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Chronic Pain: A Disease in its Own Right

Melanie Thernstrom has written a superb book based on a historical, philosophical, and scientific review of pain: The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering. Herself a victim of chronic pain, she brings a personal perspective to the subject and also includes informative vignettes of doctors and patients she encountered at the many pain clinics she visited in her investigations. She shows that medical treatment of pain is suboptimal because most doctors have not yet incorporated recent scientific discoveries into their thinking, discoveries indicating that chronic pain is a disease in its own right, a state of pathological pain sensitivity.

Chronic pain often outlives its original causes, worsens over time, and takes on a puzzling life of its own… there is increasing evidence that over time, untreated pain eventually rewrites the central nervous system, causing pathological changes to the brain and spinal cord, and that these in turn cause greater pain. Even more disturbingly, recent evidence suggests that prolonged pain actually damages parts of the brain, including those involved in cognition. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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New CMS Chief Donald Berwick: a Trojan Horse for Quackery?

NB: I posted this on Health Care Renewal a couple of days ago, figuring that Dr. Gorski’s post would suffice for the SBM readership (he and I had discussed the topic while at TAM8 last week). But Managing Editor Gorski has asked me to repost it here, which I’m happy to do. I am especially pleased to demonstrate that I am capable of writing a shorter post than is Dr. Gorski. ;-)

On July 7, President Obama appointed Dr. Donald Berwick as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Dr. Berwick, a pediatrician, is well known as the CEO of the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which “exists to close the enormous gap between the health care we have and the health care we should have — a gap so large in the US that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2001 called it a ‘quality chasm’.” Dr. Berwick was one of the authors of that IOM report. His IHI has been a major player in the patient safety movement, most notably with its “100,000 Lives Campaign” and, more recently, its “5 Million Lives Campaign.”

Berwick’s CMS gig is a “recess appointment”: it was made during the Senate’s July 4th recess period, without a formal confirmation hearing—although such a hearing must take place before the end of this Senate term, if he is to remain in the position. A recent story suggested that Obama had made the recess appointment in order to avoid a reprise of “last year’s divisive health care debate.” The president had originally nominated Berwick for the position in April, and Republicans have opposed “Berwick’s views on rationing of care,” claiming that he “would deny needed care based on cost.”

A “Patient-Centered Extremist”

If there is a problem with the appointment, it is likely to be roughly the opposite of what Republicans might suppose: Dr. Berwick is a self-described “Patient-Centered Extremist.” He favors letting patients have the last word in decisions about their care even if that means, for example, choosing to have unnecessary and expensive hi-tech studies. In an article for Health Affairs published about a year ago, he explicitly argued against the “professionally dominant view of quality of health care”:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Living Matrix: A Movie Promoting Energy Medicine Beliefs

It’s boring to try to ferret out reliable health information from dry medical journals. It’s easier and more fun to watch a movie. A new movie promises to change the way you think about your health. To bring you breakthroughs that will transform your understanding of how to get well and stay well. To share the discoveries of leading researchers and health practitioners about miracle cures that traditional medicine can’t explain.

If this makes your baloney detector light up, good for you!

The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing is an atrociously bad movie that falls squarely in the tradition of What the Bleep Do We Know? In his book Nonsense on Stilts, Massimo Pigliucci characterized the “Bleep” movie as “one of the most spectacular examples of a horribly tangled mess of science and nonsense,” and this new movie is more of the same. Bleep was just silly, but The Living Matrix is potentially dangerous because it might persuade patients to make poor decisions about their medical care. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Science-Based Medicine 101: Plausibility

In part 2 of the Science-Based Medicine 101 series we take a look at the second pillar of good science: plausibility. This blog post was written for a lay audience so more advanced readers will need to indulge me here…

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I really enjoy sci-fi action movies. I love the convincing special effects and the fact that heroes can accomplish the physically impossible without skipping a beat. Implausible events unfurl with convincing reality, and you never know what might happen with the plot.

I also enjoy the TV show, America’s Funniest Home Videos, for different reasons. The mundane nature of actual reality, and the often predictable, but hilarious mistakes made by those I relate to result in some pretty hearty laughs.

But there is a big difference between these two forms of entertainment: science-fiction requires the suspension of belief in plausibility, while home videos are based on plausible outcomes. When it comes to medical research, though, plausibility can mean the difference between science fiction and reality.

