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

commercial interests

Adverse events have been reported extensively following chiropractic.  About 50% of patients suffer side-effects after seeing a chiropractor. The majority of these events are mild, transitory and self-limiting. However, chiropractic spinal manipulations, particularly those of the upper spine, have also been associated with very serious complications; several hundred such cases have been reported in the medical literature and, as there is no monitoring system to record these instances, this figure is almost certainly just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Despite these facts, little is known about patient filed compensation claims related to the chiropractic consultation process. The aim of a new study was to describe claims reported to the Danish Patient Compensation Association and the Norwegian System of Compensation to Patients related to chiropractic from 2004 to 2012.

All finalized compensation claims involving chiropractors reported to one of the two associations between 2004 and 2012 were assessed for age, gender, type of complaint, decisions and appeals. Descriptive statistics were used to describe the study population.

338 claims were registered in Denmark and Norway between 2004 and 2012 of which 300 were included in the analysis. 41 (13.7%) were approved for financial compensation. The most frequent complaints were worsening of symptoms following treatment (n = 91, 30.3%), alleged disk herniations (n = 57, 19%) and cases with delayed referral (n = 46, 15.3%). A total financial payment of €2,305,757 (median payment €7,730) were distributed among the forty-one cases with complaints relating to a few cases of cervical artery dissection (n = 11, 5.7%) accounting for 88.7% of the total amount.

The authors concluded that chiropractors in Denmark and Norway received approximately one compensation claim per 100.000 consultations. The approval rate was low across the majority of complaint categories and lower than the approval rates for general practitioners and physiotherapists. Many claims can probably be prevented if chiropractors would prioritize informing patients about the normal course of their complaint and normal benign reactions to treatment.

Despite its somewhat odd conclusion (it is not truly based on the data), this is a unique article; I am not aware that other studies of chiropractic compensation  claims exist in an European context. The authors should be applauded for their work. Clearly we need more of the same from other countries and from all professions doing manipulative therapies.

In the discussion section of their article, the authors point out that Norwegian  and Danish chiropractors both deliver approximately two million consultations annually. They receive on average 42 claims combined suggesting roughly one claim per 100.000 consultations. By comparison, Danish statistics show that in the period 2007–2012 chiropractors, GPs and physiotherapists (+ occupational therapists) received 1.76, 1.32 and 0.52 claims per 100.000 consultations, respectively with approval rates of 13%, 25% and 21%, respectively. During this period these three groups were reimbursed on average €58,000, €29,000 and €18,000 per approved claim, respectively.

These data are preliminary and their interpretation might be a matter of debate. However, one thing seems clear enough: contrary to what we frequently hear from apologists, chiropractors do receive a considerable amount of compensation claims which means many patients do get harmed.

Dietary supplements (DS) are heavily promoted usually with the claim that they have stood the test of time and that they are natural and hence harmless. Unsurprisingly, their use has become very wide-spread. A new study determined the use of DSs, factors associated with DS use, and reasons for use among U.S. college students.

College students (N = 1248) at 5 U.S. universities were surveyed. Survey questions included descriptive demographics, types and frequency of DS used, reasons for use and money spent on supplements. Supplements were classified using standard criteria. Logistic regression analyses examined relationships between demographic and lifestyle factors and DS use.

Sixty-six percent of college students surveyed used DS at least once a week, and 12% consumed 5 or more supplements a week. Forty-two percent used multivitamins/multiminerals, 18% vitamin C, 17% protein/amino acids and 13% calcium at least once a week. Factors associated with supplement use included dietary patterns, exercise, and tobacco use. Students used supplements to promote general health (73%), provide more energy (29%), increase muscle strength (20%), and enhance performance (19%).

The authors of this survey concluded that college students appear more likely to use DS than the general population and many use multiple types of supplements weekly. Habits established at a young age persist throughout life. Therefore, longitudinal research should be conducted to determine whether patterns of DS use established early in adulthood are maintained throughout life. Adequate scientific justification for widespread use of DS in healthy, young populations is lacking.

