So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for animals is popular. A recent survey suggested that 76% of US dog and cat owners use some form of SCAM. Another survey showed that about one quarter of all US veterinary medical schools run educational programs in SCAM. Amazon currently offers more that 4000 books on the subject.
The range of SCAMs advocated for use in animals is huge and similar to that promoted for use in humans; the most commonly employed practices seem to include acupuncture, chiropractic, energy healing, homeopathy (as discussed in the previous post) and dietary supplements. In this article, I will briefly discuss the remaining 4 categories.
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at acupuncture points on the skin for therapeutic purposes. Many acupuncturists claim that, because it is over 2 000 years old, acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’ and its long history proves acupuncture’s efficacy and safety. However, a long history of usage proves very little and might even just demonstrate that acupuncture is based on the pre-scientific myths that dominated our ancient past.
There are many different forms of acupuncture. Acupuncture points can allegedly be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, bee-stings, injections, light, colour, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between two life-forces, ‘yin and yang’. In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological theories as to how acupuncture might work; even though some of these may appear plausible, they nevertheless are mere theories and constitute no proof for acupuncture’s validity.
The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition. According to ‘Western’ acupuncturists, acupuncture is effective mostly for chronic pain. Acupuncture has, for instance, been used to improve mobility in dogs with musculoskeletal pain, to relieve pain associated with cervical neurological disease in dogs, for respiratory resuscitation of new-born kittens, and for treatment of certain immune-mediated disorders in small animals.
While the use of acupuncture seems to gain popularity, the evidence fails to support this. Our systematic review of acupuncture (to the best of my knowledge the only one on the subject) in animals included 14 randomized controlled trials and 17 non-randomized controlled studies. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, it was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhoea, encouraging evidence emerged that might warrant further investigation. Single studies reported some positive inter-group differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. However, these trials require independent replication. We concluded that, overall, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.
Serious complications of acupuncture are on record and have repeatedly been discussed on this blog: acupuncture needles can, for instance, injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 human fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg. Information on adverse effects of acupuncture in animals is currently not available.
Given that there is no good evidence that acupuncture works in animals, the risk/benefit balance of acupuncture cannot be positive.
Chiropractic was created by D D Palmer (1845-1913), an American magnetic healer who, in 1895, manipulated the neck of a deaf janitor, allegedly curing his deafness. Chiropractic was initially promoted as a cure-all by Palmer who claimed that 95% of diseases were due to subluxations of spinal joints. Subluxations became the cornerstone of chiropractic ‘philosophy’, and chiropractors who adhere to Palmer’s gospel diagnose subluxation in nearly 100% of the population – even in individuals who are completely disease and symptom-free. Yet subluxations, as understood by chiropractors, do not exist.
There is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation might be effective for animals. A review of the evidence for different forms of manual therapies for managing acute or chronic pain syndromes in horses concluded that further research is needed to assess the efficacy of specific manual therapy techniques and their contribution to multimodal protocols for managing specific somatic pain conditions in horses. For other animal species or other health conditions, the evidence is even less convincing.
In humans, spinal manipulation is associated with serious complications (regularly discussed in previous posts), usually caused by neck manipulation damaging the vertebral artery resulting in a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but, as there is no system in place to monitor such events, the true figure is almost certainly much larger. To the best of my knowledge, similar events have not been reported in animals.
Since there is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulations work in animals, the risk/benefit balance of chiropractic fails to be positive.
Energy healing is an umbrella term for a range of paranormal healing practices, e. g. Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Johrei healing, faith healing. Their common denominator is the belief in an ‘energy’ that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Forms of energy healing have existed in many ancient cultures. The ‘New Age’ movement has brought about a revival of these ideas, and today ‘energy’ healing systems are amongst the most popular alternative therapies in many countries.
Energy healing relies on the esoteric belief in some form of ‘energy’ which refers to some life force such as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or prana in Ayurvedic medicine. Some proponents employ terminology from quantum physics and other ‘cutting-edge’ science to give their treatments a scientific flair which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be little more than a veneer of pseudo-science.
