Personally, I like sauna bathing. It makes me feel fine. But is it healthy? More specifically, is it good for the cardiovascular system?
Finnish researchers had already shown in a large cohort study with 20 years of follow-up that increased frequency of sauna bathing is associated with a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality. Now the same group of researchers report more encouraging news for sauna-fans.
The aim of their new study was to investigate the relationship between sauna habits and CVD mortality in men and women, and whether adding information on sauna habits to conventional cardiovascular risk factors is associated with improvement in prediction of CVD mortality risk.
Sauna bathing habits were assessed at baseline in a sample of 1688 participants (mean age 63; range 53-74 years), of whom 51.4% were women. Multivariable-adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) were calculated to investigate the relationships of frequency and duration of sauna use with CVD mortality.
A total of 181 fatal CVD events occurred during a median follow-up of 15.0 years (interquartile range, 14.1-15.9). The risk of CVD mortality decreased linearly with increasing sauna sessions per week with no threshold effect. In age- and sex-adjusted analysis, compared with participants who had one sauna bathing session per week, HRs (95% CIs) for CVD mortality were 0.71 (0.52 to 0.98) and 0.30 (0.14 to 0.64) for participants with two to three and four to seven sauna sessions per week, respectively. After adjustment for established CVD risk factors, potential confounders including physical activity, socioeconomic status, and incident coronary heart disease, the corresponding HRs (95% CIs) were 0.75 (0.52 to 1.08) and 0.23 (0.08 to 0.65), respectively. The duration of sauna use (minutes per week) was inversely associated with CVD mortality in a continuous manner. Addition of information on sauna bathing frequency to a CVD mortality risk prediction model containing established risk factors was associated with a C-index change (0.0091; P = 0.010), difference in - 2 log likelihood (P = 0.019), and categorical net reclassification improvement (4.14%; P = 0.004).
(Hazard ratios for cardiovascular mortality by quartiles of the duration of sauna bathing. a Adjusted for age and gender. b Adjusted for age, gender, body mass index, smoking, systolic blood pressure, serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, alcohol consumption, previous myocardial infarction, and type 2 diabetes. CI, confidence interval.)
The authors concluded that higher frequency and duration of sauna bathing are each strongly, inversely, and independently associated with fatal CVD events in middle-aged to elderly males and females. The frequency of sauna bathing improves the prediction of the long-term risk for CVD mortality.
These results are impressive. What could be the underlying mechanisms? The authors offer plenty of explanations: Dry and hot sauna baths have been shown to increase the demands of cardiovascular function. Sauna bathing causes an increase in heart rate which is a reaction to the body heat load. Heart rate may be elevated up to 120–150 beats per minute during sauna bathing, corresponding to low- to moderate-intensity physical exercise training for the circulatory system without active muscle work. Acute sauna exposure has been shown to produce blood pressure lowering effects, decrease peripheral vascular resistance and arterial stiffness, and improve arterial compliance. Short-term sauna exposure also activates the sympathetic nervous and the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone systems and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal hormonal axis, and short-term increases in levels of their associated hormones have been reported. Repeated sauna exposure improves endothelial function, suggesting a beneficial role of thermal therapy on vascular function. Long-term sauna bathing habit may be beneficial in the reduction of high systemic blood pressure, which is in line with previous evidence showing that blood pressure may be lower among those who are living in warm conditions with higher ambient temperature. Regular sauna bathing is associated with a lowered risk of future hypertension. Typical hot and dry Finnish sauna increases body temperature which causes more efficient skin blood flow, leading to a higher cardiac output, whereas blood flow to internal organs decreases. Sweat is typically secreted at a rate which corresponds to an average total secretion of 0.5 kg during a sauna bathing session. Increased sweating is accompanied by a reduction in blood pressure and higher heart rate, while cardiac stroke volume is largely maintained, although a part of blood volume is diverted from the internal organs to body peripheral parts with decreasing venous return which is not facilitated by active skeletal muscle work. However, it has been proposed that muscle blood flow may increase to at least some extent in response to heat stress, although sauna therapy-induced myocardial metabolic adaptations are largely unexplored. There is also evidence that regular long-term sauna bathing (average of two sessions per week) increases left ventricular ejection fraction. Heat therapy may improve left ventricular function with decreased cardiac pre- and afterload, thereby maintaining appropriate stroke volume despite large reductions in ventricular filling pressures. Additionally, previous studies have demonstrated a positive alteration of the autonomic nervous system and reduced levels of natriuretic peptides, oxidative stress, inflammation, and norepinephrine due to regular sauna therapy.
