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

back pain

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Kinesiology tape KT is fashionable, it seems. Gullible consumers proudly wear it as decorative ornaments to attract attention and show how very cool they are.

Am I too cynical?

Perhaps.

But does KT really do anything more?

A new trial might tell us.

The aim of this study was to investigate whether adding kinesiology tape (KT) to spinal manipulation (SM) can provide any extra effect in athletes with chronic non-specific low back pain (CNLBP).

Forty-two athletes (21males, 21females) with CNLBP were randomized into two groups of SM (n = 21) and SM plus KT (n = 21). Pain intensity, functional disability level and trunk flexor-extensor muscles endurance were assessed by Numerical Rating Scale (NRS), Oswestry pain and disability index (ODI), McQuade test, and unsupported trunk holding test, respectively. The tests were done before and immediately, one day, one week, and one month after the interventions and compared between the two groups.

After treatments, pain intensity and disability level decreased and endurance of trunk flexor-extensor muscles increased significantly in both groups. Repeated measures analysis, however, showed that there was no significant difference between the groups in any of the evaluations.

The authors, physiotherapists from Iran, concluded that the findings of the present study showed that adding KT to SM does not appear to have a significant extra effect on pain, disability and muscle endurance in athletes with CNLBP. However, more studies are needed to examine the therapeutic effects of KT in treating these patients.

Regular readers of my blog will be able to predict what I have to say about this study design: A+B versus B is not a meaningful test of anything. I used to claim that it cannot possibly produce a negative result – and yet, here it seems to have done exactly that!

How come?

The way I see it, there are two possibilities to explain this:

  • the KT has a mildly negative effect on CNLBP; thus the expected positive placebo-effect was neutralised to result in a null-effect overall;
  • the study was under-powered such that the true inter-group difference could not manifest itself.

I think the second possibility is more likely, but it does really not matter at all. Because the only lesson we can learn from this trial is this: inadequate study designs will  hardly ever generate anything worthwhile.

And this is, I think, a lesson that would be valuable for many researchers.

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Reference

2018 Apr;22(2):540-545. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.07.008. Epub 2017 Jul 26.

Comparing spinal manipulation with and without Kinesio Taping® in the treatment of chronic low back pain.

 

It is no secret to regular readers of this blog that chiropractic’s effectiveness is unproven for every condition it is currently being promoted for – perhaps with two exceptions: neck pain and back pain. Here we have some encouraging data, but also lots of negative evidence. A new US study falls into the latter category; I am sure chiropractors will not like it, but it does deserve a mention.

This study evaluated the comparative effectiveness of usual care with or without chiropractic care for patients with chronic recurrent musculoskeletal back and neck pain. It was designed as a prospective cohort study using propensity score-matched controls.

Using retrospective electronic health record data, the researchers developed a propensity score model predicting likelihood of chiropractic referral. Eligible patients with back or neck pain were then contacted upon referral for chiropractic care and enrolled in a prospective study. For each referred patient, two propensity score-matched non-referred patients were contacted and enrolled. We followed the participants prospectively for 6 months. The main outcomes included pain severity, interference, and symptom bothersomeness. Secondary outcomes included expenditures for pain-related health care.

Both groups’ (N = 70 referred, 139 non-referred) pain scores improved significantly over the first 3 months, with less change between months 3 and 6. No significant between-group difference was observed. After controlling for variances in baseline costs, total costs during the 6-month post-enrollment follow-up were significantly higher on average in the non-referred versus referred group. Adjusting for differences in age, gender, and Charlson comorbidity index attenuated this finding, which was no longer statistically significant (p = .072).

The authors concluded by stating this: we found no statistically significant difference between the two groups in either patient-reported or economic outcomes. As clinical outcomes were similar, and the provision of chiropractic care did not increase costs, making chiropractic services available provided an additional viable option for patients who prefer this type of care, at no additional expense.

This comes from some of the most-renowned experts in back pain research, and it is certainly an elaborate piece of investigation. Yet, I find the conclusions unreasonable.

Essentially, the authors found that chiropractic has no clinical or economical advantage over other approaches currently used for neck and back pain. So, they say that it a ‘viable option’.

I find this odd and cannot quite follow the logic. In my view, it lacks critical thinking and an attempt to produce progress. If it is true that all treatments were similarly (in)effective – which I can well believe – we still should identify those that have the least potential for harm. That could be exercise, massage therapy or some other modality – but I don’t think it would be chiropractic care.


