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

placebo

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Spinal manipulation is an umbrella term for numerous manoeuvres chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and other clinicians apply to their patients’ vertebral columns.  Spinal manipulations are said to be effective for a wide range of conditions. But how do they work? What is their mode of action? A new article tries to address these questions. here is its abstract:

Spinal manipulation has been an effective intervention for the management of various musculoskeletal disorders. However, the mechanisms underlying the pain modulatory effects of spinal manipulation remain elusive. Although both biomechanical and neurophysiological phenomena have been thought to play a role in the observed clinical effects of spinal manipulation, a growing number of recent studies have indicated peripheral, spinal and supraspinal mechanisms of manipulation and suggested that the improved clinical outcomes are largely of neurophysiological origin. In this article, we reviewed the relevance of various neurophysiological theories with respect to the findings of mechanistic studies that demonstrated neural responses following spinal manipulation. This article also discussed whether these neural responses are associated with the possible neurophysiological mechanisms of spinal manipulation. The body of literature reviewed herein suggested some clear neurophysiological changes following spinal manipulation, which include neural plastic changes, alteration in motor neuron excitability, increase in cortical drive and many more. However, the clinical relevance of these changes in relation to the mechanisms that underlie the effectiveness of spinal manipulation is still unclear. In addition, there were some major methodological flaws in many of the reviewed studies. Future mechanistic studies should have an appropriate study design and methodology and should plan for a long-term follow-up in order to determine the clinical significance of the neural responses evoked following spinal manipulation.

I have to admit, this made me laugh. Any article that starts with the claim spinal manipulation is an effective intervention and speaks about its observed clinical effects without critically assessing the evidence for it must be ridiculous. The truth is that, so far, it is unclear whether spinal manipulations cause any therapeutic effects at all. To take them as a given, therefore discloses a bias that can only be a hindrance to any objective evaluation.

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the paper raises an important question: do we need to search for a mode of action of treatments that are unproven? It is a question, of course, that is relevant to all or at least much of SCAM.

Do we need to research the mode of action of acupuncture?

Do we need to research the mode of action of energy healing?

Do we need to research the mode of action of reflexology?

Do we need to research the mode of action of homeopathy?

Do we need to research the mode of action of Bach flower remedies?

Do we need to research the mode of action of cupping?

Do we need to research the mode of action of qigong?

In the absence of compelling evidence that a mode of action (other than the placebo response) exists, I would say: no, we don’t. Such research might turn out to be wasteful and carries the risk of attributing credibility to treatments that do not deserve it.

What do you think?

 

Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT), especially hyperextension and rotation. have often been associated with cervical artery dissection (CAD), a tear in the internal carotid or the vertebral artery resulting in an intramural haematoma and/or an aneurysmal dilatation. But is the association causal? This question is often the subject of fierce discussions between chiropractors and the real doctors.

The lack of established causality relates to the chicken and egg discussion, i.e., whether the CAD symptoms lead the patient to seek cervical SMT or whether the cervical SMT provokes CAD along with the non-CAD presenting headache and/or neck complaint.

The aim of a new review was to provide an updated step-by-step risk-benefit assessment strategy regarding manual therapy and to provide tools for clinicians to exclude cervical artery dissection.

In light of the evidence provided, the reality, according to the review-authors, is:

  • a) that there is no firm scientific basis for direct causality between cervical SMT and CAD;
  • b) that the internal carotid artery (ICA) moves freely within the cervical pathway, while 74% of cervical SMTs are conducted in the lower cervical spine where the vertebral artery (VA) also moves freely;
  • c) that active daily life consists of multiple cervical movements including rotations that do not trigger CAD, as is true for a range of physical activities;
  • d) that a cervical manipulation and/or grade C cervical mobilization goes beyond the physiological limit but remains within the anatomical range, which theoretically means that the artery should not exceed failure strain.

These factors underscore the fact that no serious adverse event (AE) was reported in a large prospective national survey conducted in the UK that assessed all AEs in 28,807 chiropractic treatment consultations, which included 50,276 cervical spine manipulations.

