Back pain is a huge problem: it affects many people, causes much suffering and leads to extraordinary high cost for all of us. Considering these facts, it would be excellent to identify a treatment that truly works. However, at present, we do not have found the ideal therapy; instead we have dozens of different approaches that are similarly effective/ineffective. Two of these therapies are massage and acupuncture.

Is one better than the other?

This study compared the efficacy of classical massage (KMT, n = 66) with acupuncture therapy (AKU, n = 66) in patients with chronic back pain. The primary endpoint was the non-inferiority of classical massage compared with the acupuncture treatment in respect of the impairment in everyday life, with the help of the Hannover function questionnaire (HFAQ) and the reduction in pain (“Von Korff”-Questionnaire) at the follow-up after one month.

In the per-protocol analysis during the period between enrollment in the study and follow-up, the responder rate of the KMT was 56.5% and thus tended to be inferior to the responder rate of the AKU with 62.5% (Δ = - 6%; KIΔ: - 23.5 to + 11.4%).

The authors concluded that classical massage therapy is not significantly inferior to acupuncture therapy in the period from admission to follow-up. Thus, the non-inferiority of the KMT to the AKU cannot be proven in the context of the defined irrelevance area.

I find such studies oddly useless.

To conduct a controlled trial, one needs an experimental treatment (the therapy that is not understood) and compare it with an intervention that is understood (such as a placebo that has no specific effects, or a treatment that has been shown to work). In comparative studies like the one above, one compares one unknown with another unknown. I do not see how such a comparison can ever produce a meaningful result.

In a way, it is like an equation with two unknowns: x + 5 = y. It is simply not possible to define either x nor y, and the equation is unsolvable.

For comparative studies of two back-pain treatments to make sense, we would need one of which the effect size is well-established. I do not think that we currently have identified such a therapy. Certainly, we cannot say that we know it for massage or acupuncture.

In other words, comparative studies like the one above are a waste of resources that cannot possibly make a meaningful contribution to our knowledge.

To put it even more bluntly: we ought to stop such pseudo-research.

In this RCT tested the effectiveness of foot reflexology and slow stroke back massage on the severity of fatigue in 52 patients treated with hemodialysis. Foot massage and slow stroke back massage were performed during three weeks, two sessions each week, 5 sessions in total. At the end of intervention, data of two groups were collected and compared.

The results show that the fatigue in the group receiving foot reflexology massage decreased significantly more compared to slow stroke back massage group.

The authors concluded that reflexology massage is a safe and economical nursing intervention for decreasing fatigue in hemodialysis patients.

At first glance, this might be a fairly straight forward study comparing two different interventions. One treatment yields better results than the other one, and therefore, this therapy is deemed to be the more effective one.

So far, so good.

The problem is, however, that the authors did not draw the conclusion. Instead they stated that:

  1. Reflexology is safe.
  2. Reflexology is economical.

The first point is perhaps true but cannot be concluded from the data presented. Adverse effects were not mentioned; and even if they had been noted, 52 patients is a wholly inadequate size to say anything about safety.

The second point might also be correct, but cannot be named as a conclusion, because the study was not a cost evaluation.

All of this would be hardly worth mentioning – except for the fact that such sloppy errors and illogical conclusions happen with such embarrassing regularity in the realm of alternative medicine. I feel strongly that the ‘Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine‘ and all similar publications must get their act together. Publishing articles such as the one discussed here only makes them the laughing stock of real scientists.


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.

Aromatherapy usually involves the application of diluted essential (volatile) oils via a gentle massage of the body surface. The chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (1881-1950) coined the term ‘aromatherapy’ after experiencing that lavender oil helped to cure a severe burn of his hand. In 1937, he published a book on the subject: Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales. Later, the French surgeon Jean Valnet used essential oils to help heal soldiers’ wounds in World War II.

Aromatherapy is currently one of the most popular of all alternative therapies. The reason for its popularity seems simple: it is an agreeable, luxurious form of pampering. Whether it truly merits to be called a therapy is debatable.

