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Newborn Phototherapy and Cancer: Cutting Edge Research or “Big Data” Failure?

intensive-phototherapy

Photo by Mike Blyth

While social media and news outlets were reacting, or in some cases overreacting, to a new rodent-based medical study on the unlikely link between cell phone use and brain cancer last month, two studies and an accompanying commentary were quietly published in Pediatrics that raised similar concerns. Rather than cell phone use, the proposed potential cause of pediatric cancer in these newly published papers was phototherapy, a common treatment for newborn jaundice that I use regularly and have written about before. My previous post has a full review of jaundice in the newborn, how it can potentially cause permanent brain damage, and why phototherapy is a safe and effective treatment in most cases.

But is phototherapy truly safe? Can exposure to a narrow spectrum of blue light increase the risk of cancer in young children? And if so, what type or types of cancer? This is exactly what the study authors set out to investigate using the power of “Big Data.” Time will eventually tell us if the authors’ conclusions are justified or if they will end up only serving as excellent future examples of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Fooling Myself

They may have different packages, but these products are all the same inside.

Nothing says opportunistic like selling water for pain control.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve been fooled by my own experience again and again. I’ve made bad decisions and wasted time and money believing what I was seeing, instead of being objective and looking at the evidence. One of my most memorable lessons has come over the past 14 years with my Labrador Retriever, Casey.

First the personal

We acquired Casey as a puppy, and she was less than a year old when she started limping. Investigations confirmed dysplasia, a genetic condition that leads to degenerative joints, arthritis, and pain. We were devastated. After considering the few treatment options that existed, we decided to skip surgery and treat it conservatively. I had no desire to start her on a lifetime of anti-inflammatory drugs, being very familiar with their side effect profile. I was familiar with a supplement used widely in humans that had some weak but somewhat promising evidence: We started giving her glucosamine and chondroitin supplements regularly. And we watched and waited.

It took some time, but Casey did appear to improve. We were thrilled. Life went on, and other than the occasional rough play session, Casey’s limping was mild, and she thrived. We continued the supplements, confident that we were doing good. But eventually I started paying attention to the emerging evidence on glucosamine and chondroitin. Once touted as a panacea for arthritis and joint pain, there had finally been some high-quality trials conducted – and the results were disappointing. Even this blog covered the issue, and contributors like Harriet were skeptical of glucosamine. Its supposed mechanism of action really wasn’t even that plausible. I started to wonder if the supplements were really doing anything for my dog’s pain. Eventually I decided on a trial – so I stopped the supplements about seven years after I started them. Neither my wife nor I could notice any difference at all in her mobility. Nor did the veterinarian. We’d been fooling ourselves, spending hundreds of dollars in the process. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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PET Scans Predict Coma Outcome

3x3

A new study shows that 42 really is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. OK, not really, but it does show that 42% of healthy brain activity is the minimum threshold for consciousness.

Disorders of consciousness, also referred to as coma when severe enough, can be a difficult situation to assess sufficiently to make reliable predictions about outcome. Part of the problem is that once someone is not able to maintain consciousness, we lose much of the neurological exam, and therefore it becomes more difficult to assess brain function other than to say that they are not conscious.

Types of coma

Two types of coma in particular are of interest: the persistent vegetative state, also called unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS), and the minimally conscious state (MCS). Both are severe impairments of consciousness. In UWS, by definition, the patient may have sleep-wake cycles, open their eye, have roving eye movements, and grimace, but they do not have any interaction with their environment. They do not respond to voice, look at faces, or move in response to stimuli.

(more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Therapeutic Touch Pseudoscience: The Tooth Fairy Strikes Again

When tested, therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners failed to detect the human energy field they thought they could feel. Experimental setup from Rosa et al., from JAMA, 1998, 279 (13)

When tested, therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners failed to detect the human energy field they thought they could feel. Experimental setup from Rosa et al., from JAMA, 1998, 279 (13)

A study out of Iran titled “Therapeutic touch for nausea in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy: Composing a treatment” was recently published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. It is a great example of the Tooth Fairy science that permeates much of the research in complementary and alternative medicine. In Tooth Fairy science, researchers attempt to study a phenomenon without first determining whether it exists.

What is therapeutic touch?

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a type of energy medicine; practitioners claim to be able to:

  1. sense a patient’s “human energy field” with their hands,
  2. manipulate the energy field by moving their hands near (but not touching) a patient’s skin surface, and
  3. thereby improve the patient’s health.

TT was the delusional invention of a nurse and a theosophist, and it has no scientific basis. Scientists can detect and measure minute energies down to the subatomic level, but they have never detected a “human energy field.” And when TT practitioners were tested on their ability to detect such a field, they failed miserably.

