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Archive for July, 2013

Yoga Woo

Yoga is an increasingly popular form of exercise in the US. According to Yoga Journal more than 20 million Americans use yoga as their form of exercise. As a form of exercise yoga is fairly straightforward, involving stretching and holding poses that strengthen muscles. It also carries the generic benefits of any exercise in terms of calorie-burning and cardiovascular health.

Yoga, however, is more than exercise – it also comes with a “spiritual” angle. The term itself refers to a number of practices originating in ancient India meant to strength mind, body, and spirit. For this reason it has become a popular target for marketing the latest health pseudoscience. You will be hard pressed, in fact, to find a yoga class that does not incorporate some degree of outright woo, the only question really is not if, but how much. This is unfortunate because yoga may be an effective alternative for low-impact exercise.

There is some evidence that yoga, for example, is effective in relieving low back pain, although it may not be more effective than usual care. There is a lack of quality studies comparing yoga to other forms of exercise, and so we may just be seeing the generic benefits of exercise. Still, if the classes are fun and they keep people motivated to continue their exercise regimen, that is useful.

Yoga, therefore, fits into a more general phenomenon of marketing a specific intervention as if it has specific benefits, when in fact it only has generic benefits. For example, there are many studies showing that transcendental meditation is effective for lowering blood pressure. However, studies generally compare TM to no intervention, not to other forms of relaxation. The parsimonious interpretation is that TM confers the generic benefits of relaxation, but there is no evidence to suggest it confers any specific benefits.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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What Doctors Feel

Doctors are often accused of being unfeeling technicians who treat their patients like cases of disease rather than people (think Dr. House). We were taught in medical school to remain detached, not get too close to patients, and not show our emotions. That attitude was epitomized in William Osler’s essay Aequanimitas. But doctors have feelings like anyone else, and no one is Spockishly rational. A patient might reasonably say “I don’t give a damn how my doctor feels as long as she gets me better,” but emotions affect everything we do, influencing clinical decisions and patient outcomes. This subject is investigated in a new book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, by Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and an accomplished writer who has written extensively about her experiences in medicine.

She tells anecdotes from her training to give the reader a feel for what it was like to be in an extremely stressful situation with time pressure, conflicting duties, lack of sleep, life-or-death responsibilities, the highest expectations, and the impossibility of both getting everything done and doing each thing well. It reminded me of times in my own training when I desperately wanted to just somehow survive the day and not kill anyone. Medical residency can be almost as stressful as a war zone, and has its own PTSD victims, complete with flashbacks.

Part of the stress is being suddenly immersed in a new culture with its own tribal customs, slang, in-jokes, and a foreign language: “82WM w/PMH of CAD, CVA, MIx2, s/p 3V-CABG, c/o CP, SOB 2 wks PTA. BIBA s/p LOC. No F/C/N/V/D.” (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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The difference between science-based medicine and CAM

“Alternative medicine,” so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or, as it’s become fashionable to call it, “integrative medicine” is a set of medical practices that are far more based on belief than science. As Mark Crislip so pointedly reminded us last week, CAM is far more akin to religion than science-based medicine (SBM). However, as I’ve discussed more times than I can remember over the years, both here and at my not-so-super-secret-other blog, CAM practitioners and advocates, despite practicing what is in reality mostly pseudoscience-based medicine, crave the imprimatur that science can provide, the respect that science has. That is why, no matter how scientifically implausible the treatment, CAM practitioners try to tart it up with science. I say “tart it up” because they aren’t really providing a scientific basis for their favored quackery. In reality, what they are doing is choosing science-y words and using them as explanations without actually demonstrating that these words have anything to do with how their favored CAM works.