The authors of this systematic review stated that they wanted to critically assess the effect of aromatherapy on the psychological symptoms as noted in the postmenopausal and elderly women. They conducted electronic literature searches and fount 4 trials that met their inclusion criteria. The findings demonstrated that aromatherapy massage significantly improves psychological symptoms in menopausal, elderly women as compared to controls. In one trial, aromatherapy massage was no more effective than the untreated group regarding their experience of symptoms such as nervousness.

The authors concluded that aromatherapy may be beneficial in attenuating the psychological symptoms that these women may experience, such as anxiety and depression, but it is not considered as an effective treatment to manage nervousness symptom among menopausal women. This finding should be observed in light of study limitations.

In the discussion section, the authors state that to the best of our knowledge, this is the first meta-analysis evaluating the effect of aromatherapy on the psychological symptoms. I believe that they might be mistaken. Here are two of my own papers (other researchers have published further reviews) on the subject:

  1. Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oil from herbs, flowers, and other plants. The aim of this overview was to provide an overview of systematic reviews evaluating the effectiveness of aromatherapy. We searched 12 electronic databases and our departmental files without restrictions of time or language. The methodological quality of all systematic reviews was evaluated independently by two authors. Of 201 potentially relevant publications, 10 met our inclusion criteria. Most of the systematic reviews were of poor methodological quality. The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia. For none of the conditions was the evidence convincing. Several SRs of aromatherapy have recently been published. Due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.
  2. Aromatherapy is becoming increasingly popular; however there are few clear indications for its use. To systematically review the literature on aromatherapy in order to discover whether any clinical indication may be recommended for its use, computerised literature searches were performed to retrieve all randomised controlled trials of aromatherapy from the following databases: MEDLINE, EMBASE, British Nursing Index, CISCOM, and AMED. The methodological quality of the trials was assessed using the Jadad score. All trials were evaluated independently by both authors and data were extracted in a pre-defined, standardised fashion. Twelve trials were located: six of them had no independent replication; six related to the relaxing effects of aromatherapy combined with massage. These studies suggest that aromatherapy massage has a mild, transient anxiolytic effect. Based on a critical assessment of the six studies relating to relaxation, the effects of aromatherapy are probably not strong enough for it to be considered for the treatment of anxiety. The hypothesis that it is effective for any other indication is not supported by the findings of rigorous clinical trials.

Omitting previous research may be odd, but it is not a fatal flaw. What makes this review truly dismal is the fact that the authors fail to discuss the poor quality of the primary studies. They are of such deplorable rigor that one can really not draw any conclusion at all from them. I therefore find the conclusions of this new paper unacceptable and think that our statement (even though a few years old) is much more accurate: the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.

It is no secret to regular readers of this blog that chiropractic’s effectiveness is unproven for every condition it is currently being promoted for – perhaps with two exceptions: neck pain and back pain. Here we have some encouraging data, but also lots of negative evidence. A new US study falls into the latter category; I am sure chiropractors will not like it, but it does deserve a mention.

This study evaluated the comparative effectiveness of usual care with or without chiropractic care for patients with chronic recurrent musculoskeletal back and neck pain. It was designed as a prospective cohort study using propensity score-matched controls.

Using retrospective electronic health record data, the researchers developed a propensity score model predicting likelihood of chiropractic referral. Eligible patients with back or neck pain were then contacted upon referral for chiropractic care and enrolled in a prospective study. For each referred patient, two propensity score-matched non-referred patients were contacted and enrolled. We followed the participants prospectively for 6 months. The main outcomes included pain severity, interference, and symptom bothersomeness. Secondary outcomes included expenditures for pain-related health care.

Both groups’ (N = 70 referred, 139 non-referred) pain scores improved significantly over the first 3 months, with less change between months 3 and 6. No significant between-group difference was observed. After controlling for variances in baseline costs, total costs during the 6-month post-enrollment follow-up were significantly higher on average in the non-referred versus referred group. Adjusting for differences in age, gender, and Charlson comorbidity index attenuated this finding, which was no longer statistically significant (p = .072).