It is possible that the results are influenced by confounding factors that the researchers were unable to account for. It is also possible that people who are already ill avoid sauna bathing and that this contributed to the findings. However, the authors did their best to explore such phenomena in sub-group analysis and found that a causal relationship between sauna and CVD risk is still very likely. As a sauna-fan, I am inclined to believe them and the sceptic in me tends to agree.
The ‘CANADIAN COLLEGE OF HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINE’ has posted an interesting announcement:
Homeopathic Treatment of Asthma with Homeopath Kim Elia www.wholehealthnow.com/bios/kim-elia
In asthma, bronchial narrowing results in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a sense of tightness in the chest. Traditional treatments, such as bronchodilator and steroidal inhalers, reasonably control the condition, but cure is elusive. Side effects and long-term use can eventually be quite damaging, including impairment of immune function and growth rate in children. Homeopathy has an excellent track record in treating this debilitating illness, and offers the hope of weaning off of traditional injurious treatments, replacing them with a far gentler and deeper-acting solution.
About Kim Elia
Students from around the world have expressed appreciation and admiration for Kim’s superb knowledge of the history of homeopathy, his deep understanding of homeopathic prescribing, and his extensive knowledge of materia medica. He is known for his dynamic and distinctive teaching methods which reflect his immense knowledge of the remedies and his genuine desire to educate everyone about this affordable and effective healing modality.
END OF QUOTE
There a few facts that the college seems to have forgotten to mention or even deliberately distorted:
- Asthma is a potentially lethal disease; each year, hundreds of patients die during acute asthma attacks.
- The condition can be controlled with conventional treatments.
- The best evidence fails to show that homeopathy is an effective treatment of asthma.
- Therefore, encouraging homeopathy as an alternative for asthma, risks the unnecessary, premature death of many patients.
And who is Kim Elia?
- Apparently, he was inspired to study homeopathy when he read Gandhi’s quote about homeopathy, “Homeopathy cures a greater percentage of cases than any other method of treatment. Homeopathy is the latest and refined method of treating patients economically and non-violently.” He has been studying homeopathy since 1987 and graduated from the New England School of Homeopathy.
- Kim is the former Director of Nutrition at Heartwood Institute, California.
- He was the Director of Fasting at Heartwood.
- Kim was a trainer at a company providing whole food nutritional supplements.
- Kim serves as CEO of WholeHealthNow, the distributors of OPUS Homeopathic Software and Books in North America.
- Kim provides and coordinates software training and support, and oversees new software development with an international team of homeopaths and software developers.
- He was inspired to create the Historic Homeopathic Timeline, and is responsible for a growing library of recorded interviews and presentations with today’s world renowned homeopaths.
- Kim was the principal instructor and developer of the four year classical homeopathy program at the Hahnemann Academy in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
- He is currently developing new homeopathy projects.
What the site does not reveal is his expertise in treating asthma.
The Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine claims to be dedicated to the training of homeopaths according to the highest standard of homeopathic education, emphasizing the art and practice of homeopathy as outlined in Hahnemanns’s Organon of the Medical Art. We aim to further the field of homeopathy as a whole through the provision of quality, primary homeopathic care.
If that is what the highest standard of homeopathic education looks like, I would prefer an uneducated homeopath any time!
I am truly saddened and shocked to hear that Peter Fisher has died. Apparently, he was cycling to work on 15 August, when, at 9.30 am, he was hit and fatally injured by a lorry. The Faculty of Homeopathy published the following statement:
The Faculty of Homeopathy has to announce with great sadness, news of the death of the Faculty President, Dr Peter Fisher in a road accident near the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM), London, UK, on the morning of 15th August 2018.
