1 2 3 27

About 85% of German children are treated with herbal remedies. Yet, little is known about the effects of such interventions. A new study might tell us more.

This analysis accessed 2063 datasets from the paediatric population in the PhytoVIS data base, screening for information on indication, gender, treatment, co-medication and tolerability. The results suggest that the majority of patients was treated with herbal medicine for the following conditions:

  • common cold,
  • fever,
  • digestive complaints,
  • skin diseases,
  • sleep disturbances
  • anxiety.

The perceived effect of the therapy was rated in 84% of the patients as very good or good without adverse events.

The authors concluded that the results confirm the good clinical effects and safety of herbal medicinal products in this patient population and show that they are widely used in Germany.

If you are a fan of herbal medicine, you will be jubilant. If, on the other hand, you are a critical thinker or a responsible healthcare professional, you might wonder what this database is, why it was set up and how exactly these findings were produced. Here are some details:

The data were collected by means of a retrospective, anonymous, one-off survey consisting of 20 questions on the user’s experience with herbal remedies. The questions included complaints/ disease, information on drug use, concomitant factors/diseases as well as basic patient data. Trained interviewers performed the interviews in pharmacies and doctor’s offices. Data were collected in the Western Part of Germany between April 2014 and December 2016. The only inclusion criterion was the intake of herbal drugs in the last 8 weeks before the individual interview. The primary endpoint was the effect and tolerability of the products according to the user.

And who participated in this survey? If I understand it correctly, the survey is based on a convenience sample of parents using herbal remedies. This means that those parents who had a positive experience tended to volunteer, while those with a negative experience were absent or tended to refuse. (Thus the survey is not far from the scenario I often use where people in a hamburger restaurant are questioned whether they like hamburgers.)

So, there are two very obvious factors other than the effectiveness of herbal remedies determining the results:

  1. selection bias,
  2. lack of objective outcome measure.

This means that conclusions about the clinical effects of herbal remedies in paediatric patients are quite simply not possible on the basis of this survey. So, why do the authors nevertheless draw such conclusions (without a critical discussion of the limitations of their survey)?

Could it have something to do with the sponsor of the research?

The PhytoVIS study was funded by the Kooperation Phytopharmaka GbR Bonn, Germany.

Or could it have something to do with the affiliations of the paper’s authors:

1 Institute of Pharmacy, University of Leipzig, Brüderstr. 34, 04103, Leipzig, Germny.

2 Kooperation Phytopharmaka GbR, Plittersdorfer Str. 218, 573, Bonn, Germany.

3 Institute of Medical Statistics and Computational Biology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Cologne, Kerpener Str. 62, 50937, Cologne, Germany.

4 ClinNovis GmbH, Genter Str. 7, 50672, Cologne, Germany.

5 Bayer Consumer Health, Research & Development, Phytomedicines Supply and Development Center, Steigerwald Arzneimittelwerk GmbH, Havelstr. 5, 64295, Darmstadt, Germany.

6 Kooperation Phytopharmaka GbR, Plittersdorfer Str. 218, 53173, Bonn, Germany.

7 Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology, Goethe University Frankfurt, Max-von-Laue-Str. 9, 60438, Frankfurt, Germany.

8 Chair of Naturopathy, University Medicine Rostock, Ernst-Heydemann Str. 6, 18057, Rostock, Germany.


Chiropractors have a thing about treating children, babies and infants – not, I suspect, because it works but because it fills their bank accounts. To justify this abuse, they seem to go to any lengths – even to extrapolating from anecdote to evidence. This recently published case-report, for instance, described the chiropractic care of a neonate immediately post-partum who had experienced birth trauma.

The attending midwife noted the infant had an asynclitic head presentation at birth and as a result was born with an elongation of the occiput due to cranial molding, bilateral flexion at the elbows and shoulders with decreased range of motion in the cervical spine with tongue and lip tie. Oedema of the occiput with bruising was notable along with hypertonicity of cervical musculature at C1, hypertonicity (bilaterally) of the pectoral and biceps muscles, blanching and tension of lip tie, decreased suck reflex and tongue retraction with sucking, fascial restrictions at the ethmoid bones, at the occipital condyles (bilaterally), as well as at the shoulders and clavicles, bilaterally. An anterior subluxation of left sphenoid was noted.

