The authors of this paper wanted to establish and compare the effectiveness of Healing Touch (HT) and Oncology Massage (OM) therapies on cancer patients’ pain. They conducted pre-test/post-test, observational, retrospective study. A total of 572 outpatient oncology were recruited and asked to report pain before and after receiving a single session of either HT or OM from a certified practitioner.
Both HT and OM significantly reduced pain. Unadjusted rates of clinically significant pain improvement (defined as ≥2-point reduction in pain score) were 0.68 HT and 0.71 OM. Adjusted for pre-therapy pain, OM was associated with increased odds of pain improvement. For patients with severe pre-therapy pain, OM was not more effective in yielding clinically significant pain reduction when adjusting for pre-therapy pain score.
The authors concluded that both HT and OM provided immediate pain relief. Future research should explore the duration of pain relief, patient attitudes about HT compared with OM, and how this may differ among patients with varied pretherapy pain levels.
This paper made me laugh out loud; no, not because of the ‘certified’ practitioners (in the UK, we use this term to indicate that someone is not quite sane), but because of the admission that the authors aimed at establishing the effectiveness of their therapies. Most researchers of alternative medicine have exactly this motivation, but few make the mistake to write it into the abstract of their papers. Little do they know that this admission discloses a fatal amount of bias. Science is supposed to test hypotheses, and researchers who aim at establishing the effectiveness of their pet-therapy oust themselves as pseudo-researchers.
It comes therefore as no surprise that the study turns out to be a pseudo-study. As there was no adequate control group, these outcomes cannot be attributed to the interventions administered. The results could therefore be due to:
- the time that has passed;
- regression to the mean;
- the attention provided by the therapists;
- the expectation of the patient;
- social desirability;
- all of the above.
It follows that – just as with the study discussed in the previous post – the conclusion is wholly misleading. In fact, the data are consistent with the hypothesis that HT and OM both aggravated the pain (the results might have been better without HT and OM). The devils advocate concludes that both HT and OM provided an immediate increase in pain.
Alternative practitioners practise highly diverse therapies. They seem to have nothing in common – except perhaps that ALL of them are allegedly stimulating our self-healing powers (and except that most proponents are latently or openly against vaccinations). And it is through these self-healing powers that the treatments in question cure anything and become a true panacea. When questioned what these incredible powers really are, most practitioners would (somewhat vaguely) name the immune system as the responsible mechanism. With this post, I intend to provide a short summary of the evidence on this issue:
Acupuncture: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Aromatherapy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Bioresonance: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Chiropractic: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Detox: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Energy healing: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Feldenkrais: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Gua sha: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Herbal medicine: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Homeopathy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Macrobiotics: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Naturopathy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Osteopathy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Power bands: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Reiki: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Reflexology: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Shiatsu: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Tai chi: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
TCM: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Vibrational therapy: no good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
Vaccinations: very good evidence to show stimulation of self-healing powers.
The only time we discussed gua sha, it led to one of the most prolonged discussions we ever had on this blog (536 comments so far). It seems to be a topic that excites many. But what precisely is it?
Gua sha, sometimes referred to as “scraping”, “spooning” or “coining”, is a traditional Chinese treatment that has spread to several other Asian countries. It has long been popular in Vietnam and is now also becoming well-known in the West. The treatment consists of scraping the skin with a smooth edge placed against the pre-oiled skin surface, pressed down firmly, and then moved downwards along muscles or meridians. According to its proponents, gua sha stimulates the flow of the vital energy ‘chi’ and releases unhealthy bodily matter from blood stasis within sore, tired, stiff or injured muscle areas.
The technique is practised by TCM practitioners, acupuncturists, massage therapists, physical therapists, physicians and nurses. Practitioners claim that it stimulates blood flow to the treated areas, thus promoting cell metabolism, regeneration and healing. They also assume that it has anti-inflammatory effects and stimulates the immune system.
