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

alternative medicine

This recently published survey aimed to investigate the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) among long-term cancer survivors and its links with healthy behaviour. Data was used from the VICAN survey, conducted in 2015-2016 on a representative sample of French cancer survivors 5 years after diagnosis.

Among the 4174 participants, 21.4% reported using SCAM at the time of the survey, including 8.4% who reported uses not associated with cancer. The most frequently cited reasons for using SCAM were:

  • to improve their physical well-being (83.0%),
  • to strengthen their body (71.2%),
  • to improve their emotional well-being (65.2%),
  • to relieve the side effects of treatment (50.7%).

The SCAM users who reported using SCAM to cure cancer or prevent relapses (8.5% of the participants) also used SCAM for other reasons. They had more often experienced cancer progression, feared a recurrence, and had a poorer quality of life because of sequelae, pain, and fatigue. They also consulted their general practitioners more frequently and had changed their lifestyle by adopting more healthy practices.

The authors concluded that the use of SCAM is not an alternative but a complementary means of coping with impaired health. Further research is now required to determine whether the use of SCAM reflects a lifestyle change or whether it assists survivors rather to make behavioural changes.

The 2012 data from the same survey had previously reported that, among the participants, 16.4% claimed to have used SCAM, and 45.3% of this group had not used SCAM before cancer diagnosis (new SCAM users). Commonly, SCAMs used were:

  • homeopathy (64.0%),
  • acupuncture (22.1%),
  • osteopathy (15.1%),
  • herbal medicine (8.1%),
  • diets (7.3%),
  • energy therapies (5.8%).

SCAM use was found to be significantly associated with younger age, female gender and a higher education level. Previous SCAM use was significantly associated with having a managerial occupation and an expected 5-year survival rate ≥80% at diagnosis; recent SCAM use was associated with cancer progression since diagnosis, impaired quality of life and higher pain reports.

In nearly half of the SCAM users, cancer diagnosis was one of the main factors which incited patients to use SCAM. Opting for SCAM was a pragmatic response to needs which conventional medicine failed to meet during the course of the disease.

These surveys mostly confirm what has been shown over and over again in other countries. What I find remarkable with these results, however, is the increase in SCAM use over time and the extraordinary high use of homeopathy by French cancer patients (more recently, the reimbursement of homeopathy in France has changed, of course). As homeopathy has no effects beyond placebo, this suggests that SCAM use by French cancer patients is far from being driven by evidence.

So, what then does determine it?

My best answer I can give to this question is this: relentless promotion through pharmacies, advertisements and journalists. These have all been very powerful in France in relation to homeopathy (hardly surprising, as the world’s largest homeopathic producer, Boiron, is based in France).

This leads me to the conclusion that SCAM is far more commercially driven than its enthusiasts would ever admit. They think of the pharmaceutical industry as the evil exploiter of the sick. It is now time to realise that the SCAM industry is, to a large extent, part of the pharmaceutical industry and often behaves just as badly or even worse: because what could be more unethical that selling placebos to desperate and vulnerable cancer patients?

Breast cancer and its treatments lead to a decrease in patients’ quality of life (QOL). This systematic review aimed to assess the effectiveness of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) on the QOL of women with breast cancer.

A total of 28 clinical trials were included in the systematic review, 18 of which were randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Participants included women with breast cancer who were undergoing the first three phases of breast cancer or post-cancer rehabilitation. One study tested a dietary supplement, and the other 27 tested a variety of mind-body techniques (the authors counted the following modalities in this category: acupuncture, hyperthermia, movement therapy (qigong), laser therapy, orthomolecular therapy, osteopathy, phototherapy, healing touch, homeopathy, lymphatic drainage, magnet field therapy, manual therapy, neural therapy, Shiatsu). Twenty-seven studies showed improved QOL.

The authors concluded that the findings may indicate the potential benefits of SCAMs, especially mind-body techniques on QOL in breast cancer patients. Further RCTs or long-term follow-up studies are recommended. Moreover, the use of similar QOL assessment tools allows for more meta-analysis and generalizability of results, especially for the development of clinical guidelines.

This is a somewhat odd paper:

  • it is poorly written,
  • it lumps together SCAMs that do not belong in the same category,
  • it only considered studies published in English,
  • it included studies regardless of study design, even those without any control groups.

