This recent review claimed to evaluate the evidence on the use of human and veterinary homeopathy, evidence level 1a studies were considered. Focusing on the external evidence on the use of homeopathy in infections, some evidence level 1a, 1b, 2c studies, and a case report, are described in more detail.
In conclusion, evidence for the effectiveness of human and veterinary homeopathy in general, and in particular, of homeopathic treatment for infections, is available. Especially, individualized homeopathy demonstrates effects at all quality levels according to Cochrane criteria, even in the methodologically high-quality studies. As in most areas of veterinary medicine and medicine, further good/excellent studies are necessary. In compliance with the principles of homeopathy, further methodologically high-quality trials focusing on the homeopathic treatment of infections are the next logical step. The selection of the simile (individually fitting homeopathic medicinal product) by appropriately trained homeopathic doctors/veterinarians is essential for the effectiveness of homeopathy. Implementation of studies at university facilities is a prerequisite for quality assurance. Consequently, further integration of homeopathy at universities is a necessary requirement for the patients’ best interests.
Who wrote this bizarre paper?
The authors who state to have no conflicts of interest are
This recent Cochrane review assessed the effects of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for post-caesarean pain. Randomised clinical trials (RCTs), including quasi-RCTs and cluster-RCTs, comparing SCAM, alone or associated with other forms of pain relief, versus other treatments or placebo or no treatment, for the treatment of post-CS pain were included.
A total of 37 studies (3076 women) investigating 8 different SCAM therapies for post-CS pain relief were found. There was substantial heterogeneity among the trials. The primary outcome measures were pain and adverse effects. Secondary outcome measures included vital signs, rescue analgesic requirement at 6 weeks after discharge; all of which were poorly reported or not reported at all.
The quality of the RCTs was low. Whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) have any effect on pain. Acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) may reduce pain at 12 hours (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.64 to 0.07; 130 women; 2 studies; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (SMD -0.63, 95% CI -0.99 to -0.26; 2 studies; 130 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) have any effect on the risk of adverse effects.
Aromatherapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (mean difference (MD) -2.63 visual analogue scale (VAS), 95% CI -3.48 to -1.77; 3 studies; 360 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -3.38 VAS, 95% CI -3.85 to -2.91; 1 study; 200 women; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether aromatherapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety) compared with placebo plus analgesia.
Electromagnetic therapy may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (MD -8.00, 95% CI -11.65 to -4.35; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -13.00 VAS, 95% CI -17.13 to -8.87; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence).
There were 6 RCTs (651 women), 5 of which were quasi-RCTs, comparing massage (foot and hand) plus analgesia versus analgesia. All the evidence relating to pain, adverse effects (anxiety), vital signs and rescue analgesic requirement was very low-certainty.
Music therapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -0.84, 95% CI -1.23 to -0.46; participants = 115; studies = 2; I2 = 0%; low-certainty evidence), 24 hours (MD -1.79, 95% CI -2.67 to -0.91; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence), and also when compared with analgesia at one hour (MD -2.11, 95% CI -3.11 to -1.10; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -2.69, 95% CI -3.67 to -1.70; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether music therapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety), when compared with placebo plus analgesia because the quality of evidence is very low.
The investigators were uncertain whether Reiki plus analgesia compared with analgesia alone has any effect on pain, adverse effects, vital signs or rescue analgesic requirement because the quality of evidence is very low (one study, 90 women). Relaxation Relaxation may reduce pain compared with standard care at 24 hours (MD -0.53 VAS, 95% CI -1.05 to -0.01; 1 study; 60 women; low-certainty evidence).
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS (versus no treatment) may reduce pain at one hour (MD -2.26, 95% CI -3.35 to -1.17; 1 study; 40 women; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -1.10 VAS, 95% CI -1.37 to -0.82; 3 studies; 238 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -0.70 VAS, 95% CI -0.87 to -0.53; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce heart rate (MD -7.00 bpm, 95% CI -7.63 to -6.37; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence) and respiratory rate (MD -1.10 brpm, 95% CI -1.26 to -0.94; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether TENS plus analgesia (versus analgesia) has any effect on pain at six hours or 24 hours, or vital signs because the quality of evidence is very low (two studies, 92 women).
The authors concluded that some SCAM therapies may help reduce post-CS pain for up to 24 hours. The evidence on adverse events is too uncertain to make any judgements on safety and we have no evidence about the longer-term effects on pain. Since pain control is the most relevant outcome for post-CS women and their clinicians, it is important that future studies of SCAM for post-CS pain measure pain as a primary outcome, preferably as the proportion of participants with at least moderate (30%) or substantial (50%) pain relief. Measuring pain as a dichotomous variable would improve the certainty of evidence and it is easy to understand for non-specialists. Future trials also need to be large enough to detect effects on clinical outcomes; measure other important outcomes as listed in this review, and use validated scales.
I feel that the Cochrane Collaboration does itself no favours by publishing such poor reviews. This one is both poorly conceived and badly reported. In fact, I see little reason to deal with pain after CS differently than with post-operative pain in general. Some of the modalities discussed are not truly SCAM. Most of the secondary endpoints are irrelevant. The inclusion of adverse effects as a primary endpoint seems nonsensical considering that SCAM studies are notoriously bad at reporting them. Many of the allegedly positive findings rely on trial designs that cannot control for placebo effects (e.g A+B versus B); therefore they tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the therapy.
Most importantly, the conclusions are not helpful. I would have simply stated that none of the SCAM modalities are supported by convincing evidence as treatments for pain control after CS.
Patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) have limited treatment options. Alongside conventional anticancer treatment, additive homeopathy might help to alleviate side effects of conventional therapy. The aim of this study was to investigate whether additive homeopathy might influence quality of life (QoL) and survival in NSCLC patients.
In this prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, three-arm, multi-centre, phase III study, the researchers evaluated the possible effects of additive homeopathic treatment compared to placebo in patients with stage IV NSCLC, with respect to QoL in the two randomized groups and survival time in all three groups. Treated patients visited the university teaching hospital every 9 weeks: 150 patients with stage IV NSCLC were included in the study.