These effects are said to last for days or weeks after a single treatment. The treatment causes microvascular injuries which are visible as subcutaneous bleeding and redness. Gua sha practitioners make far-reaching therapeutic claims, including that the therapy alleviates pain, prevents infections, treats asthma, detoxifies the body, cures liver problems, reduces stress, and contributes to overall health.
Gua sha is mildly painful, almost invariably leads to unsightly blemishes on the skin which occasionally can become infected and might even be mistaken for physical abuse.
There is little research of gua sha, and the few trials that exist tend to be published in Chinese. But recently, a new paper has emerged that is written in English. The goal of this systematic review was to evaluate the available evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of gua sha for the treatment of patients with perimenopausal syndrome.
A total of 6 RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Most were of low methodological quality. When compared with Western medicine therapy alone, meta-analysis of 5 RCTs indicated favorable statistically significant effects of gua sha plus Western medicine. Moreover, study participants who received Gua Sha therapy plus Western medicine therapy showed significantly greater improvements in serum levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH) compared to participants in the Western medicine therapy group.
The authors concluded that preliminary evidence supported the hypothesis that Gua Sha therapy effectively improved the treatment efficacy in patients with perimenopausal syndrome. Additional studies will be required to elucidate optimal frequency and dosage of Gua Sha.
This sounds as though gua sha is a reasonable therapy.
Yet, I think this notion is worth being critically analysed. Here are some caveats that spring into my mind:
- Gua sha lacks biological plausibility.
- The reviewed trials are too flawed to allow any firm conclusions.
- As most are published in Chinese, non-Chinese speakers have no possibility to evaluate them.
- The studies originate from China where close to 100% of TCM trials report positive results.
- In my view, this means they are less than trustworthy.
- The authors of the above-cited review are all from China and might not be willing, able or allowed to publish a critical paper on this subject.
- The review was published in Complement Ther Clin Pract., a journal not known for its high scientific standards or critical stance towards TCM.
So, is gua sha a reasonable therapy?
I let you make this judgement.
As you know, my ambition is to cover all (or at least most) alternative methods on this blog _ by no means an easy task because there is a sheer endless list of treatments and a sizable one of diagnostic techniques. One intervention that we have not yet discussed is ZERO BALANCING.
What is it?
This website explains it fairly well:
Developed by Fritz Smith, MD in the early 1970s, Zero Balancing is a powerful body-mind therapy that uses skilled touch to address the relationship between energy and structures of the body. Following a protocol that typically lasts 30 to 45 minutes, the practitioner uses finger pressure and gentle traction on areas of tension in the bones, joints and soft tissue to create fulcrums, or points of balance, around which the body can relax and reorganize. Zero Balancing focuses primarily on key joints of our skeleton that conduct and balance forces of gravity, posture and movement. By addressing the deepest and densest tissues of the body along with soft tissue and energy fields, Zero Balancing helps to clear blocks in the body’s energy flow, amplify vitality and contribute to better postural alignment. A Zero Balancing session leaves you with a wonderful feeling of inner harmony and organization.
Did I just say ‘fairly well’? I retract this statement. Zero Balancing turns out to be one of the more nebulous alternative treatments.
The therapy might be defined by lots of nonsensical terminology, but that does not necessarily mean it is rubbish. Judging from the claims made for Zero Balancing, it might even be a most useful therapy. Here are just some of the claims frequently made for zero balancing:
- Increases feelings of health and well-being
- Releases stress and improves the flow of energy in our bodies
- Reduces pain and discomfort
- Enhances stability, balance and freedom
- Amplifies the sense of connection, peace and happiness
- Releases mental, emotional and physical tension
- Supports us through transitions and transformations
- Improves quality of life and increases capacity for enjoyment
These claims are testable, and we must, of course, ask by what evidence they are being supported. I did a quick Medline-search to find out.
And the result?
… now the rather odd name of the treatment begins to make sense: ZERO BALANCING, ZERO EVIDENCE.
