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

osteoarthritis

This randomized clinical trial tested the effects of laying on of hands (LooH) as a complementary therapy to kinesiotherapy, on pain, joint stiffness, and functional capacity of older women with knee osteoarthritis (KOA) compared to a control group.

Participants were assigned into 3 groups:

  1. LooH with a spiritual component (Group – SPG),
  2. LooH without a spiritual component (Group – LHG),
  3. a control group receiving no complementary intervention (Control Group – CG).

Patients were assessed at baseline, 8 weeks, and 16 weeks. Primary outcomes were joint stiffness and functional capacity (Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index [WOMAC]), and pain (WOMAC and visual analogue scale). Secondary outcomes were anxiety, depression, mobility, and quality of life. Differences between groups were evaluated using an intention-to-treat approach.

A total of 120 women with KOA were randomized (40 participants per group). At 8 weeks, SPG differed significantly from the LHG for WOMAC Functional Status; Anxiety levels; and also from the CG for all outcomes with exception of WOMAC Stiffness. After 16 weeks, SPG differed significantly from the LHG only for WOMAC Functional Status and also from the CG for all outcomes with exception of WOMAC Stiffness and timed up-and-go.

The authors concluded that the results suggest that LooH with a “spiritual component” may promote better long-term functional outcomes than both LooH without a “spiritual component” and a control group without LooH.

This is an interesting study which seems well designed. Its findings are surprising and lack scientific plausibility. Therefore, sceptics will find it hard to accept the results and suspect some hidden bias or confounding to have caused it rather than the laying on of hands. SCAM enthusiasts would then probably claim that such an attitude exemplifies the bias of sceptics.

So, what can be done to find out who is right and who is wrong?

Whenever we are faced with a surprising finding based on a seemingly rigorous trial, it is wise to realise that there  is a plethora of possible explanations and that speculations are usually not very helpful. There is always a danger of a clinical trial producing false or misleading findings. This could be due to a plethora of reasons such as error, undetected bias or confounding, fraud, etc.

What we really need is an independent replication – better two.

Much of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is used in the management of osteoarthritis pain. Yet few of us ever seem to ask whether SCAMs are more or less effective and safe than conventional treatments.

This review determined how many patients with chronic osteoarthritis pain respond to various non-surgical treatments. Published systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that included meta-analysis of responder outcomes for at least 1 of the following interventions were included: acetaminophen, oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), topical NSAIDs, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, cannabinoids, counselling, exercise, platelet-rich plasma, viscosupplementation (intra-articular injections usually with hyaluronic acid ), glucosamine, chondroitin, intra-articular corticosteroids, rubefacients, or opioids.

In total, 235 systematic reviews were included. Owing to limited reporting of responder meta-analyses, a post hoc decision was made to evaluate individual RCTs with responder analysis within the included systematic reviews. New meta-analyses were performed where possible. A total of 155 RCTs were included. Interventions that led to more patients attaining meaningful pain relief compared with control included:

  • exercise (risk ratio [RR] of 2.36; 95% CI 1.79 to 3.12),
  • intra-articular corticosteroids (RR = 1.74; 95% CI 1.15 to 2.62),
  • SNRIs (RR = 1.53; 95% CI 1.25 to 1.87),
  • oral NSAIDs (RR = 1.44; 95% CI 1.36 to 1.52),
  • glucosamine (RR = 1.33; 95% CI 1.02 to 1.74),
  • topical NSAIDs (RR = 1.27; 95% CI 1.16 to 1.38),
  • chondroitin (RR = 1.26; 95% CI 1.13 to 1.41),
  • viscosupplementation (RR = 1.22; 95% CI 1.12 to 1.33),
  • opioids (RR = 1.16; 95% CI 1.02 to 1.32).

Pre-planned subgroup analysis demonstrated no effect with glucosamine, chondroitin, or viscosupplementation in studies that were only publicly funded. When trials longer than 4 weeks were analysed, the benefits of opioids were not statistically significant.

The authors concluded that interventions that provide meaningful relief for chronic osteoarthritis pain might include exercise, intra-articular corticosteroids, SNRIs, oral and topical NSAIDs, glucosamine, chondroitin, viscosupplementation, and opioids. However, funding of studies and length of treatment are important considerations in interpreting these data.

