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

systematic review

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Spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) is widely used worldwide to treat musculoskeletal and many other conditions. The evidence that it works for any of them is weak, non-existent, or negative. What is worse, SMT can – as we have discussed so often on this blog –  cause adverse events some of which are serious, even fatal.

Spinal epidural hematoma (SEH) caused by SMT is a rare emergency that can cause neurological dysfunction. Chinese researchers recently reported three cases of SEH after SMT.

  1. The first case was a 30-year-old woman who experienced neck pain and numbness in both upper limbs immediately after SMT. Her symptoms persisted after 3 d of conservative treatment, and she was admitted to our hospital. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) demonstrated an SEH, extending from C6 to C7.
  2. The second case was a 55-year-old man with sudden back pain 1 d after SMT, numbness in both lower limbs, an inability to stand or walk, and difficulty urinating. MRI revealed an SEH, extending from T1 to T3.
  3. The third case was a 28-year-old man who suddenly developed symptoms of numbness in both lower limbs 4 h after SMT. He was unable to stand or walk and experienced mild back pain. MRI revealed an SEH, extending from T1 to T2.

All three patients underwent surgery after failed conservative treatment and all recovered to ASIA grade E on day 5, 1 wk, and day 10 after surgery, respectively. All patients returned to normal after 3 mo of follow-up.

The authors concluded that SEH caused by SMT is very rare, and the condition of each patient should be evaluated in full detail before operation. SEH should be diagnosed immediately and actively treated by surgery.

These cases might serve as an apt reminder of the fact that SMT (particularly SMT of the neck) is not without its dangers. The authors’ assurance that SEH is VERY RARE is a little puzzling, in my view (the paper includes a table with all 17 previously published cases). There is, as we often have mentioned, no post-marketing surveillance, surgeons only see those patients who survive such complications long enough to come to the hospital, and they publish such cases only if they feel like it. Consequently, the true incidence is anyone’s guess.

As pointed out earlier, the evidence that SMT might be effective is shaky for most indications. In view of the potential for harm, this can mean only one thing:

The risk/benefit balance for SMT is not demonstrably positive.

In turn, this leads to the conclusion that patients should think twice before having SMT and should inquire about other therapeutic options that have a more positive risk/benefit balance. Similarly, the therapists proposing SMT to a patient have the ethical and moral duty to obtain fully informed consent which includes information about the risk/benefit balance of SMT and other options.

A substantial number of patients globally receive spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) to manage non-musculoskeletal disorders. However, the efficacy and effectiveness of these interventions to prevent or treat non-musculoskeletal disorders remain controversial.

A Global Summit of international chiropractors and scientists conducted a systematic review of the literature to determine the efficacy and effectiveness of SMT for the primary, secondary and tertiary prevention of non-musculoskeletal disorders. The Global Summit took place on September 14-15, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. It was attended by 50 chiropractic researchers from 8 countries and 28 observers from 18 chiropractic organizations. Participants met the following criteria: 1) chiropractor with a PhD, or a researcher with a PhD (not a chiropractor) with research expertise in chiropractic; 2) actively involved in research (defined as having published at least 5 peer-reviewed papers over the past 5 years); and 3) appointed at an academic or educational institution. In addition, a small group of researchers who did not meet these criteria were invited. These included three chiropractors with a strong publication and scientific editorial record who did not have a PhD (SMP, JW, and HS) and two early career researchers with expertise within the area of chiropractic and pseudoscience (ALM, GG). Participants were invited by the Steering Committee using purposive and snowball sampling methods. At the summit, participants critically appraised the literature and synthesized the evidence.

They searched MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health, and the Index to Chiropractic Literature from inception to May 15, 2019, using subject headings specific to each database and free text words relevant to manipulation/manual therapy, effectiveness, prevention, treatment, and non-musculoskeletal disorders. Eligible for review were randomized controlled trials published in English. The methodological quality of eligible studies was assessed independently by reviewers using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) criteria for randomized controlled trials. The researchers synthesized the evidence from articles with high or acceptable methodological quality according to the Synthesis without Meta-Analysis (SWiM) Guideline. The final risk of bias and evidence tables were reviewed by researchers who attended the Global Summit and 75% (38/50) had to approve the content to reach consensus.