The infant was cared for with chiropractic including a sphenobasilar adjustment. Following this adjustment, significant reduction in occipital edema was noted along with normal suck pattern and breastfeeding normalized.

The authors concluded that this case report provides supporting evidence that patients suffering from birth trauma may benefit from subluxation-based chiropractic care.

Oh no, this case report provides nothing of the sort! If anything, it shows that some chiropractors are so deluded that they even publish their cases of child abuse. The poor infant would almost certainly have developed at least as well without a chiropractor having come anywhere near him/her. And if the infant had truly been in need of treatment, then not by a chiropractor (who has no knowledge or training in diagnosing or treating a new-born), but by a proper paediatrician.

I have been sceptical about Craniosacral Therapy (CST) several times (see for instance here, here and here). Now, a new paper might change all this:

The systematic review assessed the evidence of Craniosacral Therapy (CST) for the treatment of chronic pain. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) assessing the effects of CST in chronic pain patients were eligible. Pain intensity and functional disability were the primary outcomes. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane tool.

Ten RCTs with a total of 681 patients suffering from neck and back pain, migraine, headache, fibromyalgia, epicondylitis, and pelvic girdle pain were included.

Compared to treatment as usual, CST showed greater post intervention effects on:

  • pain intensity (SMD=-0.32, 95%CI=[−0.61,-0.02])
  • disability (SMD=-0.58, 95%CI=[−0.92,-0.24]).

Compared to manual/non-manual sham, CST showed greater post intervention effects on:

  • pain intensity (SMD=-0.63, 95%CI=[−0.90,-0.37])
  • disability (SMD=-0.54, 95%CI=[−0.81,-0.28]) ;

Compared to active manual treatments, CST showed greater post intervention effects on:

  • pain intensity (SMD=-0.53, 95%CI=[−0.89,-0.16])
  • disability (SMD=-0.58, 95%CI=[−0.95,-0.21]) .

At six months, CST showed greater effects on pain intensity (SMD=-0.59, 95%CI=[−0.99,-0.19]) and disability (SMD=-0.53, 95%CI=[−0.87,-0.19]) versus sham. Secondary outcomes were all significantly more improved in CST patients than in other groups, except for six-month mental quality of life versus sham. Sensitivity analyses revealed robust effects of CST against most risk of bias domains. Five of the 10 RCTs reported safety data. No serious adverse events occurred. Minor adverse events were equally distributed between the groups.

The authors concluded that, in patients with chronic pain, this meta-analysis suggests significant and robust effects of CST on pain and function lasting up to six months. More RCTs strictly following CONSORT are needed to further corroborate the effects and safety of CST on chronic pain.

Robust effects! This looks almost convincing, particularly to an uncritical proponent of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). However, a bit of critical thinking quickly discloses numerous problems, not with this (technically well-made) review, but with the interpretation of its results and the conclusions. Let me mention a few that spring into my mind:

  1. The literature searches were concluded in August 2018; why publish the paper only in 2020? Meanwhile, there might have been further studies which would render the review outdated even on the day it was published. (I know that there are many reasons for such a delay, but a responsible journal editor must insist on an update of the searches before publication.)
  2. Comparisons to ‘treatment as usual’ do not control for the potentially important placebo effects of CST and thus tell us nothing about the effectiveness of CST per se.
  3. The same applies to comparisons to ‘active’ manual treatments and ‘non-manual’ sham (the purpose of a sham is to blind patients; a non-manual sham defies this purpose).
  4. This leaves us with exactly two trials employing a sham that might have been sufficiently credible to be able to fool patients into believing that they were receiving the verum.
  5. One of these trials (ref 44) is far too flimsy to be taken seriously: it was tiny (n=23), did not adequately blind patients, and failed to mention adverse effects (thus violating research ethics [I cannot take such trials seriously]).
  6. The other trial (ref 41) is by the same research group as the review, and the authors award themselves a higher quality score than any other of the primary studies (perhaps even correctly, because the other trials are even worse). Yet, their study has considerable weaknesses which they fail to discuss: it was small (n=54), there was no check to see whether patient-blinding was successful, and – as with all the CST studies – the therapist was, of course, no blind. The latter point is crucial, I think, because patients can easily be influenced by the therapists via verbal or non-verbal communication to report the findings favoured by the therapist. This means that the small effects seen in such studies are likely to be due to this residual bias and thus have nothing to do with the intervention per se.
  7. Despite the fact that the review findings depend critically on their own primary study, the authors of the review declared that they have no conflict of interest.

