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

risk

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Probiotics (live microorganisms for oral consumption) are undoubtedly popular, not least they are being cleverly promoted as a quasi panacea. But are they as safe as their manufacturers try to convince us? A synthesis and critical evaluation of the reports and series of cases on the infectious complications related to the ingestion of probiotics was aimed at finding out.

The authors extensive literature searches located 60 case reports and 7 case series including a total of 93 patients. Fungemia was the most common infectious complications with 35 (37.6%) cases. The genus Saccharomyces was the most frequent with 47 (50.6%) cases, followed by Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bacillus, Pedioccocus and Escherichia with 26 (27.9%), 12 (12.8%), 5 (5.4%), 2 (2.2%) and 1 (1.1%) case, respectively. Adults over 60 years of age, Clostridium difficile colitis, antibiotic use and Saccharomyces infections were associated with overall mortality. HIV infections, immunosuppressive drugs, solid organ transplantation, deep intravenous lines, enteral or parenteral nutrition were not associated with death.

The authors concluded that the use of probiotics cannot be considered risk-free and should be carefully evaluated for some patient groups.

Other authors have previously warned that individuals under neonatal stages and/or those with some clinical conditions including malignancies, leaky gut, diabetes mellitus, and post-organ transplant convalescence likely fail to reap the benefits of probiotics. Further exacerbating the conditions, some probiotic strains might take advantage of the weak immunity in these vulnerable groups and turn into opportunistic pathogens engendering life-threatening pneumonia, endocarditis, and sepsis. Moreover, the unregulated and rampant use of probiotics potentially carry the risk of plasmid-mediated antibiotic resistance transfer to the gut infectious pathogens. 

And yet another review had concluded that the adverse effects of probiotics were sepsis, fungemia and GI ischemia. Generally, critically ill patients in intensive care units, critically sick infants, postoperative and hospitalized patients and patients with immune-compromised complexity were the most at-risk populations. While the overwhelming existing evidence suggests that probiotics are safe, complete consideration of risk-benefit ratio before prescribing is recommended.

Proponents of probiotics will say that these risks are rare and confined to small groups of particularly vulnerable patients. This may well be so, but in view of the often uncertain benefits of probiotics, the incessant hype and aggressive marketing, I find it nevertheless important to keep these risks in mind.

As with any therapy, the question must be, does this treatment really generate more good than harm?

I would warn every parent who thinks that taking their child to a chiropractor is a good idea. For this, I have three main reasons:

  1. Chiropractic has not been shown to be effective for any paediatric condition.
  2. Chiropractors often advise parents against vaccinating their children.
  3. Chiropractic spinal manipulations can cause harm to kids.

The latter point seems to be confirmed by a recent PhD thesis of which so far only one short report is available. Here are the relevant bits of information from it:

Katie Pohlman has successfully defended her PhD thesis, which focused on the assessment of safety in pediatric manual therapy. As a clinical research scientist at Parker University, Dallas, Texas, she identified a lack of prospective patient safety research within the chiropractic population in general and investigated this deficit in the paediatric population in particular.

Pohlman used a cross-sectional survey to assess the barriers and facilitators for participation in a patient safety reporting system. At the same time, she also conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing the quantity and quality of adverse event reports in children under 14 years receiving chiropractic care.

The RCT recruited 69 chiropractors and found adverse events reported in 8.8% and 0.1% of active and passive surveillance groups respectively. Of the adverse events reported, 56% were considered mild, 26% were moderate and 18% were severe. The frequency of adverse events was more common than previously thought.

This last sentence from the report is somewhat puzzling. Our systematic review of the risks of spinal manipulation showed that data from prospective studies suggest that minor, transient adverse events occur in approximately half of all patients receiving spinal manipulation. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome. Estimates of the incidence of serious complications range from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 1 per 400,000. Given the popularity of spinal manipulation, its safety requires rigorous investigation.