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Posted in: General, Homeopathy

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Placebo Therapies: Are They Ethical?

Is it ethical to overstate the efficacy of a treatment option, if it might lead to a patient’s enhanced experience of that treatment? Your response to this question may reveal the degree to which you favor Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Let me explain.

As far as I can tell, no CAM treatment has been proven effective beyond placebo. (If you’re not convinced of this, I suggest you take a look at Barker Bausell’s book on the subject.) That means that treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, Reiki, energy healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (such as cupping), and others (like “liver flushes”) perform about as well as placebos (inert alternatives) in head-to-head studies. Therefore, the effects of these treatments cannot be explained by inherent mechanisms of action, but rather the mind’s perception of their value. In essence, the majority of CAM treatments are likely to be placebo therapies, with different levels of associated ritual.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that CAM therapies are in fact placebos – the question then becomes, is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients?  It seems that many U.S. physicians believe that it is not appropriate to overstate potential therapeutic benefits to patients. In fact, the AMA strictly prohibits such a practice:

“Physicians may use [a] placebo for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.”

Moreover, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes:

“Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.”

However, there is some wavering on the absolute contraindication of placebos. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked physicians if it was permissible to give a dextrose tablet to a non-diabetic patient with fibromyalgia if that tablet was shown to be superior to no treatment in a clinical trial. In this case 62% of respondents said that it would be acceptable to give the pill.

The authors note:

“Before 1960, administration of inert substances to promote placebo effects or to satisfy patients’ expectations of receiving a prescribed treatment was commonplace in medical practice. With the development of effective pharmaceutical interventions and the increased emphasis on informed consent, the use of placebo treatments in clinical care has been widely criticized. Prescribing a placebo, it is claimed, involves deception and therefore violates patients’ autonomy and informed consent. Advocates of placebo treatments argue that promoting the placebo effect might be one of the most effective treatments available for many chronic conditions and can be accomplished without deception.”

How do you feel about placebos? Are they a legitimate option in some cases, or a violation of patient autonomy and informed consent?
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Posted in: General, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Placebos in the news again

ResearchBlogging.orgTowards the end of last week, I was contemplating what I would be writing about for Monday. No topic had quite floated my boat, but I hated to dip into the archive of topics I’ve written about before to update a post. After all, I like to be topical whenever possible. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear (yes, I know Christmas is still two months away) but a study in the British Medical Journal by a group lead by Jon C. Tiburt at the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with investigators at the Osler Institute at Harvard University and the McClean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago entitled Prescribing “placebo treatments”: results of national survey of US internists and rheumatologists.

Serendipity? Who cares? The study addresses a very important aspect of science-based medicine.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth

Note: This is slightly revised from an article I originally wrote as a “SkepDoc” column for Skeptic magazine. It was pre-released online in eSkeptic and it has already generated a lot of comments, including “a truly amazing piece of peurile pseudo-intellectualism,” “an ad hominem attack on one form of alternative medicine so beset by poor thinking that one must come to the conclusion this woman might just be paid to write such propaganda,” and “twaddle wrapped in swaddling rhetoric.” (I treasure comments like those as evidence that my critics are so bankrupt of real arguments that they have to dip into the insult pouch for ammunition.)  I thought it would be interesting to post it here on the blog and see how much controversy it would stir up among my co-bloggers and readers.  Please keep in mind that it was written for a popular audience and excuse the lack of scholarly citations. You may recognize some of the studies I refer to from previous blog entries.

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“Alternative” medicine is by definition medicine that has not been scientifically proven and has not been accepted into mainstream scientific medicine. The question I keep hearing is, “But what about acupuncture? It’s been proven to work, it’s supported by lots of good research, more and more doctors are using it, and insurance companies even pay for it.”

It’s time the acupuncture myth was punctured – preferably with an acupuncture needle. Almost everything you’ve heard about acupuncture is wrong. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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Fun with homeopaths and meta-analyses of homeopathy trials

ResearchBlogging.orgHomeopathy amuses me.

