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On the pointlessness of acupuncture in the emergency room…or anywhere else

"This patient's qi isn't flowing the way it should. Consult Acupuncture, STAT!!"

“This patient’s qi isn’t flowing the way it should. Consult Acupuncture, STAT!!”

Sometimes there is a strange confluence of events that dictate what I feel that I need to write about when my turn here at SBM rolls around each Monday. Last week, a reader sent me a rather bizarre acupuncture study, and I thought I might write about that. Then I saw Mark Crislip’s (as usual) excellent deconstruction of the frequent claim by acupuncture apologists that acupuncture “works” by releasing endorphins and thought, “Maybe another topic.” But then, over the weekend, the Friends of Science in Medicine sent me a link to their latest article, a review of acupuncture entitled “Is there any place for acupuncture in 21st century medical practice?” Not surprisingly, the FSM (Friends of Science in Medicine, not the Flying Spaghetti Monster) concludes that the answer is no. However, in stark contrast to that conclusions are studies like the one mentioned above, studies so ridiculous that, when I discuss it, you will hardly believe that anyone thought it was a good idea to utilize the money, time, and precious, precious human subjects to answer such a ridiculous question. After that discussion, I’ll come back to the FSM’s statement and discuss the evidence base (or rather, lack thereof) for acupuncture for pretty much anything.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials

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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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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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Are Placebos Getting Stronger?

placebo1A new study looked at clinical trials for neuropathic pain over the last 23 years and found that the response of subjects in the placebo group has been increasing over time, but only in the United States. The cause of this increase is unknown, and has provoked a fascinating discussion about the nature of placebos and their role in medical research.

What is the placebo effect?

We have discussed the placebo response at length here at SBM because the concept is critical to understanding clinical science, and it is largely misunderstood. Most often it is presented as a mind-over-matter response to the expectation of benefit. Proponents of worthless treatments often hype the placebo response as if it can have real healing power, when the evidence shows it does not.

In reality, there are a large number of placebo effects and the phenomenon is quite complex. In clinical trials “the placebo effect” is whatever happens in the placebo group of the study, the group receiving an inactive treatment. This is not one effect, however, but a complex combination of many effects.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials

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The Worst Homeopathy Study. Ever

A rare double-face palm, so you can't see the tears

A rare double-face palm, so you can’t see the tears

I run across a lot of information in my feeds that I need to save for further evaluation. The study “Does additional antimicrobial treatment have a better effect on URTI cough resolution than homeopathic symptomatic therapy alone? A real-life preliminary observational study in a pediatric population“, I saved with the file name, ‘jaw droppingly stupid’.

The worst homeopathy clinical trial ever doesn’t spring full formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. No. The worst homeopathy clinical trial ever started with a seed. The seed is “Homeopathic medicine for acute cough in upper respiratory tract infections and acute bronchitis: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, which is a standard lousy homeopathic study. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Homeopathy

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Placebo by Conditioning

power-of-placebo-effectTruly understanding placebo effects (note the plural) is critical to science-based medicine. Misconceptions about placebo effects are perhaps the common problem I encounter among otherwise-scientific professionals and science communicators.

The persistence of these misconceptions is due partly to the fact that false beliefs about placebos, namely that “the” placebo effect is mainly an expectation mind-over-matter effect, is deeply embedded in the culture. It is further exacerbated by recent attempts by CAM proponents to promote placebo-medicine, as their preferred treatments are increasingly being demonstrated to be nothing but placebos.

One idea that proponents of placebo medicine have tried to put forth is that you can have a placebo effect without deception. The study most often pointed to in order to support this claim is Ted Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study. However, this study was flawed in that it told participants that placebos can heal, so it wasn’t exactly without deception. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Should placebos be used in randomized controlled trials of surgical interventions?

Randomized controlled trial

Alone of all the regular contributors to this blog, I am a surgeon. Specifically, I’m a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer surgery, which makes me one of those hyper-specialized docs that are sometimes mocked as not being “real” doctors. Of course, the road to my current practice and research focus was long and involved quite a few years doing general surgery, so it is not as though I am unfamiliar with a wide variety of surgical procedures. Heck, I’m sure I could do an old-fashioned appendectomy, bowel resection, or cholecystectomy if I had to. Just don’t ask me to use the da Vinci robot or, with the exception of the case of a cholecystectomy, a laparoscope, although, given the popularity of robotic surgery, I sometimes joke that I really, really need to figure out how to do breast surgery with the robot. After all, if plastic surgeons are using it for breast reconstruction, surely the cancer surgeon should get in on the action.

I keed. I keed.

Clinical trials of surgical procedures and placebo controls

I have, however, from time to time addressed the issue of science-based surgery, and this weekend seems like as good a time to do so again, given that I just came across an article in the BMJ reporting a systematic review of the use of placebos in surgical trials. It’s a year old, but worth discussing. Before I get to discussing the nitty-gritty of this particular trial, let me just note that the evaluation of surgical procedures for efficacy and safety tends to be more difficult to accomplish than it is for medications, mainly because it’s much harder to do the gold standard clinical trial for surgical procedures, the double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial. The two most problematic aspects of designing such an RCT in surgery, as you might imagine, are the blinding, particularly if it’s a trial of a surgical procedure versus no surgical procedure, and persuading patients to agree. I’ll deal with the latter first, because I have direct personal experience with it. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Surgical Procedures

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Mediocre Expectations

Pictured: Relevant.  Oh yeah, it's going to get weird. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Image Library via the Wikimedia Commons.

Pictured: Relevant. Oh yeah, it’s going to get weird.

