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

bogus claims

As you can imagine, I get quite a lot of ‘fan-post’. Most of the correspondence amounts to personal attacks and insults which I usually discard. But some of these ‘love-letters’ are so remarkable in one way or another that I answer them. This short email was received on 20/3/19; it belongs to the latter category:

Dr Ernst,

You have been trashing homeopathy ad nauseum for so many years based on your limited understanding of it. You seem to know little more than that the remedies are so extremely dilute as to be impossibly effective in your opinion. Everybody knows this and has to confront their initial disbelief.

Why dont you get some direct understanding of homeopathy by doing a homeopathic proving of an unknown (to you) remedy? Only once was I able to convince a skeptic to take the challenge to do a homeopathic proving. He was amazed at all the new symptoms he experienced after taking the remedy repeatedly over several days.

Please have a similar bravery in your approach to homeopathy instead of basing your thoughts purely on your speculation on the subject, grounded in little understanding and no experience of it.

THIS IS HOW I RESPONDED

Dear Mr …

thank you for this email which I would like to answer as follows.

Your lines give the impression that you might not be familiar with the concept of critical analysis. In fact, you seem to confuse my criticism of homeopathy with ‘trashing it’. I strongly recommend you read up about critical analysis. No doubt you will then realise that it is a necessary and valuable process towards generating progress in healthcare and beyond.

You assume that I have limited understanding of homeopathy. In fact, I grew up with homeopathy, practised homeopathy as a young doctor, researched the subject for more than 25 years and published several books as well as over 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers about it. All of this, I have disclosed publicly, for instance, in my memoir which might interest you.

The challenge you mention has been taken by me and others many times. It cannot convince critical thinkers and, frankly, I am surprised that you found a sceptic who was convinced by what essentially amounts to little more than a party trick. But, as you seem to like challenges, I invite you to consider taking the challenge of the INH which even offers a sizable amount of money, in case you are successful.

Your final claim that my thoughts are based purely on speculation is almost farcically wrong. The truth is that sceptics try their very best to counter-balance the mostly weird speculations of homeopaths with scientific facts. I am sure that, once you have acquired the skills of critical thinking, you will do the same.

Best of luck.

Edzard Ernst

A new update of the current Cochrane review assessed the benefits and harms of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) for the treatment of chronic low back pain. The authors included all randomised controlled trials (RCTs) examining the effect of spinal manipulation or mobilisation in adults (≥18 years) with chronic low back pain with or without referred pain. Studies that exclusively examined sciatica were excluded.

The effect of SMT was compared with recommended therapies, non-recommended therapies, sham (placebo) SMT, and SMT as an adjuvant therapy. Main outcomes were pain and back specific functional status, examined as mean differences and standardised mean differences (SMD), respectively. Outcomes were examined at 1, 6, and 12 months.

Forty-seven RCTs including a total of 9211 participants were identified. Most trials compared SMT with recommended therapies. In 16 RCTs, the therapists were chiropractors, in 14 they were physiotherapists, and in 5 they were osteopaths. They used high velocity manipulations in 18 RCTs, low velocity manipulations in 12 studies and a combination of the two in 20 trials.

Moderate quality evidence suggested that SMT has similar effects to other recommended therapies for short term pain relief and a small, clinically better improvement in function. High quality evidence suggested that, compared with non-recommended therapies, SMT results in small, not clinically better effects for short term pain relief and small to moderate clinically better improvement in function.

In general, these results were similar for the intermediate and long term outcomes as were the effects of SMT as an adjuvant therapy.

Low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically better effect than sham SMT at one month. Additionally, very low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically better effect than sham SMT at six and 12 months. Low quality evidence suggested that SMT results in a moderate to strong statistically significant and clinically better effect than sham SMT at one month. Additionally, very low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically significant better effect than sham SMT at six and 12 months.

(Mean difference in reduction of pain at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months (0-100; 0=no pain, 100 maximum pain) for spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) versus recommended therapies in review of the effects of SMT for chronic low back pain. Pooled mean differences calculated by DerSimonian-Laird random effects model.)

About half of the studies examined adverse and serious adverse events, but in most of these it was unclear how and whether these events were registered systematically. Most of the observed adverse events were musculoskeletal related, transient in nature, and of mild to moderate severity. One study with a low risk of selection bias and powered to examine risk (n=183) found no increased risk of an adverse event or duration of the event compared with sham SMT. In one study, the Data Safety Monitoring Board judged one serious adverse event to be possibly related to SMT.

The authors concluded that SMT produces similar effects to recommended therapies for chronic low back pain, whereas SMT seems to be better than non-recommended interventions for improvement in function in the short term. Clinicians should inform their patients of the potential risks of adverse events associated with SMT.

