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ABC News Covers Medblogger Track At Blog World Expo

My friend and morning ABC anchor, Dave Lucas, is tired of all the false health information that fills his email inbox each day. He’s very relieved that there are physicians, nurses, and patient advocates “swimming against the tide” of pseudoscience and misleading health information online. Today Dave and I discussed how people can find accurate and potentially life-saving health information through peer-reviewed medical blogs, thanks to the health blogger code of ethics (administered by MedPage Today).

The Friday Funny: Science Versus Pseudoscience

I know this one’s been floating around the blogosphere for a while, but it finally made its way to me at a time when I needed something lighthearted and amusing (warning: some profanity and at least one use of the “F” word):

Best quotes:

“Well, science doesn’t know everything.” Well, science knows it doesn’t know anything, otherwise it would stop … But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairytale most appeals to you.”

…”nutritionist” isn’t a protected term. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. “Dietitician” is the legally protected term. “Dietician” is like dentist, and “nutritionist” is like tootheologist.”

“I’m sorry if you’re into homeopathy. It’s water. How often does it need to be said? It’s just water. You’re healing yourself. Why don’t you give yourself the credit?

I just wish more comics did routines like this. Sometimes humor can get the message through where analysis can’t.

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Bad Science, Healing Touch And Coronary Bypass

A study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine is being cited as evidence for the efficacy of healing touch (HT). It enrolled 237 subjects who were scheduled for coronary bypass, randomized them to receive HT, a visitor, or no treatment; and found that HT was associated with a greater decrease in anxiety and shorter hospital stays.

This study is a good example of what I have called “Tooth Fairy Science.” You can study how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves in different situations (first vs. last tooth, age of child, tooth in baggie vs. tooth wrapped in Kleenex, etc.), and your results can be replicable and statistically significant, and you can think you have learned something about the Tooth Fairy; but your results don’t mean what you think they do because you didn’t stop to find out whether the Tooth Fairy was real or whether some more mundane explanation (parents) might account for the phenomenon.

Theoretical underpinnings

According to the study’s introduction:

Healing touch is a biofield- or energy-based therapy that arose out of nursing in the early 1980s…HT aids relaxation and supports the body’s natural healing process, i.e., one’s ability to self-balance and self-heal.” This noninvasive technique involves (1) intention (such as the practitioner centering with the deep, gentle, conscious breath) and (2) placement of hands in specific patterns or sequences either on the body or above it. At its core, the theoretical basis of the work is that a human being is a multi-dimensional energy system (including consciousness) that can be affected by another to promote well-being.

They cite a number of references to theorists who support these ideas. They cite Ochsman; he wrote a book Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis which I reviewed, showing that despite the book’s title, there is no credible scientific basis and the “evidence” he presents cannot be taken seriously.

They cite Candace Pert, who said in the foreword to Ochsman’s book that Dr. Oschman “pulled” some energy away from her “stagnant” liver. She said the body is “a liquid crystal under tension capable of vibrating at a number of frequencies, some in the range of visible light,” with “different emotional states, each with a predominant peptide ligand-induced ‘tone’ as an energetic pattern which propagates throughout the bodymind.” Does this even mean anything?

They even cite the PEAR study, suggesting that it is still ongoing (it isn’t) and claiming it shows that “actions in one system can potentially influence actions of another on a quantum energetic level.” (It didn’t.)

This is nothing but imaginative speculation based on a misunderstanding of quantum physics and of what physicists mean by “energy.” It is a truism that electromagnetic phenomena are widespread in the human body, but there is a giant gap between that and the idea that a nurse with intention and hand movements can influence electrical, magnetic, or any other physical processes in the body to promote healing. There is no evidence for the alleged “human biofield.”