Daniel P Wirth used to be THE star amongst researchers and proponents of paranormal healing. About 15 years ago, there was nobody who had published more studies of it than Wirth. The extraordinary phenomenon was not just the number of studies, but also the fact that these trials all reported positive findings.
At the time, this puzzled me a lot. I had conducted two trials of paranormal healing myself; and, in both, cases the results had turned out to be negative (see here and here). Thus I made several attempts to contact Wirth or his co-authors hoping to better understand the phenomenon. Yet I never received a reply and became increasingly suspicious of their research.
In 2004, it was announced that Wirth together with one of his co-workers had been arrested and later imprisoned for fraud. Several of his 20 papers published in various journals were subsequently withdrawn. I remember writing to several journal editors myself urging them to follow suit so that, in future, the literature would not be polluted with dubious studies. Eventually, we all forgot about the whole story.
Recently, I took a renewed interest in paranormal healing. To my surprise, I found that several of Wirth’s papers are still listed on Medline:
Cha KY, Wirth DP.
J Reprod Med. 2001 Sep;46(9):781-7. Erratum in: J Reprod Med. 2004 Oct;49(10):100A. Lobo, RA [removed].
Wirth DP, Cram JR, Chang RJ.
J Altern Complement Med. 1997 Summer;3(2):109-18.
Wirth DP, Cram JR.
J Altern Complement Med. 1997 Winter;3(4):355-64.
Wirth DP, Richardson JT, Eidelman WS.
J Altern Complement Med. 1996 Winter;2(4):493-502. Review.
Soc Sci Med. 1995 Jul;41(2):249-60.
Int J Psychosom. 1995;42(1-4):48-53.
Wirth DP, Cram JR.
Int J Psychosom. 1994;41(1-4):68-75.
Wirth DP, Barrett MJ.
Int J Psychosom. 1994;41(1-4):61-7.
Wirth DP, Cram JR.
Int J Psychosom. 1993;40(1-4):47-55.
Of these 9 papers, only the first one in the list carries a note indicating that the paper has been removed. In other words, 8 of Wirth’s articles are still available as though they are fine and proper.
The situation is even worse on ‘Research Gate’. Here we find all of the following articles with no indication of any suspicion of fraud:
KY Cha ·· RA Lobo
Abstract: To assess the potential effect of intercessory prayer (IP) on pregnancy rates in women being treated with in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer (IVF-ET). Prospective, double-blind, randomized clinical trial in which patients and providers were not informed about the intervention. Statisticians and investigators were masked until all the data had been collected and clinical outcomes were known. The setting was an IVF-ET program at Cha Hospital, Seoul, Korea. IP was carried out by prayer…
Article · Oct 2001 · The Journal of reproductive medicine
Daniel P. Wirth
Article · Apr 1997 · Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Daniel P. Wirth · Jeffrey R. Cram
Abstract: A comparative analysis was conducted on a series of three experimental studies that examined the effect of various local and nonlocal (distant) complementary healing methods on multisite surface electromyographic (sEMG) and autonomic measures. The series concentrated sEMG electrode placement on specific neuromuscular paraspinal centers (cervical [C4], thoracic [T6], and lumbar [L3]), along with the frontalis region, due to the fact that these sites corresponded to the location of individual…
Article · Feb 1997 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Jeffrey R. Cram · Richard J. Chang
Abstract: The influence of complementary healing treatment on paraspinal electromagnetic activity at specific neuromuscular sites was examined in an exploratory pilot study that used a multisite surface electromyographic (sEMG) assessment procedure. The study was a replication and extension of previous research that indicated that complementary healing had a significant effect in normalizing the activity of the “end organ” for the central nervous system (CNS). Multisite sEMG electrodes were placed on…
Article · Feb 1997 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
Daniel P Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · Robert D. Martinez · William S. Eidelman · Maria E.L. Lopez
Abstract: The study described here utilized a randomized double-blind methodological protocol in order to examine the effect of non-contact therapeutic touch (NCTT) on the healing rate of full-thickness human dermal wounds. This study is the fifth experiment in a series of extensions based on the original research design, and is an exact methodological replication of the second study in the series. Thirty-two healthy subjects were randomly divided into treatment and control groups and biopsies were…
