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

critical thinking

My last post was rather depressive, and I certainly do not want my readers to be under the weather when they go into 2019. For this last post of 2018, I have therefore selected 20 events which gave me hope that perhaps we – those who prefer rationality to nonsense – are making progress.

  1. It has been reported that New Brunswick judge ruled this week that Canadian naturopaths — pseudoscience purveyors who promote a variety of “alternative medicines” like homeopathy, herbs, detoxes, and acupuncture — cannot legally call themselves “medically trained.”
  2. The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’.
  3. The medical school of Vienna axed their courses in homeopathy.
  4. A most comprehensive review of homeopathy concluded that the effects of homeopathy do not differ from those of placebo.
  5. The UK Pharmaceutical Society has stated that it does not endorse homeopathy and that pharmacists must advise patients considering a homeopathic product about their lack of efficacy beyond that of a placebo.
  6. A top medical journal has retracted a dodgy meta-analysis of acupuncture.
  7. A prominent BMJ columnist wrote : Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.
  8. Pharmacare and Bioglan received a ‘Stonky’ for its over-the-counter Melatonin Homeopathic Sleep Formula.
  9. The Governing Body of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire (BNSSG) Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) approved changes that mean NHS funded homeopathy will only be available in exceptional circumstances in the area.
  10. Health ministers of all German counties have decided that they will start reforming the profession of the Heilpraktiker, the German non-medically trained alternative practitioners.
  11. The NHS chief, Simon Stevens was quoted saying: There is no robust evidence to support homeopathy which is at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds.
  12. A systematic review concluded that there is no evidence in the literature of an effect of chiropractic treatment in the scope of primary prevention 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.
  13. A Cochrane review did not show any benefit of homeopathic medicinal products compared to placebo on recurrence of acute respiratory tract infections or cure rates in children. 
  14. The French minister of health stated that ‘the French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.
  15. The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association retracted false accusation against me about their assumption that I had undeclared conflicts of interest.
  16. The ‘Daily Telegraph‘ published the following statement after misquoting me: Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said that doctors should make it clear to patients that they could not be taking herbal remedies alongside drugs. Prof Ernst said there was no good evidence that they work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to the practice.
  17. A comprehensive overview of the therapeutic options for chronic low back pain showed that chiropractic is not any better than over-the-counter painkillers or exercise, and that patients need to take precautions when seeking out a chiropractor.

Hold on, you promised 20, but these are just 17!!!, I hear my attentive readers mutter.

Correct! I tried to find 20 to match my last post; and I only found 17. This might be a reflection that, in the realm of SCAM, the bad still outweighs the good news (by much more that 20:17, I fear).

Yet, this should not depress us. On the contrary, let’s see it as a challenge to get on with out work of fighting for good evidence, ethical standards, rationality and critical thinking.In this spirit, I wish you all a very good, healthy and productive year 2019.

You probably know what yoga is. But what is FODMAP? It stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, more commonly known as carbohydrates. In essence, FODMAPs are carbohydrates found in a wide range of foods including onions, garlic, mushrooms, apples, lentils, rye and milk. These sugars are poorly absorbed, pass through the small intestine and enter the colon . There they are fermented by bacteria a process that produces gas which stretches the sensitive bowel causing bloating, wind and sometimes even pain. This can also cause water to move into and out of the colon, causing diarrhoea, constipation or a combination of both. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) makes people more susceptible to such problems.

During a low FODMAP diet these carbohydrates are eliminated usually for six to eight weeks.  Subsequently, small amounts of FODMAP foods are gradually re-introduced to find a level of symptom-free tolerance. The question is, does the low FODMAP diet work?