Dr Fisher was Director of Research at the hospital, Europe’s largest centre for integrative medicine. He was also Physician to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was previously Honorary Consultant Rheumatologist at King’s College Hospital. He was also one of the world leaders in homeopathic research, and will be sorely missed not only by his family and UK friends and colleagues but around the whole world.
A graduate of Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Faculty of Homeopathy, he was a widely published expert in rheumatology and forms of complementary and alternative medicine. Dr Fisher chaired the World Health Organisation’s working group on homeopathy and was a member of WHO’s Expert Advisory Panel on Traditional and Complementary Medicine. He was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal of the Polish Academy of Medicine in 2007.
Further detail will appear on the website in due course.
This is how Peter described himself on the Bupa website:
I specialise in homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine, integrated with conventional treatment, for rheumatological complaints including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and soft tissue syndromes such as Fibromyalgia. Also for skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis and a range of general medical problems. I accept both NHS and Private referrals.
I am Associate Clinical Director and Director of Research at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, Europe’s largest centre for integrative medicine.
I am also Physician to Her Majesty The Queen.
I was previously Honorary Consultant Rheumatologist at King’s College Hospital. I am a graduate of Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Faculty of Homeopathy. I am accredited as a specialist in both homeopathy and rheumatology.
I knew Peter well. We first met when we both served on a EU committee on homeopathy in Brussels for several years. I do not think that I exaggerate, if I say that we became friends. I did respect him for his relatively prudent stance on many things related to homeopathy. For instance, he was an outspoken critic of the anti-vaxx attitude of many of his fellow homeopaths. We even have two publications together:
He was also a contributor of my book ‘HOMEOPATHY, A CRITICAL APPRAISAL‘ where he co-authored a chapter on homeopathic pathogenetic trials which contained the sentence, ” It is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the true effects of homeopathic medicines in healthy volunteers...”
And, in 2015, we published a BMJ ‘head to head’ together where we outlined our differences regarding homeopathy:
It is no secret to regular readers of this blog that, lately, we disagreed on many things. In the course of these differences, our friendship regrettably fell apart.
I am nevertheless deeply saddened to hear of this tragic accident.
The fact that many SCAM-practitioners are latent or even overt anti-vaxxers has often been addressed on this blog. The fact that the anti-vaccination guru, Andrew Wakefield, has his fingers deep in the SCAM-pie is less well appreciated.
In case you forgot who Wakefield is, let me remind you. As a gastroenterologist at the London Royal Free Hospital, he published evidence in the Lancet (1998) suggesting that the MMR vaccination was a cause of autism. It was discovered to be fraudulent. In 2010, a statutory tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges proved, including 4 counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally delayed children. Consequently, he was struck off the register and lives in the US ever since where he, amongst many other things, enjoys lecturing to homeopaths and chiropractors about the dangers of vaccination.
Since Trump, who seems to share Wakefield’s anti-vaxx stance, has become president of the US, Wakefield has managed to creep back in the limelight. The Guardian recently reported: At one of President Trump’s inaugural balls in January last year, he was quoted as contemplating the overthrow of the (pro-vaccine) US medical establishment in words that brought to mind Trump himself. “What we need now is a huge shakeup at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a huge shakeup. We need that to change dramatically.”
In the US, Wakefield also founded the ‘Autism Media Channel’ which makes videos alleging a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The film ‘Vaxxed’ was thus directed by Wakefield. It was put forward to premiere at the 2016 Tribeca film festival by Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic child. It alleges a cover-up of the alleged link between MMR and autism by the CDC – the institute Wakefield said needed a shake-up at the Trump inaugural ball. After much discussion, De Niro fortunately withdrew the film.
Wakefield’s private life has also seem significant changes. He is reported to have recently left his wife who had supported him throughout the debacle in the UK and is now ‘deliciously in love’ with the super-model and entrepreneur Elle Macpherson . Brian Burrowes, 48, who edited ‘Vaxxed’ was reported stating that he and Macpherson had begun dating after they were both guests at the ‘Doctors Who Rock‘ Awards in November last year. This event was to honour alternative medicine practitioners, with Macpherson handing out an award and Wakefield receiving one. Other awardees included Del Bigtree and Billy DeMoss DC.
