There are several features of a symptom or illness that make it a convenient target for proponents of unconventional therapies. Subjective symptoms are more likely to be targeted than objective conditions – you don’t see many so-called “alternative” birth control treatments. Symptoms for which placebo effects alone are likely to produce the illusion of effectiveness are good targets for ineffective treatments. Symptoms that vary naturally over time also are good targets – patients are likely to seek treatment when their symptoms are maximal, which means spontaneous regression to the mean will provide an effective illusion of efficacy for any intervention. Illnesses with a substantial psychological component (such as those that are worsened by emotional stress or that are emotional, such as anxiety) are likely to benefit from non-specific effects of the therapeutic interaction, rendering the treatment itself irrelevant.
Finally, any condition or symptom for which there is currently no effective treatment provides a market ripe for exploitation.
Tinnitus has many of these features. Tinnitus describes the subjective experience of spontaneous noise perceived in one or both ears, which can be a buzzing, hiss, tone, or ringing sound. The severity of the tinnitus, its loudness, can vary over time, but perhaps more importantly the degree to which the tinnitus is bothersome can vary considerably. The sound is distracting and can have a significant impact on quality of life. Those with tinnitus can ignore the sound at times (depending on its severity), can be distracted from the sound, and may even learn through cognitive therapy to become accustomed to it. Therefore we might expect that tinnitus is amenable to placebo effects.
Finally, there is no proven effective treatment for tinnitus, which means that those who suffer from tinnitus may be desperate for a treatment. Desperation is a commodity highly prized by snake-oil salesmen.
There is an obvious survival advantage to the emotion of disgust – we should fear putting unhealthy, tainted, contaminated, or poisonous substances into our bodies. Emotions, however, are a double-edged sword. They are an effective evolutionary mechanism for motivating creatures to engage in certain behavior, but they also tend to be crude and undiscriminating – inadequate to deal with our complex modern society.
A dispassionate consideration of objective scientific evidence is the optimal strategy for deciding on which foods and substances are safe to consume, but it is far easier to scare people about toxins than to reassure them with data. We see this frequently with the anti-vaccine movement, and also with anti-fluoridation attitudes. It is easy to scare people with the idea that there are “chemicals” in our drinking water.
One company, San Diego Pure Water, seems to have made such scaremongering into a marketing strategy. Their website is full of articles and videos claiming that fluoride is the “the greatest fraud that has ever been perpetrated.”
It appears that we are near the beginning of a new modality in medicine – the use of computer controlled and powered robotics for therapeutic purposes. At present such technology is in its infancy, but is giving us a glimpse of what it will become.
Recently Vanderbilt University announced that its team at the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics has developed an exoskeleton that paraplegics can wear on their legs to allow them to sit, stand, and walk. This is essentially a mechanized orthotic that paraplegics can wear on their legs. The researchers describe it as a “Segway with legs” – referring to the computer technology that controls the exoskeleton, which responds to the user’s movement. If the user leans forward, then the legs will walk. If they lean back, then they will sit.
Like any technology, you can take either a glass half-full or half-empty view of this device. I will cover both – first the good.
Their system has some advantages over previous systems. It is about half the weight, coming in at 27 pounds while other lower extremity exoskeletons weigh 45 pounds. The exoskeleton is also small enough to fit in a standard wheelchair while being worn, and can be put on and taken off by the user alone. As described above, this system also incorporates intelligent control technology. Users with partial paralysis can have their own movements augmented, while for those with complete plegia the exoskeleton can do all the work.
A study recently published in PLOS one (Catechol-O-Methyltransferase val158met Polymorphism Predicts Placebo Effect in Irritable Bowel Syndrome) purports to have found a gene variant that correlates strongly with a placebo response in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The study is small and preliminary, but the results are interesting and do raise important questions about placebo responses.
Researchers are increasingly trying to tease apart the various components of “the placebo effect.” In reality we should use the term “placebo effects” as it is demonstrably multifactorial. “The placebo effect” really refers to whatever is measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial – everything other than a physiological response to an active intervention. Within that measured response there are many potential factors that would cause an outcome from a fake treatment to be different from no treatment at all. These include statistical effects like regression to the mean and the natural course of symptoms and illness, reporting bias on the part of the subject, and a non-specific response to the therapeutic interaction with the practitioner.
It is also critical to realize that placebo responses vary greatly depending on the disease or symptom that is being treated and the outcome that is being measured. Placebo response is greatest for subjective symptoms of conditions that are known to be modified by things like mood and attention, while it is virtually non-existent for objective outcomes in pathological conditions. So there is a substantial placebo response for pain and nausea, but nothing significant for cancer survival.
One of the skills I try to teach medical students on their journey to becoming experience clinicians is to consider and address the patient’s “narrative.” Patients have a certain understanding of their illness, its cause, and its role in their life. They make sense of their situation as best as they can, resulting in a story they tell themselves. This is how humans generally deal with the complexities of life.
There is a potential problem when the clinical narrative of the health care provider conflicts significantly with the illness narrative of the patient. Patients, for example, often feel that a highly specific diagnosis is necessary for optimal treatment of their condition. Until they are given such a diagnosis they feel they need to keep looking – for better diagnostic tests or different specialists (what I call the “Dr. House” narrative). The appropriate diagnostic and therapeutic algorithm for that patient, however, may not require a specific diagnosis, but rather eliminating certain diagnoses and then treating the probable category or clinical syndrome that remains. The clinical narrative, in other words, may be one of considering risks vs benefits with incomplete and imperfect knowledge.