The authors concluded by stating this: we found no statistically significant difference between the two groups in either patient-reported or economic outcomes. As clinical outcomes were similar, and the provision of chiropractic care did not increase costs, making chiropractic services available provided an additional viable option for patients who prefer this type of care, at no additional expense.

This comes from some of the most-renowned experts in back pain research, and it is certainly an elaborate piece of investigation. Yet, I find the conclusions unreasonable.

Essentially, the authors found that chiropractic has no clinical or economical advantage over other approaches currently used for neck and back pain. So, they say that it a ‘viable option’.

I find this odd and cannot quite follow the logic. In my view, it lacks critical thinking and an attempt to produce progress. If it is true that all treatments were similarly (in)effective – which I can well believe – we still should identify those that have the least potential for harm. That could be exercise, massage therapy or some other modality – but I don’t think it would be chiropractic care.


Comparative Effectiveness of Usual Care With or Without Chiropractic Care in Patients with Recurrent Musculoskeletal Back and Neck Pain.

Elder C, DeBar L, Ritenbaugh C, Dickerson J, Vollmer WM, Deyo RA, Johnson ES, Haas M.

J Gen Intern Med. 2018 Jun 25. doi: 10.1007/s11606-018-4539-y. [Epub ahead of print]

PMID: 29943109

Shiatsu is an alternative therapy that is popular, but has so far attracted almost no research. Therefore, I was excited when I saw a new paper on the subject. Sadly, my excitement waned quickly when I stared reading the abstract.

This single-blind randomized controlled study was aimed to evaluate shiatsu on mood, cognition, and functional independence in patients undergoing physical activity. Alzheimer disease (AD) patients with depression were randomly assigned to the “active group” (Shiatsu + physical activity) or the “control group” (physical activity alone).

Shiatsu was performed by the same therapist once a week for ten months. Global cognitive functioning (Mini Mental State Examination – MMSE), depressive symptoms (Geriatric Depression Scale – GDS), and functional status (Activity of Daily Living – ADL, Instrumental ADL – IADL) were assessed before and after the intervention.

The researchers found a within-group improvement of MMSE, ADL, and GDS in the Shiatsu group. However, the analysis of differences before and after the interventions showed a statistically significant decrease of GDS score only in the Shiatsu group.

The authors concluded that the combination of Shiatsu and physical activity improved depression in AD patients compared to physical activity alone. The pathomechanism might involve neuroendocrine-mediated effects of Shiatsu on neural circuits implicated in mood and affect regulation.

The Journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine also published three ‘Highlights’ of this study:

  • We first evaluated the effect of Shiatsu in depressed patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
  • Shiatsu significantly reduced depression in a sample of mild-to-moderate AD patients.
  • Neuroendocrine-mediated effect of Shiatsu may modulate mood and affect neural circuits.

Where to begin?

1 The study is called a ‘pilot’. As such it should not draw conclusions about the effectiveness of Shiatsu.

2 The design of the study was such that there was no accounting for the placebo effect (the often-discussed ‘A+B vs B’ design); therefore, it is impossible to attribute the observed outcome to Shiatsu. The ‘highlight’ – Shiatsu significantly reduced depression in a sample of mild-to-moderate AD patients – therefore turns out to be a low-light.

3 As this was a study with a control group, within-group changes are irrelevant and do not even deserve a mention.

4 The last point about the mode of action is pure speculation, and not borne out of the data presented.

5 Accumulating so much nonsense in one research paper is, in my view, unethical.

Research into alternative medicine does not have a good reputation – studies like this one are not inclined to improve it.

Reflexology is an alternative therapy that is subjectively pleasant and objectively popular; it has been the subject on this blog before (see also here and here). Reflexologists assume that certain zones on the sole of our feet correspond to certain organs, and that their manual treatment can influence the function of these organs. Thus reflexology is advocated for all sorts of conditions, including infant colic.

