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

causation

In 2005, I published a systematic review of ophthalmic adverse effects after spinal manipulations. At the time, I found 14 case reports. Clinical symptoms and signs were diverse and included loss of vision, ophthalmoplegia, diplopia and Horner’s syndrome. The underlying mechanism was arterial wall dissection in most cases. The eventual outcome varied and often included permanent deficits. Causality was frequently deemed likely or certain.

I concluded that upper spinal manipulation is associated with ophthalmological adverse effects of unknown frequency. Ophthalmologists should be aware of its risks. Rigorous investigations must be conducted to establish reliable incidence figures.

Now a new article has emerged that throws more light on this issue:

A 46-year-old healthy male with a history of chronic musculoskeletal neck pain presented to the emergency department with left sided weakness after a syncopal episode. The patient had been treated with frequent chiropractic neck manipulations over the past seven years, with his last session one month prior to presentation. One week prior to presentation, the patient developed a new headache, anisocoria, and ptosis of his right upper eyelid. Computed tomography angiography (CTA) of the head and neck showed an internal carotid occlusion with right middle cerebral artery zone of ischemia, and tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) was administered. Subsequently, the patient experienced vision loss in his right eye. MRI and CTA were repeated, revealing a right ICA dissection from below the ophthalmic artery to the posterior communicating artery. On examination, vision in the right eye was no light perception (NLP) and the pupil was amaurotic. Fundus exam showed vascular attenuation, severe pallor of the optic nerve and retina, without a cherry red spot. A diagnosis of ophthalmic artery occlusion was made.

Inpatient workup revealed no stroke risk factors, and he was discharged on aspirin and clopidogrel therapy. Follow up imaging showed re-cannulation of the ICA, although vision remained NLP at outpatient evaluation the following month. Macular spectral domain optical coherence tomography (SDOCT) showed hyperreflectivity of the inner retina diffusely and of the outer retina and retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) centrally. Fluorescein angiography revealed patchy choroidal filling, delayed arterial filling, and macular nonperfusion. Three months after presentation, vision had improved to light perception, and remains stable at one year after the dissection.

Central retinal artery occlusion (CRAO) has been previously described after neck manipulation; however, these cases have been attributed to a dislodged embolic plaque rather than arterial dissection as in this case. Carotid artery dissection after neck manipulation is rare, although the exact incidence is unknown, and may be fatal.

The authors of this case report concluded that internal carotid artery dissection in this case was permanently devastating to the vision of a previously healthy young patient.

What follows is simple:

  1. upper spinal manipulations have no or very little proven benefit;
  2. they are associated with a finite risk;
  3. thus, their risk/benefit balance fails to be positive;
  4. consequently, upper spinal manipulations cannot be recommended as a treatment of any condition.

Personally, I find our good friend Dana Ullman truly priceless. There are several reasons for that; one is that he is often so exemplarily wrong that it helps me to explain fundamental things more clearly. With a bit of luck, this might enable me to better inform people who might be thinking a bit like Dana. In this sense, our good friend Dana has significant educational value.

Recently, he made this comment:

According to present and former editors of THE LANCET and the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE, “evidence based medicine” can no longer be trusted. There is obviously no irony in Ernst and his ilk “banking” on “evidence” that has no firm footing except their personal belief systems: https://medium.com/@drjasonfung/the-corruption-of-evidence-based-medicine-killing-for-profit-41f2812b8704

Ernst is a fundamentalist whose God is reductionistic science, a 20th century model that has little real meaning today…but this won’t stop the new attacks on me personally…

END OF COMMENT

Where to begin?

Let’s start with some definitions.

  • Evidence is the body of facts that leads to a given conclusion. Because the outcomes of treatments such as homeopathy depend on a multitude of factors, the evidence for or against their effectiveness is best based not on experience but on clinical trials and systematic reviews of clinical trials (this is copied from my book).
  • EBM is the integration of best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values. It thus rests on three pillars: external evidence, ideally from systematic reviews, the clinician’s experience, and the patient’s preferences (and this is from another book).

