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

bias

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Radiation-induced xerostomia (RIX) is a common, often debilitating, adverse effect of radiation therapy among patients with head and neck cancer. Quality of life can be severely affected, and current treatments have limited benefit. Acupuncture is often recommended, but does it work? This study was aimed at finding out whether acupuncture can prevent RIX in patients with head and neck cancer undergoing radiation therapy.

The 2-center, phase 3, randomized clinical trial compared a standard care control (SCC) with true acupuncture (TA) and sham acupuncture (SA) among patients with oropharyngeal or nasopharyngeal carcinoma who were undergoing radiation therapy in comprehensive cancer centres in the United States and China. Patients were enrolled between December 16, 2011, and July 7, 2015. Final follow-up was August 15, 2016. Analyses were conducted February 1 through 28, 2019. Either TA or SA using a validated acupuncture placebo device were performed 3 times per week during a 6- to 7-week course of radiation therapy. The primary end point was RIX, as determined by the Xerostomia Questionnaire in which a higher score indicates worse RIX, for combined institutions 1 year after radiation therapy ended. Secondary outcomes included incidence of clinically significant xerostomia (score >30), salivary flow, quality of life, salivary constituents, and role of baseline expectancy related to acupuncture on outcomes.

Of 399 patients randomized, 339 were included in the final analysis, including 112 patients in the TA group, 115 patients in the SA group, and 112 patients in the SCC group. For the primary aim, the adjusted least square mean (SD) xerostomia score in the TA group (26.6 [17.7]) was significantly lower than in the SCC group (34.8 [18.7]) (P = .001; effect size = -0.44) and marginally lower but not statistically significant different from the SA group (31.3 [18.6]) (P = .06; effect size = -0.26). Incidence of clinically significant xerostomia 1 year after radiation therapy ended followed a similar pattern, with 38 patients in the TA group (34.6%), 54 patients in the SA group (47.8%), and 60 patients in the SCC group (55.1%) experiencing clinically significant xerostomia (P = .009). Post hoc comparisons revealed a significant difference between the TA and SCC groups at both institutions, but TA was significantly different from SA only at Fudan University Cancer Center, Shanghai, China (estimated difference [SE]: TA vs SCC, -9.9 [2.5]; P < .001; SA vs SCC, -1.7 [2.5]; P = .50; TA vs SA, -8.2 [2.5]; P = .001), and SA was significantly different from SCC only at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas (estimated difference [SE]: TA vs SCC, -8.1 [3.4]; P = .016; SA vs SCC, -10.5 [3.3]; P = .002; TA vs SA, 2.4 [3.2]; P = .45).

The authors concluded that this randomized clinical trial found that TA resulted in significantly fewer and less severe RIX symptoms 1 year after treatment vs SCC. However, further studies are needed to confirm clinical relevance and generalizability of this finding and to evaluate inconsistencies in response to sham acupuncture between patients in the United States and China.

In essence this two-centre study shows that:

  • real acupuncture is better than usual care, but the effect size is small and of doubtful clinical relevance;
  • real acupuncture is not significantly better than sham acupuncture;
  • the findings differ remarkably between the US and the Chinese centre.

I find the last point the most interesting one. We know from previous research that acupuncture studies from China are notoriously unreliable; they never report a negative result and there is evidence that data fabrication is rife in China. The new findings seems to throw more light on this notion. In the US centre, real and sham acupuncture generated practically identical results. By contrast, in the Chinese centre, real acupuncture generated significantly better results than sham. The authors offer several hypotheses to explain this remarkable phenomenon. Yet, in my view, the most likely one is that Chinese researchers are determined to show that acupuncture is effective. Thus all sorts of unconscious or even conscious biases might get introduced into such studies.

In essence, trial therefore confirms that acupuncture is little more than a theatrical placebo, particularly if we consider the US data which, in my opinion, are more trustworthy.

Lorenzo Cohen, Professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine and director of the Integrative Medicine Program as well as senior author of the paper unsurprisingly disagrees. He was quoted saying: “The evidence is to a point where patients should incorporate acupuncture alongside radiation treatment as a way to prevent the severity of dry mouth symptoms. I think with this study we can add acupuncture to the list for the prevention and treatment of xerostomia, and the guidelines for the use of acupuncture in the oncology setting should be revised to include this important chronic condition.”

Who do you think is closer to the truth?

Maintenance Care is an approach whereby patients have chiropractic manipulations even when symptom-free. Thus, it is an ideal method to keep chiropractors in clover. Previous reviews concluded that evidence behind this strategy is lacking. Since then, more data have emerged. It was therefore timely to review the evidence.

Fourteen original research articles were included in the review. Maintenance Care was defined as a secondary or tertiary preventive approach, recommended to patients with previous pain episodes, who respond well to chiropractic care. Maintenance Care is applied to approximately 30% of Scandinavian chiropractic patients. Both chiropractors and patients believe in the efficacy of Maintenance Care. Four studies investigating the effect of chiropractic Maintenance Care were identified, with disparate results on pain and disability of neck and back pain. However, only one of these studies utilized all the existing evidence when selecting study subjects and found that Maintenance Care patients experienced fewer days with low back pain compared to patients invited to contact their chiropractor ‘when needed’. No studies were found on the cost-effectiveness of Maintenance Care.

The authors concluded that knowledge of chiropractic Maintenance Care has advanced. There is reasonable consensus among chiropractors on what Maintenance Care is, how it should be used, and its indications. Presently, Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method to perform secondary or tertiary prevention in patients with previous episodes of low back pain, who report a good outcome from the initial treatments. However, these results should not be interpreted as an indication for Maintenance Care on all patients, who receive chiropractic treatment.

I have to admit, I have problems with these conclusions.