Regardless of these consideration, it stands to reason that patients’ QoL can be improved by SCAM. Only a fool would deny that a bit of extra care, kindness, attention and time is good for patients. The relevant questions, however, are quite different:

  1. Is this effect due to the extra attention and care or is it due to specific effects of SCAM?
  2. Which SCAM is best at achieving an improvement of QoL?
  3. Are the truly effective SCAMs better than conventional interventions aimed at improving QoL?

These are by no means academic questions but issues that need to be addressed to improve cancer care, and tackling them is in the best interest of suffering patients. Sadly, none of them can be answered by conducting poor quality systematic reviews of the evidence. Even more sadly, few of the proponents of integrated medicine want to face the music and answer these questions. They seem to prefer to stand in the way of progress, to ignore medical ethics, to blindly and naively integrate any old nonsense from the realm of SCAM (anything from homeopathy to Reiki) into routine care without probing further and without wanting to know the facts.

It is almost as though they are afraid of the truth.

When I discuss published articles on this blog, I usually focus on recent papers. Not so today! Today I write about a small study we published 17 years ago. It was conducted in Canada by researchers whom I merely assisted in designing the protocol and interpreting the findings.

They trained 8 helpers to pretend being customers of health food stores. They entered individually into assigned stores; the helpers had been informed to browse in the store until approached by an employee. At this time they would declare that their mother has breast cancer. They disclosed information on their mother’s condition, use of chemotherapy (Tamoxifen) and physician visits, only if asked. The helpers would then ask what the employee recommend for this condition. They followed a structured, memorized, pretested questionnaire that asked about product usage, dosage, cost, employee education and product safety or potential for drug interactions.

The helpers recorded which products were recommended by the health food store employees, along with the recommended dose and price per product as well as price per month. Additionally, they inquired about where the employee had obtained information on the recommended products. They also noted whether the employees referred them on to SCAM practitioners or recommended that they consult a physician. Full notes on the encounters were written immediately after leaving the store.

The findings were impressive. Of the 34 stores that met our inclusion criteria, 27 recommended SCAMs; a total of 33 different products were recommended. Here are some further findings:

  • Essiac was recommended most frequently.
  • The mean cost of the recommended products per month was $58.09 (CAD) (minimum $5.28, median $32.99, maximum $600).
  • Twenty-three employees (68%) did not ask whether the patient took prescription medications.
  • Fifteen (44%) employees recommended visiting a healthcare professional; these included: naturopaths (9), physicians (5) and nutritionists (1).
  • Health food store employees relied on a variety of sources of information. Twelve employees (35%) said they had received their information from books, 5 (15%) from a supplier, 3 (9%) had formal education in SCAM, 2 (6%) had in-store training, and 12 (35%) did not disclose their sources of information.

Since our paper has been published, several other investigations have addressed similar issues. Here are a few excerpts:

But why do I mention all this today?

The answer is that firstly, I think it is important to warn consumers of the often dangerous advice they might receive in HFSs. Secondly, I feel it would worthwhile to do further research, check whether the situation has changed and repeat a similar study today. Ideally, a new investigation should be conducted in different locations comparing several countries. If you have the possibility to plan and conduct such an experiment, please drop me a line.

Retraction Watch has alerted us to a “Paper urging use of homeopathy for COVID-19 appears in peer-reviewed public health journal”. The paper in question is readily available on the Internet. Here is its abstract:

Today, humanity is living through the third serious coronavirus outbreak in less than 20 years, following SARS in 2002–2003 and MERS in 2012. While the final cost on human lives and world economy remains unpredictable, the timely identification of a suitable treatment and the development of an effective vaccine remain a significant challenge and will still require time.

The aim of this study is to show that the global collective effort to control the coronavirus pandemic (Covid 19) should also consider alternative therapeutic methods, and national health systems should quickly endorse the validity of proven homeopathic treatments in this war against coronavirus disease.
Subject and methods With the help of mathematics, we will show that the fundamental therapeutic law on which homeopathy is founded can be proved.
Results The mathematical proof of the law of similarity justifies perfectly the use of ultra – high diluted succussed solution products as major tools in the daily practices of homeopathy.
Conclusion It is now time to end prejudice and adopt in this fight against Covid-19 alternative therapeutic techniques and practices that historically have proven effective in corresponding situations.