I had a dickens of a time writing this entry. The last week has been spent in New York for NECSS. It is safe to say that New York has plenty of distractions for us Dug the Dog types. Reality may be a honey badger, but New York is a squirrel. I say that when I travel I usually do not come across food better than I can find in Portland. Nope. Not true of New York. It joins Paris and New Orleans in the holy trinity of good eats, although I will stick with Pacific Northwest beer. And the rule is that for every day you are gone, three days’ worth of work piles up. I really need to stop taking time off.

I spoke at NECSS on a favorite topic of mine, how acupuncture works. It doesn’t. But I discussed a few studies that I found interesting. Like all studies, no single paper is definitive. The third law of the medical literature states that for every study, there is an equal and opposite study. A bit of an exaggeration perhaps but I do find the direction that the following studies point interesting both as to acupuncture’s mechanism of inaction and how the mind functions, making them worth collecting in an essay. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Placebo, Are You There?

By Jean Brissonnet, translation by Harriet Hall

Note: This was originally published as “Placebo, es-tu là?” in Science et pseudo-sciences 294, p. 38-48. January 2011. It came to my attention in the course of an e-mail correspondence with the editors of that magazine, where one of my own articles was published in French translation in January 2015. I thought this was the best explanation of placebo that I had ever read. It covers the same points my colleagues and I have addressed and more. It describes the pertinent research and uses particularly effective graphs to illustrate the principles (a picture is worth a thousand words). The author, Jean Brissonnet, kindly gave his permission for me to translate it and share it with our readers.


In fact, you don’t need to give a placebo to get a placebo effect and therefore we can now think about how we can maximize the placebo component of routine care.

~ Damien Finniss, 2010

The scene takes place in a surgical suite where they are preparing to do a cataract operation. The patient is lying on the operating table. A few minutes earlier the anesthetic gel was applied to the cornea to permit an operation under simple local anesthesia. The surgeon arrives in the company of the anesthetist. They are engaged in a spirited discussion and don’t seem to be agreeing.

“It has been proven,” says the surgeon, “that 30% of the action of a medical treatment is due to the placebo effect.”

“I doubt that,” retorts his interlocutor, “I think that placebo story is one of those medical myths on a par with the idea that we only use 10% of our brain, that nails and hair grow after death, or that cellphones create interference in hospitals.”[1]

“No,” insists the surgeon with a superior tone, “the fact is established and has been proven by numerous studies.”

The anesthetist shakes his head with a slight smile, but he doesn’t reply. As for the patient, who might have much to say on the subject, he keeps quiet, because it would not be prudent to argue with someone who is about to suck the lens out of your eye.

This true anecdote would not be of interest if it didn’t concern two members of the medical profession. Why such uncertainty? Why such lack of knowledge about such a fundamental subject? This faith in an all-powerful, magical, and mysterious placebo is common among the general public and it serves as justification for resorting to unconventional medicines that have never been able to show solid proof of efficacy; but we see that it still persists among the medical profession.

To know whether the placebo effect is real or should be relegated to the same category as poltergeists, it will help to go back in history.

cartoon

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Using the fear of Ebola to promote the placebo legislation that is “right to try”

rick-snyder

Perhaps the most pervasive medical conspiracy theory of all involves stories that there exist out there all sorts of fantastic cures for cancer and other deadly diseases but you can’t have them because (1) “they” don’t want you to know about them (as I like to call it, the Kevin Trudeau approach) and/or (2) the evil jackbooted thugs of the FDA are so close-minded and blinded by science that they crush any attempt to market such drugs and, under the most charitable assessment under this myth, dramatically slow down the approval of such cures. The first version usually involves “natural” cures or various other alternative medicine cures that are being “suppressed” by the FDA, FTC, state medical boards, and various other entities, usually at the behest of their pharma overlords. The second version is less extreme but no less fantasy-based. It tends to be tightly associated with libertarian and small government fantasists and a loose movement in medicine with similar beliefs known as the “health freedom” movement, whose members posit that, if only the heavy hand of government were removed and the jack-booted thugs of the FDA reined in, free market innovation would flourish, and the cures so long suppressed by an overweening and oppressive regulatory apparatus would burst the floodgates. Under this views, these cures, long held back by the dam of the FDA, would flow immediately to the people, and there would be much rejoicing. (Funny how it didn’t work out that way before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.) Of course, I can’t help but note that in general, in this latter idea, these fantastical benefits seem to be reserved only for those who have the cash, because, well, the free market fixes everything. At least, that seems to be the belief system at the heart of many of these conspiracy theories.

The idea that the FDA is keeping cures from desperate terminally ill people, either intentionally or unintentionally, through its insistence on a rigorous, science-based approval process in which drugs are taken through preclinical work, phase 1, phase 2, and phase 3 testing before approval is one of the major driving beliefs commonly used to justify so-called “right-to-try” laws. These bills have been infiltrating state houses like so much kudzu, and the Ebola outbreak has only added fuel to the fire based on the accelerated use of ZMapp, a humanized monoclonal antibody against the Ebola virus, in some patients even though it hadn’t been tested in humans yet (more on that later). Already four of these laws have been passed (in Colorado, Missouri, Louisiana, and now Michigan) with a referendum in Arizona almost certain to pass next week to bring the total to five states with such laws. Basically, these laws, as I’ve described, claim to allow access to experimental drugs to terminally ill patients with a couple of major conditions: First, that the drug has passed phase I clinical trials and second that the patient has exhausted all approved therapies. As I’ve explained before more than once, first when the law hit the news big time in Arizona and then when a right-to-try bill was introduced into the legislature here in Michigan, they do nothing of the sort and are being promoted based on a huge amount of misinformation detailed in the links earlier. First, having passed phase 1 does not mean a drug is safe, but right-to-try advocates, particularly the main group spearheading these laws, the Goldwater Institute, make that claim incessantly. Second, they vastly overstate the likelihood that a given experimental drug will help a given patient. The list goes on.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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