Exercise clearly is an effective intervention for chronic osteoarthritis pain. It has consistently been recommended by international guideline groups as the first-line treatment in osteoarthritis management. The type of exercise is likely not important.

Pharmacotherapies such as NSAIDs and duloxetine demonstrate smaller but statistically significant benefit that continues beyond 12 weeks. Opioids appear to have short-term benefits that attenuate after 4 weeks, and intra-articular steroids after 12 weeks. Limited data (based on 2 RCTs) suggest that acetaminophen is not helpful. These findings are consistent with recent Osteoarthritis Research Society International guideline recommendations that no longer recommend acetaminophen for osteoarthritis pain management and strongly recommend against the use of opioids.

Limited benefit was observed with other interventions including glucosamine, chondroitin, and viscosupplementation. When only publicly funded trials were examined for these interventions, the results were no longer statistically significant.

Adverse events were inconsistently reported. However, withdrawal due to adverse events was consistently reported and found to be greater in patients using opioids, SNRIs, topical NSAIDs, and viscosupplementation.

Few of the interventions assessed fall under the umbrella of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM):

  • some forms of exercise,
  • cannabinoids,
  • counselling,
  • chondroitin,
  • glucosamine.

It is unclear why the authors did not include SCAMs such as chiropractic, osteopathy, massage therapy, acupuncture, herbal medicines, neural therapy, etc. in their review. All of these SCAMs are frequently used for osteoarthritis pain. If they had included these treatments, how do you think they would have fared?

“Unless positive evidence emerges, the risk/benefit balance of ozone therapy for any condition fails to be positive.”  This is the conclusion I recently drew after assessing the evidence for or against this therapy. Now a new review has just been published. Does it change my verdict?

This review evaluated the available literature on the application of oxygen-ozone therapy (OOT) in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (KOA) to understand its therapeutic potential and to compare it with other conservative treatment options.

Eleven studies involving 858 patients met the inclusion criteria. Patients in the control groups received different treatments:

  • placebo in 1 trial;
  • hyaluronic acid in 2 studies;
  • hyaluronic acid and PRP in 1 trial;
  • corticosteroids in 4;
  • hypertonic dextrose, radiofrequency, or celecoxib + glucosamine in the remaining 3 trials.

The quality of these studies was poor; none of the studies included reached “good quality” standard, 2 were ranked as “fair,” and the rest were considered “poor.” No major complications or serious adverse events were reported following intra-articular OOT, which provided encouraging pain relief at short term. On the basis of the available data, no clear indication emerged from the comparison of OOT with other established treatments for KOA.

The authors concluded that the analysis of the available RCTs on OOT for KOA revealed poor methodologic quality, with most studies flawed by relevant bias, thus severely limiting the possibility of drawing conclusions on the efficacy of OOT compared with other treatments. On the basis of the data available, OOT has, however, proven to be a safe approach with encouraging effects in pain control and functional recovery in the short-middle term.

The use of ozone for treatment of KOA is highly controversial. The mechanism of action of ozone therapy for the treatment of KOA is unclear. Some studies have suggested that ozone injections results in pain relief, reduction of oedema, and improved mobility. The above review might be valuable in summarising the evidence, however, I fing its conclusion odd:

  • The authors write that they cannot arrive at a verdict about efficacy because of the poor quality of the primary studies. I think the conclusion is very clear and should have been expressed bluntly. THE AVAILABLE DATA FAIL TO SHOW EFFICACY; THE THERAPY IS THUS UNPROVEN AND SHOULD THEREFORE NOT BE USED. Simple!
  • I also disagree that OOT was proven to be safe. No treatment can be proven to be safe on the basis of just a few studies. This would require a much, much greater sample size.

This leaves us with the following situation:

  1. OOT is not plausible.
  2. OOT is unproven.
  3. The risks of OOT are unknown.

To me this means that we should stop using it (and I don’t need to change my above-quotes verdict).

