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

symptom-relief

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Most chiropractors claim they can effectively treat a wide range of conditions. I have looked far and wide but I fail to see sound evidence to show that this assumption is true. On a good day, I might agree that chiropractic works for back pain (but this would need to be a very good day and I would need to close at least one eye) – and that’s basically it! Unsurprisingly, chiropractors vehemently disagree with me. Yet, they have an all too obvious conflict of interest in that question and, therefore, they are unlikely to be objective.

One regular commentator of this blog recently reminded me that the UK ‘ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY’ (ASA) state on their website that based on all evidence submitted and reviewed to date, the ASA and CAP accept that chiropractors may claim to treat the following conditions:

  • Ankle sprain (short term management)
  • Cramp
  • Elbow pain and tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) arising from associated musculoskeletal conditions of the back and neck, but not isolated occurrences
  • Headache arising from the neck (cervicogenic
  • Joint pains
  • Joint pains including hip and knee pain from osteoarthritis as an adjunct to core OA treatments and exercise
  • General, acute & chronic backache, back pain (not arising from injury or accident)
  • Generalised aches and pains
  • Lumbago
  • Mechanical neck pain (as opposed to neck pain following injury i.e. whiplash)
  • Migraine prevention
  • Minor sports injuries
  • Muscle spasms
  • Plantar fasciitis (short term management)
  • Rotator cuff injuries, disease or disorders
  • Sciatica
  • Shoulder complaints (dysfunction, disorders and pain)
  • Soft tissue disorders of the shoulder
  • Tension and inability to relax

This is an impressive yet very odd list:

  • Why is ‘joint pain’ listed twice?
  • Can lateral epicondylitis arise from musculoskeletal conditions of the back and neck?
  • What exactly are ‘generalised aches and pains’?
  • Isn’t lumbago and backache the same?
  • Are ‘minor sports injuries’ (including a cut, bruise or haematoma?) a category that is well-defined?
  • What is a ‘soft tissue disorders of the shoulder’

But let’s not be pedantic. Let’s assume these are all defined conditions that need to be treated. The problem still remains that there is hardly any good evidence that they can be effectively treated by chiropractic spinal manipulation (in case you disagree, please post the evidence in the comments section).

And here we come to the crux of the matter, I think.

Chiropractors would say that they use so much more than spinal manipulations.

  • For a sport injury, they might apply an ice-pack.
  • For the inability to relax, they might give a massage.
  • For rotator cuff problems, they might administer exercises.
  • For tennis elbow, they might recommend immobilizing the joint.
  • Etc., etc.

But that’s not chiropractic!

Yes, it is what we do, insist the chiropractors.

I do not doubt it, but survey after survey shows that chiropractors treat almost all their patients with spinal manipulation. And the history of chiropractic is purely based on spinal manipulation. Yes, today they also use treatments borrowed from other disciplines, yet spinal manipulation is the treatment that defines them.

Let me try an example to make my point clear. Imagine a surgeon who specialises in an obsolete type of operation (e.g. ligation of the mammary artery as a treatment of coronary artery disease). Following the chiro-logic, he could claim that:

  • my approach is not ineffective because I do so much more than just operate,
  • I also prescribe medications,
  • I give dietary advice,
  • I give nutritional advice,
  • I recommend relaxation,
  • I suggest regular exercise.

And the results would, of course, show that many of his patients benefit from all this.

Does that mean our surgeon provides effective care for his patients?

Similarly, crystal healing could be seen as being effective, because some crystal healers tell their obese patients to eat less and exercise more?

So, the above-cited list of claims that the ASA now allows UK chiropractors to make is either way too long or much too short – in any case, it is nonsense. If we base it on the proven effectiveness of spinal manipulation, it must be very short indeed. If we base it on everything chiropractors might do in addition, it is far too short; in this case, it should include everything in the medical textbooks from AIDS to ZOSTER (I cannot imagine many conditions for which life-style advice, exercise or cryotherapy [for pain-control] etc. would not be helpful).