Considering its implausibility, energy healing has attracted a surprisingly high level of research activity in the form of clinical trials on human patients. Generally speaking, the methodologically best trials of energy healing fail to demonstrate that it generates effects beyond placebo. There are few studies of energy healing in animals, and those that are available are frequently less than rigorous (see for instance here and here). Overall, there is no good evidence to suggest that ‘energy’ healing is effective in animals.
Even though energy healing is per se harmless, it can do untold damage, not least because it can lead to neglect of effective treatments and it undermines rationality in our societies. Its risk/benefit balance therefore fails to be positive.
Dietary supplements for veterinary use form a category of remedies that, in most countries, is a regulatory grey area. Supplements can contain all sorts of ingredients, from minerals and vitamins to plants and synthetic substances. Therefore, generalisations across all types of supplements are impossible. The therapeutic claims that are being made for supplements are numerous and often unsubstantiated. Although they are usually promoted as natural and safe, dietary supplements do not have necessarily either of these qualities. For example, in the following situations, supplements can be harmful:
- Combining one supplement with another supplement or with prescribed medicines
- Substituting supplements for prescription medicines
- Overdosing some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron
Examples of currently most popular supplements for use in animals include chondroitin, glucosamine, probiotics, vitamins, minerals, lutein, L-carnitine, taurine, amino acids, enzymes, St John’s wort, evening primrose oil, garlic and many other herbal remedies. For many supplements taken orally, the bioavailability might be low. There is a paucity of studies testing the efficacy of dietary supplements in animals. Three recent exceptions (all of which require independent replication) are:
- A trial showing that the dietary supplementation with Maca increased sperm production in stallions.
- A study demonstrating that curcumin supplementation appeared to reduce arthritis pain in dogs.
- An investigation suggesting that royal jelly supplementation can improve the egg quality of hens.
Dietary supplements are promoted as being free of direct risks. On closer inspection, this notion turns out to be little more than an advertising slogan. As discussed repeatedly on this blog, some supplements contain toxic materials, contaminants or adulterants and thus have the potential to do harm. A report rightly concluded that many challenges stand in the way of determining whether or not animal dietary supplements are safe and at what dosage. Supplements considered safe in humans and other cross-species are not always safe in horses, dogs, and cats. An adverse event reporting system is badly needed. And finally, regulations dealing with animal dietary supplements are in disarray. Clear and precise regulations are needed to allow only safe dietary supplements on the market.
It is impossible to generalise about the risk/benefit balance of dietary supplements; however, caution is advisable.
SCAM for animals is an important subject, not least because of the current popularity of many treatments that fall under this umbrella. For most therapies, the evidence is woefully incomplete. This means that most SCAMs are unproven. Arguably, it is unethical to use unproven medicines in routine veterinary care.
I was invited several months ago to write this article for VETERINARY RECORD. It was submitted to peer review and subsequently I withdrew my submission. The above post is a slightly revised version of the original (in which I used the term ‘alternative medicine’ rather than ‘SCAM’) which also included a section on homeopathy (see my previous post). The reason for the decision to withdraw this article was the following comment by the managing editor of VETERINARY RECORD: A good number of vets use these therapies and a more balanced view that still sets out their efficacy (or otherwise) would be more useful for the readership.
Today is WORLD CANCER DAY. A good reason, I feel, to remind everyone of the existence of CAM-CANCER, an initiative that I have been involved with from its start (in fact, I was one of its initiators). Essentially, we – that is an international team of CAM-experts – conduct systematic reviews of CAMs often advertised for cancer. We then offer them as a free web resource providing the public with evidence-based information about all sorts of CAMs for cancer.
CAM-Cancer follows a strict methodology to produce CAM-summaries of high quality. Writing, review and editorial processes all follow pre-defined methods and the CAM-Cancer editorial team and Executive Committee ensure that CAM-summaries comply with the guidelines and templates. We are independent from commercial funders and strive to be as objective as possible. Most of the experts are more enthusiastic about the value of CAM than I am, but we do our very best to avoid letting sentiments get in the way of rigorous scientific assessments.
So far, we have managed to publish a respectably large and diverse array of summaries. Here is the full list:
Let me pick out just one of the summaries, Gerson therapy. This topic has led to fierce debates on my blog. The ‘key points’ of the CAM-CANCER summary are as follows:
- Gerson therapy uses a special diet, supplements and coffee enemas with the aim of detoxifying and stimulating the body’s metabolism.
