Edzard Ernst

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

The aim of this review is to synthesise systematic reviews (SRs) of randomised clinical trials (RCTs) evaluating the efficacy of acupuncture to alleviate chronic pain. A total of 177 reviews of acupuncture from 1989 to 2019 met the eligibility criteria. The majority of SRs found that RCTs of acupuncture had methodological shortcomings, including inadequate statistical power with a high risk of bias. Heterogeneity between RCTs was such that meta-analysis was often inappropriate.

Having (co-) authored 13 of these SRs myself, I am impressed with the amount of work that went into this synthesis. The authors should be congratulated for doing it – and for doing it well! The paper itself differentiates the findings according to various types of pain. Here I reproduce the authors’ conclusion regarding different pain entities:

  • Evidence from SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for chronic pain associated with various medical conditions. There is no specific NICE guidance about the use of acupuncture for chronic pain conditions irrespective of aetiology or pathophysiology, although some guidance exists for specific pain conditions (see respective sections below). Guidance by NICE on chronic pain assessment and management is currently being developed (GIDNG10069) with publication expected in August 2020.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that acupuncture prevents episodic or chronic tension‐type headaches and episodic migraine, although long‐term studies and studies comparing acupuncture with other treatment options are still required. The current NICE guidance (clinical guideline CG150) is that a course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture over 5–8 weeks is recommended for tension‐type headache and migraine.
  • The most recent evidence from a Cochrane review of 16 RCTs suggests that acupuncture is not superior to sham acupuncture for OA of the hip, although in contrast, evidence from nonCochrane reviews suggests that there is moderate‐quality evidence that acupuncture may be effective in the symptomatic relief of pain from OA of the knee. Why there should be a difference in evidence between the knee and the hip is not known. Interestingly, guidance from NICE (CG177) states: “Do not offer acupuncture for the management of osteoarthritis”.
  • Evidence suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for low back pain. In 2009, NICE published guidance for the management of nonspecific low back pain that recommended a course of acupuncture as part of first line treatment. This guidance produced much debate. Subsequently, NICE have updated guidance for the management of low back pain and sciatica in people over 16 (NG59) and currently recommend in Section 1.2.8 “Do not offer acupuncture for managing low back pain with or without sciatica”, even though the evidence had not significantly changed.
  • Evidence from SRs suggests that dry needling acupuncture might be effective in alleviating pain associated with myofascial trigger points, at least in the short‐term, although there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy with any degree of certainty. There is no guidance from NICE on the management of myofascial pain syndrome.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for cancer‐related pain and more high‐quality, appropriately designed and adequately powered studies are needed. The most recent guidance from NICE (CSG4) recognises that patients who are receiving palliative care often seek complementary therapies, but it does not specifically recommend acupuncture. It recognises that “Many studies have a considerable number of methodological limitations, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions”.
  • Evidence from SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for fibromyalgia pain. There is no NICE guidance on the treatment of fibromyalgia.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for primary dysmenorrhea or chronic pelvic pain. There is NICE guidance on endometriosis (NG73) [200] but this does not recommend any form of Chinese medicine for this type of pelvic pain, although acupuncture is not specifically mentioned.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for pain in inflammatory arthritis. There is a NICE guideline (NG100) [201] for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis but this does not recommend acupuncture.
  • Evidence from the SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for neuropathic pain or neuralgia. There is NICE guidance (CG173) on the management of neuropathic pain, but acupuncture is not included in the list of recommended/not recommended treatments.
  • Evidence from SRs suggests that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for a variety of other painful conditions, including lateral elbow pain, shoulder pain and labour pain. There is no guidance available from NICE on the treatment of any of these conditions.

So, what should we make of all this?

Maybe I just point out two things:

  1. This is a most valuable addition to the literature about acupuncture. It can serve as a reference for all who are interested in an honest account of the (lack of) value of acupuncture in the management of chronic pain.
  2. If a therapy has been tested in hundreds of (sadly often flawed) trials and the conclusions fail to come out clearly in favour of it, it is most likely not a very effective treatment.

Until we have data to the contrary, acupuncture should not be considered to be an effective therapy for chronic pain management.