Article · Oct 1996 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · William S. Eidelman
Abstract: A series of five innovative experiments conducted by Wirth et al. which examined the effect of various complementary healing interventions on the reepithelialization rate of full thickness human dermal wounds was assessed as to specific methodological and related factors. The treatment interventions utilized in the series included experimental derivatives of the Therapeutic Touch (TT), Reiki, LeShan, and Intercessory Prayer techniques. The results of the series indicated statistical…
Article · Feb 1996 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Richard J. Chang · William S. Eidelman · Joanne B. Paxton
Abstract: The effect of Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, LeShan, and Qigong Therapy in combination on haematological measures was examined in an exploratory pilot study utilizing a randomized, double-blind, within-subject, crossover design. Fourteen subjects were randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions for two one-hour evaluation sessions separated by a 24-hour period. Six blood samples were taken from each subject — three during the treatment condition and three during the control condition —…
Article · Jan 1996 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth
Abstract: Historically, traditional cultures recognized the importance of belief and expectancy within the healing encounter and created complex rituals and ceremonies designed to elicit or foster the expectancy and participation of both the healer and patient, as well as the community as a whole. This holistic approach to health care was a fundamental component in the spiritual healing rituals of virtually all traditional native cultures. The focus of the current study was to assess the impact of…
Article · Aug 1995 · Social Science & Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Margaret J Barrett · William S. Eidelman
Abstract: The results demonstrated a non-significant effect for the treatment versus control groups. Several factors may have contributed to the non-significance, including: the ineffectiveness of the healers, the inhibitive or dampening effect of plastic, the use of self-regulatory techniques, the dependent variable examined, the type of dressing utilized, the influence of distance, and the healers’ belief as to the effect of distance. Future studies would benefit by examining the methodological…
Article · Oct 1994 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · David R. Brenlan · Richard J. Levine · Christine M. Rodriguez
Abstract: This study utilized a randomized, double-blind, within subject, crossover design to examine the effect of Reiki and LeShan healing in combination on iatrogenic pain experienced after unilateral operative extraction of the lower third molar. Two separate operations were performed on 21 patients with bilateral, asymptomatic, impacted lower third molar teeth. The patients were randomly assigned to the treatment or control condition prior to the first operation. For the second operation,…
Article · Jul 1993 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · William S. Eidelman · Alice C. O’Malley
Abstract: The effect of non-contact Therapeutic Touch (NCTT) therapy on the healing rate of full thickness human dermal wounds was examined in a double-blind, placebo controlled study. Punch biopsies were performed on the lateral deltoid in 24 healthy subjects who were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Active and control treatments were comprised of daily sessions of 5 min of exposure to a hidden NCTT practitioner or control exposure. Placebo effects and the possible influences of…
Article · Jul 1993 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
DANIEL P. WIRTH · CATHY A. JOHNSON · JOSEPH S. HORVATH
Article · Jan 1992
DANIEL P. WIRTH · BARBARA J. MITCHELL
Abstract: The effect of Noncontact Therapeutic Touch (NCTT) therapy and Intercessory Prayer (IP) on patient determined insulin dosage was exam- ined in an exploratory pilot study which utilized a randomized, double-blind, within subject, crossover design. Sixteen type I diabetes mellitus patients were examined and treated daily by NCTT and IP healers for a duration of two weeks. Each patient underwent two separate sessions-one in the treat- ment condition and one in the control condition-with the…
What is even worse, Wirth’s papers continue to get cited. In other words, Wirth’s research lives on regardless of the fact that it is highly dubious.