And the full conclusions from the body of the paper read as follows:

Today, it is imperative that ever-safe medicinal products such as homeopathic ultra – high diluted succussed solutions are tested in this pandemic. Epidemiological research has to be carried out to include homeopathic treatment and compare it to established treatments. Patients should be assigned randomly in two different groups of at least 200–400 individuals, and receive respectively established and homeopathic treatment. The evaluation of the results from both groups could reveal which group has a superior outcome in survival, general health conditions, etc., and to what extent.

If there were a competition for the craziest paper published on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) during 2020, this one would, I am sure, win by some margin! The authors seem to have little idea of the nature of evidence in healthcare or medicine; and they use mathematics like a drunken man uses a lamp-post: not for enlightenment, but for support.

So, who are the authors of this showcase of pseudoscience?

They are D. Kalliantas, M. Kallianta, Ch. S. Karagianni from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, School of Chemical Engineering, NTUA, GR15780, Athens, Greece; the National Technical University of Athens, 9 Heroon Polytechniou Str. Zografos Campus, 15780 Athens, Greece; and the School of Dentistry, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Athens, Greece.

The first author has previously published weird stuff including a self-published book: Kalliantas D (2008) The Chaos theory of disease. Kallianta A Publications, Eleusis, GreeceOn Medline, I also found this paper by two of the three authors:

Trituration is a mechanical process (a form of comminution) for reducing the particle size of a substance. In this manuscript, six different Raw Solid Materials (RSM) which are used in Homeopathy after successive grindings are studied before they are turned into homeopathic solutions. The impact of trituration, with the presence of α‑lactose monohydrate (milk sugar) seems to be quite great and interesting because of the variety of grain size which largely differentiate the properties of the materials. The grain sizes obtained triturations by hand according to C. Herring’s suggestion leads, finally, measurement scale dimensions. The obtained results can be useful information for all the pharmacy industries, as well as for preparing any kind of powder.

Sadly, this renders my suspicion unlikely that the new article is a hoax in which some pranksters were trying to show that any odd nonsense can pass the peer-review of a scientific journal.

And which journal would publish a paper that looks like a hoax but is none? It is the Journal of Public Health: From Theory to Practice (Springer). On the website, the journal tells us that:

The Journal of Public Health: From Theory to Practice is an interdisciplinary publication for the discussion and debate of international public health issues, with a focus on European affairs. It describes the social and individual factors determining the basic conditions of public health, analyzing causal interrelations, and offering a scientifically sound rationale for personal, social and political measures of intervention. Coverage includes contributions from epidemiology, health economics, environmental health, management, social sciences, ethics, and law.

  • An interdisciplinary publication for the discussion and debate of international public health issues
  • Includes contributions from epidemiology, health economics, environmental health, management, social sciences, ethics, and law
  • Offers a scientifically sound rationale for personal, social and political measures of intervention
  • 94% of authors who answered a survey reported that they would definitely publish or probably publish in the journal again.

_______________________________

The twice mentioned term SCIENTIFICALLY SOUND does not quite ring true in the present instance, does it?

Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is frequently used to manage cervicogenic headache (CGHA). No meta-analysis has investigated the effectiveness of SMT exclusively for CGHA.

The aim of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of SMT for cervicogenic headache (CGHA). Seven RCTs were eligible. At short-term follow-up, there was a significant, small effect favouring SMT for pain intensity and small effects for pain frequency. There was no effect for pain duration. There was a significant, small effect favouring SMT for disability. At intermediate follow-up, there was no significant effects for pain intensity and a significant, small effect favouring SMT for pain frequency. At long-term follow-up, there was no significant effects for pain intensity and for pain frequency.

The authors concluded that for CGHA, SMT provides small, superior short-term benefits for pain intensity, frequency and disability but not pain duration, however, high-quality evidence in this field is lacking. The long-term impact is not significant.