This study examined the effect of a yoga-based intervention vs a low FODMAP diet on patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Fifty-nine patients with IBS undertook a randomised controlled trial involving yoga or a low FODMAP diet for 12 weeks. Patients in the yoga group received two sessions weekly, while patients in the low FODMAP group received a total of three sessions of nutritional counselling. The primary outcome was a change in gastrointestinal symptoms (IBS-SSS). Secondary outcomes explored changes in quality of life (IBS-QOL), health (SF-36), perceived stress (CPSS, PSQ), body awareness (BAQ), body responsiveness (BRS) and safety of the interventions. Outcomes were examined in weeks 12 and 24 by assessors “blinded” to patients’ group allocation.

No statistically significant difference was found between the intervention groups, with regard to IBS-SSS score, at either 12 or 24 weeks. Within-group comparisons showed statistically significant effects for yoga and low FODMAP diet at both 12 and 24 weeks. Comparable within-group effects occurred for the other outcomes. One patient in each intervention group experienced serious adverse events and another, also in each group, experienced nonserious adverse events.

The authors concluded that patients with irritable bowel syndrome might benefit from yoga and a low-FODMAP diet, as both groups showed a reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms. More research on the underlying mechanisms of both interventions is warranted, as well as exploration of potential benefits from their combined use.

Technically, this study is an equivalence study comparing two interventions. Such trials only make sense, if one of the two treatments have been proven to be effective. This is, however, not the case. Moreover, equivalence studies require much larger sample sizes than the 59 patients included here.

What follows is that this trial is pure pseudoscience and the positive conclusion of this study is not warranted. The authors have, in my view, demonstrated a remarkable level of ignorance regarding clinical research. None of this is all that unusual in the realm of alternative medicine; sadly, it seems more the rule than the exception.

What might make this lack of research know-how more noteworthy is something else: starting in January 2019, one of the lead authors of this piece of pseudo-research (Prof. Dr. med. Jost Langhorst) will be the director of the new Stiftungslehrstuhl “Integrative Medizin” am Klinikum Bamberg (clinic and chair of integrative medicine in Bamberg, Germany).

This does not bode well, does it?

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to publish the result in a magazine. He now informed me that his editor decided against it, and the interview thus remained unpublished. I have the journalist’s permission to publish it here. The journalist who, in my view, was well-prepared (much better than most), prefers to remain unnamed.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

A: I am a researcher of alternative medicine.

Q: Not a critic of alternative medicine?

A: Primarily, I am a researcher; after all, I have published more Medline-listed research papers on the subject than anyone else on the planet.

Q: You are retired since a few years; why do you carry on working?

A: Mainly because I see a need for a critical voice amongst all the false and often dangerous claims made by proponents of alternative medicine. But also because I enjoy what I am doing. Since I retired, I can focus on the activities I like. There is nobody to tell me what to do and what not to do; the latter happened far too often when I was still head of my research unit.

Q: Fine, but I still do not quite understand what drives you. Who is motivating you to criticise alternative medicine?

A: Nobody. Some people claim I am paid for my current activities. This is not true. My blog actually costs me money. My books never return enough royalties to break even, considering the time they take to write. And for most of my lectures I don’t charge a penny.

Q: There are people who find this hard to believe.

A: I know. This just shows how money-orientated they are. Do they want me to publish my tax returns?

Q: Sorry, but I still don’t understand your motivation.

A: I guess what motivates me is a sense of responsibility, a somewhat naïve determination to do something good as a physician. I am one of the only – perhaps even THE only – scientist who has researched alternative medicine extensively and who is not a promoter of bogus therapies but voices criticism about them. There are several other prominent and excellent critics of alternative medicine, of course, but they all come ‘from the outside’. I come from the inside of the alternative medicine business. This probably gives me a special understanding of this field. In any case, I feel the responsibility to counter-balance all the nonsense that is being published on a daily basis.

Q: What’s your ultimate aim?

A: I want to create progress through educating people to think more critically.

Q: Which alternative medicine do you hate most?

A: I do not hate any of them. In fact, I still have more sympathy for them than might be apparent. For my blog, for instance, I constantly search for new research papers that are rigorous and show a positive result. The trouble is, there are so very few of those articles. But when I find one, I am delighted to report about it. No, I do not hate or despise any alternative medicine; I am in favour of good science, and I get irritated by poor research. And yes, I do dislike false claims that potentially harm consumers. And yes, I do dislike it when chiropractors or other charlatans defraud consumers by taking their money for endless series of useless interventions.

