Allegations of risk from alternative treatments spark debate about chiropractic and acupuncture

Alternative medicines ‘potentially unsafe’

Edzard Ernst, the country’s only professor of complementary medicine, said trials into treatments like chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture and herbal remedies too often failed to record incidents when patients suffered adverse effects.

Studies were frequently run by “enthusiastic amateurs” more concerned about promoting alternative medicine than accurately reporting the science, he said.

While his research indicated there were conditions for which alternative medicine could be useful, he believed in most cases people should steer clear because the balance of risks and benefits was not positive.

“My team conducted several investigations which revealed that, in clinical trials of alternative medicine, adverse effects tend not to be mentioned.

“This is not because none occurred, as that would need to be mentioned too. The reason is that investigators do not think of reporting them.”

Of 60 randomised controlled trials published between 2000 and 2011, “29 failed to mention adverse effects” he said.

“Previous research had demonstrated that 50 per cent of patients experience adverse effects after chiropractic treatment and some can be severe, even fatal,” he claimed.

A trawl of the medical literature, going back decades, revealed 40 cases where death was linked to chiropractic treatment, although not proven. Most involved rupture of the vertebral artery in the neck, he said.

Source: The Telegraph (U.K.)

Prof. Ernst, author of the book Trick or Treatment, suspects that the cases of adverse effects are underestimated.

“I would say less than 10 per cent of these cases are reported in the medical literature”, he said.

Bias has reared its head right away. These allegations made regarding the safely of chiropractic and acupuncture drew sharp criticism from Peter Dixon, president of the General Chiropractic Council,who said Ernst was “prone to sensationalising” and “cherry-picking” in order to support his views, and Dr Mike Cummings, medical director of the British Acupuncture Society, who accused Ernst of being “deliberately provocative and publicity seeking”.

The lack of reporting of effects does seem to be real, but it’s not clear if the danger is exaggerated (as alt med proponents suggest) or underestimated (as Ernst suspects) because the data just is not there. It is worrisome because people who seek out these alternative treatments, believing they are harmless, may not have all the information they need. An argument against use of chiropractic and acupuncture is that they have not been shown to be effective for many conditions and so the risk, however small, is NOT worth the benefit (none). That is an important message to get out there.

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  5 comments for “Allegations of risk from alternative treatments spark debate about chiropractic and acupuncture

  1. May 15, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    I have removed the comment from Stephanie Banks that was an ad hominem attack on Prof Ernst.

    Long rants like that do not add to the discussion. Please follow the comment policy or those comments will be deleted.

  2. Raven Roulette
    May 20, 2012 at 12:05 AM

    Common Sense folks and critical thinking should be used when you are seeking healing. I have used natural medicine for most of my life..IT Is the best way to heal..

    • Chew
      May 20, 2012 at 12:29 AM

      [Citation needed.]

      • The Janitor
        May 26, 2012 at 9:04 PM

        Good sir, I present to you three internets. Take good care of them.

  3. incredulous
    May 23, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    If by “critical thinking” you mean Science Based Medicine (SBM) then it’s important to note that, within SBM, anecdotal evidence is OK to use for generating a hypothesis, but not OK to use when testing a hypothesis.

    As Chew rightly requests, please show objective evidence to back up your subjective claim.

Comments are closed.