The 8.8% reported by Pohlman are therefore not even one fifth of the average incidence figure reported previously in all age groups.

What could be the explanation for this discrepancy?

There are, of course, several possibilities, including the fact that infants cannot tell the clinician when their pain has increased. However, the most likely one, in my view, lies in the fact that RCTs are wholly inadequate for investigating risks because they typically include far too few patients to generate reliable incidence figures about adverse events. More importantly, clinicians included in such studies are self-selected (and thus particularly responsible/cautious) and are bound to behave most carefully while being part of a clinical trial. Therefore it seems possible – I would speculate even likely – that the 8.8% reported by Pohlman is unrealistically low.

Having said that, I do feel that the research by Kathie Pohlman is a step in the right direction and I do applaud her initiative.

Slowly, I seem to be turning into a masochist! Yes, I sometimes read publications like ‘HOMEOPATHY 360’. It carries articles that are enragingly ill-informed. But in my defence, I might say that some are truly funny. Here is the abstract of one that I found outstanding in that category:

The article explains about Gangrene and its associated amputations which is a clinically challenging condition, but Homeopathy offers therapy options. The case presented herein, details about how the Homeopathic treatment helped in the prevention of amputation of a body part. Homeopathy stimulates the body’s ability to heal through its immune mechanisms; consequently, it achieves wound healing and establishes circulation to the gangrenous part. Instead of focusing on the local phenomena of gangrene pathology, treatment focuses on the general indications of the immune system, stressing the important role of the immune system as a whole. The aim was to show, through case reports, that Homeopathic therapy can treat gangrene thus preventing amputation of the gangrenous part, and hence has a strong substitution for consideration in treating gangrene.

The paper itself offers no less than 13 different homeopathic treatments for gangrene:

  1. Arsenicum album– Medicine for senile gangrene;gangrene accompanied by foetid diarrhoea; ulcers extremely painful with elevated edges, better by warmth and aggravation from cold; great weakness and emaciation.
  2. Bromium – Hospital gangrene; cancerous ulcers on face; stony hard swelling of glands of lower jaw and throat.
  3. Carbo vegetabilis – Senile and humid gangrene in the persons who are cachectic in appearance; great exhaustion of vital powers; marked prostration; foul smell of secretions; indolent ulcers, burning pain; tendency to gangrene of the margins; varicose ulcers.
  4. Bothrops– Gangrene; swollen, livid, cold with hemorrhagic infiltration; malignant erysipelas.
  5. Echinacea– Enlarged lymphatics; old tibial ulcers; gangrene; recurrent boils; carbuncles.
  6. Lachesis– Gangrenous ulcers; gangrene after injury; bluish or black looking blisters; vesicles appearing here and there, violent itching and burning; swelling and inflammation of the parts; itching pain and painful spots appearing after rubbing.
  7. Crotalus Horridus– Gangrene, skin separated from muscles by a foetid fluid; traumatic gangrene; old scars open again.
  8. Secale cornatum– Pustules on the arms and legs, with tendency to gangrene; in cachectic, scrawny females with rough skin; skin shriveled, numb; mottled dusky-blue tinge; blue color of skin; dry gangrene, developing slowly; varicose ulcers; boils, small, painful with green contents; skin feels too cold to touch yet covering is not tolerated. Great aversion to heat;formication under skin.
  9. Anthracinum– Gangrene; cellular tissues swollen and oedematous; gangrenous parotitis; septicemia; ulceration, and sloughing and intolerable burning.
  10. Cantharis – Tendency to gangrene; vesicular eruptions; burns, scalds, with burning and itching; erysipelas, vesicular type, with marked restlessness.
  11. Mercurius– Gangrene of the lips, cheeks and gums; inflammation and swelling of the glands of neck; pains aggravated by hot or cold applications.
  12. Sulphuric acid– Traumatic gangrene; haemorrhages from wounds; dark pustules; blue spots like suggillations; bedsores.
  13. Phosphoric acid– Medicine for senile gangrene. Gunpowder, calendula are also best medicines.