The figure outlines a risk-benefit assessment strategy that should provide additional knowledge and improve the vigilance of all clinicians to enable them to exclude CAD, refer patients with suspected CAD to appropriate care, and consequently prevent CAD from progressing.

It has been argued that most patients present with at least two physical symptoms. The clinical characteristics and recommendations in the figure follow this assumption. This figure is intended to function as a knowledge base that should be implemented in preliminary screening and be part of good clinical practice. This knowledge base will likely contribute to sharpening the attention of the clinicians and alert them as to whether the presenting complaint, combined with a collection of warning signs listed in the figure, deviates from what he or she considers to be a usual musculoskeletal presentation.

Even though this is a seemingly thoughtful analysis, I think it omits at least two important points:

  1. The large prospective UK survey which included 50,276 cervical spine manipulations might be less convincing that it seems. It recorded about one order of magnitude less minor adverse effects of spinal manipulation than a multitude of previously published prospective surveys. The self-selected, relatively small group of participating chiropractors (32% of the total sample) were both experienced (67% been in practice for 5 or more years) and may not always have adhered to the protocol of the survey. Thus they may have employed their experience to intuitively select low-risk patients rather than including all consecutive cases, as the protocol prescribed. This hypothesis would firstly account for the unusually low rate of minor adverse effects, and secondly, it would explain why no serious complications occurred at all. Given that about 700 such complications are on record, the low incidence of serious adverse events could well be a gross underestimate.
  2. The effect of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy is probably due to a placebo response. This means that it should probably not be done in the first place.

A new update of the current Cochrane review assessed the benefits and harms of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) for the treatment of chronic low back pain. The authors included all randomised controlled trials (RCTs) examining the effect of spinal manipulation or mobilisation in adults (≥18 years) with chronic low back pain with or without referred pain. Studies that exclusively examined sciatica were excluded.

The effect of SMT was compared with recommended therapies, non-recommended therapies, sham (placebo) SMT, and SMT as an adjuvant therapy. Main outcomes were pain and back specific functional status, examined as mean differences and standardised mean differences (SMD), respectively. Outcomes were examined at 1, 6, and 12 months.

Forty-seven RCTs including a total of 9211 participants were identified. Most trials compared SMT with recommended therapies. In 16 RCTs, the therapists were chiropractors, in 14 they were physiotherapists, and in 5 they were osteopaths. They used high velocity manipulations in 18 RCTs, low velocity manipulations in 12 studies and a combination of the two in 20 trials.

Moderate quality evidence suggested that SMT has similar effects to other recommended therapies for short term pain relief and a small, clinically better improvement in function. High quality evidence suggested that, compared with non-recommended therapies, SMT results in small, not clinically better effects for short term pain relief and small to moderate clinically better improvement in function.

In general, these results were similar for the intermediate and long term outcomes as were the effects of SMT as an adjuvant therapy.

Low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically better effect than sham SMT at one month. Additionally, very low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically better effect than sham SMT at six and 12 months. Low quality evidence suggested that SMT results in a moderate to strong statistically significant and clinically better effect than sham SMT at one month. Additionally, very low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically significant better effect than sham SMT at six and 12 months.

(Mean difference in reduction of pain at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months (0-100; 0=no pain, 100 maximum pain) for spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) versus recommended therapies in review of the effects of SMT for chronic low back pain. Pooled mean differences calculated by DerSimonian-Laird random effects model.)

About half of the studies examined adverse and serious adverse events, but in most of these it was unclear how and whether these events were registered systematically. Most of the observed adverse events were musculoskeletal related, transient in nature, and of mild to moderate severity. One study with a low risk of selection bias and powered to examine risk (n=183) found no increased risk of an adverse event or duration of the event compared with sham SMT. In one study, the Data Safety Monitoring Board judged one serious adverse event to be possibly related to SMT.

The authors concluded that SMT produces similar effects to recommended therapies for chronic low back pain, whereas SMT seems to be better than non-recommended interventions for improvement in function in the short term. Clinicians should inform their patients of the potential risks of adverse events associated with SMT.