  1. Maintenance Care is not normally defined as secondary or tertitary prevention. It also includes primary prevention, which means that chiropractors recommend it for just about anyone.  By definition it is long term care, that is not therapeutically necessary, but performed at regular intervals to help prevent injury and enhance quality of life.  This form of care is provided after maximal therapeutic benefit is achieved, without a trial of treatment withdrawal, to prevent symptoms from returning or for those without symptoms to promote health or prevent future problems.
  2.  I am not convinced that the evidence would be positive, even if we confined it to secondary and tertiary prevention.

To explain my last point, let’s have a look at the 4 RCT and check whether they really warrant such a relatively positive conclusion.

FIRST STUDY For individuals with recurrent or persistent non-specific low back pain (LBP), exercise and exercise combined with education have been shown to be effective in preventing new episodes or in reducing the impact of the condition. Chiropractors have traditionally used Maintenance Care (MC), as secondary and tertiary prevention strategies. The aim of this trial was to investigate the effectiveness of MC on pain trajectories for patients with recurrent or persistent LBP.

This pragmatic, investigator-blinded, two arm randomized controlled trial included consecutive patients (18–65 years old) with non-specific LBP, who had an early favorable response to chiropractic care. After an initial course of treatment, eligible subjects were randomized to either MC or control (symptom-guided treatment). The primary outcome was total number of days with bothersome LBP during 52 weeks collected weekly with text-messages (SMS) and estimated by a GEE model.

Three hundred and twenty-eight subjects were randomly allocated to one of the two treatment groups. MC resulted in a reduction in the total number of days per week with bothersome LBP compared with symptom-guided treatment. During the 12 month study period, the MC group (n = 163, 3 dropouts) reported 12.8 (95% CI = 10.1, 15.5; p = <0.001) fewer days in total with bothersome LBP compared to the control group (n = 158, 4 dropouts) and received 1.7 (95% CI = 1.8, 2.1; p = <0.001) more treatments. Numbers presented are means. No serious adverse events were recorded.

MC was more effective than symptom-guided treatment in reducing the total number of days over 52 weeks with bothersome non-specific LBP but it resulted in a higher number of treatments. For selected patients with recurrent or persistent non-specific LBP who respond well to an initial course of chiropractic care, MC should be considered an option for tertiary prevention.

SECOND STUDY Back and neck pain are associated with disability and loss of independence in older adults. Whether long‐term management using commonly recommended treatments is superior to shorter‐term treatment is unknown. This randomized clinical trial compared short‐term treatment (12 weeks) versus long‐term management (36 weeks) of back‐ and neck‐related disability in older adults using spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) combined with supervised rehabilitative exercises (SRE).

Eligible participants were ages ≥65 years with back and neck disability for ≥12 weeks. Coprimary outcomes were changes in Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) and Neck Disability Index (NDI) scores after 36 weeks. An intent‐to‐treat approach used linear mixed‐model analysis to detect between‐group differences. Secondary analyses included other self‐reported outcomes, adverse events, and objective functional measures.

A total of 182 participants were randomized. The short‐term and long‐term groups demonstrated significant improvements in back disability (ODI score –3.9 [95% confidence interval (95% CI) –5.8, –2.0] versus ODI score –6.3 [95% CI –8.2, –4.4]) and neck disability (NDI score –7.3 [95% CI –9.1, –5.5] versus NDI score –9.0 [95% CI –10.8, –7.2]) after 36 weeks, with no difference between groups (back ODI score 2.4 [95% CI –0.3, 5.1]; neck NDI score 1.7 [95% CI 0.8, 4.2]). The long‐term management group experienced greater improvement in neck pain at week 36, in self‐efficacy at weeks 36 and 52, and in functional ability, and balance.For older adults with chronic back and neck disability, extending management with SMT and SRE from 12 to 36 weeks did not result in any additional important reduction in disability.

THIRD STUDY A prospective single blinded placebo controlled study was conducted. To assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) for the management of chronic nonspecific low back pain (LBP) and to determine the effectiveness of maintenance SMT in long-term reduction of pain and disability levels associated with chronic low back conditions after an initial phase of treatments. SMT is a common treatment option for LBP. Numerous clinical trials have attempted to evaluate its effectiveness for different subgroups of acute and chronic LBP but the efficacy of maintenance SMT in chronic nonspecific LBP has not been studied. Sixty patients, with chronic, nonspecific LBP lasting at least 6 months, were randomized to receive either (1) 12 treatments of sham SMT over a 1-month period, (2) 12 treatments, consisting of SMT over a 1-month period, but no treatments for the subsequent 9 months, or (3) 12 treatments over a 1-month period, along with “maintenance spinal manipulation” every 2 weeks for the following 9 months. To determine any difference among therapies, we measured pain and disability scores, generic health status, and back-specific patient satisfaction at baseline and at 1-, 4-, 7-, and 10-month intervals. Patients in second and third groups experienced significantly lower pain and disability scores than first group at the end of 1-month period (P = 0.0027 and 0.0029, respectively). However, only the third group that was given spinal manipulations (SM) during the follow-up period showed more improvement in pain and disability scores at the 10-month evaluation. In the nonmaintained SMT group, however, the mean pain and disability scores returned back near to their pretreatment level.SMT is effective for the treatment of chronic nonspecific LBP. To obtain long-term benefit, this study suggests maintenance SM after the initial intensive manipulative therapy.

