An appendix, mid-appendectomy.
My title doesn’t refer to alternative medicine, it refers to an alternative within medicine: treating appendicitis with antibiotics instead of surgery. You may be surprised to learn that patients with appendicitis don’t always automatically need an appendectomy. A recent randomized controlled trial in Finland compared surgery to medical treatment.
History of appendicitis treatment
There is an excellent, detailed history of appendicitis available online, complete with anecdotes illustrating its importance. The appendix was not mentioned in early anatomical studies, probably because they were done on animals that didn’t have an appendix. The organ was first described in 1521. The existence of appendicitis (called “typhlitis” until 1886) was gradually recognized during the 19th century, and by the end of that century surgical removal of the appendix had become the standard treatment. Walter Reed, the yellow fever researcher for whom the Army hospital was named, died of a ruptured appendix. King Edward VII’s coronation was delayed while he underwent a life-saving appendectomy.
Appendectomy predated antibiotics, and it was believed that appendicitis would invariably progress to perforation. Once antibiotics were available, doctors experimented with treating appendicitis with them instead of with surgery, starting as early as 1956. The published trials had limitations, so the new study was done to try to get a more definitive answer to the question of whether the antibiotic approach was as effective as the surgical approach.
Low back pain is a particularly frustrating condition that is common, poorly understood, and difficult to treat. Could a long course of antibiotics be the answer for some patients? A recent study from Denmark suggests that it might be: “Antibiotic treatment in patients with chronic low back pain and vertebral bone edema (Modic type 1 changes): a double-blind randomized clinical controlled trial of efficacy” by Albert, Sorensen, Christensen and Manniche. Is this a crazy idea like long-term antibiotics for “chronic Lyme disease” or will it pan out like antibiotic eradication of H. pylori in patients with ulcers? Time will tell. This was a rigorous, well-done study, but we can never rely on the results of a single study until it is replicated or confirmed elsewhere.
Some of our readers have complained that we pick on alternative medicine while ignoring the problems in conventional medicine. That criticism is unjustified: we oppose non-science-based medicine wherever we find it. We find it regularly in alternative medicine; we find it less frequently in conventional medicine, but when we do, we speak out. A new book by Dr. Peter Palmieri is aimed squarely at failure to use science-based medicine in conventional practice.
Dr. Palmieri is a pediatrician who strives to provide the best compassionate, cost-effective, science-based care to all his patients. Over 15 years of practice in various settings, he observed that many of his colleagues were practicing substandard medicine. He tried to understand what led to that situation and how it might be remedied. The result is a gem of a book: Suffer the Children: Flaws, Foibles, Fallacies and the Grave Shortcomings of Pediatric Care. Its lessons are important and are not limited to pediatrics: every health care provider and every patient could benefit from reading this book.
The chapters cover these subjects:
- How doctors mishandle the most common childhood illnesses
- How doctors succumb to parental demands
- How they embrace superstition and magical beliefs
- How they fall prey to cognitive errors
- How they order the wrong test at the wrong time on the wrong patient
- How financial conflicts of interest defile the medical profession
- How doctors undermine parents’ confidence by labeling their children as ill
- A prescription for change
Ear infections used to be a devastating problem. In 1932, acute otitis media (AOM) and its suppurative complications accounted for 27% of all pediatric admissions to Bellevue Hospital. Since the introduction of antibiotics, it has become a much less serious problem. For decades it was taken for granted that all children with AOM should be given antibiotics, not only to treat the disease itself but to prevent complications like mastoiditis and meningitis.
In the 1980s, that consensus began to change. We realized that as many as 80% of uncomplicated ear infections resolve without treatment in 3 days. Many infections are caused by viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics cause side effects. A new strategy of watchful waiting was developed.
You’re a patient. That cold just isn’t getting better and you have purulent drainage from your nose, and your face hurts and your teeth hurt. You probably have sinusitis, right? You go to a doctor to get an antibiotic.
You’re a doctor. Deep down, you know there’s a good chance the patient has a self-resolving condition. You’d rather not do x-rays on every patient who presents with these symptoms, because x-rays are expensive, expose the patient to harmful radiation, and they are not always accurate. You could puncture the sinuses and take a sample for bacteriological culture, but that’s expensive, painful, and the patient would NOT appreciate it. The patient may not really need treatment, but you want very much to do something to help. If you can find a reason to give the patient an antibiotic, you can feel that you have done something worthwhile. Antibiotics don’t work for a viral infection, but you rationalize that you’re not 100% sure it’s not bacterial, and that sometimes a bacterial infection develops superimposed on a viral infection and mild bacterial infections can develop into severe ones with complications, and maybe you could ward that off. You convince yourself that it really would be prudent to prescribe an antibiotic. Both you and your patient are happy. The patient gets better. You remember this pleasant experience and are reinforced to do the same next time.
Maybe that’s not such a good idea.
A recent study in JAMA showed that antibiotics were not superior to placebo for treating bacterial sinusitis diagnosed by the clinical criteria used by many primary care physicians. There is a growing concern that we have been overtreating sinus infections. Recent research has also shown that we were overtreating ear infections in children, that many of them resolve just as fast without treatment. That doesn’t mean antibiotics should never be used for ear infections. There are now guidelines for using age and clinical presentation to determine which children to treat and which ones can be safely observed without antibiotics. Most of these observed ear infections will resolve but some will eventually require antibiotics too. The situation with sinusitis is similar: most patients may not need antibiotics, and we’re trying to thrash out better criteria for identifying those who will.
Critics point to this kind of thing as a defect of conventional medicine. We use treatments that are not based on good evidence. We do things for years and then find out we were wrong. New studies are constantly contradicting older studies. We keep changing our minds. (more…)