But the best of all must be the article’s conclusion: “Homeopathy is the best medicine for gangrene.

I know, there are many people who will not be able to find this funny, particularly patients who suffer from gangrene and are offered homeopathy as a cure. This could easily kill the person – not just kill, but kill very painfully. Gangrene is the death of tissue in part of the body, says the naïve little caption. What it does not say is that it is in all likelihood also the death of the patient who is treated purely with homeopathy.

And what about the notion that homeopathy stimulates the body’s ability to heal through its immune mechanisms?

Or the assumption that it might establish circulation to the gangrenous part?

Or the claim that through case reports one can show the effectiveness of an intervention?

Or the notion that any of the 13 homeopathic remedies have a place in the treatment of gangrene?

ALL OF THIS IS TOTALLY BONKERS!

Not only that, it is highly dangerous!

Since many years, I am trying my best to warn people of charlatans who promise bogus cures. Sadly it does not seem to stop the charlatans. This makes me feel rather helpless at times. And it is in those moments that I decide to look at from a different angle. That’s when I try to see the funny side of quacks who defy everything we know about healthcare and just keep on lying to themselves and their victims.

I came across an embarrassingly poor and uncritical article that essentially seemed to promote a London-based clinic specialised in giving vitamins intravenously. Its website shows the full range of options on offer and it even lists the eye-watering prices they command. Reading this information, my amazement became considerable and I decided to share some of it with you.

Possibly the most remarkable of all the treatments on offer is this one (the following are quotes from the clinic’s website):

Stemcellation injections or placenta lucchini (sheep placenta) treatments are delivered intravenously (via IV), although intramuscular (IM) administration is also possible. Stem cells are reported to possess regenerative biological properties.

We offer two types of Stemcellation injections: a non-vegetarian option and a vegetarian-friendly option. Please enquire for further details.

Alongside placenta lucchini, Stemcellation injections at Vitamin Injections London contain a range of other potent active ingredients, including: physiologically active carbohydrate, nucleic acid, epithelial growth factor, amino acids, hydrolysed collagen, concentrated bioprotein and stem cells.

Please visit our Vitamin 101 section to learn more about the ingredients in Stemcellation sheep placenta injections.

Renowned for their powerful regenerating properties, Stemcellation injections can stimulate collagen production as well as:

  • Remedy cosmetic problems such as wrinkles, discolouration, pigmentation, eye bags and uneven skin tone;
  • Can be undertaken by those who are interested in maintaining their physical activity levels;
  • Can be undertaken alongside other IV/IM injections.

Vitamin Injections London is headed by skilled IV/IM Medical Aesthetician and Skin Specialist Bianca Estelle. Our skilled IV/IM practitioners will conduct a full review of your medical history and advise you regarding your suitability for Stemcellation injections.

END OF QUOTES

The only Medline-listed paper I was able to locate on the subject of placenta lucchini injections was from 1962 and did not substantiate any of the above claims. In my view, all of this begs many questions; here are just seven that spring into my mind:

  1. Is there any evidence at all that any of the intravenous injections/infusions offered at this clinic are effective for any condition other than acute vitamin deficiencies (which are, of course, extremely rare these days)?
  2. Would the staff be adequately trained to diagnose such cases?
  3. How do they justify the price tags for their treatments?
  4. What is a ‘medical aesthetician’ and a ‘skin specialist’?
  5. Is it at all legal for ‘medical aestheticians’ and ‘skin specialists’ (apparently without medical qualifications) to give intravenous injections and infusions?
  6. How many customers have suffered severe allergic reactions after placenta lucchini (or other) treatments?
  7. Is the clinic equipped and its staff adequately trained to deal with medical emergencies?

These are not rhetorical questions; I genuinely do not know the answers. Therefore, I would be obliged, if you could answer them for me, in case you know them.