According to WebMed, the shark cartilage (tough elastic tissue that provides support, much as bone does) used for medicine comes primarily from sharks caught in the Pacific Ocean. Several types of extracts are made from shark cartilage including squalamine lactate, AE-941, and U-995.

Shark cartilage is most famously used for cancer. Shark cartilage is also used for osteoarthritis, plaque psoriasis, age-related vision loss, wound healing, damage to the retina of the eye due to diabetes, and inflammation of the intestine (enteritis).

A more realistic picture is pained by this abstract:

The promotion of crude shark cartilage extracts as a cure for cancer has contributed to at least two significant negative outcomes: a dramatic decline in shark populations and a diversion of patients from effective cancer treatments. An alleged lack of cancer in sharks constitutes a key justification for its use. Herein, both malignant and benign neoplasms of sharks and their relatives are described, including previously unreported cases from the Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals, and two sharks with two cancers each. Additional justifications for using shark cartilage are illogical extensions of the finding of antiangiogenic and anti-invasive substances in cartilage. Scientific evidence to date supports neither the efficacy of crude cartilage extracts nor the ability of effective components to reach and eradicate cancer cells. The fact that people think shark cartilage consumption can cure cancer illustrates the serious potential impacts of pseudoscience. Although components of shark cartilage may work as a cancer retardant, crude extracts are ineffective. Efficiencies of technology (e.g., fish harvesting), the power of mass media to reach the lay public, and the susceptibility of the public to pseudoscience amplifies the negative impacts of shark cartilage use. To facilitate the use of reason as the basis of public and private decision-making, the evidence-based mechanisms of evaluation used daily by the scientific community should be added to the training of media and governmental professionals. Increased use of logical, collaborative discussion will be necessary to ensure a sustainable future for man and the biosphere.

To be clear: there is no good evidence that the supplements commercially available currently are effective for any condition.

Now, there is more news on this topic:

The objective of this study was to analyse labelling practices and compliance with regulatory standards for shark cartilage supplements sold in the United States. The product labels of 29 commercial shark cartilage supplements were assessed for compliance with U.S. regulations. Claims, including nutrient content, prohibited disease, and nutritional support statements, were examined for compliance and substantiation.

Overall, 48% of the samples had at least one instance of non-compliance with labelling regulations. The most common labelling violations observed were:

  • missing a domestic address/phone number,
  • non-compliant nutrient content claim,
  • missing/incomplete disclaimer,
  • missing statement of identity,
  • prohibited disease claims,
  • incomplete “Supplement Facts” label.

The use of prohibited disease claims and nutritional support statements without the required disclaimer is concerning from a public health standpoint because consumers may delay seeking professional treatment for a disease.

The authors concluded that the results of this study indicate a need for improved labelling compliance among shark cartilage supplements.

In summary, it seems that shark cartilage supplements are bad for all concerned:

  • Patients who rely on them might hasten their death.
  • Sharks are becoming an endangered species.
  • Consumers are being mislead and misinformed.

There is just one party smiling: the supplement manufacturers who make a healthy profit destroying the health of gullible consumers and patients.

Collagen is a fibrillar protein of the conjunctive and connective tissues in the human body, essentially skin, joints, and bones. Due to its abundance in our bodies, its strength and its relation with skin aging, collagen has gained great interest as an oral dietary supplement as well as an ingredient in cosmetics. Collagen fibres get damaged with the pass of time, losing thickness and strength which has been linked to skin aging phenomena. Collagen can be obtained from natural sources such as plants and animals or by recombinant protein production systems. Because of its increased use, the collagen market is worth billions. The question therefore arises: is it worth it?

This 2019 systematic review assessed all available randomized-controlled trials using collagen supplementation for treatment efficacy regarding skin quality, anti-aging benefits, and potential application in medical dermatology. Eleven studies with a total of 805 patients were included. Eight studies used collagen hydrolysate, 2.5g/d to 10g/d, for 8 to 24 weeks, for the treatment of pressure ulcers, xerosis, skin aging, and cellulite. Two studies used collagen tripeptide, 3g/d for 4 to 12 weeks, with notable improvement in skin elasticity and hydration. Lastly, one study using collagen dipeptide suggested anti-aging efficacy is proportionate to collagen dipeptide content.

