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

alternative medicine

Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT), especially hyperextension and rotation. have often been associated with cervical artery dissection (CAD), a tear in the internal carotid or the vertebral artery resulting in an intramural haematoma and/or an aneurysmal dilatation. But is the association causal? This question is often the subject of fierce discussions between chiropractors and the real doctors.

The lack of established causality relates to the chicken and egg discussion, i.e., whether the CAD symptoms lead the patient to seek cervical SMT or whether the cervical SMT provokes CAD along with the non-CAD presenting headache and/or neck complaint.

The aim of a new review was to provide an updated step-by-step risk-benefit assessment strategy regarding manual therapy and to provide tools for clinicians to exclude cervical artery dissection.

In light of the evidence provided, the reality, according to the review-authors, is:

  • a) that there is no firm scientific basis for direct causality between cervical SMT and CAD;
  • b) that the internal carotid artery (ICA) moves freely within the cervical pathway, while 74% of cervical SMTs are conducted in the lower cervical spine where the vertebral artery (VA) also moves freely;
  • c) that active daily life consists of multiple cervical movements including rotations that do not trigger CAD, as is true for a range of physical activities;
  • d) that a cervical manipulation and/or grade C cervical mobilization goes beyond the physiological limit but remains within the anatomical range, which theoretically means that the artery should not exceed failure strain.

These factors underscore the fact that no serious adverse event (AE) was reported in a large prospective national survey conducted in the UK that assessed all AEs in 28,807 chiropractic treatment consultations, which included 50,276 cervical spine manipulations.

The figure outlines a risk-benefit assessment strategy that should provide additional knowledge and improve the vigilance of all clinicians to enable them to exclude CAD, refer patients with suspected CAD to appropriate care, and consequently prevent CAD from progressing.

It has been argued that most patients present with at least two physical symptoms. The clinical characteristics and recommendations in the figure follow this assumption. This figure is intended to function as a knowledge base that should be implemented in preliminary screening and be part of good clinical practice. This knowledge base will likely contribute to sharpening the attention of the clinicians and alert them as to whether the presenting complaint, combined with a collection of warning signs listed in the figure, deviates from what he or she considers to be a usual musculoskeletal presentation.

Even though this is a seemingly thoughtful analysis, I think it omits at least two important points:

  1. The large prospective UK survey which included 50,276 cervical spine manipulations might be less convincing that it seems. It recorded about one order of magnitude less minor adverse effects of spinal manipulation than a multitude of previously published prospective surveys. The self-selected, relatively small group of participating chiropractors (32% of the total sample) were both experienced (67% been in practice for 5 or more years) and may not always have adhered to the protocol of the survey. Thus they may have employed their experience to intuitively select low-risk patients rather than including all consecutive cases, as the protocol prescribed. This hypothesis would firstly account for the unusually low rate of minor adverse effects, and secondly, it would explain why no serious complications occurred at all. Given that about 700 such complications are on record, the low incidence of serious adverse events could well be a gross underestimate.
  2. The effect of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy is probably due to a placebo response. This means that it should probably not be done in the first place.

Whenever there are discussions about homeopathy (currently, they have reached fever-pitch both in France and in Germany), one subject is bound to emerge sooner or later: its cost. Some seemingly well-informed person will exclaim that USING MORE HOMEOPATHY WILL SAVE US ALL A LOT OF MONEY.

The statement is as predictable as it is wrong.

Of course, homeopathic remedies tend to cost, on average, less than conventional treatments. But that is beside the point. A car without an engine is also cheaper than one with an engine. Comparing the costs of items that are not comparable is nonsense.

What we need are proper analyses of cost-effectiveness. And these studies clearly fail to prove that homeopathy is a money-saver.

Even researchers who are well-known for their pro-homeopathy stance have published a systematic review of economic evaluations of homeopathy. They included 14 published assessments, and the more rigorous of these investigations did not show that homeopathy is cost-effective. The authors concluded that “although the identified evidence of the costs and potential benefits of homeopathy seemed promising, studies were highly heterogeneous and had several methodological weaknesses. It is therefore not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.

Probably the most meaningful study in this area is an investigation by another pro-homeopathy research team. Here is its abstract:

OBJECTIVES:

This study aimed to provide a long-term cost comparison of patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with patients using usual care (control group) over an observation period of 33 months.