Q: I noticed you go on about the risks of alternative medicine. But surely, they are small compared to the risks of conventional healthcare, aren’t they?

A: That’s a big topic. To make it simple: alternative medicine is usually portrayed as risk-free. The truth, however, is that there are numerous risks of direct and indirect harm; the latter is usually much more important than the former. Crucially, the risk-free image is incongruent with reality. I want to redress this incongruence. And as to conventional medicine: sure, it can be much more harmful. But one always has to see this in relation to the proven benefit. Chemotherapy, for instance, can kill a cancer patient, but more likely it saves her life. Homeopathic remedies cannot kill you, but employed as an alternative to an effective cancer treatment, homeopathy will certainly kill you.

Q: Homeopathy seems to be your particular hobby horse.

A: Perhaps. This is because it exemplifies alternative medicine in several ways, and because I started my alternative ‘career’ in a homeopathic hospital, all those years ago.

Q: In what way is homeopathy exemplary?

A: Its axioms are implausible, like those of many other alternative modalities. The clinical evidence fails to support the claims, like with so many alternative therapies. And it is seemingly safe, yet can do a lot of harm, like so many other treatments.

Q: You have no qualification in homeopathy, is that right?

A: No, I have no such qualifications. And I never said so. When I want to tease homeopaths a little, I state that I am a trained homeopath; and that is entirely correct.

Q: In several countries, homeopathy has taken spectacular hits recently. Is that your doing?

A: No, I don’t think so. But I do hope that my work has inspired the many dedicated activists who are currently protesting against the reimbursement of homeopathy by the public purse in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, etc.

Q: You often refer to medical ethics; why is that?

A: Because, in the final analysis, many of the questions we already discussed are really ethical issues. And in alternative medicine, few people have so far given the ethical dimensions any consideration. I think ethics are central to alternative medicine, so much so that I co-authored an entire book on this topic this year.

Q: Any plans for the future?

A: Plenty.

Q: Can you tell me more?

A: I will publish another book in 2019 with Springer. It will be a critical evaluation of precisely 150 different alternative modalities. I am thinking of writing yet another book, but have not yet found a literary agent who wants to take me on. I have been offered a new professorship at a private University in Vienna, and am hesitant whether to accept or not. I have been invited to give a few lectures in 2019 and hope to receive more invitations. Last not least, I work almost every day on my blog.

Q: More than enough for a retiree, it seems. Thank you for your time.

A: My pleasure.

The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences have announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’. Very wisely, they have included chiropractic under this umbrella. To a large degree, this is the result of Spanish sceptics pointing out that alternative therapies are a danger to public health, helped perhaps a tiny bit also by the publication of two of my books (see here and here) in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, such delelopments alarm Spanish chiropractors who fear for their livelihoods. A quickly-written statement of the AEQ (Spanish Chiropractic Association) is aimed at averting the blow. It makes the following 11 points (my comments are below):

1. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines chiropractic as a healthcare profession. It is independent of any other health profession and it is neither a therapy nor a pseudotherapy.

2. Chiropractic is statutorily recognised as a healthcare profession in many European countries including Portugal, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom10, as well as in the USA, Canada and Australia, to name a few.

3. Chiropractic members of the AEQ undergo university-level training of at least 5 years full-time (300 ECTS points). Chiropractic training is offered within prestigious institutions such as the Medical Colleges of the University of Zurich and the University of Southern Denmark.

4. Chiropractors are spinal health care experts. Chiropractors practice evidence-based, patient-centred conservative interventions, which include spinal manipulation, exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice.

5. The use of these interventions for the treatment of spine-related disorders is consistent with guidelines and is supported by high quality scientific evidence, including multiple systematic reviews undertaken by the prestigious Cochrane collaboration15, 16, 17.