Few people would argue that EBM, as it is applied currently, is without fault. Certainly I would not suggest that; I even used to give lectures about the limitations of EBM, and many experts (who are much wiser than I) have written about the many problems with EBM. It is important to note that such criticism demonstrates the strength of modern medicine and not its weakness, as Dana seems to think: it is a sign of a healthy debate aimed at generating progress. And it is noteworthy that internal criticism of this nature is largely absent in alternative medicine.

The criticism of EBM is often focussed on the unreliability of the what I called above the ‘best research evidence’. Let me therefore repeat what I wrote about it on this blog in 2012:

… The multifactorial nature of any clinical response requires controlling for all the factors that might determine the outcome other than the treatment per se. Ideally, we would need to create a situation or an experiment where two groups of patients are exposed to the full range of factors, and the only difference is that one group does receive the treatment, while the other one does not. And this is precisely the model of a controlled clinical trial.

Such studies are designed to minimise all possible sources of bias and confounding. By definition, they have a control group which means that we can, at the end of the treatment period, compare the effects of the treatment in question with those of another intervention, a placebo or no treatment at all.

Many different variations of the controlled trial exist so that the exact design can be adapted to the requirements of the particular treatment and the specific research question at hand. The over-riding principle is, however, always the same: we want to make sure that we can reliably determine whether or not the treatment was the cause of the clinical outcome.

Causality is the key in all of this; and here lies the crucial difference between clinical experience and scientific evidence. What clinician witness in their routine practice can have a myriad of causes; what scientists observe in a well-designed efficacy trial is, in all likelihood, caused by the treatment. The latter is evidence, while the former is not.

Don’t get me wrong; clinical trials are not perfect. They can have many flaws and have rightly been criticised for a myriad of inherent limitations. But it is important to realise that, despite all their short-comings, they are far superior than any other method for determining the efficacy of medical interventions.

There are lots of reasons why a trial can generate an incorrect, i.e. a false positive or a false negative result. We therefore should avoid relying on the findings of a single study. Independent replications are usually required before we can be reasonably sure.

Unfortunately, the findings of these replications do not always confirm the results of the previous study. Whenever we are faced with conflicting results, it is tempting to cherry-pick those studies which seem to confirm our prior belief – tempting but very wrong. In order to arrive at the most reliable conclusion about the efficacy of any treatment, we need to consider the totality of the reliable evidence. This goal is best achieved by conducting a systematic review.

In a systematic review, we assess the quality and quantity of the available evidence, try to synthesise the findings and arrive at an overall verdict about the efficacy of the treatment in question. Technically speaking, this process minimises selection and random biases. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses [these are systematic reviews that pool the data of individual studies] therefore constitute, according to a consensus of most experts, the best available evidence for or against the efficacy of any treatment.

END OF QUOTE

Other criticism is aimed at the way EBM is currently used (and abused). This criticism is often justified and necessary, and it is again the expression of our efforts to generate progress. EBM is practised by humans; and humans are far from perfect. They can be corrupt, misguided, dishonest, sloppy, negligent, stupid, etc., etc. Sadly, that means that the practice of EBM can have all of these qualities as well. All we can do is to keep on criticising malpractice, educate people, and hope that this might prevent the worst abuses in future.

Dana and many of his fellow SCAMers have a different strategy; they claim that EBM “can no longer be trusted” (interestingly they never tell us what system might be better; eminence-based medicine? experience-based medicine? random-based medicine? Dana-based medicine?).

The claim that EBM can no longer be trusted is clearly not true, counter-productive and unethical; and I suspect they know it.

Why then do they make it?

Because they feel that it entitles them to argue that homeopathy (or any other form of SCAM) cannot be held to EBM-standards. If EBM is unreliable, surely, nobody can ask the ‘Danas of this world’ to provide anything like sound data!!! And that, of course, would be just dandy for business, wouldn’t it?

So, let’s not be deterred  or misled by these deliberately destructive people. Their motives are transparent and their arguments are nonsensical. EBM is not flawless, but with our continued efforts it will improve. Or, to repeat something that I have said many times before: EBM is the worst form of healthcare, except for all other known options.

Remember when an international delegation of homeopaths travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola?

