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Archive for Science and Medicine

Lemons and Lyme: Bogus tests and dangerous treatments of the Lyme-literati

Tick

It’s that time of year when every day I can expect to see at least one patient with a concern about Lyme disease. In Lyme-endemic regions such as Western Massachusetts, where I practice pediatrics, summer brings a steady stream of children to my office with either the classic Lyme rash (erythema chronicum migrans, or ECM), an embedded tick, a history of a tick bite, or non-specific signs or symptoms that may or may not be due to Lyme disease. Sometimes the diagnosis is relatively straightforward. A child is brought in after a parent has pulled off an engorged deer tick, and there is a classic, enlarging ECM rash at the site of the bite. More often the presentation is less clear, requiring detective work and science-based reasoning to make an informed decision and a diagnostic and therapeutic plan based on the best available evidence. Depending on the story, the plan may include immediate treatment without any testing (as in the straightforward case described above), immediate testing without treatment pending test results, or waiting as we watch and see how a rash progresses before doing anything. An example of this latter course of action would be when a patient comes in with a pink swelling at the site of a new tick bite. In this case, it may not be clear if the swelling is a Lyme rash or simply a local reaction to the bite, a much more common occurrence. The classic ECM rash (an enlarging, red, circular, bull’s-eye rash at or near a tick bite) typically develops 1-2 weeks after a tick bite, but can occur anywhere from 3-30 days later. It then expands and darkens over another 1-3 weeks before fading. This classic rash is not the most common rash of Lyme disease, however, as it occurs in only about 30% of cases. Instead, the rash may be uniformly pink or red (or even darker in the center) without the target-like appearance, or may be a linear rash, expanding outward from the tick bite site. In the case of a patient who comes in with a vague, pink swelling within a day few days of a tick bite, we will typically wait and see what happens to the rash. If it is a local reaction, it will likely resolve within another few days. With Lyme disease, the rash will continue to enlarge and declare itself as an ECM rash. Another unclear and not uncommon situation is when a patient comes in with non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, musculoskeletal pains, and headache. If warranted by the history and the physical exam, we may in this case order Lyme testing. This may not give us an answer even if the patient has Lyme disease, because results are often negative in the first few weeks of the disease. In this case, if symptoms persist or evolve, we will repeat the testing in another few weeks at which point true Lyme disease will test positive and can then be treated. The good news is that the treatment of Lyme disease, particularly in the early, localized phase of the disease, is extremely safe and effective with a 14-day course of antibiotics. The testing is also relatively straightforward, with very good sensitivity and specificity when performed correctly. And this is where the bad news comes… (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Science and Medicine

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NuVet: Pet Supplement Snake Oil

nuvet-plus-tabs-lg4001

I’m a dog person. I always wanted a dog as a child, and while my extended family all had dogs, we never had one in our home. I finally got my wish just over a decade ago. My wife and I were referred to a breeder with an excellent reputation for raising healthy, family-friendly Labrador Retrievers. Within moments of meeting a tiny black lab, we immediately put a deposit down. When we took Casey home a few months later she was healthy – a ball of kinetic energy. The breeder offered us a health guarantee – free of hip and elbow dysplasia, supported by certifications from the dog’s parents and grandparents. The breeder recommended we use a specific brand of food (which we ignored), and other than vaccinating her and promising not to breed her, there were few conditions for the guarantee. We were excited “parents” and that first year was a lot of fun.

At about 12 months of age, Casey started limping. At first we thought it was a temporary consequence of boisterous play. It was initially subtle, but then became very obvious – she started walking differently, and it didn’t go away. The x-rays confirmed what we feared: elbow dysplasia. Our breeder was deeply apologetic – consistent with the guarantee, she offered to replace our dog. Giving up our pet was out of the question, so we started looking at treatment options. The veterinarian offered surgery, but even he wasn’t enthusiastic, citing the very real likelihood it would do nothing. Knowing the toxicity of anti-inflammatory drugs, I wasn’t optimistic that would be tolerable for the long run. Instead we went the supplement route. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Truth?

Facepalm
Summertime and the living is easy. I am in Sunriver, Oregon for the week and I though, hilariously, that I would have plenty of time to write a post. Between the hiking, the biking, the golf, the food and the beer, there has been little time to sit in from of a keyboard. There may be no better place to spend a week if you like the outdoors, but they do not have internet on the hike around Paulia Lake. So while a caramel banana cake bakes for a dinner tonight, I have an hour or so churn out a post. Do not expect much.