6. The Global Burden of Disease study shows that spinal disorders are the leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide, exceeding depression, breast cancer and diabetes.

7. Interventions used by chiropractors are recommended in the 2018 Low Back Pain series of articles published in The Lancet and clinical practice guidelines from Denmark, Canada, the European Spine Journal, American College of Physicians and the Global Spine Care Initiative.

8. The AEQ supports and promotes scientific research, providing funding and resources for the development of high quality research in collaboration with institutions of high repute, such as Fundación Jiménez Díaz and the University of Alcalá de Henares.

9. The AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based, patient-centred care, consistent with a biopsychosocial model of health.

10. The AEQ demands the highest standards of practice and professional ethics, by implementing among its members the Quality Standard UNE-EN 16224 “Healthcare provision by chiropractors”, issued by the European Committee of Normalisation and ratified by AENOR.

11. The AEQ urges the Spanish Government to regulate chiropractic as a healthcare profession. Without such legislation, citizens of Spain cannot be assured that they are protected from unqualified practitioners and will continue to face legal uncertainties and barriers to access an essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service.

END OF QUOTE

I think that some comments might be in order (they follow the numbering of the AEQ):

  1. The WHO is the last organisation I would consult for information on alternative medicine; during recent years, they have published mainly nonsense on this subject. How about asking the inventor of chiropractic? D.D. Palmer defined it as “a science of healing without drugs.” Chiropractors nowadays prefer to be defined as a profession which has the advantage that one cannot easily pin them down for doing mainly spinal manipulation; if one does, they indignantly respond “but we also use many other interventions, like life-style advice, for instance, and nobody can claim this to be nonsense” (see also point 4 below).
  2. Perfect use of a classical fallacy: appeal to authority.
  3. Appeal to authority, plus ignorance of the fact that teaching nonsense even at the highest level must result in nonsense.
  4. This is an ingenious mix of misleading arguments and lies: most chiros pride themselves of treating also non-spinal conditions. Very few interventions used by chiros are evidence-based. Exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice are hardy typical for chiros and can all be obtained more authoratively from other healthcare professionals.
  5. Plenty of porkies here too. For instance, the AEQ cite three Cochrane reviews. The first concluded that high-quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. The second stated that combined chiropractic interventions slightly improved pain and disability in the short term and pain in the medium term for acute/subacute LBP. However, there is currently no evidence that supports or refutes that these interventions provide a clinically meaningful difference for pain or disability in people with LBP when compared to other interventions. And the third concluded that, although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices. Hardly the positive endorsement implied by the AEQ!
  6. Yes, but that is not an argument for chiropractic; in fact, it’s another fallacy.
  7. Did they forget the many guidelines, institutions and articles that do NOT recommend chiropractic?
  8. I believe the cigarette industry also sponsors research; should we therefore all start smoking?
  9. I truly doubt that the AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based healthcare; if they did, they would have to discourage spinal manipulation!
  10. The ‘highest standards of practice and professional ethics’ are clearly not compatible with chiropractors’ use of spinal manipulation. In our recent book, we explained in full detail why this is so.
  11. An essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service? Chiropractic is certainly not essential, rarely high-quality, and clearly not evidence-based.

Nice try AEQ.

But not good enough, I am afraid.

Many chiropractors tell new mothers that their child needs chiropractic adjustments because the birth is in their view a trauma for the new-born that causes subluxations of the baby’s spine. Without expert chiropractic intervention, they claim, the poor child risks serious developmental disorders.

This article (one of hundreds) explains it well: Birth trauma is often overlooked by doctors as the cause of chronic problems, and over time, as the child grows, it becomes a thought less considered. But the truth is that birth trauma is real, and the impact it can have on a mother or child needs to be addressed. Psychological therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and other healing techniques should all be considered following an extremely difficult birth.

