Thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) involves the insertion of thread at specific points on the body surface. The claim is that TEAT provides a sustained stimulation of acupoints and is therefore superior to needle acupuncture. Initially, TEAT was used in China to treat obesity, today it is employed to treat many conditions, including musculoskeletal conditions such as ankle sprain, shoulder pain, lumbar intervertebral disc herniation, and plantar fasciitis. Its effectiveness is, however, doubtful and so is its safety.
This review evaluated the safety of thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) and discuss the prevention and treatment of some adverse events (AEs).
Databases, including China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), CBMdisc, Wanfang, VIP databases and PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Web of Science, were searched from their inception to January 2020. Included were randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and case reports in which AEs with TEAT were reported. Cochrane Collaboration’s tool and RevMan V.5.3.3 software were used to evaluate the quality of the studies.
A total of 61 articles (45 RCTs and 16 case reports) with a total of 620 cases of AEs were included in this review. These studies were published in two countries: China and South Korea. Twenty-eight kinds of AEs were noted. The most common AEs were induration, bleeding and ecchymosis, redness and swelling, fever, and pain. They accounted for 75.35% of all AEs. Most AEs were mild.; The rarest AEs were epilepsy, irregular menstruation, skin ulcer, thread malabsorption, and fat liquefaction, with 1 case each. Not all of them had a clear causal relationship with TEAT. Most of the AEs were local reactions and systemic reactions accounted for only 1.27%. Although the included studies showed that AEs were very commonly encountered (11.09%), only 5 cases of severe AEs reported from 2013 to 2017 (0.1%) by using catgut thread, which is rarely employed nowadays with new absorbable surgical suture being more popular. All of the patients with severe AEs were recovered after symptomatic treatment with no sequelae.
The authors concluded that the evidence showed that TEAT is a relatively safe and convenient therapy especially since application of new absorbable surgical suture. Improving practitioner skills, regulating operations, and paying attention to the patients’ conditions may reduce the incidence of AEs and improve safety of TEAT.
TEAT was initially used in China only but recently it has become popular elsewhere as well. Therefore the question about its risks has become relevant. The present paper is interesting in that it demonstrates that AEs do occur with some regularity. The authors’ conclusion that TEAT is “relatively safe” is, however, not justified because:
- the total sample size was not large enough for a generalizable conclusion;
- only RCTs and case reports were included, whereas case series and case-control studies (which would provide more relevant data) were excluded or might not even exist;
- RCTs of acupuncture often fail to mention or under-report AEs;
- acupuncture papers from China are notoriously unreliable.
So, all we can conclude from the evidence presented here is that AEs after TEAT do occur and do not seem to be all that rare. As the efficacy of TEAT has not been shown beyond doubt, this must inevitably lead to the conclusion that the risk-benefit balance of TEAT is not positive. In turn, that means that TEAT cannot be recommended as a treatment for any condition.
A substantial proportion of consumers now use healthcare options known as so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). But why? This study aimed to understand the processes and decisional pathways through which chronic illness patients choose treatments outside of regular allopathic medicine.
It employed Charmaz’s constructivist grounded theory methods to collect and analyze data. Using theoretical sampling, 21 individuals suffering from chronic illness and who had used SCAM treatments participated in face-to-face in-depth interviews conducted in Miami/USA.
Seven overarching themes emerged from the data to describe how and why people with chronic illness choose SCAM treatments:
- being averse to allopathic medicine and allopathic medical practice,
- curiosity and chance,
- ease of access,
- institutional help,
- trial and error.
The author concluded that in selecting treatment options that include SCAM, individuals draw on their social, economic, and biographical situations. Though exploratory, this study sheds light on some of the less examined reasons for SCAM use.
There already is a plethora of research on the reasons why people elect to try SCAM. Our own systematic review of 2011 was, in my view, more informative. Here is the abstract:
The aim of this review is to summarize the published evidence regarding the expectations of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) users. We conducted electronic searches in MEDLINE and a hand search of our own files. Seventy-three articles met our inclusion criteria. A wide range of expectations emerged. In order of prevalence, they included:
- hope to influence the natural history of the disease;
- disease prevention and health/general well-being promotion;
- fewer side effects;
- being in control over one’s health;
- symptom relief;
- boosting the immune system;
- emotional support;
- holistic care;
- improving quality of life;
- relief of side effects of conventional medicine;
- good therapeutic relationship;
- obtaining information;
- coping better with illness;
- supporting the natural healing process;
- availability of treatment.
