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

critical thinking

This paper reports a survey amongst European chiropractors during early 2017. Dissemination was through an on-line platform with links to the survey being sent to all European chiropractic associations regardless of European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU) membership and additionally through the European Academy of Chiropractic (EAC). Social media via Facebook groups was also used to disseminate links to the survey.

One thousand three hundred twenty and two responses from chiropractors across Europe representing approximately 17.2% of the profession were collected. Five initial self-determined chiropractic identities were collapsed into 2 groups categorised as orthodox (79.9%) and unorthodox (20.1%); by the latter term, the investigators mean the subluxationists/vitalists.

When comparing the percentage of new patients chiropractors x-rayed, 23% of the unorthodox group x-rayed > 50% of their new patients compared to 5% in the orthodox group. Furthermore, the proportion of respondents reporting > 150 patient encounters per week in the unorthodox group were double compared to the orthodox (22 v 11%). Lastly the proportion of those respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement “In general, vaccinations have had a positive effect on global public health” was 57 and 4% in unorthodox and orthodox categories respectively. Logistic regression models identified male gender, seeing more than 150 patients per week, no routine differential diagnosis, and not strongly agreeing that vaccines have generally had a positive impact on health as highly predictive of unorthodox categorisation.

The authors concluded that despite limitations with generalisability in this survey, the proportion of respondents adhering to the different belief categories are remarkably similar to other studies exploring this phenomenon. In addition, and in parallel with other research, this survey suggests that key practice characteristics in contravention of national radiation guidelines or opposition to evidence based public health policy are significantly more associated with non-orthodox chiropractic paradigms.

Country

N (%) Orthodox

N (%) Unorthodox

Belgium

51 (92.7)

4 (7.3)

Germany

43 (66.2)

22 (33.8)

Ireland

31 (79.5)

8 (20.5)

Italy

23 (59.0)

16 (41.0)

Norway

132 (93.0)

10 (7.0)

Spain

34 (43.6)

44 (56.4)

Sweden

101 (82.8)

21 (17.2)

Switzerland

102 (90.3)

11 (9.7)

The Netherlands

81 (82.7)

17 (17.3)

UK

236 (80.0)

59 (20.0)

The authors do laudably question that their findings are generalisable. However, this does not mean that this limitation is not significant. With such a dismal response rate, the value of any such survey approaches zero. I think, one has to be a chiropractor to publish such valueless paper nevertheless.

If, for a minute, I disregarded the non-generalisability of these data, what I would find most remarkable here is the high proportion of subluxationists/vitalists/anti-vaccinationists amongst today’s chiropractors. Chiropractic subluxation is an obsolete theory which should have been banned to the history books a long time ago. Yet, in some European countries around half of the chiropractors would adhere to it (I speculate that the figures would be significantly higher, if the response rate had been 100%).

I would find this unacceptable.

The reason I said ‘would find it acceptable’ is that I do not accept the validity of the survey results in the first place.

Here is the abstract of a paper that makes even the most senior assessor of quackery shudder:

Objective:

The purpose of this report is to describe the manipulation under anesthesia (MUA) treatment of 6 infants with newborn torticollis with a segmental dysfunction at C1/C2.

Clinical Features:

Six infants aged 4 1/2 to 15 months previously diagnosed with newborn torticollis were referred to a doctor of chiropractic owing to a failure to respond adequately to previous conservative therapies. Common physical findings were limited range of motion of the upper cervical spine. Radiographs demonstrated rotational malpositions and translation of atlas on axis in all 6 infants, and 1 had a subluxation of the C1/C2 articulation.

Interventions and Outcome:

Selection was based on complexity and variety of different clinical cases qualifying for MUA. Treatment consisted of 1 mobilization and was performed in the operating room of a children’s hospital by a certified chiropractic physician with the author assisting. Along with the chiropractor and his assistant, a children’s anesthesiologist, 1 to 2 operating nurses, a children’s radiologist, and in 1 case a pediatric surgeon were present. Before the mobilization, plain radiographs of the cervico-occipital area were taken. Three infants needed further investigation by a pediatric computed tomography scan of the area because of asymmetric bony conditions on the plain radiographs. Follow-up consultations at 2, 3, 5, or 6 weeks were done. Patient records were analyzed for restriction at baseline before MUA compared with after MUA treatment for active rotation, passive rotation, and passive rotation in full flexion of the upper cervical spine. All 3 measurements showed significant differences. The long-term outcome data was collected via phone calls to the parents at 6 to 72 months. The initial clinical improvements were maintained.

Conclusion:

These 6 infants with arthrogenic newborn torticollis, who did not respond to previous conservative treatment methods, responded to MUA.

