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

pseudo-science

The only time we discussed gua sha, it led to one of the most prolonged discussions we ever had on this blog (536 comments so far). It seems to be a topic that excites many. But what precisely is it?

Gua sha, sometimes referred to as “scraping”, “spooning” or “coining”, is a traditional Chinese treatment that has spread to several other Asian countries. It has long been popular in Vietnam and is now also becoming well-known in the West. The treatment consists of scraping the skin with a smooth edge placed against the pre-oiled skin surface, pressed down firmly, and then moved downwards along muscles or meridians. According to its proponents, gua sha stimulates the flow of the vital energy ‘chi’ and releases unhealthy bodily matter from blood stasis within sore, tired, stiff or injured muscle areas.

The technique is practised by TCM practitioners, acupuncturists, massage therapists, physical therapists, physicians and nurses. Practitioners claim that it stimulates blood flow to the treated areas, thus promoting cell metabolism, regeneration and healing. They also assume that it has anti-inflammatory effects and stimulates the immune system.

These effects are said to last for days or weeks after a single treatment. The treatment causes microvascular injuries which are visible as subcutaneous bleeding and redness. Gua sha practitioners make far-reaching therapeutic claims, including that the therapy alleviates pain, prevents infections, treats asthma, detoxifies the body, cures liver problems, reduces stress, and contributes to overall health.

Gua sha is mildly painful, almost invariably leads to unsightly blemishes on the skin which occasionally can become infected and might even be mistaken for physical abuse.

There is little research of gua sha, and the few trials that exist tend to be published in Chinese. But recently, a new paper has emerged that is written in English. The goal of this systematic review was to evaluate the available evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of gua sha for the treatment of patients with perimenopausal syndrome.

A total of 6 RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Most were of low methodological quality. When compared with Western medicine therapy alone, meta-analysis of 5 RCTs indicated favorable statistically significant effects of gua sha plus Western medicine. Moreover, study participants who received Gua Sha therapy plus Western medicine therapy showed significantly greater improvements in serum levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH) compared to participants in the Western medicine therapy group.

The authors concluded that preliminary evidence supported the hypothesis that Gua Sha therapy effectively improved the treatment efficacy in patients with perimenopausal syndrome. Additional studies will be required to elucidate optimal frequency and dosage of Gua Sha.

This sounds as though gua sha is a reasonable therapy.

Yet, I think this notion is worth being critically analysed. Here are some caveats that spring into my mind:

  • Gua sha lacks biological plausibility.
  • The reviewed trials are too flawed to allow any firm conclusions.
  • As most are published in Chinese, non-Chinese speakers have no possibility to evaluate them.
  • The studies originate from China where close to 100% of TCM trials report positive results.
  • In my view, this means they are less than trustworthy.
  • The authors of the above-cited review are all from China and might not be willing, able or allowed to publish a critical paper on this subject.
  • The review was published in , a journal not known for its high scientific standards or critical stance towards TCM.

So, is gua sha a reasonable therapy?

I let you make this judgement.

Is homeopathy effective for specific conditions? The FACULTY OF HOMEOPATHY (FoH, the professional organisation of UK doctor homeopaths) say YES. In support of this bold statement, they cite a total of 35 systematic reviews of homeopathy with a focus on specific clinical areas. “Nine of these 35 reviews presented conclusions that were positive for homeopathy”, they claim. Here they are:

Allergies and upper respiratory tract infections 8,9
Childhood diarrhoea 10
Post-operative ileus 11
Rheumatic diseases 12
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) 13–15
Vertigo 16

And here are the references (I took the liberty of adding my comments in blod):

8. Bornhöft G, Wolf U, Ammon K, et al. Effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of homeopathy in general practice – summarized health technology assessment. Forschende Komplementärmedizin, 2006; 13 Suppl 2: 19–29.

This is the infamous ‘Swiss report‘ which, nowadays, only homeopaths take seriously.

9. Bellavite P, Ortolani R, Pontarollo F, et al. Immunology and homeopathy. 4. Clinical studies – Part 1. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2006; 3: 293–301.

This is not a systematic review as it lacks any critical assessment of the primary data and includes observational studies and even case series.

10. Jacobs J, Jonas WB, Jimenez-Perez M, Crothers D. Homeopathy for childhood diarrhea: combined results and metaanalysis from three randomized, controlled clinical trials. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 2003; 22: 229–234.

This is a meta-analysis by Jennifer Jacobs (who recently featured on this blog) of 3 studies by Jennifer Jacobs; hardly convincing I’d say.