It is concluded that the expectations of SCAM users are currently not rigorously investigated. Future studies should have a clear focus on specific aspects of this broad question.
As our conclusion stated, the issue is too broad to be easily researchable. The question might need to be narrowed down. And even then, I ask myself, what might such investigations, even if done well, amount to? In what way would the results of such studies benefit anyone? How would they improve the healthcare of the future?
Perhaps someone can help me by suggesting some answers to these questions?
Absurd claims about spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) improving immune function have increased substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Is there any basis at all for such notions?
The objective of this systematic review was to identify, appraise, and synthesize the scientific literature on the efficacy and effectiveness of SMT in preventing the development of infectious disease or improving disease-specific outcomes in patients with infectious disease and to examine the association between SMT and selected immunological, endocrine, and other physiological biomarkers.
A literature search of MEDLINE, the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature, the Index to Chiropractic Literature, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and Embase was conducted. Randomized clinical trials and cohort studies were included. Eligible studies were critically appraised, and evidence with high and acceptable quality was synthesized using the Synthesis Without Meta-Analysis guideline.
A total of 2593 records were retrieved; after exclusions, 50 full-text articles were screened, and 16 articles reporting the findings of 13 studies comprising 795 participants were critically appraised. No clinical studies were located that investigated the efficacy or effectiveness of SMT in preventing the development of infectious disease or improving disease-specific outcomes among patients with infectious disease. Eight articles reporting the results of 6 high- and acceptable-quality RCTs comprising 529 participants investigated the effect of SMT on biomarkers. Spinal manipulative therapy was not associated with changes in lymphocyte levels or physiological markers among patients with low back pain or participants who were asymptomatic compared with sham manipulation, a lecture series, and venipuncture control groups. Spinal manipulative therapy was associated with short-term changes in selected immunological biomarkers among asymptomatic participants compared with sham manipulation, a lecture series, and venipuncture control groups.
The authors concluded that no clinical evidence was found to support or refute claims that SMT was efficacious or effective in changing immune system outcomes. Although there were limited preliminary data from basic scientific studies suggesting that SMT may be associated with short-term changes in immunological and endocrine biomarkers, the clinical relevance of these findings is unknown. Given the lack of evidence that SMT is associated with the prevention of infectious diseases or improvements in immune function, further studies should be completed before claims of efficacy or effectiveness are made.
I fully agree with the data as summarised in this paper. Yet, I find the conclusions a bit odd. The authors of this paper are chiropractors who declare the following conflicts of interest: Dr Côté reported receiving grants from the College of Chiropractors of British Columbia during the conduct of the study and grants from the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation, travel expenses from the World Federation of Chiropractic, and personal fees from the Canadian Chiropractic Protective Association outside the submitted work. Dr Cancelliere reported receiving grants from the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation outside the submitted work. Dr Mior reported receiving grants from the College of Chiropractors of British Columbia during the conduct of the study and grants from the Canadian Chiropractic Association and the Ontario Chiropractic Association outside the submitted work. Dr Hogg-Johnson reported receiving grants from the College of Chiropractors of British Columbia during the conduct of the study and grants from the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation outside the submitted work. No other disclosures were reported. The research was supported by funding from the College of Chiropractors of British Columbia to Ontario Tech University, the Canada Research Chairs program (Dr Côté), and the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation (Dr Cancelliere).
Would authors independent of chiropractic influence have drawn the same conclusions? I doubt it! While I do appreciate that chiropractors published these negative findings prominently, I feel the conclusions could easily be put much clearer:
There is no clinical evidence to support claims that SMT is efficacious or effective in changing immune system outcomes. Further studies in this area are not warranted.
Battlefield Acupuncture (BFA) – I presume the name comes from the fact that it is so simple, it could even be used under combat situations – is a form of ear acupuncture developed 20 years ago by Dr Richard Niemtzow. BFA employs gold semipermanent needles that are placed at up to 5 specific sites in one or both ears. The BFA needles are small conical darts that pierce the outer ear in designated locations and remain in place until they fall out typically within 3–4 days.