Previous Research

They cite several randomized controlled studies of HT over the last few years. One showed “better health-related quality of life” in cancer patients. One, the Post-White study, showed no difference between HT and massage. One small study by Ziembroski et al. that I couldn’t find in PubMed apparently showed no significant difference between HT and standard care for hospice patients. One study showed that HT raised secretory IgA concentrations, lowered stress perceptions and relieved pain, and results were greater with more experienced practitioners; but it only compared HT to no treatment and didn’t use any placebo treatment.
A pilot study compared 4 noetic therapies-stress relaxation, imagery, touch therapy, and prayer, and found no difference.

A larger study showed that neither touch therapy nor masked prayer significantly improved clinical outcome after elective catheterisation or percutaneous coronary intervention.

They cite a review of healing touch studies by Wardell and Weymouth It concluded “Over 30 studies have been conducted with healing touch as the independent variable. Although no generalizable results were found, a foundation exists for further research to test its benefits.” Wardell noted that “the question has been raised whether the field of energy research readily lends itself to traditional scientific analysis due to coexisting paradoxical findings.” This is a common excuse of true believers who find that science is not cooperative in validating their beliefs.

Study Design

237 patients undergoing first-time elective coronary artery bypass surgery were randomly assigned to one of 3 groups: an HT group, a visitor group, and a standard care group. All received the same standard care from the hospital. The HT group received preoperative HT education and 3 HT interventions. Practitioners established a relationship with their patients, assessed their energy fields, and performed a variety of HT techniques based on their assessment, including techniques that involved light touch and those that involved no touch (practitioners’ hands held above body). Sessions lasted 20 to 90 minutes; each patient had the same practitioner throughout the study. The “visitor” group patients were visited by a nurse on the same schedule. The visits consisted of general conversation or the visitor remaining quietly in the room with the patient. They mentioned that some visits were shortened at the patient’s request.

Results of the Study

The six outcome measures were postoperative length of stay, incidence of postoperative atrial fibrillation, use of anti-emetic medication, amount of narcotic pain medication, functional status, and anxiety. HT had no effect on atrial fibrillation, anti-emetics, narcotics, or functional status. The only significant differences were for anxiety scores and length of stay. The length of stay for the HT group was 6.9 days, for the visitor group 7.7 days, and for the routine care group 7.2 days, suggesting that the simple presence of a visitor made things worse(!?). Curiously, for the subgroup of inpatients, the length of stay was HT 7.4 days, visitor 7.7 days and routine care 6.8 days, which was non-significant at p=0.26 and suggested that both HT and visitor made things worse.

The mean decreases in anxiety scores were HT 6.3, visitor 5.8, and control 1.8. They said this was significant at the p=0.01 level. But the tables for results broken down by inpatient and outpatient show no significant differences (p=0.32 for outpatients and p=0.10 for inpatients). If it was not significantly different for either subgroup, how could it be significant for the combined group?

These discrepancies are confusing. They suggest that the significant differences found were due to chance rather than to any real effect of HT..

Problems with this Study

Four out of the six outcomes were negative: there was no change in the use of pain medication, anti-emetic medication, incidence of atrial fibrillation, or functional status. The only two outcomes that were significant were hospital stay and anxiety, and these results are problematic and might have other explanations.

It is impossible to interpret what the difference in length of stay means, because they did not record the reasons for delaying discharge. As far as we can tell from the paper, the doctors deciding when to discharge a patient were not blinded as to which study group the patient was in. It’s interesting that the visitor group length of stay was intermediate in the outpatient subgroup, but higher than control for the combined inpatient/outpatient group. They offer no explanation for this. I was puzzled by the bar graph showing these numbers, because the numbers on the graph don’t seem to match the numbers in the text. The numbers were manipulated: they did a logarithm transformation for length of stay “to handle the skewness of the raw data.” I don’t understand that and can’t comment. The range of hospital days is such that the confidence intervals largely overlap. In all, these data are not very robust or convincing and they raise questions.

