The Journal of Experimental Therapeutics and Oncology states that it is devoted to the rapid publication of innovative preclinical investigations on therapeutic agents against cancer and pertinent findings of experimental and clinical oncology. In the journal you will find review articles, original articles, and short communications on all areas of cancer research, including but not limited to preclinical experimental therapeutics; anticancer drug development; cancer biochemistry; biotechnology; carcinogenesis; cancer cytogenetics; clinical oncology; cytokine biology; epidemiology; molecular biology; pathology; pharmacology; tumor cell biology; and experimental oncology.
After reading an article entitled ‘How homeopathic medicine works in cancer treatment: deep insight from clinical to experimental studies’ in its latest issue, I doubt that the journal is devoted to anything.
Here is the abstract:
In the current scenario of medical sciences, homeopathy, the most popular system of therapy, is recognized as one of the components of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) across the world. Despite, a long debate is continuing whether homeopathy is just a placebo or more than it, homeopathy has been considered to be safe and cost-effectiveness therapeutic modality. A number of human ailments ranging from common to serious have been treated with homeopathy. However, selection of appropriate medicines against a disease is cumbersome task as total spectrum of symptoms of a patient guides this process. Available data suggest that homeopathy has potency not only to treat various types of cancers but also to reduce the side effects caused by standard therapeutic modalities like chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery. Although homeopathy has been widely used for management of cancers, its efficacy is still under question. In the present review, the anti-cancer effect of various homeopathic drugs against different kinds of cancers has been discussed and future course of action has also been suggested.
I do wonder what possessed the reviewers of this paper and the editors of the journal to allow such dangerous (and badly written) rubbish to get published. Do they not know that:
- homeopathy is a placebo therapy,
- homeopathy can not cure any cancer,
- cancer patients are highly vulnerable to false hope,
- such an article endangers the lives of many cancer patients,
- they have an ethical, moral and possibly legal duty to prevent such mistakes?
What makes this paper even more upsetting is the fact that one of its authors is affiliated with the Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.
Family welfare my foot!
This certainly is one of the worst violations of healthcare and publication ethic that I have come across for a long time.
The objective of this ‘real world’ study was to evaluate the effectiveness of integrative medicine (IM) on patients with coronary artery disease (CAD) and investigate the prognostic factors of CAD in a real-world setting.
A total of 1,087 hospitalized patients with CAD from 4 hospitals in Beijing, China were consecutively selected between August 2011 and February 2012. The patients were assigned to two groups:
- Chinese medicine (CM) plus conventional treatment, i.e., IM therapy (IM group). IM therapy meant that the patients accepted the conventional treatment of Western medicine and the treatment of Chinese herbal medicine including herbal-based injection and Chinese patent medicine as well as decoction for at least 7 days in the hospital or 3 months out of the hospital.
- Conventional treatment alone (CT group).
The endpoint was a major cardiac event [MCE; including cardiac death, myocardial infarction (MI), and the need for revascularization].
A total of 1,040 patients finished the 2-year follow-up. Of them, 49.4% received IM therapy. During the 2-year follow-up, the total incidence of MCE was 11.3%. Most of the events involved revascularization (9.3%). Cardiac death/MI occurred in 3.0% of cases. For revascularization, logistic stepwise regression analysis revealed that age ⩾ 65 years [odds ratio (OR), 2.224], MI (OR, 2.561), diabetes mellitus (OR, 1.650), multi-vessel lesions (OR, 2.554), baseline high sensitivity C-reactive protein level ⩾ 3 mg/L (OR, 1.678), and moderate or severe anxiety/depression (OR, 1.849) were negative predictors (P<0.05); while anti-platelet agents (OR, 0.422), β-blockers (OR, 0.626), statins (OR, 0.318), and IM therapy (OR, 0.583) were protective predictors (P<0.05). For cardiac death/MI, age ⩾ 65 years (OR, 6.389) and heart failure (OR, 7.969) were negative predictors (P<0.05), while statin use (OR, 0.323) was a protective predictor (P<0.05) and IM therapy showed a beneficial tendency (OR, 0.587), although the difference was not statistically significant (P=0.218).