Another new study investigated the use of DSs in 334 dancers from 53 countries, who completed a digitally based 35-question survey detailing demographic information and the use of DSs. Supplement use was prevalent amongst this international cohort, with 48% reporting regular DSs use. Major motives for supplement use were to improve health, boost immunity, and reduce fatigue. Forty-five percent believed that dancing increased the need for supplementation, whilst 30% recognized that there were risks associated with DSs.

The most frequently consumed DSs were vitamin C (60%), multivitamins (67%), and caffeine (72%). A smaller group of participants declared the use of whey protein (21%) or creatine (14%). Supplements were mainly obtained from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health-food stores. Dancers recognized their lack of knowledge in DSs use and relied on peer recommendations instead of sound evidence-based advice from acknowledged nutrition or health care professionals.

The authors concluded that this study demonstrates that DSs use is internationally prevalent amongst dancers. Continued efforts are warranted with regard to information dissemination.

Finally, a third study investigated use of DSs in patients in Japan. This survey was completed by 2732 people, including 599 admitted patients, 1154 ambulatory patients, and 979 healthy subjects who attended a seminar about DSs. At the time of the questionnaire, 20.4% of admitted patients, 39.1% of ambulatory patients, and 30.7% of healthy subjects were using DSs, which including vitamin/mineral supplements, herbal extracts, its ingredients, or food for specified health uses.

The primary purpose for use in all groups was health maintenance, whereas 3.7% of healthy subjects, 10.0% of ambulatory patients, and 13.2% of admitted patients used DSs to treat diseases. In addition, 17.7% of admitted patients and 36.8% of ambulatory patients were using DSs concomitantly with their medications. However, among both admitted patients and ambulatory patients, almost 70% did not mention DSs use to their physicians. Overall, 3.3% of all subjects realized adverse effects associated with DSs.

The authors concluded that communication between patients and physicians is important to avoid health problems associated with the use of DSs.

There is little doubt, DSs are popular with all sorts of populations and have grown into a multi billion dollar industry. There is also no doubt that the use of only very few DSs are evidence-based (and if so, in only relatively rare situations). And there can be no doubt that many DSs can do harm. What follows is simple: for the vast majority of DSs the benefits do not demonstrably out-weigh the risks.

If that is true, we have to ask ourselves: Why are they so popular?

The answer, I think, is because of the very phenomenon I am constantly trying to fight on this blog – IRRESPONSIBLE CHARLATANS PULLING WOOL OVER CONSUMERS EYES.

Naturopathy can be defined as ‘an eclectic system of health care that uses elements of complementary and conventional medicine to support and enhance self-healing processes’. This basically means that naturopaths employ treatments based on those therapeutic options that are seen as natural, e. g. herbs, water, exercise, diet, fresh air, heat and cold – but occasionally also acupuncture, homeopathy and manual therapies. If you are tempted to see a naturopath, you might want to consider the following 7 points:

  1. In many countries, naturopathy is not a protected title; this means your naturopaths may have some training but this is not obligatory. Some medical doctors also practice naturopathy, and in some countries there are ‘doctors of naturopathy’ (these practitioners tend to see themselves as primary care physicians but they have not been to medical school).
  2. Naturopathy is steeped in the obsolete concept of vitalism which has been described as the belief that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things.”
  3. While there is some evidence to suggest that some of the treatments used by naturopaths are effective for treating some conditions, this is by no means the case for all of the treatments in question.
  4. Naturopathy is implicitly based on the assumption that natural means safe. This notion is clearly wrong and misleading: not all the treatments used by naturopaths are strictly speaking natural, and very few are totally free of risks.
  5. Many naturopaths advise their patients against conventional treatments such as vaccines or antibiotics.
  6. Naturopaths tend to believe they can cure all or most diseases. Consequently many of the therapeutic claims for naturopathy found on the Internet and elsewhere are dangerously over-stated.
  7. The direct risks of naturopathy depend, of course, on the modality used; some of them can be considerable. The indirect risks of naturopathy can be even more serious and are mostly due to naturopathic treatments replacing more effective conventional therapies in cases of severe illness.