The authors concluded that preliminary results are promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging. Oral collagen supplements also increase skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density. Collagen supplementation is generally safe with no reported adverse events. Further studies are needed to elucidate medical use in skin barrier diseases such as atopic dermatitis and to determine optimal dosing regimens.

These conclusions are similar to those of a similar but smaller review of 2015 which concluded that the oral supplementation with collagen peptides is efficacious to improve hallmarks of skin aging.

And what about the many other claims that are currently being made for oral collagen?

A 2006 review of collagen for osteoarthritis concluded that a growing body of evidence provides a rationale for the use of collagen hydrolysate for patients with OA. It is hoped that ongoing and future research will clarify how collagen hydrolysate provides its clinical effects and determine which populations are most appropriate for treatment with this supplement. For other indication, the evidence seems less conclusive.

So, what should we make of this collective evidence. My interpretation is that, of course, there are caveats. For instance, most studies are small and not as rigorous as one would hope. But the existing evidence is nevertheless intriguing (and much more compelling than that for most other supplements). Moreover, there seem to be very few adverse effects with oral usage (don’t inject the stuff for cosmetic purposes, as often recommended!). Therefore, I feel that collagen might be one of the few dietary supplements worth keeping an eye on.

Mini-scalpel acupuncture or acupotomy is a relatively new type of non-invasive acupuncture/ micro surgery using a small needle-scalpel invented by Professor Zhu Hanzhang around 30 years ago in China. It is a slightly thicker and more blunt instrument that gets under the skin and is able to break apart adhesions and muscle knots more effectively than a regular acupuncture needle would.

Sounds weird?

Never mind, the question is does it work!

A systematic review showed that almost all studies reported an effect of acupotomy on joint pain compared to a variety of controls. On reflection, this is hardly surprising:

  • all the trials were from China;
  • all had major methodological flaws.

This means that we need better studies to decide the efficacy question.

This new study investigated the efficacy and safety of mini-scalpel acupuncture (MA) for knee osteoarthritis (KOA) in an assessor-blinded randomized controlled pilot trial; this would provide information for a large-scale randomized controlled trial.

Participants (n = 24) were recruited and randomly allocated to the MA group (experimental) or acupuncture group (control). The MA group received treatment once a week for 3 weeks (total of 3 treatments), while the acupuncture group received treatment two times per week for 3 weeks (total of 6 treatments). The primary outcome was pain as assessed by a visual analogue scale (VAS). The secondary outcomes (intensity of current pain, stiffness, and physical function) were assessed using the short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire (SF-MPQ) and Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Assessments were performed at baseline, 1, 2, and 3 during treatment and at week 5 (2 weeks after the end of treatment).

Of the 24 participants, 23 completed the study. Both groups showed significant improvements in VAS, SF-MPQ, and WOMAC. There were no significant differences between the MA and acupuncture groups. No serious adverse event occurred and blood test results were within normal limits.

The authors concluded that although both MA and acupuncture provide similar effects with regard to pain control in patients with KOA, MA may be more effective in providing pain relief because the same relief was obtained with fewer treatments. A large-scale clinical study is warranted to further clarify these findings.

I can recommend this article to anyone who wants a quick introduction into the critical analysis of clinical trials. It is a veritable treasure trove of mistakes, flaws, errors, fallacies etc. Here are just a few:

  • The authors aim of investigating the safety of MA is unobtainable. It would require not 24 but probably 24 000 patients.
  • The authors aim of investigating the efficacy of MA is equally unobtainable. It would require a much larger sample than 24, a sham control arm, identical treatment schedules, patient-blinding, etc.
  • Calling the trial a ‘pilot’ is endearing but, except for the title and the insufficient sample size, this study has none of the characteristics of a pilot study.
  • In their ‘introduction’, the authors state that miniscalpel acupuncture (MA) is a new subtype of acupuncture that is effective in treating chronic soft tissue injuries such as adhesions and contractures. This is clearly wrong but discloses their bias very plainly.
  • The authors statement that both MA and acupuncture provide similar effects with regard to pain control in patients with KOA is misleading. It implies that both interventions had specific effects. Without a sham control arm, this is pure speculation.
  • Similarly their assumption that MA may be more effective in providing pain relief because the same relief was obtained with fewer treatments, is pure fantasy.
  • In fact, as MA requires injections of local anaesthetics, any outcome is heavily confounded by this addition.
  • In the discussion section, the authors state that because MA is invasive and provides a strong stimulus, some participants complained of stiff and dull pain for few days after treatment. Yet, when reporting adverse effects in the results section, this was not mentioned.
  • The way this study was designed, it should have been clear from the start that it would not produce any meaningful findings. Seen from this perspective, running the trial could even be seen as a breach of research ethics.
  • According to the aims of a pilot study and the authors hope that their study would provide information for a large-scale randomized controlled trial, all reporting of outcomes is misplaced and should be replaced by information as to how a definitive trial should be conducted.

The following footnote is worth mentioning: This study is supported by a grant from the Ministry of Health & Welfare, Korea. It suggests to me that this ministry should urgently re-think its funding strategy and recruit some reviewers who are capable of critical analysis.

In my view, this is a lousy study which the authors decides to call ‘a pilot’ in order to get it published in a lousy journal.

Do musculoskeletal conditions contribute to chronic non-musculoskeletal conditions? The authors of a new paper – inspired by chiropractic thinking, it seems – think so. Their meta-analysis was aimed to investigate whether the most common musculoskeletal conditions, namely neck or back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, contribute to the development of chronic disease.

The authors searched several electronic databases for cohort studies reporting adjusted estimates of the association between baseline neck or back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip and subsequent diagnosis of a chronic disease (cardiovascular disease , cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease or obesity).

There were 13 cohort studies following 3,086,612 people. In the primary meta-analysis of adjusted estimates, osteoarthritis (n= 8 studies) and back pain (n= 2) were the exposures and cardiovascular disease (n=8), cancer (n= 1) and diabetes (n= 1) were the outcomes. Pooled adjusted estimates from these 10 studies showed that people with a musculoskeletal condition have a 17% increase in the rate of developing a chronic disease compared to people without a musculoskeletal condition.

The authors concluded that musculoskeletal conditions may increase the risk of chronic disease. In particular, osteoarthritis appears to increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Prevention and early

treatment of musculoskeletal conditions and targeting associated chronic disease risk factors in people with long

standing musculoskeletal conditions may play a role in preventing other chronic diseases. However, a greater

understanding about why musculoskeletal conditions may increase the risk of chronic disease is needed.

For the most part, this paper reads as if the authors are trying to establish a causal relationship between musculoskeletal problems and systemic diseases at all costs. Even their aim (to investigate whether the most common musculoskeletal conditions, namely neck or back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, contribute to the development of chronic disease) clearly points in that direction. And certainly, their conclusion that musculoskeletal conditions may increase the risk of chronic disease confirms this suspicion.

In their discussion, they do concede that causality is not proven: While our review question ultimately sought to assess a causal connection between common musculoskeletal conditions and chronic disease, we cannot draw strong conclusions  due  to  poor  adjustment,  the  analysis methods employed by the included studies, and a lack of studies investigating conditions other than OA and cardiovascular disease…We did not find studies that satisfied all of Bradford Hill’s suggested criteria for casual inference (e.g. none estimated dose–response effects) nor did we find studies that used contemporary causal inference methods for observational data (e.g. a structured identification approach for selection of confounding variables or assessment of the effects of unmeasured or residual confounders. As such, we are unable to infer a strong causal connection between musculoskeletal conditions and chronic diseases.

In all honesty, I would see this a little differently: If their review question ultimately sought to assess a causal connection between common musculoskeletal conditions and chronic disease, it was quite simply daft and unscientific. All they could ever hope is to establish associations. Whether these are causal or not is an entirely different issue which is not answerable on the basis of the data they searched for.

An example might make this clearer: people who have yellow stains on their 2nd and 3rd finger often get lung cancer. The yellow fingers are associated with cancer, yet the link is not causal. The association is due to the fact that smoking stains the fingers and causes cancer. What the authors of this new article seem to suggest is that, if we cut off the stained fingers of smokers, we might reduce the cancer risk. This is clearly silly to the extreme.