The US Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management and the Veterans Health Administration National Pain Management Program Office recently completed a 3-year acupuncture education and training program, which deployed certified BFA trainers for the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration medical centers. Over 2800 practitioners were thus trained to provide BFA. The total costs amounted to $ 5.4 million.
This clearly begs the question:
DOES IT WORK?
This review aims to investigate the effects and safety of BFA in adults with pain. Electronic databases were searched for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) published in English evaluating efficacy and safety of BFA in adults with pain, from database inception to September 6, 2019. The primary outcome was pain intensity change, and the secondary outcome was safety. Nine RCTs were included in this review, and five trials involving 344 participants were analyzed quantitatively. Compared with no intervention, usual care, sham BFA, and delayed BFA interventions, BFA had no significant improvement in the pain intensity felt by adults suffering from pain. Few adverse effects (AEs) were reported with BFA therapy, but they were mild and transitory.
The authors of this review concluded that BFA is a safe, rapid, and easily learned acupuncture technique, mainly used in acute pain management, but no significant efficacy was found in adult individuals with pain, compared with the control groups. Given the poor methodological quality of the included studies, high-quality RCTs with rigorous evaluation methods are needed in the future.
And here are my comments:
- SAFE? Impossible to tell on the basis of 344 patients.
- RAPID? True, but meaningless, as it does not work.
- EASILY LEARNT? True, it’s simple and seems ever so stupid.
- NO SIGNIFICANT EFFICACY? That I can easily believe.
I am amazed that anyone would fall for an idea as naive as BFA. That it should be the US military is simply hilarious, in my view. I am furthermore baffled that anyone recommends more study of such monumental nonsense.
Why, oh why?
Acupuncture is far-fetched (to put it mildly). Ear acupuncture is positively ridiculous. BFA seems beyond ridiculous and must be the biggest military hoax since general Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin painted façades to fool Catherine the Great into thinking that an area was far richer than it truly was.
Low back pain must be one of the most frequent reasons for patients to seek out some so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). It would therefore be important that the information they get is sound. But is it?
The present study sought to assess the quality of web-based consumer health information available at the intersection of LBP and CAM. The investigators searched Google using six unique search terms across four English-speaking countries. Eligible websites contained consumer health information in the context of CAM for LBP. They used the DISCERN instrument, which consists of a standardized scoring system with a Likert scale from one to five across 16 questions, to conduct a quality assessment of websites.
Across 480 websites identified, 32 were deemed eligible and assessed using the DISCERN instrument. The mean overall rating across all websites 3.47 (SD = 0.70); Summed DISCERN scores across all websites ranged from 25.5-68.0, with a mean of 53.25 (SD = 10.41); the mean overall rating across all websites 3.47 (SD = 0.70). Most websites reported the benefits of numerous CAM treatment options and provided relevant information for the target audience clearly, but did not adequately report the risks or adverse side-effects adequately.
The authors concluded that despite some high-quality resources identified, our findings highlight the varying quality of consumer health information available online at the intersection of LBP and CAM. Healthcare providers should be involved in the guidance of patients’ online information-seeking.
In the past, I have conducted several similar surveys, for instance, this one:
Background: Low back pain (LBP) is expected to globally affect up to 80% of individuals at some point during their lifetime. While conventional LBP therapies are effective, they may result in adverse side-effects. It is thus common for patients to seek information about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) online to either supplement or even replace their conventional LBP care. The present study sought to assess the quality of web-based consumer health information available at the intersection of LBP and CAM.
Methods: We searched Google using six unique search terms across four English-speaking countries. Eligible websites contained consumer health information in the context of CAM for LBP. We used the DISCERN instrument, which consists of a standardized scoring system with a Likert scale from one to five across 16 questions, to conduct a quality assessment of websites.
Results: Across 480 websites identified, 32 were deemed eligible and assessed using the DISCERN instrument. The mean overall rating across all websites 3.47 (SD = 0.70); Summed DISCERN scores across all websites ranged from 25.5-68.0, with a mean of 53.25 (SD = 10.41); the mean overall rating across all websites 3.47 (SD = 0.70). Most websites reported the benefits of numerous CAM treatment options and provided relevant information for the target audience clearly, but did not adequately report the risks or adverse side-effects adequately.