11. Barnes J, Resch K-L, Ernst E. Homeopathy for postoperative ileus? A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 1997; 25: 628–633.

This is my own paper! It concluded that “several caveats preclude a definitive judgment.”

12. Jonas WB, Linde K, Ramirez G. Homeopathy and rheumatic disease. Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, 2000; 26: 117–123.

This is not a systematic review; here is the (unabridged) abstract:

Despite a growing interest in uncovering the basic mechanisms of arthritis, medical treatment remains symptomatic. Current medical treatments do not consistently halt the long-term progression of these diseases, and surgery may still be needed to restore mechanical function in large joints. Patients with rheumatic syndromes often seek alternative therapies, with homeopathy being one of the most frequent. Homeopathy is one of the most frequently used complementary therapies worldwide.

Proper systematic reviews fail to show that homeopathy is an effective treatment for rheumatic conditions (see for instance here and here).

13. Wiesenauer M, Lüdtke R. A meta-analysis of the homeopathic treatment of pollinosis with Galphimia glauca. Forschende Komplementärmedizin und Klassische Naturheilkunde, 1996; 3: 230–236.

This is a meta-analysis by Wiesenauer of trials conducted by Wiesenauer.

My own, more recent analysis of these data arrived at a considerably less favourable conclusion: “… three of the four currently available placebo-controlled RCTs of homeopathic Galphimia glauca (GG) suggest this therapy is an effective symptomatic treatment for hay fever. There are, however, important caveats. Most essentially, independent replication would be required before GG can be considered for the routine treatment of hay fever. (Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies September 2011 16(3))

14. Taylor MA, Reilly D, Llewellyn-Jones RH, et al. Randomised controlled trials of homoeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial series. British Medical Journal, 2000; 321: 471–476.

This is a meta-analysis by David Reilly of 4 RCTs which were all conducted by David Reilly. This attracted heavy criticism; see here and here, for instance.

15. Bellavite P, Ortolani R, Pontarollo F, et al. Immunology and homeopathy. 4. Clinical studies – Part 2. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2006; 3: 397–409.

This is not a systematic review as it lacks any critical assessment of the primary data and includes observational studies and even case series.

16. Schneider B, Klein P, Weiser M. Treatment of vertigo with a homeopathic complex remedy compared with usual treatments: a meta-analysis of clinical trials. Arzneimittelforschung, 2005; 55: 23–29.

This is a meta-analysis of 2 (!) RCTs and 2 observational studies of ‘Vertigoheel’, a preparation which is not a homeopathic but a homotoxicologic remedy (it does not follow the ‘like cures like’ assumption of homeopathy) . Moreover, this product contains pharmacologically active substances (and nobody doubts that active substances can have effects).

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So, positive evidence from 9 systematic reviews in 6 specific clinical areas?

I let you answer this question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The HRI is an innovative international charity created to address the need for high quality scientific research in homeopathy… HRI is dedicated to promoting cutting research in homeopathy, using the most rigorous methods available, and communicating the results of such work beyond the usual academic circles… HRI aims to bring academically reliable information to a wide international audience, in an easy to understand form. This audience includes the general public, scientists, healthcare providers, healthcare policy makers, government and the media.

This sounds absolutely brilliant!

I should be a member of the HRI!

For years, I have pursued similar aims!

Hold on, perhaps not?

This article makes me wonder:

START OF QUOTE

… By the end of 2014, 189 randomised controlled trials of homeopathy on 100 different medical conditions had been published in peer-reviewed journals. Of these, 104 papers were placebo-controlled and were eligible for detailed review:
41% were positive (43 trials) – finding that homeopathy was effective
5% were negative (5 trials) – finding that homeopathy was ineffective
54% were inconclusive (56 trials)

How does this compare with evidence for conventional medicine?

An analysis of 1016 systematic reviews of RCTs of conventional medicine had strikingly similar findings2:
44% were positive – the treatments were likely to be beneficial
7% were negative – the treatments were likely to be harmful
49% were inconclusive – the evidence did not support either benefit or harm.

END OF QUOTE

The implication here is that the evidence base for homeopathy is strikingly similar to that of real medicine.

Nice try! But sadly it has nothing to do with ‘reliable information’!!!

In fact, it is grossly (and I suspect deliberately) misleading.

Regular readers of this blog will have spotted the reason, because we discussed (part of) it before. Let me remind you:

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A clinical trial is a research tool for testing hypotheses; strictly speaking, it tests the ‘null-hypothesis’: “the experimental treatment generates the same outcomes as the treatment of the control group”. If the trial shows no difference between the outcomes of the two groups, the null-hypothesis is confirmed. In this case, we commonly speak of a negative result. If the experimental treatment was better than the control treatment, the null-hypothesis is rejected, and we commonly speak of a positive result. In other words, clinical trials can only generate positive or negative results, because the null-hypothesis must either be confirmed or rejected – there are no grey tones between the black of a negative and the white of a positive study.