___________________________________________________________________

After reading the full text, I see many very serious problems and questions with this paper; here are 14 of the most obvious ones.

1. A congenital torticollis (that’s essentially what these kids were suffering from) has a good prognosis and does not require such invasive treatments. There is thus no plausible reason to conduct a case series of this nature.

2. A retrospective case series does not allow conclusions about therapeutic effectiveness, yet in the article the author does just that.

3. The same applies to her conclusions about the safety of the interventions.

4. It is unclear how the 6 cases were selected; it seems possible or even likely that they are, in fact, 6 cases of many more treated over a long period of time.

5. If so, this paper is hardly a ‘retrospective case series’; at best it could be called a ‘best case series’.

6. The X-rays or CT scans are unnecessary and potentially harmful.

7. The anaesthesia is potentially very harmful and unjustifiable.

8. The outcome measure is unreliable, particularly if performed by the chiropractor who has a vested interest in generating a positive result.

9. The follow-up by telephone is inadequate.

10. The range of the follow-up period (6-72 months) is unacceptable.

11. The exact way in which informed consent was obtained is unclear. In particular, we would need to know whether the parents were fully informed about the futility of the treatment and its considerable risks.

12. The chiropractor who administered the treatments is not named. Why not?

13. Similarly, it is unclear why the other healthcare professionals involved in these treatments are not named as co-authors of the paper.

14. It is unclear whether ethical approval was obtained for these treatments.

The author seems inexperienced in publishing scientific articles; the present one is poorly written and badly constructed. A Medline research reveals that she has only one other publication to her name. So, perhaps one should not be too harsh in judging her. But what about her supervisors, the journal, its reviewers, its editor and the author’s institution? The author comes from the Department of Chiropractic Medicine, Medical Faculty University, Zurich, Switzerland. On their website, they state:

The Faculty of Medicine of the University of Zurich is committed to high quality teaching and continuing research-based education of students in health care professions. Excellent and internationally recognised scientists and clinically outstanding physicians are at the Faculty of Medicine devoted to patients and public health, to teaching, to the support of young researchers and to academic medicine. The interaction between research and teaching, and their connection to clinical practice play a central role for us…

The Faculty of Medicine of the University of Zurich promotes innovative research in the basic fields of medicine, in the clinical application of knowledge, in personalised medicine, in health care, and in the translational connection between all these research areas. In addition, it encourages the cooperation between primary care and specialised health care.

It seems that, with the above paper, the UZH must have made an exception. In my view, it is a clear case of scientific misconduct and child abuse.

I have just given two lectures on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in France.

Why should that be anything to write home about?

Perhaps it isn’t; but during the last 25 years I have been lecturing all over the world and, even though I live partly in France and speak the language, I never attended a single SCAM-conference there. I have tried for a long time to establish contact with French SCAM-researchers, but somehow this never happened.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that, although the practice of SCAM is hugely popular in this country, there was no or very little SCAM-research in France. This conclusion seems to be confirmed by simple Medline searches. For instance, Medline lists just 171 papers for ‘homeopathy/France’ (homeopathy is much-used in France), while the figures for Germany and the UK are 490 and 448.

These are, of course, only very rough indicators, and therefore I was delighted to be invited to participate for the first time in a French SCAM-conference. It was well-organised, and I am most grateful to the organisers to have me. Actually, the meeting was about non-pharmacological treatments but the focus was clearly on SCAM. Here are a few impressions purely on the SCAM-elements of this conference.

TERMINOLOGY

Already the title of the conference, ‘Non-pharmacological Interventions: Integrative, Preventive, Complementary and Personalised Medicines‘, contained a confusing shopping-list of terms. The actual lectures offered even more. Clear definitions of these terms were not forthcoming and are, as far as I can see, impossible. This meant that much of the discussion lacked focus. In both my presentations, I used the term ‘alternative medicine’ and stressed that all such umbrella terms are fairly useless. In my view, it is therefore best to name the precise modality (acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy etc.) one wants to discuss.

INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE

The term that seemed to dominate the conference was ‘INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE’ (IM). I got the impression that it was employed uncritically by some for bypassing the need for proper evaluation of any specific SCAM. The experts seemed to imply that, because IM is the politically and socially correct approach, there is no longer a need for asking whether the treatments to be integrated actually generate more good than harm. I got the impression that most of these researchers were confusing science with promotion.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

The discussions regularly touched upon research methodology – but they did little more than lightly touch it. People tended to lament that ‘conventional research methodology’ was inadequate for assessing SCAM, and that we therefore needed different methods and even paradigms. I did not hear any reasonable explanations in what respect the ‘conventional methodology’ might be insufficient, nor did I understand the concept of an alternative science or paradigm. My caution that double standards in medicine can only be detrimental, seemed to irritate and fell mostly on deaf ears.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