They interpret the anxiety reduction scores (HT 6.3, visitor 5.8, and control 1.8) as showing a significant efficacy of HT, but it seems more compatible with a placebo response and a slightly better response for the more elaborate placebo.

There were fewer patients (63) in the visitor group than in the HT and control groups (87 each). This was not explained. The comparison of groups appears to show that the control group had significantly higher pre-op anxiety scores than either of the other groups, which would tend to skew the results

They didn’t use a credible control group. A visitor sitting in the room can’t be compared to a charismatic touchy-feely hand-waving practitioner. Other studies have used mock HT where the hand movements were not accompanied by healing thoughts. These researchers rejected that approach because they didn’t think it would be ethical to offer a sham procedure where the practitioner only “pretended” to help. Hmm… One could argue that they have provided no evidence that HT practitioners are ever doing anything more than pretending to help.

They don’t comment on how practitioners were able to “assess the energy fields” of their patients. Emily Rosa’s landmark study showed that practitioners who claimed to be able to sense those fields couldn’t.

The authors consist of 3 RNs (2 of them listed as healing touch therapists and presumably the ones who provided treatment in the study), a statistician with an MS, and two “directors of research” for whom no degrees are listed. The authors are clearly prejudiced in favor of HT.

They interpret this study as supporting the efficacy of HT. I don’t think it does that. I think the results are entirely compatible with a placebo response. With any made-up intervention presented with strong suggestion, one could expect to find one or two statistically significant differences when multiple endpoints are evaluated. And the magnitude of the improvement here is far from robust. This is the kind of result that tends to diminish in magnitude or vanish when better controls are used. I think the study is Tooth Fairy science, purporting to study the effects of a non-existent phenomenon, but actually only demonstrating a placebo response.

I wonder if better results might be obtained by having a patient advocate stay with the patient and offer reassurance, explanations, massage and other comfort measures – something like the doulas who have been shown to improve childbirth outcomes.

The frightening thing is that during the course of this study, patients increasingly bought into the HT belief system and refused to sign up for the study because they wanted HT and didn’t want to risk being assigned to a control group. And hospital staff bought into the belief system, were treated themselves, and became proponents of offering it to patients for other indications.

The paper ends with a rather incoherent statement one would not expect to find in a scientific medical journal: “At the very heart of this study is the movement toward recognizing that the metaphoric and physical heart are both very real, if we allow them to be.”

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

The Friday Funny: The Homeopath’s ER

Chiropractic Medicine: Its History And Pseudoscientific Practices

When patients ask me if a chiropractor can help them with their problem, I often think to myself, “OK, do I give them the short answer or the long answer?” The difficulty is often in the fact that chiropractic is a diverse profession and it is difficult to even characterize what a “typical” chiropractor is likely to do. As a chiropractor once admitted to me – there are a great many things that happen under the umbrella of “chiropractic.”

In this article I will summarize some of the history and practice of chiropractic, highlighting what I consider to be many of the enduring problems with this profession.


Chiropractic was founded in 1895 by Daniel David Palmer, a grocer with an intense interest in metaphysics. Prior to his “discovery” of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer was a magnetic healer. He also had interests in phrenology (diagnosing disease based on the bumps of the skull) and spiritualism. Palmer reported to have discovered the principle of chiropractic when he allegedly cured a janitor of his deafness by manipulating his neck. The fact that the nerve which conveys sound information from the ears to the brain does not pass through the neck did not seem to bother Palmer, if he was even aware of this fact.

Palmer created the term “chiropractic,” which literally means “done by hand,” to refer to his new therapy. He argued that all disease is caused by subluxated bones, which 95% of the time are spinal bones, and which disrupt the flow of innate intelligence. He did not subject his ideas to any form of research, but rather went directly to treating patients and to teaching his principles to the first generation of chiropractors.