My conclusions from all this are as follows:

  • Chiropractors have tried to reinvent themselves by borrowing some treatments from other healthcare professions.
  • They have done this, I suspect, to avoid being judged by their largely ineffective hallmark intervention, spinal manipulation. The move may be commercially clever, but it is nevertheless transparently nonsensical and wholly unconvincing.
  • Chiropractors must be judged not by the treatments they borrowed and might use occasionally, but by the only therapy that is inherent to chiropractic: spinal manipulation.
  • And spinal manipulation is certainly not effective for a wide range of conditions.

Lumbar spinal stenosis (LSS) is a common reason for spine surgery. Several non-surgical LSS treatment options are also available, but their effectiveness remains unproven. The objective of this study was to explore the comparative clinical effectiveness of three non-surgical interventions for patients with LSS:

  • medical care,
  • group exercise,
  • individualised exercise plus manual therapy.

All interventions were delivered during 6 weeks with follow-up at 2 months and 6 months at an outpatient research clinic. Patients older than 60 years with LSS were recruited from the general public. Eligibility required anatomical evidence of central canal and/or lateral recess stenosis (magnetic resonance imaging/computed tomography) and clinical symptoms associated with LSS (neurogenic claudication; less symptoms with flexion). Analysis was intention to treat.

Medical care consisted of medications and/or epidural injections provided by a physiatrist. Group exercise classes were supervised by fitness instructors. Manual therapy/individualized exercise consisted of spinal mobilization, stretches, and strength training provided by chiropractors and physical therapists. The primary outcomes were between-group differences at 2 months in self-reported symptoms and physical function measured by the Swiss Spinal Stenosis questionnaire (score range, 12-55) and a measure of walking capacity using the self-paced walking test (meters walked for 0 to 30 minutes).

A total of 259 participants were allocated to medical care (n = 88), group exercise (n = 84), or manual therapy/individualized exercise (n = 87). Adjusted between-group analyses at 2 months showed manual therapy/individualized exercise had greater improvement of symptoms and physical function compared with medical care or group exercise. Manual therapy/individualized exercise had a greater proportion of responders (≥30% improvement) in symptoms and physical function (20%) and walking capacity (65.3%) at 2 months compared with medical care (7.6% and 48.7%, respectively) or group exercise (3.0% and 46.2%, respectively). At 6 months, there were no between-group differences in mean outcome scores or responder rates.

The authors concluded that a combination of manual therapy/individualized exercise provides greater short-term improvement in symptoms and physical function and walking capacity than medical care or group exercises, although all 3 interventions were associated with improvements in long-term walking capacity.

In many ways, this is a fairly rigorous study; in one important way, however, it is odd. One can easily see why one group received the usual standard care (except perhaps for the fact that standard medical care should also include exercise). I also understand why one group attended group exercise. Yet, I fail to see the logic in the third intervention, individualised exercise plus manual therapy.

Individualised exercise is likely to be superior to group exercise. If the researchers wanted to test this hypothesis, they should not have added the manual therapy. If they wanted to find out whether manual therapy is better that the other two treatments, they should not have added individualised exercise. As it stands, they cannot claim that either manual therapy or individualised exercise are effective (yet, I am sure that the chiropractic fraternity will claim that this study shows their treatment to be indicated for LSS [three of the authors are chiropractors and the 1st author seems to have a commercial interest in the matter!]).

Manual therapy procedures used in this trial included:

  • lumbar distraction mobilization,
  • hip joint mobilization,
  • side posture lumbar/sacroiliac joint mobilization,
  • and neural mobilization.

Is there any good reason to assume that these interventions work for LSS? I doubt it!

And this is what makes the new study odd, in my view. Assuming I am correct in speculating that individualised exercise is better than group exercise, the trial would have yielded a similarly positive result, if the researchers had offered, instead of the manual therapy, a packet of cigarettes, a cup of tea, a chocolate bar, or swinging a dead cat. In other words, if someone had wanted to make a useless therapy appear to be effective, they could not have chosen a better trial design.

And why do I find such studies objectionable?