A total of 4997 citations were retrieved, and 1123 duplicates were removed, and 3874 citations were screened. Of those, the eligibility of 32 articles was evaluated at the Global Summit and 16 articles were included in the systematic review. The synthesis included 6 randomized controlled trials with acceptable or high methodological quality (reported in 7 articles). These trials investigated the efficacy or effectiveness of SMT for the management of

  • infantile colic,
  • childhood asthma,
  • hypertension,
  • primary dysmenorrhea,
  • migraine.

None of the trials evaluated the effectiveness of SMT in preventing the occurrence of non-musculoskeletal disorders. A consensus was reached on the content of all risk of bias and evidence tables. All randomized controlled trials with high or acceptable quality found that SMT was not superior to sham interventions for the treatment of these non-musculoskeletal disorders.

Six of 50 participants (12%) in the Global Summit did not approve the final report.

The authors concluded that our systematic review included six randomized clinical trials (534 participants) of acceptable or high quality investigating the efficacy or effectiveness of SMT for the treatment of non-musculoskeletal disorders. We found no evidence of an effect of SMT for the management of non-musculoskeletal disorders including infantile colic, childhood asthma, hypertension, primary dysmenorrhea, and migraine. This finding challenges the validity of the theory that treating spinal dysfunctions with SMT has a physiological effect on organs and their function. Governments, payers, regulators, educators, and clinicians should consider this evidence when developing policies about the use and reimbursement of SMT for non-musculoskeletal disorders.

I would have formulated the conclusions much more succinctly:

As has already been shown repeatedly, there is no sound evidence that SMT is effective for non-musculoskeletal conditions.

Acupuncture is a veritable panacea; it cures everything! At least this is what many of its advocates want us to believe. Does it also have a role in supportive cancer care?

Let’s find out.

This systematic review evaluated the effects of acupuncture in women with breast cancer (BC), focusing on patient-reported outcomes (PROs).

A comprehensive literature search was carried out for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) reporting PROs in BC patients with treatment-related symptoms after undergoing acupuncture for at least four weeks. Literature screening, data extraction, and risk bias assessment were independently carried out by two researchers. The authors stated that they followed the ‘Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses’ (PRISMA) guidelines.

Out of the 2, 524 identified studies, 29 studies representing 33 articles were included in this meta-analysis. The RCTs employed various acupuncture techniques with a needle, such as hand-acupuncture and electroacupuncture. Sham/placebo acupuncture, pharmacotherapy, no intervention, or usual care were the control interventions. About half of the studies lacked adequate blinding.

At the end of treatment (EOT), the acupuncture patients’ quality of life (QoL) was measured by the QLQ-C30 QoL subscale, the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Endocrine Symptoms (FACT-ES), the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy–General/Breast (FACT-G/B), and the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life Questionnaire (MENQOL), which depicted a significant improvement. The use of acupuncture in BC patients lead to a considerable reduction in the scores of all subscales of the Brief Pain Inventory-Short Form (BPI-SF) and Visual Analog Scale (VAS) measuring pain. Moreover, patients treated with acupuncture were more likely to experience improvements in hot flashes scores, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and anxiety compared to those in the control group, while the improvements in depression were comparable across both groups. Long-term follow-up results were similar to the EOT results. Eleven RCTs did not report any information on adverse effects.

The authors concluded that current evidence suggests that acupuncture might improve BC treatment-related symptoms measured with PROs including QoL, pain, fatigue, hot flashes, sleep disturbance and anxiety. However, a number of included studies report limited amounts of certain subgroup settings, thus more rigorous, well-designed and larger RCTs are needed to confirm our results.

This review looks rigorous on the surface but has many weaknesses if one digs only a little deeper. To start with, it has no precise research question: is any type of acupuncture better than any type of control? This is not a research question that anyone can answer with just a few studies of mostly poor quality. The authors claim to follow the PRISMA guidelines, yet (as a co-author of these guidelines) I can assure you that this is not true. Many of the included studies are small and lacked blinding. The results are confusing, contradictory and not clearly reported. Many trials fail to mention adverse effects and thus violate research ethics, etc., etc.

