Often referred to as “Psychological acupressure”, the emotional freedom technique (EFT) works by releasing blockages within the energy system which are the source of emotional intensity and discomfort. These blockages in our energy system, in addition to challenging us emotionally, often lead to limiting beliefs and behaviours and an inability to live life harmoniously. Resulting symptoms are either emotional and/ or physical and include lack of confidence and self esteem, feeling stuck anxious or depressed, or the emergence of compulsive and addictive behaviours. It is also now finally widely accepted that emotional disharmony is a key factor in physical symptoms and dis-ease and for this reason these techniques are being extensively used on physical issues, including chronic illness with often astounding results. As such these techniques are being accepted more and more in medical and psychiatric circles as well as in the range of psychotherapies and healing disciplines.

An EFT treatment involves the use of fingertips rather than needles to tap on the end points of energy meridians that are situated just beneath the surface of the skin. The treatment is non-invasive and works on the ethos of making change as simple and as pain free as possible.

EFT is a common sense approach that draws its power from Eastern discoveries that have been around for over 5,000 years. In fact Albert Einstein also told us back in the 1920’s that everything (including our bodies) is composed of energy. These ideas have been largely ignored by Western Healing Practices and as they are unveiled in our current times, human process is reopening itself to the forgotten truth that everything is Energy and the potential that this offers us.


If you ask me, this sounds as though EFT combines pseudo-psychological with acupuncture-BS.

But I may be wrong.

What does the evidence tell us?

A systematic review included 14 RCTs of EFT with a total of 658 patients.  The pre-post effect size for the EFT treatment group was 1.23 (95% confidence interval, 0.82-1.64; p < 0.001), whereas the effect size for combined controls was 0.41 (95% confidence interval, 0.17-0.67; p = 0.001). Emotional freedom technique treatment demonstrated a significant decrease in anxiety scores, even when accounting for the effect size of control treatment. However, there were too few data available comparing EFT to standard-of-care treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and further research is needed to establish the relative efficacy of EFT to established protocols.  Meta-analyses indicate large effect sizes for posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety; however, treatment effects may be due to components EFT shares with other therapies.

Another, more recent analysis reviewed whether EFTs acupressure component was an active ingredient. Six studies of adults with diagnosed or self-identified psychological or physical symptoms were compared (n = 403), and three (n = 102) were identified. Pretest vs. posttest EFT treatment showed a large effect size, Cohen’s d = 1.28 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.56 to 2.00) and Hedges’ g = 1.25 (95% CI, 0.54 to 1.96). Acupressure groups demonstrated moderately stronger outcomes than controls, with weighted posttreatment effect sizes of d = -0.47 (95% CI, -0.94 to 0.0) and g = -0.45 (95% CI, -0.91 to 0.0). Meta-analysis indicated that the acupressure component was an active ingredient and outcomes were not due solely to placebo, nonspecific effects of any therapy, or non-acupressure components.

From these and other reviews, one could easily get the impression that my above-mentioned suspicion is erroneous and EFT is an effective therapy. But I still do have my doubts.


These reviews conveniently forget to mention that the primary studies tend to be of poor or even very poor quality. The most common flaws include tiny sample sizes, wrong statistical approach, lack of blinding, lack of control of placebo and other nonspecific effects. Reviews of such studies thus turn out to be a confirmation of the ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ principle: any summary of flawed studies are likely to produce a flawed result.

Until I have good quality trials to convince me otherwise, EFT is in my view:

  1. implausible and
  2. not of proven effectiveness for any condition.


For dogs?

Yes, one (of many) website explains that dogs benefit from acupuncture in 5 different ways:

1. Pain management is one of the most common uses for acupuncture, often in conjunction with a more traditional treatment plan. Strong medical treatments like chemo, which can cause discomfort, are often paired with acupuncture to help make a pet more comfortable and able to fight the illness.

2. Musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, or nerve injuries can respond to acupuncture. It is often employed during rehabilitation after an injury. Carefully monitoring a healing pet is important; without the feeling of pain, a dog can re-injure him or herself with over-activity.

3. Skin problems like allergic dermatitis, granulomas, or hot spots may respond well to acupuncture treatment because increased circulation can improve healing, while pain reduction will reduce a dog’s overgrooming or itching responses.