This paper is currently being celebrated (mostly) by chiropractors who think that it vindicates their treatments as being both effective and safe. However, I am not sure that this is entirely true. Here are a few reasons for my scepticism:

  • SMT is as good as other recommended treatments for back problems – this may be so but, as no good treatment for back pain has yet been found, this really means is that SMT is as BAD as other recommended therapies.
  • If we have a handful of equally good/bad treatments, it stand to reason that we must use other criteria to identify the one that is best suited – criteria like safety and cost. If we do that, it becomes very clear that SMT cannot be named as the treatment of choice.
  • Less than half the RCTs reported adverse effects. This means that these studies were violating ethical standards of publication. I do not see how we can trust such deeply flawed trials.
  • Any adverse effects of SMT were minor, restricted to the short term and mainly centred on musculoskeletal effects such as soreness and stiffness – this is how some naïve chiro-promoters already comment on the findings of this review. In view of the fact that more than half the studies ‘forgot’ to report adverse events and that two serious adverse events did occur, this is a misleading and potentially dangerous statement and a good example how, in the world of chiropractic, research is often mistaken for marketing.
  • Less than half of the studies (45% (n=21/47)) used both an adequate sequence generation and an adequate allocation procedure.
  • Only 5 studies (10% (n=5/47)) attempted to blind patients to the assigned intervention by providing a sham treatment, while in one study it was unclear.
  • Only about half of the studies (57% (n=27/47)) provided an adequate overview of withdrawals or drop-outs and kept these to a minimum.
  • Crucially, this review produced no good evidence to show that SMT has effects beyond placebo. This means the modest effects emerging from some trials can be explained by being due to placebo.
  • The lead author of this review (SMR), a chiropractor, does not seem to be free of important conflicts of interest: SMR received personal grants from the European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU), the European Centre for Chiropractic Research Excellence (ECCRE), the Belgian Chiropractic Association (BVC) and the Netherlands Chiropractic Association (NCA) for his position at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He also received funding for a research project on chiropractic care for the elderly from the European Centre for Chiropractic Research and Excellence (ECCRE).
  • The second author (AdeZ) who also is a chiropractor received a grant from the European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU), for an independent study on the effects of SMT.

After carefully considering the new review, my conclusion is the same as stated often before: SMT is not supported by convincing evidence for back (or other) problems and does not qualify as the treatment of choice.

I ought to admit to a conflict of interest regarding today’s post:

I am not a fan of Mr Corbyn!

He fooled us prior to the Referendum claiming he was backing Remain and subsequently campaigned less than half-heartedly for it. Not least thanks to him and his sham of a campaign Leave won the referendum. Subsequently, the UK embarked on a bonanza of self-destruction and a frenzy of xenophobia which changed the UK beyond recognition. Currently, Mr Corbyn is doing the same trick again. He had to concede in the Labour manifesto that his party would eventually support a People’s Vote, and now he bends over backwards to avoid doing anything remotely like it. This strategy, together with his rather non-transparent stance on anti-Semitism does it for me. I could not vote for Corbyn in a million years now.

NOTHING TO DO WITH ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE!, I hear you exclaim.

Yes, you are right – but this has:

Some time ago, Corbyn tweeted ‘I believe that homeopathy works for some ppl and that it compliments ‘convential’ meds. they both come from organic matter…’

Excuse my frankness, but I find this short tweet embarrassingly stupid (regardless of who authored it).

Apart from two spelling mistakes, it contains several fundamental errors and fallacies:

  • Corbyn seems to think that, because some people experience improvement after taking a homeopathic remedy, homeopathy is effective. Does he also believe that the crowing of a cock makes the sun rise in the morning? The statement shows a most irritating lack of understanding as to what constitutes medical evidence and what not. That it was made by a politician makes it only worse.
  • Corbyn also tells us that homeopathy is an appropriate adjunct to conventional healthcare. His impression is based on the fact that ‘it works for some people’. This assumption reveals a naivety that is deplorable in a politician who evidently thinks himself sufficiently well-informed to tweet about the matter.
  • The final straw is Corbyn’s little afterthought: they both come from organic matter. Many conventional medicines come from inorganic matter. And homeopathic remedies? Yes, many also come from inorganic materials.

Yes, I know, you probably think me a bit pedantic here. As I said, I have strong misgivings against Mr Corbyn.

But, even leaving my prejudice aside, I do think that politicians and other people of influence should comment on issues only after they informed themselves about them sufficiently to make good sense. Otherwise they are in danger to merely disclose their ineptitude in the same way as Corbyn did when he wrote the above tweet.

 

“Most of the supplement market is bogus,” Paul Clayton*, a nutritional scientist, told the Observer. “It’s not a good model when you have businesses selling products they don’t understand and cannot be proven to be effective in clinical trials. It has encouraged the development of a lot of products that have no other value than placebo – not to knock placebo, but I want more than hype and hope.” So, Dr Clayton took a job advising Lyma, a product which is currently being promoted as “the world’s first super supplement” at £199 for a one-month’s supply.