The authors concluded that in a real-world setting, for patients with CAD, IM therapy was associated with a decreased incidence of revascularization and showed a potential benefit in reducing the incidence of cardiac death or MI.
What the authors call ‘real world setting’ seems to be a synonym of ‘lousy science’, I fear. I am not aware of good evidence to show that herbal injections and concoctions are effective treatments for CAD, and this study can unfortunately not change this. In the methods section of the paper, we read that the treatment decisions were made by the responsible physicians without restriction. That means the two groups were far from comparable. In their discussion section, the authors state; we found that IM therapy was efficacious in clinical practice. I think that this statement is incorrect. All they have shown is that two groups of patients with similar diagnoses can differ in numerous ways, including clinical outcomes.
The lessons here are simple:
- In clinical trials, lack of randomisation (the only method to create reliably comparable groups) often leads to false results.
- Flawed research is currently being used by many proponents of SCAM (so-called alternative medicine) to mislead us about the value of SCAM.
- The integration of dubious treatments into routine care does not lead to better outcomes.
- Integrative medicine, as currently advocated by SCAM-proponents, is a nonsense.
The claim that homeopathy can cure cancer is so absurd that many people seem to think no homeopaths in their right mind would make it. Sadly, this turns out to be not true. A rather dramatic example is this extraordinary book. Here is what the advertisement says:
The global medical fraternity has been exploring various alternative approaches to cancer treatment. However, this exceptional book, “Healing Cancer: A Homoeopathic Approach” by Dr Farokh J Master, does not endorse a focused methodology, but it paves the way to a holistic homoeopath’s approach. For the last 40 years, the author has been utilising this approach which is in line with the Master Hahnemann’s teachings, where he gives importance to constitution, miasms, susceptibility, and most important palliation. It is a complete handbook, a ready reference providing authentic information on every aspect of malignant diseases. It covers the cancer related topics beginning from cancer archetype, clinical information on diagnosis, prevention, conventional treatment, homoeopathic aspects, therapeutics, polycrest remedies, rare remedies, Indian remedies, wisdom from the repertory, naturopathic and dietary suggestions, Iscador therapy, and social aspects of cancer to the latest researches in the field of cancer. Given the efforts put in by the author in writing this vast book, encompassing decades of clinical experience, this is indeed a valuable addition to the homoeopathic literature. In addition to homoeopaths, this book will indeed be useful for medical doctors of other modalities of therapeutics who also wish to explore a holistic approach to cancer patients since this book is the outcome of author’s successful efforts in introducing and integrating homoeopathy to the mainstream cancer treatment.
END OF QUOTE
I do wonder what goes on in the head of a clinician who spent much of his life convincing himself and others that his placebos cure cancer and then takes it upon him to write a book about this encouraging other clinician to follow his dangerous ideas.
Is he vicious?
Is he in it for the money?
Is he stupid?
Is he really convinced?
Whatever the answer, he certainly is dangerous!
For those who do not know already: homeopathy is totally ineffective as a treatment for cancer; to think otherwise can be seriously harmful.
In 1995, Dabbs and Lauretti reviewed the risks of cervical manipulation and compared them to those of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They concluded that the best evidence indicates that cervical manipulation for neck pain is much safer than the use of NSAIDs, by as much as a factor of several hundred times. This article must be amongst the most-quoted paper by chiropractors, and its conclusion has become somewhat of a chiropractic mantra which is being repeated ad nauseam. For instance, the American Chiropractic Association states that the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain—over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and prescription painkillers—are significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation.
As far as I can see, no further comparative safety-analyses between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs have become available since this 1995 article. It would therefore be time, I think, to conduct new comparative safety and risk/benefit analyses aimed at updating our knowledge in this important area.
Meanwhile, I will attempt a quick assessment of the much-quoted paper by Dabbs and Lauretti with a view of checking how reliable its conclusions truly are.
