Last year we covered one of the most diffuse misconceptions about health and nutrition: that turmeric, one of the key ingredients in a delicious curry, is somehow a cure for cancer. As we explored in our piece at the time, this claim is completely baseless. One of the active compounds contained in turmeric, however, is a very promising agent that has the potential to kill cancer cells. This compound is known as curcumin and it is currently being investigated in several scientific studies to assess whether it actually works and if so how that happens and whether we use it to help patients. In case you don’t have time to read that article, we did a bit of back-of-the-envelope math and worked out that in order to get the same dose of curcumin that has been rumored to be helpful (and not scientifically proven by any extent) you would need to guzzle 6 bottles of turmeric from the grocery store every day for a few months.
This week, turmeric is back in the news. This time, the Daily Mail reports it to be more effective than pain killers in alleviating the pain from sports injuries. They reference an article from researcher in Milan, Italy, which looked at the level of pain of a group of rugby players who had sports injuries and were treated with either regular analgesic medication (that is, painkillers) or with Meriva, which is a concentrated curcumin pill. First of all, it is worth to mention that Meriva contains many many times over the amount of curcumin when compared to the amount present in the tumeric that is found in any curry. This means that no matter what effects are measured with Meriva (and we’ll get to those claims in just a few seconds), they do not necessarily translate to the natural turmeric you find at the grocery store. This is much like comparing willow bark and aspirin – of course willow bark still contains some of the same active principle, but there is not amount of willow bark you can chew on to get the same amount of active principle than from an aspirin.
Nevertheless, much like willow bark, curcumin could be a great compound to explore as a potential new treatment – in a pharmacologically safe and effective way just like aspirin. There are several issues with study including a very small study size (only 50 patients) and the fact that the study is being conducted by scientists who have a clear conflict on interest (they work for Valleja Research, which also happens to sell curcumin products), but these are forgivable in what is a self-proclaimed pilot study (which means it is supposed to very preliminary). However, the real shocker comes when looking at the results that these researchers show. In fact, there was absolutely no difference in the patients who were treated with turmeric and those who were treated with traditional pain killers. This makes the title of the news article “Curry ingredient turmeric is MORE effective than paracetamol or ibuprofen at easing painful injuries, study finds” completely false. The only difference the study found is in the umber of patients who experienced side effects. Only one patient who was taking the curcumin substitute experienced side effects, whereas four patients who were being treated with normal painkillers experienced side effects. Of course, reducing medication side effects in undoubtedly a good thing. However, this is where the small size of the study comes into play.
The study is only really looking at three patients who are different in the curcumin side of the experiment as opposed to the pain killer side of the experiment. Is three patients enough to make sweeping conclusions on how these two drugs work? Fortunately, there is a statistical test known as the chi-squared test, that has been specifically designed by mathematicians and scientists to determine if numbers are significantly different in different groups. We have applied this test ourselves and unsurprisingly comparing the patient numbers in the two groups (1 with side effects and 24 without side effects for the curcumin group and 4 with side effects and 21 without side effects for the painkiller group) we do not get a positive result in the chi-squared test (if you are a statistics fan, the p-value is 0.34). In fairness to the authors of the study, they never claim that there is any statistically significant difference in the number of patients that experience side effects. The only people who do are the journalists for click-bait articles.
What’s important to note is that there is actually merit in this study. This could be the science you should have heard of this week. The fact that curcumin seems to be working as well as painkillers is hugely interesting for a variety of reasons. It could be a great leap forward to treat patients who are allergic to painkillers, or to prevent addiction to any specific compound by using curcumin as a substitute to other, more addictive medication such as opioids. Any new approach that has to do with new approaches to pain treatment is an especially relevant piece of news in these times where opioid addiction is such a rampant issue in society. We should more to report it accurately, and to make the most of it while we still can.