Lyma is a dietary supplement that contains a multitude of ingredients all of which are well known and available in many other supplements costing only a fraction of Lyma. The ingredients include:

  • kreatinin,
  • turmeric,
  • Ashwagandha,
  • citicoline,
  • lycopene,
  • vitamin D3.

Apparently, these ingredients are manufactured in special (and patented) ways to optimise their bioavailabity. According to the website, the ingredients of LYMA have all been clinically trialled with proven efficacy at levels provided within the LYMA supplement… Unless the ingredient has been clinically trialled, and peer reviewed there may be limited (if any) benefit to the body. LYMA’s revolutionary formulation is the most advanced and proven super supplement in the world, bringing together eight outstanding ingredients – seven of which are patented – to support health, wellbeing and beauty. Each ingredient has been selected for its efficacy, purity, quality, bioavailability, stability and ultimately, on the results of clinical studies.

The therapeutic claims made for the product are numerous:

  • it will improve your hair, skin and nails (80% improvement in skin smoothness, 30% increase in skin moisture, 17% increase in skin elasticity, 12% reduction in wrinkle depth, 47% increase in hair strength & 35% decrease in hair loss)
  • it will support energy levels in both the body and the brain (increase in brain membrane turnover by 26% and increase brain energy by 14%),
  • it will improve cognitive function,
  • it will enhance endurance (cardiorespiratory endurance increased by 13% compared to a placebo),
  • it will improve quality of life,
  • it will improve sleep (reducing insomnia by 70%),
  • it will improve immunity,
  • it will reduce inflammation,
  • it will improve your memory,
  • it will improve osteoporosis (reduce risk of osteoporosis by 37%).

These claims are backed up by 197 clinical trials, we are being told.

If true, this would be truly sensational – but is it true?

I asked the Lyma firm for the 197 original studies, and they very kindly sent me dozens papers which all referred to the single ingredients listed above. I emailed again and asked whether there are any studies of Lyma with all its ingredients in one supplement. Then I was told that they are ‘looking into a trial on the final Lyma formula‘.

I take this to mean that not a single trial of Lyma has been conducted. In this case, how do we be sure the mixture works? How can we know that the 197 studies have not been cherry-picked? How can we be sure that there are no interactions between the active constituents?

The response from Lyma quoted the above-mentioned Dr Paul Clayton stating this: “In regard to LYMA, clinical trials at this stage are not necessary. The whole point of LYMA is that each ingredient has already been extensively trialled, and validated. They have selected the best of the best ingredients, and amalgamated them; to enable consumers to take them all in a convenient format. You can quite easily go out and purchase all the ingredients separately. They aren’t easy to find, and it would mean swallowing up to 12 tablets and capsules a day; but the choice is always yours.”

It’s kind, to leave the choice to us, rather than forcing us to spend £199 each month on the world’s first super-supplement. Very kind indeed!

Having the choice, I might think again.

I might even assemble the world’s maximally evidence-based, extra super-supplement myself, one that is supported by many more than 197 peer-reviewed papers. To not directly compete with Lyma, I could use entirely different ingredients. Perhaps I should take the following five:

  • Vitamin C (it has over 61 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
  • Vitanin E (it has over 42 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
  • Collagen (it has over 210 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
  • Coffee (it has over 14 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
  • Aloe vera (it has over 3 000 Medline listed articles to its name).

I could then claim that my extra super-supplement is supported by some 300 000 scientific articles plus 1 000 clinical studies (I am confident I could cherry-pick 1 000 positive trials from the 300 000 papers). Consequently, I would not just charge £199 but £999 for a month’s supply.

But this would be wrong, misleading, even bogus!!!, I hear you object.

On the one hand, I agree.

On the other hand, as Paul Clayton rightly pointed out: Most of the supplement market is bogus.

 

 

 

 

*If my memory serves me right, I met Paul many years ago when he was a consultant for Boots (if my memory fails me, I might need to order some Lyma).

We have discussed the diagnostic methods used by practitioners of alternative medicine several times before (see for instance here, here, here, here, here and here). Now a new article has been published which sheds more light on this important issue.

The authors point out that the so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) community promote and sell a wide range of tests, many of which are of dubious clinical significance. Many have little or no clinical utility and have been widely discredited, whilst others are established tests that are used for unvalidated purposes.

  1. The paper mentions the 4 key factors for evaluation of diagnostic methods:
    Analytic validity of a test defines its ability to measure accurately and reliably the component of interest. Relevant parameters include analytical accuracy and precision, susceptibility to interferences and quality assurance.
  2. Clinical validity defines the ability to detect or predict the presence or absence of an accepted clinical disease or predisposition to such a disease. Relevant parameters include sensitivity, specificity, and an understanding of how these parameters change in different populations.
  3. Clinical utility refers to the likelihood that the test will lead to an improved outcome. What is the value of the information to the individual being tested and/or to the broader population?
  4. Ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of a test. Issues include how the test is promoted, how the reasons for testing are explained to the patient, the incidence of false-positive results and incorrect diagnoses, the potential for unnecessary treatment and the cost-effectiveness of testing.