The most obvious criticism of this article has already been mentioned: it is now 23 years old, and today we know much more about the risks and benefits of these two therapeutic approaches. This point alone should make responsible healthcare professionals think twice before promoting its conclusions.
Equally important is the fact that we still have no surveillance system to monitor the adverse events of spinal manipulation. Consequently, our data on this issue are woefully incomplete, and we have to rely mostly on case reports. Yet, most adverse events remain unpublished and under-reporting is therefore huge. We have shown that, in our UK survey, it amounted to exactly 100%.
To make matters worse, case reports were excluded from the analysis of Dabbs and Lauretti. In fact, they included only articles providing numerical estimates of risk (even reports that reported no adverse effects at all), the opinion of exerts, and a 1993 statistic from a malpractice insurer. None of these sources would lead to reliable incidence figures; they are thus no adequate basis for a comparative analysis.
In contrast, NSAIDs have long been subject to proper post-marketing surveillance systems generating realistic incidence figures of adverse effects which Dabbs and Lauretti were able to use. It is, however, important to note that the figures they did employ were not from patients using NSAIDs for neck pain. Instead they were from patients using NSAIDs for arthritis. Equally important is the fact that they refer to long-term use of NSAIDs, while cervical manipulation is rarely applied long-term. Therefore, the comparison of risks of these two approaches seems not valid.
Moreover, when comparing the risks between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs, Dabbs and Lauretti seemed to have used incidence per manipulation, while for NSAIDs the incidence figures were bases on events per patient using these drugs (the paper is not well-constructed and does not have a methods section; thus, it is often unclear what exactly the authors did investigate and how). Similarly, it remains unclear whether the NSAID-risk refers only to patients who had used the prescribed dose, or whether over-dosing (a phenomenon that surely is not uncommon with patients suffering from chronic arthritis pain) was included in the incidence figures.
It is worth mentioning that the article by Dabbs and Lauretti refers to neck pain only. Many chiropractors have in the past broadened its conclusions to mean that spinal manipulations or chiropractic care are safer than drugs. This is clearly not permissible without sound data to support such claims. As far as I can see, such data do not exist (if anyone knows of such evidence, I would be most thankful to let me see it).
To obtain a fair picture of the risks in a real life situation, one should perhaps also mention that chiropractors often fail to warn patients of the possibility of adverse effects. With NSAIDs, by contrast, patients have, at the very minimum, the drug information leaflets that do warn them of potential harm in full detail.
Finally, one could argue that the effectiveness and costs of the two therapies need careful consideration. The costs for most NSAIDs per day are certainly much lower than those for repeated sessions of manipulations. As to the effectiveness of the treatments, it is clear that NSAIDs do effectively alleviate pain, while the evidence seems far from being conclusively positive in the case of cervical manipulation.
In conclusion, the much-cited paper by Dabbs and Lauretti is out-dated, poor quality, and heavily biased. It provides no sound basis for an evidence-based judgement on the relative risks of cervical manipulation and NSAIDs. The notion that cervical manipulations are safer than NSAIDs is therefore not based on reliable data. Thus, it is misleading and irresponsible to repeat this claim.
The notion that ‘chiropractic adds years to your life’ is often touted, particularly of course by chiropractors (in case you doubt it, please do a quick google search). It is logical to assume that chiropractors themselves are the best informed about what they perceive as the health benefits of chiropractic care. Chiropractors would therefore be most likely to receive some level of this ‘life-prolonging’ chiropractic care on a long-term basis. If that is so, then chiropractors themselves should demonstrate longer life spans than the general population.
Perhaps, but is the theory supported by evidence?
Back in 2004, a chiropractor, Lon Morgan, courageously tried to test the theory and published an interesting paper about it.
He used two separate data sources to examine the mortality rates of chiropractors. One source used obituary notices from past issues of Dynamic Chiropractic from 1990 to mid-2003. The second source used biographies from Who Was Who in Chiropractic – A Necrology covering a ten year period from 1969-1979. The two sources yielded a mean age at death for chiropractors of 73.4 and 74.2 years respectively. The mean ages at death of chiropractors is below the national average of 76.9 years; it also is below the average age at death of their medical doctor counterparts which, at the time, was 81.5.