Mainly because they deliberately mislead many of us. In the present case, many non-critical observers might conclude that manual therapy is effective for LSS. Yet, the truth could well be that it is useless or even harmful (assuming that the effect size of individualised exercise is large, adding a harmful therapy would still render the combination effective). To put it bluntly, such trials

  • could harm patients,
  • might waste money,
  • and hinder progress.

 

Benign prostate hypertrophy (BPH) affects many men aged 50 and older. It is caused by an enlargement of the prostate resulting in difficulties to urinate and to fully empty the bladder. There are several conventional treatment options, including life-style changes that are effective. In addition, a myriad of alternative therapies are being promoted, most of which are of doubtful effectiveness. Recently, a homeopathy-promoter, Dr Jens Behnke, triumphantly tweeted a trial of homeopathy for BPH allegedly proving that homeopathy does work after all. There is no conceivable reason why homeopathic remedies should have any effect on this (or any other) condition. Therefore, I decided to have a closer look at this paper.

The objective of this 5-centre, three-armed, open, randomised study was to evaluate the effectiveness of Homoeopathic Constitutional remedy (HC) and Homoeopathic Constitutional + Organ remedy (HCOM) in comparison to Placebo (PL) in patients suffering from BPH using International Prostate Symptom Score (IPSS), ultrasonographic changes in prostate volume, post-void residual urine, uroflowmetry and in WHO Quality of Life (QOL)-BREF. Patients were randomised into three groups in 2:2:1 ratio and were followed up for 6 months. The statistical analysis was done with modified intention-to-treat principle (mITT).

Of 461 patients screened, 254 patients were enrolled in the study and 241 patients were analysed as per mITT. The mean changes in IPSS and QOL due to urinary symptoms from baseline to end of study showed a positive trend in all the three groups. However, in the HC group, the changes were more prominent as compared to the other two groups. There was no difference between HC and HCOM groups and they were equally effective in terms of managing lower urinary tract symptoms due to BPH. With regard to secondary outcome, there was no difference between the groups. The psychological, social and environmental domains of WHOQOL-BREF have shown positive trend, but there was no statistically significant difference in intervention groups.

The authors concluded that statistical significance was found in the IPSS in all the three groups but only in HC and not in any of the objective parameters.

The paper is so badly written that I struggle to make sense of it. However, the above graph seems clear enough. The changes are perhaps statistically significant (which I find odd and cannot quite understand) but they are certainly not clinically relevant. Most likely, they are due to the fact that this study was not blind, meaning that patients and investigators were aware of the group allocations. This suggests to me that this study

  • is dubious in more than one way,
  • tests a hypothesis that lacks plausibility,
  • yields a result that is clinically irrelevant.

In other words, it does not amount to anything remotely resembling a proof of homeopathy’s efficacy.

You probably know what yoga is. But what is FODMAP? It stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, more commonly known as carbohydrates. In essence, FODMAPs are carbohydrates found in a wide range of foods including onions, garlic, mushrooms, apples, lentils, rye and milk. These sugars are poorly absorbed, pass through the small intestine and enter the colon . There they are fermented by bacteria a process that produces gas which stretches the sensitive bowel causing bloating, wind and sometimes even pain. This can also cause water to move into and out of the colon, causing diarrhoea, constipation or a combination of both. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) makes people more susceptible to such problems.

During a low FODMAP diet these carbohydrates are eliminated usually for six to eight weeks.  Subsequently, small amounts of FODMAP foods are gradually re-introduced to find a level of symptom-free tolerance. The question is, does the low FODMAP diet work?

This study examined the effect of a yoga-based intervention vs a low FODMAP diet on patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Fifty-nine patients with IBS undertook a randomised controlled trial involving yoga or a low FODMAP diet for 12 weeks. Patients in the yoga group received two sessions weekly, while patients in the low FODMAP group received a total of three sessions of nutritional counselling. The primary outcome was a change in gastrointestinal symptoms (IBS-SSS). Secondary outcomes explored changes in quality of life (IBS-QOL), health (SF-36), perceived stress (CPSS, PSQ), body awareness (BAQ), body responsiveness (BRS) and safety of the interventions. Outcomes were examined in weeks 12 and 24 by assessors “blinded” to patients’ group allocation.

