail April 8th 2008 on page 46 and 47 and titled ‘Alternative Medicine The Verdict’.

The article was written by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst and is a publicity prelude to a book they have written called ‘Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial’, which will be published later this month.

The article covers Alexander Technique, Aromatherapy, Flower Remedy, Chiropractic, Hypnotherapy, Magnet Therapy and Osteopathy.

The coverage of Chiropractic follows a familiar pattern for E Ernst. The treatment is oversimplified in explanation, with a heavy emphasis on words like thrust, strong and aggressive. There is tacit acknowledgement that chiropractic works for back pain, but then there is a long section about caution regarding neck manipulation. The article concludes by advising people not to have their neck manipulated and not to allow children to be treated.

CHIROPRACTIC THERAPY

WHAT IS IT? Chiropractors use spinal manipulation to realign the spine to restore mobility. Initial examination often includes X-ray images or MRI scans.

Spinal manipulation can be a fairly aggressive technique, which pushes the spinal joint slightly beyond what it is ordinarily capable of achieving, using a technique called high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust – exerting a relatively strong force in order to move the joint at speed, but the extent of the motion needs to be limited to prevent damage to the joint and its surrounding structures.

Although spinal manipulation is often associated with a cracking sound, this is not a result of the bones crunching or a sign that bones are being put back; the noise is caused by the release and popping of gas bubbles, generated when the fluid in the joint space is put under severe stress.

Some chiropractors claim to treat everything from digestive disorders to ear infections, others will treat only back problems.

DOES IT WORK? There is no evidence to suggest that spinal manipulation is effective for anything but back pain and even then conventional approaches (such as regular exercise and ibuprofen) are just as likely to be effective and are cheaper.

Neck manipulation has been linked to neurological complications such as strokes – in 1998, a 20-year-old Canadian woman died after neck manipulation caused a blood clot which led to stroke. We would strongly recommend physiotherapy exercises and osteopathy ahead of chiropractic therapy because they are at least effective and much safer.

If you do decide to visit a chiropractor despite our concerns and warnings, we very strongly recommend you confirm your chiropractor won’t manipulate your neck. The dangers of chiropractic therapy to children are particularly worrying because a chiropractor would be manipulating an immature spine.

Daily Mail 2008 April 8th.

As we are aware that patients or potential patients of our members will be confronted with questions regarding this article, we have put together some comment and Q&As to assist you.

• Please consider this information as strictly confidential and for your use only.

• Only use this if a patient asks about these specific issues; there is nothing to be gained from releasing any information not asked for.

• Do not duplicate these patient notes and hand out direct to the patient or the media; these are designed for you to use when in direct conversation with a patient.

The BCA will be very carefully considering any questions or approaches we may receive from the press and will respond to them using specially briefed spokespeople. We would strongly advise our members not to speak directly to the press on any of the issues raised as a result of this coverage.

Please note that In the event of you receiving queries from the media, please refer these direct to BCA (0118 950 5950 – Anne Barlow or Sue Wakefield) or Publicasity (0207 632 2400 – Julie Doyle or Sara Bailey).

The following points should assist you in answering questions that patients may ask with regard to the safety and effectiveness of chiropractic care. Potential questions are detailed along with the desired ‘BCA response’:

“The Daily Mail article seems to suggest chiropractic treatment is not that effective”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The authors have had to concede that chiropractic treatment works for back pain as there is overwhelming evidence to support this. The authors also contest that pain killers and exercises can do the job just as well. What they fail to mention is that research has shown that this might be the case for some patients, but the amount of time it may take to recover is a lot longer and the chance of re-occurrence of the problem is higher. This means that chiropractic treatment works, gets results more quickly and helps prevent re-occurrence of the problem. Chiropractic is the third largest healthcare profession in the world and in the UK is recognised and regulated by the UK Government.

“The treatment is described as aggressive, can you explain?”

It is important to say that the authors of the article clearly have no direct experience of chiropractic treatment, nor have they bothered to properly research the training and techniques. Chiropractic treatment can take many forms, depending on the nature of the problem, the particular patient’s age and medical history and other factors. The training chiropractors receive is overseen by the government appointed regulator and the content of training is absolutely designed to ensure that an individual chiropractor understands exactly which treatment types are required in each individual patient scenario. Gentle technique, massage and exercise are just some of the techniques available in the chiropractor’s ‘toolkit’. It is a gross generalisation and a demonstration of lack of knowledge of chiropractic to characterise it the way it appeared in the article.

