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Acupuncture does not work for menopause: A tale of two acupuncture studies

Women looking for relief from hot flashes will be disappointed if they think acupuncture will help them.

Women looking for relief from hot flashes will be disappointed if they think acupuncture will help them.

Arguably, one of the most popular forms of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) being “integrated” with real medicine by those who label their specialty “integrative medicine” is acupuncture. It’s particularly popular in academic medical centers as a subject of what I like to refer to as “quackademic medicine“; that is, the study of pseudoscience and quackery as though it were real medicine. Consider this. It’s very difficult to find academic medical centers that will proclaim that they offer, for example, The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy). True, a lot of integrative medicine programs at academic medical centers do offer homeopathy. They just don’t do it directly or mention it on their websites. Instead, they offer naturopathy, and, as I’ve discussed several times, homeopathy is an integral—nay, required—part of naturopathy. (After graduation from naturopathy school, freshly minted naturopaths are even tested on homeopathy when they take the NPLEX, the naturopathic licensing examination.) Personally, I find this unwillingness of academic medical centers that offer naturopathy to admit to offering homeopathy somewhat promising, as it tells me that even at quackademic medical centers there are still CAM modalities too quacky for them to want to be openly associated with. That optimism rapidly fades when I contemplate what a hodge-podge of quackery naturopathy is and how many academic integrative medicine programs offer it.

If you believe acupuncturists, acupuncture can be used to treat almost anything. Anyone with a reasonable grasp of critical thinking should recognize that a claim that an intervention, whatever it is, can treat many unrelated disorders is a huge red flag that that intervention is almost certainly not science-based and is probably quackery. So it is with acupuncture; yet, that hasn’t stopped the doyens of integrative medicine at the most respected medical schools from being seduced by the mysticism of acupuncture and studying it. I can’t entirely blame them. I must admit, there was a time when even I thought that there might be something to acupuncture. After all, unlike so many other CAM interventions, acupuncture involved doing something physical, inserting actual needles into the body. However, as I critically examined more and more acupuncture studies, I eventually came to agree with David Colquhoun and Steve Novella that acupuncture is nothing more than a “theatrical placebo.”
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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April Fool Cannot Surpass SCAM

Stick some coffee up the tailpipe and you've got yourself some complementary and alternative auto care!

Stick some coffee up the tailpipe and you’ve got yourself some complementary and alternative auto care!

It’s April Fools’ day in the US of A. One of the internet traditions is to come up with a story that is weird or unlikely, but not so weird or unlikely that it is not believable, in order to fool people that the story is real.

I gave it the old SBM try, I really did, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to come up with a SCAM therapy so weird, so unlikely, that I could not find an example of it actually being practiced.

It can’t be done. Like a Trump utterance*, you can’t invent a SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine) that someone, somewhere, has already pulled out of, er, well, thin air and are using it on patients.

Of course, what would you expect given that many SCAMs were in fact, pulled out of, er, well thin air. Think chiropractic and DD Palmer, iridology by August von Peczely, and reiki by Mikao Usui. Making up fantastical stuff is what they do.

But even within the spectrum of pseudo-medicine there are those are practices and papers that are so bizarro they should be an April Fools’ joke. But are not. It may be a matter of taste, what one person considers wack-a-loon another would find imminently reasonable. There are certainly assigned delegates that prove that assertion. But even within the wack-a-loon world of SCAM, there are those practices and papers that are more wack-a-loon than others and should be April Fools’ jokes. Maybe it is like more unique. Unique is one of a kind, so something can’t be more one of a kind. More wack-a-loon? Such is the world of SCAM. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical devices, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Oregon Health & Science University SCAM Day

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link).  Oy.

I was looking over a recent class catalog from my alma mater, University of Oregon. I see the Astronomy Department is having a day devoted to astrology, inviting astrologers to talk about their profession. And the Chemistry department is having alchemists give an overview on how to change base metals into gold. And, to green our energy, the Physics Department, where I acquired my undergraduate degree, is having a symposium on perpetual motion machines. I am so proud.

I kid.

But not when it comes to SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine). Medicine is strange in that has no issues embracing pseudo-science. My medical school, OHSU, had an afternoon devoted to Integrative Medicine for the third year medical students, with lectures by a chiropractor, a traditional Chinese pseudomedicine practitioner, a naturopath and an integrative medicine practitioner. They also had a small group discussion of a case of irritable bowel syndrome where one of the discussion leaders was a……Qi……….Gong………..master. Really. I would be so pissed if I was going $166,000 in medical school debt and I was being taught about the approach to ANYTHING by a Qi Gong Master. It was a day to ignore that whole ‘science’ thing in the name of the school. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Acupuncture for Coronary Artery Disease

Pictured: Really, really bad idea, on all levels.

Pictured: Really, really bad idea, on all levels; literal, metaphorical, pedagogical, tautological, hemodynamic, pathological, basically all the -ics, -cals, and -als.