Subluxation Theory

Palmer believed in the pre-scientific vitalistic notion that health stems from the flow of a spiritual life force. Although vitalism was rapidly declining within scientific thought by the end of the 19th century, it was the centerpiece of early philosophies of health in most cultures. Palmer borrowed this ancient belief and renamed it “innate intelligence” which he claimed flowed from the brain to the rest of the body through the spinal cord and peripheral nerves. All disease, he argued, results from disruption in the flow of innate intelligence. Disruption in flow is caused by spinal subluxations, which are small misalignments in the spine that compress the spinal nerves.

Therefore, liver disease is caused by a subluxation which compresses the spinal nerve which supplies the liver with life force, depriving it of its vital innate intelligence. Palmer therefore believed he could cure by fixing these misalignments with manipulation.

This idea has remained the cornerstone of chiropractic despite advances in neurobiology and anatomy which have failed to show any evidence for innate intelligence or chiropractic subluxations. Many continue to ascribe all disease to the blockage of innate intelligence despite scientific advances in medicine which have discovered infectious, genetic, autoimmune, degenerative, nutritional, and other causes for many of the diseases which plague mankind.

Chiropractic was also not the only tradition based upon manipulating the bones. Of note, osteopathic doctors also developed an art of bone manipulation in order to heal, but they believed they were unblocking blood flow through arteries. Osteopathy and chiropractic had similar roots, but took very different paths, as we will see.

D.D. Palmer’s son, B.J. Palmer, became involved in the chiropractic movement early on, during the formative years. B.J shared his father’s metaphysical bent (prior to chiropractic, he worked with a mesmerist and worked in the circus), his tendency to make sweeping statements about health without justification, and his ignorance of contemporary scientific knowledge. He was reported to state, for example, “When I saw there was no use for a sympathetic nervous system, I threw it out, and then just had to put something better in its place, so I discovered Direct Mental Impulse.” B.J. also “discovered” a non-existent “Duct of Palmer” connecting the spleen to the stomach. In 1907 B.J. engineered a hostile take over of his father’s school of chiropractic.

B.J. Palmer set the tone that would later dominate the field of chiropractic. He emphasized salesmanship, advertising, and practice building. He was highly critical of medicine, stating that M.D. stands for “more death.” He continuously sought new methods for increasing revenues, such as his neurocalometer, which would pinpoint subluxations by measuring skin temperature and he decreed must be rented from him by other practitioners at exorbitant fees.

From the beginning chiropractors were also politically aggressive. They sought licensure as a protection from the growing scientific medicine with which they were completely at odds. Many legislators were reluctant to license chiropractors for this reason, but as more and more states voted in licensure, it became increasingly difficult to fight. Additionally, many legislators looked upon licensure as way of controlling the scope of chiropractic. By 1925, 32 states had instituted licenses for chiropractors. The struggle ended in 1974 when Louisiana instituted licensing.

Many states then began to pass basic science board requirements for licensure, making chiropractors pass the same tests of basic science knowledge as medical and osteopathic students. This was justified by the fact that chiropractors were presenting themselves as primary practitioners. However, where roughly 86 percent of medical students passed their basic science boards between 1927 and 1953, only 23 percent of chiropractors did. Chiropractors who could not pass the boards either moved to another state without the requirement, or practiced without a license. Between 1967 and 1979 all of the basic science laws for chiropractors were repealed.

Over the years chiropractic has never ceased its tireless struggle for growth and acceptance. Despite the fact that scientific medicine has continued to progress and chiropractic has never shed its pseudoscientific origins, they have been quite successful. After licensure, they gained coverage under Medicare. They have also successfully sued the AMA to stop their antichiropractic campaign. Today they continue to lobby hard for increased coverage and access under health insurance and HMO policies.

Straights, Mixers, and Reformers

Almost since the beginning, chiropractic has been fraught with many internal schisms. Today there is a wide range of differences between individual chiropractors, but most can be placed within one of three basic types.