This investigation was aimed at examining the messages utilised by the chiropractic profession around issues of scope and efficacy through website communication with the public. For this purpose, the authors submitted the website content of 11 major Canadian chiropractic associations and colleges, and of 80 commercial clinics to a mixed-methods analysis. Content was reviewed to quantify specific health conditions described as treatable by chiropractic care. A qualitative textual analysis identified the primary messages related to evidence and efficacy utilised by the websites.

The results show that chiropractic was claimed to be capable of addressing a wide range of health issues. Quantitative analysis revealed that association and college websites identified a total of 41 unique conditions treatable by chiropractic, while private clinic websites named 159 distinct conditions. The most commonly cited conditions included back pain, headaches/migraines and neck pain. Qualitative analysis revealed three prominent themes drawn upon in discussions of efficacy and evidence: grounded in science, the conflation of safety and efficacy and “natural” healing.

The authors concluded that the chiropractic profession claims the capacity to treat health conditions that exceed those more traditionally associated with chiropractic. Website content persistently declared that such claims are supported by research and scientific evidence, and at times blurred the lines between safety and efficacy. The chiropractic profession may be struggling to define themselves both within the paradigm of conventional science as well as an alternative paradigm that embraces natural approaches.

These findings strike me as being similar to the ones we published 4 years ago. At this stage, we had conducted a review of 200 chiropractor websites and 9 chiropractic associations’ World Wide Web claims in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The outcome measures were claims (either direct or indirect) regarding the eight reviewed conditions, made in the context of chiropractic treatment: asthma, headache/migraine, infant colic, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash (not supported by sound evidence), and lower back pain (supported by some evidence).

We found evidence that 190 (95%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of the conditions. When colic and infant colic data were collapsed into one heading, there was evidence that 76 (38%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims about all the conditions not supported by sound evidence. Fifty-six (28%) websites and 4 of the 9 (44%) associations made claims about lower back pain, whereas 179 (90%) websites and all 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain.

At the time, we concluded that the majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.

Comparing the two studies, what should we conclude? Of course, the new investigation was confined to Canada; we therefore cannot generalise its results to other countries. Nevertheless it provides a fascinating insight into the (lack of) development of chiropractic in this part of the world. My conclusion is that, at least in Canada, there is very little evidence that chiropractic is about to become an ethical and evidence-based profession.

The purpose of this paper was to compare the characteristics of the chiropractic technique systems that have utilised radiography for subluxation detection with the characteristics of religion, and to discover potential historical links that may have facilitated the development of those characteristics.

The authors found 23 technique systems requiring radiography for subluxation analysis. Evidence of religiosity from the early founders’ writings was compared with textbooks, published papers, and websites of subsequently developed systems. Six criteria denoting religious thinking were developed: supernatural concepts, claims of supremacy, rules and rituals, sacred artefacts, sacred stories, and special language. All of these were found to a greater or lesser degree in the publicly available documents of all the subluxation-based chiropractic x-ray systems.

The authors concluded that the founders and early pioneers of chiropractic did not benefit from the current understanding of science and research, and therefore substituted deductive and inductive reasoning to arrive at conclusions about health and disease in the human body. Some of this thinking and rationalisation demonstrably followed a religion-like pattern, including BJ Palmer’s use of radiography. Although access to scientific methods and research education became much advanced and more accessible during the past few decades, the publicly available documents of technique systems that used radiography for chiropractic subluxation detection examined in this paper employed a historically derived paradigm for radiography that displayed characteristics in common with religion.

As I was pondering these amazing statements, a friend alerted me to the promotional material by a chiropractic college in the US. The website of this institution refers to subluxation – have we not been told that this term now belongs to the realm of chiropractic history? –  in many places, e. g. :

Dr. Brian Kelly talks about the subluxation debate, and introduces to a comprehensive resource on the subluxation. Visit LifeWestPress to order your own copy of the “Atlas of Common Subluxations of the Human Spine and Pelvis.”