“The article talked about ‘claims’ of success with other problems”

There is a large and undeniable body of evidence regarding the effectiveness of chiropractic treatment for musculoskeletal problems such as back pain. There is also growing evidence that chiropractic treatment can help many patients with other problems; persistent headaches for example. There is also anecdotal evidence and positive patient experience to show that other kinds of problems have been helped by chiropractic treatment. For many of these kinds of problems, the formal research is just beginning and a chiropractor would never propose their treatment as a substitute for other, ongoing treatments.

“Am I at risk of having a stroke if I have a chiropractic treatment?”

What is important to understand is that any association between neck manipulation and stroke is extremely rare. Chiropractic is a very safe form of treatment.

Another important point to understand is that the treatments employed by chiropractors are statistically safer than many other conservative treatment options (such as ibuprofen and other pain killers with side effects such as gastric bleeding) for mechanical low back or neck pain conditions.

A research study in the UK, published just last year studied the neck manipulations received by nearly 20,000 chiropractic patients. NO SERIOUS ADVERSE SIDE EFFECTS WERE IDENTIFIED AT ALL. In another piece of research, published in February this year, stroke was found to be a very rare event and the risk associated with a visit to a chiropractor appeared to be no different from the risk of a stroke following a visit to a GP.

Other recent research shows that such an association with stroke may occur once in every 5.85 million adjustments.

To put this in context, a ‘significant risk’ for any therapeutic intervention (such as pain medication) is defined as 1 in 10,000.

Additional info: Stroke is a natural occurring phenomenon, and evidence dictates that a number of key risk factors increase the likelihood of an individual suffering a stroke. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and family medical histories can all contribute; rarely does a stroke occur in isolation from these factors. Also, stroke symptoms can be similar to that of upper neck pains, stiffness or headaches, conditions for which patients may seek chiropractic treatment. BCA chiropractors are trained to recognise and diagnose these symptoms and advise appropriate mainstream medical care.

“Can you tell if I am at risk from stroke?”

As a BCA chiropractor I am trained to identify risk factors and would not proceed with treatment if there was any doubt as to the patient’s suitability. Potential risks may come to light during the taking of a case history, which may include: smoking, high cholesterol, contraceptive pill, Blood clotting problems/blood thinning meds, heart problems, trauma to the head etc and on physical examination e.g. high blood pressure, severe osteoarthritis of the neck, history of rheumatoid arthritis

“Do you ever tell patients if they are at risk?”

Yes, I would always discuss risks with patients and treatment will not proceed without informed consent.

“Is it safe for my child to be treated by a chiropractor”

It is a shame that the article so generalises the treatment provided by a chiropractor, that it makes such outrageous claims. My training in anatomy, physiology and diagnosis means that I absolutely understand the demands and needs of spines from the newborn baby to the very elderly patient. The techniques and treatments I might use on a 25 year old are not the same as those I would employ on a 5 year old. I see a lot of children as patients at this clinic and am able to offer help with a variety of problems with the back, joints and muscles. I examine every patient very thoroughly, understand their medical history and discuss my findings with them and their parents before undertaking any treatment.

– Chiropractic is a mature profession and numerous studies clearly demonstrate that chiropractic treatment, including manipulative and spinal adjustment, is both safe and effective.

– Thousands of patients are treated by me and my fellow chiropractors every day in the UK. Chiropractic is a healthcare profession that is growing purely because our patients see the results and GPs refer patients to us because they know we get results!

This article is to promote a book and a controversial one at that. Certainly, in the case of the comments about chiropractic, there is much evidence and research that has formed part of guidelines developed by the Royal Society of General Practitioners, NICE and other NHS/Government agencies, has been conveniently ignored. The statements about chiropractic treatment and technique demonstrate that there has clearly been no research into the actual education that chiropractors in the UK receive – in my case a four year full-time degree course that meets stringent educational standards set down by the government appointed regulator.

Shortly after the article in The Daily Mail, our book was published and turned out to be much appreciated by critical thinkers across the globe — not, however, by chiropractors.

