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Veterinary Chiropractic

People are sometimes surprised to learn that all the heavy hitters of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, etc., are inflicted on animals as well as humans. I’ve written about veterinary homeopathy, and the associated manufactroversyin a previous post, and today I thought I’d take a look at veterinary chiropractic.

The Players

In most states, chiropractic is defined in terms of treatment of humans and chiropractors are thereby licensed only to treat humans. However, there are a variety of ways around this for people who want to subject their animals to this therapy. Some chiropractors will simply treat animals and ignore the fact that it isn’t technically legal for them to do so. And some veterinarians will take one of the many training courses available in animal chiropractic and then employ it as part of their practice of veterinary medicine. A previous SBM article has discussed the lack of consistency or legitimate scientific content in most of these courses.

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Posted in: Chiropractic

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An Age of Endarkenment? The American Veterinary Medical Association and Homeopathy

It can be frustrating, and sometimes even a little depressing, to be a skeptic. Promoting reason and science-based medicine often feels like a Sisyphean effort that garners lots of hostility and ad hominem attacks from proponents of pseudoscience and few concrete victories. But once in a while, something happens to give a little hope and inspiration.

In 2010, for example, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy came out, clearly unmasking homeopathy for the vitalist 18th century relic it is (though, sadly, politics is complicated and often unmoved by mere scientific truth, and the government didn’t eagerly embrace the findings or recommendations of the committee). About the same time, the British Medical Association called homeopathy “witchcraft,” and recommended it no longer be supported by the National Health Service. More recently, the Chief Medical Officer in Britain openly acknowledged homeopathy is “rubbish.” Perhaps there has been a shift in the winds? Maybe there is hope that the institutions of government and organized mainstream medicine here in the U.S. might be willing to start taking a stand against pseudoscience in the way they used to in the days before Wilk vs American Medical Association?

As a veterinarian, I was particularly delighted and inspired in March, 2012 when the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) joined in this movement and took  a firm and public stand on unscientific therapies, in particular washing its hands of homeopathy:

Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) resources will not be used to promote therapies that, in the Board’s opinion, are not compatible with current understanding of physiology and pathophysiology and have been demonstrated to be ineffective by the current accumulated body of knowledge.

That the Board agreed that the veterinary therapies of homeopathy and homotoxicology are considered ineffective therapies in accordance with the AVA promotion of ineffective therapies Board resolution.

This echoed the policies of the British Veterinary Association, and other national veterinary groups in Sweden, Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe. The idea that the central player in organized veterinary medicine in the U.S., the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which has as members more than 80% of the licensed veterinarians in the country, could be moved to take a similar stand started to seem like a realistic possibility.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Veterinary medicine

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Chinese Systematic Reviews of Acupuncture

I’ll begin with the possibly shocking admission that I’m a strong supporter of the collection of ideas and techniques known as evidence-based medicine (EBM). I’m even the current President of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association (EBVMA). This may seem a bit heretical in this context, since EBM  takes a lot of heat in this blog. But as Dr. Atwood has said, “we at SBM are in total agreement…that EBM “should not be without consideration of prior probability, laws of physics, or plain common sense,” and that SBM and EBM should not only be mutually inclusive, they should be synonymous.” So I have hope that by emphasizing the distinction between SBM and EBM and the limitations of EBM, we can engender the kind of changes in approach needed to address those limitations and eliminate the need for the distinction. One way of doing this is to critically evaluate the misuses of EBM in support of alternative therapies.

One of the highest levels of evidence in the hierarchy of evidence-based medicine is the systematic review. Unlike narrative reviews, in which an author selects those studies they consider relevant and then summarizes what they think the studies mean, which is a process subject to a high risk of bias, a systematic review identifies randomized controlled clinical trials according to an explicit and objective set of criteria established ahead of time. Predetermined criteria are also used to grade the studies evaluated by quality so any relationship between how well studies are conducted and the results can be identified. Done well, a systematic review gives a good sense of the balance of the evidence for a specific medical question.