And another article makes it quite clear what intervention is required: Caesarian section or a delivery that required forceps or vacuum extraction procedures, in-utero constraint, an unusual presentation of the baby, and many more can cause an individual segment of the spine or a region to shift from its normal healthy alignment. This ‘shift’ in the spine is called a Subluxation, and it can happen immediately before, during, or after birth.

Thousands of advertisements try to persuade mothers to take their new-born babies to a chiropractor to get the problem sorted which chiropractors often call KISS (kinetic imbalance due to suboccipital strain-syndrome), caused by intrauterine-constraint or the traumas of birth.

This abundance of advertisements and promotional articles is in sharp contrast with the paucity of scientific evidence.

A review of 1993 concluded that birth trauma remains an underpublicized and, therefore, an undertreated problem. There is a need for further documentation and especially more studies directed toward prevention. In the meantime, manual treatment of birth trauma injuries to the neuromusculoskeletal system could be beneficial to many patients not now receiving such treatment, and it is well within the means of current practice in chiropractic and manual medicine.

A more critical assessment of … concluded that, given the absence of evidence of beneficial effects of spinal manipulation in infants and in view of its potential risks, manual therapy, chiropractic and osteopathy should not be used in infants with the kinetic imbalance due to suboccipital strain-syndrome, except within the context of randomised double-blind controlled trials.

So, what follows from all this?

How about this?

Chiropractors’ assumption of an obligatory birth trauma that causes subluxation and requires spinal adjustments is nothing more than a ploy by charlatans for filling their pockets with the cash of gullible parents.

It is time, I think, to express my gratitude to Dr Jens Behnke, a German homeopath employed by the pro-homeopathy lobby group the ‘Carstens Stiftung’, who diligently tweets trials of homeopathy which he obviously believes prove the value of his convictions.

The primary objective of this new study was to evaluate the efficacy of homoeopathy for women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome. This condition is characterised by:

  • irregular periods which means your ovaries don’t regularly release eggs,
  • abnormally high levels of male hormones in the body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair,
  • polycystic ovaries – ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) which surround the eggs.

There’s no cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can usually be treated. As so often in such situations, homeopaths are happy to step into the fray.

This single-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled pilot study was conducted at two research centres in India. The cases fulfilling the eligibility criteria were enrolled (n = 60) and randomised to either the homoeopathic intervention (HI) (n = 30) or placebo (P) (n = 30) with uniform lifestyle modification (LSM) for 6 months.

The menstrual regularity with improvement in other signs/symptoms was observed in 60% of the cases (n = 18) in HI + LSM group and none (n = 0) in control group. Statistically significant difference was observed in the reduction of intermenstrual duration in HI + LSM in comparison to placebo + LSM group. Significant improvements were also observed in HI+LSM group in domains of weight, fertility, emotions and menstrual problems. No change was observed in respect of improvement in the ultrasound findings. Pulsatilla was the most frequently indicated homeopathic remedy.

The authors concluded that HI along with LSM has shown promising outcome; further comparative study with standard conventional treatment on adequate sample size is desirable.

This trial might convince believers (mostly because they do not even need convincing), but it cannot convince anybody capable of critical thinking. Here is why:

  • According to its authors, this trial was a pilot study; this means it should not report any results and merely focus on the feasibility of a definitive trial.
  • Researchers were not blinded, meaning that they might have influenced the outcome in more than one way.
  • The primary endpoint was subjective and could have been influenced by the non-blinded researchers.
  • 0% success rate in achieving the primary endpoint in the placebo group is not plausible.
  • Compliance to LSM was not checked; as the homeopathy group lost more weight, these patients seemed to have complied better (probably due to being better motivated by the non-blinded researchers).

So?

My conclusion is not very original but all the more true: POORLY DESIGNED STUDIES USUALLY GENERATE UNRELIABLE RESULTS. 

For some researchers, the question whether homeopathy works beyond a placebo effect is not as relevant as the question whether it works as well as an established treatment. To answer it, they must conduct RCTs comparing homeopathy with a therapy that has been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be effective, i.e better than placebo. Such a drug is, for instance, Ibuprofen.