In my view, it is long over-due for all journal-editors to fully and completely delete Wirth’s dubious papers. This is particularly true since several experts have alerted them to the problem. Furthermore, I submit that failing to take action amounts to unethical behaviour which is quite simply unacceptable.
Samuel Hahnemann published a lot, but his main ideas about homeopathy are summarised in his ‘Organon‘ which has thus become ‘the bible’ for all homeopaths. They regularly refer to this book, yet I sometimes get the impression that many of them have even read it.
I did! Most recently, I re-studied it when writing my own book ‘HOMEOPATHY, THE UNDILUTED FACTS‘. And I have to say, it is rather boring, full of contradictions and obsolete nonsense.
To mark Samuel’s birthday – he was born on 10 April 1755 in Meissen – I take the liberty of quoting directly from Dudgeon’s translation of the 1st edition of the Organon:
- In no way whatever can [a] disease itself be recognized.
- This eternal, universal law of nature [the like cures like assumption]…
- …only one disease can exist in the body at any one time…
- …if an acute infection attacks an organism already suffering from a similar acute disease, then the stronger infection uproots the weaker entirely and removes it homoeopathically.
- …diseases are only destroyed by similar diseases.
- …it is certain that a suitably selected homoeopathic remedy gently destroys and removes disease…
- …aggravation during the first hours… is, in fact, a very good prognostic sign…
- …even the smallest dose of a homoeopathic remedy always causes a small homoeopathic aggravation…
- …we should always choose the very smallest doses…
- …hardly any dose of the homoeopathically selected remedy can be so small as not to be stronger than the natural disease…
- If dilution is also employed… an excessive effect is easily produced.
- …a single drop of a tincture to a pound of water and shaking vigorously… will produce more effect than a single dose of eight drops of the tincture.
- …this action must be called spirit-like.
For homeopaths, these quotes (should) depict some of the central assumptions of homeopathy. For non-homeopaths, they are just gibberish that makes no sense whatsoever. Time has moved on, and most of us have moved with it. Yet homeopaths still live by (and from) the errors of 200 years ago.
Hahnemann died on 2 July 1843 in Paris. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but perhaps we should, in future, rather celebrate this date? It could be a celebration of the progress we made since (and because) we have recognised Hahnemann’s errors.
Electrohomeopathy is a version of homeopathy few people know about. Allow me to explain:
Cesare Mattei (1809–1896), an Italian count, was interested in homeopathy. Mattei believed that fermented plants gave off ‘electrical’ energy that could be used to cure illness. He also believed that every illness had a cure provided in the vegetable kingdom by God. He began to develop his system from 1849. The large bottles are labelled ”Red”, ”Green”, “White”, “Yellow” and “Blue” so the actual ingredients remained a secret. Ointments were made up with ingredients from the small and large bottles. The vial labelled “Canceroso 5” was used for bruises, cancers, chilblains, hair loss, skin diseases and varicose veins, among other conditions. Although dismissed by the medical profession as quackery, Mattei’s system was popular. It formed part of the treatment at St Saviour’s Cancer Hospital in London from 1873.
Wikipedia offers more informing us that:
“… Mattei, a nobleman living in a castle in the vicinity of Bologna studied natural science, anatomy, physiology, pathology, chemistry and botany. He ultimately focused on the supposed therapeutic power of “electricity” in botanical extracts. Mattei made bold, unsupported claims for the efficacy of his treatments, including the claim that his treatments offered a nonsurgical alternative to cancer. His treatment regimens were met with scepticism by mainstream medicine:
The electrohomeopathic system is an invention of Count Mattei who prates of “red”, “blue”, and “green” electricity, a theory that, in spite of its utter idiocy, has attracted a considerable following and earned a large fortune for its chief promoter.
Notwithstanding criticisms, including a challenge by the British medical establishment to the claimed success of his cancer treatments, electrohomeopathy (or Matteism, as it was sometimes known at the time) had adherents in Germany, France, the USA and the UK by the beginning of the 20th century; electrohomeopathy had been the subject of approximately 100 publications and there were three journals dedicated to it.