- No substantial evidence exists in the scientific literature to support the claims that the Gerson therapy is an effective alternative therapy for cancer.
- Some evidence exists to suggest that elements of the therapy (coffee enemas in particular) are potentially dangerous if used excessively.
- The specific safety problems, advice to stop conventional cancer therapies and the lack of substantial evidence for efficacy outweigh any benefits associated with the Gerson therapy.
I think this is clear enough and it certainly corresponds well with what I previously wrote about Gerson on this blog. The style of presentation might be different, but the information and conclusions are almost identical.
Altogether, our CAM-CANCER summaries are well-informed, concise, and strictly evidence-based. On this WORLD CANCER DAY, I therefore warmly recommend them to everyone and sincerely hope you make good use of them, for instance, by telling other interested parties about this little-known but precious resource.
The 2018 World Federation of Chiropractic ACC Education Conference was held on 24-27 October in London. It resulted in several consensus statements developed by the attendees. I happen to know this from a short report that has just been published; it can be found here.
Of the 10 points made in this consensus, I find only the following noteworthy:
“Chiropractic education programs have an ethical obligation to support an evidence-based teaching and learning environment.”
Perhaps it is me – English is not my first language – but I find the phraseology used in this sentence strangely complicated and confusing. I have been a teacher of medical students for most of my life, but I am not sure what an ‘evidence-based teaching and learning environment’ is. I know what ‘evidence-based’ means, of course. However, what exactly is:
- a teaching environment?
- a learning environment?
- and how does ‘evidence-based’ apply to either of the two?
Is there evidence that some environments are better suited than others for teaching?
Is there evidence that some environments are better suited than others for learning?
I suppose the answer must be YES!
The environment, i. e. the space and conditions in which teaching and learning happen should, for instance, be/include:
- not cramped,
- not too cold,
- not too hot,
- equipped with ergometric chairs and desks,
- there should be visual aids,
- access to computers,
- a library,
- good mentoring and support,
So, the consensus of the education conference wanted to optimise the environmental conditions of teaching and learning for chiropractic lecturers and students? Most laudable, I must say!
But still, it seems like a missed opportunity for an ‘Education Conference’ not to have stated something about the content of teaching and learning. Personally, I find it a pity that they did not state: Chiropractic education programs have an ethical obligation to be evidence-based.
Or is that what they really wanted to say?
Naaahh … come to think of it … they cannot possibly make such a demand.
Because, in this case, they would have to teach students not to become chiropractors.
My last post was rather depressive, and I certainly do not want my readers to be under the weather when they go into 2019. For this last post of 2018, I have therefore selected 20 events which gave me hope that perhaps we – those who prefer rationality to nonsense – are making progress.
- It has been reported that New Brunswick judge ruled this week that Canadian naturopaths — pseudoscience purveyors who promote a variety of “alternative medicines” like homeopathy, herbs, detoxes, and acupuncture — cannot legally call themselves “medically trained.”
- The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’.
- The medical school of Vienna axed their courses in homeopathy.
- A most comprehensive review of homeopathy concluded that the effects of homeopathy do not differ from those of placebo.
- The UK Pharmaceutical Society has stated that it does not endorse homeopathy and that pharmacists must advise patients considering a homeopathic product about their lack of efficacy beyond that of a placebo.
- A top medical journal has retracted a dodgy meta-analysis of acupuncture.
- A prominent BMJ columnist wrote : Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.
- Pharmacare and Bioglan received a ‘Stonky’ for its over-the-counter Melatonin Homeopathic Sleep Formula.
- The Governing Body of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire (BNSSG) Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) approved changes that mean NHS funded homeopathy will only be available in exceptional circumstances in the area.
- Health ministers of all German counties have decided that they will start reforming the profession of the Heilpraktiker, the German non-medically trained alternative practitioners.
- The NHS chief, Simon Stevens was quoted saying: There is no robust evidence to support homeopathy which is at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds.