Straight chiropractors consider themselves the only true or pure chiropractors because they limit their practice to the identification and treatment of spinal subluxations. They adhere strictly to Palmer’s concept of disease and believe that all ailments can be treated through manipulation to restore the flow of innate intelligence. Once freely flowing, they believe innate intelligence has unlimited power to naturally heal the body.

Straight chiropractors are the most extreme in their anti-scientific views. They openly advocate a philosophical rather than a scientific basis for health care, calling mainstream medicine “mechanistic” and “allopathic.” They call physicians “drug pushers” and disparage the use of surgery. They are careful not to give diseases names, but none-the-less they claim to cure disease with their adjustments. They oppose vaccinations. They also openly advocate the replacement of scientific medicine with chiropractic as primary health care. The statements of Dr. Wilson A. Morgan (who just passed away earlier this month), previous Executive Officer of Life College School of Chiropractic, are typical:

“Chiropractic: The health care system whose time as the official guardian of the public’s health is fast approaching!”
“On the other hand, it is equally appropriate for chiropractors to be viewed as generalists in that the far-reaching effects of their highly specific spinal adjustments usually are followed by the decrease and often disappearance of a very broad array of symptoms, disabilities and pathological conditions.”
“Unlike the medical profession, chiropractic has a very strong philosophical basis, which no doubt has contributed to its having been labeled ‘unscientific’ by the more mechanistically-oriented scientific community.”
“It appears that education will prove to be the best strategy in the ‘war on drugs,’ including education about the dangers of drugs available on the street and also those available from the physician as prescriptions.”

Mixers, comprising the largest segment of chiropractors, may at first seem more rational. They accept that some disease is caused by infection or other causes and they do not limit their practice to fixing subluxations. Most chiropractors in this group, however, do not supplement subluxation theory with scientific medicine, but rather with an eclectic array of pseudoscientific alternative practices. Mixers commonly prescribe homeopathic and herbal remedies, practice acupuncture and therapeutic touch, diagnose with iridology, contour analysis, and applied kinesiology, and adhere to the philosophy of naturopathy. This broad use of unproven, unscientific, and fanciful so-called “alternative” practices clearly indicates an antiscience attitude, as well as a lack of scientific knowledge, on the part of those chiropractors who employ them.

The rhetoric of Mixers indicates that they are attempting to become accepted into the scientific mainstream, rather than replace scientifically based medicine with a philosophy based approach. They no longer openly oppose immunization, like straights do, but they do advocate the freedom to choose whether or not to be immunized. Their appeal to freedom is emotionally effective, especially in the United States, but it fails to recognize that immunization is far less effective in eliminating or containing infectious diseases when it is not given to everyone. They also advocate a role for chiropractors as a primary care portal of entry system within HealthCare, despite the fact that they lack adequate training as generalists skilled in medical diagnosis.

A small minority of chiropractors, numbering only about 1,000, or 2% of all chiropractors (these are rough estimates because accurate figures are lacking), have been openly critical of their own field. They have called for absolute rejection of the subluxation theory of illness, disposing of pseudoscientific and unethical practices by chiropractors, and the restriction of chiropractic to treating acute musculoskeletal symptoms. They are attempting to bring their field into the scientific mainstream.

Occasionally chiropractic reformers have attempted to forge a new profession, entirely shedding the pseudoscience attached to the chiropractic brand. About ten years ago one group in Canada renamed themselves “Orthopractors,” and considered the new discipline of orthopractic as distinct from chiropractic. Orthopractic is the use of manipulation to provide symptomatic relief from uncomplicated acute back strain. They do not believe in maintenance therapy, treating medical ailments, or the use of pseudoscientific alternative practices.

Unfortunately, this reform effort died because “orthopractic” did not exist as a legal entity. This also partly explains why the “chiropractic” label persists and covers such a wide range of philosophy and practice – because it exists as a recognized licensed profession. It has a regulatory inertia that is hard to combat.