I have spent the last 35 years mostly in acute care medicine. Spending my day in the hospital gives me the bias that we are fragile creatures who can die unexpectedly and easily. Much of the time we pull patients through, but I have a great respect for acute diseases. Over the years I have seen too many people wake up feeling good and dead by dinner time

There is a reason the phrase is “as serious as a heart attack”. Heart attacks and heart arrhythmias can kill. About 5% of patients admitted to the hospital with a heart attack die. And 250,000 have sudden death each year, never making it to the hospital, succumbing to their ventricular fibrillation precipitated by acute coronary ischemia. Ted Cruz notwithstanding, you need a functioning heart to live.

Scary stuff. So when I read Pubmed articles like “Effects of Acupuncture at the Yintang and the Chengjiang Acupoints on Cardiac Arrhythmias and Neurocardiogenic Syncope in Emergency First Aid“, I wonder what is going on in the minds of some people. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials

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Is it ethical to sell complementary and alternative medicine?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.

I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.

Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.

Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Curse Removal from the Annals

Pictured: Joshua Tree. Not pictured: My bleached bones.

Pictured: Joshua Tree. Not pictured: My bleached bones.  I hope.

A short post this week. Last weekend was a busy call weekend and as I type this I am heading for Palm Springs for a long weekend of hiking in the desert. If there is no entry in 14 days, look for my bleached bones somewhere in Joshua Tree.

Some observations about a recent article in the once-respected Annals of Internal Medicine, whose recent articles on acupuncture suggest their motto should be “The Annals: we have one too many ns.”

First there was, “Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial,” and now “Acupuncture for Menopausal Hot Flashes: A Randomized Trial.”

Spinning yin deficiency

Why do the study? Why do any acupuncture study? Negative studies will not change practice. There are no reality-based reasons to think that acupuncture would be effective for any process. All the high quality studies show no efficacy. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Pseudoscience sneaks into Ohio guidelines for non-drug pain treatment

Legitimately prescribed drugs can be stolen from a medicine cabinet a few at a time, usually without notice. From the Iowa Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy.

Legitimately prescribed drugs can be stolen from a medicine cabinet a few at a time, usually without notice. From the Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

Ohio recently issued Acute Pain Prescribing Guidelines as part of an effort to reduce the epidemic of opioid abuse and death from overdose. They were drafted under the auspices of the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team (GCOAT), assisted by medical organizations and other groups.

The guidelines include recommendations for non-pharmacologic treatment, a typical feature of pain treatment guidelines and a worthy effort to avoid prescribing opioids for pain. Unfortunately, the guidelines include treatments that are not evidence based and potentially harmful. We’ll return to that issue shortly.

But first, a brief look at the extent of the opioid problem. According to the CDC, opioids are used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery, injury, or for painful health conditions, like cancer. In the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis. From 1999 to 2013, opioid prescription and sales in the U.S. have nearly quadrupled, and overdose deaths have quadrupled right along with them. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Guidelines, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything?

Placebonex
We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The Ethics of Prescribing Worthless Treatments

ethics smallIs it ever ethical for a physician to prescribe a treatment to a patient that they know to be entirely without efficacy? Is it ever possible to do this without deceiving the patient to some degree? I think the answer to both questions is a clear “no.”

Within the flipped reality of “alternative medicine,” however, it suddenly becomes acceptable to deceive patients and sell them worthless treatments, as long as the deception was minimally successful.

A recent editorial in Scientific American by Allison Bond addresses this question. She manages to hit upon many of the reasons placebo medicine is inappropriate, but her reasoning is a bit muddled and she comes, in my opinion, to the wrong conclusion. She wraps her commentary in an anecdote of a terminal patient for whom she cared who found relief from reiki. She concludes:

Of course, when it comes to treating patients with painful, life-threatening diseases, the goal of our care should be to lessen suffering, regardless of where such relief originates. A few months after Ms. W left the hospital, I learned that she had died, and the news hit me hard. I thought back to her treatment under our care and hoped that even among the misery, we had eased her suffering through our therapies—“alternative” or not.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics

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American Academy of Family Physicians Home Study Course Recommends Non-Science-Based Treatments

aafp

Strong medicine…along with a little nonsense

Since passing my board exams in family practice in 1979 I have relied heavily on the American Academy of Family Physicians for continuing medical education via the American Family Physician and the AAFP home study programs. The AAFP prides itself on its evidence-based approach to medicine. In general, it delivers. But the recent FP Essentials Number 432 on “Chronic Pain Management” fell short. It recommended treating chronic pain with acupuncture, chiropractic, touch therapy, and S-adenosyl methionine (SAM-e), presenting them in a way that misled readers into thinking that the recommendations were based on good scientific evidence. They were not.

With 6,500 peer reviewed journals and over two million papers published every year, it is easy to find a study to support pretty much any point of view. John Ioannidis taught us that most published research findings are false, with preliminary studies frequently being overturned by larger, better follow-up studies. When evaluating the evidence for a treatment, it is not enough to find one or two positive studies. It is essential to also look for negative studies and for systematic analyses that weigh all the published evidence, and to put all the available evidence into perspective. The authors failed to do that. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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