Virologists and other experts thought at the time that this was pure madness. But, from the perspective of dedicated homeopaths who have gone through ‘proper’ homeopathic ‘education’ and have the misfortune to believe all the nonsense they have been told, this is not madness. In fact, the early boom of homeopathy, about 200 years ago, was based not least on the seemingly resounding success homeopaths had during various epidemics.

I fully understand that homeopath adore this type of evidence – it is good for their ego! And therefore, they tend to dwell on it and re-hash it time and again. The most recent evidence for this is a brand-new article entitled ‘Homeopathic Prevention and Management of Epidemic Diseases’. It is such a beauty that I present you the original abstract without change:

START OF QUOTE

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Homeopathy has been used to treat epidemic diseases since the time of Hahnemann, who used Belladonna to treat scarlet fever. Since then, several approaches using homeopathy for epidemic diseases have been proposed, including individualization, combination remedies, genus epidemicus, and isopathy.

METHODS:

The homeopathic research literature was searched to find examples of each of these approaches and to evaluate which were effective.

RESULTS:

There is good experimental evidence for each of these approaches. While individualization is the gold standard, it is impractical to use on a widespread basis. Combination remedies can be effective but must be based on the symptoms of a given epidemic in a specific location. Treatment with genus epidemicus can also be successful if based on data from many practitioners. Finally, isopathy shows promise and might be more readily accepted by mainstream medicine due to its similarity to vaccination.

CONCLUSION:

Several different homeopathic methods can be used to treat epidemic diseases. The challenge for the future is to refine these approaches and to build on the knowledge base with additional rigorous trials. If and when conventional medicine runs out of options for treating epidemic diseases, homeopathy could be seen as an attractive alternative, but only if there is viable experimental evidence of its success.

END OF QUOTE

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I don’t need to stress, I think, that such articles are highly irresponsible and frightfully dangerous: if anyone ever took the message that homeopathy has the answer to epidemic seriously, millions might die.

The reasons why epidemiological evidence of this nature is wrong has been discussed before on this blog; I therefore only need to repeat them:

In the typical epidemiological case/control study, one large group of patients [A] is retrospectively compared to another group [B]. In our case, group A has been treated homeopathically, while group B received the treatments available at the time. It is true that several of such reports seemed to suggest that homeopathy works. But this does by no means prove anything; the result might have been due to a range of circumstances, for instance:

  • group A might have been less ill than group B,
  • group A might have been richer and therefore better nourished,
  • group A might have benefitted from better hygiene in the homeopathic hospital,
  • group A might have received better care, e. g. hydration,
  • group B might have received treatments that made the situation not better but worse.

Because these are RETROSPECTIVE studies, there is no way to account for these and many other factors that might have influenced the outcome. This means that epidemiological studies of this nature can generate interesting results which, in turn, need testing in properly controlled studies where these confounding factors are adequately controlled for. Without such tests, they are next to worthless for recommendations regarding clinical practice.

In essence, this means that epidemiological evidence of this type can be valuable for generating hypotheses which, in turn, need testing in rigorous clinical trials. Without these tests, the evidence can be dangerously misleading.

But, of course, Jennifer Jacobs, the author of the new article, knows all this – after all, she has been employed for many years by the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States!

In this case, why does she re-hash the old myth of homeopathy being the answer to epidemics?

I do not know the answer to this question, but I do know that she is a convinced homeopath with plenty of papers on the subject.

And what sort of journal would publish such dangerous, deeply unethical rubbish?

It is a journal we have discussed several before; its called HOMEOPATHY.

This journal is, I think, remarkable: not even homeopaths would deny that homeopathy is a most controversial subject. One would therefore expect that the editorial board of the leading journal of homeopathy (Impact Factor = 1.16) has a few members who are critical of homeopathy and its assumptions. Yet, I fail to spot a single such person of the board of HOMEOPATHY. Please have a look yourself and tell me, if you can identify such an individual:

Editor

Peter Fisher
FRCP, FFHom, London, UK

Senior Deputy Editor

Robert T. Mathie
BSc (Hons), PhD, London, UK

Deputy Editors

Leoni Bonamin
Paulista University, São Paulo, Brazil

Menachem Oberbaum
Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel

Ethics Adviser

Kate Chatfield
University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

Editorial Advisory Board

Cees Baas
Centre for Integrative Psychiatry, Groningen, The Netherlands

Stephan Baumgartner
University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany

Iris R. Bell
University of Arizona, USA

Jayesh Bellare
Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India

Philippe Belon
Centre de Recherche et de Documentation Thérapeutique, France

Brian Berman
University of Maryland, School of Medicine, USA

Martien Brands
Centre for Integrative Care, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Michael Carlston
University of California, Santa Rosa, USA

Kusum S. Chand
Pushpanjali Crosslay Hospital, Ghaziabad, India

Martin Chaplin
London South Bank University, UK

Flávio Dantas
University of Uberlândia, Brazil

Peter Darby
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

Jonathan Davidson
Duke University, USA

Jean-Louis Demangeat
Haguenau Hospital, France

Christian Endler
Interuniversity College Graz/Castle of Seggau, Austria

Madeleine Ennis
Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Edoardo Felisi
Milan, Italy

Peter Gregory
Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

German Guajardo-Bernal
University of Baja California, Mexico

Carla Holandino Quaresma
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Jennifer Jacobs
University of Washington, USA

Wayne Jonas
Samueli Institute, Alexandria, USA

Lee Kayne
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

Steven Kayne
Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, UK

David Lilley
Pretoria, South Africa

Klaus Linde
Technical University, Munich, Germany

Russell Malcolm
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

Raj K. Manchanda
Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, New Delhi, India

David Peters
University of Westminster, London, UK

Bernard Poitevin
Association Française pour la Recherche en Homéopathie, France

David Reilly
Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, UK

David Riley
Integrative Medicine Institute, Portland, USA

ALB Rutten
Breda, The Netherlands

Jürgen Schulte
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

Trevor Thompson
University of Bristol, UK

André Thurneysen
Centre de médecines intégrées, Switzerland

Alexander Tournier
Homeopathy Research Institute, UK

Francis Treuherz
London, UK

Robbert van Haselen
International Institute for Integrated Medicine, Kingston, UK

Michel Van Wassenhoven
Unio Homeopathica Belgica, Belgium

Harald Walach
University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany

Fred Wiegant
University of Utrecht, The Netherlands

___________________________________________________________________________

I rest my case.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END OF QUOTE

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

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

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

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

Not really, it’s too obvious.

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

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

One thing one cannot say about George Vithoulkas, the ueber-guru of homeopathy, is that he is not as good as his word. Last year, he announced that he would focus on publishing case reports that would convince us all that homeopathy is effective:

…the only evidence that homeopathy can present to the scientific world at this moment are these thousands of cured cases. It is a waste of time, money, and energy to attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy through double blind trials.

… the international “scientific” community, which has neither direct perception nor personal experience of the beneficial effects of homeopathy, is forced to repeat the same old mantra: “Where is the evidence? Show us the evidence!” … the successes of homeopathy have remained hidden in the offices of hardworking homeopaths – and thus go largely ignored by the world’s medical authorities, governments, and the whole international scientific community…

… simple questions that are usually asked by the “gnorant”, for example, “Can homeopathy cure cancer, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, etc.?” are invalid and cannot elicit a direct answer because the reality is that many such cases can be ameliorated significantly, and a number can be cured…

And focussing on successful cases is just what the great Vithoulkas now does.

Together with homeopaths from the  Centre for Classical Homeopathy, Vijayanagar, Bangalore, India, Vithoulkas has recently published a retrospective case series of 10 Indian patients who were diagnosed with dengue fever and treated exclusively with homeopathic remedies at Bangalore, India. This case series demonstrates with evidence of laboratory reports that even when the platelets dropped considerably there was good result without resorting to any other means.

The homeopaths concluded that a need for further, larger studies is indicated by this evidence, to precisely define the role of homeopathy in treating dengue fever. This study also emphasises the importance of individualised treatment during an epidemic for favourable results with homeopathy.

Bravo!

Keeping one’s promise must be a good thing.

But how meaningful are these 10 cases?

Dengue is a viral infection which, in the vast majority of cases, takes a benign course. After about two weeks, patients tend to be back to normal, even if they receive no treatment at all. In other words, the above-quoted case series is an exact description of the natural history of the condition. To put it even more bluntly: if these patients would have been treated with kind attention and good general care, the outcome would not have been one iota different.