This paper is currently being celebrated (mostly) by chiropractors who think that it vindicates their treatments as being both effective and safe. However, I am not sure that this is entirely true. Here are a few reasons for my scepticism:

  • SMT is as good as other recommended treatments for back problems – this may be so but, as no good treatment for back pain has yet been found, this really means is that SMT is as BAD as other recommended therapies.
  • If we have a handful of equally good/bad treatments, it stand to reason that we must use other criteria to identify the one that is best suited – criteria like safety and cost. If we do that, it becomes very clear that SMT cannot be named as the treatment of choice.
  • Less than half the RCTs reported adverse effects. This means that these studies were violating ethical standards of publication. I do not see how we can trust such deeply flawed trials.
  • Any adverse effects of SMT were minor, restricted to the short term and mainly centred on musculoskeletal effects such as soreness and stiffness – this is how some naïve chiro-promoters already comment on the findings of this review. In view of the fact that more than half the studies ‘forgot’ to report adverse events and that two serious adverse events did occur, this is a misleading and potentially dangerous statement and a good example how, in the world of chiropractic, research is often mistaken for marketing.
  • Less than half of the studies (45% (n=21/47)) used both an adequate sequence generation and an adequate allocation procedure.
  • Only 5 studies (10% (n=5/47)) attempted to blind patients to the assigned intervention by providing a sham treatment, while in one study it was unclear.
  • Only about half of the studies (57% (n=27/47)) provided an adequate overview of withdrawals or drop-outs and kept these to a minimum.
  • Crucially, this review produced no good evidence to show that SMT has effects beyond placebo. This means the modest effects emerging from some trials can be explained by being due to placebo.
  • The lead author of this review (SMR), a chiropractor, does not seem to be free of important conflicts of interest: SMR received personal grants from the European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU), the European Centre for Chiropractic Research Excellence (ECCRE), the Belgian Chiropractic Association (BVC) and the Netherlands Chiropractic Association (NCA) for his position at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He also received funding for a research project on chiropractic care for the elderly from the European Centre for Chiropractic Research and Excellence (ECCRE).
  • The second author (AdeZ) who also is a chiropractor received a grant from the European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU), for an independent study on the effects of SMT.

After carefully considering the new review, my conclusion is the same as stated often before: SMT is not supported by convincing evidence for back (or other) problems and does not qualify as the treatment of choice.

Osteopathic visceral manipulation (OVM) have been our subject several times before. The method has been developed by the French Osteopath and Physical Therapist Jean-Pierre Barral. According to uncounted Internet-sites, books and other promotional literature, OVM is a miracle cure for just about every disease imaginable. Most of us hearing such claims hear alarm bells ringing – rightly so, I think. The evidence for OVM is thin, to put it mildly. But now, there is a new study to consider.

Brazilian researchers designed a placebo-controlled study using placebo visceral manipulation as the control to evaluate the effect of OVM of the stomach and liver on pain, cervical mobility, and electromyographic activity of the upper trapezius (UT) muscle in individuals with nonspecific neck pain (NS-NP) and functional dyspepsia. Twenty-eight NS-NP patients were randomly assigned into two groups: treated with OVM (OVMG; n = 14) and treated with placebo visceral manipulation (PVMG; n = 14). The effects were evaluated immediately and 7 days after treatment through pain, cervical range, and electromyographic activity of the UT muscle.

Visceral manipulation techniques for stomach (a), liver (b), and placebo technique (c).

Visceral manipulation techniques for stomach (a), liver (b), and placebo technique (c).

Significant effects were confirmed immediately after treatment (OVMG and PVMG) for numeric rating scale scores and pain area. Significant increases in EMG amplitude were identified immediately and 7 days after treatment for the OVMG. No differences were identified between the OVMG and the PVMG for cervical range of motion.

The authors concluded that the results of this pilot study indicate that a single session of osteopathic visceral manipulation for the stomach and liver reduces cervical pain and increases the amplitude of the upper trapezius muscle EMG signal immediately and 7 days after treatment in patients with nonspecific neck pain and functional dyspepsia. Patients treated with placebo visceral mobilisation reported a significant decrease in pain immediately after treatment. The effect of this intervention on the cervical range of motion was inconclusive. The results of this study suggest that further investigation is necessary.