- A systematic review concluded that there is no evidence in the literature of an effect of chiropractic treatment in the scope of primary prevention or early secondary prevention for disease in general. Chiropractors have to assume their role as evidence-based clinicians and the leaders of the profession must accept that it is harmful to the profession to imply a public health importance in relation to the prevention of such diseases through manipulative therapy/chiropractic treatment.
- A Cochrane review did not show any benefit of homeopathic medicinal products compared to placebo on recurrence of acute respiratory tract infections or cure rates in children.
- The French minister of health stated that ‘the French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.
- The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association retracted false accusation against me about their assumption that I had undeclared conflicts of interest.
- The ‘Daily Telegraph‘ published the following statement after misquoting me: Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said that doctors should make it clear to patients that they could not be taking herbal remedies alongside drugs. Prof Ernst said there was no good evidence that they work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to the practice.
- A comprehensive overview of the therapeutic options for chronic low back pain showed that chiropractic is not any better than over-the-counter painkillers or exercise, and that patients need to take precautions when seeking out a chiropractor.
Hold on, you promised 20, but these are just 17!!!, I hear my attentive readers mutter.
Yet, this should not depress us. On the contrary, let’s see it as a challenge to get on with out work of fighting for good evidence, ethical standards, rationality and critical thinking.In this spirit, I wish you all a very good, healthy and productive year 2019.
Need a last minute X-mas present?
I might have just the right thing for you: Healing Courses Online.
They are run by true professionals who clearly know what they are doing: The founders of The Online Bio Energy Healing Training Course are John Donohoe and Patricia Hesnan, both of whom have been working in the alternative complementary healing area for over 25 years. Our healing centre clinic has been involved in teaching, development and trainings since it was first established in 1990, and we continue to promote and hold our regular live training courses.
Healing Courses Online is registered with the CMA (Complementary Medical Association), which is internationally recognized as the leading organization in professional, ethical complementary medicine by professional practitioners, therapists, and the public in general. Having completed this course, you can apply for membership of the CMA which offers a number of benefits including supplying professional accreditation. The CAM industry does not have a single regulatory body at present. With this in mind here at Oisin Centre Limited and Healing Courses Online we provide certification and training of the highest standards and expect our students to adhere to all statutory regulations, standards and codes of ethics regarding professional practice as therapists. You can feel safe in the knowledge that we are an experienced and trusted provider of Energy Healing training courses.
AND HERE ARE THE DETAILS AND PRICE-TAGS OF 4 COURSES:
A diploma course in energy healing. It includes 58 professional video lessons, 8 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages. When you have completed the course you receive a Certified Diploma in Energy Healing. Once you have the knowledge and understand how to apply this energy healing therapy you can help yourself and others to activate the body’s own natural process of self-healing.
€97.00 – Was €375.00
A diploma course in sound healing. It includes 37 professional video lessons, 18 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages. When you have completed the course, you receive a Certified Diploma in Sound Healing. Learn the secrets to sound healing with Tibetan singing bowls, Chinese gong, Tuning forks, the Human Voice, plus energy healing clearing for chakras plus much more.
€69.00 – Was €275.00
A diploma course in animal energy healing. It includes 30 practical video lessons and 5 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages. When you have completed the course, you receive a Certified Diploma in Animal Healing. This is an ideal course to learn how you can help your pet or any animal so they may be healthy, happy and content.
€59.00 – Was €225.00
SELF HEALING / SELF HELP ONLINE COURSE includes 24 professional video lessons, plus 20 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages and certification of completion. You can view a video with simple Qi-Gong exercises filmed at picturesque Galway Bay in Ireland. The aim of using singing bowls, crystal bowls, tuning forks, healing music, or the human voice as a self healing modality is to help restore the body to its normal.
€19.99 – Was €199.00
IN CASE YOU WONDER WHAT YOU CAN DO ONCE YOU HAVE PASSED ONE OF THOSE COURSES, THE COURSE DIRECTORS GIVE IT TO YOU STRAIGHT:
Energy healing can be used as a standalone therapy or in conjunction with many other modalities including counselling, psychotherapy, hypnosis, acupuncture, massage, reflexology, and many more.
As soon as you have completed the course plus a short 10 question test, you will be granted your diploma, which you can download and print. (Your diploma is also automatically sent to your email account.)
