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Is Kava Safe?

Kava is a plant that grows in the western Pacific. It was traditionally prepared as a drink and used for its psychoactive properties, including sedation, relaxation, and relief of anxiety. It is intoxicating but not addictive.

It has become a popular supplement in the US, used to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, stress, and menopausal symptoms. It has also been suspected of killing quite a few people.

The AAFP Recommends Kava

In August 2007 American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, published an article on “Herbal and Dietary Supplements for Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.”

They concluded that

St. John’s wort, valerian, and omega-3 fatty acids have little therapeutic value for anxiety disorders, and their use should be discouraged.

But they recommended kava. Not only that, they gave it the highest quality-of-evidence rating: A. They said,

Short-term use of kava is recommended for patients with mild to moderate anxiety disorders who are not using alcohol or taking other medicines metabolized by the liver, but who wish to use “natural” remedies.

(more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Misleading Ads for Back Pain Treatment

There was a full-page ad in my local paper today for Back in Action Spine and Health Centers, targeted at sufferers from almost any kind of chronic back pain. It started with “Are You Ready to Throw in the Towel and Just Live with Hurting So Bad?” It went on to make a number of claims:

  • Doctors can fix the problem.
  • Breakthrough medical technologies.
  • Treatments are FDA cleared.
  • Treatments are scientifically proven.
  • No side effects.
  • Best kept secrets for healing “bad backs.”
  • Corrects scoliosis.
  • Corrects compressed discs.
  • Several university studies at Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Duke have confirmed that these treatments work.
  • Medical researchers have reported these methods up to 89% effective.
  • Treatments work for back and neck pain, sciatica/numbness, herniated and/or bulging discs, degenerative disc disease (arthritis), spinal stenosis, facet syndromes, spondylolisthesis.
  • Their questionnaire can determine who will benefit – if you fit even one criterion like “does your back feel out of alignment?” or “do you have arthritis?” you should call right away.

The ad offers a “Free Qualifying Exam” but you “Must Not Wait” because appointments are limited and they can only honor this free offer for 3 weeks. To encourage you to call, they sweeten the pot with a FREE $49 gift bag.

Are you suspicious yet? You should be. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud

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Trick or Treatment

I’ve just finished reading Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I’d been looking forward to the publication of this book, and it exceeded my expectations.

Edzard Ernst, based at the University of Exeter in England, is the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, a post he has held for 15 years. An MD and a PhD, he also embraced alternative medicine and used to practice homeopathy. He has done extensive research and published widely. His stated objective is “to apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to the field of complementary medicine such that those treatments which demonstrably do generate more good than harm become part of conventional medicine and those which fail to meet this criterion become obsolete.” His most important accomplishment has been to “demonstrate that complementary medicine can be scientifically investigated which, in turn, brought about a change in attitude both in the way the medical establishment looks upon complementary medicine and in the way complementary medicine looks upon scientific investigation.”

Simon Singh is a science writer with a PhD in particle physics. As a team, he and Ernst are uniquely qualified to ferret out the truth about alternative medicine and explain it to the public. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Peruvian Hamsters and Autism: Cui Bono?

Some people are very invested in the idea that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. They have looked and looked, but have been unable to find enough credible evidence to convince the scientific community. Thimerosal was removed from US vaccines several years ago, and you might have thought that would end the debate. It didn’t. The spotlight has shifted to other countries that still use thimerosal-preserved vaccines, such as Peru.

Anti-vaccine activist David Kirby said,

If thimerosal is one day proven to be a contributing factor to autism, and if U.S. made vaccines containing the preservative are now being supplied the world over, the scope of this potential tragedy becomes unthinkable.

The anti-vaccine website Age of Autism accuses US policy of

[making]…Kirby’s nightmare suggestion a reality. U.S. vaccine manufacturers have continued to ship thimerosal containing vaccine formulations all over the world, in effect offering a defiant double standard of mercury risk for infants from rich countries as compared to poor countries. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Polypharmacy – Is It Evidence-Based?

Polypharmacy essentially means taking too many pills. It’s a real problem, especially in the elderly.