FORTH STUDY Evidence indicates that supervised home exercises, combined or not with manual therapy, can be beneficial for patients with non-specific chronic neck pain (NCNP). The objective of the study is to investigate the efficacy of preventive spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) compared to a no treatment group in NCNP patients. Another objective is to assess the efficacy of SMT with and without a home exercise program.Ninety-eight patients underwent a short symptomatic phase of treatment before being randomly allocated to either an attention-group (n = 29), a SMT group (n = 36) or a SMT + exercise group (n = 33). The preventive phase of treatment, which lasted for 10 months, consisted of meeting with a chiropractor every two months to evaluate and discuss symptoms (attention-control group), 1 monthly SMT session (SMT group) or 1 monthly SMT session combined with a home exercise program (SMT + exercise group). The primary and secondary outcome measures were represented by scores on a 10-cm visual analog scale (VAS), active cervical ranges of motion (cROM), the neck disability index (NDI) and the Bournemouth questionnaire (BQ). Exploratory outcome measures were scored on the Fear-avoidance Behaviour Questionnaire (FABQ) and the SF-12 Questionnaire. Our results show that, in the preventive phase of the trial, all 3 groups showed primary and secondary outcomes scores similar to those obtain following the non-randomised, symptomatic phase. No group difference was observed for the primary, secondary and exploratory variables. Significant improvements in FABQ scores were noted in all groups during the preventive phase of the trial. However, no significant change in health related quality of life (HRQL) was associated with the preventive phase. This study hypothesised that participants in the combined intervention group would have less pain and disability and better function than participants from the 2 other groups during the preventive phase of the trial. This hypothesis was not supported by the study results. Lack of a treatment specific effect is discussed in relation to the placebo and patient provider interactions in manual therapies. Further research is needed to delineate the specific and non-specific effects of treatment modalities to prevent unnecessary disability and to minimise morbidity related to NCNP. Additional investigation is also required to identify the best strategies for secondary and tertiary prevention of NCNP.

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I honestly do not think that the findings from these 4 small trials justify the far-reaching conclusion that Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method… For that statement to be evidence-based, one would need to see more and better studies. Therefore, the honest conclusion, I think, is that maintenance care is not supported by sound evidence for effectiveness; as chiropractic manipulations are costly and not risk-free, its risk/benefit balance fails to be positive. Therefore, this approach cannot be recommended.

The UK homeopathy sector have issued a joint statement. The reason for this action is a series of allegedly negative press stories about homeopathy. Here is the full statement:

Homeopathy registers including the Society of Homeopaths, Faculty of Homeopathy and Alliance of Registered Homeopaths in conjunction with other homeopathy partners have come together to provide clarification for patients seeking advice and homeopathy treatment.

The joint homeopathy sector statement

“Recent media reports have incorrectly linked homeopathy to the anti-vaccination movement. A registered homeopath provides care according to the guidelines outlined in the Code of Practice of their registering body. This code ensures that the homeopath operates professionally, safely, and within their bounds of competence. Homeopathic medicines are prescribed on an individual basis to match a patient’s specific symptoms. Questions about vaccination from the public to a registered homeopath should be deferred to those medically trained to answer them, such as GPs.”

Emily Buttrum Chief Executive of the Society of Homeopaths commented that she was positive the joint statement would bring the homeopathic community together and protect the future of homeopathy and in turn patient choice. The joint statement reflects the Society’s clear guidance on professional standards.

The Society’s position statements may be viewed here 

The Homeopathy sector statement may be viewed here 

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When homeopaths try to issue a serious ‘statement’, hilarity is rarely very far. Let me suggest what, in my view, the main reasons for hilarity are in the recent outburst:

  • Homeopaths and homeopathic organisations are hubs of anti-vaccination propaganda. To deny this means being in denial.
  • The anti-vaccination stance of UK lay homeopaths has  repeatedly been demonstrated (we have shown this already in 2002).
  • The recent media reports were not incorrect.
  • These reports were necessary steps to protect the public from charlatans.
  • Homeopaths provide care according to guidelines, unless they violate them.
  • Violations have happened repeatedly.
  • The homeopathic organisations have a long history of failing to adequately address this problem.
  • Arguably, homeopaths do not operate within any bounds of competence; if they did, they would not prescribe ineffective treatments.
  • Homeopathic remedies are individualised, except in ‘clinical homeopathy’ where they are not.
  • Questions about vaccination should be referred to GPs; except they are often not, as the recent evidence has shown.

I am glad to hear that Mrs Buttrum believes that a bunch of pranks, porkies and outright falsehoods will bring homeopaths together. In fact, I am optimistic they will, not lease because, for more than 200 years, homeopathy is being held together by little more than that.

On 6 November the Guardian published an article in which acupuncture and its risks were briefly mentioned. It prompted a complaint by the British Acupuncture Council which, I think, is sufficiently interesting to merit a discussion. The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) has a membership of around 3,000 professionally qualified acupuncturists. It is the UK’s largest professional/ self-regulatory body for the practice of traditional acupuncture. Here is their complaint in full:

Re: Guardian article ‘Doctors call for tighter regulation of traditional Chinese medicine’, published 6 November 2019. We wish to respond to the article referenced above, specifically with regards to the two sentences relating to the safety of acupuncture. We request you correct the misleading comments made in the article and publish this letter online.

1. ‘And acupuncture, they will say, “is not necessarily harmless.”’

Yes, of course it may not be harmless: it involves piercing the skin with a sharp object. Hence the need for proper training of acupuncturists, together with evidenced guidelines, a robust code of safe practice and regulatory teeth. These components are all in place for members of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC). Acupuncture has not been taken into state control in the UK precisely because it has been found to be so safe; instead, the BAcC is entrusted with self-regulation and is an accredited member of the Professional Standards Authority. Statements about the safety of acupuncture commonly conclude: ‘Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention’ (White 2001).