Considering all this plus the rather important fact that CST completely lacks biological plausibility, I do not think that the conclusions of the review are warranted. I much prefer the ones from my own systematic review of 2012. It included 6 RCTs (all of which were burdened with a high risk of bias) and concluded that the notion that CST is associated with more than non‐specific effects is not based on evidence from rigorous RCTs.

So, why do the review authors first go to the trouble of conducting a technically sound systematic review and meta-analysis and then fail utterly to interpret its findings critically? I might have an answer to this question. Back in 2016, I included the head of this research group, Gustav Dobos, into my ‘hall of fame’ because he is one of the many SCAM researchers who never seem to publish a negative result. This is what I then wrote about him:

Dobos seems to be an ‘all-rounder’ whose research tackles a wide range of alternative treatments. That is perhaps unremarkable – but what I do find remarkable is the impression that, whatever he researches, the results turn out to be pretty positive. This might imply one of two things, in my view:

I let my readers chose which possibility they deem to be more likely.

The aim of this review is to synthesise systematic reviews (SRs) of randomised clinical trials (RCTs) evaluating the efficacy of acupuncture to alleviate chronic pain. A total of 177 reviews of acupuncture from 1989 to 2019 met the eligibility criteria. The majority of SRs found that RCTs of acupuncture had methodological shortcomings, including inadequate statistical power with a high risk of bias. Heterogeneity between RCTs was such that meta-analysis was often inappropriate.

Having (co-) authored 13 of these SRs myself, I am impressed with the amount of work that went into this synthesis. The authors should be congratulated for doing it – and for doing it well! The paper itself differentiates the findings according to various types of pain. Here I reproduce the authors’ conclusion regarding different pain entities:

  • Evidence from SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for chronic pain associated with various medical conditions. There is no specific NICE guidance about the use of acupuncture for chronic pain conditions irrespective of aetiology or pathophysiology, although some guidance exists for specific pain conditions (see respective sections below). Guidance by NICE on chronic pain assessment and management is currently being developed (GIDNG10069) with publication expected in August 2020.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that acupuncture prevents episodic or chronic tension‐type headaches and episodic migraine, although long‐term studies and studies comparing acupuncture with other treatment options are still required. The current NICE guidance (clinical guideline CG150) is that a course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture over 5–8 weeks is recommended for tension‐type headache and migraine.
  • The most recent evidence from a Cochrane review of 16 RCTs suggests that acupuncture is not superior to sham acupuncture for OA of the hip, although in contrast, evidence from nonCochrane reviews suggests that there is moderate‐quality evidence that acupuncture may be effective in the symptomatic relief of pain from OA of the knee. Why there should be a difference in evidence between the knee and the hip is not known. Interestingly, guidance from NICE (CG177) states: “Do not offer acupuncture for the management of osteoarthritis”.
  • Evidence suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for low back pain. In 2009, NICE published guidance for the management of nonspecific low back pain that recommended a course of acupuncture as part of first line treatment. This guidance produced much debate. Subsequently, NICE have updated guidance for the management of low back pain and sciatica in people over 16 (NG59) and currently recommend in Section 1.2.8 “Do not offer acupuncture for managing low back pain with or without sciatica”, even though the evidence had not significantly changed.
  • Evidence from SRs suggests that dry needling acupuncture might be effective in alleviating pain associated with myofascial trigger points, at least in the short‐term, although there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy with any degree of certainty. There is no guidance from NICE on the management of myofascial pain syndrome.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for cancer‐related pain and more high‐quality, appropriately designed and adequately powered studies are needed. The most recent guidance from NICE (CSG4) recognises that patients who are receiving palliative care often seek complementary therapies, but it does not specifically recommend acupuncture. It recognises that “Many studies have a considerable number of methodological limitations, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions”.
  • Evidence from SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for fibromyalgia pain. There is no NICE guidance on the treatment of fibromyalgia.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for primary dysmenorrhea or chronic pelvic pain. There is NICE guidance on endometriosis (NG73) [200] but this does not recommend any form of Chinese medicine for this type of pelvic pain, although acupuncture is not specifically mentioned.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for pain in inflammatory arthritis. There is a NICE guideline (NG100) [201] for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis but this does not recommend acupuncture.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for neuropathic pain or neuralgia. There is NICE guidance (CG173) on the management of neuropathic pain, but acupuncture is not included in the list of recommended/not recommended treatments.
  • Evidence from SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for a variety of other painful conditions, including lateral elbow pain, shoulder pain and labour pain. There is no guidance available from NICE on the treatment of any of these conditions.