A family doctor gives an elderly patient one pill for diabetes, another for high blood pressure, and another to lower cholesterol. The patient sees a rheumatologist for his arthritis and gets arthritis pills. Then he sees a psychiatrist for depression and gets an antidepressant. He takes a sleeping pill. He takes a laxative. He buys some over-the-counter cold medicine and Tylenol. Then he goes to his local GNC store and buys a smorgasbord of vitamins, minerals, supplements and herbal products. It would be surprising if some of these didn’t interact with each other to cause some problems.

One doctor may not know what the other doctors have prescribed. The patient may not think to tell his doctors about the non-prescription products he’s taking. Or he may not want to admit it for fear the doctors will disapprove. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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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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An Herbal Cure for Peanut Allergy?

Peanut allergy is uncommon but devastating. Even a tiny trace of peanut can cause an anaphylactic reaction and death. That’s why labels specify “produced on shared equipment with nuts or peanuts” or “produced in a facility that also processes nuts.” There is no effective treatment: patients have to rely on avoiding peanuts and carrying emergency epinephrine injectors. Parents of peanut-allergic children live in fear that their child will be inadvertently exposed at school or at a friend’s house. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix it so they could eat peanuts with impunity?

There is a ray of hope. Studies are underway on a Chinese herbal medicine (FAHF-2) that shows promise. I generally shy away from Chinese herbal remedies, because they are marketed without adequate testing and the products are not quality controlled. The typical course of events is (1) a preliminary study or a history of use in China, (2) marketing in the U.S. with overblown claims.

This is different. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Can Psychosis be Prevented?

I recently read an article in Discover magazine entitled “Stop the Madness.” It was about a new treatment program that allegedly can prevent schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. I found it very disturbing.

The PIER (Portland Identification and Early Referral) program was founded by a psychiatrist, Dr. William McFarlane, in Portland, Maine. It has recently expanded to 4 other US sites and there are similar programs in several other countries. PIER is an effort to find and treat patients in the “early stages of deterioration towards psychosis,” so as to prevent the development of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. The program involves various psychosocial interventions and psychotropic drugs.

On the surface it sounds promising, but there is a dark side. I’m particularly concerned about the use of antipsychotic drugs in people who haven’t been diagnosed as psychotic. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Should I Take a Multivitamin?

I’ll start with a confession. I used to do something irrational. I used to take a daily multivitamin, not because I thought there was good scientific evidence to support the practice, but for psychotherapy. I tried to eat a healthy diet and worried about it. By taking a pill, I could stop worrying.

Then I found out that higher intake of vitamin A was associated with an increased risk of hip fractures in postmenopausal women like me, and I stopped. (High doses of vitamin A also cause births defects and are contraindicated in pregnancy.) Now I only take supplemental calcium and vitamin D, not on general principles but because of personal risk factors.

We’re being bombarded by advice to take vitamins and various other supplements. Health gurus like Andrew Weil recommend that everyone take vitamins (which they just happen to sell). The orthomolecular followers of Linus Pauling want us to take megadoses of vitamins. Ray Kurzweil tells us we should take vitamins to make us live longer; he takes 250 vitamin and supplement pills a day and thinks he will live forever. (You can read about his ideas in his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.) Who should we believe? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Are Cardiologists Ordering Too Many CT Angiograms?

A really snazzy new invention allows doctors to see inside their patients’ hearts as never before: the CT angiogram. It produces gorgeous 3-D video images of the beating heart in action. It allows us to see the blood flow through the heart’s chambers and it shows any plaque in the coronary arteries. Cardiologists are understandably excited about this new tool. Too excited. Some of them are using it indiscriminately and are getting half their income from using it.

On June 29, 2008 the New York Times published an excellent article entitled “Weighing the Costs of a CT Scan’s Look Inside the Heart.” A commenter on this blog has quoted from that article to criticize scientific medicine, and it brings up some important points that deserve a closer look.

With any new technology, the important question is whether it really improves patient outcome or just increases the cost of healthcare. These scans are a huge improvement for visualizing the heart. But are they any better than older diagnostic methods at actually preventing heart attacks or prolonging life? We don’t know yet. Will they cause harm through over-diagnosis? We don’t know yet. Will they cause radiation-induced cancers? We think they might. What’s the risk/benefit ratio? We don’t know yet.

Oprah thinks she knows. She’s urging her viewers to get tested. But she may not be the best source of medical advice. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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