The aim of this new study was to explore the effect of reflexology on infantile colic.

A total of 64 babies with colic were included in this study. Following a paediatrician’s diagnosis, two groups (study and control) were created. Socio-demographic data (including mother’s age, educational status, and smoking habits of parents) and medical history of the baby (including gender, birth weight, mode of delivery, time of the onset breastfeeding after birth, and nutrition style) were collected. The Infant Colic Scale (ICS) was used to estimate the colic severity in the infants. Reflexology was applied to the study group by the researcher and their mother 2 days a week for 3 weeks. The babies in the control group did not receive reflexology. Assessments were performed before and after the intervention in both groups.

The results show that the two groups were similar regarding socio-demographic background and medical history. While there was no difference between the groups in ICS scores before application of reflexology, the mean ICS score of the study group was significantly lower than that of control group at the end of the intervention.

The authors concluded that reflexology application for babies suffering from infantile colic may be a promising method to alleviate colic severity.

The authors seem to attribute the outcome to specific effects of reflexology.

However, they are mistaken!


Because their study does not control for the non-specific effects of the intervention.

Reflexology has not been shown to work for anything (“the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition“), and there is plenty of evidence to show that holding the baby, massaging it, cuddling it, rocking it or doing just about anything with it will have an effect, e. g.:

This trial of massage treatment for infantile colic showed statistically significant or clinically relevant effect in comparison with the rocking group.

The majority of the included trials appeared to indicate that the parents of infants receiving manipulative therapies reported fewer hours crying per day than parents whose infants did not…

…kangaroo care for infants with colic is a promising intervention…

I think, in a way, this is rather good news; we do not need to believe in the hocus-pocus of reflexology in order to help our crying infants.

Amongst all the implausible treatments to be found under the umbrella of ‘alternative medicine’, Reiki might be one of the worst, i. e. least plausible and outright bizarre (see for instance here, here and here). But this has never stopped enthusiasts from playing scientists and conducting some more pseudo-science.

This new study examined the immediate symptom relief from a single reiki or massage session in a hospitalized population at a rural academic medical centre. It was designed as a retrospective analysis of prospectively collected data on demographic, clinical, process, and quality of life for hospitalized patients receiving massage therapy or reiki. Hospitalized patients requesting or referred to the healing arts team received either a massage or reiki session and completed pre- and post-therapy symptom questionnaires. Differences between pre- and post-sessions in pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being were recorded using an 11-point Likert scale.

Patients reported symptom relief with both reiki and massage therapy. Reiki improved fatigue and anxiety  more than massage. Pain, nausea, depression, and well being changes were not different between reiki and massage encounters. Immediate symptom relief was similar for cancer and non-cancer patients for both reiki and massage therapy and did not vary based on age, gender, length of session, and baseline symptoms.

The authors concluded that reiki and massage clinically provide similar improvements in pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being while reiki improved fatigue and anxiety more than massage therapy in a heterogeneous hospitalized patient population. Controlled trials should be considered to validate the data.

Don’t I just adore this little addendum to the conclusions, “controlled trials should be considered to validate the data” ?

The thing is, there is nothing to validate here!

The outcomes are not due to the specific effects of Reiki or massage; they are almost certainly caused by:

  • the extra attention,
  • the expectation of patients,
  • the verbal or non-verbal suggestions of the therapists,
  • the regression towards the mean,
  • the natural history of the condition,
  • the concomitant therapies administered in parallel,
  • the placebo effect,
  • social desirability.

Such pseudo-research only can only serve one purpose: to mislead (some of) us into thinking that treatments such as Reiki might work.

What journal would be so utterly devoid of critical analysis to publish such unethical nonsense?

Ahh … it’s our old friend the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine

Say no more!

The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.

Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP  bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,

The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.

Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:

Advice to stay active +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Education +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Superficial heat +/- Ie Very minor Low to medium Positive (aLBP)
Exercise Limited +/-, routine Very minor Low Positive (pLBP)
CBT Limited +/-, routine None Low to medium Positive (pLBP)
Spinal manipulation +/- +/- vfbmae
High Negative
Massage +/- +/- Very minor High Positive
Acupuncture +/- +/- sae High Questionable
Yoga Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Mindfulness Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Rehab Ie +/- Minor Medium to high Questionable

Routine = consider for routine use

+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment

Ie = insufficient evidence

Limited = limited use in selected patients

vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects

sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record

aLBP = acute low back pain

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.

We all know that there is a plethora of interventions for and specialists in low back pain (chiropractors, osteopaths, massage therapists, physiotherapists etc., etc.); and, depending whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, each of these therapies is as good or as useless as the next. Today, a widely-publicised series of articles in the Lancet confirms that none of the current options is optimal:

Almost everyone will have low back pain at some point in their lives. It can affect anyone at any age, and it is increasing—disability due to back pain has risen by more than 50% since 1990. Low back pain is becoming more prevalent in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) much more rapidly than in high-income countries. The cause is not always clear, apart from in people with, for example, malignant disease, spinal malformations, or spinal injury. Treatment varies widely around the world, from bed rest, mainly in LMICs, to surgery and the use of dangerous drugs such as opioids, usually in high-income countries.

The Lancet publishes three papers on low back pain, by an international group of authors led by Prof Rachelle Buchbinder, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, which address the issues around the disorder and call for worldwide recognition of the disability associated with the disorder and the removal of harmful practices. In the first paper, Jan Hartvigsen, Mark Hancock, and colleagues draw our attention to the complexity of the condition and the contributors to it, such as psychological, social, and biophysical factors, and especially to the problems faced by LMICs. In the second paper, Nadine Foster, Christopher Maher, and their colleagues outline recommendations for treatment and the scarcity of research into prevention of low back pain. The last paper is a call for action by Rachelle Buchbinder and her colleagues. They say that persistence of disability associated with low back pain needs to be recognised and that it cannot be separated from social and economic factors and personal and cultural beliefs about back pain.

Overview of interventions endorsed for non-specific low back pain in evidence-based clinical practice guidelines (Danish, US, and UK guidelines)

In this situation, it makes sense, I think, to opt for a treatment (amongst similarly effective/ineffective therapies) that is at least safe, cheap and readily available. This automatically rules out chiropractic, osteopathy and many others. Exercise, however, does come to mind – but what type of exercise?

The aim of this meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials was to gain insight into the effectiveness of walking intervention on pain, disability, and quality of life in patients with chronic low back pain (LBP) at post intervention and follow ups.

Six electronic databases (PubMed, Science Direct, Web of Science, Scopus, PEDro and The Cochrane library) were searched from 1980 to October 2017. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in patients with chronic LBP were included, if they compared the effects of walking intervention to non-pharmacological interventions. Pain, disability, and quality of life were the primary health outcomes.

Nine RCTs were suitable for meta-analysis. Data was analysed according to the duration of follow-up (short-term, < 3 months; intermediate-term, between 3 and 12 months; long-term, > 12 months). Low- to moderate-quality evidence suggests that walking intervention in patients with chronic LBP was as effective as other non-pharmacological interventions on pain and disability reduction in both short- and intermediate-term follow ups.

The authors concluded that, unless supplementary high-quality studies provide different evidence, walking, which is easy to perform and highly accessible, can be recommended in the management of chronic LBP to reduce pain and disability.

I know – this will hardly please the legions of therapists who earn their daily bread with pretending their therapy is the best for LBP. But healthcare is clearly not about the welfare of the therapists, it is/should be about patients. And patients should surely welcome this evidence. I know, walking is not always easy for people with severe LBP, but it seems effective and it is safe, free and available to everyone.

My advice to patients is therefore to walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.

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