References

Comparative Effectiveness of Usual Care With or Without Chiropractic Care in Patients with Recurrent Musculoskeletal Back and Neck Pain.

Elder C, DeBar L, Ritenbaugh C, Dickerson J, Vollmer WM, Deyo RA, Johnson ES, Haas M.

J Gen Intern Med. 2018 Jun 25. doi: 10.1007/s11606-018-4539-y. [Epub ahead of print]

PMID: 29943109

The Royal College of Chiropractors (RCC), a Company Limited by guarantee, was given a royal charter in 2013. It has following objectives:

  • to promote the art, science and practice of chiropractic;
  • to improve and maintain standards in the practice of chiropractic for the benefit of the public;
  • to promote awareness and understanding of chiropractic amongst medical practitioners and other healthcare professionals and the public;
  • to educate and train practitioners in the art, science and practice of chiropractic;
  • to advance the study of and research in chiropractic.

In a previous post, I pointed out that the RCC may not currently have the expertise and know-how to meet all these aims. To support the RCC in their praiseworthy endeavours, I therefore offered to give one or more evidence-based lectures on these subjects free of charge.

And what was the reaction?

Nothing!

This might be disappointing, but it is not really surprising. Following the loss of almost all chiropractic credibility after the BCA/Simon Singh libel case, the RCC must now be busy focussing on re-inventing the chiropractic profession. A recent article published by RCC seems to confirm this suspicion. It starts by defining chiropractic:

“Chiropractic, as practised in the UK, is not a treatment but a statutorily-regulated healthcare profession.”

Obviously, this definition reflects the wish of this profession to re-invent themselves. D. D. Palmer, who invented chiropractic 120 years ago, would probably not agree with this definition. He wrote in 1897 “CHIROPRACTIC IS A SCIENCE OF HEALING WITHOUT DRUGS”. This is woolly to the extreme, but it makes one thing fairly clear: chiropractic is a therapy and not a profession.

So, why do chiropractors wish to alter this dictum by their founding father? The answer is, I think, clear from the rest of the above RCC-quote: “Chiropractors offer a wide range of interventions including, but not limited to, manual therapy (soft-tissue techniques, mobilisation and spinal manipulation), exercise rehabilitation and self-management advice, and utilise psychologically-informed programmes of care. Chiropractic, like other healthcare professions, is informed by the evidence base and develops accordingly.”

Many chiropractors have finally understood that spinal manipulation, the undisputed hallmark intervention of chiropractors, is not quite what Palmer made it out to be. Thus, they try their utmost to style themselves as back specialists who use all sorts of (mostly physiotherapeutic) therapies in addition to spinal manipulation. This strategy has obvious advantages: as soon as someone points out that spinal manipulations might not do more good than harm, they can claim that manipulations are by no means their only tool. This clever trick renders them immune to such criticism, they hope.

The RCC-document has another section that I find revealing, as it harps back to what we just discussed. It is entitled ‘The evidence base for musculoskeletal care‘. Let me quote it in its entirety:

The evidence base for the care chiropractors provide (Clar et al, 2014) is common to that for physiotherapists and osteopaths in respect of musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions. Thus, like physiotherapists and osteopaths, chiropractors provide care for a wide range of MSK problems, and may advertise that they do so [as determined by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)].

Chiropractors are most closely associated with management of low back pain, and the NICE Low Back Pain and Sciatica Guideline ‘NG59’ provides clear recommendations for managing low back pain with or without sciatica, which always includes exercise and may include manual therapy (spinal manipulation, mobilisation or soft tissue techniques such as massage) as part of a treatment package, with or without psychological therapy. Note that NG59 does not specify chiropractic care, physiotherapy care nor osteopathy care for the non-invasive management of low back pain, but explains that: ‘mobilisation and soft tissue techniques are performed by a wide variety of practitioners; whereas spinal manipulation is usually performed by chiropractors or osteopaths, and by doctors or physiotherapists who have undergone additional training in manipulation’ (See NICE NG59, p806).