At the time, I did, of course, not know about the above “strictly confidential” message to BCA members, yet I strongly suspected that chiropractors would do everything in their power to dispute our central argument, namely that most of the therapeutic claims by chiropractors were not supported by sufficient evidence. I also knew that our evidence for it was rock solid; after all, I had researched the evidence for or against chiropractic in full depth and minute detail and published dozens of articles on the subject in the medical literature.

When, one and a half weeks after our piece in the Mail, Simon published his now famous Guardian comment stating that the BCA “happily promote bogus treatments”, he was sued for libel by the BCA. I think the above “strictly confidential” message already reveals the BCA’s determination and their conviction to be on firm ground. As it turned out, they were wrong. Not only did they lose their libel suit, but they also dragged chiropractic into a deep crisis.

The “strictly confidential” message is intriguing in several more ways – I will leave it to my readers to pick out some of the many gems hidden in this text. Personally, I find the most remarkable aspect that the BCA seems to attempt to silence its own members regarding the controversy about the value of their treatments. Instead they proscribe answers (should I say doctrines?) of highly debatable accuracy for them, almost as though chiropractors were unable to speak for themselves. To me, this smells of cult-like behaviour, and is by no means indicative of a mature profession – despite their affirmations to the contrary.

My aim with this blog is to eventually cover most of the 400 or so different alternative therapies and diagnostic techniques. So far, I have focused on some of the most popular modalities; and this means, I have neglected many others. Today, it is time, I think, to discuss aromatherapy, after all, it is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine in the UK.

Aromatherapists use essential oils, and this is where the confusion starts. They are called “essential” not because humans cannot do without them, like essential nutrients, for instance; they are called “essential” because they are made of flower ESSENCES. The man who ‘discovered’ aromatherapy was a chemist who accidentally had burnt his hand and put some lavender essence on the burn. It healed very quickly, and he thus concluded that essential oils can be useful therapeutics.

Today’s aromatherapists would rarely use the pure essential oil; they dilute it in an inert carrier oil and usually apply it via a very gentle massage to the skin. They believe that specific oils have specific effects for specific conditions. As these oils contain pharmacologically active ingredients, some of these assumptions might even be correct. The question, however, is one of concentration. Do these ingredients reach the target organ in sufficient quantities? Are they absorbed through the skin at all? Does smelling them have a sufficiently large effect to produce the claimed benefit?

The ‘acid test’ for any therapeutic claim is, as always, the clinical trial. As it happens a new paper has just become available. The aim of this randomised study was to determine the effects of inhalation aromatherapy on pregnant women. Essential oils with high linalool and linalyl acetate content were selected and among these the one preferred by the participant was used. Thirteen pregnant women in week 28 of a single pregnancy were randomly assigned into an aromatherapy and a control group. The main outcome measures were several validated scores to assess mood and the heart-rate variability. The results showed significant differences in the Tension-Anxiety score and the Anger-Hostility score after aromatherapy. Heart rate variability changes indicated that the parasympathetic nerve activity increased significantly in the verum group. The authors concluded that aromatherapy inhalation was effective and suggest that more research is warranted.

I have several reasons for mentioning this study here.

1st research into aromatherapy is rare and therefore any new trial of this popular treatment might be important.

2nd aromatherapy is mostly (but not in this study) used in conjunction with a gentle, soothing massage; any outcome of such an intervention is difficult to interpret: we cannot then know whether it was the massage or the oil that produced the observed effect. The present trial is different and might allow conclusions specifically about the effects of the essential oils.

3rd the study displays several classic methodological mistakes which are common in trials of alternative medicine. By exposing them, I hope that they might become less frequent in future.

The most obvious flaw is its tiny sample size. What is an adequate size, people often ask. This question is unfortunately unanswerable. To determine the adequate sample size, it is best to conduct a pilot study or use published data to calculate the required number of patients needed for the specific trial you are planning. Any statistician will be able to help you with this.

The second equally obvious flaw relates to the fact that the results and the conclusions of this study were based on comparing the outcome measures before with those after the interventions within one intervention group. The main reason for taking the trouble of running a control group in a clinical trial is that the findings from the experimental group are compared to those of the control group. Only such inter-group comparisons can tell us whether the results were actually caused by the intervention and not by other factors such as the passage of time, a placebo-effect etc.