- 51 patients received individualized homeopathic remedies plus conventional treatments,
- 47 received placebo plus conventional treatments,
- 52 control patients without any homeopathic treatment were treated with conventional therapies and observed for survival only.
For groups 1 and 2, the study was double-blind. The constituents of the different homeopathic remedies were mainly of plant, mineral, or animal origin. The remedies were manufactured by stepwise dilution and succussion, thereby preparing stable GMP grade formulations.
QoL as well as functional and symptom scales showed significant improvement in the homeopathy group when compared with placebo after 9 and 18 weeks of homeopathic treatment (p < .001). Median survival time was significantly longer in the homeopathy group (435 days) versus placebo (257 days; p = .010) as well as versus control (228 days; p < .001). Survival rate in the homeopathy group differed significantly from placebo (p = .020) and from control (p < .001).
The authors concluded that QoL improved significantly in the homeopathy group compared with placebo. In addition, survival was significantly longer in the homeopathy group versus placebo and control. A higher QoL might have contributed to the prolonged survival. The study suggests that homeopathy positively influences not only QoL but also survival. Further studies including other tumour entities are warranted.
First of all, let me thank my friend Dana Ullman for alerting me to this new and interesting study. I have read what seems to be the full paper several times and have to admit that it puzzles me (and perhaps this version is just some type of pre-publication paper). Firstly, there seems to be no methods section (the abstract is followed by several tables and a discussion), and I am left guessing much of the details. Secondly, the paper raises several questions in my mind:
- What is the purpose of group 3? The authors call it a control group and state it allows assessing the real homeopathic effect on the homeopathic cohort as the real effect will be the natural historical effect minus the placebo effect and the homeopathic effect. Does that make sense?
- Was the study under-powered? From my reading of the text, the answer seems to be yes.
- What is the full list of conventional treatments the patients received, and did they differ between the 3 groups?
- If I understand it correctly, the study patients did not receive immuno-oncological therapy. Does that fact not render the study unethical?
- What homeopathic potencies were prescribed in group 1? The paper says: The constituents of the different homeopathic remedies were mainly of plant, mineral, or animal origin. This is unlikely, as most homeopathic remedies contain nothing.
- The authors seem to have used individualised homeopathy according to Hahnemann’s instructions. Did Hahnemann not strictly forbid combining his approach with other types of treatment?
- How well respected is THE ONCLOLOGIST, the journal that published the paper?
- Was the article peer-reviewed? If so, by whom?
- Was the placebo indistinguishable from the verum?
- Was the success of patient-blinding checked?
- Have similar findings regarding survival been reported previously? The authors call this finding ‘unexpected’; I find it more than that; it is baffling.
- Should we accept such surprising findings, or would it be more prudent to wait until independent replications are available?
- The first author of this trial is Prof Frass who has featured on this blog several times before (see for instance here, here, here, here and here). Frass has published several studies of homeopathy and invariably manages to produce positive results. Am I the only one to find this odd?
I would be most grateful, if the readers of this blog could assist me in finding answers to some of the above questions.
A 2020 article that I just came across concluded with this rather remarkable statement:
High-dose enzyme therapy is a natural cancer protocol that has been highly successful in treating this much-feared disease.
Since we can find a plethora of similar claims on social media and elsewhere, it is high time, I think, to dedicate a post to this alleged cancer cure.
Enzyme therapy involves the administration of proteolytic enzymes by mouth. Proteolytic enzymes are large molecules that are nevertheless said to be absorbed in the gut before they are dispersed into different compartments of the body where they can be detected in various concentrations. Proteolytic enzymes (serine endopeptidases such as trypsin or chymotrypsin and cysteine endo-proteinases such as bromelain and papain or combinations of those enzymes) have long been available for diverse medical indications, including cancer. They are claimed to exert anticancer activities by restoring the reduced cytotoxic activity of patients’ sera.
Enzyme therapy has been subjected to experimental investigations and to a few studies in cancer patients. A systematic review claimed that, for plasmacytoma patients, systemic enzyme therapy was shown to increase the response rates, the duration of remissions, and the overall survival times.
This statement is based on just one study. Here is its abstract:
Purpose: To evaluate the impact of an additive therapy with an oral enzyme (OE) preparation given for more than 6 months additionally to standard combination chemotherapy (vincristine/melphalan/cyclophosphamide/prednisone (VMCP)- or methylprednisolone/ vincristine/CCNU/cyclophosphamide/melphalan (MOCCA)-regimen) in the primary treatment of patients with multiple myeloma stages I-III.
Methods: A cohort of 265 patients with multiple myeloma stages I-III was consecutively treated at our institution in two parallel groups (control group (n = 99): chemotherapy +/-OE for less than 6 months; OE-group (n = 166): chemotherapy + OE for more than 6 months). The median follow-up time in the stages I, II, and III for the OE-group was 61, 37, and 46.5 months, respectively; for the control group the respective values were 33, 51.5, and 31.5 months. The primary endpoint of the study was disease-specific survival. Secondary endpoints were response to therapy, duration of first response and side effects. The chosen method for evaluation was the technique of a retrolective cohort analysis with a concurrent control group. Survival analysis was performed by the Kaplan-Meier method and multivariate analysis was done with the Cox proportional hazards model.
Results: Significantly higher overall response rates and longer duration of remissions were observed in the OE-group. Primary responders showed a longer mean survival time than non-responders. Additive therapy with OE given for more than 6 months decreased the hazard of death for patients at all stages of disease by approximately 60%. Observation time was not long enough to estimate the median survival for patients at stages I and II; for stage III patients it was 47 months in the control group versus 83 months for the patients treated with OE (P = 0.0014) which means a 3-year gain of survival time. Significant prognostic factors for survival, in the Cox regression analysis, were stage of disease and therapy with OE. The OE-therapy was generally well tolerated (3.6% of patients with mild to moderate gastrointestinal symptoms).