4. Gastrointestinal problems like nausea and diarrhea can be aided by the increased blood flow from acupuncture. It may also help normalize digestive activity by stimulating digestive secretions.

5. Respiratory problems like asthma and allergies can benefit from the immune-calming, anti-inflammatory capabilities of acupuncture.

But all of this is based on ‘experience’ (or probably more accurately, the wishful thinking of those who earn money by sticking needles into animals), not evidence!

So, what does the evidence tell us about acupuncture for dogs?

The answer is: next to nothing; there are almost no studies. And this is why this recent paper could be important.

This new study was aimed at quantifying changes in gastric and intestinal emptying times in the conscious dog following gastrointestinal acupoint stimulation.

In a randomised, blinded crossover study, six dogs were fed 30×1.5 mm barium-impregnated polyethylene spheres and underwent: (1) no acupuncture (Control); (2) stimulation of target points PC6 and ST36 (Target) and (3) stimulation of non-target points LU7 and BL55 (Sham). Abdominal radiographs were assessed immediately after feeding the spheres and every hour for 12 hours and their number in the stomach and large intestines was counted.

The number of barium-impregnated polyethylene spheres found distal to the stomach was less in the Target group compared to the Control and Sham groups between hours 2 and 4, but no differences between groups were seen for the remainder of the treatment period. The number of spheres found within the colon/rectum was less in the Target group compared to the Control and Sham groups between hours 4 and 6, and compared to the Sham group only at hour 7 but no differences between groups were seen after hour 8.

The authors concluded that acupuncture targeted at the gastrointestinal tract of dogs was associated briefly with slowed gastric emptying and gastrointestinal transit time. This foundational study lays the groundwork for additional studies of acupuncture effects associated with altered physiologic states.

There you have it: the proof has been presented that acupuncture works in dogs; and if it works in animals, it cannot be a placebo!

Hold on, not so quick!

This was a tiny study, and the effects are small, only temporary and of questionable relevance. It is possible (I’d say even likely) that the finding was entirely coincidental.

I think, I wait until we have more and better data.

After a previous post about aromatherapy, someone recently commented:

I love essential oils and use them daily. Essential oils became a part of my life! I do feel better with it! Why I need clinical trials so?

The answer is probably: you don’t need clinical trials for a little pampering that makes you feel good.

But, if someone claims that aromatherapy (or indeed any other treatment) is effective for this or that medical condition, we need proof in the form of a clinical trial. By proof, we usually mean a clinical trial.

One like this new study, perhaps?

The aim of this study was to evaluate the use of a lavender aromatherapy skin patch on anxiety and vital sign variability during the preoperative period in female patients scheduled for breast surgery. Participants received an aromatherapy patch in addition to standard preoperative care. Anxiety levels were assessed with a 10-cm visual analogue scale (VAS) at baseline and then every 15 minutes after patch placement. Vital sign measurements were recorded at the same interval. There was a statistically significant decrease (P = .03) in the anxiety VAS measurements from baseline to final scores.

The authors concluded that the findings from this study suggest the use of aromatherapy is beneficial in reducing anxiety experienced by females undergoing breast surgery. Further research is needed to address the experience of preoperative anxiety, aromatherapy use, and the challenges of managing preoperative anxiety.

No, not one like this study!

This study – its called it a ‘pilot study’ – tells us nothing of value.


  1. It was not a pilot study because it did not pilot anything; its aim was to evaluate aromatherapy.
  2. But it could not evaluate aromatherapy because it had no control group. This means the reduction in anxiety was almost certainly not a specific effect of the therapy, but a non-specific effect due to the extra attention, expectation, etc.
  3. This means that the conclusion (the use of aromatherapy is beneficial) is not justified.
  4. In turn, this means that the paper is not helpful in any way. All it can possibly do is to mislead the public.

In summary: another fine example of pseudo-research that, I believe, is worse than no research at all.

On Twitter and elsewhere, homeopaths have been celebrating: FINALLY A PROOF OF HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN A TOP SCIENCE JOURNAL!!!

Here is just one example:

#homeopathy under threat because of lack of peer reviewed studies in respectable journals? Think again. Study published in the most prestigious journal Nature shows efficacy of rhus tox in pain control in rats.

But what exactly does this study show (btw, it was not published in ‘Nature’)?