My own research agenda has always been the efficacy and safety of SCAM; and I still have no doubt that these are the issues that need addressing more urgently than any others. My impression was that, during this conference, the researchers seemed to aim in entirely different directions. One speaker even explained that, if a homeopath is fully convinced of the assumptions of homeopathy, he is entirely within the ethical standards to treat his patients homeopathically, regardless of the fact that homeopathy is demonstrably wrong. Another speaker claimed that there is no doubt any longer about the efficacy of acupuncture; the research question therefore must be how to best implement it in routine healthcare. And yet another expert tried to explain TCM with quantum physics. I have, of course, heard similar nonsense before during such conferences, but rarely did it pass without objection or debate.

RESEARCH FUNDING

The lack of research funding was bemoaned repeatedly. Most researchers seemed to think that they needed dedicated funding streams for SCAM to take account of the need of softer methodologies and the unique nature of SCAM. The argument that there should be only one set of standards for spending scarce research funds – scientific rigor and relevance – was not one shared by the French SCAM enthusiasts. The US example was frequently cited as the one that we ought to follow. In my view, the US example foremost shows impressively that a ring-fenced funding stream for SCAM is a wasteful mistake.

THE COLLEGE

To my surprise I learnt during a conference presentation that there is such a thing as the ‘Collège Universitaire de Médecines Intégratives et Complémentaires‘ (How could I have been unaware of it all those years? Why did I never see any of their published work? Why did they never contact me and cooperate?). Its president is Prof Jacques Kopferschmitt from the University of Strasbourg, and many French Universities are members of this organisation. Here is the abstract of Kopferschmitt’s lecture on the topic of this College:

The multitude of complementary therapies or non-pharmacological interventions (NPIs) first requires pedagogical semantic harmonization to bring down the historical tensions that persist. If users often remain very or too seduced, it is not the same with health professionals! Behind the words, there are concepts that disturb because between efficiency and efficiency the nuances are subtle. However, nothing really stands in the way of modern western medicine, but there are really gaps that we could fill in the face of the growing scale of chronic diseases, the prerogative of the Western world. The need for a university investment in verification, validation and certification is essential in the face of the diversity of offers. The main beneficiaries are health professionals who need to invest in an integrative approach, particularly in France. The CUMIC promotes a different vision of efficiency and effectiveness with a broader vision of multidisciplinary evaluation, which we will discuss the main targets.

Kopferschmitt is Professor of Medical Therapy, which introduced him to a pluralism of approach to health concerns, including innovative by the introduction of the CT in the first and second cycle of medical studies. He is responsible for the teaching of Acupuncture, Auriculotherapy and hypnosis clinic. He is vice President of the Groupe d’Évaluation des Thérapies complémentaires Personnalisées (GETCOP). By founding the association of complementary Therapies at the University hospitals of Strasbourg he coordinates the introduction, teaching and research in both in Hospital and in University, who was organized many seminars on CT. He currently chairs the French University of Integrative and Complementary Medicine College (CUMIC).

This sounded odd to me; however, it got truly bizarre after I looked up what SCAM-research Kopferschmitt or any of the other officers of the College have published. I could not find a single SCAM-article authored by him/them.

DIFFERENT PLANET

Altogether I found the conference enjoyable and was pleased to meet many interesting and very kind people. But I often felt like having arrived on a different planet. Many of the discussions, lectures, ideas, comments, etc. reminded me of 1993, the year I had arrived in the UK to start our research in SCAM. What is more, I fear that French experts involved in real science might feel the same about those colleagues who seem to engage themselves in SCAM research with more enthusiasm than expertise, scientific rigour or track record. The planet I had landed on was one where critical thinking was yet to be discovered, I felt.

ADVICE

Who am I to teach others what to do?

Yes, I do hesitate to give advice – but, after all, I have researched SCAM for 25 years and published more on the subject that any researcher on the planet; and I too was once more of a SCAM-enthusiast as is apparent today. So, for what it’s worth, here is some hopefully constructive advice that crossed my mind while driving home through the beautiful French landscape:

  • Sort out the confusion in terminology and define your terms as accurately as you can.
  • Try to focus on the research questions that are justifiably the most important ones for improving healthcare.
  • Do not attempt to re-invent the wheel.
  • Once you have identified a truly relevant research question, read up what has already been published on it.
  • While doing this, differentiate between rigorous research and fluff that does not meet this criterion.
  • Remember to abandon your own prejudices; research is about finding the truth and not about confirming your beliefs.
  • Avoid double standards like the pest.
  • Publish your research in top journals and avoid SCAM-journals that nobody outside SCAM takes seriously.
  • If you do not have a track record of publishing articles in top journals, please do not pretend to be an expert.
  • Involve sceptics in discussions and projects.
  • Remember that criticism is a precondition of progress.