2. ‘…A review in 2017 found many injuries, infections and adverse reactions.’
That first part of your acupuncture safety comment was a direct quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, which was the focus of the article, but it then departs from the script to manufacture the colourful soundbite above. You refer to the same acupuncture safety overview paper (Chan et al 2017) that FEAM/EASAC drew on, but then substantially misrepresent its content and messages. It is neither a quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, nor from the overview paper. In fact, the latter sums up the findings of the 17 included reviews thus:  ‘However, all the reviews have suggested that adverse events are rare and often minor.’ Your statement about many injuries, infections and adverse reactions gives a very different message to the paper’s authors.
The Guardian article appears to have been written with little understanding of the science involved in investigating medical adverse events. In particular, it is impossible to establish the significance of the numbers of adverse events reported without knowing how many treatments they came from. Chan et al (2017) noted that incidence rates could not be calculated ‘because many adverse events came from case reports and many of the reviews did not include full details about the number of participants in their included studies’. The 17 reviews between them covered literature from 1950 to 2014 and countries across the globe, so potentially millions and millions of treatments. No wonder they turned up plenty of incidents!
One of the ‘gold standard’ acupuncture safety reviews (Xu et al 2013), which was included in Chan’s overview, provides the following information on this issue:

‘Incidence rates for major AEs [adverse events] of acupuncture are best estimated from large prospective surveys of practitioners. Four recent surveys of acupuncture safety among regulated, qualified practitioners, two conducted in Germany (Melchart 2004; Witt 2009), and two in the United Kingdom (MacPherson 2001; White 2001), confirm that serious adverse events after acupuncture are uncommon. Indeed, of these surveys, covering more than 3 million acupuncture treatments all together, there were no deaths or permanent disabilities, and all those with AEs fully recovered (Witt 2011). Thus, it can be concluded that acupuncture has a very low rate of AEs, when conducted among licensed, qualified practitioners in the West.’

The overview authors also raised this concern: ‘A major limitation of the presented information was that no causality could be determined’. In other words there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link.
Your article (and indeed the FEAM/EASAC statement) completely omits perhaps the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? It is most often used by people for chronic pain. The evidence base for this is good (Vickers 2018) and supports acupuncture’s effectiveness compared to conventional treatments (Trinh 2019). The potential harms of opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are well known and acupuncture is associated with fewer adverse events than medications in controlled trials across a wide range of conditions (Cao 2018; Xu 2018; Lu 2016).  It was estimated that one in 1,200 people taking NSAIDS for at least two months will die of gastrointestinal complications (Tramer 2000). Six percent of hospitalisations in developed countries are due to adverse drug reactions (Angamo 2016).

On safety grounds there is no comparison: no serious adverse events were reported in a survey covering 34,407 acupuncture treatments given by BAcC members (Macpherson 2001). Of the mild transient reactions reported, the most frequent were ‘feeling relaxed’, and ‘feeling energised’. This is not to downplay the potential harms, for they can be serious, but as with any medical intervention there should be a proper assessment of how likely this is, which the Guardian article signally failed to do.
Yours sincerely

Mark Bovey Research Manager British Acupuncture Council

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I had no involvement in the Guardian article; I nevertheless feel that several things need to be pointed out about this bizarre complaint:

  1. The quote attributed to White A is, in fact, by White, Hayhoe, Hart and Ernst (yes, petty point), and our investigation showed (not petty point) that there were 43 significant minor adverse events reported, a rate of 14 per 10,000, of which 13 (30%) interfered with daily activities. One patient suffered a seizure (probably reflex anoxic) during acupuncture, but no adverse event was classified as serious. Avoidable events included forgotten patients, needles left in patients, cellulitis and moxa burns. This, I think, entirely justifies the words -is not necessarily harmless – published by the Guardian.
  2. The complaint states that there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link. What this seems to imply is this: the BAcC claim that causality of adverse effects remains speculative, while having failed to establish a surveillance system that could establish their causality more firmly. Perhaps the BAcC should file a complaint about themselves?
  3. The BAcC claim that the author of the Guardian article lacks understanding of the science of adverse effect reporting. However, I get the impression that the lack of understanding is embarrassingly evident on the side of the BAcC.
  4. The BAcC then highlight the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? This is more than a little odd. Firstly, such comparisons hardly were the aim of the Guardian article. Secondly, such comparisons only make sense with options that have a comparable risk/benefit profile. As the benefits of acupuncture for most conditions are still debatable, and since its risks are finite, its risk/benefit balance might not be clearly positive. Therefore, such comparisons are of doubtful value and could easily turn out to generate unfavourable evidence against acupuncture.
  5. Comparisons to opioids or NSAIDS are evidently nonsensical for the reason just mentioned.
  6. The Guardian article’s comments on acupuncture risks were of a general nature and were unelated to any specific issues about BAcC members. There are many non-medically trained acupuncturists – both in the UK and abroad – who might represent a substantially higher risk. Therefore the Guardian should not be criticised but praised for publishing words of caution.

The BAcC state that this is not to downplay the potential harms, yet I fear that this is precisely what they are trying to do. Until there is a post-marketing surveillance system, it would be honest and ethical to admit that the risks of acupuncture are essentially not known.

In my view, the complaint has no reasonable basis, tells us more about the BAcC than the Guardian, and should not be acted upon by the Guardian.

 

We have discussed the tragic case of John Lawler before. Today, the Mail carries a long article about it. Here I merely want to summarise the sequence of events and highlight the role of the GCC.

  • In 2017, Mr Lawler, aged 79 at the time, has a history of back problems, including back surgery with metal implants and suffers from pain in his leg.
  • His GP recommends to consult a physiotherapist.
  • As waiting lists are too long, Mr Lawler sees a chiropractor shortly after his 80th birthday who calls herself ‘doctor’ and who he assumes to be a medic specialising in back pain.
  • The chiropractor uses a spinal manipulation of the neck with the drop table.
  • There is no evidence that this treatment is effective for pain in the leg.
  • No informed consent is obtained from the patient.
  • This is acutely painful and brakes the calcified ligaments of Mr Lawler’s upper spine.
  • Mr Lawler is immediately paraplegic.
  • The chiropractor who had no training in resuscitation is panicked tries mouth to mouth.
  • Bending the patient’s neck backwards the chiropractor further compresses his spinal cord.
  • When ambulance arrives, the chiropractor misleads the paramedics telling them nothing about a forceful neck manipulation with the drop and suspecting a stroke.
  • Thus the paramedics do not stabilise the patient’s neck which could have saved his life.
  • Mr Lawler dies the next day in hospital.
  • The chiropractor is arrested immediately by the police but then released on bail.
  • The expert advising the police is a prominent chiropractor.
  • One bail condition is not to practise, pending a hearing by the GCC.
  • The GCC decide not to take any action.
  • The police therefore release the bail conditions and she goes back to practising.
  • The interim suspension hearing of the GCC is being held in September 2017.
  • The deceased’s son wants to attend but is not allowed to be present at the hearing even though such events are normally public.
  • The coroner’s inquest starts in 2019.
  • In November 2019, a coroner rules that Mr Lawler died of respiratory depression.
  • The coroner also calls on the GCC to bring in pre-treatment imaging to protect vulnerable patients.
  • The GCC announce that they will now continue their inquiry to determine whether or not chiropractor will be struck off the register.

