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

herbal medicine

During their cancer treatment path, cancer patients use numerous drugs,e.g.:

  • anticancer medications,
  • supportive drugs,
  • other prescribed medications,
  • herbal remedies,
  • other OTC products.

This puts them at risk of significant drug interactions (DIs).

This study describes potential DIs in cancer patients and their prevalence and predictors.

A cross-sectional study was carried out in two centers in the northern West Bank, Palestine. The Lexicomp® Drug Interactions tool (Lexi-Comp, Hudson OH, USA) was applied to check the potential DIs. In addition, the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) was used to show the results and find the associations.

The final analysis included 327 patients. Most of the participants were older than 50 years (61.2%), female (68.5%), and had a solid tumor (74.6%). The total number of potential DIs was 1753, including 1510 drug-drug interactions (DDIs), 24 drug-herb interactions, and 219 drug-food interactions. Importantly, the prevalence of DDIs was 88.1%. In multivariate analysis, the number of potential DDIs significantly decreased with the duration of treatment (p = 0.007), while it increased with the number of comorbidities (p < 0.001) and the number of drugs used (p < 0.001).

The authors concluded that they found a high prevalence of DIs among cancer patients. This required health care providers to develop a comprehensive protocol to monitor and evaluate DIs by improving doctor-pharmacist communication and supporting the role of clinical pharmacists.

What the investigators did not study was the possibility of herb-herb and herb-non-herbal supplement interactions. The reason for this is probably simple: we know too little about these areas to make reasonable judgments. But even in the absence of such considerations, the prevalence of DDIs among cancer patients was high (88.1%). This means that the vast majority of cancer patients had at least one potential DDI. Over half of them were classified as moderately severe or worse.

The lessons seem to be to:

  • use only truly necessary drugs and omit all remedies that are of doubtful value,
  • educate the public about the risks of interactions,
  • be skeptical about the messages of integrative medicine,
  • consult a healthcare professional who is competent to make such judgments,
  • conduct more rigorous research to increase our knowledge in this complex area.

This study used a US nationally representative 11-year sample of office-based visits to physicians from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), to examine a comprehensive list of factors believed to be associated with visits where complementary health approaches were recommended or provided.

NAMCS is a national health care survey designed to collect data on the provision and use of ambulatory medical care services provided by office-based physicians in the United States. Patient medical records were abstracted from a random sample of office-based physician visits. The investigators examined several visit characteristics, including patient demographics, physician specialty, documented health conditions, and reasons for a health visit. They ran chi-square analyses to test bivariate associations between visit factors and whether complementary health approaches were recommended or provided to guide the development of logistic regression models.

Of the 550,114 office visits abstracted, 4.43% contained a report that complementary health approaches were ordered, supplied, administered, or continued. Among complementary health visits, 87% of patient charts mentioned nonvitamin nonmineral dietary supplements. The prevalence of complementary health visits significantly increased from 2% in 2005 to almost 8% in 2015. Returning patient status, survey year, physician specialty and degree, menopause, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal diagnoses were significantly associated with complementary health visits, as was seeking preventative care or care for a chronic problem.

The authors concluded that these data confirm the growing popularity of complementary health approaches in the United States, provide a baseline for further studies, and inform subsequent investigations of integrative health care.

The authors used the same dataset for a 2nd paper which examined the reasons why office-based physicians do or do not recommend four selected complementary health approaches to their patients in the context of the Andersen Behavioral Model. Descriptive estimates were employed of physician-level data from the 2012 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) Physician Induction Interview, a nationally representative survey of office-based physicians (N = 5622, weighted response rate = 59.7%). The endpoints were the reasons for the recommendation or lack thereof to patients for:

  • herbs,
  • other non-vitamin supplements,
  • chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation,
  • acupuncture,
  • mind-body therapies (including meditation, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation).

Differences by physician sex and medical specialty were described.

For each of the four complementary health approaches, more than half of the physicians who made recommendations indicated that they were influenced by scientific evidence in peer-reviewed journals (ranging from 52.0% for chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation [95% confidence interval, CI = 47.6-56.3] to 71.3% for herbs and other non-vitamin supplements [95% CI = 66.9-75.4]). More than 60% of all physicians recommended each of the four complementary health approaches because of patient requests. A higher percentage of female physicians reported evidence in peer-reviewed journals as a rationale for recommending herbs and non-vitamin supplements or chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation when compared with male physicians (herbs and non-vitamin supplements: 78.8% [95% CI = 72.4-84.3] vs. 66.6% [95% CI = 60.8-72.2]; chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation: 62.3% [95% CI = 54.7-69.4] vs. 47.5% [95% CI = 42.3-52.7]).

