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The Role of Experience in Science-Based Medicine

Before we had EBM (evidence-based medicine) we had another kind of EBM: experience-based medicine. Mark Crislip has said that the three most dangerous words in medicine are “In my experience.” I agree wholeheartedly. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to discount experience entirely. Dynamite is dangerous too, but when handled with proper safety precautions it can be very useful in mining, road-building, and other endeavors.

When I was in med school, the professor would say “In my experience, drug A works better than drug B.” and we would take careful notes, follow his lead, and prescribe drug A unquestioningly. That is no longer acceptable. Today we ask for controlled studies that objectively compare drug A to drug B. That doesn’t mean the professor’s observations were entirely useless: experience, like anecdotes, can draw attention to things that are worth evaluating with the scientific method.

We don’t always have the pertinent scientific studies needed to make a clinical decision. When there is no hard evidence, a clinician’s experience may be all we have to go on. Knowing that a patient with disease X got better following treatment Y is a step above having no knowledge at all about X or Y. A small step, but arguably better than no step at all. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Frequencies and Their Kindred Delusions

The word “frequency” ranks right up there with “quantum” and “energy” as a pseudoscientific buzzword. It is increasingly prevalent in product advertisements and in CAM claims about human biofields and energy medicine. It doesn’t mean what they think it means.

I have written about Power Balance products, the wristbands and cards that allegedly improve sports performance through frequencies embedded in a hologram. They amount to nothing but a new version of the old rabbit’s foot carried for superstition and their sales demonstrations fool people with simple musculoskeletal tricks. I addressed their ridiculous claims (including “We are a frequency”). I pointed out that

The definition of frequency is “the number of repetitions of a periodic process in a unit of time.” A frequency can’t exist in isolation. There has to be a periodic process, like a sound wave, a radio wave, a clock pendulum, or a train passing by at the rate of x boxcars per minute. The phrase “33⅓ per minute” is meaningless: you can’t have an rpm without an r. A periodic process can have a frequency, but an armadillo and a tomato can’t. Neither a periodic process nor a person can “be” a frequency.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Acupuncture Revisited

Believers in acupuncture claim it is supported by plenty of published scientific evidence. Critics disagree. Thousands of acupuncture studies have been done over the last several decades, with conflicting results. Even systematic reviews have disagreed with each other. The time had come to re-visit the entire body of acupuncture research and try to make sense out of it all. The indefatigable CAM researcher Edzard Ernst stepped up to the plate. He and his colleagues in Korea and Exeter did an exhaustive study that was published in the April 2011 issue of the medical journal Pain:   “Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews.” It is accompanied by an editorial commentary written by yours truly: “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.” (The editorial is reproduced in full below.)

Ernst et al. systematically reviewed all the systematic reviews of acupuncture published in the last 10 years: 57 systematic reviews met the criteria they set for inclusion in their analysis. They found a mix of negative, positive, and inconclusive results. There were only four conditions for which more than one systematic review reached the same conclusions, and only one of the four was positive (neck pain). They explain how inconsistencies, biases, conflicting conclusions, and recent high quality studies throw doubt on even the most positive reviews.

They also demolished the “acupuncture is harmless” myth by reporting 95 published cases of serious adverse effects including infection, pneumothorax, and 5 deaths. Some but not all of these might have been avoided by better training in anatomy and infection control. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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Herbal Remedies, Street Drugs, and Pharmacology

David Kroll’s recent article on thunder god vine is a great example of what can be learned by using science to study plants identified by herbalists as therapeutic. The herbalists’ arsenal can be a rich source of potential knowledge. But Kroll’s article is also a reminder that blindly trusting herbalists’ recommendations for treatment can be risky.

Herbal medicine has always fascinated me. How did early humans determine which plants worked? They had no record-keeping, no scientific methods, only trial and error and word of mouth. How many intrepid investigators poisoned themselves and died in the quest? Imagine yourself in the jungle: which plants would you be willing to try? How would you decide whether to use the leaf or the root? How would you decide whether to chew the raw leaf or brew an infusion? It is truly remarkable that our forbears were able to identify useful natural medicines and pass the knowledge down to us.

It is equally remarkable that modern humans with all the advantages of science are willing to put useless and potentially dangerous plant products into their bodies based on nothing better than prescientific hearsay. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Spreading the Word

Lest some of our readers imagine that the authors of this blog are mere armchair opinion-spouters and keyboard-tappers for one little blog, I’d like to point out some of the other things we do to spread the word about science and reason. Steven Novella’s new course about medical myths for “The Great Courses” of The Teaching Company is a prime example: more about that later.

First, some examples of the kinds of things we have been doing: (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Eating Placentas: Cannibalism, Recycling, or Health Food?