A more important fundamental difference between CAM and real medicine is that CAM practices are not rejected based on evidence. Basically, they never go away. Take homeopathy, for example. (Please!) It’s the ultimate chameleon. Even 160 years ago, it was obvious from a scientific point of view that homeopathy was nonsense and that diluting something doesn’t make it stronger. When it became undeniable that this was the case, through the power of actually knowing Avogadro’s number, homeopaths were undeterred. They concocted amazing explanations of how homeopathy “works” by claiming that water has “memory.” It supposedly “remembers” the substances with which it’s been in contact and transmits that “information” to the patient. No one’s ever been able to explain to me why transmitting the “information” from a supposed memory of water is better than the information from the real drug or substance itself, but that’s just my old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, scientific nature being old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, and scientific. Then, of course, there’s the term “quantum,” which has been so widely abused by Deepak Chopra, his acolytes, and the CAM community in general, while the new CAM buzzword these days to explain why quackery “works” is epigenetics. Basically, whenever a proponent of alternative medicine uses the word “epigenetics” or “quantum” to explain how an alternative medicine treatment “works,” what he really means is, “It’s magic.” This is a near-universal truth, and even the most superficial probing of such justifications will virtually always reveal magical thinking combined with an utter ignorance of the science of quantum mechanics or epigenetics.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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Religion and SCAM

I do not worry much about being dead although the process of getting there gives me pause. I have witnessed a few unpleasant deaths and I hope to never see the Grim Reaper coming my way.

One of the more awful and pointless deaths occurred early in my career. I had a patient with hepatitis C and cirrhosis. He had low platelets, low clotting factors (many of which are made by the liver), a previously undiagnosed clotting disorder, and a mouth full of bad teeth that were removed all at once when he acquired dental insurance.

Then he started to ooze blood from his extractions. An ooze that did not stop, it was a constant trickle of blood that would not clot. After several visits to his dentist he almost passed out and came to the emergency room. After 4 days he had bled out about half his blood volume, his haemoglobin had gone from 12 to 6. At this point we geared up for transfusions of red cells and clotting factors and he let us know that he was a Jehovah’s Witness and, no thank you, he would not accept any blood or blood products.

For the next week he continued to ooze despite all the interventions we could come up with to stop the bleeding and he remained adamant in his refusal of transfusions of any kind, despite the risk of death. At about a hemoglobin of 2 he had a large stroke and severe muscle pain from ischemia. At 1 he had a large heart attack and died. If you could rank deaths as pointless and horrific, this would be in my top 10. And I was struck at how nonplussed the family was, accepting this completely preventable death matter-of-factly. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Integrative Medicine Invades the U.S. Military: Part One

Integrative medicine proponents claim superiority over physicians practicing “conventional” medicine. (Which I will refer to as “medicine” so as not to buy into integrative medicine’s implied claim that medicine can be practiced with two separate standards.) While conceding that medicine is good for treating conditions like broken arms and heart attacks, physicians who purport to practice integrative medicine argue it ignores “the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle.” Their vision of a new, improved practice of medicine “emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.””

But, as we know, the practice of medicine already takes into account “the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle,” is “informed by evidence” and uses “all appropriate therapies.” This includes recommendations regarding diet, exercise, relaxation and vitamin and dietary supplement use, which are often erroneously labeled “CAM.” Medicine appears to be well aware of problems in the current model of health care delivery and is actively seeking ways to improve it. If integrative medical practitioners and their proponents were simply directing their time, energy and resources toward facilitating a better model for delivering health care I suppose no one would have any problem.

But they aren’t. They are claiming rights to an entirely new specialty in medicine. Proponents do this by advancing two dubious arguments. First, integrative medicine alone can deliver on this “whole person” model of care. Second, inclusion of alternative medicine is essential to good patient care.