For each of the four complementary health approaches, a lack of perceived benefit was the most frequently reported reason by both sexes for not recommending. Lack of information sources was reported more often by female versus male physicians as a reason to not recommend herbs and non-vitamin supplements (31.4% [95% CI = 26.8-36.3] vs. 23.4% [95% CI = 21.0-25.9]).

The authors concluded that there are limited nationally representative data on the reasons as to why office-based physicians decide to recommend complementary health approaches to patients. Developing a more nuanced understanding of influencing factors in physicians’ decision making regarding complementary health approaches may better inform researchers and educators, and aid physicians in making evidence-based recommendations for patients.

I am not sure what these papers really offer in terms of information that is not obvious or that makes a meaningful contribution to progress. It almost seems that, because the data of such surveys are available, such analyses get done and published. The far better reason for doing research is, of course, the desire to answer a burning and relevant research question.

A problem then arises when researchers, who perceive the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) as a fundamentally good thing, write a paper that smells more of SCAM promotion than meaningful science. Having said that, I find it encouraging to read in the two papers that

  • the prevalence of SCAM remains quite low,
  • more than 60% of all physicians recommended SCAM not because they were convinced of its value but because of patient requests,
  • the lack of perceived benefit was the most frequently reported reason for not recommending it.

Ayush-64 is an Ayurvedic formulation, developed by the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences (CCRAS), the apex body for research in Ayurveda under the Ministry of Ayush. Originally developed in 1980 for the management of Malaria, this drug has now been repurposed for COVID-19 as its ingredients showed notable antiviral, immune-modulator, and antipyretic properties. Its ingredients are:

Alstonia scholaris R. Br. Aqueous extract of (Saptaparna) Bark-1 part
Picrorhiza Kurroa Royle Aqueous extract of (Kutki) Rhizome-1 part
Swertia chirata Buch-Ham. Aqueous extract of (Chirata) Whole plant-1 part
Caesalphinia crista, Linn. Fine powder of seed (Kuberaksha) Pulp-2 parts

The crucial question, of course, is does AYUSH-64 work?

An open-label randomized controlled parallel-group trial was conducted at a designated COVID care centre in India with 80 patients diagnosed with mild to moderate COVID-19 and randomized into two groups. Participants in the AYUSH-64 add-on group (AG) received AYUSH-64 two tablets (500 mg each) three times a day for 30 days along with standard conventional care. The control group (CG) received standard care alone.

The outcome measures were:

  • the proportion of participants who attained clinical recovery on days 7, 15, 23, and 30,
  • the proportion of participants with negative RT-PCR assay for COVID-19 at each weekly time point,
  • change in pro-inflammatory markers,
  • metabolic functions,
  • HRCT chest (CO-RADS category),
  • the incidence of Adverse Drug Reaction (ADR)/Adverse Event (AE).

Out of 80 participants, 74 (37 in each group) contributed to the final analysis. A significant difference was observed in clinical recovery in the AG (p < 0.001 ) compared to CG. The mean duration for clinical recovery in AG (5.8 ± 2.67 days) was significantly less compared to CG (10.0 ± 4.06 days). Significant improvement in HRCT chest was observed in AG (p = 0.031) unlike in CG (p = 0.210). No ADR/SAE was observed or reported in AG.

The authors concluded that AYUSH-64 as adjunct to standard care is safe and effective in hastening clinical recovery in mild to moderate COVID-19. The efficacy may be further validated by larger multi-center double-blind trials.

I do object to these conclusions for several reasons:

  1. The study cannot possibly determine the safety of AYUSH-64.
  2. Even for assessing its efficacy, it was too small.
  3. The trial design followed the often-discussed A+B vs B concept and is thus prone to generate false-positive results.

I believe that it is highly irresponsible, during a medical crisis like ours, to conduct studies that can only produce unreliable findings. If there is a real possibility that a therapy might work, we do need to test it, but we should take great care that the test is rigorous enough to generate reliable results. This, I think, is all the more true, if – like in the present case – the study was done with governmental support.

I just stumbled over a paper we published way back in 1997. It reports a questionnaire survey of all primary care physicians working in the health service in Devon and Cornwall. Here is an excerpt:

Replies were received from 461 GPs, a response rate of 47%. A total of 314 GPs (68%, range 32-85%) had been involved in complementary medicine in some way during the previous week. One or other form of complementary medicine was practised by 74 of the respondents (16%), the two most common being homoeopathy (5.9%) and acupuncture (4.3%). In addition, 115 of the respondents (25%) had referred at least one patient to a complementary therapist in the previous week, and 253 (55%) had endorsed or recommended treatment with complementary medicine. Chiropractic, acupuncture and osteopathy were rated as the three most effective therapies, and the majority of respondents believed that these three therapies should be funded by the health service. A total of 176 (38%) respondents reported adverse effects, most commonly after manipulation.