The tests used by  SCAM-practitioners range from the highly complex, employing state of the art technology, e.g. heavy metal analysis using inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, to the rudimentary, e.g. live blood cell analysis. Results of ‘SCAM tests’ are often accompanied by extensive clinical interpretations which may recommend, or be used to justify, unnecessary or harmful treatments. There are now a small number of laboratories across the globe that specialize in SCAM testing. Some SCAM laboratories operate completely outside of any accreditation programme whilst others are fully accredited to the standard of established clinical laboratories.

In their review, the authors explore SCAM testing in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia with a focus on the common tests on offer, how they are reported, the evidence base for their clinical application and the regulations governing their use. They also review proposed changed to in-vitro diagnostic device regulations and how these might impact on SCAM testing.

The authors conclude hat the common factor in all these tests is the lack of evidence for clinical validity and utility as used in SCAM practice. This should not be surprising since this is true for SCAM practice in general. Once there is a sound evidence base for an intervention, such as a laboratory test, then it generally becomes incorporated into conventional medical practice.

The paper also discusses possible reasons why SCAM-tests are appealing:

  • Adding an element of science to the consultation. Patients know that conventional medicine relies heavily on laboratory diagnostics. If the SCAM practitioner orders laboratory tests, the patient may feel they are benefiting from a scientific approach.
  • Producing material diagnostic data to support a diagnosis. SCAM lab reports are well presented in a format that is attractive to patients adding legitimacy to a diagnosis. Tests are often ordered as large profiles of multiple analytes. It follows that this will increase the probability of getting results outside of a given reference interval purely by chance. ‘Abnormal’ results give the SCAM practitioner something to build a narrative around if clinical findings are unclear. This is particularly relevant for patients who have chronic conditions, such as CFS or fibromyalgia where a definitive cause has not been established and treatment options are limited.
  • Generating business opportunities using abnormal results. Some practitioners may use abnormal laboratory results to justify further testing, supplements or therapies that they can offer.
  • By offering tests that are not available through traditional healthcare services some SCAM practitioners may claim they are offering a unique specialist service that their doctor is unable to provide. This can be particularly appealing to patients with unexplained symptoms for which there are a limited range of evidenced-based investigations and treatments available.

Regulation of SCAM laboratory testing is clearly deficient, the authors of this paper conclude. Where SCAM testing is regulated at all, regulatory authorities primarily evaluate analytical validity of the tests a laboratory offers. Clinical validity and clinical utility are either not evaluated adequately or not evaluated at all and the ethical, legal and social implications of a test may only be considered on a reactive basis when consumers complain about how tests are advertised.

I have always thought that the issue of SCAM tests is hugely important; yet it remains much-neglected. A rubbish diagnosis is likely to result in a rubbish treatment. Unreliable diagnostic methods lead to false-positive and false-negative diagnoses. Both harm the patient. In 1995, I thus published a review that concluded with this warning “alternative” diagnostic methods may seriously threaten the safety and health of patients submitted to them. Orthodox doctors should be aware of the problem and inform their patients accordingly.

Sadly, my warning has so far had no effect whatsoever.

I hope this new paper is more successful.

The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) have just published new guidelines for chiropractors entitled ‘Guidelines for Disaster Service by Doctors of Chiropractic’. Let me show you a few short quotes from this remarkable document:

… Doctors of Chiropractic are uniquely qualified to serve in emergency situations in various capacities.

… their assessment and treatments can be performed in austere environments, on site or at staging areas providing rapid attention to the injury, accelerating healing and often decreasing or substituting the need for pharmaceutical intervention…

Through their education as primary care physicians, Doctors of Chiropractic have demonstrated competence in first aid and resuscitation skills and are able to assess, diagnose and triage so they may serve as first responders in the immediate care of victims at a disaster site…

During and after the disaster, the local Doctors of Chiropractic should interface with the state association and ACA to report on execution of action and outcome of the situation, make suggestions for response to future disasters and report any significant contacts made.

END OF QUOTES

Please allow me to make just 10 corrections and clarifications:

  1. Chiropractors are not medical doctors; to use the title in any medical context is misleading, to use it in the context of medical emergencies is quite simply reckless.
  2. Chiropractors are certainly not qualified to serve in emergency situations. This would require a totally different training, experience and set of skills.
  3. I am not aware of any good evidence that chiropractic can accelerate healing of any medical condition.
  4. I am also not aware that chiropractic might decrease or substitute the need for pharmaceutical interventions in emergency situations.
  5. Chiropractors are not primary care physicians.
  6. Chiropractors have not demonstrated competence in first aid and resuscitation skills.
  7. Chiropractors are not trained to diagnose the complex and often life-threatening conditions that occur in disaster situations.
  8. Chiropractors are not trained as first responders in disaster situations.
  9. Chiropractors are not qualified or trained to report on execution of action and outcome of disaster situation.
  10. Chiropractors are not qualified or trained to make suggestions for response to future disasters.