Conclusion: OEs represent a promising new additive therapy in multiple myeloma which will be further evaluated in a randomized phase III trial in the USA.
My searches located no prospective clinical trials supporting the notion that enzyme therapy is an effective cancer cure for any type of human cancer. So, what about the bold statement quoted above? In my view, it is a dangerous and highly irresponsible claim that endangers the lives of many vulnerable cancer patients desperately looking for alternative cancer cures.
 Beuth J. Proteolytic enzyme therapy in evidence-based complementary oncology: fact or fiction? Integr Cancer Ther. 2008 Dec;7(4):311-6. doi: 10.1177/1534735408327251. PMID: 19116226.
 Sakalová A, Bock PR, Dedík L, Hanisch J, Schiess W, Gazová S, Chabronová I, Holomanova D, Mistrík M, Hrubisko M. Retrolective cohort study of an additive therapy with an oral enzyme preparation in patients with multiple myeloma. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 2001 Jul;47 Suppl:S38-44. doi: 10.1007/s002800170008. PMID: 11561871.
Manual therapy is a commonly recommended treatment of low back pain (LBP), yet few studies have directly compared the effectiveness of thrust (spinal manipulation) vs non-thrust (spinal mobilization) techniques. This study evaluated the comparative effectiveness of spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization at reducing pain and disability compared with a placebo control group (sham cold laser) in a cohort of young adults with chronic LBP.
This single-blinded (investigator-blinded), placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial with 3 treatment groups was conducted at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute at Ohio University from June 1, 2013, to August 31, 2017. Of 4903 adult patients assessed for eligibility, 4741 did not meet inclusion criteria, and 162 patients with chronic LBP qualified for randomization to 1 of 3 treatment groups. Participants received 6 treatment sessions of (1) spinal manipulation, (2) spinal mobilization, or (3) sham cold laser therapy (placebo) during a 3-week period. Licensed clinicians (either a doctor of osteopathic medicine or physical therapist), with at least 3 years of clinical experience using manipulative therapies provided all treatments.
Primary outcome measures were the change from baseline in Numerical Pain Rating Scale (NPRS) score over the last 7 days and the change in disability assessed with the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire (scores range from 0 to 24, with higher scores indicating greater disability) 48 to 72 hours after completion of the 6 treatments.
A total of 162 participants (mean [SD] age, 25.0 [6.2] years; 92 women [57%]) with chronic LBP (mean [SD] NPRS score, 4.3 [2.6] on a 1-10 scale, with higher scores indicating greater pain) were randomized.
- 54 participants were randomized to the spinal manipulation group,
- 54 to the spinal mobilization group,
- 54 to the placebo group.
There were no significant group differences for sex, age, body mass index, duration of LBP symptoms, depression, fear avoidance, current pain, average pain over the last 7 days, and self-reported disability. At the primary end point, there was no significant difference in change in pain scores between spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization (0.24 [95% CI, -0.38 to 0.86]; P = .45), spinal manipulation and placebo (-0.03 [95% CI, -0.65 to 0.59]; P = .92), or spinal mobilization and placebo (-0.26 [95% CI, -0.38 to 0.85]; P = .39). There was no significant difference in change in self-reported disability scores between spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization (-1.00 [95% CI, -2.27 to 0.36]; P = .14), spinal manipulation and placebo (-0.07 [95% CI, -1.43 to 1.29]; P = .92) or spinal mobilization and placebo (0.93 [95% CI, -0.41 to 2.29]; P = .17). A comparison of treatment credibility and expectancy ratings across groups was not statistically significant (F2,151 = 1.70, P = .19), indicating that, on average, participants in each group had similar expectations regarding the likely benefit of their assigned treatment.
The authors concluded that in this randomized clinical trial, neither spinal manipulation nor spinal mobilization appeared to be effective treatments for mild to moderate chronic LBP.
This is an exceptionally well-reported study. Yet, one might raise a few points of criticism:
- The comparison of two active treatments makes this an equivalence study, and much larger sample sizes are required or such trials (this does not mean that the comparisons are not valid, however).
- The patients had rather mild symptoms; one could argue that patients with severe pain might respond differently.
- Chiropractors could argue that the therapists were not as expert at spinal manipulation as they are; had they employed chiropractic therapists, the results might have been different.
- A placebo control group makes more sense, if it allows patients to be blinded; this was not possible in this instance, and a better placebo might have produced different findings.
Despite these limitations, this study certainly is a valuable addition to the evidence. It casts more doubt on spinal manipulation and mobilisation as an effective therapy for LBP and confirms my often-voiced view that these treatments are not the best we can offer to LBP-patients.
This randomized clinical trial tested the effects of laying on of hands (LooH) as a complementary therapy to kinesiotherapy, on pain, joint stiffness, and functional capacity of older women with knee osteoarthritis (KOA) compared to a control group.
Participants were assigned into 3 groups:
- LooH with a spiritual component (Group – SPG),
- LooH without a spiritual component (Group – LHG),
- a control group receiving no complementary intervention (Control Group – CG).
Patients were assessed at baseline, 8 weeks, and 16 weeks. Primary outcomes were joint stiffness and functional capacity (Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index [WOMAC]), and pain (WOMAC and visual analogue scale). Secondary outcomes were anxiety, depression, mobility, and quality of life. Differences between groups were evaluated using an intention-to-treat approach.
A total of 120 women with KOA were randomized (40 participants per group). At 8 weeks, SPG differed significantly from the LHG for WOMAC Functional Status; Anxiety levels; and also from the CG for all outcomes with exception of WOMAC Stiffness. After 16 weeks, SPG differed significantly from the LHG only for WOMAC Functional Status and also from the CG for all outcomes with exception of WOMAC Stiffness and timed up-and-go.
The authors concluded that the results suggest that LooH with a “spiritual component” may promote better long-term functional outcomes than both LooH without a “spiritual component” and a control group without LooH.