So, one might be tempted to conclude that ‘chiropractic substracts years from your life’. I know, this would be not very scientific – but it would probably be more evidence-based than the marketing gimmick of so many chiropractors trying to promote their trade by saying: ‘chiropractic adds years to your life’!
In any case, Morgan, the author of the paper, concluded that this paper assumes chiropractors should, more than any other group, be able to demonstrate the health and longevity benefits of chiropractic care. The chiropractic mortality data presented in this study, while limited, do not support the notion that chiropractic care “Adds Years to Life …”, and it fact shows male chiropractors have shorter life spans than their medical doctor counterparts and even the general male population. Further study is recommended to discover what factors might contribute to lowered chiropractic longevity.
Another beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact!
I would warn every parent who thinks that taking their child to a chiropractor is a good idea. For this, I have three main reasons:
- Chiropractic has not been shown to be effective for any paediatric condition.
- Chiropractors often advise parents against vaccinating their children.
- Chiropractic spinal manipulations can cause harm to kids.
The latter point seems to be confirmed by a recent PhD thesis of which so far only one short report is available. Here are the relevant bits of information from it:
Katie Pohlman has successfully defended her PhD thesis, which focused on the assessment of safety in pediatric manual therapy. As a clinical research scientist at Parker University, Dallas, Texas, she identified a lack of prospective patient safety research within the chiropractic population in general and investigated this deficit in the paediatric population in particular.
Pohlman used a cross-sectional survey to assess the barriers and facilitators for participation in a patient safety reporting system. At the same time, she also conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing the quantity and quality of adverse event reports in children under 14 years receiving chiropractic care.
The RCT recruited 69 chiropractors and found adverse events reported in 8.8% and 0.1% of active and passive surveillance groups respectively. Of the adverse events reported, 56% were considered mild, 26% were moderate and 18% were severe. The frequency of adverse events was more common than previously thought.
This last sentence from the report is somewhat puzzling. Our systematic review of the risks of spinal manipulation showed that data from prospective studies suggest that minor, transient adverse events occur in approximately half of all patients receiving spinal manipulation. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome. Estimates of the incidence of serious complications range from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 1 per 400,000. Given the popularity of spinal manipulation, its safety requires rigorous investigation.
The 8.8% reported by Pohlman are therefore not even one fifth of the average incidence figure reported previously in all age groups.
What could be the explanation for this discrepancy?
There are, of course, several possibilities, including the fact that infants cannot tell the clinician when their pain has increased. However, the most likely one, in my view, lies in the fact that RCTs are wholly inadequate for investigating risks because they typically include far too few patients to generate reliable incidence figures about adverse events. More importantly, clinicians included in such studies are self-selected (and thus particularly responsible/cautious) and are bound to behave most carefully while being part of a clinical trial. Therefore it seems possible – I would speculate even likely – that the 8.8% reported by Pohlman is unrealistically low.
Having said that, I do feel that the research by Kathie Pohlman is a step in the right direction and I do applaud her initiative.
Slowly, I seem to be turning into a masochist! Yes, I sometimes read publications like ‘HOMEOPATHY 360’. It carries articles that are enragingly ill-informed. But in my defence, I might say that some are truly funny. Here is the abstract of one that I found outstanding in that category:
The article explains about Gangrene and its associated amputations which is a clinically challenging condition, but Homeopathy offers therapy options. The case presented herein, details about how the Homeopathic treatment helped in the prevention of amputation of a body part. Homeopathy stimulates the body’s ability to heal through its immune mechanisms; consequently, it achieves wound healing and establishes circulation to the gangrenous part. Instead of focusing on the local phenomena of gangrene pathology, treatment focuses on the general indications of the immune system, stressing the important role of the immune system as a whole. The aim was to show, through case reports, that Homeopathic therapy can treat gangrene thus preventing amputation of the gangrenous part, and hence has a strong substitution for consideration in treating gangrene.