I sincerely hope that this advice is not taken the wrong way. I certainly do not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. What I do want is foremost that my French colleagues don’t have to repeat all the mistakes we did in the UK and that they are able to make swift progress.

The present trial evaluated the efficacy of homeopathic medicines of Melissa officinalis (MO), Phytolacca decandra (PD), and the combination of both in the treatment of possible sleep bruxism (SB) in children (grinding teeth during sleep).

Patients (n = 52) (6.62 ± 1.79 years old) were selected based on the parents report of SB. The study comprised a crossover design that included 4 phases of 30-day treatments (Placebo; MO 12c; PD 12c; and MO 12c + PD 12c), with a wash-out period of 15 days between treatments.

At baseline and after each phase, the Visual Analogic Scale (VAS) was used as the primary outcome measure to evaluate the influence of treatments on the reduction of SB. The following additional outcome measures were used: a children’s sleep diary with parent’s/guardian’s perceptions of their children’s sleep quality, the trait of anxiety scale (TAS) to identify changes in children’s anxiety profile, and side effects reports. Data were analyzed by ANOVA with repeated measures followed by Post Hoc LSD test.

Significant reduction of SB was observed in VAS after the use of Placebo (-1.72 ± 0.29), MO (-2.36 ± 0.36), PD (-1.44 ± 0.28) and MO + PD (-2.21 ± 0.30) compared to baseline (4.91 ± 1.87). MO showed better results compared to PD (p = 0.018) and Placebo (p = 0.050), and similar result compared to MO+PD (p = 0.724). The sleep diary results and TAS results were not influenced by any of the treatments. No side effects were observed after treatments.

The authors concluded that MO showed promising results in the treatment of possible sleep bruxism in children, while the association of PD did not improve MO results.

Even if one fully subscribed to the principles of homeopathy, this trial raises several questions:

  1. Why was it submitted and then published in the journal ‘Phytotherapy’. All the remedies were given as C12 potencies. This has nothing to do with phytomedicine.
  2. Why was a cross-over design chosen? According to homeopathic theory, a homeopathic treatment has fundamental, long-term effects which last much longer than the wash-out periods between treatment phases. This effectively rules out such a design as a means of testing homeopathy.
  3. MO is used in phytomedicine to induce sleep and reduce anxiety. According to the homeopathic ‘like cures like’ assumption, this would mean it ought to be used homeopathically to treat sleepiness or for keeping patients awake or for making them anxious. How can it be used for sleep bruxism?

Considering all this, I ask myself: should we trust this study and its findings?

What do you think?

I am being told to educate myself and rethink the subject of NAPRAPATHY by the US naprapath Dr Charles Greer. Even though he is not very polite, he just might have a point:

Edzard, enough foolish so-called scientific, educated assesments from a trained Allopathic Physician. When asked, everything that involves Alternative Medicine in your eyesight is quackery. Fortunately, every Medically trained Allopathic Physician does not have your points of view. I have partnered with Orthopaedic Surgeons, Medical Pain Specialists, General practitioners, Thoracic Surgeons, Forensic Pathologists and Others during the course, whom appreciate the Services that Naprapaths provide. Many of my current patients are Medical Physicians. Educate yourself. Visit a Naprapath to learn first hand. I expect your outlook will certainly change.

I have to say, I am not normally bowled over by anyone who calls me an ‘allopath’ (does Greer not know that Hahnemann coined this term to denigrate his opponents? Is he perhaps also in favour of homeopathy?). But, never mind, perhaps I was indeed too harsh on naprapathy in my previous post on this subject.

So, let’s try again.

Just to remind you, naprapathy was developed by the chiropractor Oakley Smith who had graduated under D D Palmer in 1899. Smith was a former Iowa medical student who also had investigated Andrew Still’s osteopathy in Kirksville, before going to Palmer in Davenport. Eventually, Smith came to reject Palmer’s concept of vertebral subluxation and developed his own concept of “the connective tissue doctrine” or naprapathy.