The authors of the paper in question evaluated antinociceptive efficacy of Rhus Tox in the neuropathic pain and delineated its underlying mechanism. Initially, in-vitro assay using LPS-mediated ROS-induced U-87 glioblastoma cells was performed to study the effect of Rhus Tox on reactive oxygen species (ROS), anti-oxidant status and cytokine profile. Rhus Tox decreased oxidative stress and cytokine release with restoration of anti-oxidant systems. Chronic treatment with Rhus Tox ultra dilutions for 14 days ameliorated neuropathic pain revealed as inhibition of cold, warm and mechanical allodynia along with improved motor nerve conduction velocity (MNCV) in constricted nerve. Rhus Tox decreased the oxidative and nitrosative stress by reducing malondialdehyde (MDA) and nitric oxide (NO) content, respectively along with up regulated glutathione (GSH), superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase activity in sciatic nerve of rats. Notably, Rhus Tox treatment caused significant reductions in the levels of tumor necrosis factor (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and interleukin-1β (IL-1β) as compared with CCI-control group. Protective effect of Rhus Tox against CCI-induced sciatic nerve injury in histopathology study was exhibited through maintenance of normal nerve architecture and inhibition of inflammatory changes. Overall, neuroprotective effect of Rhus Tox in CCI-induced neuropathic pain suggests the involvement of anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory mechanisms.


I am utterly under-whelmed by in-vitro experiments (which are prone to artefacts) and animal studies (especially those with a sample size of 8!) of homeopathy. I think they have very little relevance to the question whether homeopathy works.

But there is more, much more!

It has been pointed out that there are several oddities in this paper which are highly suspicious of scientific misconduct or fraud. It has been noted that the study used duplicated data figures that claimed to show different experimental results, inconsistently reported data and results for various treatment dilutions in the text and figures, contained suspiciously identical data points throughout a series of figures that were reported to represent different experimental results, and hinged on subjective, non-blinded data from a pain experiment involving just eight rats.

Lastly, others pointed out that even if the data is somehow accurate, the experiment is unconvincing. The fast timing differences of paw withdraw is subjective. It’s also prone to bias because the researchers were not blinded to the rats’ treatments (meaning they could have known which animals were given the control drug or the homeopathic dilution). Moreover, eight animals in each group is not a large enough number from which to draw firm conclusions, they argue.

As one consequence of these suspicions, the journal has recently added the following footnote to the publication:

10/1/2018 Editors’ Note: Readers are alerted that the conclusions of this paper are subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved.


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.

Evening primrose oil (EPO) is amongst the best-selling herbal remedies of all times. It is marketed in most countries as a dietary supplement. It is being promoted for eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, premenstrual syndrome, breast pain, menopause symptoms, and many other conditions. EPO seems to be a prime example for the fact that, in alternative medicine, the commercial success of a remedy is not necessarily determined by the strength of the evidence but by the intensity and cleverness of the marketing activities.

Evening primrose oil has been extensively tested in clinical trials for a wide range of conditions, including eczema (atopic dermatitis), postmenopausal symptoms, asthma, psoriasis, cellulite, hyperactivity, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and mastalgia. As I have reported previously, these data were burdened with mischief and scientific misconduct, and it is therefore not easy to differentiate between science, pseudoscience and fraud. The results of the more reliable investigations fail to show that it is effective for any condition.  A Cochrane review of 2013, for instance, concluded that supplements of evening primrose oil lack effect on eczema; improvement was similar to respective placebos used in trials.

But now, a new study has emerged that casts doubt on this conclusion. The aim of this double-blinded, placebo-controlled RCT is to evaluate the efficacy and safety of EPO in Korean patients with atopic dermatitis (AD).

Fifty mild AD patients with an Eczema Area Severity Index (EASI) score of 10 or less were randomly divided into two groups. The first group received an oval unmarked capsule containing 450 mg of EPO (40 mg of GLA) per capsule, while placebo capsules identical in appearance and containing 450 mg of soybean oil were given to the other group. Treatment continued for a period of 4 months. EASI scores, transepidermal water loss (TEWL), and skin hydration were evaluated in all the AD patients at the baseline, and in months 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the study.