So, what should we make of all this?

Maybe I just point out two things:

  1. This is a most valuable addition to the literature about acupuncture. It can serve as a reference for all who are interested in an honest account of the (lack of) value of acupuncture in the management of chronic pain.
  2. If a therapy has been tested in hundreds of (sadly often flawed) trials and the conclusions fail to come out clearly in favour of it, it is most likely not a very effective treatment.

Until we have data to the contrary, acupuncture should not be considered to be an effective therapy for chronic pain management.

Many patients with chronic pain (CP) are prescribed opioids, a situation which has led to the much-discussed opioid crisis. Integrative medicine (IM), which combines pharmacological and so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), has been proposed as a solution. Yet, the role of SCAM therapies in reducing opioid use remains unclear.

This systematic review explored the effectiveness of the IM approach or any of the SCAM therapies to reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients. Electronic searches yielded 5,200 citations. Twenty-three studies were selected. Eight studies were randomized controlled trials, seven were retrospective studies, four studies were prospective observational, three were cross-sectional, and one was quasi-experimental. The majority of the studies showed that opioid use was reduced significantly after using IM/SCAM. Cannabinoids were among the most commonly investigated approaches in reducing opioid use, followed by multidisciplinary approaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acupuncture. The majority of the studies had limitations related to sample size, duration, and study design.

The authors concluded that there is a small but defined body of literature demonstrating positive preliminary evidence that the IM approach including SCAM therapies can help in reducing opioid use. As the opioid crisis continues to grow, it is vital that clinicians and patients be adequately informed regarding the evidence and opportunities for IM/SCAM therapies for CP.

I am unimpressed by this review.

And here is why:

  1. Because of their design, most of the included studies do not allow any conclusions about cause and effect.
  2. The 8 RCTs that would allow such conclusions are mostly of poor quality.
  3. Some of the 8 RCTs are not even what the review authors claim to be. Here is just one example:

Background: Current levels and dangers of opioid use in the U.S. warrant the investigation of harm-reducing treatment alternatives.

Purpose: A preliminary, historical, cohort study was used to examine the association between enrollment in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program (MCP) and opioid prescription use.

Methods: Thirty-seven habitual opioid using, chronic pain patients (mean age = 54 years; 54% male; 86% chronic back pain) enrolled in the MCP between 4/1/2010 and 10/3/2015 were compared to 29 non-enrolled patients (mean age = 60 years; 69% male; 100% chronic back pain). We used Prescription Monitoring Program opioid records over a 21 month period (first three months prior to enrollment for the MCP patients) to measure cessation (defined as the absence of opioid prescriptions activity during the last three months of observation) and reduction (calculated in average daily intravenous [IV] morphine dosages). MCP patient-reported benefits and side effects of using cannabis one year after enrollment were also collected.