Dr Geer published a short article explaining the nature of naprapathy:

Naprapathy- A scientific, Evidence based, integrative, Alternative form of Pain management and nutritional assessment that involves evaluation and treatment of Connective tissue abnormalities manifested in the entire human structure. This form of Therapeutic Regimen is unique specifically to the Naprapathic Profession. Doctors of Naprapathy, pronounced ( nuh-prop-a-thee) also referred to as Naprapaths or Neuromyologists, focus on the study of connective tissue and the negative factors affecting normal tissue. These factors may begin from external sources and latently produce cellular changes that in turn manifest themselves into structural impairments, such as irregular nerve function and muscular contractures, pulling its’ bony attachments out of proper alignment producing nerve irritability and impaired lymphatic drainage. These abnormalities will certainly produce a pain response as well as swelling and tissue congestion. Naprapaths, using their hands, are trained to evaluate tissue tension findings and formulate a very specific treatment regimen which produces positive results as may be evidenced in the patients we serve. Naprapaths also rely on information obtained from observation, hands on physical examination, soft tissue Palpatory assessment, orthopedic evaluation, neurological assessment linked with specific bony directional findings, blood and urinalysis laboratory findings, diet/ Nutritional assessment, Radiology test findings, and other pertinent clinical data whose information is scrutinized and developed into a individualized and specific treatment plan. The diagnostic findings and results produced reveal consistent facts and are totally irrefutable. The deductions that formulated these concepts of theory of Naprapathic Medicine are rationally believable, and have never suffered scientific contradiction. Discover Naprapathic Medicine, it works.

What interests me most here is that naprapathy is evidence-based. Did I perhaps miss something? As I cannot totally exclude this possibility, I did another Medline search. I found several trials:

1st study (2007)

Four hundred and nine patients with pain and disability in the back or neck lasting for at least 2 weeks, recruited at 2 large public companies in Sweden in 2005, were included in this randomized controlled trial. The 2 interventions were naprapathy, including spinal manipulation/mobilization, massage, and stretching (Index Group) and support and advice to stay active and how to cope with pain, according to the best scientific evidence available, provided by a physician (Control Group). Pain, disability, and perceived recovery were measured by questionnaires at baseline and after 3, 7, and 12 weeks.

RESULTS:

At 7-week and 12-week follow-ups, statistically significant differences between the groups were found in all outcomes favoring the Index Group. At 12-week follow-up, a higher proportion in the naprapathy group had improved regarding pain [risk difference (RD)=27%, 95% confidence interval (CI): 17-37], disability (RD=18%, 95% CI: 7-28), and perceived recovery (RD=44%, 95% CI: 35-53). Separate analysis of neck pain and back pain patients showed similar results.

DISCUSSION:

This trial suggests that combined manual therapy, like naprapathy, might be an alternative to consider for back and neck pain patients.

2nd study (2010)

Subjects with non-specific pain/disability in the back and/or neck lasting for at least two weeks (n = 409), recruited at public companies in Sweden, were included in this pragmatic randomized controlled trial. The two interventions compared were naprapathic manual therapy such as spinal manipulation/mobilization, massage and stretching, (Index Group), and advice to stay active and on how to cope with pain, provided by a physician (Control Group). Pain intensity, disability and health status were measured by questionnaires.

RESULTS:

89% completed the 26-week follow-up and 85% the 52-week follow-up. A higher proportion in the Index Group had a clinically important decrease in pain (risk difference (RD) = 21%, 95% CI: 10-30) and disability (RD = 11%, 95% CI: 4-22) at 26-week, as well as at 52-week follow-ups (pain: RD = 17%, 95% CI: 7-27 and disability: RD = 17%, 95% CI: 5-28). The differences between the groups in pain and disability considered over one year were statistically significant favoring naprapathy (p < or = 0.005). There were also significant differences in improvement in bodily pain and social function (subscales of SF-36 health status) favoring the Index Group.

CONCLUSIONS:

Combined manual therapy, like naprapathy, is effective in the short and in the long term, and might be considered for patients with non-specific back and/or neck pain.

3rd study (2016)

Participants were recruited among patients, ages 18-65, seeking care at the educational clinic of Naprapathögskolan – the Scandinavian College of Naprapathic Manual Medicine in Stockholm. The patients (n = 1057) were randomized to one of three treatment arms a) manual therapy (i.e. spinal manipulation, spinal mobilization, stretching and massage), b) manual therapy excluding spinal manipulation and c) manual therapy excluding stretching. The primary outcomes were minimal clinically important improvement in pain intensity and pain related disability. Treatments were provided by naprapath students in the seventh semester of eight total semesters. Generalized estimating equations and logistic regression were used to examine the association between the treatments and the outcomes.

RESULTS:

At 12 weeks follow-up, 64% had a minimal clinically important improvement in pain intensity and 42% in pain related disability. The corresponding chances to be improved at the 52 weeks follow-up were 58% and 40% respectively. No systematic differences in effect when excluding spinal manipulation and stretching respectively from the treatment were found over 1 year follow-up, concerning minimal clinically important improvement in pain intensity (p = 0.41) and pain related disability (p = 0.85) and perceived recovery (p = 0.98). Neither were there disparities in effect when male and female patients were analyzed separately.