The Manipulative Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (MACP), recently renamed the Musculoskeletal Association of Chartered Physiotherapists, is recognised as the UK’s specialist manipulative therapy group by the International Federation of Orthopaedic Manipulative Physical Therapists, and has approximately 1100 members. The UK statutory Osteopathic Register lists approximately 5300 osteopaths. Thus, collectively, there are approximately twice as many osteopaths and manipulating physiotherapists as there are chiropractors currently practising spinal manipulation in the UK.

END OF QUOTE

To me this sounds almost as though the RCC is saying something like this:

  1. We are very much like physiotherapists and therefore all the positive evidence for physiotherapy is really also our evidence. So, critics of chiropractic’s lack of sound evidence-base, get lost!
  2. The new NICE guidelines were a real blow to us, but we now try to spin them such that consumers don’t realise that chiropractic is no longer recommended as a first-line therapy.
  3. In any case, other professions also occasionally use those questionable spinal manipulations (and they are even more numerous). So, any criticism  of spinal manipulation  should not be directed at us but at physios and osteopaths.
  4. We know, of course, that chiropractors treat lots of non-spinal conditions (asthma, bed-wetting, infant colic etc.). Yet we try our very best to hide this fact and pretend that we are all focussed on back pain. This avoids admitting that, for all such conditions, the evidence suggests our manipulations to be worst than useless.

Personally, I find the RCC-strategy very understandable; after all, the RCC has to try to save the bacon for UK chiropractors. Yet, it is nevertheless an attempt at misleading the public about what is really going on. And even, if someone is sufficiently naïve to swallow this spin, one question emerges loud and clear: if chiropractic is just a limited version of physiotherapy, why don’t we simply use physiotherapists for back problems and forget about chiropractors?

(In case the RCC change their mind and want to listen to me elaborating on these themes, my offer for a free lecture still stands!)

I am sure we have all seen these colourful tapes that nowadays decorate the bodies of many of our sporting heroes. The tape is supposed to be good for athletic performance – but not just that, it is also promoted for all sorts of health conditions, for instance, low back pain.

But is it worth the considerable investment?

This systematic review investigated the effectiveness of ‘Kinesiology Tape’ (KT) for patients with non-specific low back pain.

The researchers included all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in adults with chronic non-specific low back pain that compared KT to no intervention or placebo as well as RCTs that compared KT combined with exercise against exercise alone. The methodological quality and statistical reporting of the eligible trials were measured by the 11-item PEDro scale. The quality of the evidence was assessed using the GRADE classification. Pain intensity and disability were the primary outcomes. Whenever possible, the data were pooled through meta-analysis.

Eleven RCTs were included in this systematic review. Two clinical trials compared KT to no intervention at the short-term follow-up. Four studies compared KT to placebo at short-term follow-up and two trials compared KT to placebo at intermediate-term follow-up. Five trials compared KT combined with exercises or electrotherapy to exercises or spinal manipulation alone. No statistically significant difference was found for most comparisons.

The authors concluded that very low to moderate quality evidence shows that KT was no better than any other intervention for most the outcomes assessed in patients with chronic non-specific low back pain. We found no evidence to support the use of KT in clinical practice for patients with chronic non-specific low back pain.

So, is KT worth the often considerable investment for patients with back trouble?

Or is the current popularity of KT more of a triumph of clever marketing over scientific evidence?

I let you answer this one.

THE CONVERSATION recently carried an article shamelessly promoting osteopathy. It seems to originate from the University of Swansea, UK, and is full of bizarre notions. Here is an excerpt:

To find out more about how osteopathy could potentially affect mental health, at our university health and well-being academy, we have recently conducted one of the first studies on the psychological impact of OMT – with positive results.

For the last five years, therapists at the academy have been using OMT to treat members of the public who suffer from a variety of musculoskeletal disorders which have led to chronic pain. To find out more about the mental health impacts of the treatment, we looked at three points in time – before OMT treatment, after the first week of treatment, and after the second week of treatment – and asked patients how they felt using mental health questionnaires.

This data has shown that OMT is effective for reducing anxiety and psychological distress, as well as improving patient self-care. But it may not be suitable for all mental illnesses associated with chronic pain. For instance, we found that OMT was less effective for depression and fear avoidance.

All is not lost, though. Our results also suggested that the positive psychological effects of OMT could be further optimised by combining it with therapy approaches like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Some research indicates that psychological problems such as anxiety and depression are associated with inflexibility, and lead to experiential avoidance. ACT has a positive effect at reducing experiential avoidance, so may be useful with reducing the fear avoidance and depression (which OMT did not significantly reduce).