The son of the deceased is today quoted stating that the GCC “seems to be a little self-regulatory chiropractic bubble where chiropractors regulate chiropractors.”

I sympathise with this statement. On this blog, I have repeatedly voiced my concerns about the GCC – see here, for instance – which I therefore do not need to repeat. My opinion of the GCC is also coloured by a personal experience which I will quickly recount now:

A long time ago (I estimate 10 – 15 years), the GCC invited me to give a lecture and I accepted. I do not remember the exact subject they had given me, but I clearly recall elaborating on the risks of spinal manipulation. This was not too well received. When I had finished, a discussion ensued in which I was accused of not knowing my subject and aggressed for daring to ctiticise chiropractic. I had, of couse, given the lecture assuming they wanted to hear my criticism. In the end, I left with the impression that this assumption was wrong and that they really just wanted to lecture, humiliate and punish me for having been a long-term critic of their trade.

I therefore can fully understand of David Lawler’s opinion about the GCC. To me, they certainly behaved as though their aim was not to protect the public, but to defend chiropractors from criticism.

The Telegraph published an article entitled ‘Crack or quack: what is the truth about chiropractic treatment?’ and is motivated by the story of Mr Lawler, the 80-year-old former bank manager who died after a chiropractic therapy. Here are 10 short quotes from this article which, in the context of this blog and the previous discussions on the Lawler case, are worthy further comment:

1. … [chiropractic] was established in the late 19th century by D.D. Palmer, an American magnetic healer.
“A lot of people don’t realise it’s a form of alternative medicine with some pretty strange beliefs at heart,” says Michael Marshall, project director at the ‘anti-quack’ charity the Good Thinking Society. “Palmer came to believe he was able to cure deafness through the spine, by adjusting it. The theory behind chiropractic is that all disease and ill health is caused by blockages in the flow of energy through the spine, and by adjusting the spine with these grotesque popping sounds, you can remove blockages, allowing the innate energy to flow freely.” Marshall says this doesn’t really chime with much of what we know about human biology…“There is no reason to believe there’s any possible benefit from twisting vertebra. There is no connection between the spine and conditions such as deafness and measles.”…

Michael Marshall is right, chiropractic was built on sand by Palmer who was little more than a charlatan. The problem with this fact is that today’s chiros have utterly failed to leave Palmer’s heritage behind.

2. According to the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), the industry body, “chiropractors are well placed to deliver high quality evidence-based care for back and neck pain.” …

They would say so, wouldn’t they? The BCA has a long history of problems with knowing what high quality evidence-based care is.

3. But it [chiropractic] isn’t always harmless – as with almost any medical treatment, there are possible side effects. The NHS lists these as aches and pains, stiffness, and tiredness; and then mentions the “risk of more serious problems, such as stroke”….

Considering that 50% of patients suffer adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, this seems somewhat of an understatement.

4. According to one systematic review, spinal manipulation, “particularly when performed on the upper body, is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects. It can also result in serious complications such as vertebral artery dissection followed by stroke.” …

Arterial dissection followed by a stroke probably is the most frequent serious complication. But there are many other risks, as the tragic case of Mr Lawler demonstrates. He had his neck broken by the chiropractor which resulted in paraplegia and death.

5. “There have been virtually hundreds of published cases where neck manipulations have led to vascular accidents, stroke and sometimes death,” says Prof Ernst. “As there is no monitoring system, this is merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg. According to our own UK survey, under-reporting is close to 100 per cent.” …

The call for an effective monitoring system has been loud and clear since many years. It is nothing short of a scandal that chiros have managed to resist it against the best interest of their patients and society at large.

6. Chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). Marshall says the Good Thinking Society has looked into claims made on chiropractors’ websites, and found that 82 per cent are not compliant with advertising law, for example by saying they can treat colic or by using the misleading term ‘doctor’…

Yes, and that is yet another scandal. It shows how serious chiropractors are about the ‘evidence-based care’ mentioned above.

7. According to GCC guidelines, “if you use the courtesy title ‘doctor’ you must make it clear within the text of any information you put into the public domain that you are not a registered medical practitioner but that you are a ‘Doctor of Chiropractic’.”…

True, and the fact that many chiropractors continue to ignore this demand presenting themselves as doctors and thus misleading the public is the third scandal, in my view.

8. A spokesperson for the BCA said “Chiropractic is a registered primary healthcare profession and a safe form of treatment. In the UK, chiropractors are regulated by law and required to adhere to strict codes of practice, in exactly the same ways as dentists and doctors. Chiropractors are trained to diagnose, treat, manage and prevent disorders of the musculoskeletal system, specialising in neck and back pain.”…

Chiropractors also like to confuse the public by claiming they are primary care physicians. If we understand this term as describing a clinician who is a ‘specialist in Family Medicine, Internal Medicine or Paediatrics who provides definitive care to the undifferentiated patient at the point of first contact, and takes continuing responsibility for providing the patient’s comprehensive care’, we realise that chiropractors fail to fulfil these criteria. The fact that they nevertheless try to mislead the public by calling themselves ‘primary healthcare professionals’ and ‘doctors’ is yet another scandal, in my opinion.