METHODS:

Health claims data from a large statutory health insurance company were analysed from both the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective (secondary outcome). To compare costs between patient groups, homeopathy and control patients were matched in a 1:1 ratio using propensity scores. Predictor variables for the propensity scores included health care costs and both medical and demographic variables. Health care costs were analysed using an analysis of covariance, adjusted for baseline costs, between groups both across diagnoses and for specific diagnoses over a period of 33 months. Specific diagnoses included depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache.

RESULTS:

Data from 21,939 patients in the homeopathy group (67.4% females) and 21,861 patients in the control group (67.2% females) were analysed. Health care costs over the 33 months were 12,414 EUR [95% CI 12,022-12,805] in the homeopathy group and 10,428 EUR [95% CI 10,036-10,820] in the control group (p<0.0001). The largest cost differences were attributed to productivity losses (homeopathy: EUR 6,289 [6,118-6,460]; control: EUR 5,498 [5,326-5,670], p<0.0001) and outpatient costs (homeopathy: EUR 1,794 [1,770-1,818]; control: EUR 1,438 [1,414-1,462], p<0.0001). Although the costs of the two groups converged over time, cost differences remained over the full 33 months. For all diagnoses, homeopathy patients generated higher costs than control patients.

CONCLUSION:

The analysis showed that even when following-up over 33 months, there were still cost differences between groups, with higher costs in the homeopathy group.

A recent analysis confirms this situation. It concluded that patients who use homeopathy are more expensive to their health insurances than patients who do not use it. The German ‘Medical Tribune’ thus summarised the evidence correctly when stating that ‘Globuli are m0re expensive than conventional therapies’. This quote mirrors perfectly the situation in Switzerland which as been summarised as follows: ‘Globuli only cause unnecessary healthcare costs‘.

But homeopaths (perhaps understandably) seem reluctant to agree. They tend to come out with ever new arguments to defend the indefensible. They claim, for instance, that prescribing a homeopathic remedy to a patient would avoid giving her a conventional treatment that is not only more expensive but also has side-effects which would cause further expense to the system.

To some, this sounds perhaps reasonable (particularly, I fear, to some politicians), but it should not be reasonable argument for responsible healthcare professionals.

Why?

Because it could apply only to the practice of bad and unethical medicine: if a patient is ill and needs a medical treatment, she does certainly not need something that is ineffective, like homeopathy. If she is not ill and merely wants a placebo, she needs assurance, compassion, empathy, understanding and most certainly not an expensive and potentially harmful conventional therapy.

To employ the above analogy, if someone needs transport, she does not need a car without an engine!

So, whichever way we twist or turn it, the issue turns out to be quite simple:

WHITHOUT EFFECTIVENESS, THERE CAN BE NO COST-EFFECTIVENESS!

Fructus Psoraleae is the seed of Psoralea corylifolia Linn. It is the main ingredient of the herbal mixtures such as Qubaibabuqi, popular in China, India and other countries. It has been used for medicinal purposes for millennia. Thus many proponents would claim that it must be risk-free.

A recent case-report  suggests that it might not be as safe as often assumed.

A 53-year-old woman was diagnosed with vitiligo in September 2017 and was treated with oral Qubaibabuqi tablets (15 tablets three times daily; Xinjiang Yinduolan Uyghur Pharmaceutical Company Limited, Urumqi, China), 10 mg of prednisone acetate tablets (Xinhua Pharmaceutical Company Limited, Zibo, China) once daily, and narrowband-ultraviolet B (NB-UVB) phototherapy (Sigma household narrowband-ultraviolet phototherapy instrument [SS-01B] pocket portable; Shanghai Sigma High Technology Co., Ltd. Shanghai, China) every other day. The prednisone acetate tablets were self-discontinued 3 months later; however, she continued to take Qubaibabuqi tablets orally and NB-UVB phototherapy was undertaken at home.

After approximately 7 months of treatment, the patient developed a severe, diffuse yellow staining of the skin and sclera in March 2018. On admission, she was diagnosed with acute cholestatic hepatitis associated with Fructus Psoraleae. Despite receiving active treatment, her condition rapidly deteriorated and she died 5 days later due to acute liver failure and multiple organ dysfunction. There are 6 further reported cases of liver injury associated with Fructus Psoraleae described in the English language literature. Cases of acute liver failure associated with the use of Fructus Psoraleae have not been previously described.

The authors of the case-report concluded that as a main ingredient in the Qubaibabuqi tablet formula, Fructus Psoraleae has potential hepatotoxicity. This potentially fatal adverse effect should be considered when physicians prescribe Qubaibabuqi tablets.