What I found particularly interesting (and had totally forgotten about) were the details of these adverse effects: Serious adverse effects of spinal manipulation included the following:

  • paraplegia,
  • spinal cord transection,
  • fractured vertebra,
  • unspecified bone fractures,
  • fractured neck of femur,
  • severe pain for years after manipulation.

Adverse effects not related to manipulation included:

  • death after a coffee enema,
  • liver toxicity,
  • anaphylaxis,
  • 17 cases of delay of adequate medical attention,
  • 11 cases of adverse psychological effects,
  • 14 cases of feeling to have wasted money.

If I remember correctly, none of the adverse effects had been reported anywhere which would make the incidence of underreporting 100% (exactly the same as in a survey we published in 2001 of adverse effects after spinal manipulations).

Today is WORLD ASTHMA DAY, a good opportunity perhaps to revisit a few of our own evaluations of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for asthma. Here are the abstracts of some of our systematic reviews on the subject:

YOGA

Objective: The objective of this systematic review was to assess the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment option for asthma.

Method: Seven databases were searched from their inception to October 2010. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and non-randomized clinical trials (NRCTs) were considered, if they investigated any type of yoga in patients with asthma. The selection of studies, data extraction, and validation were performed independently by two reviewers.

Results: Six RCTs and one NRCT met the inclusion criteria. Their methodological quality was mostly poor. Three RCTs and one NRCT suggested that yoga leads to a significantly greater reduction in spirometric measures, airway hyperresponsivity, dose of histamine needed to provoke a 20% reduction in forced expiratory volume in the first second, weekly number of asthma attacks, and need for drug treatment. Three RCTs showed no positive effects compared to various control interventions.

Conclusions: The belief that yoga alleviates asthma is not supported by sound evidence. Further, more rigorous trials are warranted.

SPINAL MANIPULATION

Some clinicians believe that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for asthma. The aim of this systematic review was to critically evaluate the evidence for or against this claim. Four electronic databases were searched without language restrictions from their inceptions to September 2008. Bibliographies and departmental files were hand-searched. The methodological quality of all included studies was assessed with the Jadad score. Only randomised clinical trials of spinal manipulation as a treatment of asthma were included. Three studies met these criteria. All of them were of excellent methodological quality (Jadad score 5) and all used sham-manipulation as the control intervention. None of the studies showed that real manipulation was more effective than sham-manipulation in improving lung function or subjective symptoms. It is concluded that, according to the evidence of the most rigorous studies available to date, spinal manipulation is not an effective treatment for asthma.

ACUPUNCTURE

Contradictory results from randomised controlled trials of acupuncture in asthma suggest both a beneficial and detrimental effect. The authors conducted a formal systematic review and meta-analysis of all randomised clinical trials in the published literature that have compared acupuncture at real and placebo points in asthma patients. The authors searched for trials published in the period 1970-2000. Trials had to measure at least one of the following objective outcomes: peak expiratory flow rate, forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity. Estimates of the standarised mean difference, between acupuncture and placebo were computed for each trial and combined to estimate the overall effect. Hetereogeneity was investigated in terms of the characteristics of the individual studies. Twelve trials met the inclusion criteria but data from one could not be obtained. Individual patient data were available in only three. Standardised differences between means ranging from 0.071 to 0.133, in favour of acupuncture, were obtained. The overall effect was not conventionally significant and it corresponds to an approximate difference in FEV1 means of 1.7. After exploring hetereogenenity, it was found that studies where bronchoconstriction was induced during the experiment showed a conventionally significant effect. This meta-analysis did not find evidence of an effect of acupuncture in reducing asthma. However, the meta-analysis was limited by shortcomings of the individual trials, in terms of sample size, missing information, adjustment of baseline characteristics and a possible bias against acupuncture introduced by the use of placebo points that may not be completely inactive. There was a suggestion of preferential publication of trials in favour of acupuncture. There is an obvious need to conduct a full-scale randomised clinical trial addressing these limitations and the prognostic value of the aetiology of the disease.

RELAXATION THERAPIES

Background: Emotional stress can either precipitate or exacerbate both acute and chronic asthma. There is a large body of literature available on the use of relaxation techniques for the treatment of asthma symptoms. The aim of this systematic review was to determine if there is any evidence for or against the clinical efficacy of such interventions.

Methods: Four independent literature searches were performed on Medline, Cochrane Library, CISCOM, and Embase. Only randomised clinical trials (RCTs) were included. There were no restrictions on the language of publication. The data from trials that statistically compared the treatment group with that of the control were extracted in a standardised predefined manner and assessed critically by two independent reviewers.

