Being a new parent and a sceptic I have been on guard regarding dubious advice and practices. Parents, especially new parents like myself, are a vulnerable group. We tend to be full of anxiety that we are doing the “right thing” by our children. Where-ever you find a vulnerable group like this you also tend to find those who prey on such fears. I have actually been pleasantly surprised, despite my vigilance I have not yet been subjected to any dubious advice (that I’ve noticed). But early last week I was confronted by a practice from a fellow new parent that I found a little disturbing. I’m taking about using necklaces of amber beads to reduce the pain of teething for babies.
Teething can be an especially stressful time for parents and children, the child may be experiencing pain as the new teeth break through the gums. This means an irritable child and frazzled parents. Anything that promises to relieve or prevent this harrowing time is gratefully embraced.
On to the amber beads. This practice disturbs me for several reasons. First is safety, the necklace if left on the baby for long periods may pose a strangling hazard of it becomes caught on something. Most advertise that they are made to break easily to prevent this and that the beads are individually knotted onto the necklace to prevent scattering on breakage. However this still seems to leave a broken string of beads in reach of a baby, as as most people know – anything a baby can get it’s hands on goes straight into the mouth. So choking is also a concern[1&17].
Now, I’m not one to be a worry wart over every little potential hazard, used correctly under parental supervision I suspect that the likelihood of a tragedy of this kind is low. But not zero[15&16]. This coupled with the low possibility that the necklace actually does anything is what worries me. The second disturbing thing is that parents are accepting this via word of mouth and apparently not consulting their doctors before subjecting their child to an intervention of unknown safety and efficacy.
I have three main points I want to cover with regard to these amber beads that parents should consider before trying these beads (in addition to the physical safety above). The first relates to basic plausibility.
Before we get to that though it depends on which mechanism of action for the beads you subscribe to. There are several explanations regarding how the beads are supposed to work floating around the intertubes, many are of the tinfoil hat brigade variety, these will be ignored (but look here and here for a bit of a chuckle). Only one explanation I have found makes biological sense so that’s the one I’ll be focusing on.
That explanation is Succinic acid, baltic amber is known to contain between 3-8% succinic acid. According to proponents this is released from the beads and into your baby. The succinic acid then allegedly has an analgesic effect and so reduces the pain of teething. Here is where my first point regarding plausibility comes in:
Amber is tough, really tough. This is a material that has persisted for thousands and in some cases millions of years unchanged. Suffering through heating and cooling of innumerable climatic changes through the years. Yet this same tough unchanging material with happily give up it’s chemical components upon the gentle heating it receives on being placed next to your baby’s skin? Colour me unconvinced[1&2]. Related to this point amber has a hardness on the Mohs scale of between 1 and 3 , baltic amber which is usually touted as the therapeutic variety (because of the high succinic acid content) is at the high end of this scale 2 – 2.5. To put this in perspective, Tin has a hardness of about 1.5 and Gold is 2.5-3 . But forget about this point, I don’t need it. Lets say for argument sake that clinically relevant amounts of succinic acid are released by the amber and absorbed by your baby’s skin.
My second point then, relates directly to the claims made for succinic acid. Succinic acid is made in the body (and in plants) as part of the citric acid cycle (aka krebs cylce). It is also use in the food and beverage industry as a food acid (additive #363 to be precise). Interestingly in this capacity there are recommendations from some quarters to avoid the substance. Even so, apart from it’s early use as a topical treatment for rheumatic pain there is no evidence that I could find (searching Pubmed at least, where I would expect a decent study to be referenced) that it is effective as either an anti-inflammatory or general analgesic. Let me be clear on that, I don’t mean low quality evidence, I don’t mean small poorly designed trials with equivocal effects, I mean nothing. Zip. Nada. In fact if anyone knows of any let me know because I find this complete lack quite surprising, I’m open to the idea that I was looking in the wrong place or was using incorrect search terms. So, unless there is late breaking news, it fails on that count as well. Meh, what do we care about evidence of efficacy anyway? Throw this point out too. Lets move on to my final argument, uh, I mean point to consider.