At the end of month 4, the patients of the EPO group showed a significant improvement in the EASI score, whereas the patients of the placebo group did not. There was a significant difference in the EASI score between the EPO and placebo groups. Although not statistically significant, the TEWL and skin hydration also slightly improved in the EPO patients group. Adverse effect were not found in neither the experimental group nor the control group during the study period.

The authors concluded by suggesting that EPO is a safe and effective medicine for Korean patients with mild AD.

I find this study odd for several reasons:

  • One cannot possibly draw conclusions based on such a small sample.
  • The authors state that a total of 69 mild AD patients were enrolled and randomized into either the control group (14 males and 17 females) or the EPO group (20 males and 18 females). Six patients in the control group and 13 patients in the EPO group dropped out due to follow up loss. No patient dropped out because the disease worsened. Should this not have necessitated an intention-to-treat analysis? And, if 19 patients were lost to follow-up, how do the authors know that their disease did not worsen?
  • The graph shows impressively the lack of a placebo-response. I don’t understand why there was none.
  • The authors state that there were no adverse effects at all. I find this implausible; we know that even taking placebos will prompt patients to report adverse effects.

So, what to make out of this?

I am not at all sure, but one thing is certain: this study does not alter my verdict on EPO; as far as I am concerned, the effectiveness of EPO for AD is unproven.

The aim of this RCT was to investigate the effects of an osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) which includes a diaphragm intervention compared to the same OMT with a sham diaphragm intervention in chronic non-specific low back pain (NS-CLBP).

Participants (N=66) with a diagnosis of NS-CLBP lasting at least 3 months were randomized to receive either an OMT protocol including specific diaphragm techniques (n=33) or the same OMT protocol with a sham diaphragm intervention (n=33), conducted in 5 sessions provided during 4 weeks.

The primary outcomes were pain (evaluated with the Short-Form McGill Pain Questionnaire [SF-MPQ] and the visual analog scale [VAS]) and disability (assessed with the Roland-Morris Questionnaire [RMQ] and the Oswestry Disability Index [ODI]). Secondary outcomes were fear-avoidance beliefs, level of anxiety and depression, and pain catastrophization. All outcome measures were evaluated at baseline, at week 4, and at week 12.

A statistically significant reduction was observed in the experimental group compared to the sham group in all variables assessed at week 4 and at week 12. Moreover, improvements in pain and disability were clinically relevant.

The authors concluded that an OMT protocol that includes diaphragm techniques produces significant and clinically relevant improvements in pain and disability in patients with NS-CLBP compared to the same OMT protocol using sham diaphragm techniques.

This seems to be a rigorous study. The authors describe in detail their well-standardised interventions in the full text of their paper. This, of course, will be essential, if someone wants to repeat the trial.

I have but a few points to add:

  1. What I fail to understand is this: why the authors call the interventions osteopathic? The therapist was a physiotherapist and the techniques employed are, if I am not mistaken, as much physiotherapeutic as osteopathic.
  2. The findings of this trial are encouraging but almost seem a little too good to be true. They need, of course, to be independently replicated in a larger study.
  3. If that is done, I would suggest to check whether the blinding of the patient was successful. If not, there is a suspicion that the diaphragm technique works partly or mostly via a placebo effect.
  4. I would also try to make sure that the therapist cannot influence the results in any way, for instance, by verbal or non-verbal suggestions.
  5. Finally, I suggest to employ more than one therapist to increase generalisability.

Once all these hurdles are taken, we might indeed have made some significant progress in the manual therapy of NS-CLBP.

Fish oil (omega-3 PUFA) preparations are today extremely popular and amongst the best-researched dietary supplement. During the 1970s, two Danish scientists, Bang and Dyerberg, remarked that Greenland Eskimos had a baffling lower prevalence of coronary artery disease than mainland Danes. They also noted that their diet contained large amounts of seal and whale blubber and suggested that this ‘Eskimo-diet’ was a key factor in the lower prevalence. Subsequently, a flurry of research stared to investigate the phenomenon, and it was shown that the ‘Eskimo-diet’ contained unusually high concentrations of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish oils (seals and whales feed predominantly on fish).

Initial research also demonstrated that the regular consumption of fish oil has a multitude of cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory effects. This led to the promotion of fish oil supplements for a wide range of conditions. Meanwhile, many of these encouraging findings have been overturned by more rigorous studies, and the enthusiasm for fish oil supplements has somewhat waned. But now, a new paper has come out with surprising findings.