 

Naturopathy is an eclectic system of health care that uses elements of alternative and conventional medicine to support and enhance self-healing processes. Naturopaths employ treatments based on therapeutic options that are thought of as natural, e. g. naturally occurring substances such as herbs, as well as water, exercise, diet, fresh air, pressure, heat and cold – but occasionally also acupuncture, homeopathy and manual therapies.

Naturopathy is steeped in the obsolete concept of vitalism which is the belief that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. Naturopaths claim that they are guided by a unique set of principles that recognize the body’s innate healing capacity, emphasize disease prevention, and encourage individual responsibility to obtain optimal health. They also state that naturopathic physicians (NDs) are trained as primary care physicians in 4-year, accredited doctoral-level naturopathic medical schools.

However, applied to English-speaking countries (in Germany, a doctor of naturopathy is a physician who has a conventional medical degree), such opinions seem little more than wishful thinking. It has been reported that New Brunswick judge ruled this week that Canadian naturopaths — pseudoscience purveyors who promote a variety of “alternative medicines” like homeopathy, herbs, detoxes, and acupuncture — cannot legally call themselves “medically trained.”

The lawsuit was filed because actual physicians were frustrated that fake doctors were using terms like “medical practitioner” and saying they worked at a “family practice.” This conveyed the false idea that naturopaths were qualified at the same level as real doctors.

The argument from naturopaths was that they weren’t misleading anyone. “There’s not even the slightest hint of evidence that anyone has been misled — or worse, harmed,” [attorney Nathalie Godbout] said. “This mythical patient that has to be protected by naturopathic doctors — I haven’t met them yet.”

However, Justice Hugh McLellan wasn’t buying it. He said the justification for naturopaths using terms such as “doctor” and “family physician” are based on the assumption that “people are attuned to the meaning of words like “naturopathy.” Many patients might read a website or a Facebook ad out of context, he said, and fail to pick up on the difference between “a doctor listing his or her qualifications as ‘Dr. So-and-So, B.Sc., MD,’ as opposed to the listing that might include ‘B.Sc., ND [naturopathic practitioner].’”

“I see a risk here,” McLellan said, “that the words … could, in fact, imply or be designed to lead the public to believe these various naturopaths are entitled to practise medicine.”

Britt Marie Hermes, a former naturopath who now warns people about the shortcomings of the profession, said she was thrilled with the judge’s ruling: “This is a very encouraging step in the right direction toward ensuring public safety. Naturopaths are not doctors. The onus should not be on patients to vet the credentials and competency of someone holding themselves out to be a medically trained physician. Now, patients will have an easier time separating truly medically qualified physicians from naturopathic practitioners. Bravo New Brunswick!”

In view of the many horror-stories that emerge about naturopathy, I am inclined to agree with Britt:

In the context of healthcare the title ‘doctor’ or ‘physician’ must be reserved to those who have a conventional medical degree. Anything else means misleading the public to an unacceptable degree, in my view.

 

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to publish the result in a magazine. He now informed me that his editor decided against it, and the interview thus remained unpublished. I have the journalist’s permission to publish it here. The journalist who, in my view, was well-prepared (much better than most), prefers to remain unnamed.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

A: I am a researcher of alternative medicine.

Q: Not a critic of alternative medicine?

A: Primarily, I am a researcher; after all, I have published more Medline-listed research papers on the subject than anyone else on the planet.

Q: You are retired since a few years; why do you carry on working?

A: Mainly because I see a need for a critical voice amongst all the false and often dangerous claims made by proponents of alternative medicine. But also because I enjoy what I am doing. Since I retired, I can focus on the activities I like. There is nobody to tell me what to do and what not to do; the latter happened far too often when I was still head of my research unit.

Q: Fine, but I still do not quite understand what drives you. Who is motivating you to criticise alternative medicine?

A: Nobody. Some people claim I am paid for my current activities. This is not true. My blog actually costs me money. My books never return enough royalties to break even, considering the time they take to write. And for most of my lectures I don’t charge a penny.