Remedies are derived from what are said to be the active micro nutrients or mineral salts of certain plants. One contemporary account of the process of producing electrohomeopathic remedies was as follows:
As to the nature of his remedies we learn … that … they are manufactured from certain herbs, and that the directions for the preparation of the necessary dilutions are given in the ordinary jargon of homeopathy. The globules and liquids, however, are “instinct with a potent, vital, electrical force, which enables them to work wonders”. This process of “fixing the electrical principle” is carried on in the secret central chamber of a Neo-Moorish castle which Count Mattei has built for himself in the Bolognese Apennines… The “red electricity” and “white electricity” supposed to be “fixed” in these “vegetable compounds” are in their very nomenclature and suggestion poor and miserable fictions.
According to Mattei’s own ideas however, every disease originates in the change of blood or of the lymphatic system or both, and remedies can therefore be mainly divided into two broad categories to be used in response to the dominant affected system. Mattei wrote that having obtained plant extracts, he was “able to determine in the liquid vegetable electricity”. Allied to his theories and therapies were elements of Chinese medicine, of medical humours, of apparent Brownianism, as well as modified versions of Samuel Hahnemann‘s homeopathic principles. Electrohomeopathy has some associations with Spagyric medicine, a holistic medical philosophy claimed to be the practical application of alchemy in medical treatment, so that the principle of modern electrohomeopathy is that disease is typically multi-organic in cause or effect and therefore requires holistic treatment that is at once both complex and natural.”
END OF QUOTE
If one would assume that electrohomeopathy is nothing more than a bizarre and long-forgotten chapter in the colourful history of homeopathy, one would be mistaken; it is still used and promoted by enthusiasts who continue to make bold claims. This article, for instance, informs us that:
- Electro Homeopathic remedies tone up the brain and the nerves through which overall body processes are controlled and strengthen the digestion process.
- The tablets provide food for the red blood cells and provide nourishment for the white corpuscles of the lymph and the blood.
- They provide the useful elements to the plasma of the blood and provide required nutrients for the cells of which tissues are made.
- They enhance the eviction through the skin and other modes and unnecessary substances which disturb the function and health of the body.
- They cure the diseases and are helpful to the patients who use them.
- They are curative as well as palliatives.
- They are helpful in curing the serious diseases whether it is acute or chronic, non-surgical or surgical, for women, men, and children. They provide 100 percent cure.
- They cure diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, fistula, and cancer. They can cure these diseases without operation.
- They cure all type of infectious diseases with certainty and are also helpful in prophylactics in the epidemics.
This article also provides even more specific claims:
Here are the 5 best Electro Homeopathic medicines for curing kidney stones –
- Berberis Vulgaris – is the best medicine for left-sided kidney stones
- Cantharis Vesicatoria– is one of the best medicine for kidney stones with burning in urine
- Lycopodium – is the best remedy for right-sided kidney stones
- Sarsaparilla – is the best medicine for kidney stones with white sand in urine
- Benzoic Acid – is best homeopathic medicine for renal calculi…
The aforesaid homeopathic medicines for kidney stones have been found to be very effective in getting these stones out of the system. It does not mean that only these medicines are used.
What all of this highlights yet again is this, I think:
- There are many seriously deluded people out there who are totally ignorant of medicine, healthcare and science.
- To a desperate patient, these quacks can seem reasonable in their pretence of medical competence.
- Loons make very specific health claims (even about very serious conditions), thus endangering the lives of the many gullible people who believe them.
- Even though this has been known and well-documented for many years, t here seems to be nobody stopping the deluded pretenders in their tracks; the public therefore remains largely unprotected from their fraudulent and harmful acts.
- In particular, the allegedly more reasonable end of the ‘alt med community’ does nothing to limit the harm done by such charlatans – on the contrary, whether knowingly or not, groups such as doctors of ‘integrative medicine’ lend significant support to them.