In the present study, the authors seem to be aware of their mistake and mention that there were no significant differences in outcomes when the two groups were compared. Yet they fail to draw the right conclusion from this fact. It means that their study demonstrated that aromatherapy inhalation had no effect on the outcomes studied.

So, what does the reliable trial evidence on aromatherapy tell us?

A clinical trial in which I was involved failed to show that it improves the mood or quality of life of cancer patients. But one swallow does not make a summer; what do systematic reviews of all available trials indicate?

The first systematic review was probably the one we published in 2000. We then located 12 randomised clinical trials: six of them had no independent replication; six related to the relaxing effects of aromatherapy combined with massage. These 6 studies collectively suggested that aromatherapy massage has a mild but short-lasting anxiolytic effect. These effects of aromatherapy are probably not strong enough for it to be considered for the treatment of anxiety. We concluded that the hypothesis that it is effective for any other indication is not supported by the findings of rigorous clinical trials.

Since then several other systematic reviews have emerged. We therefore decided to summarise their findings in an overview of all available reviews. We searched 12 electronic databases and our departmental files without restrictions of time or language. The methodological quality of all systematic reviews was evaluated independently by two authors. Of 201 potentially relevant publications, 10 met our inclusion criteria. Most of the systematic reviews were of poor methodological quality. The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia. For none of the conditions was the evidence convincing. Our conclusions therefore had to be cautious: due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.

Finally, we also investigated the safety of aromatherapy by assessing all published data regarding adverse effects. Forty two primary reports met our inclusion criteria. In total, 71 patients had experienced adverse effects after aromatherapy which ranged from mild to severe and included one fatality. The most common adverse effect was dermatitis. Lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil and ylang-ylang were the most common essential oils responsible for adverse effects. We concluded that aromatherapy has the potential to cause adverse effects some of which are serious. Their frequency remains unknown.

And what is the conclusion of all this? To me, it seems fairly straight forward: Aromatherapy is not demonstrably effective for any condition. It also is not entirely free of risks. Its risk/benefit profile is thus not positive which can only mean that it is not a useful or recommendable treatment for anybody who is ill.

As I have mentioned before, I like positive news as much as the next person. Therefore, I am constantly on the look-out for recently published, sound evidence suggesting that  some form of alternative medicine is effective and safe for this or that condition. This new systematic review fits that description, I am pleased to report.

Its authors evaluated the effectiveness of massage therapy (MT) for neck and shoulder pain. Their extensive literature searches identified 12 high-quality studies. The meta-analyses showed significant effects of MT for neck pain and shoulder pain compared to inactive therapies. MT did not yield better effects for neck pain or shoulder pain than other active therapies administered to the control groups. Shoulder function was not significantly affected by MT. The authors concluded that “MT may provide immediate effects for neck and shoulder pain. However, MT does not show better effects on pain than other active therapies. No evidence suggests that MT is effective in functional status”.

Massage therapy is thus a promising treatment, particularly as this systematic review is by no means the only piece of encouraging evidence. It is not better than other effective treatments, but it is not associated with frequent or serious adverse effects. This means that the demonstrable benefits are likely to outweigh its risks; in other words, the risk benefit balance is positive. Regular readers of this blog will appreciate the importance of this point.

Massage is practiced by several professions: mostly, of course, by massage therapists, but occasionally also by nurses, osteopath, chiropractors etc. Chiropractors, in particular, have recently tried to make much – I think too much – of this fact. They tend to claim that, as they use treatments which are evidence-based, such as massage, chiropractic is an evidence-based profession. I think this is akin to surgeons claiming that all of surgery is evidence-based because surgeons use medications which effectively reduce post-operative pain. Chiropractors foremost employ spinal manipulation and surgeons foremost use surgery; if they want us to believe that their practice is evidence-based, they need to show us the evidence for their hall-mark interventions. In the case of surgery, the evidence is mostly established; in the case of chiropractic, it is mostly not.

Massage is backed by reasonably sound evidence not just for neck and shoulder pain but for a range of other conditions as well. WHAT DO WE CALL AN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE THAT WORKS? WE CALL IT MEDICINE!