Q: There are people who find this hard to believe.

A: I know. This just shows how money-orientated they are. Do they want me to publish my tax returns?

Q: Sorry, but I still don’t understand your motivation.

A: I guess what motivates me is a sense of responsibility, a somewhat naïve determination to do something good as a physician. I am one of the only – perhaps even THE only – scientist who has researched alternative medicine extensively and who is not a promoter of bogus therapies but voices criticism about them. There are several other prominent and excellent critics of alternative medicine, of course, but they all come ‘from the outside’. I come from the inside of the alternative medicine business. This probably gives me a special understanding of this field. In any case, I feel the responsibility to counter-balance all the nonsense that is being published on a daily basis.

Q: What’s your ultimate aim?

A: I want to create progress through educating people to think more critically.

Q: Which alternative medicine do you hate most?

A: I do not hate any of them. In fact, I still have more sympathy for them than might be apparent. For my blog, for instance, I constantly search for new research papers that are rigorous and show a positive result. The trouble is, there are so very few of those articles. But when I find one, I am delighted to report about it. No, I do not hate or despise any alternative medicine; I am in favour of good science, and I get irritated by poor research. And yes, I do dislike false claims that potentially harm consumers. And yes, I do dislike it when chiropractors or other charlatans defraud consumers by taking their money for endless series of useless interventions.

Q: I noticed you go on about the risks of alternative medicine. But surely, they are small compared to the risks of conventional healthcare, aren’t they?

A: That’s a big topic. To make it simple: alternative medicine is usually portrayed as risk-free. The truth, however, is that there are numerous risks of direct and indirect harm; the latter is usually much more important than the former. Crucially, the risk-free image is incongruent with reality. I want to redress this incongruence. And as to conventional medicine: sure, it can be much more harmful. But one always has to see this in relation to the proven benefit. Chemotherapy, for instance, can kill a cancer patient, but more likely it saves her life. Homeopathic remedies cannot kill you, but employed as an alternative to an effective cancer treatment, homeopathy will certainly kill you.

Q: Homeopathy seems to be your particular hobby horse.

A: Perhaps. This is because it exemplifies alternative medicine in several ways, and because I started my alternative ‘career’ in a homeopathic hospital, all those years ago.

Q: In what way is homeopathy exemplary?

A: Its axioms are implausible, like those of many other alternative modalities. The clinical evidence fails to support the claims, like with so many alternative therapies. And it is seemingly safe, yet can do a lot of harm, like so many other treatments.

Q: You have no qualification in homeopathy, is that right?

A: No, I have no such qualifications. And I never said so. When I want to tease homeopaths a little, I state that I am a trained homeopath; and that is entirely correct.

Q: In several countries, homeopathy has taken spectacular hits recently. Is that your doing?

A: No, I don’t think so. But I do hope that my work has inspired the many dedicated activists who are currently protesting against the reimbursement of homeopathy by the public purse in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, etc.

Q: You often refer to medical ethics; why is that?

A: Because, in the final analysis, many of the questions we already discussed are really ethical issues. And in alternative medicine, few people have so far given the ethical dimensions any consideration. I think ethics are central to alternative medicine, so much so that I co-authored an entire book on this topic this year.

Q: Any plans for the future?

A: Plenty.

Q: Can you tell me more?

A: I will publish another book in 2019 with Springer. It will be a critical evaluation of precisely 150 different alternative modalities. I am thinking of writing yet another book, but have not yet found a literary agent who wants to take me on. I have been offered a new professorship at a private University in Vienna, and am hesitant whether to accept or not. I have been invited to give a few lectures in 2019 and hope to receive more invitations. Last not least, I work almost every day on my blog.

Q: More than enough for a retiree, it seems. Thank you for your time.

A: My pleasure.

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is caused by the tendons in the wrist getting too tight and thus putting pressure on the nerves that run beneath them. The symptoms can include:

  • pain in fingers, hand or arm,
  • numb hands,
  • tingling or ‘pins and needles’,
  • a weak thumb or difficulty gripping.