One person’s ethics is another’s belly laugh, but in medicine ethics are formalized. The basic principles in the US are

  • Respect for autonomy – the patient has the right to refuse or choose their treatment (Voluntas aegroti suprema lex)
  • Beneficence – a practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient (salus aegroti suprema lex)
  • Non-maleficence – “first, do no harm” (primum non nocere)
  • Justice – concerns the distribution of scarce health resources, and the decision of who gets what treatment (fairness and equality).

These are guidelines, not mandated, but if you get an ethics consult in my institutions the above concepts are the framework within which the consult will be completed.

Patients can only be autonomous if they are given accurate, truthful information with which to make a decision about their treatments. You can’t lie to patients, but we all know how you phrase an idea can subtly alter the response. Do you say an 80% success rate or a 20% failure rate? I tend to say both. And not everyone can handle the unvarnished, blunt truth. Part of the art of medicine is trying to tell each patient the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in a manner palatable for the individual patient. It is not easy and I am certain I do not always do a good job. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine research conference disappoints even NCCAM

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

In May, the International Research Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health (IRCIMH) conference was held in Miami. In the words of its website, the conference was “convened by” the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM), “in association with” the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research. As CAHCIM chirped in this tweet: “Three days, 22 countries, 100 academic medical institutions, [and] 900 researchers, physicians, educators, and trainees…” Interestingly, despite the fact that “use of all appropriate … healthcare professionals and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing” is part of CAHCIM’s definition of integrative medicine, actual CAM providers were barely visible among the conference committee bigwigs.

Emmeline Edwards, Ph.D., Director, Division of Extramural Research at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), herself on the conference’s Program Committee, was decidedly underwhelmed. (NCCAM helped fund the conference. Additional funding information here.) After offering rather tepid congratulations to the organizers and participants, Dr. Edwards launched into a pointed, but very politely delivered, criticism of the research presented (emphasis mine):

The poster sessions offered a great opportunity to meet many new investigators engaged in exciting research in the field of integrative health. Reflecting on some highlights of these sessions, I was brought to the realization that we could strive for better balance in the science featured in the IRCIMH poster presentations. The clinical research posters outnumbered the basic research presentations 3:1, and research on mind and body strategies dominated the research landscape. One concern is that many clinical research projects were not developed from adequate mechanistic studies and, hence, the outcomes from these projects may not be very informative, provide a well-defined path for the next study, or give direction for future research programs.

How right you are, Dr. Edwards! We’ve been saying some of the same things here at SBM for years. We’ve noticed these very same problems in the organization you work for. Recently, as a matter of fact. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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An Egregious Example of Ordering Unnecessary Tests

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Last week I wrote about doctors who order unnecessary tests, and the excuses they give. Then I ran across an example that positively flabbered my gaster. A friend’s 21-year-old son went to a board-certified family physician for a routine physical. This young man is healthy, has no complaints, has no past history of any significant health problems and no family history of any disease. The patient just asked for a routine physical and did not request any tests; the doctor ordered labwork without saying what tests he was ordering, and the patient assumed that it was a routine part of the physical exam. The patient’s insurance paid only $13.09 and informed him that he was responsible for the remaining $3,682.98 (no, that’s not a typo). I have a copy of the Explanation of Benefits: the list of charges ranged from $7.54 to $392 but did not specify which charges were for which test. It listed some of the tests as experimental and not covered at all by the insurance policy, and one test was rejected because there was no prior authorization. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Science and Medicine

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The Buzzy: Revolutionary Acute Pain Management or Simple Distraction…