Results: Fifteen trials were identified, of which nine compared the treatment group with the control group appropriately. Five RCTs tested progressive muscle relaxation or mental and muscular relaxation, two of which showed significant effects of therapy. One RCT investigating hypnotherapy, one of autogenic training, and two of biofeedback techniques revealed no therapeutic effects. Overall, the methodological quality of the studies was poor.

Conclusions: There is a lack of evidence for the efficacy of relaxation therapies in the management of asthma. This deficiency is due to the poor methodology of the studies as well as the inherent problems of conducting such trials. There is some evidence that muscular relaxation improves lung function of patients with asthma but no evidence for any other relaxation technique.

HERBAL MEDICINE

Background: Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in modern society and there is increasing evidence to suggest that its incidence and severity are increasing. There is a high prevalence of usage of complementary medicine for asthma. Herbal preparations have been cited as the third most popular complementary treatment modality by British asthma sufferers. This study was undertaken to determine if there is any evidence for the clinical efficacy of herbal preparations for the treatment of asthma symptoms.

Methods: Four independent literature searches were performed on Medline, Pubmed, Cochrane Library, and Embase. Only randomised clinical trials were included. There were no restrictions on the language of publication. The data were extracted in a standardised, predefined manner and assessed critically.

Results: Seventeen randomised clinical trials were found, six of which concerned the use of traditional Chinese herbal medicine and eight described traditional Indian medicine, of which five investigated Tylophora indica. Three other randomised trials tested a Japanese Kampo medicine, marihuana, and dried ivy leaf extract. Nine of the 17 trials reported a clinically relevant improvement in lung function and/or symptom scores.

Conclusions: No definitive evidence for any of the herbal preparations emerged. Considering the popularity of herbal medicine with asthma patients, there is urgent need for stringently designed clinically relevant randomised clinical trials for herbal preparations in the treatment of asthma.

BREATHING TECHNIQUES

Breathing techniques are used by a large proportion of asthma sufferers. This systematic review was aimed at determining whether or not these interventions are effective. Four independent literature searches identified six randomized controlled trials. The results of these studies are not uniform. Collectively the data imply that physiotherapeutic breathing techniques may have some potential in benefiting patients with asthma. The safety issue has so far not been addressed satisfactorily. It is concluded that too few studies have been carried out to warrant firm judgements. Further rigorous trials should be carried out in order to redress this situation.

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So, if you suffer from asthma, my advice is to stay away from SCAM. This might be easier said than done because SCAM practitioners are only too willing to lure asthma patients into their cult. In 2003, we have demonstrated this phenomenon by conducting a survey with chiropractors. Here is our short paper in full:

Classic chiropractic theory claims that vertebral subluxation blocks the flow of ‘‘innate intelligence’’ which, in turn, affects the health of asthma patients (1). Chiropractictors often use spinal manipulation (SM) to correct such malalignments and treat asthma (2). Several clinical trials of chiropractic SM exist, but the most rigorous ones are clearly negative (3,4). Chronic medication with corticosteroids can lead to osteoporosis, a condition, which is a contra-indication to chiropractic SM (5). Given this background, we aimed to determine whether chiropractors would advise an asthma patient on long-term corticosteroids (5 years) to try chiropractic as a treatment for this condition.

All 350 e-mail addresses listed at www.interadcom.com/chiro/html were randomised into two groups. A (deceptive) letter from a (fictitious) patient was sent to group A while group B was asked for advice on chiropractic treatment for asthma as part of a research project. Thus, groups A and B were asked the same question in di¡erent contexts: is chiropractic safe and e¡ective for an asthma patient on long-term steroids. After data collection, respondents from group A were informed that the e-mail had been part of a research project.

Of 97 e-mails in group A, we received 31 responses (response rate = 32% (95% CI, 0.23^ 0.41)). Seventy-four per cent (23 respondents) recommended visiting a chiropractor (95% CI, 0.59^ 0.89). Thirty-five per cent (11 respondents) mentioned minimal or no adverse effects of SM (95% CI, 0.18 ^ 0.52). Three chiropractors responded that some adverse e¡ects exist, e.g. risk of bone fracture, or stroke. Two respondents noted that other investigations (X-rays, spinal and neurological examination) were required before chiropractic treatment. Three respondents suggested additional treatments and one warned about a possible connection between asthma and the measles vaccine. Of 77 e-mails sent to group B, we received 16 responses (response rate = 21% (95% CI, 0.17^ 0.25)). Eleven respondents (69%) recommended visiting a chiropractor (95% CI, 0.46 ^ 0.91). Ten respondents mentioned minimal or no adverse effects of SM (95% CI, 0.39^ 0.87). Five chiropractors responded that adverse effects of SM exist (e.g. bone fracture). Five respondents suggested pre-testing the patient to check bone density, allergy, diet, exercise level, hydration and blood. Additional treatments were recommended by three respondents. The pooled results of groups A and B suggested that the majority of chiropractors recommend chiropractic treatment for asthma and the minority mention any adverse effects.