The new ACA guidelines are but a thinly disguised attempt to boost chiropractic. They have the potential to endanger lives. And they are an insult to those professionals who have trained hard to acquire the skills to respond to emergencies and disaster situations.

In other words, they are guidelines not for dealing with disasters, but for creating them.

Determined to cover as many so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) as I possibly can, I was intrigued to see an article in the EVENING STANDARD about a SCAM I had not been familiar with: YANG SHENG.

Here is an excerpt of this article:

When people meet Katie Brindle, they usually ask whether she does acupuncture. “In fact, I specialise in yang sheng,” she says, a sigh in her voice. “It’s a massive aspect of Chinese medicine that no one knows anything about.” She’s on a mission to change that. Yang sheng is, in simplest terms, “prevention not cure” and Brindle puts it into practice with Hayo’u, her part-beauty brand, part-wellness programme, which draws on rituals in Far Eastern medicine. The “Reset” ritual, for example, is based on the Chinese martial art of qigong and involves shaking, drumming and twisting the body to wake up your circulation — Brindle says it stimulates digestion and boosts immunity. The “Body Restorer”, a gentle massage of the neck, chest and back, has a history of being used as a form of treatment for fever, muscle pain, inflammation and migraines. The principle underpinning all the practices is that small changes in your daily routine can help prevent your body from illness. Brindle wants it to be accessible: the website is free, and she is planning Facebook live-streams later in the year. There will also be a book in April, focusing on prevention rather than cure…

Frustrated about the overtly adversorial nature of this article, I did a few searches (not made easy by the fact that Yang and Sheng are common names of authors and yangsheng is the name of an acupuncture point) and found that Yang Sheng is said to be a health-promoting method in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that includes movement, mental exercise, and breathing technique. It is used mainly in China but has apparently it is currently enjoying an ever-widening acceptance in the Western world as well.

Is there any evidence for it?

Good question!

A paper from 1998 reported an observational study with 30 asthma patients, with varying degrees of illness severity. They were taught Qigong Yangsheng under medical supervision and asked to exercise independently, if possible, on a daily basis. They kept a diary of their symptoms for half a year including peak-flow measurements three times daily, use of medication, frequency and length of exercise as well as five asthma-relevant symptoms (sleeping through the night, coughing, expectoration, dyspnea, and general well-being). A decrease of at least 10 percent in peak-flow variability between the 1st and the 52nd week occurred more frequently in the group of the exercisers (n = 17) than in the group of non-exercisers (n = 13). When comparing the study year with the year before the study, there was improvement also in reduced hospitalization rate, less sickness leave, reduced antibiotic use and fewer emergency consultations resulting in reduced treatment costs. The authors concluded that Qigong Yangsheng is recommended for asthma patients with professional supervision. An improvement in airway capability and a decrease in illness severity can be achieved by regular self-conducted Qigong exercises.

The flaws of this study are obvious, and I don’t even bother to criticise it here.

Unfortunately, that was the only ‘study’ I found.

I also located many websites most of which are all but useless. Here is one that offers some explanations:

Yang sheng is a self-care approach. What makes this any different from all those other wellbeing manuals? The short answer is, that this is advice rooted in thousands of years of wisdom. Texts on how to preserve and extend life, health and wellbeing have been part of the Chinese tradition since the 4thcentury BC. They’ve had over 25 centuries to be refined and are time tested.

Yang sheng takes into account core theories like yin and yang, adhering to the laws of nature and harmonious free flow of Qi around the body (see below). As the active pursuit of the best possible functioning and balance of the whole self – body, mind and spirit. Yang Sheng takes into consideration your relationships to people and the environment.

In the West, we systematically neglect wellness and disease prevention. We take our good health for granted. We assume that we cannot avoid disease. And then when we are ill, we treat the symptoms of disease rather than finding the root cause.

Yang Sheng is about discovering energy imbalances long before they turn into overt disease. It works on the approach of eliminating small health niggles and balancing the body to stay healthy.

If this sounds like a conspiracy of BS to you, I would not blame you.

So, what can we conclude from this? I think, it is fair to say that:

  • Yang Sheng is being promoted as yet another TCM miracle.
  • It is based on all the obsolete nonsense that TCM has to offer.
  • Numerous therapeutic and preventative claims are being made for it.
  • None of them is supported by anything resembling good evidence.
  • Anyone with a serious condition who trusts Yang Sheng advocates puts her/his life in danger.
  • The EVENING STANDARD is not a source for reliable medical information.

