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Amber Waves of Woo

As a pediatrician I have an opportunity to observe a wide variety of unusual and sometimes alarming parental efforts meant to help children through illness or keep them well. I have recently noticed one particular intervention that seems to be becoming more prevalent, at least in my practice. I’ve begun to see more and more infants sporting Baltic amber teething necklaces. These consist of multiple small beads of amber on a string that is worn around a baby’s neck, and are supposed to relieve the discomfort of teething. Before I had any idea what these necklaces were for or how they were supposed to work, my first reaction was to inform these parents of the dangers of necklaces or anything placed around an infant’s or young child’s neck. Strangulation is a known cause of accidental injury and death in children, and pediatricians are trained to discuss this as part of the routine anticipatory guidance we give to parents. In addition, we strongly advise against giving infants or young children any small items that could be accidentally aspirated, such as the beads found in a necklace of this sort. But I was equally surprised to learn that these necklaces are not intended for babies to chew or gum. Instead, they are supposed to ease a baby’s teething discomfort simply by lying against the skin.

I will not discuss teething here, or the many myths that surround it; that was well covered in a previous post. I will reiterate that there is little-to-no evidence that the majority of concerns parents have about teething are actually due to teething, including fever and diarrhea. The irritability associated with teething also tends to wax and wane for only several days before and after the emergence of a tooth. But let’s assume for the moment that these necklaces actually work to ease the discomfort of teething, and whatever other problems parents tend to associate with the long period of time during which infants and young children develop their teeth. Assuming these necklaces work as recounted in the glowing testimonials on countless websites and parent blogs, how do they produce their dramatic results?
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

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New evidence, same conclusion: Tamiflu only modestly useful for influenza

Tamiflu

Does Tamiflu have any meaningful effects on the prevention or treatment of influenza? Considering the drug’s been on the market for almost 15 years, and is widely used, you should expect this question has been answered after 15 flu seasons. Answering this question from a science-based perspective requires three steps: Consider prior probability, be systematic in the approach, and get all the data. It’s the third step that’s been (until now) impossible with Tamiflu: Some data was unpublished. In general, there’s good evidence to show that negative studies are less likely to be published than positive studies. Unless unpublished studies are included, systematic reviews are more likely to miss negative data, which means there’s the risk of bias in favor of an intervention.

The absence of a full data set on Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and the other neuraminidase inhibitor Relenza (zanamivir) became a rallying point for BMJ and the AllTrials campaign, which seeks to enhance the transparency and accessibility of clinical trials data by challenging trial investigators to make all evidence freely available. (Reforming and enhancing access to trial data was one of the most essential changes recommended by Ben Goldacre in his book, Bad Pharma.) In 2009, Tamiflu’s manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche committed to making the Tamiflu data set available to investigators. Now after four years of back-and-forth between BMJ, investigators, and Roche, the full clinical trials data set has been made freely available. An updated systematic review was published today in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal), entitled “Oseltamivir for influenza in adults and children: systematic review of clinical study reports and summary of regulatory comments.” This will be a short post covering the highlights. As the entire study and accompanying data are freely available, I’ll await continued discussion in the comments. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health

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Another Damning Homeopathy Report

What will it take? That is the lingering question, one that has significant implications for the legitimacy and effectiveness of our professional and regulatory institutions.

Homeopathy is 100% pure nonsense. It is one of the so-called “alternative” medical systems that has absolutely no basis in reality. It is magic-based medicine. It is based on two-centuries-old pre-scientific ideas, bad guesses that turned out to be wrong.

The notion behind homeopathy is that illness is caused by a problem with the essence or life energy. Based on the idea of “like cures like” the homeopath must find a substance that is the match for the totality of symptoms, including personality traits and superficial details like eye color, and then give a magic potion which is created by diluting the matched substance out of existence – but the essence remains. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy

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Ridiculous Warning from Chiropractors About Alleged Health Effects of Texting

Too Much Texting?

Too Much Texting?

The United Chiropractic Association has warned that using mobile phones for texting could cause poor posture that could shorten your life. They claim that poor posture is as big a health risk as obesity and that it increases the risk of an early death, especially in elderly people. Chiropractors have said a lot of silly things, but this ranks right up there among the silliest. They are just making stuff up and using scaremongering as a practice-building technique.