Psoralea corylifolia Linn (also known as Bu-gu-zh, Bu Ku Zi, Bol-gol-zhee, Boh-Gol-Zhee, Babchi, and Bakuchi) is a plant grown in China, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and other countries, which is considered an important herbal medicine. It is used in TCM to tonify the kidneys, particularly kidney yang and essence. It is used for helping the healing of bone fractures, for lower back and knee pain, impotence, bed wetting, hair loss, and vitiligo. A recent review named it as one of the main herbs causing liver problems (other herbs included Polygonum multiflorum, Corydalis yanhusuo, and Rheum officinale).

Another review found that Psoralea corylifolia has cardiotonic, vasodilator, pigmentor, antitumor, antibacterial, cytotoxic, and anti-helminthic properties. About one hundred bioactive compounds have been isolated from seeds and fruits; the most important ones belong to coumarins, flavonoids, and meroterpenes groups. Psoralea corylifolia is part of many Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal mixtures.

Despite of the popularity of Psoralea corylifolia in the treatment of a very wide range of conditions, and despite the pharmacological studies into its potential therapeutic uses, there is an almost complete void as to clinical trials testing its clinical effectiveness.

The case-report is a poignant and tragic reminder of the often-neglected fact that neither a long history of usage nor popularity of a (herbal) treatment are reliable indicators for safety.

The aim of this systematic review was to determine the efficacy of conventional treatments plus acupuncture versus conventional treatments alone for asthma, using a meta-analysis of all published randomized clinical trials (RCTs).

The researchers included all RCTs in which adult and adolescent patients with asthma (age ≥12 years) were divided into conventional treatments plus acupuncture (A+B) and conventional treatments (B). Nine studies were included. The results showed that A+B could improve the symptom response rate and significantly decrease interleukin-6. However, indices of pulmonary function, including the forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) and FEV1/forced vital capacity (FVC) failed to be improved with A+B.

The authors concluded that conventional treatments plus acupuncture are associated with significant benefits for adult and adolescent patients with asthma. Therefore, we suggest the use of conventional treatments plus acupuncture for asthma patients.

I am thankful to the authors for confirming my finding that A+B must always be more/better than B alone (the 2nd sentence of their conclusion is, of course, utter nonsense, but I will leave this aside for today). Here is the short abstract of my 2008 article:

In this article, we test the hypothesis that randomized clinical trials of acupuncture for pain with certain design features (A + B versus B) are likely to generate false positive results. Based on electronic searches in six databases, 13 studies were found that met our inclusion criteria. They all suggested that acupuncture is effective (one only showing a positive trend, all others had significant results). We conclude that the ‘A + B versus B’ design is prone to false positive results and discuss the design features that might prevent or exacerbate this problem.

Even though our paper was on acupuncture for pain, it firmly established the principle that A+B is always more than B. Think of it in monetary terms: let’s say we both have $100; now someone gives me $10 more. Who has more cash? Not difficult, is it?

But why do SCAM-fans not get it?

Why do we see trial after trial and review after review ignoring this simple and obvious fact?

I suspect I know why: it is because the ‘A+B vs B’ study-design never generates a negative result!

But that’s cheating!

And isn’t cheating unethical?

My answer is YES!

(If you want to read a more detailed answer, please read our in-depth analysis here)

 

 

The most regularly reported serious complication of chiropractic neck manipulation is a stroke due to arterial dissection. Atlantoaxial dislocation (a dislocations of the first and second vertebrae which means that the spinal cord is in danger of being compressed which, in turn, would have devastating consequences) has not been previously reported, but is just as serious.

This new case-report described an 83-year-old man with a history of old cerebellar infarction who presented to the emergency department with acute left hemiplegia after a chiropractic manipulation of the neck and back several hours before symptom onset. Mild hypoesthesia was observed on his left limbs. No speech disturbance, facial palsy, or neck or shoulder pain was observed.

Intravenous thrombolytic treatment was given 238 min after symptom onset. Brown-Sequard syndrome (damage to one side of the spinal cord causing paralysis and loss of feeling on one side) subsequently developed 6 h after thrombolysis with a hypo-aesthetic sensory level below the right C5 dermatome. An emergent brain magnetic resonance angiography did not reveal an acute cerebral infarct but rather an atlantoaxial dislocation causing upper cervical spinal cord compression.

Clinical symptoms did not deteriorate after thrombolysis. He received successful decompressive surgery 1 week later, and his muscle power gradually improved, with partial dependency when performing daily living activities two months later.

