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Archive for 2013

Will Your Smartphone Become a Tricorder?

The Star Trek universe is a fairly optimistic vision of the future. It’s what we would like it to be – an adventure fueled by advanced technology. In the world of Star Trek technology makes life better and causes few problems.

One of the most iconic examples of Star Trek technology is the medical tricorder. What doctor has not fantasized about walking up to a sick patient, waving a handheld device over them, and then having access to all the medical information you could possibly want. No needle sticks for blood tests, no invasive tests, scary MRI machines, and no wait. The information is available instantly.

It’s clear that we are heading in that direction as technology progresses, but how close are we?

The Smartphone in Medicine
Many people in developed nations today are walking around with supercomputers in their pocket – their smartphone. Technological advances are often strange – the ones we anticipate seem to never come, but then life-changing technology creeps up on us.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Antibiotics for Low Back Pain

Low back pain is a particularly frustrating condition that is common, poorly understood, and difficult to treat. Could a long course of antibiotics be the answer for some patients? A recent study from Denmark suggests that it might be:  “Antibiotic treatment in patients with chronic low back pain and vertebral bone edema (Modic type 1 changes): a double-blind randomized clinical controlled trial of efficacy” by Albert, Sorensen, Christensen and Manniche.  Is this a crazy idea like long-term antibiotics for “chronic Lyme disease” or will it pan out like antibiotic eradication of H. pylori in patients with ulcers? Time will tell. This was a rigorous, well-done study, but we can never rely on the results of a single study until it is replicated or confirmed elsewhere.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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The deceptive rebranding of aspects of science-based medicine as “alternative” by naturopaths continues apace

That naturopathy is a veritable cornucopia of quackery mixed with the odd sensible, science-based suggestion here and there is not in doubt, at least not to supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). However, what naturopaths are very good at doing is representing their pseudoscience as somehow being scientific and thus on par with conventional SBM. So how do they accomplish this? Certainly, it’s not through the validation of any of the cornucopia of pseudoscience and quackery that naturopaths apply to their patients as though picking “one from column A and one from column B” from a proverbial Chinese menu of woo. Naturopaths’ favored modalities include homeopathy (which remains to this day an integral part of naturopathy that all naturopaths are taught), acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), “detoxification” practices (a key precept of a lot of naturopathy) such as juicing, enemas, and chelation therapy, and the various other quack modalities that make up the practice of naturopathy. Treatments like these (especially homeopathy, whose precepts would require a massive rewriting of the laws of physics and chemistry for it to work) have not been and almost certainly cannot ever be scientifically validated with an evidence base of the quality and quantity supporting SBM.

So, instead naturopaths play a very clever game. In all fairness, naturopaths are not the only practitioners of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” who play this game, but from my observations they appear to be the most talented at it. Their skill at obfuscating the line between SBM and naturopathy is evidenced by the success they have had in state legislatures in expanding their scope of practice, most recently in Colorado, where, if there is not a groundswell of support urging the Governor to veto SB-215 (or, as Jann Bellamy aptly called it, the quack full employment act), consumer protections against quackery in Colorado will be laid waste. At the same time, there is a naturopath licensing act (HB-1111) sitting on the Governor’s desk as well that would license naturopaths and give them the path to mandatory reimbursement from insurance companies. Instructions to write to the Governor opposing both bills can be found here and here; they would be disastrous for efforts to keep full vaccination in Colorado. A direct link to write the Governor can be found here.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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The Sleep Bank

The following article is entirely made up. It’s satire. I am making fun of treatment modalities which are claimed by proponents to cure everything, from real medical ailments to fictional entities like “adrenal fatigue”. I am also poking fun at the state of medical reporting these days. If the concepts discussed seem similar to actual alternative medical practice, it is because a great deal of what goes on out there in the real world really isn’t distinguishable from purposefully outlandish fictional treatments made up by someone with a doctoral degree in Feng Shui from Thunderwood College. (more…)

Posted in: Humor, Science and the Media

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Is thyroid replacement a performance-enhancing drug?

Has one physician uncovered the secret to Olympic Gold medals? And is that secret as simple as undiagnosed low thyroid function? That’s the question posed in a recent Wall Street Journal column entitled U.S. Track’s Unconventional Physician. Like the story that Steven Novella described yesterday, this narrative describes the medical practice of Dr. Jeffrey S. Brown, who sees thyroid illness where others see normal thyroid function. He has his critics, but his high-profile athlete patients have won a collective 15 Olympic gold medals. Case closed & Q.E.D.? Not quite. The WSJ actually does a pretty good job questioning the validity of Brown’s claims, which are far removed from the current medical consensus:

In athletic circles, Brown is a medical hero. He’s a paid medical consultant to Nike. The most renowned running coach at Nike, Alberto Salazar, calls Brown the best sports endocrinologist in the world. And athletes in growing numbers are coming to share Brown’s belief that heavy training can suppress the body’s production of the thyroid hormone, leaving them too exhausted to perform at peak. On the wall of the medical office of Jeffrey S. Brown is a photograph of Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist. Lewis is one of several former or current patients of Brown’s who have climbed the Olympic podium, including Galen Rupp, who won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the London Olympics. “The patients I’ve treated have won 15 Olympic gold medals,” said Brown. Among endocrinologists, Brown stands almost alone in believing that endurance athletics can induce early onset of a hormonal imbalance called hypothyroidism, the condition with which he diagnosed Lewis and Rupp. Brown said he knows of no other endocrinologists treating athletes for hypothyroidism, a fatigue-causing condition that typically strikes women middle-aged or older. Several endocrinology leaders had never heard of hypothyroidism striking young athletes.