For enthusiasts of alternative medicine, this can create a dilemma, particularly if there are lots of published studies with negative results. In this case, the totality of the available trial evidence is negative which means the treatment in question cannot be characterised as effective. It goes without saying that such an overall conclusion rubs the proponents of that therapy the wrong way. Consequently, they might look for ways to avoid this scenario.

One fairly obvious way of achieving this aim is to simply re-categorise the results. What, if we invented a new category? What, if we called some of the negative studies by a different name? What about INCONCLUSIVE?

That would be brilliant, wouldn’t it. We might end up with a simple statistic where the majority of the evidence is, after all, positive. And this, of course, would give the impression that the ineffective treatment in question is effective!

How exactly do we do this? We continue to call positive studies POSITIVE; we then call studies where the experimental treatment generated worst results than the control treatment (usually a placebo) NEGATIVE; and finally we call those studies where the experimental treatment created outcomes which were not different from placebo INCONCLUSIVE.

In the realm of alternative medicine, this ‘non-conclusive result’ method has recently become incredibly popular . Take homeopathy, for instance. The Faculty of Homeopathy proudly claim the following about clinical trials of homeopathy: Up to the end of 2011, there have been 164 peer-reviewed papers reporting randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy. This represents research in 89 different medical conditions. Of those 164 RCT papers, 71 (43%) were positive, 9 (6%) negative and 80 (49%) non-conclusive.

This misleading nonsense was, of course, warmly received by homeopaths. The British Homeopathic Association, like many other organisations and individuals with an axe to grind lapped up the message and promptly repeated it: The body of evidence that exists shows that much more investigation is required – 43% of all the randomised controlled trials carried out have been positive, 6% negative and 49% inconclusive.

Let’s be clear what has happened here: the true percentage figures seem to show that 43% of studies (mostly of poor quality) suggest a positive result for homeopathy, while 57% of them (on average the ones of better quality) were negative. In other words, the majority of this evidence is negative. If we conducted a proper systematic review of this body of evidence, we would, of course, have to account for the quality of each study, and in this case we would have to conclude that homeopathy is not supported by sound evidence of effectiveness.

The little trick of applying the ‘INCONCLUSIVE’ method has thus turned this overall result upside down: black has become white! No wonder that it is so popular with proponents of all sorts of bogus treatments.

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But one trick is not enough for the HRI! For thoroughly misinforming the public they have a second one up their sleeve.

And that is ‘comparing apples with pears’  – RCTs with systematic reviews, in their case.

In contrast to RCTs, systematic reviews can be (and often are) INCONCLUSIVE. As they evaluate the totality of all RCTs on a given subject, it is possible that some RCTs are positive, while others are negative. When, for example, the number of high-quality, positive studies included in a systematic review is similar to the number of high-quality, negative trials, the overall result of that review would be INCONCLUSIVE. And this is one of the reasons why the findings of systematic reviews cannot be compared in this way to those of RCTs.

I suspect that the people at the HRI know all this. They are not daft! In fact, they are quite clever. But unfortunately, they seem to employ their cleverness not for informing but for misleading their ‘wide international audience’.

Canadian naturopaths are reported to be under investigation for practising and promoting ‘CEASE’. It might be worth therefore, to explain what this treatment amounts to.

The name ‘CEASE’ is the abbreviation of Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression. Here are 7 points that are, I think, relevant:

  1. CEASE therapy was developed by Dr Tinus Smits (1946-2010) in the Netherlands. Smits had practised as a lay-homeopath for many years before he decided to study medicine.
  2. Smits became convinced that autism is caused by a child’s exposure to an accumulation of toxic substances and published several books about his theory.
  3. In his experience (as far as I can see, Smits never published a single scientific paper in the peer-reviewed literature) autism is caused by an accumulation of different toxins. About 70% is due to vaccines, 25% to toxic medication and other toxic substances, 5% to some diseases.
  4. According to the ‘like cures like’ principle of homeopathy, Smits claimed that autism must be cured by applying homeopathic doses of the substances which caused autism. Step by step all assumed causative factors (vaccines, regular medication, environmental toxic exposures, effects of illness, etc.) are detoxified with the homeopathically prepared substances that has been administered prior to the onset of autism. Smits and his followers believe that this procedure clears out the “energetic field of the patient from the imprint of toxic substances or diseases”.
  5. One problem with this concept is that it flies in the face of science. There is no reason to believe that autism is caused by the exposure to toxins. In fact, CEASE turns out to be a layered monster of bogus assumption. The first layer is a false theory of the pathogenesis of autism; the second is the ‘like cures like’ myth of homeopathy; the third is the notion that ‘potentisation’ (dilution for you and me) renders substances not less but more potent; the fourth is the nonsensical concept of detoxification.
  6. Another, perhaps even more important problem is that there is no evidence that the CEASE therapy is clinically effective.
  7. Despite all this, many homeopaths and naturopaths have enthusiastically adopted the CEASE therapy, and some have discovered that there is money in running courses and awarding diplomas. Alerted to this abuse by concerned consumers, the UK Professional Standards Authority recently forced the UK ‘Society of Homeopaths’ to issue a statement saying: A number of Society members have been trained in CEASE and make reference to it in their marketing. While this is acceptable, members should be aware the title, meaning ‘Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression’ is misleading. RSHoms must not suggest that they are capable of a complete cure of autism as this would be unethical and in breach of the Code of Ethics. The Society does not endorse any aspects of CEASE therapy contrary to NHS guidance and nor should RSHoms. In particular on vaccination, homeopathic prophylaxis, and the use of dietary supplements. It is beyond standard homeopathic practice to provide advice on the use of supplements and therefore any guidance given should be in line with the NHS Guidelines. The Society expects its members to comply with its Code of Ethics and statements on vaccination and homeopathic prophylaxis at all times, and any breaches may be treated as disciplinary matters. In order to ensure patient safety and In line with our guidelines, we will check the websites and marketing of all our members on a regular basis to ensure they are adhering to this statement. (Personally I find it astonishing that the SoH seems to declare CEASE ‘acceptable’.)

PS

In case you are interested to consider the arguments from a proponent (one of the Canadian naturopaths who are currently under investigation for practising CEASE), read this article: https://www.drzimmermann.org/blog-vaccines-homeopathy-autism-cease-therapy/cease-therapy-misconceptions-and-truths

Remember when an international delegation of homeopaths travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola?

Virologists and other experts thought at the time that this was pure madness. But, from the perspective of dedicated homeopaths who have gone through ‘proper’ homeopathic ‘education’ and have the misfortune to believe all the nonsense they have been told, this is not madness. In fact, the early boom of homeopathy, about 200 years ago, was based not least on the seemingly resounding success homeopaths had during various epidemics.

I fully understand that homeopath adore this type of evidence – it is good for their ego! And therefore, they tend to dwell on it and re-hash it time and again. The most recent evidence for this is a brand-new article entitled ‘Homeopathic Prevention and Management of Epidemic Diseases’. It is such a beauty that I present you the original abstract without change:

START OF QUOTE

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Homeopathy has been used to treat epidemic diseases since the time of Hahnemann, who used Belladonna to treat scarlet fever. Since then, several approaches using homeopathy for epidemic diseases have been proposed, including individualization, combination remedies, genus epidemicus, and isopathy.

METHODS:

The homeopathic research literature was searched to find examples of each of these approaches and to evaluate which were effective.

RESULTS:

There is good experimental evidence for each of these approaches. While individualization is the gold standard, it is impractical to use on a widespread basis. Combination remedies can be effective but must be based on the symptoms of a given epidemic in a specific location. Treatment with genus epidemicus can also be successful if based on data from many practitioners. Finally, isopathy shows promise and might be more readily accepted by mainstream medicine due to its similarity to vaccination.

CONCLUSION:

Several different homeopathic methods can be used to treat epidemic diseases. The challenge for the future is to refine these approaches and to build on the knowledge base with additional rigorous trials. If and when conventional medicine runs out of options for treating epidemic diseases, homeopathy could be seen as an attractive alternative, but only if there is viable experimental evidence of its success.

END OF QUOTE

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I don’t need to stress, I think, that such articles are highly irresponsible and frightfully dangerous: if anyone ever took the message that homeopathy has the answer to epidemic seriously, millions might die.

The reasons why epidemiological evidence of this nature is wrong has been discussed before on this blog; I therefore only need to repeat them:

In the typical epidemiological case/control study, one large group of patients [A] is retrospectively compared to another group [B]. In our case, group A has been treated homeopathically, while group B received the treatments available at the time. It is true that several of such reports seemed to suggest that homeopathy works. But this does by no means prove anything; the result might have been due to a range of circumstances, for instance:

  • group A might have been less ill than group B,
  • group A might have been richer and therefore better nourished,
  • group A might have benefitted from better hygiene in the homeopathic hospital,
  • group A might have received better care, e. g. hydration,
  • group B might have received treatments that made the situation not better but worse.