9. The spokesperson said, “medication, routine imaging and invasive surgeries are all commonly used to manage low back pain, despite limited evidence that these methods are effective treatments. Therefore, ensuring there are other options available for patients is paramount.”…

Here the spokesperson misrepresents mainstream medicine to make chiropractic look good. He should know that imaging is used also by chiros for diagnosing back problems (but not for managing them). And he must know that surgery is never used for the type of non-specific back pain that chiros tend to treat. Finally, he should know that exercise is a cheap, safe and effective therapy which is the main conventional option to treat and prevent back pain.

10. According to the European Chiropractors’ Union, “serious harm from chiropractic treatment is extremely rare.”

How do they know, if there is no system to capture cases of adverse effects?

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So, what needs to be done? How can we make progress? I think the following five steps would be a good start in the interest of public health:

  1.  Establish an effective monitoring system for adverse effects that is accessible to the public.
  2. Make sure all chiros are sufficiently well trained to know about the contra-indications of spinal manipulation, including those that apply to elderly patients and infants.
  3. Change the GCC from a body defending chiros and their interests to one regulating, controlling and, if necessary, reprimanding chiros.
  4. Make written informed consent compulsory for neck manipulations, and make sure it contains the information that neck manipulations can result in serious harm and are of doubtful efficacy.
  5. Prevent chiros from making therapeutic claims that are not based on sound evidence.

If these measures had been in place, Mr Lawler might still be alive today.

 

I have recently gone to the trouble of evaluating 150 different modalities from the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in a book. This is what it tells you about Reiki:

Reiki is a form of paranormal or energy healing popularised by Japanese Mikao Usui (1865-1926). Rei means universal spirit (sometimes thought of as a supreme being) and ki is the assumed universal life energy.

    1. Reiki is based on the assumptions of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the existence of ‘chi’, the life-force that determines our health.
    2. Reiki practitioners believe that, with their hands-on healing method, they can transfer ‘healing energy’ to a patient which, in turn, stimulates the self-healing properties of the body. They assume that the therapeutic effects of this technique are obtained from a ‘universal life energy’ that provides strength, harmony, and balance to the body and mind.
    3. There is no scientific basis for such notions, and reiki is therefore not plausible.
    4. Reiki is used for a number of conditions, including the relief of stress, tension and pain.
    5. There have been several clinical trials testing the effectiveness of reiki. Unfortunately, their methodological quality is usually poor.
    6. A systematic review summarising this evidence concluded that the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore, the value of reiki remains unproven.[1] And a Cochrane review found that there is insufficient evidence to say whether or not Reiki is useful for people over 16 years of age with anxiety or depression or both.[2]
    7. Reiki appears to be generally safe, and serious adverse effects have not been reported. Some practitioners advise caution about using reiki in people with psychiatric illnesses because of the risk of bringing out underlying psychopathology.

PLAUSIBILITY

Negative

EFFICACY

Negative

SAFETY

Positive

COST

Positive

RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE

Negative

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=lee+pittler+ernst%2C+reikiv

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25835541

So, Reiki is both implausible and unproven. Now a new, large trial has emerged that might change this verdict. The main purpose of this study (published in JCAM) was to measure the effect of a single session of Reiki on physical and psychological health in a large nonclinical sample.

The study design was a single arm effectiveness trial with measures at pre-and postintervention. The study took place at private Reiki practices across the United States. Reiki practitioners were recruited from an online mailing list to participate in the study with their Reiki clients. A total of 99 Reiki practitioners met the inclusion criteria and participated in the study. Reiki practitioners were instructed to give a flyer to each of their Reiki clients that contained information about the study and invited the client to complete a survey before and after their Reiki session.

Trained and certified Reiki Masters conducted the Reiki sessions in person, with each session lasting between 45 and 90 min. The 20-item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule was used to assess affect, and brief, single-item self-report measures were used to assess a wide range of physical and psychological variables immediately before (pre) and after (post) the Reiki session.

A total of N = 1411 Reiki sessions were conducted and included in the analysis. Statistically significant improvements were observed for all outcome measures, including positive affect, negative affect, pain, drowsiness, tiredness, nausea, appetite, shortness of breath, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being (all p-values <0.001).

The authors concluded that the results from this large-scale multisite effectiveness trial suggest that a single session of Reiki improves multiple variables related to physical and psychological health.

Really?

This ‘large scale’ effectiveness trial’ could make you laugh and cry at the same time.

  • Laugh, because it is almost comically daft.
  • Cry, because the conclusion is bound to mislead a lot of gullible people.

Without a control group, the study cannot even attempt to determine anything like the effectiveness of Reiki. What the results truly show is that consumers who consult (and pay) a Reiki master expect to have a positive effect. The expectation translates into a sizable placebo response. The investigators seem to be clueless scientists, or they wilfully mislead the public (the senior author is from the ‘The Center for Reiki Research‘ which, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to gaining acceptance for the practice of Reiki by the medical community).

The only conclusion that can honestly be drawn from the data is that consumers who pay for a serivce often like this service (otherwise they would not use it!). It’s a bit like the thing with the hamburger joint that I often cite: if you ask people eating in a McDonalds whether they enjoy hamburgers, most will answer in the affirmative.

But there might be a valuable lesson in this paper after all: never trust the JACM further than you can throw it.

The medical literature is currently swamped with reviews of acupuncture (and other forms of TCM) trials originating from China. Here is the latest example (but, trust me, there are hundreds more of the same ilk).

The aim of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of scalp, tongue, and Jin’s 3-needle acupuncture for the improvement of post-apoplectic aphasia. PubMed, Cochrane, Embase databases were searched using index words to identify qualifying randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Meta-analyses of odds ratios (OR) or standardized mean differences (SMD) were performed to evaluate the outcomes between investigational (scalp / tongue / Jin’s 3-needle acupuncture) and control (traditional acupuncture; TA and/or rehabilitation training; RT) groups.