The conclusion that acupuncture might improve BC treatment-related symptoms could be true. But does this paper convince me that acupuncture DOES improve these symptoms?

No!

Withania somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha, is a plant belonging to the family of Solanaceae. It is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. The plant is promoted as an immunomodulator, anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, anti-Parkinson, anti-Alzheimer, cardioprotective, neural and physical health enhancer, neuro-defensive, anti-diabetic, aphrodisiac, memory-boosting, and ant-cancer remedy. It contains diverse phytoconstituents including alkaloids, steroids, flavonoids, phenolics, nitrogen-containing compounds, and trace elements.

But how much of the hype is supported by evidence? Unsurprisingly, there is a shortage of good clinical trials. Yet, during the last few years, a surprising number of reviews of the accumulating evidence have emerged:

  • One review suggested that pre-clinical, as well as clinical studies, suggest the effectiveness of Withania somnifera (L.) against neurodegenerative disease.
  • A further review suggested a potential role of W. somnifera in managing diabetes.
  • A systematic review of 5 clinical trials found that W. somnifera extract improved performance on cognitive tasks, executive function, attention, and reaction time. It also appears to be well tolerated, with good adherence and minimal side effects.
  • Another systematic review included 4 clinical trials and reported significant improvements in serum hormonal profile, oxidative biomarkers, and antioxidant vitamins in seminal plasma. No adverse effects were reported in infertile men taking W. somnifera treatment.
  • Another review concluded that the root of the Ayurvedic drug W. somnifera (Aswagandha) appears to be a promising safe and effective traditional medicine for management of schizophrenia, chronic stress, insomnia, anxiety, memory/cognitive enhancement, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, type-2 diabetes and male infertility, and bears fertility promotion activity in females adaptogenic, growth promoter activity in children and as adjuvant for reduction of fatigue and improvement in quality of life among cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
  • A systematic review of 13 RCTs found that Ashwagandha supplementation was more efficacious than placebo for improving variables related to physical performance in healthy men and women.
  • Another systematic review concluded that Ashwagandha supplementation might improve the VO2max in athletes and non-athletes.

Impressed?

This certainly looks as though that this plant is worthy of further study. But I can never help feeling a bit skeptical when I hear of such a multitude of benefits without evidence for adverse effects (other than minor upset stomach, nausea, and drowsiness).

Homeopathy is sometimes claimed to be effective for primary dysmenorrhoea (PD), but the claim is not supported by sound evidence. This study was undertaken to examine the efficacy of individualized homeopathic medicines (IH) against placebo in the treatment of PD.

A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial was conducted at the gynecology outpatient department of Mahesh Bhattacharyya Homoeopathic Medical College and Hospital, West Bengal, India. Patients were randomized to receive either IH (n=64) or identical-looking placebo (n=64). Primary and secondary outcome measures were 0-10 numeric rating scales (NRS) measuring the intensity of pain of dysmenorrhea and verbal multidimensional scoring system (VMSS) respectively, all measured at baseline, and every month, up to 3 months.

The two groups were comparable at baseline. The attrition rate was 10.9% (IH: 7, placebo: 7). Differences between groups in both pain NRS and VMSS favored IH over placebo at all time points with medium to large effect sizes. Natrum muriaticum and Pulsatilla nigricans were the most frequently prescribed medicines. No harms, serious adverse events, or intercurrent illnesses were recorded in either group.

The authors concluded that homeopathic medicines acted significantly better than placebo in the treatment of PD. Independent replication is warranted.

A previously published RCT could not show any significant effect of homeopathy on primary dysmenorrhea in comparison with placebo. The authors of the new study claim that the discrepant findings might be due to the fact that IH requires great skill. In other words, negative studies are according to this explanation negative not because homeopathy does not work but because the prescribers are not up to it. Such notions have often been voiced on this blog and elsewhere and are used as a veritable ‘get-out clause’ for homeopathy: ONLY THE POSITIVE RESULTS ARE VALID! Consequently, systematic reviews of the evidence must only consider positive trials. And this, of course, means that the findings are invariable positive.

I find this more than a little naive and would much prefer to wait for an independent replication where ‘independent’ means that the trial is run by experts who are not advocates of homeopathy (as in the present trial).