Unfortunately, poorly done systematic reviews can create an strong but inaccurate impression that there is high-level, high-quality evidence in favor of a hypothesis when there really isn’t. Reviews of acupuncture research illustrate this quite well.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials

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Testing the “individualization” of CAM treatments

One of the common claims of alternative medicine practitioners is that they individualize their treatment while conventional medicine treats all patients the same. This is nonsense on several levels, but it is also a common excuse for why randomized clinical trials cannot be performed, or cannot be viewed as reliable evidence, in evaluating some alternative therapies. However, some trials have been done that attempt to account for this supposed individualization of therapy, and generally they have failed to show a benefit to the supposedly individualized approach. One of those, involving Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was recently discussed by Edzard Ernst, one of few, and most productive researchers in the CAM field applying an evidence-based approach:

Matthias Lechner, MD, Iva Steirer, MD, Benno Brinkhaus, MD, Yun Chen, CMD, Claudia Krist-Dungl, MS, Alexandra Koschier, MS, Martina Gantschacher, MA, Kurt Neumann, MS, and Andrea Zauner-Dungl, MD. Efficacy of Individualized Chinese Herbal Medication in Osteoarthrosis of Hip and Knee: A Double-Blind,Randomized-Controlled Clinical Study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2011;17(6): 539–547.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Lessons from History of Medical Delusions

A brief reference on the web site The Quackometer recently drew my attention to a very short book (really more of a pamphlet, in the historical sense) by Dr. Worthington Hooker, Lessons from the History of Medical Delusions, which I thought might be of interest to readers of this blog. Though published in 1850, the book contains many eloquent observations that are just as relevant to understanding how pseudoscience and quackery persist and even flourish in what we otherwise assume to be an age of scientific medicine. The book is available online as a Google eBook, and relatively cheap printed facsimiles are available as well.

Dr. Hooker was a physician, a professor at Yale, and an outspoken critic of homeopathy in it’s early days. His critique of homeopathy still resonates today, and has long drawn the ire of Hahneman loyalists, such as this one who makes reference to Dr. Hooker’s, “periodical fulminations for the destruction of Homoeopathy that have appeared like locusts or cholera at certain dates.” Though Dr. Hooker wrote an entire book discussing homeopathy, Homeopathy: An Examination of its Doctrines and Evidences, he does spare a few words here for this less-than-venerated practice:

The error I have been illustrating is carried to an extreme by the Homeopathist. He attributes palpable results to doses of medicine which are so small that they cannot produce any perceptible effect except by miracle.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General, History, Science and Medicine

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Why Do We Really Need Clinical Trials?

A point I make over and over again when talking about new or alternative therapies that are not supported by good clinical trial evidence is that lower-level evidence, such as theoretical justifications, anecdotes, and pre-clinical research like in vitro studies and animal model testing, can only be suggestive, never reliable proof of safety or efficacy. It is necessary to begin evaluating a new therapy that does not yet have clinical evidence to support it by showing a plausible theory for why it might work and then moving on to demonstrate that it actually could work through pre-clinical research, which includes biochemistry, cell culture, and animal models. These sorts of supporting preclinical evidence are what we refer to when we refer to the “prior plausibility” of a clinical study. But this kind of evidence alone is not sufficient to support using the therapy in real patients except under experimental conditions, or when the urgency to intervene is great enough to balance the significant uncertainty about the effects of the intervention.

In support of this conclusion, we can consider the inherent unreliability of individual human judgments and all the many ways in which inadequately controlled research can mislead us. And we can reflect on how promising results in early trials often melt away when better, larger, more rigorous studies are done that better control for bias (the so-called Decline Effect). And it is not at all difficult to compile a large list of examples of the harm inadequately studied medical interventions can cause.

But what I’d like to do here is focus on a particularly good specific example of why thorough clinical trial evaluation of promising ideas is not just a nice extra to confirm what we already believe is true, it is the only way to genuinely know whether our treatments to more good than harm.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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The Top Ten Pet Supplements: Do They Work?

An Embarrassment of Riches?