This is an interesting study which seems well designed. Its findings are surprising and lack scientific plausibility. Therefore, sceptics will find it hard to accept the results and suspect some hidden bias or confounding to have caused it rather than the laying on of hands. SCAM enthusiasts would then probably claim that such an attitude exemplifies the bias of sceptics.
So, what can be done to find out who is right and who is wrong?
Whenever we are faced with a surprising finding based on a seemingly rigorous trial, it is wise to realise that there is a plethora of possible explanations and that speculations are usually not very helpful. There is always a danger of a clinical trial producing false or misleading findings. This could be due to a plethora of reasons such as error, undetected bias or confounding, fraud, etc.
What we really need is an independent replication – better two.
Excessive eccentric exercise of inadequately conditioned skeletal muscle results in focal sites of injury within the muscle fibres. These injuries cause pain which usually is greatest about 72 hours after the exercise. This type of pain is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and provides an accessible model for studying the effects of various treatments that are said to have anaesthetic activities; it can easily be reproducibly generated without lasting harm or ethical concerns.
In so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) DOMS is employed regularly to test treatments which are promoted for pain management. Thus several acupuncture trials using this method have become available. Yet, the evidence for the effects of acupuncture on DOMS is inconsistent which begs the question whether across all trials an effects emerges.
The aim of this systematic review therefore was to explore the effects of acupuncture on DOMS. Studies investigating the effect of acupuncture on DOMS in humans that were published before March 2020 were obtained from 8 electronic databases. The affected muscles, groups, acupuncture points, treatment sessions, assessments, assessment times, and outcomes of the included articles were reviewed. The data were extracted and analysed via a meta-analysis.
A total of 15 articles were included, and relief of DOMS-related pain was the primary outcome. The meta-analysis showed that there were no significant differences between acupuncture and sham/control groups, except for acupuncture for DOMS on day 1 (total SMD = -0.62; 95% CI = -1.12∼0.11, P < 0.05) by comparing with control groups.
The authors concluded that acupuncture for DOMS exhibited very-small-to-small and small-to-moderate effects on pain relief for the sham and no acupuncture conditions, respectively. Evidence indicating the effects of acupuncture on DOMS was little because the outcome data during the follow-up were insufficient to perform an effective meta-analysis.
A mere glance at the Forrest plot reveals that acupuncture is unlikely to have any effect on DOMS at all. The very small average effect that does emerge originates mainly from one outlier, the 2008 study by Itoh et al. This trial was published by three acupuncturists from the Department of Clinical Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Meiji University of Integrative Medicine, Kyoto, Japan. It has numerous weaknesses, for instance there are just 10 volunteers in each group, and can therefore be safely discarded.
In essence, this means that there is no good evidence that acupuncture is effective at reducing pain caused by DOMS.
This Cochrane review assessed the efficacy and safety of aromatherapy for people with dementia. The researchers included randomised controlled trials which compared fragrance from plants in an intervention defined as aromatherapy for people with dementia with placebo aromatherapy or with treatment as usual. All doses, frequencies and fragrances of aromatherapy were considered. Participants in the included studies had a diagnosis of dementia of any subtype and severity.
The investigators included 13 studies with 708 participants. All participants had dementia and in the 12 trials which described the setting, all were resident in institutional care facilities. Nine trials recruited participants because they had significant agitation or other behavioural and psychological symptoms in dementia (BPSD) at baseline. The fragrances used were:
- lavender (eight studies);
- lemon balm (four studies);
- lavender and lemon balm,
- lavender and orange,
- cedar extracts (one study each).
For six trials, assessment of risk of bias and extraction of results was hampered by poor reporting. Four of the other seven trials were at low risk of bias in all domains, but all were small (range 18 to 186 participants; median 66). The primary outcomes were:
- overall behavioural,
- psychological symptoms,
- adverse effects.
Ten trials assessed agitation using various scales. Among the 5 trials for which the confidence in the results was moderate or low, 4 trials reported no significant effect on agitation and one trial reported a significant benefit of aromatherapy. The other 5 trials either reported no useable data or the confidence in the results was very low. Eight trials assessed overall BPSD using the Neuropsychiatric Inventory and there was moderate or low confidence in the results of 5 of them. Of these, 4 reported significant benefit from aromatherapy and one reported no significant effect.
Adverse events were poorly reported or not reported at all in most trials. No more than two trials assessed each of our secondary outcomes of quality of life, mood, sleep, activities of daily living, caregiver burden. There was no evidence of benefit on these outcomes. Three trials assessed cognition: one did not report any data and the other two trials reported no significant effect of aromatherapy on cognition. The confidence in the results of these studies was low.
The authors reached the following conclusions: We have not found any convincing evidence that aromatherapy (or exposure to fragrant plant oils) is beneficial for people with dementia although there are many limitations to the data. Conduct or reporting problems in half of the included studies meant that they could not contribute to the conclusions. Results from the other studies were inconsistent. Harms were very poorly reported in the included studies. In order for clear conclusions to be drawn, better design and reporting and consistency of outcome measurement in future trials would be needed.
This is a thorough review. It makes many of the points that I so often make regarding SCAM research:
- too many of the primary studies are badly designed;
- too many of the primary studies are too small;
- too many of the primary studies are poorly reported;
- too many of the primary studies fail to mention adverse effects thus violating research ethics;
- too many of the primary studies are done by pseudo-scientists who use research for promotion rather than testing hypotheses.
It is time that SCAM researchers, ethic review boards, funders, editors and journal reviewers take these points into serious consideration – if only to avoid clinical research getting a bad reputation and losing the support of patients without which it cannot exist.
About one in three individuals have elevated blood pressure. This is bad news because hypertension is one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks. Luckily, there are many highly effective approaches for treating elevated blood pressure (diet, life-style, medication, etc.), and the drug management of hypertension has improved over the last few decades.