Because these are RETROSPECTIVE studies, there is no way to account for these and many other factors that might have influenced the outcome. This means that epidemiological studies of this nature can generate interesting results which, in turn, need testing in properly controlled studies where these confounding factors are adequately controlled for. Without such tests, they are next to worthless for recommendations regarding clinical practice.

In essence, this means that epidemiological evidence of this type can be valuable for generating hypotheses which, in turn, need testing in rigorous clinical trials. Without these tests, the evidence can be dangerously misleading.

But, of course, Jennifer Jacobs, the author of the new article, knows all this – after all, she has been employed for many years by the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States!

In this case, why does she re-hash the old myth of homeopathy being the answer to epidemics?

I do not know the answer to this question, but I do know that she is a convinced homeopath with plenty of papers on the subject.

And what sort of journal would publish such dangerous, deeply unethical rubbish?

It is a journal we have discussed several before; its called HOMEOPATHY.

This journal is, I think, remarkable: not even homeopaths would deny that homeopathy is a most controversial subject. One would therefore expect that the editorial board of the leading journal of homeopathy (Impact Factor = 1.16) has a few members who are critical of homeopathy and its assumptions. Yet, I fail to spot a single such person of the board of HOMEOPATHY. Please have a look yourself and tell me, if you can identify such an individual:

Editor

Peter Fisher
FRCP, FFHom, London, UK

Senior Deputy Editor

Robert T. Mathie
BSc (Hons), PhD, London, UK

Deputy Editors

Leoni Bonamin
Paulista University, São Paulo, Brazil

Menachem Oberbaum
Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel

Ethics Adviser

Kate Chatfield
University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

Editorial Advisory Board

Cees Baas
Centre for Integrative Psychiatry, Groningen, The Netherlands

Stephan Baumgartner
University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany

Iris R. Bell
University of Arizona, USA

Jayesh Bellare
Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India

Philippe Belon
Centre de Recherche et de Documentation Thérapeutique, France

Brian Berman
University of Maryland, School of Medicine, USA

Martien Brands
Centre for Integrative Care, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Michael Carlston
University of California, Santa Rosa, USA

Kusum S. Chand
Pushpanjali Crosslay Hospital, Ghaziabad, India

Martin Chaplin
London South Bank University, UK

Flávio Dantas
University of Uberlândia, Brazil

Peter Darby
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

Jonathan Davidson
Duke University, USA

Jean-Louis Demangeat
Haguenau Hospital, France

Christian Endler
Interuniversity College Graz/Castle of Seggau, Austria

Madeleine Ennis
Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Edoardo Felisi
Milan, Italy

Peter Gregory
Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

German Guajardo-Bernal
University of Baja California, Mexico

Carla Holandino Quaresma
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Jennifer Jacobs
University of Washington, USA

Wayne Jonas
Samueli Institute, Alexandria, USA

Lee Kayne
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

Steven Kayne
Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, UK

David Lilley
Pretoria, South Africa

Klaus Linde
Technical University, Munich, Germany

Russell Malcolm
Faculty of Homeopathy, UK

Raj K. Manchanda
Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, New Delhi, India

David Peters
University of Westminster, London, UK

Bernard Poitevin
Association Française pour la Recherche en Homéopathie, France

David Reilly
Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, UK

David Riley
Integrative Medicine Institute, Portland, USA

ALB Rutten
Breda, The Netherlands

Jürgen Schulte
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

Trevor Thompson
University of Bristol, UK

André Thurneysen
Centre de médecines intégrées, Switzerland

Alexander Tournier
Homeopathy Research Institute, UK

Francis Treuherz
London, UK

Robbert van Haselen
International Institute for Integrated Medicine, Kingston, UK

Michel Van Wassenhoven
Unio Homeopathica Belgica, Belgium

Harald Walach
University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany

Fred Wiegant
University of Utrecht, The Netherlands

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I rest my case.

 

THE CONVERSATION recently carried an article shamelessly promoting osteopathy. It seems to originate from the University of Swansea, UK, and is full of bizarre notions. Here is an excerpt:

To find out more about how osteopathy could potentially affect mental health, at our university health and well-being academy, we have recently conducted one of the first studies on the psychological impact of OMT – with positive results.