If you, like many of us, have heavily ‘toxed’, you might now consider ‘detoxing’. What I mean is that we have probably all over-indulged a bit over the holidays. Unless you were the guest of someone, you had to pay dearly for it (Champagne is not cheap!). And now, a whole industry of ‘detox’ entrepreneurs tells you to pay again – this time, for detox.

As you payed ‘through your nose’ for the ‘tox’, you might as well use the same orifice for the ‘detox’. An Indian tradition called Nasiyam (or Nasyam? or Nasya? – I am confused!)  makes it possible. This website explains:

Nasal Instillation (Nasyam) is the practice of instilling medicated oils, fresh juices of leaves or flowers in the nostrils … Nasyam is specially directed towards the purification of various parts related to the head…

I don’t know about you, but I always felt that all my parts were related to my head! So, Nasyam is for purification of all my parts? The announcement below – I picked it up on Twitter – is much clearer: detox through the nasal doorway! Who would refuse such an offer after the festivities of late?

This sounds fascinating, I thought. Thus I ran a quick Medline search but only found this abstract:

BACKGROUND:

Ardita (facial paralysis) is a medical condition that disfigures or distorts the facial appearance of the sufferer causing facial asymmetry and malfunction. Ardita patients may benefit from considering alternative treatments such as Ayurveda, including Taila Nasya (nasal instillation of medicated oil).

OBJECTIVES:

To synthesize the best available evidence on the effectiveness of different Nasya oils in the treatment of Ardita.

INCLUSION CRITERIA TYPES OF PARTICIPANTS:

Studies conducted on adult sufferers (18-70 years) of Ardita (chronic or acute) in any setting were considered. Studies including participants who were pregnant or suffered allergic rhinitis, fever, intracranial tumor/hemorrhage and bilateral facial palsy were excluded.

INTERVENTION(S)/COMPARATOR(S):

Standalone treatment of Nasya (at all dosages and frequencies) compared to Nasya in combination with other Ayurvedic treatments was considered. Comparisons between different interventions including Taila Nasya alone, Taila Nasya in combination with other Ayurvedic interventions and Ayurvedic interventions that did not include Taila Nasya were also considered.

OUTCOMES AND MEASURES:

Changes in Ardita symptoms, including facial distortion, speech disorders and facial pain, were measured.

TYPES OF STUDIES:

All quantitative study designs (experimental, quasi-experimental and observational) were considered.

SEARCH STRATEGY:

Relevant studies were identified following a comprehensive literature search. References provided within these key studies identified additional resources. Indian universities were also contacted for results of Ardita studies undertaken in their institutions.A three-step search strategy aimed to find studies of published and unpublished studies was undertaken. Studies published in the English language were considered for inclusion, irrespective of publication date/year. Following an initial limited search of MEDLINE and CINAHL, the text words contained in the title and abstract, and of the index terms used to describe each articles were analyzed. From the identified keywords and index terms, searches were undertaken across all relevant databases such as PubMed, CINHAL, Cochrane (CENTRAL), Scopus, Centre for Review and Dissemination databases, Turning Research into Practice (TRIP), EMBASE, EBM Reviews, DHARA, Google Scholar, MedNar and ProQuest Dissertations. Finally, reference lists of identified theses and articles were searched for additional studies. Universities and website operators related to Ayurvedic research in India were contacted, including the National Institute of Ayurveda for relevant studies. Besides this, the University of Adelaide librarian was contacted to retrieve those studies identified in the reference lists of theses and articles.

METHODOLOGICAL QUALITY:

Studies were critically assessed by the review author and a secondary reviewer prior to inclusion in the review using the standardized critical appraisal instrument from the Joanna Briggs Institute.

DATA EXTRACTION:

Data was extracted by the primary reviewer using the standardized data extraction tool from the Joanna Briggs Institute.

DATA SYNTHESIS:

Different interventions and comparators across studies precluded meta-analysis. Narrative synthesis was performed.