During Voltaire’s time, this famous quote was largely correct. But today, things are very different, and I often think this ‘bon mot’ ought to be re-phrased into ‘The art of alternative medicine consists in amusing the patient, while medics cure the disease’.
To illustrate this point, I shall schematically outline the story of a patient seeking care from a range of clinicians. The story is invented but nevertheless based on many real experiences of a similar nature.
Tom is in his mid 50s, happily married, mildly over-weight and under plenty of stress. In addition to holding a demanding job, he has recently moved home and, as a consequence of lots of heavy lifting, his whole body aches. He had previous episodes of back trouble and re-starts the exercises a physio once taught him. A few days later, the back-pain has improved and most other pains have subsided as well. Yet a dull and nagging pain around his left shoulder and arm persists.
He is tempted to see his GP, but his wife is fiercely alternative. She was also the one who dissuaded Tom from taking Statins for his high cholesterol and put him on Garlic pills instead. Now she gives Tom a bottle of her Rescue Remedy, but after a week of taking it Tom’s condition is unchanged. His wife therefore persuades him to consult alternative practitioners for his ‘shoulder problem’. Thus he sees a succession of her favourite clinicians.
THE CHIROPRACTOR examines Tom’s spine and diagnoses subluxations to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of spinal manipulations and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE ENERGY HEALER diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital energy as the root cause of his persistent pain. Tom thus receives a series of healing sessions and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE REFLEXOLOGIST examines Tom’s foot and diagnoses knots on the sole of his foot to cause energy blockages which are the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of most agreeable foot massages and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE ACUPUNCTURIST examines Tom’s pulse and tongue and diagnoses a chi deficiency to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of acupuncture treatments and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE NATUROPATH examines Tom and diagnoses some form of auto-intoxication as the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a full program of detox and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE HOMEOPATH takes a long and detailed history and diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital force to be the root cause of his pain. Tom thus receives a homeopathic remedy tailor-made for his needs and feels a little improved after taking it for a few days. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore tries to make another appointment for him.
But this time, Tom had enough. His pain has not really improved and he is increasingly feeling unwell.
At the risk of a marital dispute, he consults his GP. The doctor looks up Tom’s history, asks a few questions, conducts a brief physical examination, and arranges for Tom to see a specialist. A cardiologist diagnoses Tom to suffer from coronary heart disease due to a stenosis in one of his coronary arteries. She explains that Tom’s dull pain in the left shoulder and arm is a rather typical symptom of this condition.
Tom has to have a stent put into the affected coronary artery, receives several medications to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and is told to take up regular exercise, lose weight and make several other changes to his stressful life-style. Tom’s wife is told in no uncertain terms to stop dissuading her husband from taking his prescribed medicines, and the couple are both sent to see a dietician who offers advice and recommends a course on healthy cooking. Nobody leaves any doubt that not following this complex (holistic!) package of treatments and advice would be a serious risk to Tom’s life.
It has taken a while, but finally Tom is pain-free. More importantly, his prognosis has dramatically improved. The team who now look after him have no doubt that a major heart attack had been imminent, and Tom could easily have died had he continued to listen to the advice of multiple non-medically trained clinicians.
The root cause of his condition was misdiagnosed by all of them. In fact, the root cause was the atherosclerotic degeneration in his arteries. This may not be fully reversible, but even if the atherosclerotic process cannot be halted completely, it can be significantly slowed down such that he can live a full life.
My advice based on this invented and many real stories of a very similar nature is this:
- alternative practitioners are often good at pampering their patients;
- this may contribute to some perceived clinical improvements;
- in turn, this perceived benefit can motivate patients to continue their treatment despite residual symptoms;
- alternative practitioner’s claims about ‘root causes’ and holistic care are usually pure nonsense;
- their pampering may be agreeable, but it can undoubtedly cost lives.