These symptoms often start slowly and they can come and go but often get worse over time. They are usually worse at night and may keep patients from having a good night’s sleep.

The treatments advocated for CTS include painkillers, splints and just about every alternative therapy one can think of, particularly acupuncture. Acupuncture may be popular, but does it work?

This new Cochrane review was aimed at assessing the evidence for acupuncture and similar treatments for CTS. It included 12 studies with 869 participants. Ten studies reported the primary outcome of overall clinical improvement at short‐term follow‐up (3 months or less) after randomisation. Most studies could not be combined in a meta‐analysis due to heterogeneity, and all had an unclear or high overall risk of bias. Only 7 studies provided information on adverse events.

The authors (two of them are from my former Exeter team) found that, in comparison with placebo or sham-treatments, acupuncture and laser acupuncture have little or no effect in the short term on symptoms of CTS. It is uncertain whether acupuncture and related interventions are more or less effective in relieving symptoms of CTS than corticosteroid nerve blocks, oral corticosteroids, vitamin B12, ibuprofen, splints, or when added to NSAIDs plus vitamins, as the certainty of any conclusions from the evidence is low or very low and most evidence is short term. The included studies covered diverse interventions, had diverse designs, limited ethnic diversity, and clinical heterogeneity.

The authors concluded that high‐quality randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are necessary to rigorously assess the effects of acupuncture and related interventions upon symptoms of CTS. Based on moderate to very‐low certainty evidence, acupuncture was associated with no serious adverse events, or reported discomfort, pain, local paraesthesia and temporary skin bruises, but not all studies provided adverse event data.

This last point is one that I made very often: most trials of acupuncture fail to report adverse effects. This is doubtlessly unethical (it gives a false-positive overall impression about acupuncture’s safety). And what can you do with studies that are unethical? My answer is simple: bin them!

Most of the trials were of poor or very poor quality. Such studies tend to generate false-positive results. And what can you do with studies that are flimsy and misleading? My answer is simple: bin them!

So, what can we do with acupuncture trials of CTS? … I let you decide.

But binning the evidence offers little help to patients who suffer from chronic, progressive CTS. What can those patients do? Go and see a surgeon! (S)he will cure you with a relatively simply and safe operation; in all likelihood, you will never look back at dubious treatments.

On their website, the UK ‘ROYAL COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTORS (RCC) published a short statement regarding the safety of chiropractic. Here it is in full:

Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after manual therapy, such as soreness or stiffness, is relatively common, affecting up to 50% of patients. However, such ‘benign effects’ are a normal outcome and are not unique to chiropractic care.

Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been associated with spinal manipulation. Such events are rare with estimates ranging from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 13 per 10,000 patients; furthermore, due to the nature of the underlying evidence in relation to such events (case reports, retrospective surveys and case-control studies), it is very difficult to confirm causation (Swait and Finch, 2017).

For example, while an association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractor visits has been reported in a few case-control studies, the risk of stoke has been found to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly present with neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from a range of practitioners, including chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). This highlights the importance of ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs or symptoms that there is an ongoing problem, is performed prior to manual treatment of patients (Swait and Finch, 2017). Chiropractors are well trained to do this on a routine basis, and to urgently refer patients if necessary.

END OF QUOTE

The statement reads well but it might not be entirely free from conflicts of interest. Yet, in the name of accuracy, completeness and truthfulness, I take the liberty of making a few slight alterations. Here is my revised version:

Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, such as pain or stiffness (usually lasting 1-3 days and strong enough to impair patients’ quality of life), is very common. In fact, it affects around 50% of all patients. 

Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes often caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been reported after spinal manipulation. Such events are probably not frequent (several hundred are on record including about 100 fatalities).  But, as we have never established proper surveillance systems, nobody can tell how often they occur. Furthermore, due to our reluctance of introducing such surveillance, some of us are able to question causality.