A literature review revealed that only 15 patients (including the patient mentioned here) with spinal disorder mimicking acute stroke who received thrombolytic therapy have been reported. Atlantoaxial dislocation may present as acute hemiplegia mimicking acute stroke, followed by Brown-Sequard syndrome. Inadvertent thrombolytic therapy is likely not harmful for patients with atlantoaxial dislocation-induced cervical myelopathy. The neurological deficits of patients should be carefully and continuously evaluated to differentiate between stroke and myelopathy.

The authors of this case report provide no detail about the exact treatment that caused this complication, nor do they elaborate on the type of healthcare professional who administered the cervical manipulation (they focus on the issue of non-indicated thrombolytic therapy). We also do not learn why the patient had neck manipulations in the first place. However, the authors seem confident that the ‘chiropractic manipulation’ was the cause of this atlantoaxial dislocation causing severe upper cervical spinal cord compression.

The patient was treated surgically, with corticosteroids and subsequent rehabilitation. Two months later, his neurological deficits were much improved.

There is much propaganda for homeopathic vaccinations or homeoprophylaxis (as homeopaths like to call it, in order to give it a veneer of respectability), and on this blog we have discussed it repeatedly. The concept is unproven and dangerous. Yet it is being promoted relentlessly. Currently, I get > 12 million websites when I google ‘homeopathic vaccination’, and there are hundreds of dangerously misleading books and newspaper articles on the subject.

One study that I therefore always wanted to conduct was a trial comparing homeopathic ‘vaccines’ to placebo in terms of immunological response in human volunteers. Somehow, I never managed to get it going. Thus, I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I received an article for peer-review (I hope I am allowed to disclose this fact here); it was almost exactly the trial I had dreamt of doing one day: the first ever study to test whether there is an antibody response to homeopathic vaccines. Now I am even more delighted to see that it has been published.

Its aim was to compare the antibody response of homeopathic and conventional vaccines and placebo in young adults. The authors hypothesized that there would be no significant difference between homeopathic vaccines and placebo, while there would be a significant increase in antibodies in those received conventional vaccines.

A placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT was conducted where 150 university students who had received childhood vaccinations were assigned to diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, mumps, measles homeopathic vaccine, placebo, or conventional diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (Tdap) and mumps, measles, rubella (MMR) vaccines. The primary outcome was a ≥ two-fold increase in antibodies from baseline following vaccination as measured by ELISA. Participants, investigators, study coordinator, data blood drawers, laboratory technician, and data analyst were blinded.

None of the participants in either the homeopathic vaccine or the placebo group showed a ≥ two-fold response to any of the antigens. In contrast, of those vaccinated with Tdap, 68% (33/48) had a ≥ two-fold response to diphtheria, 83% (40/48) to pertussis toxoid, 88% (42/48) to tetanus, and 35% (17/48) of those vaccinated with MMR had a response to measles or mumps antigens (p < 0.001 for each comparison of conventional vaccine to homeopathic vaccine or to placebo). There was a significant increase in geometric mean titres of antibody from baseline for conventional vaccine antigens (p < 0.001 for each), but none for the response to homeopathic antigens or placebo.

The authors concluded that homeopathic vaccines do not evoke antibody responses and produce a response that is similar to placebo. In contrast, conventional vaccines provide a robust antibody response in the majority of those vaccinated.

I think this is in every respect an excellent trial. It should once and for all get rid of what is arguably the homeopathy-cult’s most dangerous idea, namely that highly diluted homeopathic remedies can protect humans against infectious diseases. On this blog, I once called it ‘a danger for both the public and the individual who might believe in it … promoting HP is unethical, irresponsible and possibly even criminal.’

I said it ‘should’ get rid of this nonsense, but will it?

As homeopaths have, for now 200 years, showed themselves utterly impervious to evidence, I for one am not holding my breath. Yet, thanks to this excellent study, we can, when confronted with the notion of homeopathic vaccinations, henceforth point out that it is not just totally implausible but that, in addition, it has also been experimentally shown to be false.

My thanks to the Canadian investigators!

In recent years, I have found myself getting irritated with researchers finishing their evaluation of a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) with the sentence ‘MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED’ (or similar). It is irritating because it fails to draw a line under assessments of even the most hopelessly implausible treatment. And, because it leaves things open, it seems to imply that, until further research is available, things can go on as before.