CONCLUSION:

The effect of manual therapy for male and female patients seeking care for neck and/or back pain at an educational clinic is similar regardless if spinal manipulation or if stretching is excluded from the treatment option.

_________________________________________________________________

I don’t know about you, but I don’t call this ‘evidence-based’ – especially as all the three trials come from the same research group (no, not Greer; he seems to have not published at all on naprapathy). Dr Greer does clearly not agree with my assessment; on his website, he advertises treating the following conditions:

Anxiety
Back Disorders
Back Pain
Cervical Radiculopathy
Cervical Spondylolisthesis
Cervical Sprain
Cervicogenic Headache
Chronic Headache
Chronic Neck Pain
Cluster Headache
Cough Headache
Depressive Disorders
Fibromyalgia
Headache
Hip Arthritis
Hip Injury
Hip Muscle Strain
Hip Pain
Hip Sprain
Joint Clicking
Joint Pain
Joint Stiffness
Joint Swelling
Knee Injuries
Knee Ligament Injuries
Knee Sprain
Knee Tendinitis
Lower Back Injuries
Lumbar Herniated Disc
Lumbar Radiculopathy
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
Lumbar Sprain
Muscle Diseases
Musculoskeletal Pain
Neck Pain
Sciatica (Not Due to Disc Displacement)
Sciatica (Not Due to Disc Displacement)
Shoulder Disorders
Shoulder Injuries
Shoulder Pain
Sports Injuries
Sports Injuries of the Knee
Stress
Tendonitis
Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)
Thoracic Disc Disorders
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
Toe Injuries

Odd, I’d say! Did all this change my mind about naprapathy? Not really.

But nobody – except perhaps Dr Greer – can say I did not try.

And what light does this throw on Dr Greer and his professionalism? Since he seems to be already quite mad at me, I better let you answer this question.

We have discussed various forms of healing before – see, for instance, here, here and here. Of all the implausible SCAMs, healing takes the biscuit. Here is a healing-paper that fascinated me.

The aim of the study was to report epidemiologic data on ‘biofield healers’ (all types of energy healers) in radiation therapy patients, and to assess the possible objective and subjective benefits.

A retrospective study was conducted in a French cancer institute. All consecutive breast or prostate cancer patients undergoing a curative radiotherapy during 2015 were screened (n = 806). Healer consultation procedure, frequency, and remuneration were collected. Patient’s self-evaluation of healer’s impact on treatment tolerance was reported. Tolerance (fatigue, pain) was assessed through visual analogic scale (0 to 10). Analgesic consumption was evaluated.

A total of 500 patients were included (350 women and 150 men), and 256 patients (51.2%) consulted a healer during their radiation treatment, with a majority of women (58%, p < 0.01). Most patients had weekly (n = 209, 41.8%) or daily (n = 84, 16.8%) appointments with their healer. Regarding the self-reported tolerance, > 80% of the patients described a “good” or “very good” impact of the healer on their treatment. Healers were mainly voluntary (75.8%). Regarding the clinical efficacy, no difference was observed in prostate and in breast cancer patients (toxicity, antalgic consumption, pain).

The authors concluded that this study reveals that the majority of patients treated by radiotherapy consults a healer and reports a benefit on subjective tolerance, without objective tolerance amelioration.

The authors admit that their investigation has several limitations:

  1. Among the 806 screened patients, only 500 were finally included. These patients more likely report their subjective benefit on biofield healing, and could overestimate benefits in the healer group.
  2. Practices were highly variable from a healer to another.
  3. Toxicities evaluation might have been biased due to retrospective analysis based on medical patient record.

But what does this study really show?

I think, it demonstrates that:

  1. Healing is frightfully popular in France. I use the term deliberately, because this level of irrationality does, in fact, frighten me.
  2. Healing does not seem to alter the natural history of cancer.

And what about the fact that 84% of the patients reported a good or very good impact of the biofield healer on their tolerance to radiotherapy? Does this prove or even suggest that healing has positive effects? I think not! This result is to be expected. Imagine a retrospective study of patients who chose to eat a hamburger. Would we not expext that a similar percentage might claim that eating it did them good?

I rest my case.

 

 

My friend Roger, the homeopath, alerted me to the ‘Self-Controlled Energo Neuro Adaptive Regulation‘ (SCENAR). He uses it in his practice and explains:

The scenar uses biofeedback; by stimulating the nervous system, it is able to teach the body to heal itself. The device sends out a series of signals through the skin and measures the response. Each signal is only sent out when a change, in response to the previous signal, is recorded in the electrical properties of the skin. Visible responses include reddening of the skin, numbness, stickiness (the device will have the feeling of being magnetically dragged), a change in the numerical readout and an increase in the electronic clattering of the device.