The objective of this meta-analysis was to evaluate the association of anxiety symptoms with omega-3 PUFA treatment compared with controls in varied populations.

A search was performed of clinical trials assessing the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs in humans, in either placebo-controlled or non–placebo-controlled designs. Of 104 selected articles, 19 entered the final data extraction stage. Two authors independently extracted the data according to a predetermined list of interests. A random-effects model meta-analysis was performed. Changes in the severity of anxiety symptoms after omega-3 PUFA treatment served as the main endpoint.

In total, 1203 participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment and 1037 participants without omega-3 PUFA treatment showed an association between clinical anxiety symptoms among participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment compared with control arms. Subgroup analysis showed that the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly greater in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was significantly better than that of controls only in subgroups with a higher dosage (at least 2000 mg/d) and not in subgroups with a lower dosage (<2000 mg/d).

The authors concluded that this review indicates that omega-3 PUFAs might help to reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety. Further well-designed studies are needed in populations in whom anxiety is the main symptom.

I think this is a fine meta-analysis reporting clear results. I doubt that this paper truly falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine, but fish oil is a popular food supplement and should be mentioned on this blog. Of course, the average effect size is modest, but the findings are nevertheless intriguing.

Proof of Principle or Concept studies are investigations usually for an early stage of clinical drug development when a compound has shown potential in animal models and early safety testing. This step often links between Phase-I and dose ranging Phase-II studies. These small-scale studies are designed to detect a signal that the drug is active on a patho-physiologically relevant mechanism, as well as preliminary evidence of efficacy in a clinically relevant endpoint.

For therapies that have been in use for many years, proof of concept studies are unusual to say the least. A proof of concept study of osteopathy has never been heard of. This is why I was fascinated by this new paper. The objective of this ‘proof of concept’ study was to evaluate the effect of osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMTh) on chronic symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Patients (n=22) with MS received 5 forty-minute MS health education sessions (control group) or 5 OMTh sessions (OMTh group). All participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their level of clinical disability, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and quality of life before the first session, one week after the final session, and 6 months after the final session. The Extended Disability Status Scale, a modified Fatigue Impact Scale, the Beck Depression Inventory-II, the Beck Anxiety Inventory, and the 12-item Short Form Health Survey were used to assess clinical disability, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and quality of life, respectively. In the OMTh group, statistically significant improvements in fatigue and depression were found one week after the final session. A non-significant increase in quality of life was also found in the OMTh group one week after the final session.

The authors concluded that the results demonstrate that OMTh should be considered in the treatment of patients with chronic symptoms of MS.

Who said that reading alternative medicine research papers is not funny? I for one laughed heartily when I read this (no need at all to go into the many obvious flaws of the study). Calling a pilot study ‘proof of concept’ is certainly not without hilarity. Drawing definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of OMTh is outright laughable. But issuing a far-reaching recommendation for use of OMTh in MS is just better than the best comedy. This had me in stiches!

I congratulate the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association and the international team of authors for providing us with such fun.

Osteopathy is a form of manual therapy invented by the American Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917). Today, US osteopaths (doctors of osteopathy or DOs) practise no or little manual therapy; they are fully recognised as medical doctors who can specialise in any medical field after their training which is almost identical with that of MDs. Outside the US, osteopaths practice almost exclusively manual treatments and are considered alternative practitioners. This post deals with the latter category of osteopaths.

Still defined his original osteopathy as a science which consists of such exact, exhaustive, and verifiable knowledge of the structure and function of the human mechanism, anatomical, physiological and psychological, including the chemistry and physics of its known elements, as has made discoverable certain organic laws and remedial resources, within the body itself, by which nature under the scientific treatment peculiar to osteopathic practice, apart from all ordinary methods of extraneous, artificial, or medicinal stimulation, and in harmonious accord with its own mechanical principles, molecular activities, and metabolic processes, may recover from displacements, disorganizations, derangements, and consequent disease, and regained its normal equilibrium of form and function in health and strength.

Based on such vague and largely nonsensical statements, traditional osteopaths feel entitled to offer treatments for most human diseases, conditions and symptoms. The studies they produce to back up their claims tend to be as poor as Still’s original assumptions were fantastic.