But unfortunately all anti-hypertensive drugs have side-effects and some patients look towards so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) to normalise their blood pressure. Therefore, we have to ask: are SCAMs effective treatments for hypertension? Because of the prevalence of hypertension, this is a question of great importance for public health.
In 2005, I addressed the issue by publishing a review entitled ‘Complementary/alternative medicine for hypertension: a mini-review‘. Here is its abstract:
Many hypertensive patients try complementary/alternative medicine for blood pressure control. Based on extensive electronic literature searches, the evidence from clinical trials is summarised. Numerous herbal remedies, non-herbal remedies and other approaches have been tested and some seem to have antihypertensive effects. The effect size is usually modest, and independent replications are frequently missing. The most encouraging data pertain to garlic, autogenic training, biofeedback and yoga. More research is required before firm recommendations can be offered.
Since the publication of this paper, more systematic reviews have become available. In order to get an overview of this evidence, I conducted a few simple Medline searches for systematic reviews (SRs) of SCAM published between 2005 and today. I included only SRs that were focussed on just one specific therapy as a treatment of just one specific condition, namely hypertension (omitting SRs with titles such as ‘Alternative treatments for cardiovascular conditions’). Reviews on prevention were also excluded. Here is what I found (the conclusions of each SR is quoted verbatim):
- A 2020 SR of auricular acupressure including 18 RCTs: The results demonstrated a favorable effect of auricular acupressure to reduce blood pressure and improve sleep in patients with hypertension and insomnia. Further studies to better understand the acupoints and intervention times of auricular acupressure are warranted.
- A 2020 SR of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) including 30 studies: CHM combined with conventional Western medicine may be effective in lowering blood pressure and improving vascular endothelial function in patients with hypertension.
- A 2020 SR of Tai chi including 28 RCTs: Tai Chi could be recommended as an adjuvant treatment for hypertension, especially for patients less than 50 years old.
- A 2020 SR of Tai chi including 13 trials: Tai chi is an effective physical exercise in treating essential hypertension compared with control interventions.
- A 2020 SR of Tai chi including 31 controlled clinical trials: Tai Ji Quan is a viable antihypertensive lifestyle therapy that produces clinically meaningful BP reductions (i.e., 10.4 mmHg and 4.0 mmHg of SBP and DBP reductions, respectively) among individuals with hypertension.
- A 2020 SR of pycnogenol including 7 trials: the present meta-analysis does not suggest any significant effect of pycnogenol on BP.
- A 2019 SR of Policosanol including 19 studies: Policosanol could lower SBP and DBP significantly; future long term studies are required to confirm these findings in the general population.
- A 2019 SR of dietary phosphorus including 14 studies: We found no consistent association between total dietary phosphorus intake and BP in adults in the published literature nor any randomized trials designed to examine this association.
- A 2019 SR of ginger including 6 RCTs: ginger supplementation has favorable effects on BP.
- A 2019 SR of corn silk tea (CST) including 5 RCTs: limited evidence showed that CST plus antihypertensive drugs might be more effective in lowering blood pressure compared with antihypertensive drugs alone.
- A 2019 SR of blood letting including 7 RCTs: no definite conclusions regarding the efficacy and safety of BLT as complementary and alternative approach for treatment of hypertension could be drew due to the generally poor methodological design, significant heterogeneity, and insufficient clinical data.
- A 2019 SR of Xiao Yao San (XYS) including 17 trials: XYS adjuvant to antihypertensive drugs maybe beneficial for hypertensive patients in lowering BP, improving depression, regulating blood lipids, and inhibiting inflammation.
- A 2019 SR of Chinese herbal medicines including 9 RCTs: Chinese herbal medicine as complementary therapy maybe beneficial for postmenopausal hypertension.
- A 2019 Cochrane review of guided imagery including 2 trials: There is insufficient evidence to inform practice about the use of guided imagery for hypertension in pregnancy.
- A 2019 Cochrane review of acupuncture including 22 RCTs: At present, there is no evidence for the sustained BP lowering effect of acupuncture that is required for the management of chronically elevated BP.
- A 2019 SR of wet cupping including 7 RCTs: no firm conclusions can be drawn and no clinical recommendations made.
- A 2019 SR of transcendental meditation (TM) including 9 studies: TM was associated with within-group (but not between-groups) improvements in BP.
- A 2019 SR of yoga including 49 trials: yoga is a viable antihypertensive lifestyle therapy that produces the greatest BP benefits when breathing techniques and meditation/mental relaxation are included.
- A 2018 SR of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) including 5 studies: The MBSR program is a promising behavioral complementary therapy to help people with hypertension lower their blood pressure
- A 2018 SR of beetroot juice (BRJ) including 11 studies: BRJ supplementation should be promoted as a key component of a healthy lifestyle to control blood pressure in healthy and hypertensive individuals.
- A 2018 SR of taurine including 7 studies: ingestion of taurine at the stated doses and supplementation periods can reduce blood pressure to a clinically relevant magnitude, without any adverse side effects.
- A 2018 SR of acupuncture including 30 RCTs: there is inadequate high quality evidence that acupuncture therapy is useful in treating hypertension.
- A 2018 SR of co-enzyme Q10 including 17 RCTs: CoQ10 supplementation may result in reduction in SBP levels, but did not affect DBP levels among patients with metabolic diseases.
- A 2018 SR of a traditional Chinese formula Longdanxiegan decoction (LDXGD) including 9 trials: Due to poor methodological quality of the included trials, as well as potential reporting bias, our review found no conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of LDXGD in treating hypertension.
- A 2018 SR of viscous fibre including 22 RCTs: Viscous soluble fiber has an overall lowering effect on SBP and DBP.
- A 2017 SR of yoga breathing exercise (pranayama) including 13 studies: The pranayama’s effect on BP were not robust against selection bias due to the low quality of studies. But, the lowering BP effect of pranayama is encouraging.
- A 2017 SR of dietary nitrate supplementation including 13 trials: Positive effects of medium-term dietary nitrate supplementation on BP were only observed in clinical settings, which were not corroborated by more accurate methods such as 24-h ambulatory and daily home monitorings.