I don’t expect many of my readers to be surprised, concerned or alarmed by any of this. In my view, however, this lack of alarm is exactly what is alarming! We have become so used to seeing bogus claims and dangerous BS in the realm of SCAM that abnormality has gradually turned into something close to normality.

I find the type of normality that incessantly misleads consumers and endangers patients quite simply unacceptable.

Acupuncture is all over the news today. The reason is a study just out in BMJ-Open.

The aim of this new RCT was to investigate the efficacy of a standardised brief acupuncture approach for women with moderate-tosevere menopausal symptoms. Nine Danish primary care practices recruited 70 women with moderate-to-severe menopausal symptoms. Nine general practitioners with accredited education in acupuncture administered the treatments.

The acupuncture style was western medical with a standardised approach in the pre-defined acupuncture points CV-3, CV-4, LR-8, SP-6 and SP-9. The intervention group received one treatment for five consecutive weeks. The control group received no acupuncture but was offered treatment after 6 weeks. Outcomes were the differences between the two groups in changes to mean scores using the scales in the MenoScores Questionnaire, measured from baseline to week 6. The primary outcome was the hot flushes scale; the secondary outcomes were the other scales in the questionnaire. All analyses were based on intention-to-treat analysis.

Thirty-six patients received the intervention, and 34 were in the control group. Four participants dropped out before week 6. The acupuncture intervention significantly decreased hot flushes, day-and-night sweats, general sweating, menopausal-specific sleeping problems, emotional symptoms, physical symptoms and skin and hair symptoms compared with the control group at the 6-week follow-up. The pattern of decrease in hot flushes, emotional symptoms, skin and hair symptoms was already apparent three weeks into the study. Mild potential adverse effects were reported by four participants, but no severe adverse effects were reported.

The authors concluded that the standardised and brief acupuncture treatment produced a fast and clinically relevant reduction in moderate-to-severe menopausal symptoms during the six-week intervention.

The only thing that I find amazing here is the fact the a reputable journal published such a flawed trial arriving at such misleading conclusions.

  • The authors call it a ‘pragmatic’ trial. Yet it excluded far too many patients to realistically qualify for this characterisation.
  • The trial had no adequate control group, i.e. one that can account for placebo effects. Thus the observed outcomes are entirely in keeping with the powerful placebo effect that acupuncture undeniably has.
  • The authors nevertheless conclude that ‘acupuncture treatment produced a fast and clinically relevant reduction’ of symptoms.
  • They also state that they used this design because no validated sham acupuncture method exists. This is demonstrably wrong.
  • In my view, such misleading statements might even amount to scientific misconduct.

So, what would be the result of a trial that is rigorous and does adequately control for placebo-effects? Luckily, we do not need to rely on speculation here; we have a study to demonstrate the result:

Background: Hot flashes (HFs) affect up to 75% of menopausal women and pose a considerable health and financial burden. Evidence of acupuncture efficacy as an HF treatment is conflicting.

Objective: To assess the efficacy of Chinese medicine acupuncture against sham acupuncture for menopausal HFs.

Design: Stratified, blind (participants, outcome assessors, and investigators, but not treating acupuncturists), parallel, randomized, sham-controlled trial with equal allocation. (Australia New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry: ACTRN12611000393954)

Setting: Community in Australia.

Participants: Women older than 40 years in the late menopausal transition or postmenopause with at least 7 moderate HFs daily, meeting criteria for Chinese medicine diagnosis of kidney yin deficiency.

Interventions:10 treatments over 8 weeks of either standardized Chinese medicine needle acupuncture designed to treat kidney yin deficiency or noninsertive sham acupuncture.

Measurements: The primary outcome was HF score at the end of treatment. Secondary outcomes included quality of life, anxiety, depression, and adverse events. Participants were assessed at 4 weeks, the end of treatment, and then 3 and 6 months after the end of treatment. Intention-to-treat analysis was conducted with linear mixed-effects models.

Results: 327 women were randomly assigned to acupuncture (n = 163) or sham acupuncture (n = 164). At the end of treatment, 16% of participants in the acupuncture group and 13% in the sham group were lost to follow-up. Mean HF scores at the end of treatment were 15.36 in the acupuncture group and 15.04 in the sham group (mean difference, 0.33 [95% CI, −1.87 to 2.52]; P = 0.77). No serious adverse events were reported.

Limitation: Participants were predominantly Caucasian and did not have breast cancer or surgical menopause.

Conclusion: Chinese medicine acupuncture was not superior to noninsertive sham acupuncture for women with moderately severe menopausal HFs.

My conclusion from all this is simple: acupuncture trials generate positive findings, provided the researchers fail to test it rigorously.

Simply put, in the realm of SCAM, we seem to have two types of people:

  1. those who don’t care a hoot about evidence;
  2. those who try their best to follow the evidence.