This meta-analysis can be criticised for a long list of reasons, the most serious of which, in my view, is that it is bar of even the tiniest critical input. The authors state that there has been no previous meta-analysis on this topic. This might be true, but there has been a systematic review of it (published in the leading journal on the subject) which the authors fail to mention/cite (I wonder why!). It is from 2011 and happens to be one of mine. Here is its abstract:

The objective of this systematic review was to assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulations as a treatment option for cervicogenic headaches. Seven databases were searched from their inception to February 2011. All randomized trials which investigated spinal manipulations performed by any type of healthcare professional for treating cervicogenic headaches in human subjects were considered. The selection of studies, data extraction, and validation were performed independently by 2 reviewers. Nine randomized clinical trials (RCTs) met the inclusion criteria. Their methodological quality was mostly poor. Six RCTs suggested that spinal manipulation is more effective than physical therapy, gentle massage, drug therapy, or no intervention. Three RCTs showed no differences in pain, duration, and frequency of headaches compared to placebo, manipulation, physical therapy, massage, or wait list controls. Adequate control for placebo effect was achieved in 1 RCT only, and this trial showed no benefit of spinal manipulations beyond a placebo effect. The majority of RCTs failed to provide details of adverse effects. There are few rigorous RCTs testing the effectiveness of spinal manipulations for treating cervicogenic headaches. The results are mixed and the only trial accounting for placebo effects fails to be positive. Therefore, the therapeutic value of this approach remains uncertain.

The key points here are:

  • methodological quality of the primary studies was mostly poor;
  • adequate control for placebo effect was achieved in 1 RCT only;
  • this trial showed no benefit of SMT beyond a placebo effect;
  • the majority of RCTs failed to provide details of adverse effects;
  • this means they violate research ethics and should be discarded as not trustworthy;
  • the therapeutic value of SMT remains uncertain.

The new paper was published by chiropractors. Its positive result is not clinically relevant, almost certainly due to residual bias and confounding in the primary studies, and thus most likely false-positive. The conclusions seem to disclose more the bias of the review authors than the truth. Considering the risks of SMT of the upper spine (a subject not even mentioned by the authors), I cannot see that the risk/benefit balance of this treatment is positive. It follows, I think, that other, less risky and more effective treatments are to be preferred for CGHA.

In my never-ending search for novel so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) I came across WATSU. If you had never heard of WATSU, you are in good company (for instance mine). WATSU (water and shiatsu) is a form of passive hydrotherapy in chest-deep thermoneutral water. It was created in the early 1980s by the California-based Shiatsu teacher Harold Dull and combines elements of myofascial stretching, joint mobilization, massage, and shiatsu and is used to address physical and mental issues.

To me, this sounds as though an old physiotherapeutic approach has been re-vamped in order to seem more attractive to the affluent sections of the SCAM brigade. My suspicion seems to be confirmed by SCAM ueber-guru Dr Andrew Weil’s comments:

Dr. Weil has received the therapy many times and often recommends it.

While other bodywork modalities are based on touch in a stationary, two-dimensional world, Watsu offers a different experience. A three-dimensional environment, nearly free from gravity, within a warm and comforting fluid-space and the opportunity to connect with another person all have obvious therapeutic potential.

Achieving states of deep relaxation combined with the therapeutic benefits of good massage therapy can be of great benefit in controlling pain, relieving stress, and recovering from emotional and physical trauma.

But never mind the one-dimensional Dr Weil. The question is: does WATSU work? According to a recent paper, it is effective for a wide range of conditions.

The objective of this systematic review and meta-analyses was to assess the applications, indications, and the effects of WATSU to form a basis for further studies.

Literature searches for “WATSU OR watershiatsu OR (water AND shiatsu)” were conducted without any restrictions in 32 databases. Peer reviewed original articles addressing WATSU as a stand-alone hydrotherapy were assessed for risk of bias. Quantitative data of effects on pain, physical function, and mental issues were processed in random model meta-analyses with subgroup analyses by study design.

Of 1,906 unique citations, 27 articles regardless of study design were assessed for risk of bias. WATSU has been applied to individuals of all ages. Indications covered acute (e.g. pregnancy related low back pain) and chronic conditions (e.g. cerebral palsy) with beneficial effects of WATSU regarding e.g. relaxation or sleep quality. Meta-analyses suggest beneficial effect sizes of WATSU on pain, physical function, and mental issues.

The authors concluded that various applications, indications and beneficial effects of WATSU were identified. The grade of this evidence is estimated to be low to moderate at the best. To strengthen the findings of this study, high-quality RCTs are needed.