Other researchers have also suggested that this combined approach may be useful for some subgroups receiving OMT where they may accept this treatment. And, further backing this idea up, there has already been at least one pilot clinical trial and a feasibility study which have used ACT and OMT with some success.

Looking to build on our positive results, we have now begun to develop our ACT treatment in the academy, to be combined with the osteopathic therapy already on offer. Though there will be a different range of options, one of these ACT therapies is psychoeducational in nature. It does not require an active therapist to work with the patient, and can be delivered through internet instruction videos and homework exercises, for example.

Looking to the future, this kind of low cost, broad healthcare could not only save the health service money if rolled out nationwide but would also mean that patients only have to undergo one treatment.

END OF QUOTE

So, they recruited a few patients who had come to receive osteopathic treatments (a self-selected population full of expectation and in favour of osteopathy), let them fill a few questionnaires and found some positive changes. From that, they conclude that OMT (osteopathic manipulative therapy) is effective. Not only that, they advocate that OMT is rolled out nationwide to save NHS funds.

Vis a vis so much nonsense, I am (almost) speechless!

As this comes not from some commercial enterprise but from a UK university, the nonsense is intolerable, I find.

Do I even need to point out what is wrong with it?

Not really, it’s too obvious.

But, just in case some readers struggle to find the fatal flaws of this ‘study’, let me mention just the most obvious one. There was no control group! That means the observed outcome could be due to many factors that are totally unrelated to OMT – such as placebo-effect, regression towards the mean, natural history of the condition, concomitant treatments, etc. In turn, this also means that the nationwide rolling out of their approach would most likely be a costly mistake.

The general adoption of OMT would of course please osteopaths a lot; it could even reduce anxiety – but only that of the osteopaths and their bank-managers, I am afraid.

We recently discussed the deplorable case of Larry Nassar and the fact that the ‘American Osteopathic Association’ stated that intravaginal manipulations are indeed an approved osteopathic treatment. At the time, I thought this was a shocking claim. So, imagine my surprise when I was alerted to a German trial of osteopathic intravaginal manipulations.

Here is the full and unaltered abstract of the study:

Introduction: 50 to 80% of pregnant women suffer from low back pain (LBP) or pelvic pain (Sabino und Grauer, 2008). There is evidence for the effectiveness of manual therapy like osteopathy, chiropractic and physiotherapy in pregnant women with LBP or pelvic pain (Liccardione et al., 2010). Anatomical, functional and neural connections support the relationship between intrapelvic dysfunctions and lumbar and pelvic pain (Kanakaris et al., 2011). Strain, pressure and stretch of visceral and parietal peritoneum, bladder, urethra, rectum and fascial tissue can result in pain and secondary in muscle spasm. Visceral mobility, especially of the uterus and rectum, can induce tension on the inferior hypogastric plexus, which may influence its function. Thus, stretching the broad ligament of the uterus and the intrapelvic fascia tissue during pregnancy can reinforce the influence of the inferior hypogastric plexus. Based on above facts an additional intravaginal treatment seems to be a considerable approach in the treatment of low back pain in pregnant women.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to compare the effect of osteopathic treatment including intravaginal techniques versus osteopathic treatment only in females with pregnancy-related low back pain.
Methods: Design: The study was performed as a randomized controlled trial. The participants were randomized by drawing lots, either into the intervention group including osteopathic and additional intravaginal treatment (IV) or a control group with osteopathic treatment only (OI). Setting: Medical practice in south of Germany.
Participants 46 patients were recruited between the 30th and 36th week of pregnancy suffering from low back pain.
Intervention Both groups received three treatments within a period of three weeks. Both groups were treated with visceral, mobilization, and myofascial techniques in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, the pelvic and the abdominal region (American Osteopathic Association Guidelines, 2010). The IV group received an additional treatment with intravaginal techniques in supine position. This included myofascial techniques of the M. levator ani and the internal obturator muscles, the vaginal tissue, the pubovesical and uterosacral ligaments as well as the inferior hypogastric plexus.
Main outcome measures As primary outcome the back pain intensity was measured by Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). Secondary outcome was the disability index assessed by Oswestry-Low-Back-Pain-Disability-Index (ODI), and Pregnancy-Mobility-Index (PMI).
Results: 46 participants were randomly assigned into the intervention group (IV; n = 23; age: 29.0 ±4.8 years; height: 170.1 ±5.8 cm; weight: 64.2 ±10.3 kg; BMI: 21.9 ±2.6 kg/m2) and the control group (OI; n = 23; age: 32.0 ±3.9 years; height: 168.1 ±3.5 cm; weight: 62.3 ±7.9 kg; BMI: 22.1 ±3.2 kg/m2). Data from 42 patients were included in the final analyses (IV: n=20; OI: n=22), whereas four patients dropped out due to general pregnancy complications. Back pain intensity (VAS) changed significantly in both groups: in the intervention group (IV) from 59.8 ±14.8 to 19.6 ±8.4 (p<0.05) and in the control group (OI) from 57.4 ±11.3 to 24.7 ±12.8. The difference between groups of 7.5 (95%CI: -16.3 to 1.3) failed to demonstrate statistical significance (p=0.93). Pregnancy-Mobility-Index (PMI) changed significantly in both groups, too. IV group: from 33.4 ±8.9 to 29.6 ±6.6 (p<0.05), control group (OI): from 36.3 ±5.2 to 29.7 ±6.8. The difference between groups of 2.6 (95%CI: -5.9 to 0.6) was not statistically significant (p=0.109). Oswestry-Low-Back-Pain-Disability-Index (ODI) changed significantly in the intervention group (IV) from 15.1 ±7.8 to 9.2 ±3.6 (p<0.05) and also significantly in the control group (OI) from 13.8 ±4.9 to 9.2 ±3.0. Between-groups difference of 1.3 (95%CI: -1.5 to 4.1) was not statistically significant (p=0.357).
Conclusions: In this sample a series of osteopathic treatments showed significant effects in reducing pain and increasing the lumbar range of motion in pregnant women with low back pain. Both groups attained clinically significant improvement in functional disability, activity and quality of life. Furthermore, no benefit of additional intravaginal treatment was observed.