Our results demonstrate that chiropractic advice on asthma therapy is as readily available over the Internet as it is likely to be misleading. The majority of respondents from both groups (72%) recommended chiropractic treatment. This usually entails SM, a treatment modality which has been demonstrated to be ineffective in rigorous clinical trials (3,4,6). The advice may also be dangerous: the minority of the respondents of both groups (17%) caution of the risk of bone fracture. Our findings also suggest that, for the research question asked, a degree of deception is necessary. The response rate in group B was 12% lower than that of group A, and the answers received differed considerably between groups. In group A, 10% acknowledged the possibility of adverse e¡ects, this figure was 33% in group B. In conclusion, chiropractors readily provide advice regarding asthma treatment, which is often not evidence-based and has the potential to put patients at risk.

__________________________

As I stated above: if you suffer from asthma, my advice is to

stay away from SCAM.

This systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials were performed to summarize the evidence of the effects of Urtica dioica (UD) consumption on metabolic profiles in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM).

Eligible studies were retrieved from searches of PubMed, Embase, Scopus, Web of Science, Cochrane Library, and Google Scholar databases until December 2019. Cochran (Q) and I-square statistics were used to examine heterogeneity across included clinical trials. Data were pooled using a fixed-effect or random-effects model and expressed as weighted mean difference (WMD) and 95% confidence interval (CI).

Among 1485 citations, thirteen clinical trials were found to be eligible for the current metaanalysis. UD consumption significantly decreased levels of fasting blood glucose (FBG) (WMD = – 17.17 mg/dl, 95% CI: -26.60, -7.73, I2 = 93.2%), hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) (WMD = -0.93, 95% CI: – 1.66, -0.17, I2 = 75.0%), C-reactive protein (CRP) (WMD = -1.09 mg/dl, 95% CI: -1.64, -0.53, I2 = 0.0%), triglycerides (WMD = -26.94 mg/dl, 95 % CI = [-52.07, -1.82], P = 0.03, I2 = 90.0%), systolic blood pressure (SBP) (WMD = -5.03 mmHg, 95% CI = -8.15, -1.91, I2 = 0.0%) in comparison to the control groups. UD consumption did not significantly change serum levels of insulin (WMD = 1.07 μU/ml, 95% CI: -1.59, 3.73, I2 = 63.5%), total-cholesterol (WMD = -6.39 mg/dl, 95% CI: -13.84, 1.05, I2 = 0.0%), LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C) (WMD = -1.30 mg/dl, 95% CI: -9.95, 7.35, I2 = 66.1%), HDL-cholesterol (HDL-C) (WMD = 6.95 mg/dl, 95% CI: -0.14, 14.03, I2 = 95.4%), body max index (BMI) (WMD = -0.16 kg/m2, 95% CI: -1.77, 1.44, I2 = 0.0%), and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) (WMD = -1.35 mmHg, 95% CI: -2.86, 0.17, I2= 0.0%) among patients with T2DM.

The authors concluded that UD consumption may result in an improvement in levels of FBS, HbA1c, CRP, triglycerides, and SBP, but did not affect levels of insulin, total-, LDL-, and HDL-cholesterol, BMI, and DBP in patients with T2DM.

Several plants have been reported to affect the parameters of diabetes. Whenever I read such results, I cannot stop wondering whether this is a good or a bad thing. It seems to be positive at first glance, yet I can imagine at least two scenarios where such effects might be detrimental:

  • A patient reads about the antidiabetic effects and decides to swap his medication for the herbal remedy which is far less effective. Consequently, the patient’s metabolic control is insufficient.
  • A patient adds the herbal remedy to his therapy. Consequently, his blood sugar drops too far and he suffers a hypoglycemic episode.

My advice to diabetics is therefore this: if you want to try herbal antidiabetic treatments, please think twice. And if you persist, do it only under the close supervision of your doctor.

For quite some time now, I have had the impression that the top journals of general medicine show less and less interest in so-called alternative medicine. So, I decided to do some Medline searches to check. Specifically, I searched for 4 different SCAMs:

  • homeopathy
  • acupuncture
  • chiropractic
  • herbal medicine

I  wanted to see how often 7 leading medical journals from the US, UK, Australia, Germany, and Austria carried articles indexed under these headings:

  • JAMA – US
  • NEJM – US
  • BMJ – UK
  • Lancet – UK
  • Aust J Med – Australia
  • Dtsch Med Wochenschrift – Germany
  • Wien Med Wochenschrift – Austria

This is what I found (the 1st number is the total number of articles ever listed; the 2nd number is the maximum number in any year; the 3rd number in brackets is the year when that maximum occurred)

