I was approached by The Wall Street Journal to write an article for their Big Issues in Health Care debate series. The subject was “Is the annual physical unnecessary?” I was to take the “yes” side and an internist was to take the “no” side. I wrote the following article. The editor wrote me a couple of times with questions. The internist pointed out the value of preventive medicine, developing a personalized healthcare plan, and developing a meaningful doctor-patient relationship. I said I wholeheartedly agreed, but I thought those goals could be accomplished just as well (arguably even better) with a periodic health maintenance interview or consultation. I pointed out that the traditional “physical” exam with stethoscope, routine lab tests, etc. provides no further advantages and can be counterproductive, with false positive or harmless findings leading to unnecessary worry, further testing, and expense. I said there was nothing magical about the interval of a year. I don’t know what the optimum interval would be; that could be studied. I suspect it would vary with the patient’s age, medical conditions, risk factors, and other considerations, and might be left up to the judgment of patient and doctor deciding together.
Finally I got an e-mail with apologies, saying they had decided not to continue with the debate because the internist and I agreed on too many important details. While I understand that stirring up a fight is good for selling newspapers, I think it’s a much better thing when people on two sides of a debate reach an agreement. It reassures me that they are converging on the truth. So I thought it would be worthwhile to publish my article here on SBM. (more…)
Six years ago I wrote about the evidence for breastfeeding. I questioned an article that claimed 900 babies’ lives could be saved every year in the US if 90% of mothers breastfed for at least 6 months. I didn’t think that was true, but I did think the evidence supported the claim that breastfeeding was clearly better for babies. Now I’m not so sure we can trust that evidence.
A new study reevaluated the evidence from previous studies and found that the studies hadn’t adequately ruled out significant confounders. There are social, cultural and economic factors that contribute to the choice to breastfeed, factors that may have skewed the results of those studies to favor breastfeeding. The new study tried to correct for these issues.
Results from standard multiple regression models suggest that children aged 4 to 14 who were breast- as opposed to bottle-fed did significantly better on 10 of the 11 outcomes studied. Once we restrict analyses to siblings and incorporate within-family fixed effects, estimates of the association between breastfeeding and all but one indicator of child health and wellbeing dramatically decrease and fail to maintain statistical significance. Our results suggest that much of the beneficial long-term effects typically attributed to breastfeeding, per se, may primarily be due to selection pressures into infant feeding practices along key demographic characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status.
NOTE: Today we offer a double feature on the treatment of cervicogenic headache. My article is about a study that compared manipulation to mobilization; it is followed by retired chiropractor Sam Homola’s guest article on manipulation for cervicogenic headache. The two posts complement each other and also complement my post from last week on the possible risk of stroke with neck manipulation.
If a headache originates in the neck, does manipulation provide more relief than mobilization?
Cervicogenic headache (CGH) refers to headaches that are caused by problems in the neck, as opposed to headaches of non-neck etiology that may be accompanied by neck pain. There is controversy over whether CGH is even a valid diagnosis. Diagnostic criteria usually include unilateral headache triggered by head/neck movement or by pressure on the neck, headache that spreads to the neck, shoulder or arm; and often limited range of motion in the neck. If a nerve block in the neck relieves the headache, that would confirm that the pain originates in the neck, but nerve blocks are not routinely done and are not required for diagnosis.
Is manipulation effective for CGH?
There is controversy over whether spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for CGH. A 2005 systematic review concluded that “A greater number of well-designed, randomized, controlled trials are required to confirm or refute the effectiveness of spinal manipulation.” (more…)
Can neck manipulation (by chiropractors or by other practitioners) cause strokes? Many of us think it can, but definitive proof is lacking. A recently published study looked at the available evidence. A systematic review found a small association between stroke and chiropractic care but concluded that the association was spurious and that there was no evidence for causation. My colleagues and I have written about this subject several times; some of the links are listed here. I certainly agree that there is no definitive evidence for causation, but I think there is evidence to support a strong enough probability of causation to constitute a good reason to avoid neck manipulation. (more…)
One treatment for carotid artery stenosis: stent placement
The carotid artery in the neck is a common site of atherosclerosis. As plaque builds up, it leaves less room for blood flow and can cause strokes through clotting or embolization. Carotid stenosis is defined as a greater than 70% narrowing of the lumen (the space through which the blood flows in an artery). It can cause symptoms, including transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) and minor strokes; but it is frequently asymptomatic. It can be treated with carotid endarterectomy (CEA) or carotid angioplasty and stenting (CAAS). There has been much discussion about which procedure is better and when it is better not to do either. (more…)
Whatever is in this water, it isn’t testosterone
Ponce de Leon is said to have been looking for the Fountain of Youth when he explored Florida. That’s only a myth. Now there’s a new myth, that testosterone supplements are a Fountain of Youth for aging men. Men are urged to get their testosterone levels checked if they have any of a long laundry list of vague symptoms. Anti-aging clinics promote testosterone supplementation in many forms: prescription, bioidenticals from compounding pharmacies, natural remedies, testosterone boosters, and precursors. There are highly inflated estimates of the number of men who need supplementation, often relying on broadened criteria for diagnosis or non-standard lab tests. Testimonials abound: “My depression symptoms disappeared in 20 minutes when I started using Androgel.” (That one’s particularly hard to believe. Suggestion can be powerful.)