The purpose of this study was to compare the efficacy of Ibuprofen and homeopathic Belladonna for orthodontic pain. 51 females and 21 males, were included in this study. Cases with non-extraction treatment plan having proper contacts’ mesial and distal to permanent first molar and currently not taking any analgesics or antibiotics were included in the study. They were randomly divided into two groups; one group was assigned to ibuprofen 400 mg and second group took Belladonna 6C (that’s a dilution of 1: 1000000000000). Patients were given two doses of medication of their respective remedies one hour before placement of elastomeric separators (Ormco Separators, Ormco Corporation, CA, USA) and one dose 6 h after the placement. Pain scores were recorded on a visual analogue scale (VAS) 2 h after placement, 6 h after placement, bedtime, day 1 morning, day 2 morning, day 3 morning and day 5 morning.

The comparisons showed that there were no differences between the two groups at any time point.

(Mean visual analogue scale pain score at different time intervals after separator placement in Ibuprofen and Belladonna group)

The authors concluded that Ibuprofen and Belladonna 6C are effective and provide adequate analgesia with no statistically significant difference. Lack of adverse effects with Belladonna 6C makes it an effective and viable alternative.

FINALLY, THE PROOF HOMEOPATHS HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR: HOMEOPATHY DOES WORK AFTER ALL!

Not so fast – before we draw any conclusions, let’s have a closer look at this study. Here are a few of its limitations (apart from the fact that it was published in a journal that does not exactly belong to the ‘crème de la crème’ of medical publications):

  • Patients obviously knew which group they were assigned to; thus their expectations would have influenced the outcome.
  • The same applies to the researchers (the study could have been ‘blind’ using a ‘double dummy’ method, but the researchers did not use it).
  • The study was an equivalence trial (it did not test whether homeopathy is superior to placebo, but whether its effects are equivalent to Ibuprofen); such studies need sample sizes that are about one dimension larger than was the case here.

Therefore, all this trial does demonstrate that the sample was too small for an existing group difference in favour of Ibuprofen to show.

So sorry, my homeopathic friends!

Shiatsu has been mentioned here before (see for instance here, here and here). It is one of those alternative therapies for which a plethora of therapeutic claims are being made in the almost total absence of reliable evidence. This is why I am delighted each time a new study emerges.

This proof of concept study explored the feasibility of ‘hand self-shiatsu’ as an intervention to promote sleep onset and continuity for young adults with SRC. It employed a prospective case-series design, where participants, athletes who have suffered from concussion, act as their own controls. Baseline and follow-up data included standardized self-reported assessment tools and sleep actigraphy. Seven athletes, aged between 18 and 25 years, participated. Although statistically significant improvement in actigraphy sleep scores between baseline and follow-up was not achieved, metrics for sleep quality and daytime fatigue showed significant improvement.

The authors concluded from these data that these findings support the hypothesis that ‘hand self-shiatsu has the potential to improve sleep and reduce daytime fatigue in young postconcussion athletes. This pilot study provides guidance to refine research protocols and lays a foundation for further, large-sample, controlled studies.

How very disappointing! If this was truly meant to be a pilot study, it should not mention findings of clinical improvement at all. I suspect that the authors labelled it ‘a pilot study’ only when they realised that it was wholly inadequate. I also suspect that the study did not yield the result they had hoped for (a significant improvement in actigraphy sleep scores), and thus they included the metrics for sleep quality and daytime fatigue in the abstract.

In any case, even a pilot study of just 7 patients is hardly worth writing home about. And the remark that participants acted as their own controls is a new level of obfuscation: there were no controls, and the results are based on before/after comparisons. Thus none of the outcomes can be attributed to shiatsu; more likely, they are due to the natural history of the condition, placebo effects, concomitant treatments, social desirability etc.