They say these claims are based on research studies. They aren’t. They are fanciful imaginings built around a tiny grain of truth that is just large enough to confuse a medically naive public. When people text, they usually bend their head forward; and if you hunch over for long periods, your back is likely to hurt. I have to keep reminding myself not to sit at the computer too long in one position. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic

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Mammography and the acute discomfort of change

As I write this, I am attending the 2014 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR, Twitter hashtag #AACR14) in San Diego. Basically, it’s one of the largest meetings of basic and translational cancer researchers in the world. I try to go every year, and pretty much have succeeded since around 1998 or 1999. As an “old-timer” who’s attended at least a dozen AACR meetings and presented many abstracts, I can see various trends and observe the attitudes of researchers involved in basic research, contrasting them to that of clinicians. One difference is, as you might expect, that basic and translational researchers tend to embrace new findings and ideas much more rapidly than clinicians do. This is not unexpected because the reason scientists and clinical researchers actually do research is because they want to discover something new. Physicians who are not also researchers become physicians because they want to take care of patients. Because they represent the direct interface between (hopefully) science-based medicine and actual patients, they have a tendency to be more conservative about embracing new findings or rejecting current treatments found not to be effective.

While basic scientists are as human anyone else and therefore just as prone to be suspicious and dismissive of findings that do not jibe with their scientific world view, they can (usually) eventually be convinced by experimental observations and evidence. As I’ve said many times before, the process is messy and frequently combative, but eventually science wins out, although sometimes it takes far longer than in retrospect we think it should have, an observations frequently exploited by advocates of pseudoscience and quackery to claim that their pseudoscience or quackery must be taken seriously because “science was wrong before.” To this, I like to paraphrase Dara O’Briain’s famous adage that just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale that you want. But I digress (although only a little). In accepting the validity of science that indicates either that a medical intervention that was commonly used either doesn’t help, doesn’t help as much as we thought it did, or can even be harmful, they have to contend with the normal human reluctance to admit to oneself that what one was doing before might not have been of value (or might have been of less value than previously believed) or that, worst of all, might have caused harm. Or, to put it differently, physicians understandably become acutely uncomfortable when faced with evidence that the benefit-risk profile of common treatment or test might not be as favorable as previously believed. Add to that the investment that various specialties have in such treatments, which lead to financial conflicts of interest (COI) and desires to protect turf (and therefore income), and negative evidence can have a hard go among clinicians.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Hickey

Always start with an excuse. I have been ill for the last 10 days. I suspect I picked up an infection from the woman I slept with in Vegas.* I normally go through the day at warp 5 (I do not want to destroy space-time), but this illness has reduced my mental functioning in the evening to one-half impulse at best, with thoughts moving at the speed of a cold Oregon slug. So bear with me.

There can be an odd popularity to medicine. I see this in antibiotics usage. When a patient is admitted to the ICU with sepsis, while awaiting cultures you try and kill all the likely bacteria that may be trying to kill the patient. At any given time most doctors can only remember two antibiotics and the current popular duo is vancomycin and pipericillin/tazobactam. It is a reasonable choice, one of many combinations that would treat most patients with sepsis. I am not certain how this combination became so popular, although I have been told that the pipericillin/tazobactam reps have been very active at the Universities with medical students and residents. As the adage goes, “Give me a student until he is seven and I will give you the doctor.”

There are also popular trends in alternative medicine as well. Every now and then there is a flurry of mentions on the interwebs suggesting that a pseudo-medicine has become all the rage. Or maybe it is just the echo chamber that is the interwebs.

This week it is Oil Pulling Might Be The Next Big Thing — Or Not and What is cupping? Lena Dunham the latest celeb to try the ancient Chinese remedy for pain relief. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Maryland legislature passes naturopathic licensing bill, but with damage control

It looks like Maryland is about to become the 18th state licensing (or registering) naturopaths unless the governor vetoes this legislation. That is unlikely to happen because the licensing bills passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate. But becoming licensed in Maryland may turn out to be something of a pyrrhic victory.

The companion House (HB 402) and Senate (SB 314) bills moved through the General Assembly with lightning speed, suggesting the legislative wheels were well-greased behind the scenes. The lubricant was compromise by all parties: the NDs, the Maryland Board of Physicians, and Med Chi, the state’s medical association. The result seems to be the product of the legislature giving everyone some of what they want, but no one got it all. The baby got split, and that is never good for the baby’s health.

The warhorse parade

The bills originally introduced were obviously drafted by the naturopaths. It gave them their own governing board. They would be able to perform minor office procedures, use colon hydrotherapy, dispense therapeutic devices for barrier contraception, and durable medical equipment. They could administer homeopathic remedies, nutritional “medicine,” vitamins, minerals and so forth via intradermal, subcutaneous and intravenous routes. And they could practice independently, free of any supervision by a physician. Basically, they would be primary care physicians, which is what they claim they are.

Fortunately, all of that is gone in the version that passed. Unfortunately, there is still plenty to be concerned about. We’ll get to those features in a minute.