Wakefield’s legacy in Europe is the recurrence of measles due to persistent doubts in vaccination safety. This regrettable phenomenon is fuelled by Wakefield’s multiple activities, including face-book, twitter and you-tube. Social media has provided an alternative to the “failings of mainstream media”, Wakefield was quoted in the Guardian saying – another phrase that could have come from a tweet by the US president himself. “In this country, it’s become so polarised now … No one knows quite what to believe,” Wakefield said. “So, people are turning increasingly to social media.”
And this is what I said about this strategy in today’s Times: “Such anti-vaccination propaganda is hugely harmful. It prompts many families to shun immunisations which means firstly they are unprotected, and secondly we as a people might lose herd immunity. The result is what we currently see throughout Europe: epidemics are threatening the lives of millions. It is in my view irresponsible for any institution to get involved in the anti-vaxx cult, particularly for universities who really should know better.”
The investigators wanted to find out what patient characteristics are associated with use of SCAM for cancer and what is the association of SCAM with treatment adherence and survival. They thus compared the overall survival between patients with cancer receiving conventional treatments with or without SCAM and the adherence to treatment and characteristics of patients in both groups.
Their retrospective observational study used data from the National Cancer Database on 1 901 815 patients from 1500 Commission on Cancer–accredited centers across the United States who were diagnosed with nonmetastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2013. Patients were matched on age, clinical group stage, Charlson-Deyo comorbidity score, insurance type, race/ethnicity, year of diagnosis, and cancer type. Overall survival, adherence to treatment, and patient characteristics were the study endpoints.
The cohort comprised 1 901 815 patients with cancer (258 patients in the SCAM group and 1 901 557 patients in the control group). In the main analyses following matching, 258 patients were in the SCAM group, and 1032 patients were in the control group. Patients who chose SCAM did not have a longer delay to initiation of conventional therapies, but had higher refusal rates of surgery, radiotherapy, and hormone therapy. Use of SCAM was associated with poorer 5-year overall survival compared with no SCAM (82.2% [95% CI, 76.0%-87.0%] vs 86.6% [95% CI, 84.0%-88.9%]; P = .001) and was independently associated with greater risk of death (hazard ratio, 2.08; 95% CI, 1.50-2.90) in a multivariate model that did not include treatment delay or refusal. However, there was no significant association between SCAM and survival once treatment delay or refusal was included in the model.
The authors concluded that patients who received CM were more likely to refuse additional CCT, and had a higher risk of death. The results suggest that mortality risk associated with CM was mediated by the refusal of CCT.
This new evidence confirms previous papers: SCAM-use is associated with shorter survival of cancer patients. As it is based on a large sample size, its results are more compelling. They indicate that it is not SCAM per se, but the attitude of SCAM-users to conventional therapies that is the cause of the effect. As I have said and written hundreds of times: the most serious risk of SCAM is not a direct but an indirect one: the risk of neglecting effective therapies. Essentially, this means that better information targeted at vulnerable patients must be the way forward (one of the main ambitions of this blog, I hasten to add).
My previous post was about the question whether lay-homeopaths can practise homeopathy without breaking their code of ethics. The answer was NO, because they lack most of the skills needed to obtain informed consent.
What about doctor homeopaths?
Can they practice homeopathy ethically?
Doctors are, of course, also obliged to follow their ethical code, and that means they too must obtain informed consent from their patients before starting a therapy. This is, for instance, what the UK General Medical Council tells their members:
You must give patients the information they want or need about:
- the diagnosis and prognosis
- any uncertainties about the diagnosis or prognosis, including options for further investigations
- options for treating or managing the condition, including the option not to treat
- the purpose of any proposed investigation or treatment and what it will involve
- the potential benefits, risks and burdens, and the likelihood of success, for each option; this should include information, if available, about whether the benefits or risks are affected by which organisation or doctor is chosen to provide care
- whether a proposed investigation or treatment is part of a research programme or is an innovative treatment designed specifically for their benefit4
- the people who will be mainly responsible for and involved in their care, what their roles are, and to what extent students may be involved
- their right to refuse to take part in teaching or research
- their right to seek a second opinion
- any bills they will have to pay
- any conflicts of interest that you, or your organisation, may have
- any treatments that you believe have greater potential benefit for the patient than those you or your organisation can offer.