Therapeutic touch is pure vitalism, the belief in a soul or animating force,” writes Paul Ingraham, “exactly like the Force in Star Wars, and just as fanciful. Auras and life energy do not exist and cannot be felt, let alone manipulated therapeutically.”

Despite the combination of extreme implausibility and a total lack of evidence, TT is taught to nurses in many otherwise reputable institutions, and there are more than 90,000 practitioners worldwide. There is even a Therapeutic Touch International Association that claims TT is evidence-based. It is not.

TT practitioners believe they are helping patients. That belief is reinforced by seeing patients improve due to the natural course of illness, suggestion, and the “placebo” or nonspecific contextual effects of the provider/patient encounter. They allow confirmation bias to overcome scientific reality, and they do poorly-conceived research seeking further confirmation. Since the studies are designed to show that TT works rather than to ask if it works, they find evidence that is convincing to believers but not to the scientific community as a whole. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, no matter what Mother Jones and Consumer Reports say

The zombie story that cell phones cause cancer has risen from the grave yet again.

The zombie story that cell phones cause cancer has risen from the grave yet again.

There are certain myths that are frustratingly resistant to evidence, science, and reason. Some of these are basically medical conspiracy theories, where someone (industry and/or big pharma and/or physicians and/or the government) has slam-dunk evidence for harm but conspires to keep it from you, the people. For example, despite decades worth of negative studies, the belief that vaccines are harmful, causing conditions ranging from autism to sudden infant death syndrome, to all varieties of allergies and autoimmune diseases, refuses to die. Fortunately, this myth is one that, after more than a decade of hammering by scientists, skeptics, and public health advocates, has finally taken on enough of the patina of a fringe belief that most mainstream news sources no longer feel obligated to include the antivaccine side in stories about vaccines for “balance.” It is a zombie myth, one that, no matter how often it is “killed,” always seems to rise again. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the myth that cell phones cause cancer, as some very credulous reporting late last week demonstrated in the form of headlines like this:
(more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Dry Needling

Pictured: The difference between the acupunctures and dry needling.

Pictured: The difference between the acupunctures and dry needling.

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Uh-huh huh
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, y’all
War, huh,
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me
Ohhh, war, I despise
Cause it means destruction
Of innocent lives
War means tears
To thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons go to fight
And lose their lives
Ooh, war, huh
Good God, y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again
War, whoa,
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me
War, it ain’t nothing
But a heartbreaker
Friends only to the undertaker
Ooooh, war
It’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die
Aaaaah, war-huh
Good God y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again
War, huh
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Come on, let me hear ya
War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
It’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker
War has shattered
Many a young man’s dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much to short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away
Ooooh, war, huh
Ooh yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, y’all
War, whoa,
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Come on, sing it
War, whoa,
Come on and shout it, y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Come on, come on now
It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
Friends only to the undertaker
Peace, love and understanding
Is there no place for them today
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way
Ooooooh, war, huh
Good God y’all
What is it good for
absolutely nothing
Say it again, y’all
War, huh
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

Edwin Starr

I’m convinced. War is bad. But I have a solution. To the 54 current armed conflicts in the world: forget about it. Then no shots will be fired and no one will be injured or killed. It’s that easy. Problem identified, problem sol-ved. Go Science and Big ‘S’ Skepticism. Any complaints about my solution aren’t worth responding to.

Now that the problem of war is settled, let’s move on to dry needling. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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Supplements, Lies, and a Lengthy Transcript

Thanks, Congress, for making bull testicles available as a dietary supplement!

Thanks, Congress, for making bull testicles available as a dietary supplement!

On October 21, 1993, there was a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee for Labor and Human Resources, with the long-winded title:

Examining How the Federal Government Should Regulate the Marketing and Use of Dietary Supplements and Related Measures, Including S. 784, To Strengthen Federal Standards with Respect To Dietary Supplements.

S. 784, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, would eventually be enacted as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).

I discovered this bit of Congressional theater when doing research for my recent talk at NECSS. Scott Gavura and I joined forces to present “Natural Disaster: Dietary Supplements.” Scott focused on pharmacology, while I talked about FDA regulation of dietary supplements (or lack thereof). Thanks to him, I now have a rudimentary knowledge of pharmacokinetics, the science behind how a drug or supplement works (or doesn’t) in the body. If you haven’t read his post from last week explaining this, and more, you should.