Lets say that a. the beads do indeed release succinic acid into your baby and b. this succinic acid has an analgesic effect once it enters your baby’s body. Doesn’t the very fact that an unknown amount of a drug is being put into your baby’s body bother you? What is that I hear? It’s natural? Oh, well, that’s ok then. No wait, no it’s not. I don’t care what the origin of a compound is, the question is what are it’s effects on the body and do the benefits out weigh the risks. Ok, lets replace succinic acid with some other naturally occurring substance, salicylic acid. This is a compound with known anti-inflammatory properties. Would you be happy with a product that introduced unknown levels of this compound into your baby? What if I said that overdoses with this compound could lead to a 1% chance of death? It’s natural, it’s also the precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as Aspirin.
Now, lest I be accused of unnecessary fear mongering and drawing false comparisons I would like to admit that at present there is no evidence to suggest that succinic acid is hazardous, nor even that it is potentially hazardous. This does not detract from my main point however, the point isn’t whether this particular compound is safe or not but that the reasoning around it’s use is faulty and cannot be used as a substitute for evidence.
Based on the complete lack of plausibility on any level of efficacy any potential for harm, however small, must tip the balance of this equation away from the use of this product. Don’t trust me though, talk to your doctor, I suspect though that given the complete lack of reliable information on this topic they will be left to rely on their own philosophy of harm vs benefit. In the final analysis, there are not always clear answers, but developing good critical thinking skills will at least provide you with a small light in the darkness.
[Edit - I recently posted a follow-up article to this addressing some of the points raised in the comments below. It may be found Here]
[Update 20/07/12: Commenter Heidi Pogner-Schultz has provided a thoughtful and researched perspective in support of amber beads (here), I disagree for reasons outlined in my reply to her (here). But this is exactly the type of reasoned evidence I was looking for so I thank her for the contribution.]
[Update 29/4/13: Apparently there is a chain email circulating blaming amber beads for a case of SIDS, a visitor mentioned this in the polling comments. This seemed implausible to me and a very brief check seems to back up my gut feeling. There is no reason to think that amber beads contribute to SIDS at all. For a more thorough break-down go here: http://www.hoax-slayer.com/amber-teething-necklace-sids.shtml . I am not one who feels we need to latch onto any reason to vilify our intellectual opponents and spreading misinformation (especially easily debunked misinformation) is a big no-no in my book.]
[Update 2/12/13: Before commenting that you tried amber and now your baby isn't/doesn't/has less trouble "Y" you might want to read This to see what is actually associated with teething.]
[Update 14/4/14: Science Based Medicine finally covered the Amber Beads topic, see here.]
After reading the preceding post I wonder if you’d like to help me measure what sort of effect this research is having. Please indicate on the poll below your attitude to using Amber beads -
[Edit: Preliminary results from the poll - most consider their opinion unchanged, what a shock. Also the "Other" section is not for insults, if you wish to call me an idiot please do so in the comments of the post where you may be held up for ridicule.]
2. I found this paper that analysed the volatile out gassing of amber, succinic acid was not mentioned as an identified component. http://www.springerlink.com/content/865ku15055np3x78/
9. If it has biologic activity that can be used in a therapeutic fashion, it’s a drug, no quibbling on that point please.
13. ie “It’s got to be good, it’s natural.”. Don’t make me barf.
14. Who am I kidding, there are almost never clear answers. Who wants certainty anyway?
15. http://safekidspiercecounty.health.officelive.com/Documents/Choking%20and%20Suffocation%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf This is an american document but I don’t think necklaces become safer just because we’re in NZ.
16. http://www.nzchildren.co.nz/infant_mortality.php NZ infant mortality statistics.
- Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame? (Revisited) (sciencebasedmedicine.org)
- Herbal medicines (scepticon.wordpress.com)
- What is the Harm of Alternative Medicine? (scepticon.wordpress.com)
- Complexity and Health – A Rant (scepticon.wordpress.com)