So, how might the association between musculoskeletal problems and systemic diseases come about? Of course, the authors might be correct and it might be causal. This would delight chiropractors because DD Palmer, their founding father, said that 95% of all diseases are caused by subluxation of the spine, the rest by subluxations of other joints. But there are several other and more likely explanations for this association. For instance,  many people with a systemic disease might have had subclinical problems for years. These problems would prevent them from pursuing a healthy life-style which, in turn, resulted is musculoskeletal problems. If this is so, musculoskeletal conditions would not increase the risk of chronic disease, but chronic diseases would lead to musculoskeletal problems.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that this reverse causality is the truth; I am simply saying that it is one of several possibilities that need to be considered. The fact that the authors failed to do so, is remarkable and suggests that they were bent on demonstrating what they put in their conclusion. And that, to me, is an unfailing sign of poor science.

I have said it often, and I say it again: I do like well-conducted systematic reviews; and Cochrane reviews are usually the best, i. e. most transparent, most thorough and least biased. Thus, I was pleased to see a new Cochrane review of acupuncture aimed at assessing the benefits and harms of acupuncture in patients with hip OA.

The authors included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, another active treatment, or no specific treatment; and RCTs that evaluated acupuncture as an addition to another treatment. Major outcomes were pain and function at the short term (i.e. < 3 months after randomization) and adverse events.

Six RCTs with 413 participants were included. Four RCTs included only people with OA of the hip, and two included a mix of people with OA of the hip and knee. All RCTs included primarily older participants, with a mean age range from 61 to 67 years, and a mean duration of hip OA pain from two to eight years. Approximately two-thirds of participants were women. Two RCTs compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture; the other four RCTs were not blinded. All results were evaluated at short-term (i.e. four to nine weeks after randomization).In the two RCTs that compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture, the sham acupuncture control interventions were judged believable, but each sham acupuncture intervention was also judged to have a risk of weak acupuncture-specific effects, due to placement of non-penetrating needles at the correct acupuncture points in one RCT, and the use of penetrating needles not inserted at the correct points in the other RCT. For these two sham-controlled RCTs, the risk of bias was low for all outcomes.

The combined analysis of two sham-controlled RCTs gave moderate quality evidence of little or no effect in reduction in pain for acupuncture relative to sham acupuncture. Due to the small sample sizes in the studies, the confidence interval includes both the possibility of moderate benefit and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture (120 participants; Standardized Mean Difference (SMD) -0.13, (95% Confidence Interval (CI) -0.49 to 0.22); 2.1 points greater improvement with acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture on 100 point scale (i.e., absolute percent change -2.1% (95% CI -7.9% to 3.6%)); relative percent change -4.1% (95% CI -15.6% to 7.0%)). Estimates of effect were similar for function (120 participants; SMD -0.15, (95% CI -0.51 to 0.21)). No pooled estimate, representative of the two sham-controlled RCTs, could be calculated or reported for the quality of life outcome.

The four other RCTs were unblinded comparative effectiveness RCTs, which compared (additional) acupuncture to four different active control treatments. There was low quality evidence that addition of acupuncture to the routine primary care that RCT participants were receiving from their physicians was associated with statistically significant and clinically relevant benefits, compared to the routine primary physician care alone, in pain (1 RCT; 137 participants; mean percent difference -22.9% (95% CI -29.2% to -16.6%); relative percent difference -46.5% (95% CI -59.3% to -33.7%)) and function (mean percent difference -19.0% (95% CI -24.41 to -13.59); relative percent difference -38.6% (95% CI -49.6% to -27.6%)). There was no statistically significant difference for mental quality of life and acupuncture showed a small, significant benefit for physical quality of life.

The effects of acupuncture compared with either advice plus exercise or NSAIDs are uncertain. The authors are also uncertain whether acupuncture plus patient education improves pain, function, and quality of life, when compared to patient education alone.