Much has been written here about the dietary supplement business, a multibillion dollar industry with powerful political connections, and about the woeful inadequacy of regulation which allows widespread marketing of supplements without a solid basis in science or scientific evidence. 

The veterinary supplement market is a pittance compared to the human market, but still a billion-dollar pittance that is growing rapidly. Unfortunately, the resources available for good quality research in veterinary healthcare are also a pittance, and it is not at all unusual for our pets to suffer, or even be euthanized, as a result of treatable diseases for want of money to pay for needed care. So $1 billion a year spent on nutritional supplements may not be such a good deal if these products don’t effectively prevent or treat disease. 

The variety of supplements available is staggering. Many proprietary concoctions of vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other ingredients are marketed for health maintenance, “boosting the immune system,” retarding aging, or treating specific diseases. A comprehensive review of this multitude of moving targets is impossible. But the lion’s share of the pet supplement market goes to a few specific compounds, so I will focus on these. Most of these ingredients are also among the most popular supplements for humans, so there will be substantial overlap with previous discussions of the plausibility and evidence for many of these substances. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Veterinary medicine

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How popular is acupuncture?

Everybody’s Doing It

One argument that often comes up when skeptics and proponents of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) debate is the question of the popularity of various CAM practices. Advocates of CAM often claim these practices are widely used and growing rapidly in popularity. Obviously, CAM proponents have an interest in characterizing their practices as widely accepted and utilized. Even though the popularity of an idea is not a reliable indication of whether or not it is true, most people are inclined to accept that if a lot of people believe in something there must be at least some truth to it. The evidence against this idea is overwhelming, but it is a deeply intuitive, intransigent notion that can only rarely be dislodged.

It might therefore be useful to get some idea of whether or not the claims of great popularity for CAM treatments are true. If they are not, fruitless debates about the probative value of such popularity could potentially be avoided, and it might be possible to diminish the allure associated with the belief that “everybody’s doing it.” 
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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Complementary and alternative medicine in hospice care

A number of news outlets (e.g. Bloomberg Business Week, MSN.Com, US News, etc) have recently reported that use of complementary and alternative therapies (CAT) is widespread in hospice care facilities. This is based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control, Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Hospice: The National Home and Hospice Care Survey, Untied States, 2007. According to most news reports, about 42% of hospice care providers offer some kind of CAT.

I was initially inclined to find this a little worrisome. In my own field of veterinary medicine, advocates of alternative therapies are prominent among the organizers of the nascent hospice care movement. And while I am strongly supportive of better and more available veterinary hospice care, the involvement of CAM advocates raises the concern that animals at the end of their life might receive ineffective palliative care, or be denied the benefits of conventional treatments by some CAM providers, who often characterize “allopathic” treatments as “unnatural” and harmful.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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CAM and the Law Part 4: Regulation of Supplements and Homeopathic Remedies

Another major set of legal standards that apply to alternative medicine are the laws and regulations that govern the manufacturing and availability of homeopathic and herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Although there is less ambiguity in these standards than in some of the areas I’ve covered previously, there are certainly loopholes aplenty available to avoid the need for any truly scientific standards of evaluating safety and efficacy. This is perhaps the area in which the triumph of politics over science is most vivid.

Regulation of Homeopathic Remedies

The Food and Drug Administration was constituted as the agency responsible for regulating medicines and most foods by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) of 1938. The FDCA has been updated and amended in various ways since then, but it is still the primary law governing the regulation of prescription and non-prescription substances used to treat illness. The law identifies substances acceptable for sale as medicines as those listed in its official compendia, the United States Pharmacopeia-National Formulary (USP-NF) and the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS). The HPUS was a list of homeopathic remedies first published by the American Institute of Homeopathy, a professional body for homeopaths, in 1897 and now published and maintained by the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS), an independent organization of homeopathic “experts.” The inclusion of homeopathic remedies as accepted drugs in the original legislation was primarily due to the efforts of Senator Royal Copeland, a physician trained in homeopathy and one of the principle authors of the FDCA.1
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Legal, Science and Medicine

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