 

Qigong can be described as a mind-body-spirit practice that improves one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing technique, self-massage, sound, and focused intent. But does it really improve health?

The purpose of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of Qigong in improving the quality of life and relieving fatigue, sleep disturbance, and cancer-related emotional disturbances (distress, depression, and anxiety) in women with breast cancer.

The PubMed, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Web of Science, Sinomed, Wanfang, VIP, and China National Knowledge Infrastructure databases were searched from their inceptions to March 2020 for controlled clinical trials. Two reviewers selected relevant trials that assessed the benefit of Qigong for breast cancer patients independently. A methodological quality assessment was conducted according to the criteria of the 12 Cochrane Back Review Group for risk of bias independently. A meta-analysis was performed using Review Manager 5.3.

A total of 17 trials were found in which 1236 cases were enrolled. The quality of the included trials was generally low, as only 5 of them were rated high quality. 14 studies were conducted in China. The types of qigong included Baduanjin Qigong (9 trials), Chan-Chuang Qigong (1 trial), Goulin New Qigong (2 Trials), Tai Chi Qigong (2 Trials), and Kuala Lumpur Qigong (1 trial). The course of qigong ranged from 21 days to more than 6 months. Four trials compared qigong to no treatment, one sham Qigong, seven compared to other types of exercise, and 6 to usual care.

The results showed significant positive effects of Qigong on quality of life (n = 950, standardized mean difference (SMD), 0.65, 95 % confidence interval (CI) 0.23–1.08, P =  0.002). Depression (n = 540, SMD = −0.32, 95 % CI −0.59 to −0.04, P =  0.02) and anxiety (n = 439, SMD = −0.71, 95 % CI −1.32 to −0.10, P =  0.02) were also significantly relieved in the Qigong group. There was no significant benefit on fatigue (n = 401, SMD = −0.32, 95 % CI  0.71 to 0.07, P = 0.11) or sleep disturbance relief compared to that observed in the control group (n = 298, SMD = −0.11, 95 % CI  0.74 to 0.52, P = 0.73).

The authors concluded that this review shows that Qigong is beneficial for improving quality of life and relieving depression and anxiety; thus, Qigong should be encouraged in women with breast cancer.

No, this review does not show that Qigong is beneficial for improving quality of life and relieving depression and anxiety!

Why?

  1. Most primary studies were of very poor quality.
  2. Most were from China, and we know (and have often discussed) that such trials are most unreliable.
  3. No trial even attempted to control for placebo effects.

A better conclusion would therefore be something like this:

Even though most trials conclude positively, the value of Qigong can, for a range of reasons, not be determined on the basis of the evidence available to date.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), previously known as battle fatigue syndrome or shell shock, is a condition that can be triggered by the experience of some frightening event. PTSD can be debilitating leading to the production of feelings of helplessness, intense fear, and horror. Numerous treatments of PTSD exist but few have been shown to be truly effective. A team of Canadian researchers explored the effects of cannabis on PTSD symptoms, quality of life (QOL), and return to work (RTW). Their systematic review also investigated harms such as adverse effects and dropouts due to adverse effects, inefficacy, and all-cause dropout rates.

Their electronic searches located one RCT and 10 observational studies (n = 4672). Risk of bias (RoB) was assessed with the Cochrane risk of bias tool and ROBINS-I. Evidence from the included studies was mainly based on studies with no comparators. Results from unpooled, high RoB studies suggested that cannabis was associated with a reduction in overall PTSD symptoms and improved QOL. Dry mouth, headaches, and psychoactive effects such as agitation and euphoria were the most commonly reported adverse effects. In most studies, cannabis was well tolerated. A small proportion of patients experienced a worsening of PTSD symptoms.

The authors concluded that the evidence in the current study primarily stems from low quality and high RoB observational studies. Further RCTs investigating cannabis effects on PTSD treatment should be conducted with larger sample sizes and explore a broader range of patient-important outcomes.