- A 2017 SR of Vitamin D supplementation including 8 RCTs: vitamin D is not an antihypertensive agent although it has a moderate SBP lowering effect.
- A 2017 SR of pomegranate including 8 RCTs: The limited evidence from clinical trials to date fails to convincingly show a beneficial effect of pomegranate on blood pressure
- A 2017 SR of ‘forest bathing’ including 20 trials: This systematic review shows a significant effect of Shinrin-yoku on reduction of blood pressure.
- A 2017 SR of Niuhuang Jiangya Preparation (NHJYP) including 12 RCTs: Our review indicated that NHJYP has some beneficial effects in EH patients with liver-yang hyperactivity and abundant phlegm-heat syndrome.
- A 2017 SR of Chinese medicines (CM) including 24 studies: CM might be a promising approach for the elderly with isolated systolic hypertension, while the evidence for CM employed alone was insufficient.
- A 2017 SR of beetroot juice including 22 RCTs: Our results demonstrate the blood pressure-lowering effects of beetroot juice and highlight its potential NO3-independent effects.
- A 2017 SR of blueberry including 6 RCTs: the results from this meta-analysis do not favor any clinical efficacy of blueberry supplementation in improving BP
- A 2016 Cochrane review of co-enzyme Q10 including 3 RCTs: This review provides moderate-quality evidence that coenzyme Q10 does not have a clinically significant effect on blood pressure.
- A 2016 SR of Nigella sativa including 11 RCTs: short-term treatment with N. sativa powder can significantly reduce SBP and DBP levels.
- A 2016 SR of vitamin D3 supplementation including 30 RCTs: Supplementation may be beneficial at daily doses >800 IU/day for <6 months in subjects ≥50 years old.
- A 2016 SR of anthocyanin supplementation including 6 studies: results from this meta-analysis do not favor any clinical efficacy of supplementation with anthocyanins in improving blood pressure.
- A 2016 SR of flaxseed including 15 trials: This meta-analysis of RCTs showed significant reductions in both SBP and DBP following supplementation with various flaxseed products.
- A 2016 SR of massage therapy including 9 RCTs: This systematic review found a medium effect of massage on SBP and a small effect on DBP in patients with hypertension or prehypertension.
- A 2015 SR of massage therapy including 24 studies: There is some encouraging evidence of massage for essential hypertension.
- A 2015 SR of transcendental meditation (TM) including 12 studies: an approximate reduction of systolic and diastolic BP of -4.26 mm Hg (95% CI=-6.06, -2.23) and -2.33 mm Hg (95% CI=-3.70, -0.97), respectively, in TM groups compared with control groups.
- A 2015 SR of Zhen Wu Decoction (ZWD) including 7 trials: This systematic review revealed no definite conclusion about the application of ZWD for hypertension due to the poor methodological quality, high risk of bias, and inadequate reporting on clinical data.
- A 2015 SR of acupuncture including 23 RCTs: Our review provided evidence of acupuncture as an adjunctive therapy to medication for treating hypertension, while the evidence for acupuncture alone lowing BP is insufficient.
- A 2015 SR of xuefu zhuyu decoction (XZD) including 15 studies: This meta-analysis provides evidence that XZD is beneficial for hypertension.
- A 2015 SR of Shenqi pill including 4 RCTs: This systematic review firstly provided no definite evidence for the efficacy and safety of Shenqi pill for hypertension based on the insufficient data.
- A 2015 SR of Jian Ling Decoction (JLD) including 10 trials: Owing to insufficient clinical data, it is difficult to draw a definite conclusion regarding the effectiveness and safety of JLD for essential hypertension.
- A 2015 SR of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) including 5 trials: No definite conclusions about the effectiveness and safety of CHM for resistant hypertension could be drawn.
- A 2015 SR of Chinese medicines (CM) including 27 RCTs: When combined with Western medines, CM as a complementary treatment approach has certain effects for the control of hypertension and protection of target organs.
- A 2015 SR of berberine including 17 RCTs: This study indicates that berberine has comparable therapeutic effect on type 2 DM, hyperlipidemia and hypertension with no serious side effect.
- A 2015 SR of garlic including 9 double-blind trials: Although evidence from this review suggests that garlic preparations may lower BP in hypertensive individuals, the evidence is not strong.
- A 2015 SR of chlorogenic acids (CGAs) including 5 studies: CGA intake causes statistically significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
- A 2014 SR of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation including 70 RCTs: provision of EPA+DHA reduces systolic blood pressure, while provision of ≥2 grams reduces diastolic blood pressure.
- A 2014 SR of green tea including 20 RCTs: Green tea intake results in significant reductions in systolic blood pressure
- A 2014 SR of probiotics including 9 studies: consuming probiotics may improve BP by a modest degree, with a potentially greater effect when baseline BP is elevated, multiple species of probiotics are consumed, the duration of intervention is ≥8 weeks, or daily consumption dose is ≥10(11) colony-forming units.
- A 2014 SR of yoga including 17 trials: The evidence for the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment of hypertension is encouraging but inconclusive.
- A 2014 SR of yoga including 7 RCTs: very low-quality evidence was found for effects of yoga on systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- A 2014 SR of yoga including 120 studies: yoga is an effective adjunct therapy for HPT and worthy of inclusion in clinical guidelines.
- A 2014 SR of moxibustion: a beneficial effect of using moxibustion interventions on KI 1 to lower blood pressure compared to antihypertensive drugs.
- A 2014 SR of acupuncture including 4 sham-controlled RCTs: acupuncture significantly lowers blood pressure in patients taking antihypertensive medications.
- A 2014 SR of Tuina including 7 RCTs: The findings from our review suggest that Tuina might be a beneficial adjuvant for patients with EH
- A 2014 SR of ‘kidney tonifying’ (KT) Chinese herbal mixture including 6 studies: Compared with antihypertensive drugs alone, KT formula combined with antihypertensive drugs may provide more benefits for patients with SH.