… an introduction to the literature concerning the scientific examination of the subluxation and its physiological and anatomical basis. The physiology, neurology, and biomechanics of subluxation and adjustment are surveyed.

The focus of Knee Chest Upper Cervical Chiropractic Care is to address the Upper Cervical Subluxation. This includes detecting the Subluxation, designing a customized correction with the assistance of imaging, and patient management.

Atlas of Common Subluxations By William J Ruch, D.C. “One of the most significant chiropractic clinical text of the decade” -Dr. Deed Harrison D.C. The serious results of subluxations of the spine can now been seen in color. by studying the dramatic consequences of chronic

Gonstead B provides an emphasis on patients who present with subluxations of the cervical and thoracic areas of the spine. Some case management protocols are also discussed. This course includes instruction in static and motion visualization, inspection, and palpation; skin temperature…

The president of this college tells us that “….We believe chiropractic is a vital part of health care and that the chiropractic lifestyle is something that the public is placing in high demand right now…” (Dr. Brian Kelly President). Inspired by such big words, I study more of the promotional material furthermore which informs us that:

We must study and understand the reason why chiropractic holds an impactful and necessary place in the future of our entire planet’s health. We must truly understand and own the principles of safe and eective healthcare for all.  Philosophy is not just “for fun”. Philosophy is the glue that holds all of the elements of our educational process together.

At this stage I begin to wonder whether they have more to offer than ‘philosophy’ – how about some evidence? I looked and looked hard, but my efforts were in vain. Evidence does not seem to be a focus of this college. Instead we are offered obsolete concepts like vitalism:

Vitalism is the understanding that there is more to the basic function of the human body than just a bunch of parts and mechanisms. There is something more to us than just many parts of a machine. Vitalism is the study of the underlying elements of the organization of intelligence in the human body (and in any living system) and how that intelligence runs the system. From a vitalistic viewpoint, the care provided by a chiropractor takes on a unique and critical role in supporting the human body’s natural inclination to heal itself and to remain healthy over the course of a lifetime.

Now I am acutely reminded of the well-documented fact that DD Palmer, the man who invented chiropractic, had toyed with the idea of founding a religion. Perhaps he has done exactly that and we have not yet noticed? More importantly perhaps, I get the feeling that all this talk (on this blog and elsewhere) that chiropractors are working ever so hard to leave their bizarre past behind and join the rest of us in the 21st century is little more that wishful thinking.

Acupuncture seems to be as popular as never before – many conventional pain clinics now employ acupuncturists, for instance. It is probably true to say that acupuncture is one of the best-known types of all alternative therapies. Yet, experts are still divided in their views about this treatment – some proclaim that acupuncture is the best thing since sliced bread, while others insist that it is no more than a theatrical placebo. Consumers, I imagine, are often left helpless in the middle of these debates. Here are 7 important bits of factual information that might help you make up your mind, in case you are tempted to try acupuncture.