You should explore these matters with patients, listen to their concerns, ask for and respect their views, and encourage them to ask questions.
You should check whether patients have understood the information they have been given, and whether or not they would like more information before making a decision. You must make it clear that they can change their mind about a decision.
Following the 8 points from my previous post (I am trying to apply the same criteria to both types of homeopaths), a medical homeopath might tell her patient (whose stomach pain turns out to be caused, let’s assume, by a stomach ulcer) roughly this:
- The tests show that you are suffering from stomach ulcer.
- The natural history of this condition is usually benign, but it needs effective treatment; if not, the problem would become serious.
- Conventional medicine has several effective therapeutic options.
- I nevertheless propose to treat you with a homeopathic remedy.
- There is no good evidence that it will work beyond a placebo effect.
- The remedy is harmless, but not giving you an effective treatment might cause considerable harm.
- The cost of the consultation is £80, and the remedy will cost you around £15.
- I suggest you come again in a week or two; perhaps we need quite a few consultations altogether.
Again, as with the lay-homeopath from my previous post, any sensible patient would walk away without accepting the treatment. This means that our doctor homeopath can only practice homeopathy, if she does not inform her patient about points 5 and 6. In other words, doctors who practice homeopathy cannot obtain adequately informed consent. We have recently seen a real case of this happening and ending in the death of the patient.
Of course, the homeopath might send her patient to a specialist; or she might decide to administer a conventional therapy herself. Either way, she would not be practising homeopathy.
The dilemma is real, yet it is rarely considered. Here is a short passage from our book where we discuss the ethics of alternative medicine in full detail:
Genuine informed consent is unattainable for most CAM modalities. This presents a serious and intractable ethical problem for CAM practitioners. Attempts to square this circle by watering down or redeﬁning the criteria for informed consent are ethically indefensible. The concept of informed consent and its centrality in medical ethics therefore renders most CAM practice unacceptable. Conventional healthcare subscribes to the ethical principle ‘no consent, no treatment’; we are not aware of the existence of any good reasons to excuse CAM from this dictum.
As I said, the ethical practice of homeopathy is a practical impossibility.
Or do you think I got this wrong?
Remember when an international delegation of homeopaths travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola?
Virologists and other experts thought at the time that this was pure madness. But, from the perspective of dedicated homeopaths who have gone through ‘proper’ homeopathic ‘education’ and have the misfortune to believe all the nonsense they have been told, this is not madness. In fact, the early boom of homeopathy, about 200 years ago, was based not least on the seemingly resounding success homeopaths had during various epidemics.
I fully understand that homeopath adore this type of evidence – it is good for their ego! And therefore, they tend to dwell on it and re-hash it time and again. The most recent evidence for this is a brand-new article entitled ‘Homeopathic Prevention and Management of Epidemic Diseases’. It is such a beauty that I present you the original abstract without change:
START OF QUOTE
Homeopathy has been used to treat epidemic diseases since the time of Hahnemann, who used Belladonna to treat scarlet fever. Since then, several approaches using homeopathy for epidemic diseases have been proposed, including individualization, combination remedies, genus epidemicus, and isopathy.
The homeopathic research literature was searched to find examples of each of these approaches and to evaluate which were effective.
There is good experimental evidence for each of these approaches. While individualization is the gold standard, it is impractical to use on a widespread basis. Combination remedies can be effective but must be based on the symptoms of a given epidemic in a specific location. Treatment with genus epidemicus can also be successful if based on data from many practitioners. Finally, isopathy shows promise and might be more readily accepted by mainstream medicine due to its similarity to vaccination.
Several different homeopathic methods can be used to treat epidemic diseases. The challenge for the future is to refine these approaches and to build on the knowledge base with additional rigorous trials. If and when conventional medicine runs out of options for treating epidemic diseases, homeopathy could be seen as an attractive alternative, but only if there is viable experimental evidence of its success.
END OF QUOTE
I don’t need to stress, I think, that such articles are highly irresponsible and frightfully dangerous: if anyone ever took the message that homeopathy has the answer to epidemic seriously, millions might die.