To me, this means that “to precisely define the role of homeopathy in treating dengue fever” would be a waste of resources. It’s role is already clear: there is no role of homeopathy in the treatment of this (or any other) condition.

Sorry George.

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

Here is the full and unaltered abstract of the study:

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

END OF QUOTE

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

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

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

Have you ever wondered whether doctors who practice homeopathy are different from those who don’t.

Silly question, of course they are! But how do they differ?

Having practised homeopathy myself during my very early days as a physician, I have often thought about this issue. My personal (and not very flattering) impressions were noted in my memoir where I describe my experience working in a German homeopathic hospital:

some of my colleagues used homeopathy and other alternative approaches because they could not quite cope with the often exceedingly high demands of conventional medicine. It is almost understandable that, if a physician was having trouble comprehending the multifactorial causes and mechanisms of disease and illness, or for one reason or another could not master the equally complex process of reaching a diagnosis or finding an effective therapy, it might be tempting instead to employ notions such as dowsing, homeopathy or acupuncture, whose theoretical basis, unsullied by the inconvenient absolutes of science, was immeasurably more easy to grasp. 

Some of my colleagues in the homeopathic hospital were clearly not cut out to be “real” doctors. Even a very junior doctor like me could not help noticing this somewhat embarrassing fact… 

But this is anecdote and not evidence!

So, where is the evidence?

It was published last week and made headlines in many UK daily papers.

Our study was aimed at finding out whether English GP practices that prescribe any homeopathic preparations might differ in their prescribing of other drugs. We identified practices that made any homeopathy prescriptions over six months of data. We measured associations with four prescribing and two practice quality indicators using multivariable logistic regression.

Only 8.5% of practices (644) prescribed homeopathy between December 2016 and May 2017. Practices in the worst-scoring quartile for a composite measure of prescribing quality were 2.1 times more likely to prescribe homeopathy than those in the best category. Aggregate savings from the subset of these measures where a cost saving could be calculated were also strongly associated. Of practices spending the most on medicines identified as ‘low value’ by NHS England, 12.8% prescribed homeopathy, compared to 3.9% for lowest spenders. Of practices in the worst category for aggregated price-per-unit cost savings, 12.7% prescribed homeopathy, compared to 3.5% in the best category. Practice quality outcomes framework scores and patient recommendation rates were not associated with prescribing homeopathy.

We concluded that even infrequent homeopathy prescribing is strongly associated with poor performance on a range of prescribing quality measures, but not with overall patient recommendation or quality outcomes framework score. The association is unlikely to be a direct causal relationship, but may reflect underlying practice features, such as the extent of respect for evidence-based practice, or poorer stewardship of the prescribing budget.

Since our study was reported in almost all of the UK newspapers, it comes as no surprise that, in the interest of ‘journalistic balance’, homeopaths were invited to give their ‘expert’ opinions on our work.

Margaret Wyllie, head of the British Homeopathic Association, was quoted commenting: “This is another example of how real patient experience and health outcomes are so often discounted, when in actuality they should be the primary driver for research to improve our NHS services. This study provides no useful evidence about homeopathy, or about prescribing, and gives absolutely no data that can improve the health of people in the UK.”

The Faculty of Homeopathy was equally unhappy about our study and stated: “The study did not include any measures of patient outcomes, so it doesn’t tell us how the use of homeopathy in English general practice correlates with patients doing well or badly, nor with how many drugs they use.”

Cristal Summer from the Society of Homeopathy said that our research was just a rubbish bit of a study.

Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath and the president of the Faculty of Homeopathy, stated: “We don’t know if these measures correlate with what matters to patients – whether they get better and have side-effects.”

A study aimed at determining whether GP practices that prescribe homeopathic preparations differ in their prescribing habits from those that do not prescribe homeopathics can hardly address these questions, Peter. A test of washing machines can hardly tell us much about the punctuality of trains. And an investigation into the risks of bungee jumping will not inform us about the benefits of regular exercise. Call me biased, but to me these comments indicate mainly one thing: HOMEOPATHS SEEM TO HAVE GREAT DIFFICULTIES UNDERSTANDING SCIENTIFIC PAPERS.