The paper itself offers no less than 13 different homeopathic treatments for gangrene:
- Arsenicum album– Medicine for senile gangrene;gangrene accompanied by foetid diarrhoea; ulcers extremely painful with elevated edges, better by warmth and aggravation from cold; great weakness and emaciation.
- Bromium – Hospital gangrene; cancerous ulcers on face; stony hard swelling of glands of lower jaw and throat.
- Carbo vegetabilis – Senile and humid gangrene in the persons who are cachectic in appearance; great exhaustion of vital powers; marked prostration; foul smell of secretions; indolent ulcers, burning pain; tendency to gangrene of the margins; varicose ulcers.
- Bothrops– Gangrene; swollen, livid, cold with hemorrhagic infiltration; malignant erysipelas.
- Echinacea– Enlarged lymphatics; old tibial ulcers; gangrene; recurrent boils; carbuncles.
- Lachesis– Gangrenous ulcers; gangrene after injury; bluish or black looking blisters; vesicles appearing here and there, violent itching and burning; swelling and inflammation of the parts; itching pain and painful spots appearing after rubbing.
- Crotalus Horridus– Gangrene, skin separated from muscles by a foetid fluid; traumatic gangrene; old scars open again.
- Secale cornatum– Pustules on the arms and legs, with tendency to gangrene; in cachectic, scrawny females with rough skin; skin shriveled, numb; mottled dusky-blue tinge; blue color of skin; dry gangrene, developing slowly; varicose ulcers; boils, small, painful with green contents; skin feels too cold to touch yet covering is not tolerated. Great aversion to heat;formication under skin.
- Anthracinum– Gangrene; cellular tissues swollen and oedematous; gangrenous parotitis; septicemia; ulceration, and sloughing and intolerable burning.
- Cantharis – Tendency to gangrene; vesicular eruptions; burns, scalds, with burning and itching; erysipelas, vesicular type, with marked restlessness.
- Mercurius– Gangrene of the lips, cheeks and gums; inflammation and swelling of the glands of neck; pains aggravated by hot or cold applications.
- Sulphuric acid– Traumatic gangrene; haemorrhages from wounds; dark pustules; blue spots like suggillations; bedsores.
- Phosphoric acid– Medicine for senile gangrene. Gunpowder, calendula are also best medicines.
But the best of all must be the article’s conclusion: “Homeopathy is the best medicine for gangrene.”
I know, there are many people who will not be able to find this funny, particularly patients who suffer from gangrene and are offered homeopathy as a cure. This could easily kill the person – not just kill, but kill very painfully. Gangrene is the death of tissue in part of the body, says the naïve little caption. What it does not say is that it is in all likelihood also the death of the patient who is treated purely with homeopathy.
And what about the notion that homeopathy stimulates the body’s ability to heal through its immune mechanisms?
Or the assumption that it might establish circulation to the gangrenous part?
Or the claim that through case reports one can show the effectiveness of an intervention?
Or the notion that any of the 13 homeopathic remedies have a place in the treatment of gangrene?
ALL OF THIS IS TOTALLY BONKERS!
Not only that, it is highly dangerous!
Since many years, I am trying my best to warn people of charlatans who promise bogus cures. Sadly it does not seem to stop the charlatans. This makes me feel rather helpless at times. And it is in those moments that I decide to look at from a different angle. That’s when I try to see the funny side of quacks who defy everything we know about healthcare and just keep on lying to themselves and their victims.
On their website, the UK ‘ROYAL COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTORS (RCC) published a short statement regarding the safety of chiropractic. Here it is in full:
Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after manual therapy, such as soreness or stiffness, is relatively common, affecting up to 50% of patients. However, such ‘benign effects’ are a normal outcome and are not unique to chiropractic care.
Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been associated with spinal manipulation. Such events are rare with estimates ranging from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 13 per 10,000 patients; furthermore, due to the nature of the underlying evidence in relation to such events (case reports, retrospective surveys and case-control studies), it is very difficult to confirm causation (Swait and Finch, 2017).
