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Three popular alternative medical treatments undergo rigorous study, but only one shows benefits

Three studies involving alternative medical treatments have crossed my desk this week. Two found no health benefits from the treatments, while the third reported a promising outcome.I’ll start with the promising one.

Meditation and multiple sclerosis
Patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) who participated in eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training (eight two-and-a-half-hour classes and one seven-hour Saturday session) reported less fatigue and depression and an improved overall quality of life at the end of the course than people who received only their usual medical care, according to a new study from Switzerland.

The benefits persisted for at least six months.

This randomized, controlled study, which involved 150 people with mild to moderate MS, is in line with previous research that has shown that both yoga and meditation help reduce pain and fatigue and improve mental functioning in people with MS.

A caveat: Because the controls in the current study were not actively involved in a sham treatment (a fake version of mindfulness meditation), the study’s results have to be interpreted cautiously. The placebo effect — positive results that occur simply from the experience of being treated — may have been in play.

The study appears in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Neurology.

Acupuncture and stroke
Although acupuncture is often used to help with the rehabilitation of stroke patients, it does not have any real positive effect on recovery, a team of Korean and British researchers have found.

The researchers based this conclusion on a systematic review of data from 10 of the “best” randomized, controlled trials on the topic, including several published in Asian journals. “Only 2 of the 10 studies included in our study reported that acupuncture was effective,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, poor reporting and high risks of bias rendered both studies less than reliable. Our meta-analyses did not show positive effects of acupuncture.”

The study was published online Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Pine-bark extract and blood pressure
Pine-bark extract supplements have no effect on lowering blood pressure or lessening other risk factors for heart disease, a new study from Stanford University has found.

Supplement enthusiasts tout pine-bark extract as a treatment for high blood pressure because it contains high amounts of antioxidants that interfere (or so the claim goes) with biological mechanisms that raise blood pressure.

For the study, researchers recruited 130 people who were overweight and had slightly elevated blood pressure (but who were not taking any medication for it). Half were given a 200-milligram daily dose of pine bark extract. The others received a placebo pill. Everybody was then closely monitored to make sure they didn’t change anything — like their diets or weight — that might affect their blood pressure during the course of the study.

At the end of the 12-week study, the two groups showed no differences in any risks factors, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood glucose, body weight or C-reactive protein levels.

People are spending billions of dollars on products like pine-bark extract without knowing whether they’re safe or effective, one of the study’s authors, Dr. Randall Stafford, told a Reuters reporter.

“It is time for the FDA to start treating supplements more like drugs and provide consumers with more active guidance about how to critically evaluate their decisions to purchase supplements,” he added.

In a prepared statement, Stafford also said his study’s findings are more evidence that antioxidant supplements don’t improve heart function.

“While there’s a good biological basis to presume that antioxidant supplements might have a beneficial effect on heart health, this study is another example that they don’t,” he said. “There’s also a broader message that many dietary supplements don’t have the data to back up their claims of providing health benefits.”

This study appears in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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