Now when I read “unconventional” and “stands alone” my skeptical alarm starts ringing. There is no shortage of debate about thyroid disease, ranging from the utter nonsense offered by “alternative health” practitioners to valid scientific discussions about the thresholds where normal function is considered abnormal and subject to treatment. Brown is an endocrinologist, however, and he’s treating elite athletes who are pushing their physical conditioning far beyond that seen by most medical doctors and almost all endocrinologists. So what’s the basis of the concern? The WSJ story goes on to discuss two different issues: What the proper threshold is for thyroid disease, and whether thyroid replacement is performance enhancing.  Let’s take each of these in turn. I’ve covered thyroid diseases and its related pseudoscience before, and a summary of the standard approach is necessary before we look at the some of the broader questions that have emerged from the story. All I know about these patients is what the WSJ is describing, so for the sake of brevity I’m going to focus on the types of cases that Dr. Brown appears to be identifying and ignore other causes of thyroid disease, which would require different treatment approaches.

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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Enbrel for Stroke and Alzheimer’s

A recent article in the LA times tells of a husband’s quest to find a treatment for his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. This is a narrative that journalists know and love – the brave patient or loved-one who won’t accept the nihilism of the medical establishment, who finds a maverick doctor willing to buck the system.

The article itself at least was not gushing, it tended toward a neutral tone, but such articles do tend to instill in the public a very counterproductive attitude toward science and medicine. I would have preferred an exposé of a dubious clinic exploiting desperate patients by peddling false hope. That is a narrative in which journalists rarely engage.

The story revolves around Dr. Edward Tobinick and his practice of perispinal etanercept (Enbrel) for a long and apparently growing list of conditions. Enbrel is an FDA-approved drug for the treatment of severe rheumatoid arthritis. It works by inhibiting tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is a group of cytokines that are part of the immune system and cause cell death. Enbrel, therefore, can be a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. Tobinick is using Enbrel for many off-label indications, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease (the focus of the LA Times story).

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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GAPS Diet

A correspondent asked me to look into the GAPS diet.  I did. I was sorry: it was a painful experience. What a mishmash of half-truths, pseudoscience, imagination, and untested claims!

GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome. It is the invention of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. According to her, a wide variety of health problems can be traced to a single cause: an imbalance of gut microbes.  She cites ancient wisdom: Hippocrates said all diseases begin in the gut. She says science confirmed that wisdom when it discovered that 90% of all cells and all genetic material in the human body belongs to the gut flora. She says the modern world poses many dangers for the gut flora, and once it is damaged, the health of the whole body enters a downward slide towards disease. She claims that autism and ADD, OCD, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and numerous other ailments are all digestive disorders. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Nutrition, Vaccines

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Undermining the regulation of stem cell therapies in Italy: A warning for the future?

Stem cells are magical.

At least, if you listen to what docs and “practitioners” who run stem cell clinics in various parts of the world, usually where regulation is lax and money from First World clientele is much sought after, that’s what you could easily come to believe. Unfortunately, it’s not just Third World countries in which “stem cell clinics” have proliferated. For instance, they are not nearly uncommon enough in Europe. The example that is most troubling right now is Italy, and the reason is that there is currently a law being considered that would greatly weaken the regulation of stem cell therapies, so much so that on Friday I saw something that’s fairly rare: a major scientific journal published a pointed editorial about this new law. Specifically EMBO Journal published a commentary by an international group of scientists warning about the path that the government of Italy is considering entitled Regulation of stem cell therapies under attack in Europe: for whom the bell tolls.

Stem cell quackery is a very popular form of quackery these days because, well, stem cells are so magical-seeming. You can now find stem cell treatments offered for autism (one of which, offered at a clinic in Costa Rica, I’ve discussed before and involves injecting “stem cells” into the cerebrospinal fluid of autistic children for a cool $15,000). Kent Heckenlively, the man who took his daughter to the aforementioned Costa Rica clinic for this treatment, is not alone in subjecting his autistic child to such unproven uses of stem cells. Just a couple of months ago, a broadcast journalist in the Philippines named Karen Davila took her autistic son to the Villa Medica Clinic in Germany, which offers variants of stem cell therapy. One is known as “fresh cell therapy” and involves harvesting cells from lamb fetuses and injecting them into the patient. The other is called fat stem cell repair therapy, which is claimed to involve harvesting fat from the patient’s abdomen or thigh and then isolating “stem cells” from them to be injected back into the patient’s body.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Animal Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy is a huge topic: almost 1500 hits using those terms alone. There is no way I am going to cover all of them and do them justice. Instead I am going to cherry pick, er, I mean, select references of interest to illustrate issues surrounding animals in the hospital. Sometimes I get the impression that readers of the blog expect encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of a topic whenever we put pixel to screen. That is only true of the other contributors to the blog, not me.

I would like to mention that I do, in fact, like animals, even dogs. I loathe most dog owners, as confirmation bias suggests there is no such thing as a considerate dog owner. But I never have contact with the dogs that don’t bark, that don’t crap on my yard, that don’t run up to me to nip at my legs. I only see the dogs that their owners allow to behave in ways I would never allow a human to behave.

It is no surprise that my kids have grown up mostly animal free. My eldest did wear me down and I bought him a hamster. It promptly bit me, drawing blood. Great, I thought, LCM. Just what I need. Then in the dead of winter it escaped, fell down a heating duct (we were putting in new floor) and electrocuted itself on the heating coils so every time the heat turned on we smelled rotting, roasting hamster. It cost $500 to take the furnace apart and clean it. Good thing it wasn’t a beagle. That was enough pets in the house for me. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Science and Medicine, Veterinary medicine

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