RESULTS:

Only two pseudo randomized studies with a small number of participants met inclusion criteria and were included in the review. One study with 20 participants, divided equally into two groups compared the effectiveness of two nasal instillations in alleviating four Ardita symptoms. The second study of 15 participants each in two groups compared the effectiveness of nasal instillation with placement of medicated oil on the head on seven Ardita symptoms. Observational measurements of Ardita symptoms were graded as Mild, Moderate or Marked at baseline and after one month. The study conducted on 30 participants using Nasya intervention showed participants had better relief from the symptoms of facial pain, speech disorder and earache within the range of 78.2% to 90.9%, graded as Marked. Along with statistical data available in the studies, this review found low levels of evidence favoring Taila Nasya intervention. The review did not include any studies examining effectiveness of Nasya compared to conventional treatment for Ardita.

CONCLUSIONS:

This review presents extremely limited evidence from only two small experimental studies that administration of Nasya oil alone may provide some relief from Ardita symptoms of facial distortion, speech disorder, inability to shut eyelids/upward eye rolling and dribbling of saliva in adult patients. No strong conclusions may be drawn from the evidence included in the review due to the limited number of studies, limited number of participants and poor quality of studies.

IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE:

Practitioners should advice Ardita patients that there is extremely limited evidence suggesting the potential effectiveness of Nasya oils alone or Nasya in conjunction with other Ayurvedic treatments in managing symptoms. However, given the absence of a strong evidence base, practitioners should be guided by clinical wisdom and patient preference.

IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH:

Well controlled clinical trials comparing standalone Nasya therapy to other Ayurvedic treatments and/or conventional medicine for Ardita symptoms need to be conducted to examine the relative effectiveness of different Nasya oils in treating.

I think you agree, that’s nothing to write home about.

So, on second thought I might give Nasya (or whatever it is called) a miss. The same applies, by the way, to any other form of detox.

Are you hungover today? you will be pleased to hear that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has a lot to offer – at least this is what its enthusiasts think.

Homeopaths swear by Nux Vomica as the first remedy to think of with hangover headaches, but it is also excellent for headaches from overwork, indigestion headaches and headaches accompanying constipation. Use it when your headache is worse when you cough or bend down, and headaches that aggravate when you move your eyes. If you have overeaten and drunk too much alcohol, you may also feel nauseous and want to vomit to make yourself feel better but find you cannot. If this describes your symptoms then Nux Vomica is the remedy for you.

When I worked as a homeopath, I and others often tried this treatment – it never worked. More importantly, there is not a jot of evidence that it does.

Some people recommend artichoke extract. I say: forget it. Here is why:

BACKGROUND:

Extract of globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is promoted as a possible preventive or cure for alcohol-induced hangover symptoms. However, few rigorous clinical trials have assessed the effects of artichoke extract, and none has examined the effects in relation to hangovers. We undertook this study to test whether artichoke extract is effective in preventing the signs and symptoms of alcohol-induced hangover.

METHODS:

We recruited healthy adult volunteers between 18 and 65 years of age to participate in a randomized double-blind crossover trial. Participants received either 3 capsules of commercially available standardized artichoke extract or indistinguishable, inert placebo capsules immediately before and after alcohol exposure. After a 1-week washout period the volunteers received the opposite treatment. Participants predefined the type and amount of alcoholic beverage that would give them a hangover and ate the same meal before commencing alcohol consumption on the 2 study days. The primary outcome measure was the difference in hangover severity scores between the artichoke extract and placebo interventions. Secondary outcome measures were differences between the interventions in scores using a mood profile questionnaire and cognitive performance tests administered 1 hour before and 10 hours after alcohol exposure.

RESULTS:

Fifteen volunteers participated in the study. The mean number (and standard deviation) of alcohol units (each unit being 7.9 g, or 10 mL, of ethanol) consumed during treatment with artichoke extract and placebo was 10.7 (3.1) and 10.5 (2.4) respectively, equivalent to 1.2 (0.3) and 1.2 (0.2) g of alcohol per kilogram body weight. The volume of nonalcoholic drink consumed and the duration of sleep were similar during the artichoke extract and placebo interventions. None of the outcome measures differed significantly between interventions. Adverse events were rare and were mild and transient.

INTERPRETATION:

Our results suggest that artichoke extract is not effective in preventing the signs and symptoms of alcohol-induced hangover. Larger studies are required to confirm these findings.

Is there anything else you might want to try? I am afraid the answer is NO. Here is our systematic review on the subject:

OBJECTIVE:

To assess the clinical evidence on the effectiveness of any medical intervention for preventing or treating alcohol hangover.