When I realised that plenty of my own papers ended with this statement, I was first taken aback and then even more irritated. How could I have been guilty of repeatedly publishing such nonsense?

Here are just 5 examples of my blundering:

further trials of high methodological quality with sufficient sample size and follow-up are needed

Future rigorous randomised clinical trials with larger sample sizes will be necessary

Future investigations in this area should overcome the multiple methodological weaknesses of the previous research.

More and larger long-term, high-quality trials are needed.

Larger and more rigorous trials are needed to objectively assess the effects of this herbal supplement.

But subsequently I re-considered and asked myself: what does ‘MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED’, a phrase used by so many researchers, really mean?

Contrary to how it seems often to be understood in SCAM, it cannot (should not) mean that, until there is more evidence, we are all free to employ the treatment in question.

Let’s take my first two of my articles quoted above as examples. The first was an assessment of qigong for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, and the second an evaluation of acupuncture as a treatment of ankle sprains. When concluding that, in both cases, more research is needed, I did certainly not mean to issue a ‘carte blanche’ to clinicians for carrying on using an evidently unproven SCAM!

What the sentence ‘MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED’ actually means is almost the opposite:

  1. at present, the evidence is insufficient;
  2. more research is needed for a firm verdict;
  3. currently, the effectiveness of the treatment is unproven;
  4. it is unwise and possibly even unethical to employ unproven treatments in clinical routine, particularly in situations for which evidence-based therapies are available.

And, if this is so, one also needs to express that NO MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED, whenever this applies. In the realm of SCAM, this would be the case, if a therapy is hopelessly implausible, for instance. I am glad to say that, occasionally, I did do just that:

… There are hundreds of different homeopathic remedies which can be prescribed for thousands of symptoms in dozens of different dilutions. Thus we would probably need to work flat out for several lifetimes in order to arrive at a conclusion that fully substantiates my opening statement*.

This seems neither possible nor desirable. Perhaps it is preferable to simply combine common sense with the best existing knowledge. These two tell us that 1) homeopathy is biologically implausible, 2) its own predictions seem to be incorrect and 3) the clinical evidence is largely negative…

… the conundrum of homeopathy seems to be solved. ‘Heavens!’ I hear the homeopathic fraternity shout. ‘We need more research!’ But are they correct? How much research is enough to show that any treatment does not work (sorry, is not superior to placebo)? Here we go full circle: should we really spend several lifetimes in order to arrive at a more robust conclusion?

*homeopathy is not better than placebo

 

This article reported the case of a woman from West Bengal who presented with generalised weakness, weight loss, intermittent diffuse pain abdomen, anorexia, nausea, off and on diarrhoea for eight months. She also noticed darkening of her complexion for six months. Since last 4 months, she had intermittent headache of varying duration, frequency and intensity with tingling and numbness of all four limbs.

Her past medical history was unremarkable except for a chronic anxiety disorder for which she was treated by homeopathy medicine. A neurological examination showed preserved higher mental function, bilateral papilledema with intact other cranial nerves. There was mild motor weakness in both lower limbs, both proximal and distal accompanied by hypotonia without any motor weakness in upper limbs. There was distal sensory deficit in the form of glove and stocking hypoesthesia with reduced deep reflexes in all 4 limbs and bilateral flexor planter response. Gastrointestinal examination revealed non-tender enlarged liver with 16 cm span, mild splenomegaly and mild ascites. Investigations showed mild microcytic hypochromic anaemia (Hb- 9.2 g/dl, MCV-78 fl, MCH-26 pg, MCHC- 31.3 g/dl), low serum iron (27.5 mcg/dl), low TIBC (84.4 mcg/ dl), high serum ferritin (808.6 ng/ml), raised transaminases (AST- 40 IU/L, ALT- 98 IU/L), low serum total protein (4.6 g/dl), low serum albumin (1.9g/dl), globulin (2.7 g/dl) and raised alkaline phosphatase (789 IU/L). Nerve conduction velocity of all four limbs was suggestive of sensorimotor neuropathy.

Unexplained, apparently unrelated multi-system involvement including chronic diarrhoea, presence of liver disease, peripheral neuropathy, idiopathic intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri ) and characteristic skin lesions suggested chronic arsenicosis. Arsenic level in hair was found to be 1.06 μg/g (N= 0.02-0.2 μg/g) and arsenic level in nail was 1.24 μg/g (N= 0.02-0.5 μg/g) with normal arsenic content (0.03 mg/l) of the drinking water of the locality.