On this blog and elsewhere, my critics regularly complain that I do not have any qualifications in alternative medicine. Therefore, I am tempted to enrol (as a generous and high-value X-mas present to myself) – even though I am still uncertain which of the 4 courses might be best for me (and, of course, I cannot be sure to pass the ’10 question test’!).
How about you?
Will you join me?
A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to publish the result in a magazine. He now informed me that his editor decided against it, and the interview thus remained unpublished. I have the journalist’s permission to publish it here. The journalist who, in my view, was well-prepared (much better than most), prefers to remain unnamed.
Q: How would you describe yourself?
A: I am a researcher of alternative medicine.
Q: Not a critic of alternative medicine?
A: Primarily, I am a researcher; after all, I have published more Medline-listed research papers on the subject than anyone else on the planet.
Q: You are retired since a few years; why do you carry on working?
A: Mainly because I see a need for a critical voice amongst all the false and often dangerous claims made by proponents of alternative medicine. But also because I enjoy what I am doing. Since I retired, I can focus on the activities I like. There is nobody to tell me what to do and what not to do; the latter happened far too often when I was still head of my research unit.
Q: Fine, but I still do not quite understand what drives you. Who is motivating you to criticise alternative medicine?
A: Nobody. Some people claim I am paid for my current activities. This is not true. My blog actually costs me money. My books never return enough royalties to break even, considering the time they take to write. And for most of my lectures I don’t charge a penny.
Q: There are people who find this hard to believe.
A: I know. This just shows how money-orientated they are. Do they want me to publish my tax returns?
Q: Sorry, but I still don’t understand your motivation.
A: I guess what motivates me is a sense of responsibility, a somewhat naïve determination to do something good as a physician. I am one of the only – perhaps even THE only – scientist who has researched alternative medicine extensively and who is not a promoter of bogus therapies but voices criticism about them. There are several other prominent and excellent critics of alternative medicine, of course, but they all come ‘from the outside’. I come from the inside of the alternative medicine business. This probably gives me a special understanding of this field. In any case, I feel the responsibility to counter-balance all the nonsense that is being published on a daily basis.
Q: What’s your ultimate aim?
A: I want to create progress through educating people to think more critically.
Q: Which alternative medicine do you hate most?
A: I do not hate any of them. In fact, I still have more sympathy for them than might be apparent. For my blog, for instance, I constantly search for new research papers that are rigorous and show a positive result. The trouble is, there are so very few of those articles. But when I find one, I am delighted to report about it. No, I do not hate or despise any alternative medicine; I am in favour of good science, and I get irritated by poor research. And yes, I do dislike false claims that potentially harm consumers. And yes, I do dislike it when chiropractors or other charlatans defraud consumers by taking their money for endless series of useless interventions.
Q: I noticed you go on about the risks of alternative medicine. But surely, they are small compared to the risks of conventional healthcare, aren’t they?
A: That’s a big topic. To make it simple: alternative medicine is usually portrayed as risk-free. The truth, however, is that there are numerous risks of direct and indirect harm; the latter is usually much more important than the former. Crucially, the risk-free image is incongruent with reality. I want to redress this incongruence. And as to conventional medicine: sure, it can be much more harmful. But one always has to see this in relation to the proven benefit. Chemotherapy, for instance, can kill a cancer patient, but more likely it saves her life. Homeopathic remedies cannot kill you, but employed as an alternative to an effective cancer treatment, homeopathy will certainly kill you.
Q: Homeopathy seems to be your particular hobby horse.
A: Perhaps. This is because it exemplifies alternative medicine in several ways, and because I started my alternative ‘career’ in a homeopathic hospital, all those years ago.
Q: In what way is homeopathy exemplary?
A: Its axioms are implausible, like those of many other alternative modalities. The clinical evidence fails to support the claims, like with so many alternative therapies. And it is seemingly safe, yet can do a lot of harm, like so many other treatments.
Q: You have no qualification in homeopathy, is that right?
A: No, I have no such qualifications. And I never said so. When I want to tease homeopaths a little, I state that I am a trained homeopath; and that is entirely correct.
Q: In several countries, homeopathy has taken spectacular hits recently. Is that your doing?
A: No, I don’t think so. But I do hope that my work has inspired the many dedicated activists who are currently protesting against the reimbursement of homeopathy by the public purse in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, etc.