DATA SOURCES:

Systematic searches on Medline, Embase, Amed, Cochrane Central, the National Research Register (UK), and ClincalTrials.gov (USA); hand searches of conference proceedings and bibliographies; contact with experts and manufacturers of commercial preparations. Language of publication was not restricted.

STUDY SELECTION AND DATA EXTRACTION:

All randomised controlled trials of any medical intervention for preventing or treating alcohol hangover were included. Trials were considered if they were placebo controlled or controlled against a comparator intervention. Titles and abstracts of identified articles were read and hard copies were obtained. The selection of studies, data extraction, and validation were done independently by two reviewers. The Jadad score was used to evaluate methodological quality.

RESULTS:

Fifteen potentially relevant trials were identified. Seven publications failed to meet all inclusion criteria. Eight randomised controlled trials assessing eight different interventions were reviewed. The agents tested were propranolol, tropisetron, tolfenamic acid, fructose or glucose, and the dietary supplements Borago officinalis (borage), Cynara scolymus (artichoke), Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly pear), and a yeast based preparation. All studies were double blind. Significant intergroup differences for overall symptom scores and individual symptoms were reported only for tolfenamic acid, gamma linolenic acid from B officinalis, and a yeast based preparation.

CONCLUSION:

No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practise abstinence or moderation.

Yes, it’s true, the only sound advice is moderation!

In so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), there is never a dull moment; for me, the last decade was hardly an exception.

2010: Simon Singh and I had just published our book ‘Trick of Treatment‘(see also below), and consequently, the SCAM community (after having been more than a little suspicious of me for years) decided to oust me. At my university, I had major battles after the complaint by Prince Charles’ private secretary regarding the ‘Smallwood report‘. I decided to preserve my department by going into early retirement.

2011: This plan did not work out. I did retire, but the department sadly was closed down. The deal was that I get re-employed by my university on a half-time basis and help to find and appoint a successor.

2012: This did not work out either. We did find one suitable candidate, but they offered him terms that were totally unacceptable. The result: no more ‘Complementary Medicine’ at Exeter (I must admit, that was tough!). My wife and I thus sold our flat in Exeter and moved into rural Suffolk.

2013: My wife fell seriously ill, and we decided to move to France for an entire year to get her cured. This turned out to be the right decision; today she is alive and kicking.

2014: To prevent slowly going insane over all this, I had started writing my memoir.

2015: The book was published under the title ‘A scientist in wonderland’ and got unbelievably positive reviews. Today, this memoir is available also in German, Spanish and Korean. In the same year, I received the ‘John Maddox Award for standing up for science‘. I donated the prize money to the ‘Good Thinking Society’.

2016: While lecturing in Germany, I was invited by Springer to publish a book with them, and I chose the subject of homeopathy. The book entitled ‘Homeopathy, the undiluted facts‘ was later also published in German.

2017: I was awarded an Ockham Award at the QED. Sadly, I could not attend in person but Simon Singh received it in my name. We sold our house in Suffolk, moved to Cambridge, and also spent much of our time in France.

2018: After a perfect co-operation with the ethicist, Kevin Smith‘, our Springer book on the ethical issues raised by SCAM was published. It is entitled ‘More good than harm? The moral maze of complementary and alternative medicine‘ and received an award from the BMA. The same year, I also published my book ‘SCAM‘ which shortly after also was published in German.

2019: I published, again with Springer, an analysis of 150 SCAM modalities. Ioannidis et al published an analysis of 100 000 scientists of all fields. It implied that I am the most ‘influential’ researcher in the area of SCAM. This came just as unexpected as the US ‘Bookauthority’ naming our book ‘Trick or Treatment’ amongst the ‘best mental health books of all times’.

(Oh, I almost forgot: I also published ~500 Medline-listed papers as well as >1 700 blog posts and gave about 300 invited lectures during the last 10 years. Retirement turned out to be busy indeed.)

Sadly, the last decade also meant losing several good friends. John Dormandy and Gustav Born are two I miss very badly.

Yes, it was a decade full of action, worries, happiness, achievements and also true sadness. I hope I will still be around in 10 years to report about the next one.