Reading the lengthy hearing transcript (well, ok, a lot of it) confirmed my suspicions that the fix was in even before the gavel went down to begin the hearing. What I had not realized was, at least according to some proponents of DSHEA, part of the deal was that consumers would have access to accurate information backing efficacy claims made for supplements and their safety. Nor had I realized that the weaknesses of DSHEA, which have become painfully obvious in the 20-plus years since the law was passed, were anticipated from the get-go and that Congress was well-informed of what they were. Finally, I was not previously aware of the provenance (shall we say) of the “experts” asked to testify at the behest of Sen. Hatch.

First, let’s set the stage on which this drama plays out, according to two excellent books on dietary supplements, Natural Causes and Vitamania. In 1991, Congress passed the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act (NELA). Most famously, NELA, for the first time, required that all foods bear the now-familiar nutrition label. It also required that any health claims made for foods be backed by “significant scientific agreement.” Rep. Henry Waxman and others wanted the same standard applied to dietary supplement health claims. After all, if food companies had to meet a certain standard to make health claims for, say, calcium in their products, why shouldn’t claims for the health benefits of calcium in dietary supplement form be held to the same standard? But the supplement industry knew it couldn’t survive under such stringent rules and Sen. Hatch made sure it didn’t happen. All parties agreed to let the FDA decide what standard should be required of supplement health claims and left it at that. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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Pushback on Chiropractic

Daniel David Palmer, creator of the nebulous subluxation and father of chiropractic.

Daniel David Palmer, creator of the nebulous subluxation and father of chiropractic.

From time to time we respond directly to reader comments or e-mails in an article, when it seems that doing so would be a useful teachable moment. One of the strengths of social media is that it is interactive, which can be didactic.

I feel it is very important to respond to what people actual believe and say, because otherwise we may tend to get lost in our own narrative, as legitimate as it might be. That is the essence of ivory tower syndrome, academics talking to themselves without a reasonable sense of what is happening in society. Part of our mission is to interact with society, not just our colleagues, and to engage in a serious conversation about the nature of science and medicine.

To that end, I recently received an e-mail responding to an interview I had done previously about chiropractic. The e-mail is full of pro-chiropractic propaganda and misconceptions, and so it provides an opportunity to address some of these claims. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic

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Uncertainty in Medicine

snowball
Medicine is an uncertain business. It is an applied science, applying the results of basic science knowledge and clinical studies to patients who are individuals with differing heredity, environment, and history. It is commonly assumed that modern science-based doctors know what they are doing, but quite often they don’t know for certain. Different doctors interpret the same evidence differently; there is uncertainty about how valid the studies’ conclusions are and there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about things like guidelines for screening mammography and statin prescriptions.

Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, MD, is a book about uncertainty in medicine. The title refers to the difficulty of interpreting a mammogram, trying to pick out the shadows that signify cancer from a veritable blizzard of similar shadows. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Tai Chi versus physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: How CAM “rebranding” works

Tai Chi versus physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: How CAM “rebranding” works

“Complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently referred to as “integrative medicine” by its proponents, consists of a hodge-podge of largely unrelated treatments that range from seemingly reasonable (e.g., diet and exercise) to pure quackery (e.g., acupuncture, reiki and other “energy medicine”) that CAM proponents are trying furiously to “integrate” as coequals into science-based medicine. They do this because they have fallen under the sway of an ideology that posits a false dichotomy: To practice true “holistic” and “preventative” medicine, physicians and other health care professionals must embrace the pre-scientific, pseudoscientific, or anti-scientific ideas about medicine that underlie much of the “alternative medicine” being “integrated.”

Unfortunately, they’ve been largely successful over the last 25 years or so. From my perspective, the strategy that has been the most effective in mainstreaming quack practices as part of “integrative medicine” has been what I like to call the “rebranding” of practices that could and should be part of standard, science-based medicine. I’m referring, of course, to nutrition and dietary interventions, as well as lifestyle interventions, specifically exercise. To the extent that standard medicine might have undervalued such interventions over the past few decades, we practitioners of science-based medicine might be said, to some extent at least, to have brought this on ourselves. On the other hand, it is not as though doctors haven’t been advising our patients to quit smoking and moderate their drinking and to lose weight through altering their diet and exercising more for many decades. We do this because we know it works. For instance, when some naturopathic quack touts “curing” type II diabetes with a vegan diet plus exercise, we know that can work because we know that losing weight can normalize blood sugar values in many cases of type II diabetes. Heck, the Endocrine Society itself even says so, declaring “lifestyle optimization” as “essential for all patients with diabetes” and recommending that all patients with type II diabetes “strive to attain and maintain an optimal weight through a primarily plant-based diet high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, with limited intake of saturated fatty acids and avoidance of trans fats,” that they lose weight through physical activity, and get enough rest. A vegan diet just takes that dietary advice to an unnecessary extreme, and any supplements recommended are almost always unnecessary.
(more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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