Expert warns of alternative cures

Stephen Adams

ALTERNATIVE medicines should be treated with caution because there is no real way of knowing if they are safe, an expert has warned.

Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine, said trials into treatments like chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture and herbal remedies 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.

Chiropractic manipulation could even be "lethal", said Prof Ernst, of the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England.

"Most people believe that alternative treatments are safe. But how sure are we that this is true?" he asked. "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."

He went further: "Alternative medicine researchers are often enthusiastic amateurs who think that research is for the purpose of promoting their treatment, rather than testing hypotheses."

Journals should check that papers are properly investigated and reported when things went wrong.

However, he claimed that in those which covered a specialist area, too often this failed to happen. He and a colleague have just concluded a study, published in the Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, looking at reporting of adverse effects in trials of chiropractic treatment.

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