In general, the overall quality of the evidence for the four comparative effectiveness RCTs was low to very low, mainly due to the potential for biased reporting of patient-assessed outcomes due to lack of blinding and sparse data.

Information on safety was reported in 4 RCTs. Two RCTs reported minor side effects of acupuncture, which were primarily minor bruising, bleeding, or pain at needle insertion sites.

The authors concluded that acupuncture probably has little or no effect in reducing pain or improving function relative to sham acupuncture in people with hip osteoarthritis. Due to the small sample size in the studies, the confidence intervals include both the possibility of moderate benefits and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture. One unblinded trial found that acupuncture as an addition to routine primary physician care was associated with benefits on pain and function. However, these reported benefits are likely due at least partially to RCT participants’ greater expectations of benefit from acupuncture. Possible side effects associated with acupuncture treatment were minor.

This is an excellent review of data that (because of contradictions, methodological limitations, heterogeneity etc.) are not easy to evaluate fairly. The review shows that previous verdicts about acupuncture for osteoarthritis might have been too optimistic. Acupuncture has no or only very small specific therapeutic effects. As we have much better therapeutic options for this condition, it means that acupuncture can no longer be recommended as an effective therapy.

That surely must be big news in the little world of acupuncture!

I have been personally involved in several similar reviews:

In 1997, I concluded that the most rigorous studies suggest that acupuncture is not superior to sham-needling in reducing pain of osteoarthritis: both alleviate symptoms to roughly the same degree.

In 2006, the balance of evidence seemed to have shifted and more positive data had emerged; consequently our review concluded that sham-controlled RCTs suggest specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with peripheral joint OA. Considering its favourable safety profile acupuncture seems an option worthy of consideration particularly for knee OA. Further studies are required particularly for manual or electro-acupuncture in hip OA.

Now, it seems that my initial conclusion of 1996 was more realistic. To me this is a fascinating highlight on the fact that in EBM, we change our minds based on the current best evidence. By contrast, in alternative medicine, as we have often lamented on this blog, minds do not easily change and all too often dogma seems to reign.

The new Cochrane review is important in several ways. Firstly, it affirms an appropriately high standard for such reviews. Secondly, it originates from a research team that has, in the past, been outspokenly pro-acupuncture; it is therefore unlikely that the largely negative findings were due to an anti-acupuncture bias. Thirdly – and most importantly – osteoarthritis has been THE condition for which even critical reviewers had to admit that there was at least some good, positive evidence.

It seems therefore, that yet again a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact.

The question whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) has any specific therapeutic effects is still open. This fact must irritate ardent chiropractors, and they therefore try everything to dispel our doubts. One way would be to demonstrate a dose-effect relationship between SMT and the clinical outcome. But, for several reasons, this is not an easy task.

This RCT was aimed at identifying the dose-response relationship between visits for SMT and chronic cervicogenic headache (CGH) outcomes; to evaluate the efficacy of SMT by comparison with a light massage control.

The study included 256 adults with chronic CGH. The primary outcome was days with CGH in the prior 4 weeks evaluated at the 12- and 24-week primary endpoints. Secondary outcomes included CGH days at remaining endpoints, pain intensity, disability, perceived improvement, medication use, and patient satisfaction. Participants were randomized to 4 different dose levels of chiropractic SMT: 0, 6, 12, or 18 sessions. They were treated 3 times per week for 6 weeks and received a focused light-massage control at sessions when SMT was not assigned. Linear dose effects and comparisons to the no-manipulation control group were evaluated at 6, 12, 24, 39, and 52 weeks.

A linear dose-response was observed for all follow-ups, a reduction of approximately 1 CGH day/4 weeks per additional 6 SMT visits (p<.05); a maximal effective dose could not be determined. CGH days/4 weeks were reduced from about 16 to 8 for the highest and most effective dose of 18 SMT visits. Mean differences in CGH days/4 weeks between 18 SMT visits and control were -3.3 (p=.004) and -2.9 (p=.017) at the primary endpoints, and similar in magnitude at the remaining endpoints (p<.05). Differences between other SMT doses and control were smaller in magnitude (p > .05). CGH intensity showed no important improvement nor differed by dose. Other secondary outcomes were generally supportive of the primary.