Q: You often refer to medical ethics; why is that?
A: Because, in the final analysis, many of the questions we already discussed are really ethical issues. And in alternative medicine, few people have so far given the ethical dimensions any consideration. I think ethics are central to alternative medicine, so much so that I co-authored an entire book on this topic this year.
Q: Any plans for the future?
Q: Can you tell me more?
A: I will publish another book in 2019 with Springer. It will be a critical evaluation of precisely 150 different alternative modalities. I am thinking of writing yet another book, but have not yet found a literary agent who wants to take me on. I have been offered a new professorship at a private University in Vienna, and am hesitant whether to accept or not. I have been invited to give a few lectures in 2019 and hope to receive more invitations. Last not least, I work almost every day on my blog.
Q: More than enough for a retiree, it seems. Thank you for your time.
A: My pleasure.
Professor Frass is well known to most people interested in homeopathy. He has also featured several times on this blog (see here, here and here). Frass has achieved what few homeopaths have: he has integrated homeopathy into a major medical school, the Medical School of the University of Vienna (my former faculty). In 2002, he started teaching homeopathy to medical students, and in 2004, he opened an out-patient clinic ‘Homeopathy for malignant diseases’ at the medical school.
This achievement was widely used for boosting the reputation of homeopathy; the often heard argument was that ‘homeopathy must be good and evidence-based, because a major medical school has adopted it’. This argument is now obsolete: Frass’ lectures have recently been axed!
Apparently, several students*** filed complaints with their dean about Frass’ lectures. This prompted the dean, Prof Mueller, to look into the matter and take drastic action. He is quoted stating that “the medical faculty rejects unscientific methods and quackery”.
Frass had repeatedly been seen on television claiming that homeopathy could be an effective adjuvant therapy for cancer, and that he had studies to prove it. Such statements had irritated Mueller who then instructed Frass in writing to abstain from such claims and to close his homeopathic out-patient clinic at the University. The matter was also brought to the attention of the University’s ethics committee which decided that Frass’ studies were not suited to provide a scientific proof.
Frass commented saying that he is not surprised about criticism because homeopathy is difficult to understand. He will retire next year from the University and will probably continue his homeopathic practice in a private setting.
(If you can read German, this article in the Austrian paper DER STANDARD has more details)
***as they had invited me to give a lecture on homeopathy some time ago, I like to think that I might have something to do with all this.
The public is often impressed by scenes shown on TV where surgeons in China operate patients apparently with no other anaesthesia than acupuncture. Such films have undoubtedly contributed significantly to the common belief that acupuncture cannot possibly be a placebo (every single time I give a public talk about acupuncture, the issue comes up, and someone asks me: how can you doubt the efficacy of acupuncture when, in China, they use it for major operations?).
Some years ago, I have myself been involved is such a BBC broadcast and had to learn the hard way that such scenes are more than just a bit misleading.
Unfortunately, the experts rarely object to any of this. They seem to have become used to the false claims and overt propaganda that is rife in the promotion of acupuncture, and have resigned to the might of poor journalism.
The laudable exception is a team of French authors of a recent and excellent paper.
This unusual article analysed a clip from the program “Acupuncture, osteopathy, hypnosis: do complementary medicines have superpowers?” about acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures in China. Their aim was to propose a rational explanation for the phenomena observed and to describe the processes leading a public service broadcasting channel to offer this type of content at prime time and the potential consequences in terms of public health. For this purpose, they used critical thinking attitudes and skills, along with a bibliographical search of Medline, Google Scholar and Cochrane Library databases.
Their results reveal that the information delivered in the television clip is ambiguous. It did not allow the viewer to form an informed opinion on the relevance of acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. It is reasonable to assume that the clip shows surgery performed with undisclosed epidural anaesthesia coupled with mild intravenous anaesthesia, sometimes performed in other countries.
What needs to be highlighted, the authors of this critique state, is the overestimation of acupuncture added to the protocol. The media tend to exaggerate the risks and expected effects of the treatments they report on, which can lead patients to turn to unproven therapies.
The authors concluded that broadcasting such a clip at prime time underlines the urgent need for the public and all health professionals to be trained in sorting and critically analysing health information.