From a consumer protection standpoint, I find integrative medicine troubling. Proponents are unfairly misrepresenting medical practice as inferior and offering themselves as the solution when there is no evidence that they can deliver on these claims. Unfortunately, despite this lack of evidence, integrative medicine has seized the imagination of public policy makers and legislative bodies. It is included in the Affordable Care Act and continues to metastasize throughout the military health care system, which together will soon control delivery of the vast majority of health care in this country.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Legal, Politics and Regulation

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Prenatal Mercury and Autism

Mercury in unequivocally a neurotoxin. It is especially damaging to the developing brain. But it’s the dose that makes the toxin, and so a low enough exposure even to something known to be potentially harmful may not be. Further, the body has mechanisms for dealing with toxins, and toxins in the body may not be reaching the cells they can potentially damage in significant amounts. Therefore if we want to know if a potential toxin is actually causing any harm to people we need to do some type of epidemiological study – correlating exposure to possible adverse outcomes. All the studies in petri dishes and with cell cultures just won’t answer the question of harm.

The question of whether or not mercury in vaccines has caused neurological harm, specifically autism, has been largely answered. Numerous studies have shown no association between the amount of mercury exposure from vaccines and the risk of developing autism. A separate mercury-related question, however, is whether or not there is any risk of harm from mercury exposure from seafood. Mercury is methylated by bacteria into methymercury, and through them gets into the food chain in the oceans. Fish that eat other fish then concentrate the mercury in their tissues, and so predatory fish and sea mammals tend to have high concentrations of methymercury.

This has led to some precautionary recommendations, including that pregnant women should not eat tuna or other fish with high mercury levels. This makes sense, but what is the actual risk? The precautionary principle can also cut both ways. Fish contain many high-quality nutrients important for a developing brain, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids. Removing this food source from the diet of pregnant women may have unintended negative consequences.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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A Skeptical Look at Screening Tests

I’m going to follow Mark Crislip’s example and recycle my presentation from The Amazing Meeting last week, not because I’m lazy or short on time (although I am both), but because I think the information is worth sharing with a larger audience.

We’ve all had screening tests and we’re all likely to have more of them, but there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what screening tests can and can’t do. Screening tests are done on populations of asymptomatic people and must be distinguished from diagnostic tests done on individual patients who have symptoms. Some tests are excellent for diagnostic purposes but are not appropriate for screening purposes.

We’re constantly being admonished to get tested for one thing or another. A typical example was a recent Dear Abby column. She got a letter from a woman who had been screened for kidney disease and learned that she had a mild decrease in kidney function. Abby was shocked to learn that 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and she advised her readers to get their kidneys checked. This was terrible advice. It superficially seems like good advice, because if you have something wrong with your kidneys, you’d want to know about it, right? In fact, if there was anything wrong anywhere in your body, you’d want to know about it. By that logic, it might seem advisable to test everyone for everything. But that would be stupid. It would find lots of false positives, it would create anxiety by picking up harmless variants and anomalies that never would have caused problems, it would be expensive, and it would do more harm than good.
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Stanislaw Burzynski: The Early Years, part 1

It’s been a week now since I got back from TAM, where Bob Blaskiewicz and I tag-teamed a talk about a man who has become a frequent topic of this blog, namely Stanislaw Burzynski. I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of Burzynski, but from a different angle. There hasn’t been much in the way of news lately other than the release of Eric Merola‘s most recent propaganda “documentary,” Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2, but, believe it or not, there remain lots of loose ends that I haven’t covered. This time around, the angle is this: How did Burzynski get his start? His is a story that goes back over 46 years, and in the beginning he seemed to be a promising young academic physician and a perfectly respectable researcher. So what happened? How did he evolve from a seemingly idealistic young Polish physician to what he has been for many years now?

I started to think about this when I was writing my post about “alternative cancer cures” circa 1979, because one of the three articles written by Gary Null and various coauthors that appeared in Penthouse magazine in the fall that year, The Suppression of Cancer Cures, was dedicated primarily to Stanislaw Burzynski and his “antineoplastons,” which at the time were new news, so to speak. However, Null’s article, even though it was contemporaneous with Burzynski’s having recently struck out on his own and started his own clinic, didn’t reveal everything that I was interested in learning. Actually, the more I read, the more I realize that no source really reveals everything that I want to know about that time period in the 1970s and early 1980s that produced the Stanislaw Burzynski that we know and don’t love today. Available sources all tend to be either pro-Burzynski, Burzynski himself, or vague in the extreme about what happened. Fortunately, my research for my TAM talk will serve multiple purposes. Since the talk was so brief and required me to cover 40+ years of history in a mere 20 minutes, there was a lot left out. I hate to let all that research go to waste; so I’m going to use it for an intermittent series of blog posts.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Human Sex Determination: Psychic Sperm and the Gambler’s Fallacy…..