JAMA

Homeopathy: 17, 3 (1998)

Acupuncture: 176, 21 (2017)

Chiropractic: 49, 4 (1998)

Herbal medicine: 43, 5 (2001)

NEJM

Homeopathy: 6, 3 (1986)

Acupuncture: 49, 8 (1974)

Chiropractic: 43, 13 (1980)

Herbal medicine: 29, 12 (1999)

BMJ

Homeopathy: 122, (10, 1995)

Acupuncture: 405, 31 (2021)

Chiropractic: 99, 11 (2021)

Herbal medicine: 158, 13 (2018)

Lancet

Homeopathy: 75, 11 (2005)

Acupuncture: 93, 12 (1973)

Chiropractic: 20, 5 (1993)

Herbal medicine: 46, 6 (1993)

Aust J Med

Homeopathy: 9, 2 (2010)

Acupuncture: 78, 13 (1974)

Chiropractic: 34, 4 (1985)

Herbal medicine: 20, 2 (2017)

Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift

Homeopathy: 27, 4 (1999)

Acupuncture: 34, 6 (1978)

Chiropractic: 14, 3 (1972)

Herbal medicine: 6, 1 (2020)

Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift

Homeopathy: 11, 4 (2005)

Acupuncture: 32, 8 (1998)

Chiropractic: 8, 2 (1956)

Herbal medicine: 16, 3 (2002)

These figures need, of course, to be taken with a rather large pinch of salt. There are many pitfalls in interpreting them, e.g. misclassifications by Medline. Yet they are, I think, revealing in that they suggest several interesting trends.

  1. All in all, my suspicion that the top journals of various countries are less and less keen on SCAM seems to be confirmed. The years where the maximum of papers on specific SCAMs was published are often long in the past.
  2. The UK journals seem to be by far more open to SCAM that the publications from other countries. This is mostly due to the BMJ – in fact, it turns out to be the online journal ‘BMJ-open’. And this again is to a great part caused by the BMJ-open carrying a sizable amount of acupuncture papers in recent months.
  3. The two US journals seem particularly cautious about SCAM papers. When looking at the type of articles in the US journals (and especially the NEJM), one realizes that most of them are ‘letters to the editor’ which seems to confirm the dislike of these journals for publishing original research into SCAM. Another interpretation of this phenomenon, of course, would be that only very few SCAM studies are of a high enough quality to make it into these two top journals.
  4. I was amazed to see how little SCAM was published in the two German-language journals. Vis a vis the high popularity of SCAM in these countries, I find this not easy to understand. Perhaps, one also needs to consider that these two journals publish considerably less original research than the other publications
  5. If we look at the differences between the 4 types of SCAM included in my assessment, we find that acupuncture is by far the most frequently published modality. The other 3 are on roughly the same level, with chiropractic being the least frequent – which I thought was surprising.
  6. Overall, the findings do not generate the impression that – despite the many billions spent on SCAM research during the last decades – SCAM has made important inroads into science or medicine.

I have often commented on the dismal state of the many SCAM journals; these days, they seem to publish almost exclusively poor-quality papers with misleading conclusions. It can therefore be expected that these journals will be more and more discarded by everyone (except the few SCAM advocates who publish their rubbish in them) as some sort of cult publications. In turn, this means that only SCAM studies published in mainstream journals will have the potential of generating any impact at all.

For this reason, my little survey might be relevant. It is far from conclusive, of course, yet it might provide a rough picture of what is happening in the area of SCAM research.

This study describes the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) among older adults who report being hampered in daily activities due to musculoskeletal pain. The characteristics of older adults with debilitating musculoskeletal pain who report SCAM use is also examined. For this purpose, the cross-sectional European Social Survey Round 7 from 21 countries was employed. It examined participants aged 55 years and older, who reported musculoskeletal pain that hampered daily activities in the past 12 months.

Of the 4950 older adult participants, the majority (63.5%) were from the West of Europe, reported secondary education or less (78.2%), and reported at least one other health-related problem (74.6%). In total, 1657 (33.5%) reported using at least one SCAM treatment in the previous year.

The most commonly used SCAMs were:

  • manual body-based therapies (MBBTs) including massage therapy (17.9%),
  • osteopathy (7.0%),
  • homeopathy (6.5%)
  • herbal treatments (5.3%).

SCAM use was positively associated with:

  • younger age,
  • physiotherapy use,
  • female gender,
  • higher levels of education,
  • being in employment,
  • living in West Europe,
  • multiple health problems.

(Many years ago, I have summarized the most consistent determinants of SCAM use with the acronym ‘FAME‘ [female, affluent, middle-aged, educated])

The authors concluded that a third of older Europeans with musculoskeletal pain report SCAM use in the previous 12 months. Certain subgroups with higher rates of SCAM use could be identified. Clinicians should comprehensively and routinely assess SCAM use among older adults with musculoskeletal pain.