To further complicate things, spinal manipulation exists outside of the chiropractic profession, and not all manipulation is chiropractic manipulation. Some physiatrists, sports medicine doctors, and osteopaths legitimately employ manipulative therapy to relieve muscle strain, mobilize joints, and improve function. Chiropractors do this as well. But some chiropractors also do chiropractic manipulation designed to realign the spine and reduce imaginary chiropractic subluxations.

The Evidence – Subluxations

In the past 100 years, there has been very little research conducted into the basic principles of straight chiropractic. There is no research that indicates the existence of innate intelligence or that such a force plays any role in health and disease. Further, the evidence strongly suggests that chiropractic subluxations are a figment of the chiropractic imagination. And it also seems that spinal manipulation is not capable of realigning the vertebra of the spine.

A study carried out by Edmund Crelin, Ph.D. investigated the amount of force necessary to displace vertebral bones of the spine in order to cause impingement of a spinal nerve. The study was carried out on six corpses within 8 hours after death. His conclusion was that the amount of force necessary to actually displace the vertebra was great enough to break the spine, arguing strongly that chiropractic manipulation cannot significantly affect spinal alignment, and that misaligned spines do not caused pinched nerves (Crelin, 1973).

Pinched or impinged spinal nerves do occur, but they are caused by herniated discs, fractures, tumors, or overgrowth of the vertebral bones. When spinal nerves are impinged they cause pain, numbness, and tingling and may cause a decrease or loss of deep tendon reflexes and weakness of the muscles supplied by the affected nerve. Impinged nerves are not caused by subluxations nor do they result in diseases of the organs. Believers in subluxation theory must claim, implausibly, that nerve impingement causes only a blockage of innate intelligence without causing any of the known signs and symptoms of such impingement.

Ironically, spinal manipulation is contraindicated in cases of actual nerve impingement and should not be performed. In medical studies of manipulation, such as the RAND study, often cited by chiropractors as evidence for manipulation, spinal nerve impingement was considered a reason not to have manipulation and therefore was a criteria for exclusion from the study.

Another source of evidence that the chiropractic theory of subluxations and innate intelligence is completely false comes from the unfortunate victims of spinal trauma. There are many victims of complete transection, or disruption, of the cervical spinal cord in the neck. Such a complete injury leaves its victim quadraplegic, unable to move the arms or legs. If the injury is high enough in the spinal cord the victim may not even be able to breath on their own. In such victims no impulses from the brain are able to travel below the spinal cord in the neck, and therefore most of the communication between the brain and the body is interrupted. Certainly, this is a much more dramatic and complete interference of nerve flow than that of an impinged spinal nerve.

Yet, in these patients, the organs continue to work without difficulty and diseases do not develop at any higher rate than those without such an injury. Of course, there are some effects from the disruption of the autonomic nervous system, that part of the nervous system which regulates the bladder, the degree of bowel motility, and other functions. But all effects of spinal cord damage are caused by known neurological injury. If subluxation theory were correct, then patients with high spinal cord injuries would be ravaged by every conceivable disease.

So chiropractors cannot realign the spine to fix imaginary subluxations and restore the flow of nonexistent innate intelligence. Subluxation theory is pure pseudoscience, like homeopathy or therapeutic touch, and has no place in a 21st century scientific health care system.

Despite the extreme scientific implausibility of subluxation theory, specific applications have been tested with clinical research – with predictable results. For example, many chiropractors will use manipulation to treat asthma is children. The results of this research are soundly negative – chiropractic does not work on asthma.

Despite this many chiropractors persist in treating asthma. This led Simon Singh to write in the Guardian in 2008 that the British Chiropractic Association, which does advocate chiropractic for childhood asthma, “promotes bogus therapies.” In response to this statement the BCA notably did not provide the evidence that Singh claimed was missing. Rather, they sued him for libel (the case is ongoing).

Next week I will cover the evidence for musculoskeletal uses of chiropractic.

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

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