  1. Acupuncture is ancient; some enthusiast thus claim that it has ‘stood the test of time’, i. e. that its long history proves its efficacy and safety beyond reasonable doubt and certainly more conclusively than any scientific test. Whenever you hear such arguments, remind yourself that the ‘argumentum ad traditionem’ is nothing but a classic fallacy. A long history of usage proves very little – think of how long blood letting was used, even though it killed millions.
  2. We often think of acupuncture as being one single treatment, but there are many different forms of this therapy. According to believers in acupuncture, acupuncture points can be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Finally, some clinicians employ the traditional Chinese approach based on the assumption that two life forces are out of balance and need to be re-balanced, while so-called ‘Western’ acupuncturists adhere to the concepts of conventional medicine and claim that acupuncture works via scientifically explainable mechanisms that are unrelated to ancient Chinese philosophies.
  3. Traditional Chinese acupuncturists have not normally studied medicine and base their practice on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between yin and yang which has no basis in science. This explains why acupuncture is seen by traditional acupuncturists as a ‘cure all’ . In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological explanations as to how acupuncture might work. However, it is important to note that, even though they may appear plausible, these explanations are currently just theories and constitute no proof for the validity of acupuncture as a medical intervention.
  4. The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition affecting mankind; according to the more modern view, it is effective for a relatively small range of conditions only. On closer examination, the vast majority of these claims can be disclosed to be based on either no or very flimsy evidence. Once we examine the data from reliable clinical trials (today several thousand studies of acupuncture are available – see below), we realise that acupuncture is associated with a powerful placebo effect, and that it works better than a placebo only for very few (some say for no) conditions.
  5. The interpretation of the trial evidence is far from straight forward: most of the clinical trials of acupuncture originate from China, and several investigations have shown that very close to 100% of them are positive. This means that the results of these studies have to be taken with more than a small pinch of salt. In order to control for patient-expectations, clinical trials can be done with sham needles which do not penetrate the skin but collapse like miniature stage-daggers. This method does, however, not control for acupuncturists’ expectations; blinding of the therapists is difficult and therefore truly double (patient and therapist)-blind trials of acupuncture do hardly exist. This means that even the most rigorous studies of acupuncture are usually burdened with residual bias.
  6. Few acupuncturists warn their patients of possible adverse effects; this may be because the side-effects of acupuncture (they occur in about 10% of all patients) are mostly mild. However, it is important to know that very serious complications of acupuncture are on record as well: acupuncture needles can injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg.
  7. Given that, for the vast majority of conditions, there is no good evidence that acupuncture works beyond a placebo response, and that acupuncture is associated with finite risks, it seems to follow that, in most situations, the risk/benefit balance for acupuncture fails to be convincingly positive.

The volume of medical research, as listed on Medline, is huge and increases steadily each year. This phenomenon can easily be observed with simple Medline searches. If we use search terms related to conventional medicine, we find near linear increases in the number of articles (here I do not make a distinction between types of articles) published in each area over time, invariably with a peak in 2013, the last year for which Medline listing is currently complete. Three examples will suffice:

PHARMACOTHERAPY        117 414 articles in 2013

PHARMACOLOGY               210 228 articles in 2013

ADVERSE EFFECTS              86 067 articles in 2013

Some of the above subjects are obviously heavily industry-dependent and thus perhaps not typical of the volume of research in health care generally. Let’s therefore look up three fields where there is no such powerful industry to support research:

PSYCHOTHERAPY              7 208 articles in 2013

PHYSIOTHERAPY                7 713 articles in 2013

SURGERY                           154 417 articles in 2013

Now, if we conduct similar searches for topics related to alternative medicine, the picture changes in at least three remarkable ways: 1) there is no linear increase of the volume per year; instead the curves look flat and shapeless (the only exception is ‘herbal medicine’ where the increase even looks exponential). 2) The absolute volume does not necessarily peak in 2013 (exceptions are ‘acupuncture’ and ‘herbal medicine’). 3) The number of articles in the year with the most articles (as listed below) is small or even tiny:

ACUPUNCTURE                    1 491 articles in 2013

CHIROPRACTIC                      283 articles in 2011

HERBAL MEDICINE           2 503 articles in 2013

HOMEOPATHY                        233 articles in 2005

NATUROPATHY                         69 articles in 2010

You may think: so what? But I find these figures intriguing. They demonstrate that the research output in alternative medicine is minimal compared to that in conventional medicine.  Moreover, they imply that this output is not only not increasing steadily, as it is in conventional medicine, but in the case of chiropractic, homeopathy and naturopathy, it has recently been decreasing.

To put this into context, we need to know that:

  1. there is a plethora of journals dedicated to alternative medicine which are keen to publish all sorts of articles,
  2. the peer-review process of most of these journals seems farcically poor,
  3. as a result, the quality of the research into alternative medicine is often dismal, as regularly disclosed on this blog,
  4. enthusiasts of alternative medicine often see rigorous research into their subject as a dangerous threat: it might disprove their prior beliefs.