Results: By the end of the 21 month observation period, MCP enrollment was associated with 17.27 higher age- and gender-adjusted odds of ceasing opioid prescriptions (CI 1.89 to 157.36, p = 0.012), 5.12 higher odds of reducing daily prescription opioid dosages (CI 1.56 to 16.88, p = 0.007), and a 47 percentage point reduction in daily opioid dosages relative to a mean change of positive 10.4 percentage points in the comparison group (CI -90.68 to -3.59, p = 0.034). The monthly trend in opioid prescriptions over time was negative among MCP patients (-0.64mg IV morphine, CI -1.10 to -0.18, p = 0.008), but not statistically different from zero in the comparison group (0.18mg IV morphine, CI -0.02 to 0.39, p = 0.081). Survey responses indicated improvements in pain reduction, quality of life, social life, activity levels, and concentration, and few side effects from using cannabis one year after enrollment in the MCP (ps<0.001).

Conclusions: The clinically and statistically significant evidence of an association between MCP enrollment and opioid prescription cessation and reductions and improved quality of life warrants further investigations on cannabis as a potential alternative to prescription opioids for treating chronic pain.

This study is evidently NOT an RCT!

Most of the 8 RCTs investigate whether SCAM is useful for weaning opioid-dependent patients off their drug. To equate this with the question whether IM/SCAM can reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients is, I think, wrong. The way to reduce opioid use in CP patients is to prescribe less opioids. And for prescribing less opioids, we need no SCAM but we need to remember what we learned in medical school: opioids are not for routine treatment of CP!

So, why do the authors of this review try to mislead us?

Could it have something to do with some of their affiliations and the bias that goes with it?

  • Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, North York, Ontario, Canada.
  • Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia.
  • Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, San Diego, California, USA.

What do you think?

So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) could easily be described as a business that exists mainly because it profits from the flaws of conventional medicine. I know, this is not a good definition, and I don’t want to suggest it as one, but I think it highlights an important aspect of SCAM.

Let me explain.

If we ask ourselves why consumers feel attracted to SCAM, we can identify a range of reasons, and several of them relate to the weaknesses of conventional medicine as it is practised today. For instance:

  1.  People feel the need to have more time with their clinician in order to discuss their problems more fully. This means that their GP does not offer them sufficient time, empathy and compassion they crave.
  2.  Patients are weary of the side-effects of drugs and prefer treatments that are gentle and safe. This shows that they realise that conventional medicine can cause harm and they hope to avoid this risk.
  3.  Patients find it often hard to accept that their symptoms are ‘nothing to worry about’ and does not require any treatment at all. They prefer to hear that the clinician knows exactly what is wrong and can offer a therapy that puts it right.

Conventional medicine and the professionals who administer it have many flaws. Most doctors have such busy schedules that there is little time for building an empathetic therapeutic relationship with their patients. Thus they often palm them off with a prescription and fail to discuss the risks in sufficient detail. Even worse, they sometimes prescribe drugs in situations where none are needed and where a reassuring discussion would be more helpful. It is too easy to excuse such behaviours with work pressures; such flaws are serious and cannot be brushed under the carpet in this way.

Recently, the flawed behaviour of doctors has become the focus of media attention in the form of

  • opioid over-prescribing
  • over-use of anti-biotics.

In both cases, SCAM providers were quick to offer the solution.

  • Acupuncturists and chiropractors claim that their treatments are sensible alternatives to opioids. Yet, there is no good evidence that either acupuncture or chiropractic have analgesic effects that are remotely comparable to those of opioids. They only are seemingly successful in cases where opioids were not needed in the first place.
  • Homeopaths claim that their remedies can easily replace antibiotics. Yet, there is not a jot of evidence that homeopathics have antibiotic activity. They only are seemingly successful in cases where the antibiotic was not needed in the first place.

In both instances, SCAM is trying to profit from the weaknesses of conventional medicine. In both cases, the offered solutions are clearly bogus. Yet, in both cases, scientifically illiterate politicians are seriously considering the alleged solutions. Few seem to be smart enough to take a step backwards and contemplate the only viable solution to these problems. If doctors over-prescribe, they need to be stopped; and the best way to stop them is to give them adequate support, more time with their patients and adequate recognition of the importance of reassuring and talking to patients when they need it.

To put it differently:

The best way to reduce the use of bogus SCAMs is to make conventional medicine less flawed.

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.


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.

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


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.

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