I listened to recordings of a couple of hours of testimony before two committees, one House, one Senate. (You’re welcome.) But the groundwork for licensing was laid last year, with a report from the Maryland Board of Physicians based on “Practitioner Workgroup” meetings that included representatives from state government and medical, chiropractic, acupuncture, occupational therapy, naturopathic and “chain drug store” (go figure) organizations, a law/lobbying firm (can’t tell who they represented), and Dr. Linda Lee, the Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Johns Hopkins. These “stakeholders” decided to try to iron out their differences rather than duke out all the issues in front of the legislature.

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Posted in: Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Bob and I are now published in Skeptical Inquirer

As regular readers know, I was quite happy that Skeptical Inquirer (SI) agreed to publish articles by Bob Blaskiewicz and myself about the highly dubious cancer doctor in Houston known as Stanislaw Burzynski. Indeed, Bob and I have been busily doing our best to promote it, appearing on various podcasts, including Point of Inquiry and, most recently, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, where once again we’ve called on skeptics to help us put pressure on our elected officials to prevent Dr. Burzynski from continuing to take advantage of desperate cancer patients, many with incurable disease, particularly incurable brain cancers. It’s in this spirit that I write this uncharacteristically brief post.

My only disappointment thus far was that SI is still largely print-only, which meant that I could only expose our article to subscribers and urge nonsubscribers to pick up a copy (which, by the way, you can still do, as I believe the issue with Bob’s and my articles is still on the stands). Given that my article was designed to be a primer on Stanislaw Burzynski for skeptics, while Bob’s article was intended to make suggestions about what you as supporters of science-based medicine can do to try to protect cancer patients, I’m now happy to announce that SI has published both of our articles online:

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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation

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Chiropractic: A Summary of Concerns

ChiroAdj

Although obscured by controversy, there is evidence to indicate that spinal manipulation can be as effective as conventional treatment methods in relieving low-back pain.1,2,3,4 This grain of truth mixed with chiropractic vertebral subluxation theory that encompasses a broad scope of ailments makes it difficult for the average person to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate use of manipulation by chiropractors. A person who is satisfied with chiropractic manipulative treatment for back pain might be led to believe that the same treatment can be used to treat a variety of organic ailments by correcting “vertebral subluxations.” Such treatment is usually described as a “chiropractic adjustment.”

A manual chiropractic adjustment

Although chiropractic care based on subluxation theory has been rejected by the scientific community, spinal manipulation used in the treatment of mechanical-type back pain has a plausible basis that makes it acceptable in mainstream healthcare. A good back-cracking back rub provided by a chiropractor or some other manual therapist can be a pleasurable, pain-relieving experience, and this can be a preferred method of treatment for some types of back pain. But you should be well-informed enough to know where to draw the line in separating subluxation-based chiropractic adjustments from appropriate use of generic spinal manipulation if you should consider treatment by a chiropractor. Otherwise, you might become the victim of the bait-and-switch tactics of chiropractors who offer you treatment for back pain and then attempt to indoctrinate you in subluxation theory.

Much of what follows in this article has been said before in other articles of mine posted on this site. An up-to-date summary of basic concerns about chiropractic care, however, might be useful for new readers and others, including professionals, who want a brief overview for quick reference in seeking answers to questions about the problematic aspects of chiropractic use of spinal manipulation.
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Posted in: Chiropractic

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Water Birth (Again)

Note: I had just finished writing this article when I discovered Dr. Jones had beat me to the punch with his March 28th article on the same subject. He did an excellent job, and of course reached the same conclusions I did (it’s not that great minds think alike, but that we base our conclusions on the same body of evidence). Rather than let my efforts go to waste, I decided to go ahead and publish my shorter, more idiosyncratic article. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying twice; and different approaches may appeal to different readers.


“Humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

Nothing human should be alien to me, and I can understand why people do most of the strange things they do, but water birth is something I have really had difficulty with. Why would anyone want a baby to be born underwater? Why would they want to buy a special pool, set it up in the living room, fill it with water, keep the water at the right temperature, and then have to deal with emptying the pool and cleaning up afterwards? I read about it and tried to understand, and now I have some insight into their reasons; but I think they are poor reasons, and the whole concept remains pretty alien to my mind.

The claims

I found a fuzzy feel-good rationale on the Waterbirth International website. Mothers feel it is the gentlest of gentle births. Warm, luxurious water cradles you and gives you complete freedom to move during the greatest achievement of your life. “The women who have experienced the support and comfort of water for their labors and held their newborns in their arms speak more than any scientific article or paper on the subject.” In other words, “We don’t need no stinkin’ science!” (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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