Of the 27 studies included in this review, most were case-reports or case series, and only 5 were RCTs. Of these RCTs, none was robust. Some, for instance compared WATSU against no treatment at all, thus not controlling for placebo effects. All of these RCTs had small sample sizes, and all had been published in odd journals of dubious repute.

So, is it justified to categorically conclude that beneficial effects of WATSU were identified?

No, I don’t think so.

That physiotherapy in water can have positive effects on some symptoms would hardly be surprising. But, to convince people who think more critically than Dr Weil, better evidence would be needed.

Acupressure is the stimulation of specific points, called acupoints, on the body surface by pressure for therapeutic purposes. The required pressure can be applied manually of by a range of devices. Acupressure is based on the same tradition and assumptions as acupuncture. Like acupuncture, it is often promoted as a panacea, a ‘cure-all’.

Several systematic reviews of the clinical trials of acupressure have been published. An overview published in 2010 included 9 such papers and concluded that the effectiveness of this treatment has not been conclusively demonstrated for any condition.

But since 2010, more trials have become available.

Do they change the overall picture?

The objective of this study was to test the efficacy of acupressure on patient-reported postoperative recovery. The researchers conducted a single centre, three-group, blind, randomised controlled, pragmatic trial assessing acupressure therapy on the PC6, LI4 and HT7 acupoints. Postoperative patients expected to stay in hospital at least 2 days after surgery were included and randomised to three groups:

  1. In the acupressure group, pressure was applied for 6 min (2 min per acupoint), three times a day after surgery for a maximum of 2 postoperative days during the hospital stay.
  2. In the sham group, extremely light touch was applied to the acupoints.
  3. The third group did not receive any such intervention.

All patients also received the normal postoperative treatments.

The primary outcome was the change in the quality of recovery (QoR), using the QoR-15 questionnaire, between postoperative days 1 and 3. Key secondary outcomes included patients’ satisfaction, postoperative nausea and vomiting, pain score and opioid (morphine equivalent) consumption. Assessors for the primary and secondary endpoints were blind to the group allocation.

A total of 163 patients were randomised (acupressure n=55, sham n=53, no intervention n=55). The mean (SD) postoperative change in QoR-15 did not differ statistically (P = 0.27) between the acupressure, sham and no intervention groups: 15.2 (17.8), 14.2 (21.9), 9.2 (21.7), respectively. Patient satisfaction (on a 0 to 10 scale) was statistically different (P = 0.01) among these three groups: 9.1 (1.5), 8.4 (1.6) and 8.2 (2.2), respectively. Changes in pain score and morphine equivalent consumption were not significantly different between the groups.

The authors concluded that two days of postoperative acupressure therapy (up to six treatments) did not significantly improve patient QoR, postoperative nausea and vomiting, pain score or opioid consumption. Acupressure, however, was associated with improved patient satisfaction.

This study is a good example to show why it is so difficult (or even impossible) to use a clinical trial for demonstrating the ineffectiveness of a therapy for any given condition. The above trial fails to show that acupressure had a positive effect on the primary outcome measure. Acupressure fans will, however, claim that:

  • there was a positive effect on patient satisfaction,
  • the treatment was too intense/long,
  • the treatment was not intense/long enough,
  • the wrong points were used,
  • the sample size was too small,
  • the patients were too ill,
  • the patients were not ill enough,
  • etc., etc.

In the end, such discussions often turn out to be little more than a game of pigeon chess. Perhaps it is best to ask before planning such a trial:

IS THE ASSUMPTION THAT THE TREATMENT WORKS FOR THIS CONDITION PLAUSIBLE?

If the answer is no, why do the study in the first place?

New German Medicine?

German New Medicine?

What on earth is that?

German New Medicine (GNM) is the creation of Ryke Geerd Hamer (1935-2017), a German doctor. The name is reminiscent of the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ created by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Hamer received his medical licence in 1963 but was later struck off because of malpractice. He then continued his practice as a ‘Heilpraktiker’. According to proponents, GNM Therapy is a spoken therapy based on the findings and research of the Germanic New Medicine of Dr.Hamer. On the understanding that every disease is triggered by an isolating and shocking event, GNM Therapy assists in finding the DHS (shocking moment) in our lives that preceded the dis-ease and in turn allowing our bodies to complete its natural healing cycle back to full health. Hamer believed to have discovered the ‘5 laws of nature’:

  • The Iron Rule of Cancer
  • The two-phased development of disease
  • Ontogenetic system of tumours and cancer equivalent diseases
  • Ontogenetic system of microbes
  • Natures biological meaning of a disease

Hamer also postulated that:

  • All diseases are caused by psychological conflicts.
  • Conventional medicine is a conspiracy of Jews to decimate the non-Jewish population.
  • Microbes do not cause diseases.
  • AIDS is just an allergy.
  • Cancer is the result of a mental shock.