- A 2014 SR of Tongxinluo capsule including 25 studies : There is some but weak evidence about the effectiveness of TXL in treating patients with hypertension.
- A 2014 SR of moxibustion including 5 RCTs: no confirm conclusion about the effectiveness and safety of moxibustion as adjunctive treatment for essential hypertension could be made
- A 2013 SR of Qi Ju Di Huang Wan (QJDHW) including 10 RCTs: QJDHW combined with antihypertensive drugs might be an effective treatment for lowering blood pressure and improving symptoms in patients with essential hypertension.
- A 2013 SR of yoga including 17 studies: Yoga can be preliminarily recommended as an effective intervention for reducing blood pressure.
- A 2013 SR of Tianma Gouteng Yin (TGY) including 22 RCTs: No confirmed conclusion about the effectiveness and safety of TGY as adjunctive treatment for essential hypertension … could be made.
- A 2013 SR of Zhen Gan Xi Feng Decoction (ZGXFD) including 6 RCTs: ZGXFD appears to be effective in improving blood pressure and hypertension-related symptoms for EH
- A 2013 SR of Tianmagouteng decoction including 9 RCTs: Tianmagouteng decoction can decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- A 2013 SR of fish oil including 17 RCTs: The small but statistically significant effects of fish-oil supplements in hypertensive participants in this review have important implications for population health and lowering the risk of stroke and ischaemic heart disease.
- A 2013 SR of acupuncture including 35 RCTs: While there are some evidences that suggest potential effectiveness of acupuncture for hypertension, the results were limited by the methodological flaws of the studies.
- A 2013 SR of yoga including 6 studies: There is some encouraging evidence of yoga for lowering SBP and DBP.
- A 2012 SR of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) including 10 studies: There is currently a lack of low bias evidence to support the use of SMT as a therapy for the treatment of
- A 2012 SR of vitamin C including 29 trials: In short-term trials, vitamin C supplementation reduced SBP and DBP.
- A 2012 SR of magnesium supplementation including 22 trials: magnesium supplementation appears to achieve a small but clinically significant reduction in BP, an effect worthy of future prospective large randomised trials using solid methodology.
- A 2012 SR of Banxia Baizhu Tianma Decoction (BBTD) including 16 RCTs: There is encouraging evidence of BBTD for lowering SBP, but evidence remains weak.
- A 2012 SR of Liu Wei Di Huang Wan (LWDHW) including 6 RCTs: LWDHW combined with antihypertensive drugs appears to be effective in improving blood pressure and symptoms in patients with essential hypertension.
- A 2012 SR of aromatherapy including 5 studies: The existing trial evidence does not show convincingly that aromatherapy is effective for hypertension.
- A 2012 empty Cochrane review: As no trials could be identified, no conclusions can be made about the role of TGYF in the treatment of primary hypertension.
- A 2012 SR of yoga including 10 studies: Not only does yoga reduce high BP but it has also been demonstrated to effectively reduce blood glucose level, cholesterol level, and body weight, major problems affecting the American society.
- A 2011 SR of L-arginine including 11 RCTs: This meta-analysis provides further evidence that oral L-arginine supplementation significantly lowers both systolic and diastolic BP.
- A 2011 SR of soy isoflavones including 14 RCTs: Soy isoflavone extracts significantly decreased SBP but not DBP in adult humans, and no dose-response relationship was observed.
- A 2010 SR of moxibustion including 4 RCTs: There is insufficient evidence to suggest that moxibustion is an effective treatment for hypertension.
- A 2010 SR of acupunctures including 20 studies: Because of the paucity of rigorous trials and the mixed results, these findings result in limited conclusions. More rigorously designed and powered studies are needed.
- A 2010 SR of cupping including 3 trials: the evidence is not significantly convincing to suggest cupping is effective for treating hypertension.
- A 2010 empty Cochrane review: There is insufficient evidence to support the benefit of Roselle for either controlling or lowering blood pressure in patients with hypertension.
- A 2009 SR of acupuncture including 11 RCTs: the notion that acupuncture may lower high BP is inconclusive.
- A 2008 SR of transcendental meditation including 9 studies: The regular practice of Transcendental Meditation may have the potential to reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure by approximately 4.7 and 3.2 mm Hg, respectively.
- A 2008 SR of relaxation therapies including 25 trials: the evidence in favour of a causal association between relaxation and blood pressure reduction is weak.
- A 2007 SR of qigong including 12 RCTs: There is some encouraging evidence of qigong for lowering SBP, but the conclusiveness of these findings is limited.
- A 2007 SR of co-enzyme Q10 including 12 trials: coenzyme Q10 has the potential in hypertensive patients to lower systolic blood pressure by up to 17 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by up to 10 mm Hg without significant side effects.
- A 2007 SR of stress reduction programs including 106 studies: Available evidence indicates that among stress reduction approaches, the Transcendental Meditation program is associated with significant reductions in BP.
- A 2006 Cochrance review of magnesium supplementation including 12 RCTs: the evidence in favour of a causal association between magnesium supplementation and blood pressure reduction is weak and is probably due to bias.
- A 2006 Cochrane review of calcium supplementation including 13 RCTs: evidence in favour of causal association between calcium supplementation and blood pressure reduction is weak and is probably due to bias.
ALMOST 100 NEW SRs!
To be honest, if I had known the volume of the material, I would probably not have tackled this task. Since the publication of my mini-review in 2005, there has been an explosion of similar papers:
- 1 in 2005
- 2 in 2006
- 3 in 2007
- 2 in 2008
- 1 in 2009
- 4 in 2010
- 2 in 2011
- 8 in 2012
- 8 in 2013
- 12 in 2014
- 12 in 2015
- 6 in 2016
- 9 in 2017
- 7 in 2018
- 12 in 2019
As this is based on very simple Medline searches, the list is certainly not complete. Despite this fact, several conclusions seem to emerge:
- There is no shortage of SCAMs that have been tested for hypertension.