The C-fibres, which comprise 85% of all nerves in the body, react most readily to the electro-stimulation and are responsible for the production of neuropeptides and other regulatory peptides. A TENS unit will only stimulate the A & B-fibres for temporary relief.

The body can get accustomed to a stable pathological state, which may have been caused by injury, disease or toxicity. The Scenar catalyses the process to produce regulatory peptides for the body to use where necessary, by stimulation of C-fibres  . It is these neuropeptides that in turn reestablish the body’s natural physiological state and are responsible for the healing process. As these peptides last up to several hours, the healing process will continue long after the treatment is over. The large quantity of neuropeptides and C-fibres in the Central Nervous System can also result in the treatment on one area aiding with other general regulatory processes, like chemical imbalances, correcting sleeplessness, appetite and behavioral problems.

Sounds like science fiction?

Or perhaps more like BS?

But, as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Roger explains:

What conditions can Scenar treat?
In the UK, the devices are licensed by the British Standards Institute for pain relief only. Likewise the FDA has approved the Scenar for pain relief. However, because of the nature of the device, viz., stimulating the nervous system, the Russian experience is that Scenar affects all the body systems in a curative manner.

The Russian experience suggests that it can be effective for a very broad range of diseases, including diseases of the digestive, cardio-vascular, respiratory, musculo-skeletal, urinary, reproductive and nervous systems. It is also useful for managing ENT diseases, eye diseases, skin conditions and dental problems. It has also been found beneficial in burns, fractures, insect bites, allergic reactions, diseases of the blood and disorders involving immune mechanisms; endocrine, nutritional and metabolic disorders; stress and mental depression, etc.

It is known to give real relief from many types of pain. It does so because it stimulates the body to heal the underlying disease causing the pain!

Another SCENAR therapist is much more specific. He tells us that SCENAR is effective for:

  • Sports and other injuries
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Issues with circulation
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Digestive disorders
  • Certain infections
  • Immune dysfunctions

Perhaps I was a bit hasty; perhaps the SCENAR does work after all. It is certainly offered by many therapists like Roger. They cannot all be charlatans, or can they?

Time to do a proper Medline search and find out about the clinical trials that have been done with the SCENAR. Disappointingly, I only found three relevant papers; here they are:

Study No 1

A new technique of low-frequency modulated electric current therapy, SCENAR therapy, was used in treatment of 103 patients with duodenal ulcer (DU). The influence of SCENAR therapy on the main clinical and functional indices of a DU relapse was studied. It was shown that SCENAR therapy, which influences disturbed mechanisms of adaptive regulation and self-regulation, led to positive changes in most of the parameters under study. Addition of SCENAR therapy to the complex conventional pharmacotherapy fastened ulcer healing, increased the effectiveness of Helicobacter pylori eradication, and improved the condition of the gastroduodenal mucosa.

Study No 2

Administration of artrofoon in combination with SCENAR therapy to patients with localized suppurative peritonitis in the postoperative period considerably reduced plasma MDA level, stabilized ceruloplasmin activity, and increased catalase activity in erythrocytes compared to the corresponding parameters in patients receiving standard treatment in combination with SCENAR therapy.

Study No 3

The author recommends a self-control energoneuroadaptive regulator (SCENAR) as effective in the treatment of neurogenic dysfunction of the bladder in children with nocturnal enuresis. This regulator operates according to the principles of Chinese medicine and may be used in sanatoria and at home by the children’s parents specially trained by physiotherapist.

_____________________________________________________________________

While the quantity of the ‘studies’ is lamentable, their quality seems quite simply unacceptable.

We are thus left with two possibilities: either the SCENAR is more or less what its proponents promise and the science has for some strange reason not caught up with this reality; or the reality is that SCENAR is a bogus treatment used by charlatans who exploit the gullible public.

I know which possibility I favour – how about you?

Dengue is a viral infection spread by mosquitoes; it is common in many parts of the world. The symptoms include fever, headache, muscle/joint pain and a red rash. The infection is usually mild and lasts about a week. In rare cases it can be more serious and even life threatening. There’s no specific treatment – except for homeopathy; at least this is what many homeopaths want us to believe.

This article reports the clinical outcomes of integrative homeopathic care in a hospital setting during a severe outbreak of dengue in New Delhi, India, during the period September to December 2015.

Based on preference, 138 patients received a homeopathic medicine along with usual care (H+UC), and 145 patients received usual care (UC) alone. Assessment of thrombocytopenia (platelet count < 100,000/mm3) was the main outcome measure. Kaplan-Meier analysis enabled comparison of the time taken to reach a platelet count of 100,000/mm3.

The results show a statistically significantly greater rise in platelet count on day 1 of follow-up in the H+UC group compared with UC alone. This trend persisted until day 5. The time taken to reach a platelet count of 100,000/mm3 was nearly 2 days earlier in the H+UC group compared with UC alone.