Buzzy

I’ve written about the management of acute pain in children in the past, and unfortunately my feelings haven’t changed in the interim. Acute pain, particularly pain related to procedures such as venipuncture for blood sampling and intravenous access, and intramuscular administration of medications such as antibiotics and vaccines, is commonly undertreated, downplayed and even ignored altogether by medical professionals and even caregivers. So when I was made aware of a device being used in pediatric clinics and emergency departments (and even available for home use) with apparent success in preventing or reducing procedural pain in children, I was intrigued and more than a bit hopeful. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Separating facts from fiction

gas-mask

One of the challenges to providing science-based medicine is managing debilitating symptoms in patients who lack a clear diagnosis. If a comprehensive workup on an ill patient reveals nothing conclusive, patients and their health care providers are equally puzzled and frustrated. A diagnosis is seen as giving legitimacy to symptoms, and can be the first step towards defining a science-based treatment plan. Vague or “medically unexplained” symptoms are among the most difficult therapeutic challenges. To patients, the science and profession of medicine has failed to “deliver” and the patient can be left feeling their condition lacks legitimacy. These patients are at the greatest risk for alternative medicine approaches, such as unorthodox diagnoses and treatments. In this world, the lack of objective evidence is no barrier to defining conditions and their treatments. One of the most problematic tactics used is the attribution of these symptoms to conditions known as fake diseases. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Is There a Role for the Art of Medicine in Science-Based Practice?

Bushpainting

The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.

The practice of medicine is an art, based on science.

-Sir William Osler, AEQUANIMITAS

The truth is that many of us have some kind of “extraordinary gift.” For a few of us, that gift is the ability to throw a ball at 90 miles per hour and hit a catcher’s glove. For others, that gift is a form of extraordinary perception. Medical intuitives “see” things that others don’t. Wendy Marks has been described as a “human CT scan.” What no one has been able to diagnose by conventional methods is often seen when Wendy scans a body.

-Boston Women’s Journal April/May 2002

The concept of an art to the practice of medicine comes up frequently and in a variety of contexts. Early on in our medical education, we are exposed to the phrase and what it supposedly means, which I will discuss in more detail shortly. But the art of medicine is always painted (pun intended) in a positive light. I will admit that I have a strong opinion, perhaps biased by my involvement with the science-based medicine movement and an equally early exposure during my medical training to champions of evidence-based practice and the use of critical thinking in the approach to patient care.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Prolotherapy

Prolotherapy is a treatment technique used for chronic myofascial pain, back pain, osteoarthritis, or sports injury. It involves repeated injections of dextrose solution or other irritating substances into the joint, tendon, or painful tissue in order to provoke a regenerative tissue response. Similar techniques have been used for about a century, but the first formal publication describing prolotherapy dates back to 1956, by Dr. George Hackett. He wrote:

Within the attachment of weakened ligaments and tendons to bone, the sensory nerves become overstimulated by abnormal tension to become not only the origin of specific local pain, but also definite areas of referred pain throughout the body to as far as the head, fingers and toes from specific relaxed ligaments and tendons.

Prolotherapy. A treatment to permanently strengthen the “weld” of disabled ligaments and tendons to bone by stimulating the production of new bone and fibrous tissue cells has been developed.

Initially the concept, referred to a sclerotherapy, was that the injections formed scar tissue to stabilize the joint, tendon, or ligament. The newer concept, called prolotherapy, is that the injections provoke the proliferation of tissue, allowing for limited regeneration. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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VacciShield: Pixie dust for an imaginary threat

vaccishield

I know by now I shouldn’t be, but I am still amazed by how readily so many people buy into the seemingly endless array of bogus sCAM nostrums. Many are marketed and hawked for the treatment or prevention of diseases that are poorly managed by science-based medicine. There are countless examples of dietary supplements that are purported to effectively treat back and joint pains, depression, anxiety, autism, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue; the list goes on and on. The lure for these treatments is at least understandable and, although frustrated that scientific literacy and rational thought loses out, I empathize with the desire to believe in them. On the other end of the spectrum is the even more ethically corrupt substitution of safe and effective treatments with products that are not. I encountered what I find to be possibly the most frightening and dangerous example of this recently at my practice. A family new to the area called to schedule a routine health-maintenance visit for their 5-year-old daughter. When our nurse reviewed the medical records the mother had faxed over, she noted that the child was unimmunized and explained to her that she would need to begin catch-up vaccinations. The mother matter-of-factly stated that her daughter was actually fully vaccinated with a vaccine alternative. She had received a series of homeopathic vaccines from a naturopath. I am not going to discuss this egregious example of sCAM here, though it was addressed in previous SBM posts.1,2 Instead I’d like to focus on another part of the sCAM spectrum. Here lies a form of sCAM that, in some ways, is even more difficult for me to comprehend. These are products invented, marketed, and sold solely for the treatment or prevention of fictitious diseases or problems that exist only in the realm of fantasy. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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