None of Hamer’s ‘discoveries’ and assumptions are plausible or based on facts, and none of his therapeutic approaches have been shown to be effective.

 These days, I do not easily get surprised by what I read about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), but this article entitled ‘Homoeopathy And New German Medicine: Two German Siblings‘ baffled me greatly. Here are a few short excerpts:

… German New Medicine (GNM) like Homoeopathy is one of the gentle healing methods. As siblings, they have some common features as well as their own unique features. So, let’s explore a unique relationship between these two siblings.

1) Holistic aspect:
Both therapeutic methods are believed in holistic concept of body. The disease condition in Homoeopathy and conflict in GNM are very similar in expression as they are reflecting on mental as well as physical level also. In Homoeopathy, Mind, Body and Soul are one of the important trios to understand the Homoeopathic philosophy. While in GNM, Psyche, Brain, Body are important aspect in learning the GNM. Let’s see these trio in their founder’s language,

• Homoeopathy:
Dr. Hahnemann in his oragnon of medicine, 6th edition mentioned about a unity of materialistic body and vital force. Last lines of aphorism 15 are as follows, “…although in thought our mind separates these two unities into distinct conceptions for the sake of easy comprehension.

• German New Medicine:
Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer, founder of GNM said that, “The differentiation between psyche, brain and the body is purely academic. In reality, they are one.”

2) Disease origin concept:

• Homoeopathy:
In Homoeopathy, disease originates from the dynamic disturbances and followed by functional and pathological changes.

• German New Medicine:
In GNM, morbid condition starts from conflict in the psyche level and later it reflects on body. The common feature is the disturbance is at the all levels of man.

3) Cause of disease:

• Homoeopathy:
In Homoeopathy, among the web of causations, psyche (mind) is also considers as a cause of disease.

• German New Medicine:
So, in GNM, psyche is playing important role in cause of disease. When Conflict starts, its dynamic effect perceived first at mind level.

4) Individuality:

• Homoeopathy:
In Homoeopathy, diathesis is a predisposition for disease condition. i.e. According to the diathesis every individual suffers with their own individual morbid dispositions. Rheumatic diathesis, gouty diathesis, etc. are the examples of diathesis.

• German New Medicine:
In GNM, every individual suffers from the disease condition after the receiving conflict. It is different and depending upon the type of conflict they are receiving. E.g. lung cancer- death fright conflict, cervical cancer –female sexual conflict…

Conclusion:
Some similarities and with some own characteristics, these two healing methods are developing at a good length in medical science. The main aim of these both methods is – “to serve the suffering humanity in gentle way”…

_____________________

Could it be that the author forgot the most striking similarities between GNM and homeopathy? How about these points:

  • There is nothing truly gentle about either methods.
  • Both are based on bizarre fantasies, far removed from reality.
  • Both pretend to be a panacea.
  • Both lack proof of efficacy.
  • Both have the potential to kill patients (mostly through neglect).
  • Both mislead consumers.
  • Both are deeply anti-scientific.
  • Both dissuade patients from using evidence-based healthcare.
  • Both are in conflict with medical ethics.
  • Both have cult-like features.
  • Both are far from being recognised by proper healthcare.
  • Both have been repeatedly in conflict with the law.
  • Both were invented by deludes fanatics.

Glucosamine is currently one of the most popular of all dietary supplements. It is marketed as a treatment for arthritis, and there is some evidence that it is moderately helpful for this indication. But evidence had been accumulating to suggest that glucosamine might have other effects as well. The latest analysis evaluated the associations of regular glucosamine use with all-cause and cause-specific mortality in a large prospective cohort.

This population-based prospective cohort study included 495 077 women and men from the UK Biobank study. Participants were recruited from 2006 to 2010 and were followed up through 2018. The investigators evaluated all-cause mortality and mortality due to cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, respiratory and digestive disease. Hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% CIs for all-cause and cause-specific mortality were calculated using Cox proportional hazards models with adjustment for potential confounding variables.