There are numerous problems with this study:

  • The authors call it a pilot study. Such a trial is for exploring the feasibility of a proper study. With the introduction of a placebo-OVM, this would make sense. The relevant question would then be: is the placebo valid and indistinguishable from the real thing? Sadly, this issue is not even addressed in the trial.
  • A pilot study certainly is not for evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention. Sadly, this is precisely what the authors used it for. The label ‘pilot’, it seems, was merely given to excuse the many methodological flaws of their trial.
  • For an evaluation of treatment effects, the study was far too small. This means the reported results can be discarded as meaningless.
  • If we nevertheless took them seriously, we would want to explain how the findings were generated. The authors believe that they were caused by OVM. I find this most unlikely.
  • The more plausible explanation would be that patient-blinding was unsuccessful. In other words, the placebo is not indistinguishable from the real OVM. Looking at the pictures above, one can easily see that the patients were able to tell to which group they had been allocated.
  • The failure to blind patients (and, of course, the therapists), in turn, would mean that the verum group were better motivated to out-perform the placebo group in the outcome measures.
  • Finally, I disagree with the authors’ view that the results of this study suggest that further investigation is necessary. On the contrary, I think that any further investment into OVM is ill-advised.

My conclusion: OVM is an implausible, non-evidence-based SCAM, and dodgy science is not going to make it look any more convincing.

Acupuncture is a branch of alternative medicine where pseudo-science abounds. Here is yet another example of this deplorable phenomenon.

This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of primary dysmenorrhea.

Sixty females aged 17-23 years were randomly assigned to either a study group or a control group.

  • The study group received acupuncture for the duration of 20 minutes/day, for 15 days/month, for the period of 90 days.
  • The control group did not receive acupuncture for the same period.

Both groups were assessed on day 1; day 30 and day 60; and day 90. The results showed a significant reduction in all the variables such as the visual analogue scale score for pain, menstrual cramps, headache, dizziness, diarrhoea, faint, mood changes, tiredness, nausea, and vomiting in the study group compared with those in the control group.

The authors concluded that acupuncture could be considered as an effective treatment modality for the management of primary dysmenorrhea.

These findings contradict those of a recent Cochrane review (authored by known acupuncture-proponents) which included 42 RCTs and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not acupuncture or acupressure are effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, and for most comparisons no data were available on adverse events. The quality of the evidence was low or very low for all comparisons. The main limitations were risk of bias, poor reporting, inconsistency and risk of publication bias.

The question that I ask myself is this: why do researchers bother to conduct studies that contribute NOTHING to our knowledge and progress? The new study had a no-treatment control group which means it cannot control for the effects of placebo, the extra attention, social desirability etc. In view of the fact that already 42 poor quality trials exist, it is not just useless to add a 43rd but, in my view, it is scandalous! A 43rd useless trial:

  • tells us nothing of value;
  • misleads the public;
  • pollutes the medical literature;
  • is a waste of resources;
  • undermines the trust in clinical research;
  • is deeply unethical.

It is high time to stop such redundant, foolish, wasteful and unethical pseudo-science.

 

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.

The aim of palliative care is to improve quality of life for patients with serious illnesses by treating their symptoms, often in situations where all the possible causative therapeutic options have been exhausted. In many palliative care settings, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is used for this purpose. In fact, this is putting it mildly; my impression is that CAM seems to have flooded palliative care. The question is therefore whether this approach is based on sufficiently good evidence.

This review was aimed at evaluating the available evidence on the use of CAM in hospice and palliative care and to summarize their potential benefits. The researchers conducted thorough literature searches and located 4682 studies of which 17 were identified for further evaluation. The therapies considered included:

  • acupressure,
  • acupuncture,
  • aromatherapy massage,
  • breathing,
  • hypnotherapy,
  • massage,
  • meditation,
  • music therapy,
  • reflexology,
  • reiki.

Many studies demonstrated a short-term benefit in symptom improvement from baseline with CAM, although a significant benefit was not found between groups.

The authors concluded that CAM may provide a limited short-term benefit in patients with symptom burden. Additional studies are needed to clarify the potential value of CAM in the hospice or palliative setting.