Until recently, evidence for the benefits of testosterone supplements was scanty, and there was concern about increased cardiovascular and prostate risks and other side effects. A 2013 study found that while testosterone was clearly indicated for younger men with classic hypogonadism caused by known diseases, a general policy of testosterone replacement in all older men with age-related decline in testosterone levels was not justified. In 2003 an Institute of Medicine panel called for a set of coordinated clinical trials to determine whether testosterone would benefit older men who had low testosterone levels for no known reason other than age and who had clinical conditions to which low testosterone might contribute. The results of those trials are starting to come in. The findings to date were covered in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 2016. The full text is available online.
A cargo cult pseudo airplane. How much of psychology is like this?
Last year I reviewed Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski’s book Psychology Gone Wrong where they pointed out that many of psychology’s accepted beliefs and therapies were not based on good evidence. Now Witkowski has written a new book, to be published later this year, Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy, that is certain to ruffle a lot of feathers. He compares psychology to cargo cults. He says, “the cargo cult phenomenon is virtually absent in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, yet it runs rampant in both psychology and sociology.” He uncovers cargo cult practices in psychology, unmasking therapies that are devoid of science, dangerous, and even cruel, especially those directed at children.
Richard Feynman was the first to compare the contemporary social sciences, including psychology, to a cargo cult. For those not familiar, the term “cargo cult” originates with the natives in Melanesia, who were awestruck by the planes that landed on their islands during WWII bringing all kinds of supplies. They had no understanding of what airplanes were or where they came from. Magical thinking led them to create bamboo replicas of planes and control towers in the superstitious belief that it would attract planes and bring them material goods. Similarly, many psychology researchers have been imitating the methods of science without really understanding how science is supposed to work. They go through the motions, but their research designs are so poorly thought out and the methodology so poor that their results are meaningless. And then they use those meaningless results to guide therapy. They have been led astray, have deceived themselves, and have harmed patients. (more…)
A recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine by Andrew L. Mammen, MD, PhD, reviewed statin-associated myopathies. Reading his article prompted me to revisit the subject of statin side effects.
It can no longer be disputed that statins statistically benefit patients who have cardiovascular disease or who are at high risk of cardiovascular disease. But there are still disputable issues. Which patients should be treated? The recent treatment guidelines have been widely criticized. And the actual magnitude of the benefit is small, although we know the benefits are greater for patients at higher risk. It has been argued that as many as 99% of patients who take statins will take them unnecessarily, risking side effects for no benefit. The problem is that we can’t identify which patients those are. Until we learn more, we are stuck treating the many to help the few. As with any medication, there are risks to be balanced against the benefits. What do we really know about the side effects of statins?
Lots of anecdotes, conflicting evidence
It’s very hard to pin down the truth. The Internet is full of anecdotal reports of devastating side effects from statin drugs, including cancer, dizziness, depression, anemia, acidosis, pancreatitis, cataracts, heart failure, hunger, nausea, sleep problems, memory loss, ringing in the ears, “a sense of detachment,”… the list goes on. When symptoms such as these have been evaluated in controlled studies, they have not been shown to occur more often with the drug than with placebo.
The doubling time for E.coli bacteria is 20 minutes. With uncontrolled growth, it would take a mere two days for the weight of bacteria to equal the weight of the Earth. What rules determine the actual numbers of bacteria? Why is the world green; why don’t insects eat all the leaves? How does the body maintain homeostasis? What determines the uncontrolled growth of cancers? What happens when you remove natural predators from an ecosystem?
You can find the answers in Sean Carroll’s new book The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters.
Everything is regulated: every kind of molecule, cell, and process in the body is maintained in a specific range and governed by a specific substance or set of substances. Diseases are mostly abnormalities of regulation. Too little insulin = diabetes. Uncontrolled cell multiplication = cancer. To intervene in disease, we need to understand the rules of regulation.
Carroll calls them the Serengeti Rules because of the ecological rules that regulate the predator/prey ratios in Africa. But the same rules apply everywhere, at every level of biology. (more…)
As good a source of stem cells as any chiropractor.
My local newspaper is a constant source of topics to blog about. It regularly features ads for untested dietary supplements and for chiropractors who offer non-chiropractic treatments and don’t identify themselves as chiropractors. Recently, a full-page ad for NW Pain Relief Centers trumpeted “Stem Cell Technology Takes Joint Treatment to the Next Level.” It said stem cell treatments could heal and regenerate tissue in conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel, peripheral neuropathy, spinal stenosis, hip pain, and tendinitis. A table titled “Consider these facts” compared stem cell therapy to surgery, saying stem cell treatments involve no known side effects, little or no pain, and immediate recovery; whereas surgery involves complications, poor outcomes, addiction to pain medications, severe pain for months, and a prolonged recovery over months and years. It said, “Call now if you experience any degree of joint pain or discomfort…Space is limited to the first 30 callers!”
A few days later there was another full-page ad for NW Pain Relief Centers, this time for hyaluronic acid injections into the knee for osteoarthritic knee pain. It reprinted the same table of comparisons with surgery, with an additional line comparing costs (that didn’t actually compare costs, but only vaguely mentioned insurance coverage, deductibles, copays, and time off work. It featured the same “Call now, space limited” ploy.
These ads reminded me so much of chiropractic ads that I had to wonder what was going on. They mentioned an “allied team of health professionals.” I guessed there must be at least one MD on their team if they were injecting stem cells and hyaluronic acid into joints. I guessed chiropractors were a prominent part of the team. I guessed right. (more…)