What sort of journal publishes such drivel that can only have the effect of giving a bad name to clinical research? The Journal of Integrative Medicine (JIM) is a peer-reviewed journal sponsored by Shanghai Association of Integrative Medicine and Shanghai Changhai Hospital, China. It is a continuation of the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine (JCIM), which was established in 2003 and published in Chinese language. Since 2013, JIM has been published in English language. They state that the editorial board is committed to publishing high-quality papers on integrative medicine... I consider this as a bad joke! More likely, this journal is little more than an organ for popularising TCM propaganda in the West.

And which publisher hosts such a journal?

Elsevier

What a disgrace!

 

The over-use of X-ray diagnostics by chiropractors has long been a concern (see for instance here,and here). As there is a paucity of reliable research on this issue, this new review is more than welcome.

It aimed to summarise the current evidence for the use of spinal X-ray in chiropractic practice, with consideration of the related risks and benefits. The authors, chiropractors from Australia and Canada who did a remarkable job in avoiding the term SUBLUXATION throughout the paper, showed that the proportion of patients receiving X-ray as a result of chiropractic consultation ranges from 8 to 84%. I find this range quite staggering and in need of an explanation.

The authors also stated that current evidence supports the use of spinal X-rays only in the diagnosis of trauma and spondyloarthropathy, and in the assessment of progressive spinal structural deformities such as adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. MRI is indicated to diagnose serious pathology such as cancer or infection, and to assess the need for surgical management in radiculopathy and spinal stenosis. Strong evidence demonstrates risks of imaging such as excessive radiation exposure, over-diagnosis, subsequent low-value investigation and treatment procedures, and increased costs. In most cases the potential benefits from routine imaging, including spinal X-rays, do not outweigh the potential harms. The authors state that the use of spinal X-rays should not be routinely performed in chiropractic practice, and should be guided by clinical guidelines and clinician judgement.

The problem, however, is that many chiropractors do not abide by those guidelines. The most recent data I am aware of suggests that  only about half of them are even aware of radiographic guidelines for low back pain. The reasons given for obtaining spinal X-rays by chiropractors are varied and many are not supported by evidence of benefit. These include diagnosis of pathology or trauma; determination of treatment options; detection of contraindications to care; spinal biomechanical analysis; patient reassurance; and medicolegal reasons.

One may well ask why chiropractors over-use X-rays. The authors of the new paper provide the following explanations:

  • lack of education,
  • ownership of X-ray facilities,
  • and preferred chiropractic technique modalities (i. e. treatment techniques which advocate the use of routine spinal X-rays to perform biomechanical analysis, direct appropriate treatment, and perform patient reassessment).

Crucially, the authors state that, based on the evidence, the use of X-ray imaging to diagnose benign spinal findings will not improve patient outcomes or safety. For care of non-specific back or neck pain, studies show no difference in treatment outcome when routine spinal X-rays have been used, compared to management without X-rays.

A common reason suggested by chiropractors for spinal X-ray imaging is to screen for anomalies or serious pathology that may contraindicate treatment that were otherwise unsuspected by the clinical presentation. While some cases of serious pathology, such as cancer and infection, may not initially present with definitive symptoms, X-ray assessment at this early stage of the disease process is also likely to be negative, and is not recommended as a screening tool.

The authors concluded that the use of spinal X-rays in chiropractic has been controversial, with benefits for the use of routine spinal X-rays being proposed by some elements of the profession. However, evidence of these postulated benefits is limited or non-existent. There is strong evidence to demonstrate potential harms associated with spinal X-rays including increased ionising radiation exposure, over-diagnosis, subsequent low-value investigation and treatment procedures, and increased unnecessary costs. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases who present to chiropractors, the potential benefit from spinal X-rays does not outweigh the potential harms. Spinal X-rays should not be performed as a routine part of chiropractic practice, and the decision to perform diagnostic imaging should be informed by evidence based clinical practice guidelines and clinician judgement.

So, if you consult a chiropractor – and I don’t quite see why you should – my advice would be not to agree to an X-ray.

Alternative medicine is an odd term (but it is probably as good or bad as any other term for it). It describes a wide range of treatments (and diagnostic techniques which I exclude from this discussion) that have hardly anything in common.