Conclusion: Despite some high-quality resources identified, our findings highlight the varying quality of consumer health information available online at the intersection of LBP and CAM. Healthcare providers should be involved in the guidance of patients’ online information-seeking.
Or this one:
Background: Some chiropractors and their associations claim that chiropractic is effective for conditions that lack sound supporting evidence or scientific rationale. This study therefore sought to determine the frequency of World Wide Web claims of chiropractors and their associations to treat, asthma, headache/migraine, infant colic, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash (not supported by sound evidence), and lower back pain (supported by some evidence).
Methods: A review of 200 chiropractor websites and 9 chiropractic associations’ World Wide Web claims in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States was conducted between 1 October 2008 and 26 November 2008. The outcome measure was claims (either direct or indirect) regarding the eight reviewed conditions, made in the context of chiropractic treatment.
Results: We found evidence that 190 (95%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of the conditions. When colic and infant colic data were collapsed into one heading, there was evidence that 76 (38%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims about all the conditions not supported by sound evidence. Fifty-six (28%) websites and 4 of the 9 (44%) associations made claims about lower back pain, whereas 179 (90%) websites and all 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain,
Conclusions: The majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.
The findings were invariably disappointing and confirmed those of the above paper. As it is nearly impossible to do much about this lamentable situation, I can only think of two strategies for creating progress:
- Advise patients not to rely on Internet information about SCAM.
- Provide reliable information for the public.
Both describe the raison d’etre of my blog pretty well.
The new NICE draft guideline on acupuncture for chronic pain has been published several months ago, and we discussed it here. Now the final document entitled ‘Chronic pain (primary and secondary) in over 16s: assessment of all chronic pain and management of chronic primary pain‘ has been published on 7/4/2021. Like the draft, it includes quite a bit about acupuncture. Let me just quote three essential sections:
Recommendations: Acupuncture for chronic primary pain
Consider a single course of acupuncture or dry needling, within a traditional Chinese or Western acupuncture system, for people aged 16 years and over to manage chronic primary pain, but only if the course:
- is delivered in a community setting and
- is delivered by a band 7 (equivalent or lower) healthcare professional with appropriate training and
- is made up of no more than 5 hours of healthcare professional time (the number and length of sessions can be adapted within these boundaries) or
- is delivered by another healthcare professional with appropriate training and/or in another setting for equivalent or lower cost.
Many studies (27 in total) showed that acupuncture reduced pain and improved quality of life in the short term (up to 3 months) compared with usual care or sham acupuncture. There was not enough evidence to determine longer-term benefits. The committee acknowledged the difficulty in blinding for sham procedures, but agreed that the benefit compared with a sham procedure indicated a specific treatment effect of acupuncture. There was a wide variation among the studies in the type and intensity of the intervention used, and the studies were from many different countries. The committee agreed that the type of acupuncture or dry needling should depend on the individual needs of the person with pain.
Two economic evaluations (1 in the UK) showed that acupuncture offered a good balance of benefits and costs for people with chronic neck pain. However, both studies had limitations; a notable limitation being that the costs of acupuncture seemed low. Threshold analysis based on these studies indicated the maximum number of hours of a band 6 and 7 healthcare professional’s time that would make the intervention cost effective.
An original economic model was developed for this guideline, which compared acupuncture with no acupuncture. The model used data from studies with usual care comparisons, not comparisons with sham acupuncture, because the committee agreed that a usual care comparison in an economic model better reflects the real world benefit of the intervention. The model showed that acupuncture was likely to be cost effective. The committee considered the results to be robust, and agreed that the studies used in the model were representative of the whole evidence review. Acupuncture remained cost effective when the assumed benefits and costs were varied (sensitivity analysis).
Overall, the committee agreed that there was a large evidence base showing acupuncture to be clinically effective in the short term (3 months); the original economic modelling also showed it is likely to be cost effective. However, they were uncertain whether the beneficial effects would be sustained long term and were aware of the high resource impact of implementation. Taking these factors into account, the committee made a recommendation to consider acupuncture or dry needling for chronic primary pain, caveated by the factors likely to make the intervention cost effective. These were: only if delivered in the community, and with a maximum of 5 treatment hours (based on the average resource use in the trials in the model and on the threshold analysis), and from a band 7 (equivalent cost or lower) healthcare professional (based on the threshold analysis). It was agreed there may be different ways of delivering the service that enable acupuncture to be delivered for the same costs, which would equally be appropriate. The committee agreed that discontinuing before this total amount of course time would be an option if the person finds that the first few sessions are not effective.