I WISH ALL MY READERS A HAPPY AND HEALTHY NEW YEAR.

Please allow me to quote from yet another paper that I published 20 years ago. It is a very brief comment on an article by Kaptchuk and Eisenberg which discussed the reasons for the considerable popularity of SCAM. In it, they stated that the attraction of alternative medicine is related to the power of its underlying shared beliefs and cultural assumptions. The fundamental premises are an advocacy of nature, vitalism, “science,” and spirituality. These themes offer patients a participatory experience of empowerment, authenticity, and enlarged self-identity when illness threatens their sense of intactness and connection to the world.

This failed to convince me and I decided to offer an alternative view. Here is the relevant passage:

…  I would like to expand on a much more profane possible reason for the prevalence of alternative medicine. U.S. sales data of BMW cars (used as a marker of affluence) were obtained from the BMW head office in Munich, Germany. These data were correlated with both U.S. consumer use of herbal remedies and sales figures from the U.S. herbal mass market. Both latter data sets were taken from a recent overview of the U.S. herbal market. The correlation coefficients were impressive (r = 0.870 and r = 0.929, respectively).

Of course, correlations of this type do not imply a causal relation. Nevertheless, they do put affluence into the realm of factors to be considered seriously as explanations for the currently high prevalence of complementary medicine.

What I tried to imply in my comment is simple: many consumers in countries such as the US are well-off. Some seem to have so much money that they don’t know anymore what to do with it. Thus they spend it on all sorts of nonsense – some even spend it on SCAM! This was true, I think, 20 years ago – and it is true today.

I think that, during the last 20 years, this hypothesis has received much support – just think of our favourite SCAM merchant, Gwyneth Paltrow laughing all the way to the bank!

We were all born stupid, but it requires continuously hard work to remain dumb. A SCAM-obsessed, belligerent twit – the type we regularly encounter in the comments section of this blog – is not born but evolves during years of agonisingly tough work. At least, this is my impression. Certain traits (e. g. lack of self-doubt, bloody-mindedness, arrogance, egoism) might help, but the rest is a development that must follow certain steps.

THE INITIATION

An event is needed to start it all off. Often this is a very personal experience such as an illness which is unsuccessfully diagnosed and treated by a series of ungifted physicians. Eventually, our man (less frequently woman) comes across one particular SCAM. He tries it and his aliment subsequently is much-improved. Understandably, he is impressed and, unable to think critically, becomes a proponent of this particular SCAM.

INITIAL ‘RESEARCH’

Next our man takes the (not entirely irrational) step of reading all he can find about his newly discovered SCAM. Not having a science background, he falls for the plethora of uncritical BS that pollute the Internet. The more he reads, the more confident he becomes that SCAM is quite simply wonderful. And the more he studies, the clearer he realises that the news about the wonders of SCAM is being suppressed by the pharma/establishment mafia which is keen to hide the knowledge about SCAM for fear of losing their profits, jobs and income.

LOATHING

Naturally this insight triggers increasing resentment. How dare they suppress the information that would save thousands from suffering? How do they manage to sleep at night knowing that they are viciously hindering progress? Our man started his SCAM-journey by being mildly critical of conventional medicine (which could of course be a good thing). Now this sentiment is fast turning into a deep loathing. He is unable to see a single good point about conventional healthcare and he is becoming convinced that all who are engaged in it are cynically out to harm their fellow human beings. Consequently, he is less and less able to engage in a meaningful discussion with anyone who is not of his opinion.

THE DECISION

Our man arrives at the point where he makes a conscious decision to reject any information that contradicts his by now ‘superior’ knowledge of health, medicine, science and SCAM. He has seen clearly that such information is false, biased or misleading. The people who call themselves experts are bought by Big Pharma and cannot be trusted. They control the medical press where they publish their evidence. Yet, our ignoramus knows that their evidence is false and their science is corrupt. Reliable evidence, our man decides, is defined as evidence supporting his views. People who disagree with him are his personal enemies.