When reading research articles in CAM, I often have to ask myself: ARE THEY TAKING THE MIKEY?

??? “Many studies demonstrated a short-term benefit in symptom improvement from baseline with CAM, although a significant benefit was not found between groups.” ???

Really?!?!?

Controlled clinical trials are only about comparing the outcomes between the experimental and the control groups (and not about assessing improvements from baseline which can be [and often is] unrelated to any effect caused by the treatment per se). Therefore, within-group changes are irrelevant and should not even deserve a mention in the abstract. Thus the only finding worth reporting in the abstract is this:

No significant benefit was found.

It follows that the above conclusions are totally out of line with the data.

They should, according to what the researchers report in their abstract, read something like this:

CAM HAS NO PROVEN BENEFIT IN PALLIATIVE CARE. ITS USE IN THIS AREA IS THEREFORE HIGHLY PROBLEMATIC.

Can I tempt you to run a little (hopefully instructive) thought-experiment with you? It is quite simple: I will tell you about the design of a clinical trial, and you will tell me what the likely outcome of this study would be.

Are you game?

Here we go:

_____________________________________________________________________________

Imagine we conduct a trial of acupuncture for persistent pain (any type of pain really). We want to find out whether acupuncture is more than a placebo when it comes to pain-control. Of course, we want our trial to look as rigorous as possible. So, we design it as a randomised, sham-controlled, partially-blinded study. To be really ‘cutting edge’, our study will not have two but three parallel groups:

1. Standard needle acupuncture administered according to a protocol recommended by a team of expert acupuncturists.

2. Minimally invasive sham-acupuncture employing shallow needle insertion using short needles at non-acupuncture points. Patients in groups 1 and 2 are blinded, i. e. they are not supposed to know whether they receive the sham or real acupuncture.

3. No treatment at all.

We apply the treatments for a sufficiently long time, say 12 weeks. Before we start, after 6 and 12 weeks, we measure our patients’ pain with a validated method. We use sound statistical methods to compare the outcomes between the three groups.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE RESULT WOULD BE?

You are not sure?

Well, let me give you some hints:

Group 3 is not going to do very well; not only do they receive no therapy at all, but they are also disappointed to have ended up in this group as they joined the study in the hope to get acupuncture. Therefore, they will (claim to) feel a lot of pain.

Group 2 will be pleased to receive some treatment. However, during the course of the 6 weeks, they will get more and more suspicious. As they were told during the process of obtaining informed consent that the trial entails treating some patients with a sham/placebo, they are bound to ask themselves whether they ended up in this group. They will see the short needles and the shallow needling, and a percentage of patients from this group will doubtlessly suspect that they are getting the sham treatment. The doubters will not show a powerful placebo response. Therefore, the average pain scores in this group will decrease – but only a little.

Group 1 will also be pleased to receive some treatment. As the therapists cannot be blinded, they will do their best to meet the high expectations of their patients. Consequently, they will benefit fully from the placebo effect of the intervention and the pain score of this group will decrease significantly.

So, now we can surely predict the most likely result of this trial without even conducting it. Assuming that acupuncture is a placebo-therapy, as many people do, we now see that group 3 will suffer the most pain. In comparison, groups 1 and 2 will show better outcomes.

Of course, the main question is, how do groups 1 and 2 compare to each other? After all, we designed our sham-controlled trial in order to answer exactly this issue: is acupuncture more than a placebo? As pointed out above, some patients in group 2 would have become suspicious and therefore would not have experienced the full placebo-response. This means that, provided the sample sizes are sufficiently large, there should be a significant difference between these two groups favouring real acupuncture over sham. In other words, our trial will conclude that acupuncture is better than placebo, even if acupuncture is a placebo.

THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS THOUGHT EXPERIMENT WITH ME.

Now I can tell you that it has a very real basis. The leading medical journal, JAMA, just published such a study and, to make matters worse, the trial was even sponsored by one of the most prestigious funding agencies: the NIH.

Here is the abstract:

___________________________________________________________________________

Musculoskeletal symptoms are the most common adverse effects of aromatase inhibitors and often result in therapy discontinuation. Small studies suggest that acupuncture may decrease aromatase inhibitor-related joint symptoms.