I much prefer the witty remarks of Catherine Bennett in yesterday’s Observer: Homeopath-GPs, naturally, have mustered in response and challenge Goldacre’s findings, with a concern for methodology that could easily give the impression that there is some evidential basis for their parallel system, beyond the fact that the Prince of Wales likes it. In fairness to Charles, his upbringing is to blame. But what is the doctors’ excuse?

Amongst all the implausible treatments to be found under the umbrella of ‘alternative medicine’, Reiki might be one of the worst, i. e. least plausible and outright bizarre (see for instance here, here and here). But this has never stopped enthusiasts from playing scientists and conducting some more pseudo-science.

This new study examined the immediate symptom relief from a single reiki or massage session in a hospitalized population at a rural academic medical centre. It was designed as a retrospective analysis of prospectively collected data on demographic, clinical, process, and quality of life for hospitalized patients receiving massage therapy or reiki. Hospitalized patients requesting or referred to the healing arts team received either a massage or reiki session and completed pre- and post-therapy symptom questionnaires. Differences between pre- and post-sessions in pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being were recorded using an 11-point Likert scale.

Patients reported symptom relief with both reiki and massage therapy. Reiki improved fatigue and anxiety  more than massage. Pain, nausea, depression, and well being changes were not different between reiki and massage encounters. Immediate symptom relief was similar for cancer and non-cancer patients for both reiki and massage therapy and did not vary based on age, gender, length of session, and baseline symptoms.

The authors concluded that reiki and massage clinically provide similar improvements in pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being while reiki improved fatigue and anxiety more than massage therapy in a heterogeneous hospitalized patient population. Controlled trials should be considered to validate the data.

Don’t I just adore this little addendum to the conclusions, “controlled trials should be considered to validate the data” ?

The thing is, there is nothing to validate here!

The outcomes are not due to the specific effects of Reiki or massage; they are almost certainly caused by:

  • the extra attention,
  • the expectation of patients,
  • the verbal or non-verbal suggestions of the therapists,
  • the regression towards the mean,
  • the natural history of the condition,
  • the concomitant therapies administered in parallel,
  • the placebo effect,
  • social desirability.

Such pseudo-research only can only serve one purpose: to mislead (some of) us into thinking that treatments such as Reiki might work.

What journal would be so utterly devoid of critical analysis to publish such unethical nonsense?

Ahh … it’s our old friend the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine

Say no more!

I have often criticised papers published by chiropractors.

Not today!

This article is excellent and I therefore quote extensively from it.

The objective of this systematic review was to investigate, if there is any evidence that spinal manipulations/chiropractic care can be used in primary prevention (PP) and/or early secondary prevention in diseases other than musculoskeletal conditions. The authors conducted extensive literature searches to locate all studies in this area. Of the 13.099 titles scrutinized, 13 articles were included (8 clinical studies and 5 population studies). They dealt with various disorders of public health importance such as diastolic blood pressure, blood test immunological markers, and mortality. Only two clinical studies could be used for data synthesis. None showed any effect of spinal manipulation/chiropractic treatment.

The authors concluded that they found no evidence in the literature of an effect of chiropractic treatment in the scope of PP or early secondary prevention for disease in general. Chiropractors have to assume their role as evidence-based clinicians and the leaders of the profession must accept that it is harmful to the profession to imply a public health importance in relation to the prevention of such diseases through manipulative therapy/chiropractic treatment.

In addition to this courageous conclusion (the paper is authored by a chiropractor and published in a chiro journal), the authors make the following comments:

Beliefs that a spinal subluxation can cause a multitude of diseases and that its removal can prevent them is clearly at odds with present-day concepts, as the aetiology of most diseases today is considered to be multi-causal, rarely mono-causal. It therefore seems naïve when chiropractors attempt to control the combined effects of environmental, social, biological including genetic as well as noxious lifestyle factors through the simple treatment of the spine. In addition, there is presently no obvious emphasis on the spine and the peripheral nervous system as the governing organ in relation to most pathologies of the human body.