Well, actually it both amuses me and appalls me. The amusement comes from just how utterly ridiculous the concepts behind homeopathy are. Think about it. It is nothing but pure magical thinking. Indeed, at the very core of homeopathy is a concept that can only be considered to be magic. In homeopathy, the main principles are that “like heals like” and that dilution increases potency. Thus, in homeopathy, to cure an illness, you pick something that causes symptoms similar to those of that illness and then dilute it from 20C to 30C, where each “C” represents a 1:100 dilution. Given that such levels of dilution exceed Avagaddro’s number by many orders of magnitude, even if any sort of active medicine was used, there is no active ingredient left after a series of homeopathic dilutions. Indeed, this was known as far back as the mid-1800′s. Of course, this doesn’t stop homeopaths, who argue that water somehow retains the “essence” of whatever homeopathic remedy it has been in contact with, and that’s how homeopathy “works.” Add to that the mystical need to “succuss” (vigorously shake) the homeopathic remedy at each dilution (I’ve been told by homeopaths, with all seriousness, that if each dilution isn’t properly succussed then the homeopathic remedy will not attain its potency), and it’s magic all the way down, just as creationism has been described as “turtles all the way down.” Even more amusing are the contortions of science and logic that are used by otherwise intelligent people to make arguments for homeopathy. For example, just read some of Lionel Milgrom‘s inappropriate invocations of quantum theory at the macroscopic level for some of the most amazing woo you’ve ever seen, or Rustum Roy‘s claims for the “memory of water.” Indeed, if you want to find out just how scientifically bankrupt everything about homepathy is, my co-blogger Dr. Kimball Atwood started his tenure on Science-Based Medicine with a five part series on homeopathy.

At the same time, homeopathy appalls me. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is how anyone claiming to have a rational or scientific viewpoint can fall so far as to twist science brutally to justify magic. Worse, homepaths and physicians sucked into belief into the sorcery that his homeopathy are driven by their belief to carry out unethical clinical trials in Third World countries, even on children. Meanwhile, time, resources, and precious cash are wasted chasing after pixie dust by our own government through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). So while I laugh at the antics of homeopaths going on and on about the “memory of water” or quantum gyroscopic models” in order to justify homeopathy as anything more than an elaborate placebo, I’m crying a little inside as I watch.

The Lancet, meta-analysis, and homeopathy

If there’s one thing that homepaths hate–I mean really, really, really hate–it’s a meta-analysis of high quality homeopathy trials published by Professor Matthias Egger in the Department of Social and Preventative Medicine at the University of Berne in Switzerland, entitled Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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Sterile Water Injections for Pain Relief

Before ethical standards changed, doctors used to occasionally fool patients with placebo injections of sterile saline or water. If my obstetrician had tried to give me sterile water instead of an epidural, I probably would have hit him. But apparently women are getting sterile water injections for childbirth and are telling us they work. What’s going on?

A recent study in Sweden compared sterile water injections to acupuncture for relief of labor pain. It found that sterile water produced significantly greater pain relief and relaxation. It concluded, “Women given sterile water injection experience less labor pain compared to women given acupuncture.”

I’m puzzled, because the study also says “there were no significant differences regarding requirements for additional pain relief after treatment between the 2 groups.” 85% and 90% got nitrous oxide, 40% and 47% got epidurals, and other conventional interventions were also used. It seems to me the conclusion could just as well have been “Women given sterile water injections report less labor pain than women given acupuncture, but require just as much additional pain relief.” (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials

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Snake Oil Science

For my first blog entry, I wanted to write about something important, and I couldn’t think of anything more important than a recent book by R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. If you want to understand how medical research works, if you want to know what can lead patients and scientists to false conclusions, if you have ever used complementary or alternative medicine or have wondered why others do, if you value evidence over belief, if you care about the truth, you will find a treasure trove of information in this book.

Some of the treatments encompassed under “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been around for a long time. Before we had science, “CAM” was medicine. Back then, all we had to rely on was testimonials and beliefs. And even today, for most people who believe CAM works, belief is enough. But at some level, the public has now recognized that science matters and people are looking for evidence to support those beliefs. Advocates claim that recent research validates CAM therapies. Does it really? Does the evidence show that any CAM therapy actually works better than placebos? R. Barker Bausell asks that question, does a compellingly thorough investigation, and comes up with a resounding “NO” for an answer.

Bausell is the ideal person to ask such a question. He is a research methodologist: he designs and analyzes research studies for a living. Not only that: he was intimately involved with acupuncture research for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). So when he talks about what can go wrong in research and why much of the research on CAM is suspect, he is well worth listening to.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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