Carl Sagan supposedly once said that randomness is clumpy. Those three words have become one of my favorite go-to quotes, particularly when teaching residents and medical students who are often overly impressed with improbable runs of similar diagnoses or exam findings. I love this quote because it is so simple and yet reveals so much about our experience with observing the natural world. Sagan’s ability to offer up insightful nuggets of rational thought, even if he didn’t actually produce this gem, was unmatched and his efforts to bring science and reason to the public have been sorely missed. If you haven’t read any of Sagan’s works, I highly recommend The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

If you have a coin, and a few hours to kill, record the results of a long run of flips and you’ll see what Sagan meant about the nature of randomness. You will inevitably observe clusters of heads or tails that might seem improbable, but eventually the outcomes will average out to about half of the flips being heads and half resulting in tails. The more trials that you perform, the closer the outcomes will approach 50% for each possible result, assuming you aren’t gaming the system by using a trick coin.

I don’t think that very many people would argue with the fact that on average a coin flip is random chance, although there are still people out there who think that the Earth is flat and that Justin Bieber is a reptilian humanoid. But because of a deeply rooted cognitive bias, the gambler’s fallacy, we frequently fail at recognizing that randomness is clumpy. We accept the established overall odds, but our acceptance wavers in the face of short runs that go against our expectations. This error in logic can lead to the belief, for instance, that after five heads in a row there is a higher than 50% chance that the next flip with land on tails as if to magically even things out.

In my line of work as a pediatric hospitalist, I frequently experience other healthcare professionals making this mistake in a variety of circumstances. There is a known likelihood of bacteremia when an infant less than 28 days of life is evaluated for fever, for example. Despite this, it is common for physicians and nurses to lament, upon seeing fever as the triage chief complaint, that they are due for this life threatening infection after a number of recent febrile neonates have had negative blood cultures. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Obstetrics & gynecology

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I’ve been prescribed an antibiotic. Should I take a probiotic?

We are not one organism, we are many organisms. And when we disturb the relationship with our symbiotic partners, we can suffer unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening consequences. One of the most fascinating areas of medical research is the study of how our bodies interact with the the various organisms that we carry around, on us and in us. A focus is the gastrointestinal tract, particularly how the composition and function of those organisms contribute to what we think of as “normal” function, and how they can affect our risk for obesity and disease. My favorite analogy is from SBM’s own Mark Crislip who likened it to a “metaphorical rainforest” giving a vivid mental image of the of the number of species (thousands) in our guts, and the complexity of that ecology. If the gastrointestinal tract is a rainforest, then antibiotics are the metaphorical clear cutters, wiping out some of the normal bacteria, and creating the conditions where unwanted bacteria can grow.

Antibiotics are among the most useful (if not the most useful) classes of drugs in widespread use today. They’re also among the most widely prescribed, and both antibiotic overuse and their addition to animal feed present real dangers to their ongoing effectiveness. Their popularity stems in part from their effectiveness, but also from the perception that they are safe. And, in general, a course of most antibiotics is usually well tolerated. Among the side effects, diarrhea is common (with an incidence of 5% to 39%). It’s due in part to the antibiotic killing off  our normal “good” bacteria, which can significantly change the most prevalent species. In some cases, “bad” bacteria can surge as a result. Clostridium difficile infection is pretty much the worst gastrointestinal consequence of antibiotic therapy. It isn’t just a cause of antibiotic-induced diarrhea, “C. diff” infections are virulent and vicious, spreading easily, especially among hospitalized patients, causing widespread misery and even killing. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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