END OF QUOTE

My first thoughts after reading this were: how on earth did the investigators get this past an ethics committee? It cannot be ethical, in my view, to allow osteopaths (in Germany, they have no relevant training to speak of) to manipulate women intravaginally. How deluded must an osteopath be to plan and conduct such a trial? What were the patients told before giving informed consent? Surely not the truth!

My second thoughts were about the scientific validity of this study: the hypothesis which this trial claims to be testing is a far-fetched extrapolation, to put it mildly; in fact, it is not a hypothesis, it’s a very daft idea. The control-intervention is inadequate in that it cannot control for the (probably large) placebo effects of intravaginal manipulations. The observed outcomes are based on within-group comparisons and are therefore most likely unrelated to the treatments applied. The conclusion is as barmy as it gets; a proper conclusion should clearly and openly state that the results did not show any effects of the intravaginal manipulations.

In summary, this is a breathtakingly idiotic trial, and everyone involved in it (ethics committee, funding body, investigators, statistician, reviewers, journal editor) should be deeply ashamed and apologise to the poor women who were abused in a most deplorable fashion.

This week, I find it hard to decide where to focus; with all the fuzz about ‘Homeopathy Awareness Week’ it is easy to forget that our friends, the chiros are celebrating  Chiropractic Awareness Week (9-15 April). On this occasion, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), for instance, want people to keep moving to make a positive impact on managing and preventing back and neck pain.

Good advice! In a recent post, I even have concluded that people should “walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.” The reason for my advice is based on the fact that there is precious little evidence that the spinal manipulations of chiropractors make much difference plus some worrying indications that they may cause serious damage.

It seems to me that, by focussing their PR away from spinal manipulations and towards the many other things chiropractors sometimes do – they often call this ‘adjunctive therapies’ – there is a tacit admission here that the hallmark intervention of chiros (spinal manipulation) is of dubious value.

A recent article entitled ‘Spinal Manipulative Therapy and Other Conservative Treatments for Low Back Pain: A Guideline From the Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative’ seems to confirm this impression. Its objective was to develop a clinical practice guideline on the management of acute and chronic low back pain (LBP) in adults. The specific aim was to develop a guideline to provide best practice recommendations on the initial assessment and monitoring of people with low back pain and address the use of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) compared with other commonly used conservative treatments.