An association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractic spinal manipulation has been reported in about 20 independent investigations. Yet one much-criticised case-control study found the risk of stoke to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly have neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). Ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs that there is an ongoing problem would therefore be important (Swait and Finch, 2017). Sadly, no reliable screening tests exist, and neck pain (the symptom that might be indicative of VAD) continues to be one of the conditions most frequently treated by chiropractors.

I do not expect the RCC to adopt my improved version. In case I am wrong, let me state this: I am entirely free of conflicts of interest and will not charge a fee for my revision. In the interest of advancing public health, I herewith offer it for free.

The most frequent of all potentially serious adverse events of acupuncture is pneumothorax. It happens when an acupuncture needle penetrates the lungs which subsequently deflate. The pulmonary collapse can be partial or complete as well as one or two sided. This new case-report shows just how serious a pneumothorax can be.

A 52-year-old man underwent acupuncture and cupping treatment at an illegal Chinese medicine clinic for neck and back discomfort. Multiple 0.25 mm × 75 mm needles were utilized and the acupuncture points were located in the middle and on both sides of the upper back and the middle of the lower back. He was admitted to hospital with severe dyspnoea about 30 hours later. On admission, the patient was lucid, was gasping, had apnoea and low respiratory murmur, accompanied by some wheeze in both sides of the lungs. Because of the respiratory difficulty, the patient could hardly speak. After primary physical examination, he was suspected of having a foreign body airway obstruction. Around 30 minutes after admission, the patient suddenly became unconscious and died despite attempts of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Whole-body post-mortem computed tomography of the victim revealed the collapse of the both lungs and mediastinal compression, which were also confirmed by autopsy. More than 20 pinprick injuries were found on the skin of the upper and lower back in which multiple pinpricks were located on the body surface projection of the lungs. The cause of death was determined as acute respiratory and circulatory failure due to acupuncture-induced bilateral tension pneumothorax.

The authors caution that acupuncture-induced tension pneumothorax is rare and should be recognized by forensic pathologists. Postmortem computed tomography can be used to detect and accurately evaluate the severity of pneumothorax before autopsy and can play a supporting role in determining the cause of death.

The authors mention that pneumothorax is the most frequent but by no means the only serious complication of acupuncture. Other adverse events include:

  • central nervous system injury,
  • infection,
  • epidural haematoma,
  • subarachnoid haemorrhage,
  • cardiac tamponade,
  • gallbladder perforation,
  • hepatitis.

No other possible lung diseases that may lead to bilateral spontaneous pneumothorax were found. The needles used in the case left tiny perforations in the victim’s lungs. A small amount of air continued to slowly enter the chest cavities over a long period. The victim possibly tolerated the mild discomfort and did not pay attention when early symptoms appeared. It took 30 hours to develop into symptoms of a severe pneumothorax, and then the victim was sent to the hospital. There he was misdiagnosed, not adequately treated and thus died. I applaud the authors for nevertheless publishing this case-report.

This case occurred in China. Acupuncturists might argue that such things would not happen in Western countries where acupuncturists are fully trained and aware of the danger. They would be mistaken – and alarmingly, there is no surveillance system that could tell us how often serious complications occur.

The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences have announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’. Very wisely, they have included chiropractic under this umbrella. To a large degree, this is the result of Spanish sceptics pointing out that alternative therapies are a danger to public health, helped perhaps a tiny bit also by the publication of two of my books (see here and here) in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, such delelopments alarm Spanish chiropractors who fear for their livelihoods. A quickly-written statement of the AEQ (Spanish Chiropractic Association) is aimed at averting the blow. It makes the following 11 points (my comments are below):

1. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines chiropractic as a healthcare profession. It is independent of any other health profession and it is neither a therapy nor a pseudotherapy.

2. Chiropractic is statutorily recognised as a healthcare profession in many European countries including Portugal, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom10, as well as in the USA, Canada and Australia, to name a few.