Various drugs are currently used for the treatment of PTSD including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors; tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline and isocarboxazid); mood stabilizers (Divalproex and lamotrigine); atypical antipsychotics (aripiprazole and quetiapine) but their effectiveness has not been proven. A recent systematic review included 30 RCTs of a range of heterogeneous non-psychological and non-pharmacological interventions. There was emerging evidence for 6 different approaches:

  • acupuncture,
  • neurofeedback,
  • saikokeishikankyoto (a herbal preparation),
  • somatic experiencing,
  • transcranial magnetic stimulation,
  • yoga.

This list makes me wonder: are these treatments, including cannabis, truly promising, or is PTSD one of those conditions for which nearly every treatment works a little because of its placebo effect?

This systematic review assessed the effects and reliability of sham procedures in manual therapy (MT) trials in the treatment of back pain (BP) in order to provide methodological guidance for clinical trial development.

Different databases were screened up to 20 August 2020. Randomized controlled trials involving adults affected by BP (cervical and lumbar), acute or chronic, were included. Hand contact sham treatment (ST) was compared with different MT (physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, massage, kinesiology, and reflexology) and to no treatment. Primary outcomes were BP improvement, the success of blinding, and adverse effects (AE). Secondary outcomes were the number of drop-outs. Dichotomous outcomes were analyzed using risk ratio (RR), continuous using mean difference (MD), 95% CIs. The minimal clinically important difference was 30 mm changes in pain score.

A total of 24 trials were included involving 2019 participants. Most of the trials were of chiropractic manipulation. Very low evidence quality suggests clinically insignificant pain improvement in favor of MT compared with ST (MD 3.86, 95% CI 3.29 to 4.43) and no differences between ST and no treatment (MD -5.84, 95% CI -20.46 to 8.78).ST reliability shows a high percentage of correct detection by participants (ranged from 46.7% to 83.5%), spinal manipulation is the most recognized technique. Low quality of evidence suggests that AE and drop-out rates were similar between ST and MT (RR AE=0.84, 95% CI 0.55 to 1.28, RR drop-outs=0.98, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.25). A similar drop-out rate was reported for no treatment (RR=0.82, 95% 0.43 to 1.55).

The authors concluded that MT does not seem to have clinically relevant effect compared with ST. Similar effects were found with no treatment. The heterogeneousness of sham MT studies and the very low quality of evidence render uncertain these review findings. Future trials should develop reliable kinds of ST, similar to active treatment, to ensure participant blinding and to guarantee a proper sample size for the reliable detection of clinically meaningful treatment effects.

The optimal therapy for back pain does not exist or has not yet been identified; there are dozens of different approaches but none has been found to be truly and dramatically effective. Manual therapies like chiropractic and osteopathy are often used, and some data suggest that they are as good (or as bad) as most other options. This review confirms what we have discussed many times previously (e.g. here), namely that the small positive effect of MT, or specifically spinal manipulation, is largely due to placebo.

Considering this information, what is the best treatment for back pain sufferers? The answer seems obvious: it is a therapy that is as (in)effective as all the others but causes the least harm or expense. In other words, it is not chiropractic nor osteopathy but exercise.

My conclusion:

avoid therapists who use spinal manipulation for back pain.

Neuropathic pain is difficult to treat. Luckily, we have acupuncture! Acupuncturists leave us in no doubt that their needles are the solution. But are they correct or perhaps victims of wishful thinking?

This review was aimed at determining the proportion of patients with neuropathic pain who achieve a clinically meaningful improvement in their pain with the use of different pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments.

Randomized controlled trials were included that reported a responder analysis of adults with neuropathic pain-specifically diabetic neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, or trigeminal neuralgia-treated with any of the following 8 treatments: exercise, acupuncture, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), topical rubefacients, opioids, anticonvulsant medications, and topical lidocaine.

A total of 67 randomized controlled trials were included. There was moderate certainty of evidence that anticonvulsant medications (risk ratio of 1.54; 95% CI 1.45 to 1.63; number needed to treat [NNT] of 7) and SNRIs (risk ratio of 1.45; 95% CI 1.33 to 1.59; NNT = 7) might provide a clinically meaningful benefit to patients with neuropathic pain. There was low certainty of evidence for a clinically meaningful benefit for rubefacients (ie, capsaicin; NNT = 7) and opioids (NNT = 8), and very low certainty of evidence for TCAs. Very low-quality evidence demonstrated that acupuncture was ineffective. All drug classes, except TCAs, had a greater likelihood of deriving a clinically meaningful benefit than having withdrawals due to adverse events (number needed to harm between 12 and 15). No trials met the inclusion criteria for exercise or lidocaine, nor were any trials identified for trigeminal neuralgia.