For the last five years, therapists at the academy have been using OMT to treat members of the public who suffer from a variety of musculoskeletal disorders which have led to chronic pain. To find out more about the mental health impacts of the treatment, we looked at three points in time – before OMT treatment, after the first week of treatment, and after the second week of treatment – and asked patients how they felt using mental health questionnaires.

This data has shown that OMT is effective for reducing anxiety and psychological distress, as well as improving patient self-care. But it may not be suitable for all mental illnesses associated with chronic pain. For instance, we found that OMT was less effective for depression and fear avoidance.

All is not lost, though. Our results also suggested that the positive psychological effects of OMT could be further optimised by combining it with therapy approaches like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Some research indicates that psychological problems such as anxiety and depression are associated with inflexibility, and lead to experiential avoidance. ACT has a positive effect at reducing experiential avoidance, so may be useful with reducing the fear avoidance and depression (which OMT did not significantly reduce).

Other researchers have also suggested that this combined approach may be useful for some subgroups receiving OMT where they may accept this treatment. And, further backing this idea up, there has already been at least one pilot clinical trial and a feasibility study which have used ACT and OMT with some success.

Looking to build on our positive results, we have now begun to develop our ACT treatment in the academy, to be combined with the osteopathic therapy already on offer. Though there will be a different range of options, one of these ACT therapies is psychoeducational in nature. It does not require an active therapist to work with the patient, and can be delivered through internet instruction videos and homework exercises, for example.

Looking to the future, this kind of low cost, broad healthcare could not only save the health service money if rolled out nationwide but would also mean that patients only have to undergo one treatment.

END OF QUOTE

So, they recruited a few patients who had come to receive osteopathic treatments (a self-selected population full of expectation and in favour of osteopathy), let them fill a few questionnaires and found some positive changes. From that, they conclude that OMT (osteopathic manipulative therapy) is effective. Not only that, they advocate that OMT is rolled out nationwide to save NHS funds.

Vis a vis so much nonsense, I am (almost) speechless!

As this comes not from some commercial enterprise but from a UK university, the nonsense is intolerable, I find.

Do I even need to point out what is wrong with it?

Not really, it’s too obvious.

But, just in case some readers struggle to find the fatal flaws of this ‘study’, let me mention just the most obvious one. There was no control group! That means the observed outcome could be due to many factors that are totally unrelated to OMT – such as placebo-effect, regression towards the mean, natural history of the condition, concomitant treatments, etc. In turn, this also means that the nationwide rolling out of their approach would most likely be a costly mistake.

The general adoption of OMT would of course please osteopaths a lot; it could even reduce anxiety – but only that of the osteopaths and their bank-managers, I am afraid.

One thing one cannot say about George Vithoulkas, the ueber-guru of homeopathy, is that he is not as good as his word. Last year, he announced that he would focus on publishing case reports that would convince us all that homeopathy is effective:

…the only evidence that homeopathy can present to the scientific world at this moment are these thousands of cured cases. It is a waste of time, money, and energy to attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy through double blind trials.

… the international “scientific” community, which has neither direct perception nor personal experience of the beneficial effects of homeopathy, is forced to repeat the same old mantra: “Where is the evidence? Show us the evidence!” … the successes of homeopathy have remained hidden in the offices of hardworking homeopaths – and thus go largely ignored by the world’s medical authorities, governments, and the whole international scientific community…

… simple questions that are usually asked by the “gnorant”, for example, “Can homeopathy cure cancer, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, etc.?” are invalid and cannot elicit a direct answer because the reality is that many such cases can be ameliorated significantly, and a number can be cured…

And focussing on successful cases is just what the great Vithoulkas now does.

Together with homeopaths from the  Centre for Classical Homeopathy, Vijayanagar, Bangalore, India, Vithoulkas has recently published a retrospective case series of 10 Indian patients who were diagnosed with dengue fever and treated exclusively with homeopathic remedies at Bangalore, India. This case series demonstrates with evidence of laboratory reports that even when the platelets dropped considerably there was good result without resorting to any other means.

The homeopaths concluded that a need for further, larger studies is indicated by this evidence, to precisely define the role of homeopathy in treating dengue fever. This study also emphasises the importance of individualised treatment during an epidemic for favourable results with homeopathy.

Bravo!

Keeping one’s promise must be a good thing.

But how meaningful are these 10 cases?

Dengue is a viral infection which, in the vast majority of cases, takes a benign course. After about two weeks, patients tend to be back to normal, even if they receive no treatment at all. In other words, the above-quoted case series is an exact description of the natural history of the condition. To put it even more bluntly: if these patients would have been treated with kind attention and good general care, the outcome would not have been one iota different.