ADVANCED ‘RESEARCH’

Instead of reading any of the many papers that contradict his thinking, our man decides to dig deeper and deeper into BS. He now conducts ‘in-depth research’ by concentrating purely on what his gurus have put on the internet and published in their books. Peer review is not necessary; in conventional science, it is merely a smokescreen to hide the corrupt machinations of the establishment. In other words, our man has firmly established his home on ‘mount stupid’ (see below) and has turned into the belligerent fool we sometimes encounter on this blog. His over-confidence prevents him from descending into the ‘valley of despair’.

THE FOCUS

What he needs now is a pair of blinkers which allows our simpleton to eliminate all the disturbing information from ‘the enemy’. He now focusses on all the material that confirms his opinions. Any facts that might contradict them are denounced as propaganda from the ‘status quo’ and thus ignored. Accepted knowledge from the areas of physiology, pathology, pharmacology, etc. is pushed aside as just another bit of fake news from the medical mafia. He is unable to move on by learning; all he does is confirm his prior belief though a semblance of research. At this stage, our dimwit considers himself now a leading expert in his SCAM. His near-total lack of understanding of related issues and fields has become irrelevant. His self-confidence is at its peak, while his knowledge stagnates.

THE MISSION

Our belligerent ignoramus is full of anger about the fact that his supreme expertise is not taken seriously outside the echo chamber of his SCAM. He thus decides to go on a mission and preach the gospel wherever he can find a platform. Others may politely caution him pointing out that he might have misunderstood many of the basic principles involved. He is, however, unperturbed and proud of the half-knowledge that he managed to acquire during the process he calls research. Confronted with the repeated rejection of his bizarre notions, he eventually gets aggressive and starts insulting those who fail to follow his delusions. His mission is preaching the gospel of SCAM and, for that purpose, all means are necessary and allowed.

Our cantankerous twit has developed a serious neurosis. Nothing can free him from his paranoid obsessions and conspiracy theories. One by one, his opponents realise the extent of his problems and abandon discussing with him. This merely confirms his prior belief that, on this blog, everyone is in the pocket of Big Pharma. Deeply disgusted he stops debating and looks for another forum where, at least for a while, he can display his profound ignorance.

I published this article 20 years ago! Yet, it is, I think, still relevant today. For the purpose of this blog, I have altered it marginally (mainly by using the acromym SCAM):

Whatever SCAM is, it is not an alternative to conventional medicine. Nevertheless, one might still ask why so many people pay for ‘unproven’ SCAM when they can have scientifically backed medicine at no extra expense. Chandola et al suggest that 44% who use CM hope for a cure, 30% fear adverse effects of mainstream drugs, and 27% are dissatisfied with conventional care. In a much larger survey conducted in the USA, Astin found that dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine was prevalent but did not predict use of SCAM. SCAM users tended to be better educated and to subscribe to a more ‘holistic’ philosophy of healthcare. Interestingly, they reported poorer health status than non-users. Moreover, SCAM attracts patients because it offers more personal autonomy or control and is less impersonal or high-tech than mainstream medicine. Finally patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may simply try SCAM so as to leave no stone unturned.

‘Scientifically backed’ medicine may not be quite as helpful as one tends to assume at least not in the eyes of the patient. A survey of 1420 (mostly musculoskeletal) pain sufferers suggested that SCAMs were perceived as more successful than mainstream drugs. In fact, orthodox therapies such as parenteral injections and oral medications ranked only 8th and 11th, respectively. Perhaps more disturbingly, patients seem to experience the therapeutic encounter with SCAM practitioners as more satisfying, empathetic and informative than that with their general practitioners. While many physicians (rightly or wrongly) continue to see SCAM as a nuisance, maybe we should think again: SCAM’s popularity amounts to a biting criticism of mainstream medicine that ought to be taken seriously.

How are clinicians to reconcile the public demand for SCAM with the new zeal for evidence-based medicine? The apparently easy answer is to pursue a strategy of evidence-based SCAM. This is precisely what my department is doing. There are now about 2000 clinical trials in this diverse area. But clinical trials are often full of contradictions and seldom clarify clinical questions adequately. A US study, for instance, has contributed to increasing doubts about whether chiropractic is helpful for acute uncomplicated low back pain in a clinically relevant way. What we really need for informing clinicians’ decisions are systematic reviews incorporating the totality of the available data. For the past 5 years this has been the focus of my department’s work, and we have published a considerable number of such papers. The notion that SCAM is totally devoid of evidence is a cliché which, like many clichés, is not entirely true.