Hardly anything!

And that means there are a few common denominators. Here are 7 of them:

  1. The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.
  2. The treatments enjoy a lot of support.
  3. The treatments are natural and therefore safe.
  4. The treatments are holistic.
  5. The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.
  6. The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.
  7. The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

One only has to scratch the surface to discover that these common denominators of alternative medicine turn out to be unmitigated nonsense.

Let me explain:

The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.

It is true that most alternative therapies have a long history; but what does that really mean? In my view, it signals but one thing: when these therapies were invented, people had no idea how our body functions; they mostly had speculations, superstitions and myths. It follows, I think, that the treatments in question are built on speculations, superstitions and myths.

This might be a bit too harsh, I admit. But one thing is absolutely sure: a long history of usage is no proof of efficacy.

The treatments enjoy a lot of support.

Again, this is true. Alternative treatments are supported by many patients who swear by them, by thousands of clinicians who employ them as well as by royalty and other celebrities who make the headlines with them.

Such support is usually based on experience or belief. Neither are evidence; quite the opposite, remember: the three most dangerous words in medicine are ‘IN MY EXPERIENCE’. To be clear, experience and belief can fool us profoundly, and science is a tool to prevent us being misled by them.

The treatments are natural and therefore safe.

Here we have two fallacies moulded into one. Firstly, not all alternative therapies are natural; secondly, none is entirely safe.

There is nothing natural about diluting the Berlin Wall and selling it as a homeopathic remedy. There is nothing natural about forcing a spinal joint beyond its physiological range of motion and calling it spinal manipulation. There is nothing natural about sticking needles into the skin and claiming this re-balances our vital energies.

Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, etc. are burdened with their fair share of adverse effects. But the real danger of alternative medicine is the harm done by neglecting effective therapies. Anyone who decides to forfeit conventional treatments for a serious condition, and uses alternative therapies instead, runs the risk of shortening their lives.

The treatments are holistic.

Alternative therapists try very hard to sell their treatments as holistic. This sounds good and must be an excellent marketing gimmick. Alas, it is not true.

There is nothing less holistic than seeing subluxations, yin/yang imbalances, auto-intoxications, energy blockages, etc. as the cause of all illness. Holism is at the heart of all good healthcare; the attempt by alternative practitioners to hijack it is merely a transparent attempt to boost their business.

The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.

Alternative therapists claim that they can identify the root causes of all conditions and thus treat them more effectively than conventional clinicians who merely treat their symptoms. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conventional medicine has been so spectacularly successful not least because we always aim at identifying the cause that underlie a symptom and, whenever possible, treat that cause (often in addition to treating symptoms). Alternative practitioners may well delude themselves that energy imbalances, subluxations, chi-blockages etc. are root causes, but there simply is no evidence to support their deluded claims.

The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.

The feeling of paranoia seems endemic in alternative medicine. Many practitioners are so affected by it that they believe everyone who doubts their implausible notions and misconceptions is out to get them. Big Pharma’ or whoever else they feel prosecuted by are more likely to smile at such wild conspiracy theories than to fear for their profit margins. And whenever ‘Big Pharma’ does smell a fast buck, they do not hesitate to jump on the alternative band-waggon joining them in ripping off the public by flogging dubious supplements, homeopathics, essential oils, vitamins, flower remedies, detox-remedies, etc.

The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

It is probably true that the average cost of a homeopathic remedy, an acupuncture treatment or an aromatherapy session costs less than the average conventional treatment. However, to conclude from it that alternative therapies are value for money is wrong. To be of real value, a treatment needs to generate more good than harm; but very few alternative treatments fulfil this criterion. To use a blunt analogy, if someone offers you a used car, it may well be inexpensive – if, however, it does not run and is beyond repair, it cannot be value for money.

As I already stated: alternative medicine is so diverse that its various branches are almost entirely unrelated, and the few common denominators of alternative medicine that do exist are unmitigated nonsense.

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