So why is massage not a mainstream therapy? The answer is simple: in many countries, massage therapy has long been considered to be entirely conventional. Twenty years ago, I was chair of rehabilitation medicine at the university of Vienna. Amongst my staff, there always were about 5-8 full time massage therapists and nobody thought this to be unusual in any way. Similarly, in Germany, massage is entirely conventional.

Perhaps it is time that the English-speaking countries catch up with Europe when it comes to massage therapy and the evidence that supports it?

Reflexology is one of the most popular of all alternative therapies. Anyone who has ever had a session knows why: it is a strangely pleasant and oddly agreeable experience. Reflexologists massage your feet which can be mildly painful but usually is quite relaxing. They look for and subsequently focus on areas of tenderness believing they correspond to specific organs or whole organ systems. Even though few reflexologists would admit to it, they tend to make vague and unreliable diagnoses: if they feel something unusual at a certain point of the sole of your foot, they assume that a certain inner organ is in trouble. Reflexologists even have maps where the sole of a foot is depicted showing which area corresponds to which organ.

The treatment might be enjoyable but the assumptions that underpin it are nonsensical for at least two reasons: firstly, there are no nerve or other connections between a specific area on the sole of a foot and a certain organ. Secondly, the maps which reflexologists employ differ and fail to agree which area corresponds to which organ. Thus there are inconsistencies within the realm of reflexology and there are inconsistencies in relation to the known facts regarding physiology, anatomy etc.

Proponents of reflexology are quite undisturbed by these problems and seem to believe that not their assumptions but science must be wrong. After all, reflexology does work! That is to say that patients perceive benefit from it, pay out of their own pocket for the experience and tend to come back for more.

Several years ago, we asked 8 UK professional organisations of reflexology which conditions they thought could be treated effectively with reflexology. We gave them a list of 25 conditions to chose from, many of which were serious, e.g. cancer and AIDS. Collectively, the organisations felt that 22 of these illnesses would respond to reflexology.

But this is opinion, not evidence! What do the trial data tell us? Is reflexology more than a placebo?

As with many other areas of alternative medicine, controlled clinical trials are scarce; but this is not to say that none at all are available. Our own trial of reflexology for menopausal symptoms failed to show that this therapy has any effects beyond placebo. More recently, we published a systematic review to evaluate all of the 23 studies that had been published at that stage. They related to a wide range of medical conditions and their methodological quality was often poor. Nine high quality randomised clinical trials (RCTs) generated negative findings. Eight RCTs suggested that reflexology is effective for the following conditions: diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, cancer patients, multiple sclerosis, symptomatic idiopathic detrusor over-activity and dementia. These studies, however, were wide open to bias. Therefore, our conclusions had to be cautious: the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition.

For you and me, this simply means that there is currently no good evidence to suggest that reflexology works. But the story does not end here. There will be more studies and enthusiasts are most likely to concede that our conclusions were incorrect. In fact, a further trial has just become available.

This new single-blind, randomized and placebo controlled study included 20 moderately to severely affected multiple sclerosis patients. Each participant received for 8 weeks, 1 hour per week of either reflexology or sham reflexology. The primary outcome measure was the Multiple Sclerosis Impact Scale at baseline, 8 weeks and 16 weeks. The results revealed improvements in both groups but no statistically significant differences between the two groups at either 8 or 16 weeks. The conclusions of the investigators were clear: The results do not support the use of reflexology for symptom relief in a more disabled multiple sclerosis population and are strongly suggestive of a placebo response.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a relaxing foot-massage; it is agreeable, no doubt, and if someone wants to pay for the luxury, why not? By contrast, there is a lot wrong with reflexology, I think. A foot-massage is not administered under the pretence of generating any specific therapeutic effects. Reflexologists, however, claim they can exert highly specific effects on inner organs, influence the natural history of a wide range of diseases, and provide reliable diagnoses. They thus mislead their clients. This is not just wrong, it also has the potential to do serious harm. I believe it is time to end this nonsense.

Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.

I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?

So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).

As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?

If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.

But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?

Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:

– pointing out that some forms of alternative medicine can cause serious complications, including deaths,

– disclosing that alternative diagnostic methods are unreliable and can cause serious problems,

– demonstrating that much of the advice given by alternative practitioners can cause serious harm to the patients who follow it,

– that the advice provided in books or on the Internet can be equally dangerous,

– and that even the most innocent yet ineffective therapy becomes life-threatening, once it is used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions.

Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.

For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles  (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.

Some time ago, we published a systematic review aimed at identifying what patients might hope for when they consult a practitioner of alternative medicine. The most common expectations that emerged from this research are listed here:

  • Less side-effects
  • Symptom relief
  • Cure of their disease
  • Cope better with their condition
  • Improve quality of life
  • Boost immune system
  • Prevention of illness
  • Good therapeutic relationship with a clinician
  • Holistic care
  • Emotional support
  • Control over their own health

In several ways, I think, these expectations are revealing; here I want to focus on one particular aspect, and ask the following question: To what extent are patients driven to see alternative practitioners simply because conventional medicine is letting them down? It seems to me that several items in the list above are an implicit criticism of mainstream medicine. This might get much clearer, if I re-phrase the points a bit: according to our findings, patients feel:

  • that conventional treatments have too many side-effects;
  • that they frequently fail to ease their symptoms;
  • that they often do not cure the disease;
  • that doctors do not enable their patients to cope with their condition;
  • that doctors care not enough about their patients’ quality of life;
  • that many conventional treatments neglect the importance of the immune system;
  • that prevention is not given the importance it should have;
  • that doctors are often no good at establishing good therapeutic relationships with their patients;
  • that doctors fail to realise that their patients are not just “cases” but whole human individuals;
  • that doctors are not providing enough emotional support;
  • that doctors fail to empower their patients to be in control of their health.

Some of these points will probably strike a cord with most of us. I for one know of many instances where conventional physicians have failed their patients most miserably. All too often, the failings of modern medicine are as obvious as they are inexcusable! I can fully understand that disappointed patients look for help and compassion elsewhere, and I am quite sure that the failings of modern medicine are an important motivator for people to try alternative medicine.

But looking elsewhere might not be the best approach for improving health care. Alternative practitioners may well be more compassionate than conventional clinicians but features like empathy, time and attention can never make good medicine, if they are not accompanied by effective therapies.

The conclusion is therefore simple: whenever we encounter one of the many failings of conventional medicine, instead of turning away in disgust, we ought to make sure that mistakes are corrected, lessons are learnt and improvements are found and put into practice. Our aim must be to generate progress, and it cannot be reached by opting for unproven or dis-proven treatments.

Fairly early on during my time at Exeter, I had felt that it would be relevant, interesting and important to familiarise general practitioners with alternative medicine. At the time, we decided that we would start to run regular courses specifically for these health care professionals. Back in the mid 1990s, this was a remarkable thing to do, so much so that we even published our experience after the first such event. Recently I came across the article that resulted from this endeavour; here is an except from the abstract:

The delegates started with a positive but questioning attitude toward complementary medicine (CM) and acknowledged that they gained useful information, leading to increased confidence in discussing CM with patients. The course to a large extent met their needs and expectations. Benefits and draw-backs of integrating CM within general practice were explored. The main advantage of CM, apart from the potential intrinsic value of the techniques themselves, was identified as the time to establish a good therapeutic relationship with the patient. The particular concerns about CM that were expressed by the doctors included poor dialogue with CM practitioners, doubts about competence, and lack of readily identifiable and recognized qualifications. The risk of holding out unrealistic hope of cure was their greatest concern, however, especially if patients were thereby denied an effective orthodox treatment.

What strikes me as particularly remarkable is the fact that, even then, so many doubts were voiced by our GPs about alternative practitioners, their therapeutic claims and their doubtful medical competence. It was then that it occured to me for the first time that these therapists might systematically misinform their patients. This suspicion was strengthened on numerous occasions in the years to come; but it was not until much later that we decided to look into this subject (which is rather difficult to research) more systematically. What we found shocked us. Here are the conclusions of some of our investigations:

The most popular websites on complementary and alternative medicine for cancer offer information of extremely variable quality. Many endorse unproven therapies and some are outright dangerous. The link to the article is here.

Some complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers have a negative attitude towards immunisation and means of changing this should be considered. The link is here.

Advice about herbal medicine is readily available over the Internet. The advice offered is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Potential Internet users should be made aware of these problems and ways of minimizing the risk should be found. The link is here.

The majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue. The link is here.