Undoubtedly, vast areas of uncertainty do remain. The more difficult question is, therefore, how should clinicians deal with their patients’ desire for SCAM in the absence of evidence? Embarrassingly few convincing answers are on offer. Physicians have become experts in dealing with uncertainty in many aspects of their work. A dose of common sense will usually go quite far. At the very least, doctors should know what type of treatments their patients are trying. Taking a detailed history should nowadays include asking specifically about use of SCAM. In order not to alienate patients, one should resist the temptation to be dismissive. If there are good reasons to warn of a certain form of SCAM, these are best offered in an objective manner. To give evidence-based advice, clinicians obviously have to be informed about the facts, and impartial information is hard to find. One ray of light in this relative darkness is the Cochrane Collaboration, which now has a ‘field’ working on SCAM. The number of systematic reviews available from the Cochrane database is growing rapidly.

Once a patient is using SCAM (with or against the doctor’s advice), it makes sense to monitor the effects. This increases the safety of the patient and contributes to the physician’s knowledge of and experience with SCAM. There is also a good argument for establishing working relationships with a selection of local SCAM therapists who have a good track record and adequate training. At present, communication between doctors and therapists is often poor or even non-existent. Surely this cannot be to the benefit of the patient.

For SCAM, the best chance of survival in a harsh climate of evidence-based medicine and increasing rationing of resources is to come up with the goods and demonstrate what treatments are effective, safe and cost-effective for which condition. For physicians, the best way of reconciling the ‘two worlds’ is to inform themselves adequately and guide their patients through the ‘SCAM maze’ with a generous helping of good common sense. For patients, last but not least, the best approach is to be cautious and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

END OF QUOTE

Twenty years, and little has changed:

  1. There still are vast areas of uncertainty.
  2. Imparcial information about SCAM is still scarce.
  3. Patient demand for SCAM is still considerable.
  4. The implied criticism of conventional medicine is still not taken seriously.
  5. The communication between doctors and SCAM practitioners is still lamentable.
  6. Most doctors still do not include questions about SCAM in their medical history taking.
  7. Arguably, SCAM has become even less evidence-based.
  8. Most doctors remain blissfully uninformed about SCAM.
  9. Most of the claims made for SCAM are too good to be true.
  10.  …
  11. etc.

I think you get the gist.

The current Cochrane review of clinical trials testing the effectiveness of manipulation/mobilisation for neck pain concluded as follows:

Although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices.

Such a critical assessment must be tough for chiropractors who gain a substantial part of their income from treating such patients. What is the solution? Simple, convene a panel of chiros and issue recommendations that are more prone to stimulate their cash flow!

Exactly that seems to have just happened.

The purpose of the researchers was to develop best-practice recommendations for chiropractic management of adults with neck pain.

A steering committee of experts in chiropractic practice, education, and research drafted a set of recommendations based on the most current relevant clinical practice guidelines. Additional supportive literature was identified through targeted searches conducted by a health sciences librarian. A national panel of chiropractors representing expertise in practice, research, and teaching rated the recommendations using a modified Delphi process. The consensus process was conducted from August to November 2018. Fifty-six panelists rated the 50 statements and concepts and reached consensus on all statements within 3 rounds.

The statements and concepts covered aspects of the clinical encounter, ranging from informed consent through diagnosis, assessment, treatment planning and implementation, and concurrent management and referral for patients presenting with neck pain.

The authors concluded that these best-practice recommendations for chiropractic management of adults with neck pain are based on the best available scientific evidence. For uncomplicated neck pain, including neck pain with headache or radicular symptoms, chiropractic manipulation and multimodal care are recommended.

Let’s be clear what this amounts to: a panel of highly selected chiropractors (sponsored by a chiropractic organisation) has reached a consensus (and published it in a chiropractic) which allows them to continue to treat patients with neck pain.

Isn’t that just great?

Now let’s think ahead – what next?

I suggest the following:

  1. A panel of homeopaths recommending homeopathy.
  2. A panel of faith healers recommending faith healing.
  3. A panel of crystal healers recommending crystal healing.
  4. A panel of colon therapists recommending colonic irrigation.
  5. A panel of supplement manufacturers recommending to buy supplements.