For example, while an association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractor visits has been reported in a few case-control studies, the risk of stoke has been found to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly present with neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from a range of practitioners, including chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). This highlights the importance of ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs or symptoms that there is an ongoing problem, is performed prior to manual treatment of patients (Swait and Finch, 2017). Chiropractors are well trained to do this on a routine basis, and to urgently refer patients if necessary.
END OF QUOTE
The statement reads well but it might not be entirely free from conflicts of interest. Yet, in the name of accuracy, completeness and truthfulness, I take the liberty of making a few slight alterations. Here is my revised version:
Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, such as pain or stiffness (usually lasting 1-3 days and strong enough to impair patients’ quality of life), is very common. In fact, it affects around 50% of all patients.
Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes often caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been reported after spinal manipulation. Such events are probably not frequent (several hundred are on record including about 100 fatalities). But, as we have never established proper surveillance systems, nobody can tell how often they occur. Furthermore, due to our reluctance of introducing such surveillance, some of us are able to question causality.
An association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractic spinal manipulation has been reported in about 20 independent investigations. Yet one much-criticised case-control study found the risk of stoke to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly have neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). Ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs that there is an ongoing problem would therefore be important (Swait and Finch, 2017). Sadly, no reliable screening tests exist, and neck pain (the symptom that might be indicative of VAD) continues to be one of the conditions most frequently treated by chiropractors.
I do not expect the RCC to adopt my improved version. In case I am wrong, let me state this: I am entirely free of conflicts of interest and will not charge a fee for my revision. In the interest of advancing public health, I herewith offer it for free.
The most frequent of all potentially serious adverse events of acupuncture is pneumothorax. It happens when an acupuncture needle penetrates the lungs which subsequently deflate. The pulmonary collapse can be partial or complete as well as one or two sided. This new case-report shows just how serious a pneumothorax can be.
A 52-year-old man underwent acupuncture and cupping treatment at an illegal Chinese medicine clinic for neck and back discomfort. Multiple 0.25 mm × 75 mm needles were utilized and the acupuncture points were located in the middle and on both sides of the upper back and the middle of the lower back. He was admitted to hospital with severe dyspnoea about 30 hours later. On admission, the patient was lucid, was gasping, had apnoea and low respiratory murmur, accompanied by some wheeze in both sides of the lungs. Because of the respiratory difficulty, the patient could hardly speak. After primary physical examination, he was suspected of having a foreign body airway obstruction. Around 30 minutes after admission, the patient suddenly became unconscious and died despite attempts of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Whole-body post-mortem computed tomography of the victim revealed the collapse of the both lungs and mediastinal compression, which were also confirmed by autopsy. More than 20 pinprick injuries were found on the skin of the upper and lower back in which multiple pinpricks were located on the body surface projection of the lungs. The cause of death was determined as acute respiratory and circulatory failure due to acupuncture-induced bilateral tension pneumothorax.
The authors caution that acupuncture-induced tension pneumothorax is rare and should be recognized by forensic pathologists. Postmortem computed tomography can be used to detect and accurately evaluate the severity of pneumothorax before autopsy and can play a supporting role in determining the cause of death.
The authors mention that pneumothorax is the most frequent but by no means the only serious complication of acupuncture. Other adverse events include:
- central nervous system injury,
- epidural haematoma,
- subarachnoid haemorrhage,
- cardiac tamponade,
- gallbladder perforation,
No other possible lung diseases that may lead to bilateral spontaneous pneumothorax were found. The needles used in the case left tiny perforations in the victim’s lungs. A small amount of air continued to slowly enter the chest cavities over a long period. The victim possibly tolerated the mild discomfort and did not pay attention when early symptoms appeared. It took 30 hours to develop into symptoms of a severe pneumothorax, and then the victim was sent to the hospital. There he was misdiagnosed, not adequately treated and thus died. I applaud the authors for nevertheless publishing this case-report.
This case occurred in China. Acupuncturists might argue that such things would not happen in Western countries where acupuncturists are fully trained and aware of the danger. They would be mistaken – and alarmingly, there is no surveillance system that could tell us how often serious complications occur.
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.