I often mutter about the plethora of SCAM surveys that report nothing meaningful. This one is better than most. Yet, much of what it shows has been demonstrated before.

I think what this survey confirms foremost is the fact that the popularity of a particular SCAM and the evidence that it is effective are two factors that are largely unrelated. In my view, this means that more, much more, needs to be done to inform the public responsibly. This would entail making it much clearer:

  • which forms of SCAM are effective for which condition or symptom,
  • which are not effective,
  • which are dangerous,
  • and which treatment (SCAM or conventional) has the best risk/benefit balance.

Such information could help prevent unnecessary suffering (the use of ineffective SCAMs must inevitably lead to fewer symptoms being optimally treated) as well as reduce the evidently huge waste of money spent on useless SCAMs.

A press release informs us that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Government of India recently signed an agreement to establish the ‘WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine’. This global knowledge centre for traditional medicine, supported by an investment of USD 250 million from the Government of India, aims to harness the potential of traditional medicine from across the world through modern science and technology to improve the health of people and the planet.

“For many millions of people around the world, traditional medicine is the first port of call to treat many diseases,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Ensuring all people have access to safe and effective treatment is an essential part of WHO’s mission, and this new center will help to harness the power of science to strengthen the evidence base for traditional medicine. I’m grateful to the Government of India for its support, and we look forward to making it a success.”

The term traditional medicine describes the total sum of the knowledge, skills and practices indigenous and different cultures have used over time to maintain health and prevent, diagnose and treat physical and mental illness. Its reach encompasses ancient practices such as acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine and herbal mixtures as well as modern medicines.

“It is heartening to learn about the signing of the Host Country Agreement for the establishment of Global Centre for Traditional Medicine (GCTM). The agreement between Ministry of Ayush and World Health Organization (WHO) to establish the WHO-GCTM at Jamnagar, Gujarat, is a commendable initiative,” said Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India. “Through various initiatives, our government has been tireless in its endeavour to make preventive and curative healthcare, affordable and accessible to all. May the global centre at Jamnagar help in providing the best healthcare solutions to the world.”

The new WHO centre will concentrate on building a solid evidence base for policies and standards on traditional medicine practices and products and help countries integrate it as appropriate into their health systems and regulate its quality and safety for optimal and sustainable impact.

The new centre focuses on four main strategic areas: evidence and learning; data and analytics; sustainability and equity; and innovation and technology to optimize the contribution of traditional medicine to global health and sustainable development.

The onsite launch of the new WHO global centre for traditional medicine in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India will take place on April 21, 2022.

__________________________

Of course, one must wait and see who will direct the unit and what work the new centre produces. But I cannot help feeling a little anxious. The press release is full of hot air and platitudes and the track record of the Indian Ministry of Ayush is quite frankly abominable. Here are a few of my previous posts that, I think, justify this statement:

 

WATCH THIS SPACE!

No 10-year follow-up study of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for lumbar intervertebral disc herniation (LDH) has so far been published. Therefore, the authors of this paper performed a prospective 10-year follow-up study on the integrated treatment of LDH in Korea.

One hundred and fifty patients from the baseline study, who initially met the LDH diagnostic criteria with a chief complaint of radiating pain and received integrated treatment, were recruited for this follow-up study. The 10-year follow-up was conducted from February 2018 to March 2018 on pain, disability, satisfaction, quality of life, and changes in a herniated disc, muscles, and fat through magnetic resonance imaging.

Sixty-five patients were included in this follow-up study. Visual analogue scale score for lower back pain and radiating leg pain were maintained at a significantly lower level than the baseline level. Significant improvements in Oswestry disability index and quality of life were consistently present. MRI confirmed that disc herniation size was reduced over the 10-year follow-up. In total, 95.38% of the patients were either “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with the treatment outcomes and 89.23% of the patients claimed their condition “improved” or “highly improved” at the 10-year follow-up.

The authors concluded that the reduced pain and improved disability was maintained over 10 years in patients with LDH who were treated with nonsurgical Korean medical treatment 10 years ago. Nonsurgical traditional Korean medical treatment for LDH produced beneficial long-term effects, but future large-scale randomized controlled trials for LDH are needed.

This study and its conclusion beg several questions:

WHAT DID THE SCAM CONSIST OF?