To me, this means that “to precisely define the role of homeopathy in treating dengue fever” would be a waste of resources. It’s role is already clear: there is no role of homeopathy in the treatment of this (or any other) condition.

Sorry George.

Regular readers of this blog will find plenty of things that are familiar to them in my new book ‘SCAM’. Many of the thoughts in there were originally conceived on this blog; and quite a few ideas might even be inspired by your comments. In this way, SCAM can be seen as a big ‘thank you’ to all of my readers.

SCAM, of course, stands for ‘So-Called Alternative Medicine’ which might be the name best suited to my field of research. In the book, I explain why I chose this terminology:

Why do I call it SCAM? Why not just ‘alternative medicine’ or one of the many other possible names for it? … Mainly because, whatever it is, it is it is not an alternative:

  • if a therapy does not work, it cannot be an alternative to medicine;
  • if a therapy does work, it does not belong to alternative medicine but to medicine.

Therefore, I think, that so-called alternative medicine or SCAM is not a bad term to use.

I would be lying to you, if I said I did not want you all to buy my new book – which author does not want people to purchase his product? So, to entice you to do exactly that (and while you are at it, get one for your sister, cousin, grandma, etc. as well), here are two tiny snippets from ‘SCAM’, the preface and the postscript:

PREFACE

I should perhaps start with a warning: this book might unsettle you. If you are a true believer in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), you may find the things I am about to tell you disturbing. My book was not written for true believers. In my experience, they often are emotionally or intellectually unable to rationalise and to change their minds. Any attempt at opening their eyes and making them think critically might therefore be a waste of time.

This book was written for everyone who has an interest in SCAM and is open to consider the evidence. Yet it is not a guide-book that tells you which SCAM can be employed what condition. It is a compilation of 50 essays about SCAM in more general terms. I ordered them loosely under seven headings and have tried to write them in such a way that they can be read independently. This necessitated a certain amount of repetition of crucial themes which, I hope, is forgivable. My main aim in publishing this book is to stimulate your ability to think critically about healthcare in general and, of course, about SCAM in particular.

The book is based on my 25 years of research in SCAM. It quotes numerous investigations by my team and by other researchers. It also discusses many recently published examples of pseudo-science, misleading information and unethical SCAM-promotion. The text avoids technical language and should be easily understood by anyone. The ‘glossary’ at the end of the book provides additional explanations of more complex issues and terminology. Throughout the book, I use hints of irony, touches of sarcasm, and sometimes even a degree of exaggeration. This makes certain points clearer and might even make you smile from time to time…

POSTSCRIPT

Some people say that I am fighting a losing battle and insist that SCAM cannot be defeated. It will be around for ever, they say.

I quite agree with the latter parts of this statement. Humans seem to need some degree of irrationality in their lives, and SCAM certainly offers plenty of that. Moreover, conventional medicine is never going be totally perfect. Therefore, disgruntled consumers will always search elsewhere, and many of them will then find SCAM.

However, I disagree with the first part of the above assumption: I did not write this book with the aim of fighting a battle against SCAM. I can even see several positive sides of SCAM. For instance, the current SCAM-boom might finally force conventional healthcare professionals to remember that time, compassion and empathy are some of their core values which cannot be delegated to others. Whatever the current popularity signifies, it is a poignant criticism of what is going on in conventional healthcare – and we would be ill-advised to ignore this criticism.

In the preface, I stated that my main aim in publishing this book was to stimulate my readers’ ability to think critically about SCAM and healthcare generally. My book is therefore not a text against but as a plea for something. If reading it has, in fact, made some of my readers a little less gullible, it … could improve both their health and their bank balance.

We recently discussed the deplorable case of Larry Nassar and the fact that the ‘American Osteopathic Association’ stated that intravaginal manipulations are indeed an approved osteopathic treatment. At the time, I thought this was a shocking claim. So, imagine my surprise when I was alerted to a German trial of osteopathic intravaginal manipulations.