In their defence, proponents of alternative medicine would probably claim that the low volume of research is due to a severe and unfair lack of funding. However, I fail to see how this can be the sole or even the main explanation: areas of conventional medicine that do not have industry support seem to manage a much higher output than alternative medicine (and I should stress that I have chosen 5 sections within alternative medicine that are associated with the highest number of articles per year). Research in these areas is usually sponsored by charitable and government sources, and it needs to be stressed that these are open to any researcher who submits good science.

What follows, I think, is simple: in general, alternative medicine advocates have little interest in research and even less expertise to conduct it.

While the previous post was about seeing a traditional herbalist (who prescribe their own herbal mixtures, tailor-made for each individual patient), this post provides essential information for those consumers who are tempted to take a commercially available herbal remedy available in pharmacies, health food shops, over the Internet etc. These remedies are usually bought by consumers and then be self-administered, or (less frequently) they might be prescribed/recommended/sold by a clinician such as a doctor, naturopath, chiropractor etc. Typically, they contain just one (or relatively few) herbal extracts and are used under similar assumptions as conventional medicines: one (hopefully well-tested) remedy is employed for treating a defined condition, diagnosed according to validated and generally accepted criteria (for instance, St John’s Wort for depression or Devil’s claw for back pain). This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘rational phytotherapy’ – it is certainly more rational than the traditional herbalism referred to in my previous post. The manufacture, promotion and sale of commercial herbal remedies (in many countries marketed as ‘dietary supplements’) has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Here are a few essentials you ought to know before you decide to take such an herbal remedy:

  1. Many people claim that herbal medicine is effective because many of our modern drugs are based on plants. The latter part of this claim is true, of course, but this does not necessarily mean that herbal remedies are effective. The drugs derived from plants contain one single, well-defined, extensively researched molecule (by definition, this makes them conventional drugs and not herbal remedies), while herbal remedies are based on entire (parts of) plants; thus they contain many pharmacologically active molecules. This often means that it is difficult or impossible to tell what dose of which ingredient is being administered and what pharmacological actions can be expected.
  2. Even though national regulations differ greatly, herbal remedies generally do not have to be supported by evidence for efficacy in order to be legally available. This means that a given remedy might or might not have been tested in clinical trials to determine whether it works for the condition advertised. In fact, only very few (less than 30, I estimate) herbal remedies are supported by sound evidence for efficacy; thousands do not meet this criterion.
  3. The extremely wide-spread notion that herbal remedies are by definition natural and therefore safe is nothing but a promotional myth. Plants contain many chemicals which can have pharmacological activity. This means they might be therapeutic, but it also means that they might be toxic (traditionally the most powerful poisons originated from the plant kingdom). If anyone uses the ‘natural = safe fallacy’ remind him/her of hemlock, poison ivy etc.
  4. In addition to potential toxicity of an herbal ingredient, there are other important safety issues to be considered. Most importantly, herbal remedies can interact with prescribed medicines. For instance, St John’s Wort (one of the best-studied herbal remedies in this respect) powerfully interacts with about 50% of all prescription drugs – in fact, it lowers their level in the blood which means that a patient on anti-coagulants would lose her anti-coagulant protection and might suffer from a (potentially fatal) blood clot.
  5. In many countries, including the US, the regulation of herbal remedies is so lax, that there is no guarantee that an herbal remedy which is being legally sold is safe. The regulators are only allowed to intervene once there are reports of adverse effects. This means that the burden of proof of safety is effectively reversed which obviously exposes consumers to incalculable risks.
  6. The quality of the herbal product is equally poorly regulated in most countries. A plethora of investigations in the US, for instance, has shown that the dose of the herbal ingredient printed on the label of a commercial product can range virtually from 0 – 100%. Similarly there is little safe-guard that the ingredients listed on the label correspond to the ones in the preparation. This means that it is worth purchasing not just well-researched herbal remedies but also those marketed by high quality manufacturers via respectable outlets.
  7. Any regulation of herbal remedies, even the European one that is often praised as protecting consumers adequately, is null and void once consumers go on the Internet and purchase their herbal remedies from one of the many dubious sources found there in truly alarming profusion. Bogus claims, inferior quality and even outright dangerous products abound, and it is often impossible to tell the acceptable from the fraudulent product.

Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.

  1. Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
  2. Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
  3. Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
  4. Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
  5. Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
  6. Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
  7. The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.

Some of the recent comments on this blog have been rather emotional, a few even irrational, and several were, I am afraid, outright insulting (I usually omit to post the worst excesses). Moreover, I could not avoid the impression that some commentators have little understanding of what the aim of this blog really is. I tried to point this out in the very first paragraph of my very first post:

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

My foremost aim with his blog is to inform consumers through critical analysis and, in this way, I hope to prevent harm from patients in the realm of alternative medicine. What follows, are a few simple yet important points about this blog which I try to spell out here as clearly as I can:

  • I am not normally commenting on issues related to conventional medicine – not because I feel there is nothing to criticise in mainstream medicine, but because my expertise has long been in alternative medicine. So commentators might as well forget about arguments like “more people die because of drugs than alternative treatments”; they are firstly fallacious and secondly not relevant to this blog.
  • I have researched alternative medicine for many years (~ 40 clinical studies, > 300 systematic reviews etc.) and my readers can be confident that I know what I am talking about. Thus comments like ‘he does not know anything about the subject’ are usually not well placed and just show the ignorance of those who post them.
  • I am not in the pocket of anyone. I do not receive payments for doing this blog, nor did I, as an academic, receive any financial or other inducements for researching alternative medicine (on the contrary, I have often been given to understand that my life could be made much easier, if I adopted a more promotional stance towards my alternative medicine). I also do not belong to any organisation that is financed by BIG PHARMA or similar power houses. So my critics might as well abandon their conspiracy theories and  focus on a more promising avenue of criticism.
  • My allegiance is not with any interest group in (or outside) the field of alternative medicine. For instance, I do not see it as my job to help chiropractors, homeopaths etc. getting their act together. My task here is to point out the deficits in chiropractic (or any other area of alternative medicine) so that consumers are better protected. (I should think, however, that this also creates pressure on professions to become more evidence-based – but I see this as a mere welcome side-effect.)
  • If some commentators seem to find my arguments alarmist or see it as venomous scare-mongering, I suggest they re-examine their own position and learn to think a little more (self-) critically. I furthermore suggest that, instead of claiming such nonsense, they point out where they think I have gone wrong and provide evidence for their views.
  • Some people seem convinced that I have an axe to grind, that I have been personally injured by some alternative practitioner, or had some other unpleasant or traumatic experience. To those who think so, I have to say very clearly that none of this has ever happened. I recommend they inform themselves of the nature of critical analysis and its benefits.
  • This is a blog, not a scientific journal. I try to reach as many lay people as I can and therefore I tend to use simple language and sometimes aim to be entertaining. Those who feel that this renders my blog more journalistic than scientific are probably correct. If they want science, I recommend they look for my scientific articles in the medical literature; I can assure them that they will find plenty.
  • I very much invite an open and out-spoken debate. But ad hominem attacks are usually highly counterproductive – they only demonstrate that the author has no rational arguments left, or had none in the first place. Authors of insults also risks being banned from this blog.
  • Finally, I fear that some readers of my blog might sometimes get confused in the arguments and counter-arguments, and end up uncertain which side is right and which is wrong. To those who have this problem, I recommend a simple method for deciding where the truth is usually more likely to be found: ask yourself who might be merely defending his/her self-interest and who might be free of such conflicts of interest and thus more objective. For example, in my endless disputes with chiropractors, one could well ask: do the chiropractors have an interest in defending their livelihood, and what interest do I have in questioning whether chiropractors do generate more good than harm?
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