In my view, broadcasting such misleading films also underlines the urgent need for journalists to be conscious of their responsibility not to mislead the public and do more rigorous research before reporting on matters of health.
Acupuncture is a branch of alternative medicine where pseudo-science abounds. Here is yet another example of this deplorable phenomenon.
This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of primary dysmenorrhea.
Sixty females aged 17-23 years were randomly assigned to either a study group or a control group.
- The study group received acupuncture for the duration of 20 minutes/day, for 15 days/month, for the period of 90 days.
- The control group did not receive acupuncture for the same period.
Both groups were assessed on day 1; day 30 and day 60; and day 90. The results showed a significant reduction in all the variables such as the visual analogue scale score for pain, menstrual cramps, headache, dizziness, diarrhoea, faint, mood changes, tiredness, nausea, and vomiting in the study group compared with those in the control group.
The authors concluded that acupuncture could be considered as an effective treatment modality for the management of primary dysmenorrhea.
These findings contradict those of a recent Cochrane review (authored by known acupuncture-proponents) which included 42 RCTs and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not acupuncture or acupressure are effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, and for most comparisons no data were available on adverse events. The quality of the evidence was low or very low for all comparisons. The main limitations were risk of bias, poor reporting, inconsistency and risk of publication bias.
The question that I ask myself is this: why do researchers bother to conduct studies that contribute NOTHING to our knowledge and progress? The new study had a no-treatment control group which means it cannot control for the effects of placebo, the extra attention, social desirability etc. In view of the fact that already 42 poor quality trials exist, it is not just useless to add a 43rd but, in my view, it is scandalous! A 43rd useless trial:
- tells us nothing of value;
- misleads the public;
- pollutes the medical literature;
- is a waste of resources;
- undermines the trust in clinical research;
- is deeply unethical.
It is high time to stop such redundant, foolish, wasteful and unethical pseudo-science.
I regularly scan the new publications in alternative medicine hoping that I find some good quality research. And sometimes I do! In such happy moments, I write a post and make sure that I stress the high standard of a paper.
Sadly, such events are rare. Usually, my searches locate a multitude of deplorably poor papers. Most of the time, I ignore them. Sometime, I do write about exemplarily bad science, and often I report about articles that are not just bad but dangerous as well. The following paper falls into this category, I fear.
The aim of this systematic review was to assess the efficacy and safety of herbal medicines for the induction of labor (IOL). The researchers considered experimental and non-experimental studies that compared relevant pregnancy outcomes between users and non-user of herbal medicines for IOL.
A total of 1421 papers were identified and 10 studies, including 5 RCTs met the authors’ inclusion criteria. Papers not published in English were not considered. Three trials were conducted in Iran, two in the USA and one each in South Africa, Israel, Thailand, Australia and Italy.
The quality of the included trial, even of the 5 RCTs, was poor. The results suggest, according to the authors of this paper, that users of herbal medicine – raspberry leaf and castor oil – for IOL were significantly more likely to give birth within 24 hours than non-users. No significant difference in the incidence of caesarean section, assisted vaginal delivery, haemorrhage, meconium-stained liquor and admission to nursery was found between users and non-users of herbal medicines for IOL.
The authors concluded that the findings suggest that herbal medicines for IOL are effective, but there is inconclusive evidence of safety due to lack of good quality data. Thus, the use of herbal medicines for IOL should be avoided until safety issues are clarified. More studies are recommended to establish the safety of herbal medicines.
As I stated above, I am not convinced that this review is any good. It included all sorts of study designs and dismissed papers that were not in English. Surely this approach can only generate a distorted or partial picture. The risks of herbal remedies for mother and baby are not well investigated. In view of the fact that even the 5 RCTs were of poor quality, the first sentence of this conclusion seems most inappropriate.
On the basis of the evidence presented, I feel compelled to urge pregnant women NOT to consent to accept herbal remedies for IOL.
And on the basis of the fact that far too many papers on alternative medicine that emerge every day are not just poor quality but also dangerously mislead the public, I urge publishers, editors, peer-reviewers and researchers to pause and remember that they all have a responsibility. This nonsense has been going on for long enough; it is high time to stop it.