Here is the full and unaltered abstract of the study:

Introduction: 50 to 80% of pregnant women suffer from low back pain (LBP) or pelvic pain (Sabino und Grauer, 2008). There is evidence for the effectiveness of manual therapy like osteopathy, chiropractic and physiotherapy in pregnant women with LBP or pelvic pain (Liccardione et al., 2010). Anatomical, functional and neural connections support the relationship between intrapelvic dysfunctions and lumbar and pelvic pain (Kanakaris et al., 2011). Strain, pressure and stretch of visceral and parietal peritoneum, bladder, urethra, rectum and fascial tissue can result in pain and secondary in muscle spasm. Visceral mobility, especially of the uterus and rectum, can induce tension on the inferior hypogastric plexus, which may influence its function. Thus, stretching the broad ligament of the uterus and the intrapelvic fascia tissue during pregnancy can reinforce the influence of the inferior hypogastric plexus. Based on above facts an additional intravaginal treatment seems to be a considerable approach in the treatment of low back pain in pregnant women.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to compare the effect of osteopathic treatment including intravaginal techniques versus osteopathic treatment only in females with pregnancy-related low back pain.
Methods: Design: The study was performed as a randomized controlled trial. The participants were randomized by drawing lots, either into the intervention group including osteopathic and additional intravaginal treatment (IV) or a control group with osteopathic treatment only (OI). Setting: Medical practice in south of Germany.
Participants 46 patients were recruited between the 30th and 36th week of pregnancy suffering from low back pain.
Intervention Both groups received three treatments within a period of three weeks. Both groups were treated with visceral, mobilization, and myofascial techniques in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, the pelvic and the abdominal region (American Osteopathic Association Guidelines, 2010). The IV group received an additional treatment with intravaginal techniques in supine position. This included myofascial techniques of the M. levator ani and the internal obturator muscles, the vaginal tissue, the pubovesical and uterosacral ligaments as well as the inferior hypogastric plexus.
Main outcome measures As primary outcome the back pain intensity was measured by Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). Secondary outcome was the disability index assessed by Oswestry-Low-Back-Pain-Disability-Index (ODI), and Pregnancy-Mobility-Index (PMI).
Results: 46 participants were randomly assigned into the intervention group (IV; n = 23; age: 29.0 ±4.8 years; height: 170.1 ±5.8 cm; weight: 64.2 ±10.3 kg; BMI: 21.9 ±2.6 kg/m2) and the control group (OI; n = 23; age: 32.0 ±3.9 years; height: 168.1 ±3.5 cm; weight: 62.3 ±7.9 kg; BMI: 22.1 ±3.2 kg/m2). Data from 42 patients were included in the final analyses (IV: n=20; OI: n=22), whereas four patients dropped out due to general pregnancy complications. Back pain intensity (VAS) changed significantly in both groups: in the intervention group (IV) from 59.8 ±14.8 to 19.6 ±8.4 (p<0.05) and in the control group (OI) from 57.4 ±11.3 to 24.7 ±12.8. The difference between groups of 7.5 (95%CI: -16.3 to 1.3) failed to demonstrate statistical significance (p=0.93). Pregnancy-Mobility-Index (PMI) changed significantly in both groups, too. IV group: from 33.4 ±8.9 to 29.6 ±6.6 (p<0.05), control group (OI): from 36.3 ±5.2 to 29.7 ±6.8. The difference between groups of 2.6 (95%CI: -5.9 to 0.6) was not statistically significant (p=0.109). Oswestry-Low-Back-Pain-Disability-Index (ODI) changed significantly in the intervention group (IV) from 15.1 ±7.8 to 9.2 ±3.6 (p<0.05) and also significantly in the control group (OI) from 13.8 ±4.9 to 9.2 ±3.0. Between-groups difference of 1.3 (95%CI: -1.5 to 4.1) was not statistically significant (p=0.357).
Conclusions: In this sample a series of osteopathic treatments showed significant effects in reducing pain and increasing the lumbar range of motion in pregnant women with low back pain. Both groups attained clinically significant improvement in functional disability, activity and quality of life. Furthermore, no benefit of additional intravaginal treatment was observed.

END OF QUOTE

My first thoughts after reading this were: how on earth did the investigators get this past an ethics committee? It cannot be ethical, in my view, to allow osteopaths (in Germany, they have no relevant training to speak of) to manipulate women intravaginally. How deluded must an osteopath be to plan and conduct such a trial? What were the patients told before giving informed consent? Surely not the truth!

My second thoughts were about the scientific validity of this study: the hypothesis which this trial claims to be testing is a far-fetched extrapolation, to put it mildly; in fact, it is not a hypothesis, it’s a very daft idea. The control-intervention is inadequate in that it cannot control for the (probably large) placebo effects of intravaginal manipulations. The observed outcomes are based on within-group comparisons and are therefore most likely unrelated to the treatments applied. The conclusion is as barmy as it gets; a proper conclusion should clearly and openly state that the results did not show any effects of the intravaginal manipulations.

In summary, this is a breathtakingly idiotic trial, and everyone involved in it (ethics committee, funding body, investigators, statistician, reviewers, journal editor) should be deeply ashamed and apologise to the poor women who were abused in a most deplorable fashion.

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