- Most seem to have positive effects; in many cases, they seem too good to be true.
- Many of the SRs are of poor methodological quality, based on poor quality primary studies, published in less than reputable journals. Some SRs, for instance, include studies without a control group which is likely to lead to false-positive overall conclusions about the effectiveness of the SCAM in question.
- In recent years, there are more and more SRs by Chinese authors focussed on Chinese herbal mixtures that are unknown and unobtainable outside China. These SRs are invariably based on studies published in Chinese language in journals that are inaccessible. This means it is almost impossible for the reader, reviewer or editor to check their accuracy. The reliability of the conclusions of these SRs must therefore be doubted.
- Most of the primary studies included in the SRs lack long-term data. Thus the usefulness of the SCAM in question is questionable.
- With several of the SCAMs, the dose of the treatment and treatment schedule is less than clear. For instance, one might ask how frequently a patient should have acupuncture to control her hypertension.
- Some of the SCAMs assessed in these SRs seem of doubtful practicality. For instance, it might not be feasible nor economical for patients to receive regular acupuncture to manage their blood pressure.
- Several contradictions emerge from some of the SRs of the same modality. This is particularly confusing because SRs are supposed to be the most reliable type of evidence. In most instances, however, the explanation can easily be found by looking at the quality of the SRs. If SRs are based on uncontrolled studies, or if they fail to critically evaluate the reliability of the included primary trials, they are likely to arrive at conclusions that are too positive. Examples for such confusion are the multiple SRs of co-enzyme Q10 or the three yoga SRs of 2014.
- Because of this confusion, SCAM advocates are able to select false-positive SRs to support their opinion that SCAM is effective.
- Despite a substantial amount of positive evidence, none of the SCAMs have become part of the routine in the management of hypertension. A 2013 statement by the American Heart Association entitled Beyond medications and diet: alternative approaches to lowering blood pressure: a scientific statement from the american heart association concluded that it is reasonable for all individuals with blood pressure levels >120/80 mm Hg to consider trials of alternative approaches as adjuvant methods to help lower blood pressure when clinically appropriate. A suggested management algorithm is provided, along with recommendations for prioritizing the use of the individual approaches in clinical practice based on their level of evidence for blood pressure lowering, risk-to-benefit ratio, potential ancillary health benefits, and practicality in a real-world setting.
What lessons might this brief overview of SRs teach us? I think the following points are worth considering:
- Systematic reviews are the best type of evidence we have for estimating the effectiveness of treatments. But it is essential that they include a strong element of CRITICAL evaluation of the primary studies. Without it, a SR is incomplete and potentially counter-productive.
- The primary studies of SCAM are far too often of poor quality. This means that researchers should thrive to improve the rigour of their investigations.
- Both poor-quality primary studies and uncritically conducted SRs are prone to yielding findings that are too good to be true.
- Editors and reviewers have a responsibility to prevent the publication of trials and SRs that are of poor quality and thus likely to mislead us.
- Those SCAMs that have shown promising effects on hypertension (for instance Tai chi) should now be submitted to further independent scrutiny to find out whether their efficacy and usefulness can be confirmed, for instance, by 24-h ambulatory and daily home blood pressure monitoring and studies testing their acceptability in real life settings. Subsequently, we ought to determine whether the SCAM in question can be reasonably integrated in routine blood pressure management.
- The adjunctive use of a SCAM that has been proven to be effective and practical seems a reasonable approach. Yet, it requires proper scientific scrutiny.
- There is a paucity of cost-effectiveness studies and investigations of the risks of SCAM which needs to be addressed before any SCAM is considered for routine care.
Tasuki is a sort of sash for holding up the sleeves on a kimono. It also retracts the shoulders and keeps the head straight up. By correcting the wearer’s posture, it might even prevent or treat neck pain. The greater the forward head posture, for example, the more frequent are neck problems. However, there is little clinical evidence to support or refute this hypothesis.
This study was conducted to determine whether Tasuki-style posture supporter improves neck pain compared to waiting-list. It was designed as an individually-randomized, open-label, waiting-list-controlled study. Adults with non-specific chronic neck pain who reported 10 points or more on modified Neck Disability Index (mNDI: range, 0-50; higher points indicate worse condition) were enrolled. Participants were randomly assigned 1:1 to the intervention group or to a waiting-list control group. The primary outcome was the change in mNDI at 1 week.
In total, 50 participants were enrolled. Of these participants, 26 (52%) were randomly assigned to the intervention group and 24 to the waiting-list. Attrition rate was low in both groups (1/50). The mean mNDI change score at 1 week was more favourable for Tasuki than waiting-list (between-group difference, -3.5 points (95% confidence interval (CI), -5.3 to -1.8); P = .0002). More participants (58%) had moderate benefit (at least 30% improvement) with Tasuki than with waiting-list (13%) (relative risk 4.6 (95% CI 1.5 to 14); risk difference 0.45 (0.22 to 0.68)).
The author concluded that this trial suggests that wearing Tasuki might moderately improve neck pain. With its low-cost, low-risk, and easy-to-use nature, Tasuki could be an option for those who suffer from neck pain.
In the previous two posts, we discussed how lamentably weak the evidence for acupuncture and spinal manipulation is regarding the management of pain such as ‘mechanical’ neck pain. Here we have a well-reported study with a poor design (no control for non-specific effects) which seems to suggest that simply wearing a Tasuki is just as effective as acupuncture or spinal manipulation.
What is the lesson from this collective evidence?
Is it that we should forget about acupuncture and spinal manipulation for chronic neck pain?
Or is it that poor trial designs generate unreliable evidence?
Or is it that any treatment, however daft, will generate positive outcomes, if the researchers are sufficiently convinced of its benefit?
Yes, I think so.
If you had chronic neck pain, would you rather have your neck manipulated, needles stuck into your body, or get a Tasuki? (Spoiler: Tasuki is risk-free, the other two treatments are not!)