No statistically significant difference was found between the intervention groups, with regard to IBS-SSS score, at either 12 or 24 weeks. Within-group comparisons showed statistically significant effects for yoga and low FODMAP diet at both 12 and 24 weeks. Comparable within-group effects occurred for the other outcomes. One patient in each intervention group experienced serious adverse events and another, also in each group, experienced nonserious adverse events.

The authors concluded that patients with irritable bowel syndrome might benefit from yoga and a low-FODMAP diet, as both groups showed a reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms. More research on the underlying mechanisms of both interventions is warranted, as well as exploration of potential benefits from their combined use.

Technically, this study is an equivalence study comparing two interventions. Such trials only make sense, if one of the two treatments have been proven to be effective. This is, however, not the case. Moreover, equivalence studies require much larger sample sizes than the 59 patients included here.

What follows is that this trial is pure pseudoscience and the positive conclusion of this study is not warranted. The authors have, in my view, demonstrated a remarkable level of ignorance regarding clinical research. None of this is all that unusual in the realm of alternative medicine; sadly, it seems more the rule than the exception.

What might make this lack of research know-how more noteworthy is something else: starting in January 2019, one of the lead authors of this piece of pseudo-research (Prof. Dr. med. Jost Langhorst) will be the director of the new Stiftungslehrstuhl “Integrative Medizin” am Klinikum Bamberg (clinic and chair of integrative medicine in Bamberg, Germany).

This does not bode well, does it?

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.

It is time, I think, to express my gratitude to Dr Jens Behnke, a German homeopath employed by the pro-homeopathy lobby group the ‘Carstens Stiftung’, who diligently tweets trials of homeopathy which he obviously believes prove the value of his convictions.

The primary objective of this new study was to evaluate the efficacy of homoeopathy for women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome. This condition is characterised by:

  • irregular periods which means your ovaries don’t regularly release eggs,
  • abnormally high levels of male hormones in the body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair,
  • polycystic ovaries – ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) which surround the eggs.

There’s no cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can usually be treated. As so often in such situations, homeopaths are happy to step into the fray.

This single-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled pilot study was conducted at two research centres in India. The cases fulfilling the eligibility criteria were enrolled (n = 60) and randomised to either the homoeopathic intervention (HI) (n = 30) or placebo (P) (n = 30) with uniform lifestyle modification (LSM) for 6 months.

The menstrual regularity with improvement in other signs/symptoms was observed in 60% of the cases (n = 18) in HI + LSM group and none (n = 0) in control group. Statistically significant difference was observed in the reduction of intermenstrual duration in HI + LSM in comparison to placebo + LSM group. Significant improvements were also observed in HI+LSM group in domains of weight, fertility, emotions and menstrual problems. No change was observed in respect of improvement in the ultrasound findings. Pulsatilla was the most frequently indicated homeopathic remedy.

The authors concluded that HI along with LSM has shown promising outcome; further comparative study with standard conventional treatment on adequate sample size is desirable.

This trial might convince believers (mostly because they do not even need convincing), but it cannot convince anybody capable of critical thinking. Here is why:

  • According to its authors, this trial was a pilot study; this means it should not report any results and merely focus on the feasibility of a definitive trial.
  • Researchers were not blinded, meaning that they might have influenced the outcome in more than one way.
  • The primary endpoint was subjective and could have been influenced by the non-blinded researchers.
  • 0% success rate in achieving the primary endpoint in the placebo group is not plausible.
  • Compliance to LSM was not checked; as the homeopathy group lost more weight, these patients seemed to have complied better (probably due to being better motivated by the non-blinded researchers).

So?

My conclusion is not very original but all the more true: POORLY DESIGNED STUDIES USUALLY GENERATE UNRELIABLE RESULTS. 

A pain in the neck is just that: A PAIN IN THE NECK! Unfortunately, this symptom is both common and often difficult to treat. Chiropractors pride themselves of treating neck pain effectively. Yet, the evidence is at best thin, the costs are high and, as often-discussed, the risks might be considerable. Thus, any inexpensive, effective and safe alternative would be welcome.