Further questioning revealed that the patient was taking arsenicum album for her anxiety depressive disorder for last one year. The drug was discontinued. Six months later the patient had fully recovered. The authors concluded that an apparently harmless homeopathy medicine may cause multisystem involvement.

The only other case reports of homeopathic arsenic poisoning is this paper:

Case 1 presented with melanosis and keratosis following short-term use of Arsenic Bromide 1-X followed by long-term use of other arsenic-containing homeopathic preparations. Case 2 developed melanotic arsenical skin lesions after taking Arsenicum Sulfuratum Flavum-1-X (Arsenic S.F. 1-X) in an effort to treat his white skin patches. Case 3 consumed Arsenic Bromide 1-X for 6 days in an effort to treat his diabetes and developed an acute gastrointestinal illness followed by leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, and diffuse dermal melanosis with patchy desquamation. Within approximately 2 weeks, he developed a toxic polyneuropathy resulting in quadriparesis. Arsenic concentrations in all three patients were significantly elevated in integument tissue samples. In all three cases, arsenic concentrations in drinking water were normal but arsenic concentrations in samples of the homeopathic medications were elevated. CONCLUSION: Arsenic used therapeutically in homeopathic medicines can cause clinical toxicity if the medications are improperly used.

The authors of the new paper fail to mention the potency of the homeopathic arsenic preparation taken by the patient. As far as I know, in Europe, only high potencies of arsenic are prescribed and dispensed; these remedies contain no or very little arsenic and can thus be considered harmless. In India, however, the 1-X potency seems to be popular, according to the second paper cited above. It describes a dilution of 1: 10 only. It is clear that taking such a remedy would quickly lead to severe toxicity.

This begs the questions: Is it legal to prescribe and dispense such remedies in India or anywhere else? And, in case it is legal, why?

Here is the abstract of a paper that makes even the most senior assessor of quackery shudder:

Objective:

The purpose of this report is to describe the manipulation under anesthesia (MUA) treatment of 6 infants with newborn torticollis with a segmental dysfunction at C1/C2.

Clinical Features:

Six infants aged 4 1/2 to 15 months previously diagnosed with newborn torticollis were referred to a doctor of chiropractic owing to a failure to respond adequately to previous conservative therapies. Common physical findings were limited range of motion of the upper cervical spine. Radiographs demonstrated rotational malpositions and translation of atlas on axis in all 6 infants, and 1 had a subluxation of the C1/C2 articulation.

Interventions and Outcome:

Selection was based on complexity and variety of different clinical cases qualifying for MUA. Treatment consisted of 1 mobilization and was performed in the operating room of a children’s hospital by a certified chiropractic physician with the author assisting. Along with the chiropractor and his assistant, a children’s anesthesiologist, 1 to 2 operating nurses, a children’s radiologist, and in 1 case a pediatric surgeon were present. Before the mobilization, plain radiographs of the cervico-occipital area were taken. Three infants needed further investigation by a pediatric computed tomography scan of the area because of asymmetric bony conditions on the plain radiographs. Follow-up consultations at 2, 3, 5, or 6 weeks were done. Patient records were analyzed for restriction at baseline before MUA compared with after MUA treatment for active rotation, passive rotation, and passive rotation in full flexion of the upper cervical spine. All 3 measurements showed significant differences. The long-term outcome data was collected via phone calls to the parents at 6 to 72 months. The initial clinical improvements were maintained.

Conclusion:

These 6 infants with arthrogenic newborn torticollis, who did not respond to previous conservative treatment methods, responded to MUA.

___________________________________________________________________

After reading the full text, I see many very serious problems and questions with this paper; here are 14 of the most obvious ones.

1. A congenital torticollis (that’s essentially what these kids were suffering from) has a good prognosis and does not require such invasive treatments. There is thus no plausible reason to conduct a case series of this nature.

2. A retrospective case series does not allow conclusions about therapeutic effectiveness, yet in the article the author does just that.

3. The same applies to her conclusions about the safety of the interventions.

4. It is unclear how the 6 cases were selected; it seems possible or even likely that they are, in fact, 6 cases of many more treated over a long period of time.

5. If so, this paper is hardly a ‘retrospective case series’; at best it could be called a ‘best case series’.

6. The X-rays or CT scans are unnecessary and potentially harmful.

7. The anaesthesia is potentially very harmful and unjustifiable.

8. The outcome measure is unreliable, particularly if performed by the chiropractor who has a vested interest in generating a positive result.