The authors concluded that there is moderate certainty of evidence that anticonvulsant medications and SNRIs provide a clinically meaningful reduction in pain in those with neuropathic pain, with lower certainty of evidence for rubefacients and opioids, and very low certainty of evidence for TCAs. Owing to low-quality evidence for many interventions, future high-quality trials that report responder analyses will be important to strengthen understanding of the relative benefits and harms of treatments in patients with neuropathic pain.

This review was published in a respected mainstream journal and conducted by a multidisciplinary team with the following titles and affiliations:

  • Associate Professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
  • Pharmacist in Edmonton, Alta, and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
  • Family physician and Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta.
  • Family physician and Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Pharmacist, Clinical Evidence Expert Lead for the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Pharmacist in Edmonton and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
  • Pharmacist and Clinical Evidence Expert at the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
  • Family physician, Director of Programs and Practice Support at the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
  • Pharmacist at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’lle-de-Montréal and Clinical Associate Professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Montreal in Quebec.
  • Care of the elderly physician and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Family physician and Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
  • Research assistant at the University of Alberta.
  • Medical student at the University of Alberta.
  • Nurse in Edmonton and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

As far as I can see, the review is of sound methodology, it minimizes bias, and its conclusions are therefore trustworthy. They suggest that acupuncture is not effective for neuropathic pain.

But how can this be? Do the authors not know about all the positive evidence on acupuncture? A quick search found positive recent reviews of acupuncture for all of the three indications in question:

  1. Diabetic neuropathy: Acupuncture alone and vitamin B combined with acupuncture are more effective in treating DPN compared to vitamin B.
  2. Herpes zoster: Acupuncture may be effective for patients with HZ.
  3. Trigeminal neuralgia: Acupuncture appears more effective than pharmacotherapy or surgery.

How can we explain this obvious contradiction?

Which result should we trust?

Do we believe pro-acupuncture researchers who published their papers in pro-acupuncture journals, or do we believe the findings of researchers who could not care less whether their work proves or disproves the effectiveness of acupuncture?

I think that these papers offer an exemplary opportunity for us to study how powerful the biases of researchers can be. They also remind us that, in the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), we should always be very cautious and not accept every conclusion that has been published in supposedly peer-reviewed medical journals.

Mind-body interventions (MBIs) are one of the top ten so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) approaches utilized in pediatrics, but there is limited knowledge on associated adverse events (AE). The objective of this review was to systematically review AEs reported in association with MBIs in children.

Electronic databases MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, CDSR, and CCRCT were searched from inception to August 2018. The authors included primary studies on participants ≤ 21 years of age that used an MBI. Experimental studies were assessed for whether AEs were reported on or not, and all other study designs were included only if they reported an AE.

A total of 441 were included as primary pediatric MBI studies. Of these, 377 (85.5%) did not explicitly report the presence/absence of AEs or a safety assessment. In total, there were 64 included studies: 43 experimental studies reported that no AE occurred, and 21 studies reported AEs. A total of 37 AEs were found, of which the most serious were grade 3. Most of the studies reporting AEs did not report on severity (81.0%) or duration of AEs (52.4%).

The authors concluded that MBIs are popularly used in children; however associated harms are often not reported and lack important information for meaningful assessment.

SCAM is far too often considered to be risk-free. This phenomenon is particularly stark if the SCAM in question does not involve physical or pharmacological treatments. Thus MBIs are seen and often waved through as especially safe. Consequently, many researchers do not even bother to monitor AEs in their clinical trials. This might be understandable, but it is nevertheless a violation of research ethics.

This new review is important in that it highlights these issues. It is high time that we stop giving researchers in SCAM the benefit of the doubt. They may or may not make honest mistakes when not reporting AEs. In any case, it is clear that they are not properly trained and supervised. All too often, we still see clinical trials run by amateurs who have little idea of methodology and even less of ethics. The harm this phenomenon does is difficult to quantify, but I fear it is huge.

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