Acupuncture versus sham acupuncture
Very low quality evidence from 13 studies with 1230 participants showed a clinically important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at ≤3 months. Low quality evidence from 2 studies with 159 participants showed a clinically important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at ≤3 months.
Low quality evidence from 4 studies with 376 participants showed no clinically important difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture at >3 months. Moderate quality evidence from 2 studies with 159 participants showed a clinically important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at >3 months. Low quality evidence from 1 study with 61 participants showed no clinically important difference between acupuncture
and sham acupuncture at >3 months.
______________END OF QUOTES____________
I will leave this here without a comment for the moment and look forward to reading what you think about this.
In the world of homeopathy, Prof Michael Frass is a famous man. He is the First Chairman of the Scientific Society for Homeopathy (WissHom), the president of the Umbrella organization of Austrian Doctors for Holistic Medicine, and the Vicepresident of the Doctors Association for Classical Homeopathy. Frass has featured on this blog before, not least because he has published numerous studies of homeopathy, none of which has ever failed to produce a positive result.
This is not just remarkable, in my view, it defies logic and the laws of nature. Even if homeopathy were a supremely effective therapy – a very broad consensus holds that it is not! – one would occasionally expect some negative results. No treatment works under all circumstances
… that is no treatment except homeopathy, according to Frass.
Recently Frass amazed even the world of oncology by publishing a study suggesting that homeopathy can prolong the survival of lung cancer patients. Every oncologist I know was flabbergasted.
Can this be true? This is the question, many people have been asking for some time in relation to Frass’s research.
In my quest to shine more light on it, I was recently alerted to an article by the formidable Austrian investigative journalist, Alwin Schönberger. In 2015, he came across a press release announcing that “HOMEOPATHY HAD BEEN PROVEN TO WORK AFTER ALL” (strikingly similar to one issued in 2018). It came from Austria’s leading manufacturer who was giving an award to an apparently outstanding thesis supervised by Frass. Even today, this piece of research has not been published in the peer-reviewed literature.
Yet, after some difficulties, Schönberger managed to obtain a copy. What he found was surprising, and he thus published his findings in the respected Austrian journal ‘Profil’ (2. Mai 2015 • profil 22).
Frass’s student had been given the task to systematically review all the homeopathy trials published between 2008 and 2012. Contrary to the hype of the press release, the meta-analysis merely suggested a very small effect. When digging deeper, Schönberger found several inconsistencies and mistakes in the analysis. They all were such that they produced a false-positive picture for homeopathy. Upon their correction, homeopathy turned out to be no longer significantly superior to placebo. Frass was then interviewed about it and claimed that the inconsistencies were only ‘errors’ but insisted that homeopathy is not a placebo therapy.
Yes, of course, errors happen in research. But if they all go in one direction and if that direction coincides with the interests of the researchers, we have the right, perhaps even the duty, to be suspicious. The questions that arise from this story are, I think, as follows:
- Have the errors been corrected?
- Are there perhaps other errors in Frass’s research?
- Can we trust anything that Frass says?
- Is it time to consider an official investigation into Frass’s studies of homeopathy?
The Chinese have made several attempts to persuade us that their traditional remedies are effective for COVID-19 infections. Here is yet another one. This review summarised the evidence of the therapeutic effects and safety of Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) used with or without conventional western therapy for COVID-19. All clinical studies of the therapeutic effects and safety of CHM for COVID-19 were included. The authors
- summarized the general characteristics of included studies,
- evaluated the methodological quality of the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) using the Cochrane risk of bias tool,
- analyzed the use of CHM,
- used Revman 5.4 software to present the risk ratio (RR) or mean difference (MD) and their 95% confidence interval (CI) to estimate the therapeutic effects and safety of CHM.
A total of 58 clinical studies were identified including;
- 10 RCTs,
- 1 non-randomized controlled trials,
- 11 retrospective studies with a control group,
- 12 case-series,
- 24 case-reports.
All of the studies had been performed in China. No RCTs of high methodological quality were identified. The most frequently tested oral Chinese patent medicine, Chinese herbal medicine injection, or prescribed herbal decoction were:
- Lianhua Qingwen granule/capsule,
- Xuebijing injection,
- Maxing Shigan Tang.