At baseline, 19.1% of the participants reported regular use of glucosamine supplements. During a median follow-up of 8.9 years (IQR 8.3-9.7 years), 19 882 all-cause deaths were recorded, including 3802 CVD deaths, 8090 cancer deaths, 3380 respiratory disease deaths and 1061 digestive disease deaths. In multivariable adjusted analyses, the HRs associated with glucosamine use were 0.85 (95% CI 0.82 to 0.89) for all-cause mortality, 0.82 (95% CI 0.74 to 0.90) for CVD mortality, 0.94 (95% CI 0.88 to 0.99) for cancer mortality, 0.73 (95% CI 0.66 to 0.81) for respiratory mortality and 0.74 (95% CI 0.62 to 0.90) for digestive mortality. The inverse associations of glucosamine use with all-cause mortality seemed to be somewhat stronger among current than non-current smokers (p for interaction=0.00080).

The authors concluded that regular glucosamine supplementation was associated with lower mortality due to all causes, cancer, CVD, respiratory and digestive diseases.

Previous epidemiological investigations indicated that glucosamine use might play a role in prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other diseases. This suggests that the finding is more than the result of a large ‘fishing expedition’ to which epidemiological studies are sadly prone. It we are indeed dealing with a true phenomenon, we should ask by what mechanism these remarkable outcomes might be achieved. It is well documented that glucosamine has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Therefore it is conceivable that such anti-inflammatory mechanisms are the cause for the observed outcomes.

How do we prove or disprove the hypothesis that glucosamine reduces the mortality of a range of diseases? A reasonable starting point would be to consult the good old Hill criteria of causality:

(1) The strength of association is small to moderate – certainly not strong

(2) The consistency of the findings is quite remarkable; that is unless dozens of epidemiological studies that failed to yield and association were never published.

(3) The specificity of the association with diseases linked to inflammation is also impressive (with the caveat above).

(4) Temporality seems also not a problem, as far as I can see.

(5) Biological gradient needs further testing, I think.

(6) Plausibility is not a problem, since there is a possible mechanism that could explain the findings.

(7) The same applies to coherence.

(8) Experiment is needed, but it is far from easy to conduct clinical trials where mortality is an endpoint.

(9) Analogy is realised through the well-established concept of (cardiovascular) risk factors.

What does all this actually mean?

It means, I think, that glucosamine could well have clinical effects that go far beyond easing the pain of arthritis. However, we cannot be sure. Once again, it boils down to the need of robust clinical trial data. The subject certainly seems important enough to consider this option.

 

There has been plenty of research into the factors that determine the usage of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Yet, so far, not a single truly powerful predictor has been identified. The aim of this study was therefore to identify the most important predictors of the use and approval of CAM. The researchers performed a canonical correlation analysis on all 3480 records from the 2012 German General Social Survey (ALLBUS) with the lifetime use and opinion of SCAM as the dependent variables.

Approval of paranormal practices such as fortune-telling, dowsing or spiritualism explained 32% of the variance in the dependent canonical variate “approval of SCAM”, while sociodemographic variables explained only 2%. Experience with paranormal practices explained 17% of the variance in the dependent canonical variate “experience with SCAM”, and sociodemographic variables explained 10% of the variance. Traditional religiosity, attitudes towards science and post-materialist values showed no relevant correlations with the dependent canonical variates.

The authors concluded that paranormal beliefs and related measures are the most important known predictors of the use and approval of SCAM. Experience with paranormal practices not only indicates paranormal beliefs but also explains experience with SCAM that cannot be explained by approval of SCAM. Female gender and higher socioeconomic status predict experience with SCAM without predicting approval of SCAM, but their influence should not be overstated.

Let’s not worry for the moment about the fact that most of the methods employed here to quantify the variables in question were not adequately validated. Let’s instead just assume that the reported findings are reliable and real. In this case, we must ask what do these correlations mean?

The authors seem to think that their results are quite extraordinary and require elaborate explanations. I find the findings utterly unsurprising and think they are almost self-explanatory: SCAM use/approval and the belief in the paranormal are linked because, to a very large degree, SCAM is part of the paranormal. The two are associated via a common denominator: lack of rationality and critical thinking.

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