Increasingly, it seems, the conflict of narratives is taking on a larger scale – not just between one doctor and one patient, but between the medical community and patient communities. Perhaps this is one manifestation of the new social media generation. Take, for example, a recent controversy over a patient diagnosed with PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections).
It is estimated that 5% of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV – that’s 22.5 million people. Infection rates vary wildly from country to country, with Swaziland having the highest rate at 25.9%. Gambia is below average, at 2% or 18 thousand people, but still has a serious HIV problem, and now finds themselves at the center of the HIV controversy in Africa.
This epidemic has been magnified by unfortunate realities on the ground. Africa has an insufficient public health and medical infrastructure to deal with the massive challenge such an epidemic presents. This has led the World Health Organization to contemplate partnering with local traditional healers, to make them into an extension of the effort to bring modern medical treatment to the HIV-infected in Africa. This desperate strategy is fraught with problems, not the least of which is that most traditional healers have had no prior contact with science-based medicine.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki seriously set back his country’s HIV efforts by embracing crank HIV denial. Coupled with his denialism was efforts by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to use traditional medicines to treat HIV/AIDS. This combination resulted in restrictions on the distribution of anti-retoviral drugs in South Africa that is estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
A recent survey about patient attitudes and desires with regard to health care demonstrate that respect for scientific evidence is still the dominant factor in preferring treatments. (Full study) This is good news, although the numbers could be better.
Researchers asked subjects what factors were important in determining which treatments they would prefer, the scientific evidence, the experience of the clinician, or their own personal preferences. Not surprisingly, most subjects wanted it all, agreeing that all three are important. Scientific evidence, however, scored the highest with 71% rating it as very important (and over 90% as important or very important). Clinical expertise had 61% strongly supported and personal preference, 57%.
Further, patients wanted their doctors to talk to them about the evidence. The phrase they felt had the most impact on their decision to accept a treatment was, “What is proven to work best.”
All of this matches my personal experience as a clinician. At least for the self-selective population of patients who seek out a university physician, patients tend to find recommendations based upon published evidence compelling, and greatly appreciate when I take the time to tell them about the evidence, even if it goes against their initial interests.
Sometimes science works the way it’s supposed to. Scientists make hypotheses, test them by gathering preliminary evidence, and then argue about the inevitable conflicting results. Eventually better and better evidence is gathered until a consensus is achieved. Actually, I think that is how science usually works, it’s just that most questions in science are narrow and technical and don’t command media or public attention. Those that do tend to be the more enduring controversies or where a particular special interest (ideological, social, corporate, etc,) is involved.
In medicine scientific controversies may take on a life of their own, or become manufactured controversies (manufactroversies) that endure long past any genuine scientific debate. Such false controversies are often driven by patient groups who feel they are not being treated fairly or honestly, or by practitioners who do not want to give up on their favorite (lucrative) modality. This leads to a disconnect between the scientific controversy and the public controversy – a frequent theme on SBM.
I am happy to report that one such controversy has taken a turn for the good – a recent study has provided fairly definitive evidence that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is not associated with either the XMRV or the pMLV viruses. The study was a consensus trial with both sides in the controversy collaborating to address all the criticisms of the earlier conflicting studies.
The health conscious and trendy public are a bit obsessed with the food they consume. This can be a good thing, to the extent that it results in a more healthful diet, but unfortunately those interested in improving their diet must wade through a great deal of misinformation before getting to accurate and helpful information.
For example, I recently gave a lecture (ironically on health information) at Google (you can view the entire talk here). Google is a progressive company that tries to help their employees stay healthy. They provide many snack stations and helpfully divide snacks into red, yellow, and green shelves. Employees can freely choose whatever snacks they want, but they are gently encouraged to choose from the more healthful green shelf and avoid the unhealthy red shelf. I noticed that beverages sweetened with sugar cane were placed on the green shelf, while those sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame or Splenda were slumming on the red shelf. It was ironic to see such a high-tech company falling for the naturalistic fallacy.
Sugar cane sweetened sodas are becoming fashionable, mainly to avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which many claim is associated with obesity and increased cardiovascular risk. Jim Laidler did an excellent job reviewing this controversy two years ago on SBM. To me this represents a general tendency to try to understand a complex question by oversimplifying, specifically by avoiding perceived “villains.” It may seem overwhelming to grapple with all the complex information involved in basic dietary health choices, like which beverages are best. Following simple rules, such as avoiding single ingredients that are perceived to be “bad,” therefore has an appeal. I also think this is part of the appeal of the naturalistic fallacy, a simple litmus test to what is good vs bad.
A recent meta-analysis of acupuncture studies for chronic pain by Vickers et al is getting a great deal of press. The authors’ conclusions are:
Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.
News reports generally reflect this conclusion – acupuncture works, but mostly (although not entirely) through placebo effect, but that’s OK.
I took a close look at the study and find that the authors display considerable pro-acupuncture bias in their analysis and discussion. They clearly want acupuncture to work. That aside, the data are simply not compelling, and the authors, in my opinion, grossly overcall the results, which are compatible with the conclusion that there are no specific effects to acupuncture beyond placebo.