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Oh yeah? Thalidomide! Where’s your science now?

Online discussions on the merits of alternative medicine can get quite heated. And its proponents, given enough time, will inevitably cite the same drug as “evidence” of the failings of science. Call it Gavura’s Law, with apologies to Mike Godwin:

As an online discussion on the effectiveness of alternative medicine grows longer,  the probability that thalidomide will be cited approaches one.

A recent comment on my own blog, regarding the homeopathic product Traumeel, is typical:

If the scientific method is all that separates an accepted claim, ie Thalidomide, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvon, from mere anecdote, of what benefit is the Science?

As a non-scientist consumer, I’ll take the anecdotes and my own experience. Thank you.

If scientists want to be taken seriously, they must stop selling themselves to the highest bidder becoming corporate whores without a shred of decency. To my mind, that’s how the claims for Thalidomide, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvon were accepted, making the scientific method utterly worthless.

To this commenter, “science has been wrong before.” And that invalidates science, and apparently validates homeopathy. It’s a fallacious argument. But does thalidomide actually represent a failing of science-based medicine? No, not even close. It’s so wrong, it’s not even wrong. Thalidomide is good example of the importance of science-based medicine and why allowing alternative medicine to be sold in the absence of good science is a concern. (more…)

Posted in: History, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Wishing Away Warts

Common warts (verruca vulgaris) are more of a nuisance than a serious health problem, but they are interesting. There is a whole mythology surrounding their cause (touching toads?) and treatment (everything from banana peels to vitamin C).  Many people believe they can be made to vanish by suggestion or hypnosis. I used to believe that too.

Every doctor has wart stories. Here are some of mine.

  • A patient made an appointment to see me because he had a wart, but when he tried to show me his wart he discovered that it had vanished! Apparently, just making the appointment cured it.
  • Another patient did have obvious warts and I prescribed the “wart medicine” that our pharmacy tech compounded, based on salicylic acid. He was out of one of the ingredients and had to ask my patient to return in a week. When she returned, her warts were already gone. The wart medicine apparently worked so well that you didn’t even have to use it!
  • I worked with a dermatologist who used a colorful laminated card with a picture of a toad to stroke children’s warts, telling them it was a wart remover. In his experience, this would frequently make the wart vanish over the next few days. Was this ethical? Was he lying and deliberately deceiving patients, or could this be excused as playing make-believe to distract the child and improve his attitude about the wart?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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“Integrative medicine”: A brand, not a specialty

Author’s note: This post was inspired in part by a post by Wally Sampson entitled Why would medical schools associate with quackery? Or, How we did it.

PRELUDE

Once upon a time, there was quackery.

Long ago, back in the mists of time before many of our current readers were even born and far back in the memory of even our wizened elders of medicine, “quackery” was the preferred term used to refer to ineffective and potentially harmful medical practices not supported by evidence. Physicians, having a grounding in science and prior plausibility, for the most part understood that modalities such as homeopathy, reflexology, and various “energy healing” (i.e., faith healing) methodologies were based either on prescientific vitalism, magical thinking, and/or science that was at best incorrect or at the very least grossly distorted. More importantly, physicians weren’t afraid to call quackery quackery, quacks quacks, and charlatans charlatans.

Not surprisingly, quacks and charlatans did not like this.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Everthing Old is New Again!

I have as much of a sense of nostalgia as anyone.  I love history.  I think that there is lots to be said about the “good old days,” whenever the heck they were.  I do not, however, think that the “good old days” generally include medicine.

nostalgiaThe fact is that it’s only been about 100 or so years since medical practitioners really got their acts together and started to be able to figure out if they were actually doing anything good.  Prior to that, medicine was a world of humo(u)rs and miasms, treated by bleeding, burning, and purging, plants and animal matter of all sorts (the 6th century Chinese apparently liked otter feces) and all sorts of other awfulness.  In light of some of the things that were done, it’s kind of amazing that anyone survived their treatments.  Mostly, people (and horses) survived in spite of the crazy things that were done to them.

Nevertheless, in those wild and wooly days of yesteryear, enterprising medical entrepreneurs turned out an endless stream of products, with some pretty fantastic claims.  They designed some absolutely artistic advertising cards to go along with those claims, too.  These trade cards surged onto the scene in the 1870’s, coinciding with the advent of color printing.
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Posted in: History, Science and Medicine

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Tylenol: Safe painkiller, or drug of hepatic destruction?

What do Tylenol, Excedrin Extra Strength, Nyquil Cold & Flu, Vicodin, and Anacin Aspirin Free have in common? They all contain the drug acetaminophen. Taking multiple acetaminophen-containing drugs can be risky: while acetaminophen is safe when used at appropriate doses, at excessive doses, it is highly toxic to the liver. Take enough, and you’ll almost certainly end up hospitalized with liver failure. Acetaminophen poisonings, whether intentional or not, are a considerable public health issue. In the USA, poisonings from this drug alone result in 56,000 emergency room visits, 26,000 hospitalizations, and 458 deaths per year. [PDF] This makes acetaminophen responsible for more overdoses, and overdose deaths [PDF], than any other pharmaceutical product.