3. Chiropractic members of the AEQ undergo university-level training of at least 5 years full-time (300 ECTS points). Chiropractic training is offered within prestigious institutions such as the Medical Colleges of the University of Zurich and the University of Southern Denmark.

4. Chiropractors are spinal health care experts. Chiropractors practice evidence-based, patient-centred conservative interventions, which include spinal manipulation, exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice.

5. The use of these interventions for the treatment of spine-related disorders is consistent with guidelines and is supported by high quality scientific evidence, including multiple systematic reviews undertaken by the prestigious Cochrane collaboration15, 16, 17.

6. The Global Burden of Disease study shows that spinal disorders are the leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide, exceeding depression, breast cancer and diabetes.

7. Interventions used by chiropractors are recommended in the 2018 Low Back Pain series of articles published in The Lancet and clinical practice guidelines from Denmark, Canada, the European Spine Journal, American College of Physicians and the Global Spine Care Initiative.

8. The AEQ supports and promotes scientific research, providing funding and resources for the development of high quality research in collaboration with institutions of high repute, such as Fundación Jiménez Díaz and the University of Alcalá de Henares.

9. The AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based, patient-centred care, consistent with a biopsychosocial model of health.

10. The AEQ demands the highest standards of practice and professional ethics, by implementing among its members the Quality Standard UNE-EN 16224 “Healthcare provision by chiropractors”, issued by the European Committee of Normalisation and ratified by AENOR.

11. The AEQ urges the Spanish Government to regulate chiropractic as a healthcare profession. Without such legislation, citizens of Spain cannot be assured that they are protected from unqualified practitioners and will continue to face legal uncertainties and barriers to access an essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service.

END OF QUOTE

I think that some comments might be in order (they follow the numbering of the AEQ):

  1. The WHO is the last organisation I would consult for information on alternative medicine; during recent years, they have published mainly nonsense on this subject. How about asking the inventor of chiropractic? D.D. Palmer defined it as “a science of healing without drugs.” Chiropractors nowadays prefer to be defined as a profession which has the advantage that one cannot easily pin them down for doing mainly spinal manipulation; if one does, they indignantly respond “but we also use many other interventions, like life-style advice, for instance, and nobody can claim this to be nonsense” (see also point 4 below).
  2. Perfect use of a classical fallacy: appeal to authority.
  3. Appeal to authority, plus ignorance of the fact that teaching nonsense even at the highest level must result in nonsense.
  4. This is an ingenious mix of misleading arguments and lies: most chiros pride themselves of treating also non-spinal conditions. Very few interventions used by chiros are evidence-based. Exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice are hardy typical for chiros and can all be obtained more authoratively from other healthcare professionals.
  5. Plenty of porkies here too. For instance, the AEQ cite three Cochrane reviews. The first concluded that high-quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. The second stated that combined chiropractic interventions slightly improved pain and disability in the short term and pain in the medium term for acute/subacute LBP. However, there is currently no evidence that supports or refutes that these interventions provide a clinically meaningful difference for pain or disability in people with LBP when compared to other interventions. And the third concluded that, although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices. Hardly the positive endorsement implied by the AEQ!
  6. Yes, but that is not an argument for chiropractic; in fact, it’s another fallacy.
  7. Did they forget the many guidelines, institutions and articles that do NOT recommend chiropractic?
  8. I believe the cigarette industry also sponsors research; should we therefore all start smoking?
  9. I truly doubt that the AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based healthcare; if they did, they would have to discourage spinal manipulation!
  10. The ‘highest standards of practice and professional ethics’ are clearly not compatible with chiropractors’ use of spinal manipulation. In our recent book, we explained in full detail why this is so.
  11. An essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service? Chiropractic is certainly not essential, rarely high-quality, and clearly not evidence-based.

Nice try AEQ.

But not good enough, I am afraid.

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