The first group is replete with SCAM enthusiasts who make their decisions based purely on habit, emotion, intuition etc. They are beyond my reach, I fear. It is almost exclusively the second group for whom I write this blog.

And that could be relatively easy, if the evidence were always accessible, understandable, straight forward, conclusive and convincing. But sadly, in SCAM (as in most other areas of healthcare), the evidence is full of apparent and real contradictions. In this situation, it is often difficult even for experts to understand what is going on; for lay people this must be immeasurably more confusing. Yet, it is the lay consumers who often will take the decision to use or not use this or that SCAM. They therefore need our help.

What can consumers do when they are confronted with contradictory evidence?

How can they distinguish right from wrong?

  • Some articles claim that homeopathy works – others say it is just a placebo therapy.
  • Some experts claim that chiropractic is safe – others say it can do serious harm.
  • Some articles claim that SCAM-practitioners are competent – others say this is not true.
  • Some experts claim that SCAM is the future – others stress that it is obsolete.

What can a lay person with no or very little understanding of science do to see through this fog of contradictions?

Let me try to provide consumers with a step by step approach to get closer to the truth by asking a few incisive questions:

  1. WHERE DID YOU READ THE CLAIM? If it was in a newspaper, magazine, website, etc. take it with a pinch of salt (double the dose of salt, if it’s from the Daily Mail).
  2. CAN YOU RETRACE THE CLAIM TO A SCIENTIFIC PAPER? This might challenge you skills as a detective, but it is always well-worth finding the original source of a therapeutic claim in order to judge its credibility. If no good source can be found, I advise caution.
  3. IN WHICH MEDICAL JOURNAL WAS THE CLAIM PUBLISHED? Be aware of the fact that there are dozens of SCAM-journals that would publish virtually any rubbish.
  4. WHO ARE THE AUTHORS OF THE SCIENTIFIC PAPER? It might be difficult for a lay person to evaluate their credibility. But there might be certain pointers; for instance, authors affiliated to a university tend to be more credible than SCAM-practitioners who have no such affiliations or authors working for a lobby-group.
  5. WHAT SORT OF ARTICLE IS THE ORIGINAL SOURCE OF THE CLAIM? Is it a proper experimental study or a mere opinion piece? If possible, try to find a good-quality (perhaps even a Cochrane) review on the subject.
  6. ARE THERE OTHER RESEARCHERS WHO HAVE ARRIVED AT SIMILAR CONCLUSIONS? If the claim is based on just one solitary piece of research or opinion, it clearly weighs less than a consensus of experts.
  7. DO PUBLICATIONS EXIST THAT DISAGREE WITH THE CLAIM? Even if there are several scientific papers from different teams of researchers supporting the claim, it is important to find out whether the claim is shared by all experts in the field.

Eventually, you might get a good impression about the veracity of the claim. But sometimes you also might end up with a bunch of systematic reviews of which several support, while others reject the claim. And all of them could look similarly credible to your untrained eyes. Does that mean your attempt to find the truth of the matter has been frustrated?

Not necessarily!

In this case, you would probably consider the following options:

  1. You could do a simple ‘pea count’; this would tell you whether the majority of reviews is pro or contra the claim. However, this might be your worst bet for arriving at a sound conclusion. The quantity of the evidence usually is far less important than its quality.
  2. If you have no training to judge the quality of a review, you might just go with the most recent and up-to-date review. This, however, would also be fraught with problems, as you can, of course, not be sure that the most recent one is also the least biased assessment.
  3. Perhaps you can somehow get an impression about the respectability of the source. If, for instance, there is a recent Cochrane review, I advise to go with that one.
  4. Look up the profession of the authors of the review. The pope is unlikely to condemn Catholicism; likewise, you will find very few homeopaths who are critical of homeopathy, or chiropractors who are critical of chiropractic, etc. I know this is a very crude ‘last resort’ for replacing an authorative evaluation of the claim. But, if that’s all you have, it is better than nothing. Ask yourself who can normally be trusted more, the SCAM-practitioner or lobbyist who makes a living from the claim or an independent academic who has no such conflict of interest?

If all of this does not help you to decide whether a therapeutic claim is trustworthy or not, my advice has always been to reflect on this: IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS.

 

 

In 2004, my team published a review analysing the diversity of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) research published in one single year (2002) across 7 European countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium) and the US. In total 652 abstracts of articles were assessed. Germany and the UK were the only two European countries to publish in excess of 100 articles in that year (Germany: 137, UK: 183). The majority of articles were non-systematic reviews and comments, analytical studies and surveys. The UK carried out more surveys than any of the other countries and also published the largest number of systematic reviews. Germany, the UK and the US covered the widest range of interests across various SCAM modalities and investigated the safety of CAM. We concluded that important national differences exist in terms of the nature of SCAM research. This raises important questions regarding the reasons for such differences.