Here is an apt example:

The aim of this new study was to study the effect of osteopathic manipulation on pain relief and quality of life improvement in hospitalized oncology geriatric patients.

The researchers conducted a non-randomized controlled clinical trial with 23 cancer patients. They were allocated to two groups: the study group (OMT [osteopathic manipulative therapy] group, N = 12) underwent OMT in addition to physiotherapy (PT), while the control group (PT group, N = 12) underwent only PT. Included were postsurgical cancer patients, male and female, age ⩾65 years, with an oncology prognosis of 6 to 24 months and chronic pain for at least 3 months with an intensity score higher than 3, measured with the Numeric Rating Scale. Exclusion criteria were patients receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment at the time of the study, with mental disorders (Mini-Mental State Examination [MMSE] = 10-20), with infection, anticoagulation therapy, cardiopulmonary disease, or clinical instability post-surgery. Oncology patients were admitted for rehabilitation after cancer surgery. The main cancers were colorectal cancer, osteosarcoma, spinal metastasis from breast and prostatic cancer, and kidney cancer.

The OMT, based on osteopathic principles of body unit, structure-function relationship, and homeostasis, was designed for each patient on the basis of the results of the osteopathic examination. Diagnosis and treatment were founded on 5 models: biomechanics, neurologic, metabolic, respiratory-circulatory, and behaviour. The OMT protocol was administered by an osteopath with clinical experience of 10 years in one-on-one individual sessions. The techniques used were: dorsal and lumbar soft tissue, rib raising, back and abdominal myofascial release, cervical spine soft tissue, sub-occipital decompression, and sacroiliac myofascial release. Back and abdominal myofascial release techniques are used to improve back movement and internal abdominal pressure. Sub-occipital decompression involves traction at the base of the skull, which is considered to release restrictions around the vagus nerve, theoretically improving nerve function. Sacroiliac myofascial release is used to improve sacroiliac joint movement and to reduce ligament tension. Strain-counter-strain and muscle energy technique are used to diminish the presence of trigger points and their pain intensity. OMT was repeated once every week during 4 weeks for each group, for a total of 4 treatments. Each treatment lasted 45 minutes.

At enrolment (T0), the patients were evaluated for pain intensity and quality of life by an external examiner. All patients were re-evaluated every week (T1, T2, T3, and T4) for pain intensity, and at the end of the study treatment (T4) for quality of life.

The OMT added to physiotherapy produced a significant reduction in pain both at T2 and T4. The difference in quality of life improvements between T0 and T4 was not statistically significant. Pain improved in the PT group at T4. Between-group analysis of pain and quality of life did not show any significant difference between the two treatments.

The authors concluded that our study showed a significant improvement in pain relief and a nonsignificant improvement in quality of life in hospitalized geriatric oncology patients during osteopathic manipulative treatment.


Where to begin?

Even if there had been a difference in outcome between the two groups, such a finding would not have shown an effect of OMT per se. More likely, it would have been due to the extra attention and the expectation in the OMT group (or caused by the lack of randomisation). The A+B vs B design used for this study  does not control for non-specific effects. Therefore it is incapable of establishing a causal relationship between the therapy and the outcome.

As it turns out, there were no inter-group differences. How can this be? I have often stated that A+B is always more than B alone. And this is surely true!

So, how can I explain this?

As far as I can see, there are two possibilities:

  1. The study was underpowered, and thus an existing difference was not picked up.
  2. The OMT had a detrimental effect on the outcome measures thus neutralising the positive effects of the extra attention and expectation.

And which possibility does apply in this case?

Nobody can know from these data.

Integrative Cancer Therapies, the journal that published this paper, states that it focuses on a new and growing movement in cancer treatment. The journal emphasizes scientific understanding of alternative and traditional medicine therapies, and the responsible integration of both with conventional health care. Integrative care includes therapeutic interventions in diet, lifestyle, exercise, stress care, and nutritional supplements, as well as experimental vaccines, chrono-chemotherapy, and other advanced treatments. I feel that the editors should rather focus more on the quality of the science they publish.

My conclusion from all this is the one I draw so depressingly often: fatally flawed science is not just useless, it is unethical, gives clinical research a bad name, hinders progress, and can be harmful to patients.

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