This RCT  tested two hypotheses:

1) that denneroll cervical traction (a very simple device for the rehabilitation of sagittal cervical alignment) will improve the sagittal alignment of the cervical spine.

2) that restoration of normal cervical sagittal alignment will improve both short and long-term outcomes in cervical myofascial pain syndrome patients.

The study included 120 (76 males) patients with chronic myofascial cervical pain syndrome (CMCPS) and defined cervical sagittal posture abnormalities. They were randomly assigned to the control or an intervention group. Both groups received the Integrated neuromuscular inhibition technique (INIT); additionally, the intervention group received the denneroll cervical traction device. Alignment outcomes included two measures of sagittal posture: cervical angle (CV), and shoulder angle (SH). Patient relevant outcome measures included: neck pain intensity (NRS), neck disability (NDI), pressure pain thresholds (PPT), cervical range of motion using the CROM. Measures were assessed at three intervals: baseline, 10 weeks, and 1 year after the 10 week follow up.

After 10 weeks of treatment, between group statistical analysis, showed equal improvements for both the intervention and control groups in NRS and NDI. However, at 10 weeks, there were significant differences between groups favouring the intervention group for PPT and all measures of CROM. Additionally, at 10 weeks the sagittal alignment variables showed significant differences favouring the intervention group for CV and SH indicating improved CSA. Importantly, at the 1-year follow-up, between group analysis identified a regression back to baseline values for the control group for the non-significant group differences (NRS and NDI) at the 10-week mark. Thus, all variables were significantly different between groups favouring the intervention group at 1-year follow up.

The authors concluded that the addition of the denneroll cervical orthotic to a multimodal program positively affected CMCPS outcomes at long term follow up. We speculate the improved sagittal cervical posture alignment outcomes contributed to our findings.

Yes, I know, this study is far from rigorous or conclusive. And the evidence for traction is largely negative. But the device has one huge advantage over chiropractic: it cannot cause much harm. The harm to the wallet is less than that of endless sessions chiropractors or other manual therapists (conceivably, a self-made cushion will have similar effects without any expense); and the chances that patients suffer a stroke are close to zero.

Alternative medicine is an odd term (but it is probably as good or bad as any other term for it). It describes a wide range of treatments (and diagnostic techniques which I exclude from this discussion) that have hardly anything in common.

Hardly anything!

And that means there are a few common denominators. Here are 7 of them:

  1. The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.
  2. The treatments enjoy a lot of support.
  3. The treatments are natural and therefore safe.
  4. The treatments are holistic.
  5. The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.
  6. The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.
  7. The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

One only has to scratch the surface to discover that these common denominators of alternative medicine turn out to be unmitigated nonsense.

Let me explain:

The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.

It is true that most alternative therapies have a long history; but what does that really mean? In my view, it signals but one thing: when these therapies were invented, people had no idea how our body functions; they mostly had speculations, superstitions and myths. It follows, I think, that the treatments in question are built on speculations, superstitions and myths.

This might be a bit too harsh, I admit. But one thing is absolutely sure: a long history of usage is no proof of efficacy.

The treatments enjoy a lot of support.

Again, this is true. Alternative treatments are supported by many patients who swear by them, by thousands of clinicians who employ them as well as by royalty and other celebrities who make the headlines with them.

Such support is usually based on experience or belief. Neither are evidence; quite the opposite, remember: the three most dangerous words in medicine are ‘IN MY EXPERIENCE’. To be clear, experience and belief can fool us profoundly, and science is a tool to prevent us being misled by them.

The treatments are natural and therefore safe.

Here we have two fallacies moulded into one. Firstly, not all alternative therapies are natural; secondly, none is entirely safe.

There is nothing natural about diluting the Berlin Wall and selling it as a homeopathic remedy. There is nothing natural about forcing a spinal joint beyond its physiological range of motion and calling it spinal manipulation. There is nothing natural about sticking needles into the skin and claiming this re-balances our vital energies.

Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, etc. are burdened with their fair share of adverse effects. But the real danger of alternative medicine is the harm done by neglecting effective therapies. Anyone who decides to forfeit conventional treatments for a serious condition, and uses alternative therapies instead, runs the risk of shortening their lives.