The authors concluded that there was a linear dose-response relationship between SMT visits and days with CGH. For the highest and most effective dose of 18 SMT visits, CGH days were reduced by half, and about 3 more days per month than for the light-massage control.

This trial would make sense, if the effectiveness of SMT for CGH had been a well-documented fact, and if the study had rigorously controlled for placebo-effects.

But guess what?

Neither of these conditions were met.

A recent review concluded that there are few published randomized controlled trials analyzing the effectiveness of spinal manipulation and/or mobilization for TTH, CeH, and M in the last decade. In addition, the methodological quality of these papers is typically low. Clearly, there is a need for high-quality randomized controlled trials assessing the effectiveness of these interventions in these headache disorders. And this is by no means the only article making such statements; similar reviews arrive at similar conclusions. In turn, this means that the effects observed after SMT are not necessarily specific effects due to SMT but could easily be due to placebo or other non-specific effects. In order to avoid confusion, one would need a credible placebo – one that closely mimics SMT – and make sure that patients were ‘blinded’. But ‘light massage’ clearly does not mimic SMT, and patients obviously were aware of which interventions they received.

So, an alternative – and I think at least as plausible – conclusion of the data provided by this new RCT is this:

Chiropractic SMT is associated with a powerful placebo response which, of course, obeys a dose-effect relationship. Thus these findings are in keeping with the notion that SMT is a placebo.

And why would the researchers – who stress that they have no conflicts of interest – mislead us by making this alternative interpretation of their findings not abundantly clear?

I fear, the reason might be simple: they also seem to mislead us about their conflicts of interest: they are mostly chiropractors with a long track record of publishing promotional papers masquerading as research. What, I ask myself, could be a stronger conflict of interest?

(Pity that a high-impact journal like SPINE did not spot these [not so little] flaws)

We have repeatedly discussed the fact that alternative medicine (AM) is by no means free of risks. I find it helpful to divide them into two broad categories:

  1. direct risks of the intervention (such as stroke due to neck manipulation, or cardiac tamponade caused by acupuncture, or liver damage due to a herbal remedy) and
  2. indirect risks usually due to the advice given by AM practitioners.

The latter category is often more important than the former. It includes delay of effective treatment due to treatment with an ineffective or less effective form of AM. It is clear that this will cause patients to suffer unnecessarily.

Several investigations have recently highlighted this important problem, including this study from Singapore which assessed the predictors of AM-use in patients with early inflammatory arthritis (EIA), and its impact on delay to initiation of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARD). Data were collected prospectively from EIA patients aged ≥ 21 years. Current or prior AM-use was ascertained by face-to-face interviews. Predictors of AM-use and its effect on time to DMARD initiation were determined by multivariate logistic regression and Cox proportional hazards, respectively.

One hundred and eighty patients were included: 83.9% had rheumatoid arthritis, 57% were seropositive. Median (IQR). Chinese race, being non-English speaking,  smoking and high DAS28 were independent predictors of AM-use. AM-users initiated DMARD later (median [IQR] 21.5 [13.1-30.4] vs. 15.6 [9.4-22.7] weeks in non-users, P = 0.005). AM-use and higher DAS28 were associated with a longer delay to DMARD initiation. Race, education level, being non-English speaking, smoking and sero-positivity were not associated.

The authors concluded that healthcare professionals should be aware of the unique challenges in treating patients with EIA in Asia. Healthcare beliefs regarding AM may need to be addressed to reduce treatment delay.

These findings are not dissimilar to results previously discussed, for instance:

The only solution to the problem I can think of would be to educate AM practitioners and the public such that they are aware of the issue and do everything possible to prevent such problems. But this is, of course, easier said than done, and it seems more than just optimistic to hope that such endeavours might be successful. The public is currently  bombarded with misleading information and outright lies about AM (many of my previous post have addressed this problem). And practitioners would have to operate against their own financial interest to prevent these problems from occurring.

This means that treatment delays caused by AM-use and advice from AM practitioners are inevitable…

unless you have a better idea.

If so, please let me know.

 

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