9. The follow-up by telephone is inadequate.

10. The range of the follow-up period (6-72 months) is unacceptable.

11. The exact way in which informed consent was obtained is unclear. In particular, we would need to know whether the parents were fully informed about the futility of the treatment and its considerable risks.

12. The chiropractor who administered the treatments is not named. Why not?

13. Similarly, it is unclear why the other healthcare professionals involved in these treatments are not named as co-authors of the paper.

14. It is unclear whether ethical approval was obtained for these treatments.

The author seems inexperienced in publishing scientific articles; the present one is poorly written and badly constructed. A Medline research reveals that she has only one other publication to her name. So, perhaps one should not be too harsh in judging her. But what about her supervisors, the journal, its reviewers, its editor and the author’s institution? The author comes from the Department of Chiropractic Medicine, Medical Faculty University, Zurich, Switzerland. On their website, they state:

The Faculty of Medicine of the University of Zurich is committed to high quality teaching and continuing research-based education of students in health care professions. Excellent and internationally recognised scientists and clinically outstanding physicians are at the Faculty of Medicine devoted to patients and public health, to teaching, to the support of young researchers and to academic medicine. The interaction between research and teaching, and their connection to clinical practice play a central role for us…

The Faculty of Medicine of the University of Zurich promotes innovative research in the basic fields of medicine, in the clinical application of knowledge, in personalised medicine, in health care, and in the translational connection between all these research areas. In addition, it encourages the cooperation between primary care and specialised health care.

It seems that, with the above paper, the UZH must have made an exception. In my view, it is a clear case of scientific misconduct and child abuse.

I have just given two lectures on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in France.

Why should that be anything to write home about?

Perhaps it isn’t; but during the last 25 years I have been lecturing all over the world and, even though I live partly in France and speak the language, I never attended a single SCAM-conference there. I have tried for a long time to establish contact with French SCAM-researchers, but somehow this never happened.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that, although the practice of SCAM is hugely popular in this country, there was no or very little SCAM-research in France. This conclusion seems to be confirmed by simple Medline searches. For instance, Medline lists just 171 papers for ‘homeopathy/France’ (homeopathy is much-used in France), while the figures for Germany and the UK are 490 and 448.

These are, of course, only very rough indicators, and therefore I was delighted to be invited to participate for the first time in a French SCAM-conference. It was well-organised, and I am most grateful to the organisers to have me. Actually, the meeting was about non-pharmacological treatments but the focus was clearly on SCAM. Here are a few impressions purely on the SCAM-elements of this conference.

TERMINOLOGY

Already the title of the conference, ‘Non-pharmacological Interventions: Integrative, Preventive, Complementary and Personalised Medicines‘, contained a confusing shopping-list of terms. The actual lectures offered even more. Clear definitions of these terms were not forthcoming and are, as far as I can see, impossible. This meant that much of the discussion lacked focus. In both my presentations, I used the term ‘alternative medicine’ and stressed that all such umbrella terms are fairly useless. In my view, it is therefore best to name the precise modality (acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy etc.) one wants to discuss.

INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE

The term that seemed to dominate the conference was ‘INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE’ (IM). I got the impression that it was employed uncritically by some for bypassing the need for proper evaluation of any specific SCAM. The experts seemed to imply that, because IM is the politically and socially correct approach, there is no longer a need for asking whether the treatments to be integrated actually generate more good than harm. I got the impression that most of these researchers were confusing science with promotion.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

The discussions regularly touched upon research methodology – but they did little more than lightly touch it. People tended to lament that ‘conventional research methodology’ was inadequate for assessing SCAM, and that we therefore needed different methods and even paradigms. I did not hear any reasonable explanations in what respect the ‘conventional methodology’ might be insufficient, nor did I understand the concept of an alternative science or paradigm. My caution that double standards in medicine can only be detrimental, seemed to irritate and fell mostly on deaf ears.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

My own research agenda has always been the efficacy and safety of SCAM; and I still have no doubt that these are the issues that need addressing more urgently than any others. My impression was that, during this conference, the researchers seemed to aim in entirely different directions. One speaker even explained that, if a homeopath is fully convinced of the assumptions of homeopathy, he is entirely within the ethical standards to treat his patients homeopathically, regardless of the fact that homeopathy is demonstrably wrong. Another speaker claimed that there is no doubt any longer about the efficacy of acupuncture; the research question therefore must be how to best implement it in routine healthcare. And yet another expert tried to explain TCM with quantum physics. I have, of course, heard similar nonsense before during such conferences, but rarely did it pass without objection or debate.