I am sure you get the gist.

 

 

In the true Christmas spirit, I decided that I will give away presents to fans of homeopathy.

Here is the deal:

It is almost 2 years now that I asked all homeopaths, particularly those who believe that homeopathy works because it is ‘nano-medicine’, to answer the questions below:

  1. How (by what mechanism) does a nano-particle of coffee, for instance, affect the sleep centre in the brain to make the patient sleep? Or how does a nano-particle of the Berlin Wall or a duck liver affect anything at all in the human body? 
  2. Most homeopathic remedies are consumed not as liquids but as ‘globuli’, i. e.  tiny little pills made of lactose. They are prepared by spraying the liquid remedy on to them. The liquid subsequently evaporates. How is it that the information allegedly retained in the liquid does not evaporate with the diluent?
  3. The diluent usually is a water-alcohol mixture which inevitably contains impurities. In fact, a liquid C12 remedy contains dimensions more impurities than homeopathic stock. These impurities have, of course, also been vigorously shaken, i. e. potentised. How can we explain that their ‘potency’ has not been beefed up at each dilution step? Would this not necessitate a process where only some molecules in the diluent are agitated, while all the others remain absolutely still? How can we explain this concept?
  4. Some stock used in homeopathy is insoluble (for instance Berlin Wall). Such stock is not diluted but its concentration in the remedy is initially lowered by a process called ‘trituration’, a process which consists in grinding the source material in another solid material, usually lactose. Assuming that potentisation works in the way homeopaths think, how is information transferred from one solid material to another during trituration?
  5. Everything we drink is based on water containing molecules that have been inadvertently potentised in nature a million times and therefore should have hugely powerful effects on our bodies. How is it that we experience none of these effects each time we drink?

So far, I have not received any answers that stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, I now offer a present, free book on homeopathy,

to anyone who can provide a rational, scientifically sound answer to at least one of these questions. Just post your reply in the comments section. If it fulfils the above criteria, I will contact you, ask you for your postal address, and send you a free copy of my book.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Guest post by Richard Rasker

Almost two years ago, in March 2018, a group of 124 doctors and other medical professionals published an article in the French newspaper ‘Le Figaro’, warning the general public for the false promises, unproven claims and dangers of alternative medicine.

Homeopathy in particular is denounced as an unscientific belief in magic, utterly lacking in plausibility as well as in evidence of efficacy for any condition. Subjecting people to these kinds of unproven treatments is unethical, and may result in serious harm by delaying proper medical treatment. Also, homeopaths and other alternative practitioners often express anti-vaccine sentiments, endangering children by dissuading their parents from vaccination.

For these and several other reasons, these 124 medical professionals made an appeal for alternative and esoteric treatments to be excluded from the field of science-based medicine, and to stop reimbursement of homeopathic and other alternative treatments under France’s national health care insurance system.

In a somewhat belated response, French homeopaths are now filing no less than 63 disciplinary complaints with the French Medical Council against the signatories of the appeal in Le Figaro, apparently for “uncollegial behaviour” and “defiling medical ethics”. The homeopaths are represented by homeopathic doctor Daniel Scimeca, president of the French Federation of Homeopathic Societies, who also has close relations with Boiron laboratories, the biggest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world.

At the time of this writing, 11 complaints have been adjudicated, resulting in 7 warnings, and 4 releases or dismissals. It is unclear how serious such a ‘warning’ should be taken, but it is clear that homeopaths are trying to punish real doctors for supporting and expressing an overwhelming scientific consensus, i.e. that there is no evidence whatsoever that homeopathy is actually good for anything.

And even though these French homeopaths do not resort to the sort of vile, underhanded media smear campaign perpetrated by the late Claus Fritzsche against Dr. Ernst, there are certain parallels – the most important of which is that proponents of unproven ‘medicine’ attempt to silence science-based criticism by unscientific means, instead of open discourse about the merits (or more precisely: the lack thereof) of their chosen profession.

I personally find it rather worrying that almost two-thirds of the complaints resulted in a slap on the wrist for the medical professional involved. Especially in a field that is so strongly dependent on both science and trust, well-founded criticism should be encouraged and made public, not punished and silenced.

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