The authors concluded that these results suggest a positive role of adjuvant homeopathy in thrombocytopenia due to dengue. Randomized controlled trials may be conducted to obtain more insight into the comparative effectiveness of this integrative approach.

The design of the study is not able to control for placebo effects. Therefore, the question raised by this study is the following: can an objective parameter like the platelet count be influenced by placebo? The answer is clearly YES.

Why do researchers go to the trouble of conducting such a trial, while omitting both randomisation as well as placebo control? Without such design features the study lacks rigour and its results become meaningless? Why can researchers of Dengue fever run a trial without reporting symptomatic improvements?  Could the answer to these questions perhaps be found in the fact that the authors are affiliated to the ‘Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, New Delhi?

One could argue that this trial – yet another one published in the journal ‘Homeopathy’ – is a waste of resources and patients’ co-operation. Therefore, one might even argue, such a study might be seen as unethical. In any case, I would argue that this study is irrelevant nonsense that should have never seen the light of day.

 

Power Point therapy (PPT) is not what you might think it is; it is not related to a presentation using power point. Power According to the authors of the so far only study of PPT, it is based on the theories of classic acupuncture, neuromuscular reflexology, and systems theoretical approaches like biocybernetics. It has been developed after four decades of experience by Mr. Gerhard Egger, an Austrian therapist. Hundreds of massage and physiotherapists in Europe were trained to use it, and apply it currently in their practice. The treatment can be easily learned. It is taught by professional PPT therapists to students and patients for self-application in weekend courses, followed by advanced courses for specialists.

The core hypothesis of the PPT system is that various pain syndromes have its origin, among others, in a functional pelvic obliquity. This in turn leads to a static imbalance in the posture of the body. This may result in mechanical strain and possible spinal nerve irritation that may radiate and thus affect dermatomes, myotomes, enterotomes, sclerotomes, and neurotomes of one or more vertebra segments. Therefore, treating reflex zones for the pelvis would reduce and possibly resolve the functional obliquity, improve the statics, and thus cure the pain through improved function. In addition, reflex therapy might be beneficial also in patients with unknown causes of back pain. PPT uses blunt needle tips to apply pressure to specific reflex points on the nose, hand, and feet. PPT has been used for more than 10 years in treating patients with musculoskeletal problems, especially lower back pain.

Sounds more than a little weird?

Yes, I agree.

Perhaps we need some real evidence.

The aim of this RCT was to compare 10 units of PPT of 10 min each, with 10 units of standard physiotherapy of 30 min each. Outcomes were functional scores (Roland Morris Disability, Oswestry, McGill Pain Questionnaire, Linton-Halldén – primary outcome) and health-related quality of life (SF-36), as well as blinded assessments by clinicians (secondary outcome).

Eighty patients consented and were randomized, 41 to PPT, 39 to physiotherapy. Measurements were taken at baseline, after the first and after the last treatment (approximately 5 weeks after enrolment). Multivariate linear models of covariance showed significant effects of time and group and for the quality of life variables also a significant interaction of time by group. Clinician-documented variables showed significant differences at follow-up.

The authors concluded that both physiotherapy and PPT improve subacute low back pain significantly. PPT is likely more effective and should be studied further.

I was tempted to say ‘there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this study’. But then I hesitated and, on second thought, found a few things that do concern me:

  • The theory on which PPT is based is not plausible (to put it mildly).
  • It would have been easy to conduct a placebo-controlled trial of PPT. The authors justify their odd study design stating this: This was the very first randomized controlled trial of PPT. Therefore, the study has to be considered a pilot. For a pivotal study, a clearly defined primary outcome would have been essential. This was not possible, as no previous experience was able to suggest which outcome would be the best. In my view, this is utter nonsense. Defining the primary outcome of a back pain study is not rocket science; there are plenty of validated measures of pain.
  • The study was funded by the Foundation of Natural Sciences and Technical Research in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. I cannot find such an organisation on the Internet.
  • The senior author of this study is Prof H Walach who won the prestigious award for pseudoscientist of the year 2012.
  • Walach provides no less than three affiliations, including the ‘Change Health Science Institute, Berlin, Germany’. I cannot find such an organisation on the Internet.
  • The trial was published in a less than prestigious SCAM journal, ‘Forschende Komplementarmedizin‘ – its editor in-chief: Harald Walach.

So, in view of these concerns, I think PPT might not be nearly as promising as this study implies. Personally, I will wait for an independent replication of Walach’s findings.

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

Dr Ernst,

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

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

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

THIS IS HOW I RESPONDED

Dear Mr …

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck.

Edzard Ernst

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