RESEARCH FUNDING

The lack of research funding was bemoaned repeatedly. Most researchers seemed to think that they needed dedicated funding streams for SCAM to take account of the need of softer methodologies and the unique nature of SCAM. The argument that there should be only one set of standards for spending scarce research funds – scientific rigor and relevance – was not one shared by the French SCAM enthusiasts. The US example was frequently cited as the one that we ought to follow. In my view, the US example foremost shows impressively that a ring-fenced funding stream for SCAM is a wasteful mistake.

THE COLLEGE

To my surprise I learnt during a conference presentation that there is such a thing as the ‘Collège Universitaire de Médecines Intégratives et Complémentaires‘ (How could I have been unaware of it all those years? Why did I never see any of their published work? Why did they never contact me and cooperate?). Its president is Prof Jacques Kopferschmitt from the University of Strasbourg, and many French Universities are members of this organisation. Here is the abstract of Kopferschmitt’s lecture on the topic of this College:

The multitude of complementary therapies or non-pharmacological interventions (NPIs) first requires pedagogical semantic harmonization to bring down the historical tensions that persist. If users often remain very or too seduced, it is not the same with health professionals! Behind the words, there are concepts that disturb because between efficiency and efficiency the nuances are subtle. However, nothing really stands in the way of modern western medicine, but there are really gaps that we could fill in the face of the growing scale of chronic diseases, the prerogative of the Western world. The need for a university investment in verification, validation and certification is essential in the face of the diversity of offers. The main beneficiaries are health professionals who need to invest in an integrative approach, particularly in France. The CUMIC promotes a different vision of efficiency and effectiveness with a broader vision of multidisciplinary evaluation, which we will discuss the main targets.

Kopferschmitt is Professor of Medical Therapy, which introduced him to a pluralism of approach to health concerns, including innovative by the introduction of the CT in the first and second cycle of medical studies. He is responsible for the teaching of Acupuncture, Auriculotherapy and hypnosis clinic. He is vice President of the Groupe d’Évaluation des Thérapies complémentaires Personnalisées (GETCOP). By founding the association of complementary Therapies at the University hospitals of Strasbourg he coordinates the introduction, teaching and research in both in Hospital and in University, who was organized many seminars on CT. He currently chairs the French University of Integrative and Complementary Medicine College (CUMIC).

This sounded odd to me; however, it got truly bizarre after I looked up what SCAM-research Kopferschmitt or any of the other officers of the College have published. I could not find a single SCAM-article authored by him/them.

DIFFERENT PLANET

Altogether I found the conference enjoyable and was pleased to meet many interesting and very kind people. But I often felt like having arrived on a different planet. Many of the discussions, lectures, ideas, comments, etc. reminded me of 1993, the year I had arrived in the UK to start our research in SCAM. What is more, I fear that French experts involved in real science might feel the same about those colleagues who seem to engage themselves in SCAM research with more enthusiasm than expertise, scientific rigour or track record. The planet I had landed on was one where critical thinking was yet to be discovered, I felt.

ADVICE

Who am I to teach others what to do?

Yes, I do hesitate to give advice – but, after all, I have researched SCAM for 25 years and published more on the subject that any researcher on the planet; and I too was once more of a SCAM-enthusiast as is apparent today. So, for what it’s worth, here is some hopefully constructive advice that crossed my mind while driving home through the beautiful French landscape:

  • Sort out the confusion in terminology and define your terms as accurately as you can.
  • Try to focus on the research questions that are justifiably the most important ones for improving healthcare.
  • Do not attempt to re-invent the wheel.
  • Once you have identified a truly relevant research question, read up what has already been published on it.
  • While doing this, differentiate between rigorous research and fluff that does not meet this criterion.
  • Remember to abandon your own prejudices; research is about finding the truth and not about confirming your beliefs.
  • Avoid double standards like the pest.
  • Publish your research in top journals and avoid SCAM-journals that nobody outside SCAM takes seriously.
  • If you do not have a track record of publishing articles in top journals, please do not pretend to be an expert.
  • Involve sceptics in discussions and projects.
  • Remember that criticism is a precondition of progress.

I sincerely hope that this advice is not taken the wrong way. I certainly do not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. What I do want is foremost that my French colleagues don’t have to repeat all the mistakes we did in the UK and that they are able to make swift progress.

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