The reasons why epidemiological evidence of this nature is wrong has been discussed before on this blog; I therefore only need to repeat them:
In the typical epidemiological case/control study, one large group of patients [A] is retrospectively compared to another group [B]. In our case, group A has been treated homeopathically, while group B received the treatments available at the time. It is true that several of such reports seemed to suggest that homeopathy works. But this does by no means prove anything; the result might have been due to a range of circumstances, for instance:
- group A might have been less ill than group B,
- group A might have been richer and therefore better nourished,
- group A might have benefitted from better hygiene in the homeopathic hospital,
- group A might have received better care, e. g. hydration,
- group B might have received treatments that made the situation not better but worse.
Because these are RETROSPECTIVE studies, there is no way to account for these and many other factors that might have influenced the outcome. This means that epidemiological studies of this nature can generate interesting results which, in turn, need testing in properly controlled studies where these confounding factors are adequately controlled for. Without such tests, they are next to worthless for recommendations regarding clinical practice.
In essence, this means that epidemiological evidence of this type can be valuable for generating hypotheses which, in turn, need testing in rigorous clinical trials. Without these tests, the evidence can be dangerously misleading.
But, of course, Jennifer Jacobs, the author of the new article, knows all this – after all, she has been employed for many years by the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States!
In this case, why does she re-hash the old myth of homeopathy being the answer to epidemics?
I do not know the answer to this question, but I do know that she is a convinced homeopath with plenty of papers on the subject.
And what sort of journal would publish such dangerous, deeply unethical rubbish?
It is a journal we have discussed several before; its called HOMEOPATHY.
This journal is, I think, remarkable: not even homeopaths would deny that homeopathy is a most controversial subject. One would therefore expect that the editorial board of the leading journal of homeopathy (Impact Factor = 1.16) has a few members who are critical of homeopathy and its assumptions. Yet, I fail to spot a single such person of the board of HOMEOPATHY. Please have a look yourself and tell me, if you can identify such an individual:
FRCP, FFHom, London, UK
Senior Deputy Editor
Robert T. Mathie
BSc (Hons), PhD, London, UK
Paulista University, São Paulo, Brazil
Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel
University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK
Editorial Advisory Board
Centre for Integrative Psychiatry, Groningen, The Netherlands
University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany
Iris R. Bell
University of Arizona, USA
Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India
Centre de Recherche et de Documentation Thérapeutique, France
University of Maryland, School of Medicine, USA
Centre for Integrative Care, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
University of California, Santa Rosa, USA
Kusum S. Chand
Pushpanjali Crosslay Hospital, Ghaziabad, India
London South Bank University, UK
University of Uberlândia, Brazil
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK
Duke University, USA
Haguenau Hospital, France
Interuniversity College Graz/Castle of Seggau, Austria
Queen’s University Belfast, UK
Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy, UK
University of Baja California, Mexico
Carla Holandino Quaresma
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
University of Washington, USA
Samueli Institute, Alexandria, USA
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK
Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, UK
Pretoria, South Africa
Technical University, Munich, Germany
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK
Raj K. Manchanda
Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, New Delhi, India
University of Westminster, London, UK
Association Française pour la Recherche en Homéopathie, France
Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, UK
Integrative Medicine Institute, Portland, USA
Breda, The Netherlands
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
University of Bristol, UK
Centre de médecines intégrées, Switzerland
Homeopathy Research Institute, UK
Robbert van Haselen
International Institute for Integrated Medicine, Kingston, UK
Michel Van Wassenhoven
Unio Homeopathica Belgica, Belgium
University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany
University of Utrecht, The Netherlands
I rest my case.
Gustav was born into a Jewish family that emigrated from 1930s Goettingen (Germany) to the UK. His father Max, a friend of Einstein, was a physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum mechanics. Gustav served in the British forces as a doctor during WW2. After the war, he became a pharmacologist in London and Cambridge who had many achievements to his name. For instance, he discovered the mechanisms through which the body stops bleeding and initiates blood clotting. He also invented the platelet aggregometer that is still used universally to quantify platelet activity and which he never patented so that not he but mankind would benefit from it. Gustav was indefatigable and continued his research for many years after his retirement. His work was crowned with uncounted scientific awards.