Thirty-two RCTs (1310 participants in investigational group and 1270 in control group) were included. Compared to TA, (OR 3.05 [95% CI: 1.77, 5.28]; p<0.00001), tongue acupuncture (OR 3.49 [1.99, 6.11]; p<0.00001), and Jin’s 3-needle therapy (OR 2.47 [1.10, 5.53]; p = 0.03) had significantly better total effective rate. Compared to RT, scalp acupuncture (OR 4.24 [95% CI: 1.68, 10.74]; p = 0.002) and scalp acupuncture with tongue acupuncture (OR 7.36 [3.33, 16.23]; p<0.00001) had significantly better total effective rate. In comparison with TA/RT, scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture, scalp acupuncture with tongue acupuncture, and Jin’s three-needling significantly improved ABC, oral expression, comprehension, writing and reading scores.

The authors concluded that compared to traditional acupuncture and/or rehabilitation training, scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture, and Jin’ 3-needle acupuncture can better improve post-apoplectic aphasia as depicted by the total effective rate, the ABC score, and comprehension, oral expression, repetition, denomination, reading and writing scores. However, quality of the included studies was inadequate and therefore further high-quality studies with lager samples and longer follow-up times and with patient outcomes are necessary to verify the results presented herein. In future studies, researchers should also explore the efficacy and differences between scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture and Jin’s 3-needling in the treatment of post-apoplectic aphasia.

I’ll be frank: I find it hard to believe that sticking needles in a patient’s tongue restores her ability to speak. What is more, I do not believe a word of this review and its conclusion. And now I better explain why.

  • All the primary studies originate from China, and we have often discussed how untrustworthy such studies are.
  • All the primary studies were published in Chinese and cannot therefore be checked by most readers of the review.
  • The review authors fail to provide the detail about a formal assessment of the rigour of the included studies; they merely state that their methodological quality was low.
  • Only 6 of the 32 studies can be retrieved at all via the links provided in the articles.
  • As far as I can find out, some studies do not even exist at all.
  • Many of the studies compare acupuncture to unproven therapies such as bloodletting.
  • Many do not control for placebo effects.
  • Not one of the 32 studies reports findings that are remotely convincing.

I conclude that such reviews are little more than pseudo-scientific propaganda. They seem aim at promoting acupuncture in the West and thus serve the interest of the People’s Republic of China. They pollute our medical literature and undermine the trust in science.

I seriously ask myself, are the editors and reviewers all fast asleep?

The journal ‘BMC Complement Altern Med‘  has, in its 18 years of existence, published almost 4 000 Medline-listed papers. They currently charge £1690 for handling one paper. This would amount to about £6.5 million! But BMC are not alone; as I have pointed out repeatedly, EBCAM is arguably even worse.

And this is, in my view, the real scandal. We are being led up the garden path by people who make a very tidy profit doing so. BMC (and EBCAM) must put an end to this nonsense. Alternatively, PubMed should de-list these publications.

This has been going on for far too long; urgent action is required!

 

The aim of this update of a Cochrane review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of homeopathic treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Hold on, the bit about safety is odd here and does not bode well: one cannot possibly assess the safety of an intervention on the basis of just a few trials.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs), cohort and case-control studies that compared homeopathic treatment with placebo, other control treatments, or usual care, in adults with IBS were considered for inclusion. Two authors independently assessed the risk of bias and extracted data. The primary outcome was global improvement in IBS as measured by an IBS symptom severity score. Secondary outcomes included quality of life, abdominal pain, stool frequency, stool consistency, and adverse events. The overall certainty of the evidence supporting the primary and secondary outcomes was assessed using the GRADE criteria. The Cochrane risk of bias tool was used to assess risk of bias.

Four RCTs (307 participants) were included. Two studies compared clinical homeopathy (homeopathic remedy, asafoetida or asafoetida plus nux vomica) to placebo for IBS with constipation (IBS-C). One study compared individualised homeopathic treatment (consultation plus remedy) to usual care for the treatment of IBS in female patients. One study was a three armed RCT comparing individualised homeopathic treatment to supportive listening or usual care.

The risk of bias in three studies (the two studies assessing clinical homeopathy and the study comparing individualised homeopathic treatment to usual care) was unclear on most criteria and high for selective reporting in one of the clinical homeopathy studies. The three armed study comparing individualised homeopathic treatment to usual care and supportive listening was at low risk of bias in four of the domains and high risk of bias in two (performance bias and detection bias).

A meta-analysis of the studies assessing clinical homeopathy, (171 participants with IBS-C) was conducted. At short-term follow-up of two weeks, global improvement in symptoms was experienced by 73% (46/63) of asafoetida participants compared to 45% (30/66) of placebo participants (RR 1.61, 95% CI 1.18 to 2.18; 2 studies, very low certainty evidence).

In the other clinical homeopathy study at two weeks, 68% (13/19) of those in the asafoetida plus nux vomica arm and 52% (12/23) of those in the placebo arm experienced a global improvement in symptoms (RR 1.31, 95% CI 0.80 to 2.15; very low certainty evidence).

In the study comparing individualised homeopathic treatment to usual care (N = 20), the mean global improvement score (feeling unwell) at 12 weeks was 1.44 + 4.55 (n = 9) in the individualised homeopathic treatment arm compared to 1.41 + 1.97 (n=11) in the usual care arm (MD 0.03; 95% CI -3.16 to 3.22; very low certainty evidence).In the study comparing individualised homeopathic treatment to usual care, the mean IBS symptom severity score at 6 months was 210.44 + 112.4 (n = 16) in the individualised homeopathic treatment arm compared to 237.3 + 110.22 (n = 60) in the usual care arm (MD -26.86, 95% CI -88.59 to 34.87; low certainty evidence).