The answer is not  provided in the paper; instead, the authors refer to 3 previous articles where they claim to have published the treatment schedule:

12. Park JJ, Shin J, Choi Y, Youn Y, Lee S, Kwon SR, et al. Integrative package for low back pain with leg pain in Korea: a prospective cohort study. Complement Ther Med. 2010;18(2):78–86. [PubMed[]
13. Shin JS, Lee J, Kim MR, Shin BC, Lee MS, Ha IH. The long-term course of patients undergoing alternative and integrative therapy for lumbar disc herniation: 3-year results of a prospective observational study. BMJ open. 2014;4(9) []
14. Shin JS, Lee J, Lee YJ, Kim MR, Ahn YJ, Park KB, et al. Long-term course of alternative and integrative therapy for lumbar disc herniation and risk factors for surgery: a prospective observational 5-year follow-up study. Spine. 2016;41(16):E955–EE63. [PubMed[]
I could only access the BMJ Open article, and it tells is this:

The treatment package included herbal medicine, acupuncture, bee venom pharmacopuncture and Chuna therapy (Korean spinal manipulation). Treatment was conducted once a week for 24 weeks, except herbal medication which was taken twice daily for 24 weeks; (1) Acupuncture: frequently used acupoints (BL23, BL24, BL25, BL31, BL32, BL33, BL34, BL40, BL60, GB30, GV3 and GV4)10 ,11 and the site of pain were selected and the needles were left in situ for 20 min. Sterilised disposable needles (stainless steel, 0.30×40 mm, Dong Bang Acupuncture Co., Korea) were used; (2) Chuna therapy12 ,13: Chuna is a Korean spinal manipulation that includes high-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts to spinal joints slightly beyond the passive range of motion for spinal mobilisation, and manual force to joints within the passive range; (3) Bee venom pharmacopuncture14: 0.5–1 cc of diluted bee venom solution (saline: bee venom ratio, 1000:1) was injected into 4–5 acupoints around the lumbar spine area to a total amount of 1 cc using disposable injection needles (CPL, 1 cc, 26G×1.5 syringe, Shinchang medical Co., Korea); (4) Herbal medicine was taken twice a day in dry powder (2 g) and water extracted decoction form (120 mL) (Ostericum koreanum, Eucommia ulmoides, Acanthopanax sessiliflorus, Achyranthes bidentata, Psoralea corylifolia, Peucedanum japonicum, Cibotium barometz, Lycium chinense, Boschniakia rossica, Cuscuta chinensis and Atractylodes japonica). These herbs were selected from herbs frequently prescribed for LBP (or nerve root pain) treatment in Korean medicine and traditional Chinese medicine,15 and the prescription was further developed through clinical practice at Jaseng Hospital of Korean Medicine.9 In addition, recent investigations report that compounds of C. barometz inhibit osteoclast formation in vitro16 and A. japonica extracts protect osteoblast cells from oxidative stress.17 E. ulmoides has been reported to have osteoclast inhibitive,18 osteoblast-like cell proliferative and bone mineral density enhancing effects.19 Patients were given instructions by their physician at treatment sessions to remain active and continue with daily activities while not aggravating pre-existing symptoms. Also, ample information about the favourable prognosis and encouragement for non-surgical treatment was given.

The traditional Korean spinal manipulations used (‘Chuna therapy’ – the references provided for it do NOT refer to this specific way of manipulation) seemed interesting, I thought. Here is an explanation from an unrelated paper: Image result for chuna therapy

Chuna, which is a traditional manual therapy practiced by Korean medicine doctors, has been applied to various diseases in Korea. Chuna manual therapy (CMT) is a technique that uses the hand, other parts of the doctor’s body or other supplementary devices such as a table to restore the normal function and structure of pathological somatic tissues by mobilization and manipulation. CMT includes various techniques such as thrust, mobilization, distraction of the spine and joints, and soft tissue release. These techniques were developed by combining aspects of Chinese Tuina, chiropratic, and osteopathic medicine.[] It has been actively growing in Korea, academically and clinically, since the establishment of the Chuna Society (the Korean Society of Chuna Manual Medicine for Spine and Nerves, KSCMM) in 1991.[] Recently, Chuna has had its effects nationally recognized and was included in the Korean national health insurance in March 2019.[]

This almost answers the other questions I had. Almost, but not quite. Here are two more:

  • The authors conclude that the SCAM produced beneficial long-term effects. But isn’t it much more likely that the outcomes their uncontrolled observations describe are purely or at least mostly a reflection of the natural history of lumbar disc herniation?
  • If I remember correctly, I learned a long time ago in medical school that spinal manipulation is contraindicated in lumbar disc herniation. If that is so, the results might have been better, if the patients of this study had not received any SCAM at all. In other words, are the results perhaps due to firstly the natural history of the condition and secondly to the detrimental effects of the SCAM the investigators applied?

If I am correct, this would then be the 4th article reporting the findings of a SCAM intervention that aggravated lumbar disc herniation.

 

 

PS

I know that this is a mere hypothesis but it is at least as plausible as the conclusion drawn by the authors.

 

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