Last week, Johnson & Johnson announced that it’s lowering the maximum recommended daily dose for its flagship analgesic, Extra Strength Tylenol, from 8 tablets per day (4000mg) to 6 tablets per day (3000mg). Why? According to the manufacturer,

The change is designed to help encourage appropriate acetaminophen use and reduce the risk of accidental overdose.

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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Belief in Echinacea

Note: The study discussed here has also been covered by Mark Crislip. I wrote this before his article was published, so please forgive any repetition. I approached it from a different angle; and anyway, if something is worth saying once it’s probably worth saying twice.

 

Is Echinacea effective for preventing and treating the common cold or is it just a placebo? My interpretation of the evidence is that Echinacea does little or nothing for the common cold. Initial reports were favorable, but were followed by four highly credible negative trials in major medical journals. A Cochrane systematic review was typically wishy-washy  The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates it as only “possibly effective” commenting that

Clinical studies and meta-analyses show that taking some Echinacea preparations can modestly reduce cold symptom severity and duration, possibly by about 10% to 30%; however, this level of symptom reduction might not be clinically meaningful for some patients. Several other clinical studies found no benefit from Echinacea preparations for reducing cold symptoms in adults or children…

A review on the common cold in American Family Physician stated that Echinacea is not recommended as a treatment.

I have a friend who believes in Echinacea. She says for the last several years she has taken Echinacea at the first hint of a cold, and she hasn’t developed a single cold in all that time. I told her that if that was valid evidence that it worked, I had just as valid evidence that it didn’t. For the last several years I have been careful not to take Echinacea at the first hint of a cold, and I haven’t had a single cold in all that time either. So I could claim that not taking Echinacea is an effective cold preventive! I thought my “evidence” cancelled out hers; she said we would just have to agree to disagree.

A recent study looked at the effect of belief on response to Echinacea and dummy pills. “Placebo Effects and the Common Cold: A Randomized Controlled Trial” was published by Barrett et al. in the Annals of Family Medicine(more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Answering another criticism of science-based medicine

In the three and a half years that the Science-Based Medicine blog has existed, we contributors have come in for our share of criticism. Sometimes, the criticism is relatively mild; often it’s based on a misunderstanding of what SBM is; but sometimes it’s quite nasty. I can’t speak for the rest of the SBM crew on this, but I’ve gotten used to it. It comes with the territory, and there’s little to do about it other than to skim each criticism as it comes in to see if the author makes any valid points and, if he doesn’t, to ignore it and move on. Indeed, there’s enough criticism being flung our way that I rarely respond directly anymore. Exceptions tend to be egregious examples, incidents that spark real problems, such as when Age of Autism blogger and anti-vaccine activist Jake Crosby tried to paint me as being hopelessly in the thrall of big pharma, which resulted in the anti-vaccine horde who read that blog to try to get me fired by sending complaints to the Board of Governors at my university and the dean of my medical school. Other examples tend to be what I call “teachable moments,” in which the mistakes made in the criticism provide fodder for making a point about SBM versus alternative medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative medicine” (IM)—or whatever the nom du jour is.

File this next one under the “teachable moment” variety of criticism directed at SBM.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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CAM: The Beer Goggles of Medicine

It is summer, the kids are off, and time to write dwindles in the face of sun and golf. Nonsense knows no season, and in my readings this week I came across the phrase “the undeniable power of the placebo.” I will do my best to deny that power at least three times before the I crow my conclusion.

One of my first entries for SBM, back in the mists of time, was the Placebo Myth [0], where I argued that the placebo has no clinical effects, has clinically irrelevant alleged physiology and at most leads to a slight change in perception on the part of the patient that they have less pain. Essentially placebo does nothing. It has no power.

Two studies this month continue that argument: demonstrating that placebo has no practical benefit and the crowing in the media mistakenly trumpets that it does. The headline on Medscape [1] reads “Placebo Effects Modest in Treating the Common Cold.” How modest?

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Asthma, placebo, and how not to kill your patients

A number of years ago I was walking along Lake Michigan with a friend (a fellow medical resident) when she turned to me and said, “are you wheezing?  Do you have asthma?”  I had always been physically active and assumed my breathlessness while walking down the trail was due to the thirty extra pounds of pizza and doughnuts I’d acquired during residency.  But she was right: I was wheezing and breathless and it didn’t feel good at all.  I made an appointment with one of the hospital’s lung docs who took a good history, did a physical, and ran some pulmonary function tests.  And I did have asthma.  And it felt much, much better when I used proper medication, a feeling confirmed by my improving lung function tests. (Not too surprisingly, the asthma got even better when I lost 40 lbs and started treatment for my acid reflux.)

I still get mild asthma symptoms from time to time, especially when I get sick, but for many others, the picture isn’t so pretty.  Asthma kills at least a quarter of a million people every year around the world.   If you’ve ever worked in an ER and seen a kid with a bad asthma attack, you’ve earned a healthy respect for the disease.  If you’ve ever watched your own kid gasping for breath, begging you to make it better, you’ve learned to fear it.

As our understanding of asthma has improved, so has our ability to treat it (an ability that is strongly linked to a patient’s socio-economic status.  Mortality has been rising despite the discovery of better treatments.  Wait: let’s pull this out of the parentheses…)…  Asthma deaths and hospitalizations are largely preventable, and disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic Americans. We know how to treat the disease asthma, but don’t know how to treat the people who are affected most. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word “doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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