In another study, we found that advice given by alternative practitioners to diabetic patients had the potential to kill them. A similarly scary conclusion emerged when we evaluated the advice chiropractors provide to asthma patients. Other research found that anthroposophic doctors often advise against measles vaccinations and are thus causing measles outbreaks.

The totality of this evidence, I believe, begs the question: DO ALTERNATIVE PRACTITIONERS SYSTEMATICALLY MISINFORM THEIR PATIENTS? I look forward to a lively discussion of it.

Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who was frustrated with the ‘heroic’ medicine of his time, invented homeopathy about 200 years ago. Since then, his followers have applied what we might call ‘selective dogmatism’ to his invention: they have religiously adhered to certain aspects, been considerably more liberal in other respects and abandoned some concepts altogether. It is therefore not unreasonable, I think, to ask what the ‘father of homeopathy’ – if he were still with us – might think of homeopathy as it is being practised today.

TYPES OF HOMEOPATHY

We tend to consider homeopathy to be one single therapy or school of thought, but this is not quite true. There a numerous forms of homeopathy, including the following:

Auto-isopathy (treatment with remedies made from patients’ own body substances)

Classical homeopathy (doctrine based on strict Hahnemannian principles)

Clinical homeopathy (non-individualised treatment based mainly on guiding symptoms; e.g. arnica for bruises)

Complex homeopathy (treatment with combination remedies)

Homotoxicology (treatment based on Reckeweg’s concepts of detoxification)

Isopathy (use of remedies made from the causative agent, e.g. a specific allergen for an allergy)

Pluralistic homeopathy (use of more than one remedy at once)

The list could be extended, and we could discuss the characteristics as well as the pros and cons of each variant. But this would be rather futile and intensely boring; suffice to say that, from all we know about Hahnemann’s views and temper, he would have strongly condemned even the slightest deviation from the strict rules of his doctrine.

CURRENT TYPES OF HOMEOPATHS

So, what about the different ways in which homeopathy (whatever version we might select) is practised by Hahnemann’s disciples today? The way I see it, four different and fairly distinct types of homeopaths currently exist.

The purist homeopath

Samuel Hahnemann himself clearly was a purist. He was adamant that his detailed instructions must be followed to the letter. Amongst other things, this means that homeopathy must be seen as the only true medicine; mixing homeopathy with any other type of medicine is, according to its founder, strictly forbidden; Hahnemann was very explicit that this would weaken or even abolish its effects. Today’s purist homeopaths therefore follow these instructions religiously and employ homeopathy as the sole and only therapeutic option for any symptom or disease.

The liberal homeopath

Purist-homeopaths still do exist today, but they seem to be in the minority. Most homeopathic doctors mix homeopathic with conventional medicines, and most non-doctor homeopaths (they prefer the term ‘professional homeopaths’) accept or at least acknowledge that a mixed approach might often be necessary or preferable. In the words of Hahnemann, these homeopaths are ‘half-homeopaths’ who have ‘betrayed’ his gospel. He would most certainly disown them and point out that this type of approach is doomed to failure and cannot possibly work.

The occasional homeopath

In several countries – Germany is a good example – many doctors use homeopathy on just relatively rare occasions. We might speculate why this is so; my personal impression is that this group of clinicians do not really believe in the effectiveness of homeopathy at all. They employ it because some patients ask for it, or because they want to use a legally defensible and harmless placebo. There can be no doubt, Hahnemann would have not approved of this approach at all. Quite to the contrary, he would have been furious, called them ‘traitors’ or worse and insisted that this is nothing more than a placebo-therapy.

The DIY-homeopath

DIY-homeopaths is my term for patients and consumers who have no training in homeopathy but buy homeopathic remedies over the counter and self-administer them without consulting a trained homeopath. They might see it being recommended for a certain health problem and give it a try. If their symptoms subsequently disappear, they are likely to misinterpret this phenomenon and become convinced that homeopathy is effective. This group seems to be by far the largest of all types of homeopaths.

WOULD HAHNEMANN APPROVE?

What would Hahnemann, if we could ask him today, make of all this? I think he would be fuming with anger (from all we know, he was a rather short-tempered man and had no patience with ‘traitors’).