The ‘subluxation model’ can be summarized through several concepts, each with its obvious weakness. According to the first three, (i) disturbances in the spine (frequently called ‘subluxations’) exist and (ii) these can cause a multitude of diseases. (iii) These subluxations can be detected in a chiropractic examination, even before symptoms arise. However, to date, the subluxation has been elusive, as there is no proof for its existence. Statements that there is a causal link between subluxations and various diseases should therefore not be made. The fourth and fifth concepts deal with the treatment, namely (iv) that chiropractic adjustments can remove subluxations, (v) resulting in improved health status. However, even if there were an improvement of a condition following treatment, this does not mean that the underlying theory is correct. In other words, any improvement may or may not be caused by the treatment, and even if so, it does not automatically validate the underlying theory that subluxations cause disease…

Although at first look there appears to be a literature on this subject, it is apparent that most authors lack knowledge in research methodology. The two methodologically acceptable studies in our review were found in PubMed, whereas most of the others were identified in the non-indexed literature. We therefore conclude that it may not be worthwhile in the future to search extensively the non-indexed chiropractic literature for high quality research articles.

One misunderstanding requires some explanations; case reports are usually not considered suitable evidence for effect of treatment, even if the cases relate to patients who ‘recovered’ with treatment. The reasons for this are multiple, such as:

  • Individual cases, usually picked out on the basis of their uniqueness, do not reflect general patterns.
  • Individual successful cases, even if correctly interpreted must be validated in a ‘proper’ research design, which usually means that presumed effect must be tested in a properly powered and designed randomized controlled trial.
  • One or two successful cases may reflect a true but very unusual recovery, and such cases are more likely to be written up and published as clinicians do not take the time to marvel over and spend time on writing and publishing all the other unsuccessful treatment attempts.
  • Recovery may be co-incidental, caused by some other aspect in the patient’s life or it may simply reflect the natural course of the disease, such as natural remission or the regression towards the mean, which in human physiology means that low values tend to increase and high values decrease over time.
  • Cases are usually captured at the end because the results indicate success, meaning that the clinical file has to be reconstructed, because tests were used for clinical reasons and not for research reasons (i.e. recorded by the treating clinician during an ordinary clinical session) and therefore usually not objective and reproducible.
  • The presumed results of the treatment of the disease is communicated from the patient to the treating clinician and not to a third, neutral person and obviously this link is not blinded, so the clinician is both biased in favour of his own treatment and aware of which treatment was given, and so is the patient, which may result in overly positive reporting. The patient wants to please the sympathetic clinician and the clinician is proud of his own work and overestimates the results.
  • The long-term effects are usually not known.
  • Further, and most importantly, there is no control group, so it is impossible to compare the results to an untreated or otherwise treated person or group of persons.

Nevertheless, it is common to see case reports in some research journals and in communities with readers/practitioners without a firmly established research culture it is often considered a good thing to ‘start’ by publishing case reports.

Case reports are useful for other reasons, such as indicating the need for further clinical studies in a specific patient population, describing a clinical presentation or treatment approach, explaining particular procedures, discussing cases, and referring to the evidence behind a clinical process, but they should not be used to make people believe that there is an effect of treatment…

For groups of chiropractors, prevention of disease through chiropractic treatment makes perfect sense, yet the credible literature is void of evidence thereof. Still, the majority of chiropractors practising this way probably believe that there is plenty of evidence in the literature. Clearly, if the chiropractic profession wishes to maintain credibility, it is time seriously to face this issue. Presently, there seems to be no reason why political associations and educational institutions should recommend spinal care to prevent disease in general, unless relevant and acceptable research evidence can be produced to support such activities. In order to be allowed to continue this practice, proper and relevant research is therefore needed…

All chiropractors who want to update their knowledge or to have an evidence-based practice will search new information on the internet. If they are not trained to read the scientific literature, they might trust any article. In this situation, it is logical that the ‘believers’ will choose ‘attractive’ articles and trust the results, without checking the quality of the studies. It is therefore important to educate chiropractors to become relatively competent consumers of research, so they will not assume that every published article is a verity in itself…

END OF QUOTES

YES, YES YES!!!

I am so glad that some experts within the chiropractic community are now publishing statements like these.

This was long overdue.

How was it possible that so many chiropractors so far failed to become competent consumers of research?