Objective:

To determine the effect of acupuncture in reducing aromatase inhibitor-related joint pain.

Design, Setting, and Patients:

Randomized clinical trial conducted at 11 academic centers and clinical sites in the United States from March 2012 to February 2017 (final date of follow-up, September 5, 2017). Eligible patients were postmenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer who were taking an aromatase inhibitor and scored at least 3 on the Brief Pain Inventory Worst Pain (BPI-WP) item (score range, 0-10; higher scores indicate greater pain).

Interventions:

Patients were randomized 2:1:1 to the true acupuncture (n = 110), sham acupuncture (n = 59), or waitlist control (n = 57) group. True acupuncture and sham acupuncture protocols consisted of 12 acupuncture sessions over 6 weeks (2 sessions per week), followed by 1 session per week for 6 weeks. The waitlist control group did not receive any intervention. All participants were offered 10 acupuncture sessions to be used between weeks 24 and 52.

Main Outcomes and Measures:

The primary end point was the 6-week BPI-WP score. Mean 6-week BPI-WP scores were compared by study group using linear regression, adjusted for baseline pain and stratification factors (clinically meaningful difference specified as 2 points).

Results:

Among 226 randomized patients (mean [SD] age, 60.7 [8.6] years; 88% white; mean [SD] baseline BPI-WP score, 6.6 [1.5]), 206 (91.1%) completed the trial. From baseline to 6 weeks, the mean observed BPI-WP score decreased by 2.05 points (reduced pain) in the true acupuncture group, by 1.07 points in the sham acupuncture group, and by 0.99 points in the waitlist control group. The adjusted difference for true acupuncture vs sham acupuncture was 0.92 points (95% CI, 0.20-1.65; P = .01) and for true acupuncture vs waitlist control was 0.96 points (95% CI, 0.24-1.67; P = .01). Patients in the true acupuncture group experienced more grade 1 bruising compared with patients in the sham acupuncture group (47% vs 25%; P = .01).

Conclusions and Relevance:

Among postmenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer and aromatase inhibitor-related arthralgias, true acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture or with waitlist control resulted in a statistically significant reduction in joint pain at 6 weeks, although the observed improvement was of uncertain clinical importance.

__________________________________________________________________________

Do you see how easy it is to deceive (almost) everyone with a trial that looks rigorous to (almost) everyone?

My lesson from all this is as follows: whether consciously or unconsciously, SCAM-researchers often build into their trials more or less well-hidden little loopholes that ensure they generate a positive outcome. Thus even a placebo can appear to be effective. They are true masters of producing false-positive findings which later become part of a meta-analysis which is, of course, equally false-positive. It is a great shame, in my view, that even top journals (in the above case JAMA) and prestigious funders (in the above case the NIH) cannot (or want not to?) see behind this type of trickery.

Having yesterday been to a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event on MEDITATION in Cambridge (my home town since last year) I had to think about the subject quite a bit. As I have hardly covered this topic on my blog, I am today trying to briefly summarise my view on it.

The first thing that strikes me when looking at the evidence on meditation is that it is highly confusing. There seem to be:

  • a lack of clear definitions,
  • hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality,
  • lots of people with ’emotional baggage’,
  • plenty of strange links to cults and religions,
  • dozens of different meditation methods and regimen,
  • unbelievable claims by enthusiasts,
  • lots of weirdly enthusiastic followers.

What was confirmed yesterday is the fact that, once we look at the reliable medical evidence, we are bound to find that the health claims of various meditation techniques are hugely exaggerated. There is almost no strong evidence to suggest that meditation does affect any condition. The small effects that do emerge from some meta-analyses could easily be due to residual bias and confounding; it is not possible to rigorously control for placebo effects in clinical trials of meditation.

Another thing that came out clearly yesterday is the fact that meditation might not be as risk-free as it is usually presented. Several cases of psychoses after meditation are on record; some of these are both severe and log-lasting. How often do they happen? Nobody knows! Like with most alternative therapies, there is no reporting system in place that could possibly give us anything like a reliable answer.