The treatments are holistic.

Alternative therapists try very hard to sell their treatments as holistic. This sounds good and must be an excellent marketing gimmick. Alas, it is not true.

There is nothing less holistic than seeing subluxations, yin/yang imbalances, auto-intoxications, energy blockages, etc. as the cause of all illness. Holism is at the heart of all good healthcare; the attempt by alternative practitioners to hijack it is merely a transparent attempt to boost their business.

The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.

Alternative therapists claim that they can identify the root causes of all conditions and thus treat them more effectively than conventional clinicians who merely treat their symptoms. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conventional medicine has been so spectacularly successful not least because we always aim at identifying the cause that underlie a symptom and, whenever possible, treat that cause (often in addition to treating symptoms). Alternative practitioners may well delude themselves that energy imbalances, subluxations, chi-blockages etc. are root causes, but there simply is no evidence to support their deluded claims.

The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.

The feeling of paranoia seems endemic in alternative medicine. Many practitioners are so affected by it that they believe everyone who doubts their implausible notions and misconceptions is out to get them. Big Pharma’ or whoever else they feel prosecuted by are more likely to smile at such wild conspiracy theories than to fear for their profit margins. And whenever ‘Big Pharma’ does smell a fast buck, they do not hesitate to jump on the alternative band-waggon joining them in ripping off the public by flogging dubious supplements, homeopathics, essential oils, vitamins, flower remedies, detox-remedies, etc.

The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

It is probably true that the average cost of a homeopathic remedy, an acupuncture treatment or an aromatherapy session costs less than the average conventional treatment. However, to conclude from it that alternative therapies are value for money is wrong. To be of real value, a treatment needs to generate more good than harm; but very few alternative treatments fulfil this criterion. To use a blunt analogy, if someone offers you a used car, it may well be inexpensive – if, however, it does not run and is beyond repair, it cannot be value for money.

As I already stated: alternative medicine is so diverse that its various branches are almost entirely unrelated, and the few common denominators of alternative medicine that do exist are unmitigated nonsense.

The American Dance Therapy Association defines Dance Movement Therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the participant.

Dance/movement therapy is:

  • Focused on movement behavior as it emerges in the therapeutic relationship.  Expressive, communicative, and adaptive behaviors are all considered for group and individual treatment.  Body movement, as the core component of dance, simultaneously provides the means of assessment and the mode of intervention for dance/movement therapy.
  • Practiced in mental health, rehabilitation, medical, educational and forensic settings, and in nursing homes, day care centers, disease prevention, health promotion programs and in private practice.
  • Effective for individuals with developmental, medical, social, physical and psychological impairments.
  • Used with people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds in individual, couples, family and group therapy formats.

This sounds interesting, but does dance therapy work?

The aim of this paper was to perform a systematic review on the effectiveness of dance-based programs in patients with fibromyalgia, as well as calculate the overall effect size of the improvements, through a meta-analysis.

A total of 7 RCTs fulfilled all inclusion criteria. Their methodological quality was low. Duration of dance programs ranged from 12 to 24 weeks. Sessions lasted between 60 and 120 minutes and were performed 1-2 times per week. The overall effect size for pain was -1.64 with a 95% CI from -2.69 to -0.59 which can be interpreted as large. In addition, significant improvements were observed in quality of life, depression, impact of the disease, anxiety, and physical function.

The authors concluded that dance-based intervention programs can be an effective intervention for people suffering from fibromyalgia, leading to a significant reduction of the level of pain with an effect size that can be considered as large. However, findings and conclusions from this meta-analysis must be taken with caution due to the small number of articles and the large heterogeneity.

I don’t doubt that physical activity can ease pain, particularly, if combined with the often positive social interactions of dance. What is unclear to me is whether dance therapy generates results that are better than other forms of physical activity.

And then again, is that question really all that important? Perhaps the best advice to patients is to engage in the type of physical exercise the like best. At the very least, this would minimise the often poor compliance with such programs and might thus maximise their potential benefits.

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