The DIY-homeopaths obviously break every rule in his book: without a long and complicated consultation, it would not be possible to identify the correct, individualised remedy. What follows is simple: according to Hahnemann’s teachings, all these millions of people across the globe are treating themselves with pure placebos. Ironically, this is where most scientists would agree Hahnemann’s verdict!

Hahnemann would certainly direct equal scorn towards the occasional homeopaths who do not even believe in homeopathy. To Hahnemann, belief in his doctrine was essential and the use of his remedies as mere placebos would have been insulting, utterly unacceptable and destined to therapeutic failure.

We do know from Hahnemann’s mouth what he thought of those clinicians he himself called “half-homeopaths”. In his view, they were ‘traitors’ who did not even deserve to be called true homeopaths. There can be no question about the fact that he would have judged their practice as a useless and ineffective abomination.

This leaves us with the purist-homeopath. This relatively small group of dogmatists turns out to be the only one which Hahnemann might have actually approved of. They tend to strictly adhere to (almost) every of the numerous therapeutic instruction he ever put to paper. Like Hahnemann, they believe that homeopathy is the only efficacious medicine and, like Hahnemann, they use it as a true alternative to ‘allopathy’, the derogatory term Hahnemann coined for conventional medicine.

CONCLUSION

If this analysis is correct, we are today faced with the situation where homeopathy is used by many people worldwide but, according to the teachings of homeopathy’s founder, it is currently badly misused – so much so that, according to Hahnemann’s most clearly and repeatedly expressed views, it cannot possibly result in clinical benefit. Considering that most of today’s homeopaths would insist that the words of Hahnemann as pure gospel, this situation is most bizarre and ironic indeed. It becomes even more ironic when we realise that the only group of clinicians who employ homeopathy in the ‘correct’ way is also the one which is the most serious danger to public health.

The developed world is in the middle of a major obesity epidemic. It is predicted to cause millions of premature deaths and billions of dollars, money that would be badly needed elsewhere. The well-known method of eating less and moving more is most efficacious but sadly not very effective, that is to say people do not easily adopt and adhere to it. This is why many experts are searching for a treatment that works and is acceptable to all or at least most patients.

Entrepreneurs of alternative medicine have long jumped on this band waggon. They have learnt that the regulations are lax or non-existent, that consumers are keen to believe anything they tell them and that the opportunities to make a fast buck are thus enormous. Today, they are offering an endless array of treatments which are cleverly marketed, for instance via the Internet.

Since many years, my research team are involved in a programme of assessing the alternative slimming aids mostly through systematic reviews and occasionally also through conducting our own clinical trials. Our published analyses include the following treatments:

Phaseolus vulgaris

Supplements containing conjugated linoleic acid

Green tea

Garcinia extracts

Calcium supplements

Chromium picolinate

Guar gum

Chitosan

Acupuncture

There are, of course, many more but, for most, no evidence exist at all. The treatments listed above have all been submitted to clinical trials. The results show invariably that the outcomes were not convincingly positive: either there were too few data, or there were too many flaws in the studies, or the weight reduction achieved was too small to be clinically relevant.

Our latest systematic review is a good example; its aim was to evaluate the evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving the use of the African Bush Mango, Irvingia gabonensis, for body weight reduction in obese and overweight individuals. Three RCTs were identified, and all had major methodological flaws. All RCTs reported statistically significant reductions in body weight and waist circumference favoring I. gabonensis over placebo. They also suggested positive effects of I. gabonensis on blood lipids. Adverse events included headache and insomnia. Despite these apparently positive findings, our conclusions had to be cautious: “Due to the paucity and poor reporting quality of the RCTs, the effect of I. gabonensis on body weight and related parameters are unproven. Therefore, I. gabonensis cannot be recommended as a weight loss aid. Future research in this area should be more rigorous and better reported.”

People who want to loose weight are often extremely desperate and ready to try anything. They are thus easy victims of the irresponsible promises that are being made on the Internet and elsewhere. Despite the overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary, consumers are led to believe that alternative slimming aids are effective. What is more, they are also misled to assume they are risks-free. This latter assumption is false too: apart from the harm done to the patient’s bank account, many alternative slimming aids are associated with side-effects which, in some cases, are  serious and can even include death.

The conclusion from all this is short and simple: alternative slimming aids are bogus.

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.

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