One striking difference was the fact that, compared to the UK, Germany had published far less research on SCAM that failed to report a positive result (4% versus 14%). Ever since, I have wondered why. Perhaps it has something to do with the biggest sponsor of SCAM research in Germany: THE CARSTENS STIFTUNG?

The Carstens Foundation (CF) was created by the former German President, Prof. Dr. Karl Carstens and his wife, Dr. Veronica Carstens. Karl Carstens (1914-1992) was the 5th President of federal Germany, from 1979 to 1984. Veronica Carstens (1923-2012) was a doctor of Internal Medicine with an interest in natural medicine and homeopathy in particular. She is quoted by the CF stating: „Der Arzt und die Ärztin der Zukunft sollen zwei Sprachen sprechen, die der Schulmedizin und die der Naturheilkunde und Homöopathie. Sie sollen im Einzelfall entscheiden können, welche Methode die besten Heilungschancen für den Patienten bietet.“ (Future doctors should speak two languages, that of ‘school medicine’ [Hahnemann’s derogatory term for conventional medicine] and that of naturopathy and homeopathy. They should be able to decide on a case by case basis which method offers the best chances of a cure for the patient.***)

Together, the two Carstens created the CF with the goal of sponsoring SCAM in Germany. More than 35 million € have so far been spent on more than 100 projects, fellowships, dissertations, an own publishing house, and a patient societyNatur und Medizin” (currently ~23 000 members) with the task of promoting SCAM. Projects the CF proudly list as their ‘milestones’ include: 

  • an outpatient clinic of natural medicine for cancer
  • a project ‘Natural medicine and homeopathy for children and adolescents’.

The primary focus of the CF clearly is homeopathy, and it is in this area where their anti-science bias gets most obvious. I do invite everyone who reads German to have a look at their website and be amazed at the plethora of misleading claims.

Their expert for all things homeopathic is Dr Jens Behnke (‘Referent für Homöopathieforschung bei der Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung: Evidenzbasierte Medizin, CAM, klinische Forschung, Grundlagenforschung’). He is not a medical doctor but has a doctorate from the ‘Kulturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Europa-Universität Viadrina’ entitled ‘Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung. Eine epistemologische Analyse des Paradigmenstreits in der Homöopathieforschung’ (Science and world view. An epistemological analysis of the paradigm-quarrel in homeopathy research). His supervisor was Prof Harald Walach who has long been close to the CF.

Behnke claims to be an expert in EBM, clinical research and basic research but, intriguingly, he has not a single Medline-listed publication to his name. So, we only have his dissertation to assess his expertise.

The very 1st sentence of his dissertation is noteworthy, in my view: Die Homöopathie ist eine Therapiemethode, die seit mehr als 200 Jahren praktiziert wird und eine beträchtliche Zahl an Heilungserfolgen vorzuweisen hat (Homeopathy is a therapeutic method, that is being used since more than 200 years and which is supported by a remarkable number of therapeutic successes). In essence, the dissertation dismisses the scientific approach for evaluating homeopathy as well as the current best evidence that shows homeopathy to be ineffective.

Behnke dismisses my own research on homeopathy without even considering it. He first claims to have found an error in one of my systematic reviews and then states: Die Fragwürdigkeit der oben angeführten Methoden rechtfertigt das Übergehen sämtlicher Publikationen dieses Autors im Rahmen dieser Arbeit. Wenn einem Wissenschaftler die aufgezeigte absichtliche Falschdarstellung aufgrund von Voreingenommenheit nachgewiesen werden kann, sind seine Ergebnisse, wenn überhaupt, nur nach vorheriger systematischer Überprüfung sämtlicher Originalpublikationen und Daten, auf die sie sich beziehen, verwertbar. Essentially, he claims that, because he has found one error, the rest cannot be trusted and therefore he is entitled to reject the lot.

In the same dissertation, we read the following: Ernst konstatiert in allen … Arbeiten zur Homöopathie ausnahmslos, dass es keinerlei belastbare Hinweise auf eine Wirksamkeit homöopathischer Arzneimittel über Placeboeffekte hinaus gebe (Ernst states in all publications on homeopathy without exception that no solid suggestions exist at all for an effectiveness of homeopathic remedies). However, it is demonstrably wrong that all of my papers arrive at a negative judgement of homeopathy’s effectiveness; here are three that spring into my mind:

So, applying Behnke’s own logic outlined above, one should argue that, because I have found one error in his research, the rest of what Behnke will (perhaps one day be able to) publish cannot be trusted and therefore I am entitled to reject the lot.

That would, of course, be tantamount to adopting the stupidity of one’s own opponents. So, I will certainly not do that; instead, I will wait patiently for the sound science that Dr Behnke (and indeed the CF) might eventually produce.

 

***phraseology that is strikingly similar to that of Rudolf Hess on the same subject.

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