There have been numerous, much more detailed obituaries honouring Gustav e. g.:
Mine is merely a personal tribute. I met Gustav in the early 1990s while working in Vienna. We became close friends, and he took me under his wings, encouraged me to come to the UK, wrote a glowing reference when I applied for the Exeter post, and gave me moral support whenever I needed it.
After I had moved to the UK, we regularly met, and he even came to my 50th birthday party insisting to make a speech. About 15 years ago, he once attended one of my public lectures on alternative medicine; afterwards his comment was: “you know, your work is going to save lives.” Since my retirement, he kept phoning me at home (apparently Gustav had an irresistible attraction to the telephone) and urged me, usually speaking in German, to arrange a meeting. We always concluded that this must be soon; sadly, however, this did not happen.
Gustav was a great story-teller. One of his preferred anecdotes related to homeopathy. He recounted (interrupting himself giggling) that, when Einstein and his father once were talking, someone mentioned homeopathy and asked them what they thought of it. Einstein reflected for a little while and then said: “If one were to lock up 10 very clever people in a room and told them they were only allowed out once they had come up with the most stupid idea conceivable, they would soon come up with homeopathy.”
It is therefore not surprising that, when I invited Gustav to contribute a chapter to my book ‘HEALING, HYPE OR HARM?‘, he agreed to write an essay entitled ‘HOMEOPATHY IN CONTEXT’. Here is a short extract from it: What can be done to counteract the persistence of homeopathy? Its unwarranted claims must be continuously exposed. The diversion of public money from the proper purposed of the NHS must be stopped.
I shall miss Gustav for his clear thinking, his wry humour, his unfailing support and fatherly friendship.
Some commentators on this blog and elsewhere keep on claiming that conventional medicine is dangerous, certainly more dangerous than homeopathy (or other alternative therapies). To test the validity of this assumption, I invite you to a little thought experiment:
Imagine 100 patients suffering from each of the conditions listed below.
- coronary heart disease
- peripheral vascular disease
(this list could be extended ad libitum)
Now imagine all of these patients would receive alternative treatment in the form of homeopathy.
Next ask yourself in how many of these patients would hasten death (i. e. contribute to a fatal outcome earlier than necessary).
Here are my estimates (based on the best available evidence):
- cancer: 100
- AIDS: 100
- Ebola: 100
- sepsis: 100
- TB: 100
- MS: 100
- dementia: 100
- coronary heart disease: 100
- stroke: 100
- diabetes: 100
- peripheral vascular disease: 100
(Please don’t tell me that homeopaths do not regularly claim to be able to treat those conditions; and please don’t say that they do not advocate homeopathy as a truly alternative therapy, because they do – if you don’t believe me, do a simple google search yourself.)
And now imagine these patients are being treated by conventional medicine. It seems obvious that not all lives would be saved and that some would die of their condition. But that was not my question. It was, in how many of these patients would conventional medicine hasten death?
Here are my estimates (based on the best available evidence):
- cancer: 0
- AIDS: 0
- Ebola: 0
- sepsis: 0
- TB: 0
- MS: 0
- dementia: o
- coronary heart disease: 0
- stroke: 0
- diabetes: 0
- peripheral vascular disease: 0
I know this is a bit simplistic (as well as provocative). But I was merely trying to make a point: Homeopathy (and many other alternative treatments) are by no means as safe as its proponents seem to think.
The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.
Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,
The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.
Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:
|EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP||EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP||RISKS||COSTS||RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE|
|Advice to stay active||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Education||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Superficial heat||+/-||Ie||Very minor||Low to medium||Positive (aLBP)|
|Exercise||Limited||+/-, routine||Very minor||Low||Positive (pLBP)|
|CBT||Limited||+/-, routine||None||Low to medium||Positive (pLBP)|
|Rehab||Ie||+/-||Minor||Medium to high||Questionable|
Routine = consider for routine use
+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment
Ie = insufficient evidence
Limited = limited use in selected patients
vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects
sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record
aLBP = acute low back pain
The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.
I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.