The topic areas were chosen based on an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality comparative effectiveness review, specific to spinal manipulation as a non-pharmacological intervention. The panel updated the search strategies in Medline and assessed admissible systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials. Evidence profiles were used to summarize judgments of the evidence quality and link recommendations to the supporting evidence. Using the Evidence to Decision Framework, the guideline panel determined the certainty of evidence and strength of the recommendations. Consensus was achieved using a modified Delphi technique. The guideline was peer reviewed by an 8-member multidisciplinary external committee.

For patients with acute (0-3 months) back pain, we suggest offering advice (posture, staying active), reassurance, education and self-management strategies in addition to SMT, usual medical care when deemed beneficial, or a combination of SMT and usual medical care to improve pain and disability. For patients with chronic (>3 months) back pain, we suggest offering advice and education, SMT or SMT as part of a multimodal therapy (exercise, myofascial therapy or usual medical care when deemed beneficial). For patients with chronic back-related leg pain, we suggest offering advice and education along with SMT and home exercise (positioning and stabilization exercises).

The authors concluded that a multimodal approach including SMT, other commonly used active interventions, self-management advice, and exercise is an effective treatment strategy for acute and chronic back pain, with or without leg pain.

I find this paper most interesting and revealing. Considering that it originates from the ‘Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative’, it is remarkably shy about recommending SMT – after all their vision is “To enhance the health of Canadians by fostering excellence in chiropractic care.” They are thus not likely to be overly critical of the treatment chiropractors use most, i. e. SMT.

Perhaps this is also the reason why, in their conclusion, they seem to have rather a large blind spot, namely the risks of SMT. I have commented on this issue more often than I care to remember. Most recently, I posted this:

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

 

HAPPY CHIROPRACTIC AWARENESS WEEK EVERYONE!

Reiki is a Japanese technique administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy (because it is such a clear-cut case of nonsense, we have discussed Reiki regularly; see for instance here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

But nonsense does not stop researchers from conducting trials. In this new clinical trial, conducted in Physiotherapy Clinic of Khatam Al-Anbia Hospital in Iran, 60 patients with pain due to inter-vertebral disc herniation (IVDH) were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

  1. The Reiki group received three 15-minute Reiki sessions on consecutive days by a master of Reiki plus Indomethacin and Methocarbamol (as in group 3).
  2. The physiotherapy group underwent 7 to 10 sessions of physiotherapy of 60 to 90 minutes (heat therapy, TENS, pelvic traction, and physical exercises) plus Indomethacin and Methocarbamol (as in group 3).
  3. The drug group received Indomethacin capsules 75 mg and Methocarbamol tablets 500 mg every 8 hours daily for one week.

The severity of pain and the activities of daily living (ADL) were measured using visual analogue scales (VAS) and ADL-Instrumental ADL questionnaire before and after the intervention. A significant difference was found in pain intensity and ADL improvement between Reiki and the drug therapy. No significant difference between the Reiki and physiotherapy groups were noted.

The authors concluded that Reiki and physiotherapy are effective methods in managing pain and improving ADL in patients with IVDH; however, Reiki is more cost-effective and faster treatment method than physiotherapy.

This RCT seems fairly well-panned and conducted, and its results are straight forward. My only problem with it is how the findings are interpreted.

The study design was such that there was no blinding or control for placebo effects. Therefore, the observed outcomes can be interpreted in more than one way. In my view, by far the most plausible explanation is that Reiki (being an exotic, impressive intervention that generates plenty of expectation) produced a powerful placebo effect. Physiotherapy (being entirely normal and routine), on the other hand, was only marginally successful. It is regrettable that the authors do not even consider this interpretation of their results. They should have remembered that a clinical trial test the null-hypothesis (the experimental treatment is not better that the comparator) which can be rejected only, if there is no other reasonable explanation for the results produced.

If I am correct, the conclusions should be re-written as follows:

The addition of Reiki to drug treatment generated better outcomes than drug therapy alone. Physiotherapy was only marginally effective. The effects of Reiki are most likely not due to the treatment per se but to a classical placebo response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if a patient is seriously ill?

A cancer is a metaphor for what exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Did I call the Times a highly respected paper?

I take it back.

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

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

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

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

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

Routine = consider for routine use

+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment

Ie = insufficient evidence

Limited = limited use in selected patients

vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects

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

aLBP = acute low back pain

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

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

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