After giving birth, most mammals eat the afterbirth, the placenta. Most humans don’t. Several hypotheses have been suggested as to why placentophagy might have had evolutionary survival value, but are there any actual benefits for modern women? Placentophagy has been recommended for various reasons, from nutritional benefit to preventing postpartum depression to “honoring the placenta.” In other cultures, various rituals surround the placenta including burial and treating it as sacred or as another child with its own spirit. Eating the placenta is promoted by some modern New Age, holistic, and “natural-is-good” cultural beliefs.

Some women eat it raw, but many women have a yuck-factor objection to eating raw bloody tissue. It can be cooked: recipes are available for preparing it in various ways. For those who don’t like the idea of eating the tissue, placenta encapsulation services are available, putting placenta into a capsule that is more esthetically acceptable and that can even be frozen and saved for later use in menopause.

Does placentophagia benefit health? Does it constitute cannibalism? It it just a way to recycle nutrients? How can science inform our thinking about this practice? (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Questioning the Annual Pelvic Exam

A new article in the Journal of Women’s Health by Westhoff, Jones, and Guiahi asks “Do New Guidelines and Technology Make the Routine Pelvic Examination Obsolete?”

The pelvic exam consists of two main components: the insertion of a speculum to visualize the cervix and the bimanual exam where the practitioner inserts two fingers into the vagina and puts the other hand on the abdomen to palpate the uterus and ovaries. The rationales for a pelvic exam in asymptomatic women boil down to these:

  • Screening for Chlamydia and gonorrhea
  • Evaluation before prescribing hormonal contraceptives
  • Screening for cervical cancer
  • Early detection of ovarian cancer

None of these are supported by the evidence. Eliminating bimanual exams and limiting speculum exams in asymptomatic patients would reduce costs without reducing health benefits, allowing for better use of resources for services of proven benefit. Pelvic exams are necessary only for symptomatic patients and for follow-up of known abnormalities. (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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Diet Supplements or Nutritional Supplements: A Ruse by Any Other Name is Still a Ruse

I was surprised to get this e-mail from a reader:

Surely, Dr. Hall, the public mania for nutritional supplements is baseless. All the alleged nutrients in supplements are contained in the food we eat. And what governmental agency has oversight responsibility regarding the production of these so-call nutritional supplements? Even if one believes that such pills have value, how can the consumer be assured that the product actually contains what the label signifies? I have yet to find a comment on this subject on your otherwise informative website.

My co-bloggers and I have addressed these issues repeatedly. Peter Lipson covered DSHEA (The Diet Supplement Health and Education Act) nicely. It’s all been said before, but perhaps it needs to be said again; and maybe by writing this post I can make it easier for new readers to find the information.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Childbirth Without Pain: Are Epidurals the Answer?

Is unmedicated natural childbirth a good idea? The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) points out that

There is no other circumstance in which it is considered acceptable for a person to experience untreated severe pain, amenable to safe intervention, while under a physician’s care.

It is curious when an effective science-based treatment is rejected. Vaccine rejecters have been extensively discussed on this blog, but I am intrigued by another category of rejecters: those who reject pain relief in childbirth. They seem to fall into 3 general categories:

  1. Religious beliefs
  2. Heroism
  3. Objections based on safety

1. “In pain you will bring forth children” may be a mistranslation, and it certainly is not a justification for rejecting pain relief. Nothing in the Bible or any other religious text says “Thou shalt not accept medical interventions to relieve pain.” Even the Christian Science church takes no official stand on childbirth and its members are free to accept medical intervention if they choose.

2. The natural childbirth movement seems to view childbirth as an extreme sport or a rite of passage that is empowering and somehow enhances women’s worth. Women who “fail” and require pain relief or C-section are often looked down upon and made to feel guilty or at least somehow less worthy.

3. I’m not impressed by religious or heroic arguments, although I support the right of women to reject pain relief on the autonomy principle. What inquiring science-based minds want to know is what the evidence shows. Does avoiding medical treatment for pain produce better outcomes for mother and/or baby? It seems increasingly clear that it doesn’t. A new book, Epidural Without Guilt: Childbirth Without Pain, by Gilbert J. Grant, MD, helps clarify these issues.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Ear Infections: To Treat or Not to Treat

Ear infections used to be a devastating problem. In 1932, acute otitis media (AOM) and its suppurative complications accounted for 27% of all pediatric admissions to Bellevue Hospital. Since the introduction of antibiotics, it has become a much less serious problem. For decades it was taken for granted that all children with AOM should be given antibiotics, not only to treat the disease itself but to prevent complications like mastoiditis and meningitis.

In the 1980s, that consensus began to change. We realized that as many as 80% of uncomplicated ear infections resolve without treatment in 3 days. Many infections are caused by viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics cause side effects. A new strategy of watchful waiting was developed.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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