For me, however, the biggest danger with (certain forms of) meditation is not the risk of psychosis. It is the risk of getting sucked into a cult that then takes over the victim and more or less destroys his or her personality. I have seen this several times, and it is a truly frightening phenomenon.

In our now 10-year-old book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we included a chapter on meditation. It concluded that “meditation appears to be safe for most people and those with sufficient motivation to practise regularly will probably find a relaxing experience. Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Even today, this is not far off the mark, I think. If I had to re-write it now, I would perhaps mention the potential for harm and also add that, as a therapy, the risk/benefit balance of meditation fails to be convincingly positive. 

PS

I highly recommend ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events to anyone who likes stimulating talks and critical thinking.

I stumbled over an article entitled ‘The myths of homeopathy: Resounding answers‘. I thought it was great fun, so much so, that I copied it below – not just once but twice. The second time I took the liberty of replacing the little porkies told by homeopaths with the truth.

THE ORIGINAL

Homeopathic medicines are not placebos! Little “pellets” of sugar cannot have an effect!

Of course, the sugar in homeopathic pellets doesn’t have any effect. This is why we also have tablets and drops that contain homeopathic active substances.

The sugar is simply a medium for these active substances. The important element is what has been added to the sugar – the active ingredient!

As homeopathic remedies have very slow action, they cannot be used to treat acute illnesses!

This is incorrect. You can successfully use homeopathy in acute circumstances such as infections, fevers and colds.

Homeopathy seems to be a kind of magic!

Homeopathy is not magic! Homeopathy is a field of medicine that has the capacity to heal, but if course, it has its limits, just like any other medicine, including conventional medicine.

To give you a clear example – it’s unlikely that homeopathy will replace a surgical intervention.

During homeopathic treatment you have to follow a strict diet!

Well, it’s not such a bad thing…but of course, you need to eat healthily and avoid smoking, drinking alcohol and coffee.

In some cases you can’t eat onion or garlic as they contain sulphur, which is a homeopathic remedy in itself. All of these things have little to do with a strict diet.

Diabetes sufferers can’t use homeopathic remedies!

This is not true. The amount of sugar in the pellets is negligible. These homeopathic pellets could even be taken on a daily basis. The foods we eat contain much more sugar, even those that are especially for diabetics.

MY CORRECTED VERSION

Homeopathic medicines are not placebos! Little “pellets” of sugar cannot have an effect!

Of course, the sugar in homeopathic pellets doesn’t have any effect. And the drops added also contain no active substances.

In other words, there is no active ingredient!

As homeopathic remedies have very slow action, they cannot be used to treat acute illnesses!

This is correct. You cannot successfully use homeopathy in acute circumstances such as infections, fevers and colds. In fact, you cannot use it to cure any condition, chronic or acute.

Homeopathy seems to be a kind of magic!

Homeopathy is not magic! It relies on the placebo and other non-specific effects, and that is no magic.

During homeopathic treatment you have to follow a strict diet!

Hahnemann gave very clear instructions to avoid a whole range of things while taking homeopathic remedies – otherwise, they don’t work, he claimed. This is as wrong as everything else Hahnemann said about homeopathy: these remedies don’t work whatever you do.

Diabetes sufferers can’t use homeopathic remedies!

This is not true. The amount of sugar in the pellets is negligible. These homeopathic pellets could even be taken on a daily basis. The foods we eat contain much more sugar, even those that are especially for diabetics. But that does, of course, not mean that diabetics ought to take homeopathic remedies. There is no reason why they should; these remedies are pure placebos.

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Few people reading these lines will be surprised that the ‘resounding answers’ turn out to be resounding lies. And what I above called ‘great fun’, turns out to be a serious deception.

The fascinating thing here is, I think, the way homeopaths try to mislead the public: one seemingly innocent untruth about the ‘active substance’ is used as the basis for an entire house of cards. It tumbles at the slightest attempt to provide the facts. Sadly, many consumers do not know the facts and are therefore prone to fall victim of these resounding lies.

There is perhaps not a law against such lies, but there certainly are moral and ethical principles that must not be violated:

TELLING LIES OF THIS NATURE IS UNETHICAL AND ENDANGERS THE HEALTH OF THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW THE FACTS.

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