Do they and their professional organisations not know that this is deeply unethical?

Actually, I fear they do and did so for a long time.

Why then did they not do anything about it ages ago?

I fear, the answer is as easy as it is disappointing:

If chiropractors systematically trained to become research-competent, the chiropractic profession would cease to exist; they would become a limited version of physiotherapists. There is simply not enough positive evidence to justify chiropractic. In other words, as chiropractic wants to survive, it has little choice other than remaining ignorant of the current best evidence.

I hear this argument so regularly that it might be worth analysing it (yet again) a bit closer.

It is used with the deepest of convictions by proponents of all sorts of quackery who point out that science does not know or explain everything – and certainly not their (very special) therapy. Science is just not sophisticated enough, they say; in fact, a few years ago, it could not even explain how Aspirin works. And just like Aspirin, their very special therapy – let’s call it energy healing (EH) for the sake of this post – does definitely and evidently work. There even is ample proof:

  • Patients get better after using EH, and surely patients don’t lie.
  • Patients pay for EH, and who would pay for something that does not work?
  • EH has survived hundreds of years, and ineffective therapies don’t.
  • EH practitioners have tons of experience and therefore know best.
  • They are respected by very important people and organisations.
  • EH is even reimbursed by some insurance companies.

You have all heard the argument, I’m sure.

How to respond?

The ‘proofs’ listed above are simply fallacies; as such they do not need more detailed discussions, I hope.

But how can we refute the notion that science is not yet sufficiently advanced to explain EH?

The simplest approach might be to explain that science has already tested EH and found it to be ineffective. There really is nothing more to say. And the often-quoted example of Aspirin does clearly not wash. True, a few decades ago, we did not know how it worked. But we always knew that it worked because we conducted clinical trials, and they generated positive results. These findings we the main reasons why scientists wanted to find out how it works, and eventually they did (and even got a Nobel Prize for it). Had the clinical trials not shown effectiveness, nobody would have been interested in alleged mechanisms of action.

With EH, things are different. Rigorous clinical trials of EH have been conducted, and the totality of this evidence fails to show that EH works. Therefore, chasing after a mechanism of action would be silly and wasteful. It’s true, science cannot explain EH, but this is not because it is not yet sophisticated enough; it is because there is nothing to explain. EH has been disproven, and waffling about ‘science is not yet able to explain it’ is either a deliberate lie or a serious delusion.

So far so good. But what if EH had not been submitted to clinical trials?

In such cases, the above line of argument would not work very well.

For instance, as far as I know, there is not a single rigorous clinical trial of crystal healing (CH). Does that mean that perhaps CH-proponents are correct when claiming that it does evidently work and science simply cannot yet understand how?

No, I don’t think so.

Like most of the untested alternative therapies, CH is not based on plausible assumptions. In fact, the implausibility of the underlying assumptions is the reason why such treatments have not and probably never will be submitted to rigorous clinical trials. Why should anyone waste his time and our money running expensive tests on something that is so extremely unlikely? Arguably doing so would even be unethical.

With highly implausible therapies we need no trials, and we do not need to fear that science is not yet sufficiently advance to explain them. In fact, science is sufficiently advanced to be certain that there can be no explanation that is in line with the known laws of nature.

Sadly, some truly deluded fans of CH might still not be satisfied and respond to our reasoning that we need a ‘paradigm shift’. They might say that science cannot explain CH because it is stuck in the straightjacket of an obsolete paradigm which does not cater for phenomena like CH.

Yet this last and desperate attempt of the fanatics is not a logical refuge. Paradigm shifts are not required because some quack thinks so, they are needed only if data have been emerging that cannot possibly be explained within the current paradigm. But this is never the case in alternative medicine. We can explain all the experience of advocates, positive results of researchers and ‘miracle’ cures of patients that are being reported. We know that the experiences are real, but are sure that their explanations of the experience are false. They are not due to the treatment per se but to other phenomena such as placebo effects, natural history, regression towards the mean, spontaneous recovery, etc.

So, whichever way we turn things, and whichever way enthusiasts of alternative therapies twist them, their argument that ‘SCIENCE IS NOT YET ABLE TO EXPLAIN’ is simply wrong.

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