The pooled analyses showed that there were statistical differences between the intervention group and the comparator group (RR 0.42, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.82, six RCTs; RR 0.38, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.64, five retrospective studies with a control group), indicating that CHM plus conventional western therapy appeared to be better than conventional western therapy alone in reducing aggravation rate.
In addition, compared with conventional western therapy, CHM plus conventional western therapy had the potential advantages in increasing the recovery rate and shortening the duration of fever, cough, and fatigue, improving the negative conversion rate of nucleic acid test, and increasing the improvement rate of chest CT manifestations and shortening the time from receiving the treatment to the beginning of chest CT manifestations improvement.
For adverse events, the pooled data showed that there were no statistical differences between the CHM and the control groups.
The authors concluded that current low certainty evidence suggests that there maybe a tendency that CHM plus conventional western therapy is superior to conventional western therapy alone. The use of CHM did not increase the risk of adverse events.
One of the principles to remember here is this: RUBBISH IN, RUBBISH OUT. If you meta-analyze primary data that are rubbish, your findings can only be rubbish as well.
All one needs to know about the primary data entered into the present analysis is that there were no rigorous RCTs… not one! That means the evidence is, as the authors rightly but modestly conclude of LOW CERTAINTY. My conclusions would have been a little different:
- In terms of safety, the dataset is too small and unreliable to make any judgment.
- In terms of efficacy, there is no sound data that CHM has a positive effect.
As I don’t live in the UK at present, I miss much of what the British papers report about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Therefore, I am a bit late to stumble over an article on the business activities of our Royals. It brought back into memory a little tiff I had with Prince Charles.
The article in the Express includes the following passage:
The UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst, dubbed the Duchy Originals detox tincture — which was being sold on the market at the time — “outright quackery”.
The product, called Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, was advertised as a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes” and a “food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.
The artichoke and dandelion mix cost £10 for a 50ml bottle.
Yet, Professor Ernst said Charles and his advisers seemed to be ignoring the science in favour of relying on “make-believe” and “superstition”, and said the suggestion that such products could remove bodily toxins was “implausible, unproven and dangerous”.
He noted: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”
This passage describes things accurately but not completely. What actually happened was this:
Unbeknown to me and with the help of some herbalists, Duchy Originals had developed the ‘detox tincture’ during a time when I was researching the evidence about ‘detox’. Eventually, my research was published as a review of the detox concept:
Background: The concept that alternative therapies can eliminate toxins and toxicants from the body, i.e. ‘alternative detox’ (AD) is popular.
Sources of data: Selected textbooks and articles on the subject of AD.
Areas of agreement: The principles of AD make no sense from a scientific perspective and there is no clinical evidence to support them.
Areas of controversy: The promotion of AD treatments provides income for some entrepreneurs but has the potential to cause harm to patients and consumers.
Growing points: In alternative medicine, simplistic but incorrect concepts such as AD abound. AREAS TIMELY FOR RESEARCH: All therapeutic claims should be scientifically tested before being advertised-and AD cannot be an exception.
When I was asked by a journalist what I thought about Charles’ new ‘detox tincture’, I told her that it was not supported by evidence which clearly makes it quackery. I also joked that Duchy Originals could thus be called ‘Dodgy Originals’. The result was this newspaper article and a subsequent media storm in the proverbial teacup.
At Exeter University, I had just fallen out of favor because of the ‘Smallwood Report’ and the complaint my involvement in it prompted by Charles’ first private secretary (full story in my memoir). After the ‘Dodgy Originals story’ had hit the papers, I was summoned ominously to my dean, Prof John Tooke, who probably had intended to give me a dressing down of major proportions. By the time we were able to meet, a few weeks later, the MHRA had already reprimanded Duchy Originals for misleading advertising which took most of the wind out of Tooke’s sail. The dressing down thus turned into something like “do you have to be so undiplomatic all the time?”.
Several months later, I was invited by the Science Media Centre, London, to give a lecture on the occasion of my retirement (Fiona Fox, the head of the SMC, had felt that, since my own University does not have the politeness to run a valedictory lecture for me, she will organize one for journalists). In that short lecture, I tried to summarize 19 years of research which inevitably meant briefly mentioning Charles and his foray into detox.