It was based on a design-based logistic regression analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS), Round 7. The researchers distinguished 4 modalities: manual therapies, alternative medicinal systems, traditional Asian medical systems and mind-body therapies.
In total, 25.9% of the general population had used at least one of these therapies during the last 12 months which was around one-third of the proportion of those who had visited a general practitioner (76.3%). Typically, only one treatment had been used, and it was used more often as complementary rather than alternative treatment. The usage varied greatly by country (see Table 1 below). Compared to those in good health, the use of CAM was two to fourfold greater among those with health problems. The health profiles of users of different CAM modalities varied. For example, back or neck pain was associated with all types of CAM, whereas depression was associated only with the use of mind-body therapies. Individuals with difficult to diagnose health conditions were more inclined to utilize CAM, and CAM use was more common among women and those with a higher education. Lower income was associated with the use of mind-body therapies, whereas the other three CAM modalities were associated with higher income.
The authors concluded that help-seeking differed according to the health problem, something that should be acknowledged by clinical professionals to ensure safe care. The findings also point towards possible socioeconomic inequalities in health service use.
As I said, this is one of the rare surveys that is worth studying in some detail. This is mainly because it is rigorous and its results are clearly presented. Much of what it reports has been known before (for instance, we showed that the use of CAM in the UK was 26% which ties in perfectly with the 21% figure considering that here only 4 CAMs were included), but it is undoubtedly valuable to see it confirmed based on sound methodology.
Apart of what the abstract tells us, there are some hidden gems from this paper:
- 8% of CAM users had used CAM exclusively (alternative use), without any visits to biomedical professionals in the last 12 months. This may look like a low figure, but I would argue that it is worryingly high considering that alternative usage of CAM has the potential to hasten patients’ deaths.
- The most frequently used CAM treatment was massage therapy, used by 11.9% of the population, followed by homeopathy (5.7%), osteopathy (5.2%), herbal treatments (4.6%), acupuncture (3.6%), chiropractic (2.3%), reflexology (1.7%) and spiritual healing (1.3%). Other modalities (Chinese medicine, acupressure and hypnotherapy) were used by around by 1% or less. The figure for homeopathy is MUCH smaller that the ones homeopaths want us to believe.
- About 9% of healthy survey-participants had used at least one of the CAM modalities during the last 12 months. One can assume that this usage was mostly for disease-prevention. But there is no good evidence for CAM to be effective for this purpose.
- The highest ORs for the use of Traditional Asian Medical Systems were found in Denmark, Switzerland and Israel, followed by Austria, Norway and Sweden. The highest OR for the use of Alternative Medical Systems was found in Lithuania, while manual therapies were most commonly used in Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. Moreover, Denmark, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania had the highest ORs for using mind-body therapies. France, Spain and Germany presented a common pattern, with relatively similar use of the different modalities. Poland and Hungary had low ORs for use of the different CAM modalities.
But by far the nicest gem, however, comes from my favourite source of misinformation on matters of health, WDDTY. They review the new survey and state this: The patients are turning to alternatives for a range of chronic conditions because they consider the conventional therapy to be inadequate, the researchers say. Needless to point out that this is not a theme that was addressed by the new survey, and therefore its authors also do not draw this conclusion.
Remember Oetzi? Well, he was (almost) Bavarian. He had acupuncture points tattooed all over his body, and he lived more than 5000 years ago. And now the Chinese have the chutzpa to claim having invented acupuncture 3 000 ago. No, they have nicked it from the Bavarians! It’s obvious!
But it gets better.
You must admit this is convincing evidence, if there ever was one.
What does this Bavarian slapping therapy cure?
It is a holistic form of energy healing to cure foremost thirst. You have to drink 1 litre of beer (a herbal infusion of hops and a few other ingredients – also Bavarian, of course) before you start and 2 when it’s over (perfect detox as well!). Moreover it is a better workout than Tai Chi, and it re-balances your vital energies more effectively than any acupuncture needle.
Trust me – I am a (Bavarian) doctor!