The mean quality of life score (EQ-5D) at 6 months in homeopathy participants was 69.07 (SD 17.35) compared to 63.41 (SD 23.31) in usual care participants (MD 5.66, 95% CI -4.69 to 16.01; low certainty evidence). In the study comparing individualised homeopathic treatment to supportive listening, the mean IBS symptom severity score at 6 months was 210.44 + 112.4 (n = 16) in the individualised homeopathic treatment arm compared to 262 + 120.72 (n = 18) in the supportive listening arm (MD -51.56, 95% CI -129.94 to 26.82; very low certainty evidence). The mean quality of life score at 6 months in homeopathy participants was 69.07 (SD 17.35) compared to 63.09 (SD 24.38) in supportive listening participants (MD 5.98, 95% CI -8.13 to 20.09; very low certainty evidence). None of the included studies reported on abdominal pain, stool frequency, stool consistency, or adverse events.

The authors concluded that the results for the outcomes assessed in this review are uncertain. Thus no firm conclusions regarding the effectiveness and safety of homeopathy for the treatment of IBS can be drawn. Further high quality, adequately powered RCTs are required to assess the efficacy and safety of clinical and individualised homeopathy for IBS compared to placebo or usual care.

[The previous version of this review was published in 2013 and concluded: A pooled analysis of two small studies suggests a possible benefit for clinical homeopathy, using the remedy asafoetida, over placebo for people with constipation-predominant IBS. These results should be interpreted with caution due to the low quality of reporting in these trials, high or unknown risk of bias, short-term follow-up, and sparse data. One small study found no statistically difference between individualised homeopathy and usual care (defined as high doses of dicyclomine hydrochloride, faecal bulking agents and diet sheets advising a high fibre diet). No conclusions can be drawn from this study due to the low number of participants and the high risk of bias in this trial. In addition, it is likely that usual care has changed since this trial was conducted. Further high quality, adequately powered RCTs are required to assess the efficacy and safety of clinical and individualised homeopathy compared to placebo or usual care.]

This is a thorough review that is technically well-done (no wonder, as it had to comply with Cochrane standards!). However, as with some other Cochrane reviews of homeopathy, acupuncture and other SCAMs, one might object to the phraseology used in the conclusions (the part that most people would focus on). Don’t get me wrong, the conclusions are technically correct; however, they are not as clear as they should be and hide the essence of the evidence, in my view.

Systematic reviews have one main purpose: they need to inform the reader whether there is or is not good evidence that the treatment in question works for the condition in question. This question is not well addressed by stating THE RESULTS ARE UNCERTAIN. The truth is that a firm conclusion can very well be drawn: THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE THAT ANY FORM OF HOMEOPATHY IS EFFECTIVE FOR IBS!

Surely that’s correct and firm enough!!!

Why do the authors not dare to put this clearly?

Probably because some of them are well-known, long-term proponents of homeopathy.

Why does the Cochrane Collaboration allow them to get away with their petty attempt of obfuscation?

Search me!

 

I just came across the most amazing cancer cure: it’s called VIDATOX 30C, and it is a true wonder.

Well, on second thought, I might take that this back.

Is it really true?

Or is it perhaps a most despicable health fraud?

The Vidatox website makes the following claims for VIDATOX:

  • it is based on 5 proteins from scorpion venom;
  • it is a 30C potency, which means that it is diluted by a factor of 1:1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
  • it selectively acts on diseased cells without harming healthy ones;
  • it is angiogenic;
  • it stimulates the immune system;
  • it attacks growing tumours;
  • it is anti-metastatic;
  • it blocks tumour angiogenesis;
  • it has anti-inflammatory effects;
  • it has prolonged analgesic effects;
  • it enhances the effects of chemo- and radiation therapies;
  • it reduces the side-effects of chemo- and radiation therapies;
  • it is not addictive;
  • it is a therapeutic alternative for human cancers;
  • it is in general use in oncology;
  • it has a powerful detoxification effect;
  • it has no side-effects;
  • it improves the well-being of patients;
  • its efficiency in tumour treatment is proven;
  • the medication ‘passed all the clinical trials’;
  • it increases survival;
  • it is a ‘certified product’;
  • it should be kept away from electromagnetic fields.

With all these claims and all ths splendid science mentioned on the website, one would expect to find plenty of papers on Vidatox. A Medline search resulted in 1 (one!) paper on the subject. Here is the abstract:

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term used to describe many kinds of products, practices, and systems that are not part of conventional medicine. Cancer patients usually do everything they can to combat the disease, manage its symptoms, and cope with the side effects of treatment. Unfortunately, patients who use CAM underestimate the risk of interaction with cancer therapy or worse they omit conventional therapy thus reducing the possibility of cancer remission. Herein we analyzed the effects of Vidatox 30 CH (venom extracted from the Junceus Rhopalurus scorpion) on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. We found out that Vidatox increases HCC proliferation and invasion whereas it does not seem to interact with sorafenib, the orally active multikinase inhibitor approved for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. Our results suggest that the concentration of Vidatox used in the present study has not anti-neoplastic effects and care must be taken in hiring Vidatox in patients with HCC.

The authors of this paper also make the following comment:

According to Gonzalez, Vidatox was tested on more than 10,000 cancer patients with “positive results” ranging from an “improved quality of life” to a “slowing of tumor growth” (http://vidatoxromania.ro/en/what-is-vidatox/) (http://www.bt.com.bn/science-technology/2010/10/29/cuba-release-new-cancer-drug). There are no data from controlled clinical studies neither for Escozul nor for Vidatox 30-CH in refereed journals. The available information derived from interviews with patients involved or provided within the sites of alternative therapies. Essentially, scientific evidences about the biological activity of Vidatox in cancer cells are missing.

So, is Vidatox homeopathy’s answer to cancer or is it simply a disgusting fraud?

What do you think?

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