When I had finished, there were many questions from the journalists. Jenny Hope from the Daily Mail asked, “You mentioned snake-oil salesmen in your talk, and you also mentioned Prince Charles and his tinctures. Do you think that Prince Charles is a snake-oil salesman?” My answer was brief and to the point: “Yes“. The next day, this was all over the press. The Mail’s article was entitled ‘Charles? He’s just a snake-oil salesman: Professor attacks prince on ‘dodgy’ alternative remedies‘.
The advice of Tooke (who by then had left Exeter) to be more diplomatic had evidently not borne fruits (but the tinctures were discreetly taken off the market).
Diplomatic or honest?
This has been a question that I had to ask myself regularly during my 19 years at Exeter. For about 10 years, I had tried my best to walk the ‘diplomatic route’. When I realised that, in alternative medicine, the truth is much more important than diplomacy, I gradually changed … and despite all the hassle and hardship it brought me, I do not regret the decision.
Two recent reviews have evaluated the evidence for acupuncture as a means of preventing migraine attacks.
The first review assessed the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for the prophylaxis of episodic or chronic migraine in adult patients compared to pharmacological treatment.
The authors included randomized controlled trials published in western languages that compared any treatment involving needle insertion (with or without manual or electrical stimulation) at acupuncture points, pain points or trigger points, with any pharmacological prophylaxis in adult (≥18 years) with chronic or episodic migraine with or without aura according to the criteria of the International Headache Society.
Nine randomized trials were included encompassing 1,484 patients. At the end of the intervention, a small reduction was found in favor of acupuncture for the number of days with migraine per month: (SMD: -0.37; 95% CI -1.64 to -0.11), and for response rate (RR: 1.46; 95% CI 1.16-1.84). A moderate effect emerged in the reduction of pain intensity in favor of acupuncture (SMD: -0.36; 95% CI -0.60 to -0.13), and a large reduction in favor of acupuncture in both the dropout rate due to any reason (RR 0.39; 95% CI 0.18 to 0.84) and the dropout rate due to adverse event (RR 0.26; 95% CI 0.09 to 0.74). The quality of the evidence was moderate for all these primary outcomes. Results at longest follow-up confirmed these effects.
The authors concluded that, based on moderate certainty of evidence, we conclude that acupuncture is mildly more effective and much safer than medication for the prophylaxis of migraine.
The second review aimed to perform a network meta-analysis to compare the effectiveness and acceptability between topiramate, acupuncture, and Botulinum neurotoxin A (BoNT-A).
The authors searched OVID Medline, Embase, the Cochrane register of controlled trials (CENTRAL), the Chinese Clinical Trial Register, and clinicaltrials.gov for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared topiramate, acupuncture, and BoNT-A with any of them or placebo in the preventive treatment of chronic migraine. A network meta-analysis was performed by using a frequentist approach and a random-effects model. The primary outcomes were the reduction in monthly headache days and monthly migraine days at week 12. Acceptability was defined as the number of dropouts owing to adverse events.
A total of 15 RCTs (n = 2545) could be included. Eleven RCTs were at low risk of bias. The network meta-analyses (n = 2061) showed that acupuncture (2061 participants; standardized mean difference [SMD] -1.61, 95% CI: -2.35 to -0.87) and topiramate (582 participants; SMD -0.4, 95% CI: -0.75 to -0.04) ranked the most effective in the reduction of monthly headache days and migraine days, respectively; but they were not significantly superior over BoNT-A. Topiramate caused the most treatment-related adverse events and the highest rate of dropouts owing to adverse events.
The authors concluded that Topiramate and acupuncture were not superior over BoNT-A; BoNT-A was still the primary preventive treatment of chronic migraine. Large-scale RCTs with direct comparison of these three treatments are warranted to verify the findings.
Unquestionably, these are interesting findings. How reliable are they? Acupuncture trials are in several ways notoriously tricky, and many of the primary studies were of poor quality. This means the results are not as reliable as one would hope. Yet, it seems to me that migraine prevention is one of the indications where the evidence for acupuncture is strongest.
A second question might be practicability. How realistic is it for a patient to receive regular acupuncture sessions for migraine prevention? And finally, we might ask how cost-effective acupuncture is for that purpose and how its cost-effectiveness compares to other options.