MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

acupuncture

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Still in the spirit of ACUPUNCTURE AWARENESS WEEK, I have another critical look at a recent paper. If you trust some of the conclusions of this new article, you might think that acupuncture is an evidence-based treatment for coronary heart disease. I think this would be a recipe for disaster.

This condition affects millions and eventually kills a frighteningly large percentage of the population. Essentially, it is caused by the fact that, as we get older, the blood vessels supplying the heart also change, become narrower and get partially or even totally blocked. This causes lack of oxygen in the heart which causes pain known as angina pectoris. Angina is a most important warning sign indicating that a full blown heart attack might be not far.

The treatment of coronary heart disease consists in trying to let more blood flow through the narrowed coronaries, either by drugs or by surgery. At the same time, one attempts to reduce the oxygen demand of the heart, if possible. Normalisation of risk factors like hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia are key preventative strategies. It is not immediate clear to me how acupuncture might help in all this – but I have been wrong before!

The new meta-analysis included 16 individual randomised clinical trials. All had a high or moderate risk of bias. Acupuncture combined with conventional drugs (AC+CD) turned out to be superior to conventional drugs alone in reducing the incidence of acute myocardial infarction (AMI). AC+CD was superior to conventional drugs in reducing angina symptoms as well as in improving electrocardiography (ECG). Acupuncture by itself was also superior to conventional drugs for angina symptoms and ECG improvement. AC+CD was superior to conventional drugs in shortening the time to onset of angina relief. However, the time to onset was significantly longer for acupuncture treatment than for conventional treatment alone.

From these results, the authors [who are from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Sichuan, China] conclude that “AC+CD reduced the occurrence of AMI, and both acupuncture and AC+CD relieved angina symptoms and improved ECG. However, compared with conventional treatment, acupuncture showed a longer delay before its onset of action. This indicates that acupuncture is not suitable for emergency treatment of heart attack. Owing to the poor quality of the current evidence, the findings of this systematic review need to be verified by more RCTs to enhance statistical power.”

As in the meta-analysis discussed in my previous post, the studies are mostly Chinese, flawed, and not obtainable for an independent assessment. As in the previous article, I fail to see a plausible mechanism by which acupuncture might bring about the effects. This is not just a trivial or coincidental observation – I could cite dozens of systematic reviews for which the same criticism applies.

What is different, however, from the last post on gout is simple and important: if you treat gout with a therapy that is ineffective, you have more pain and eventually might opt for an effective one. If you treat coronary heart disease with a therapy that does not work, you might not have time to change, you might be dead.

Therefore I strongly disagree with the authors of this meta-analysis; “the findings of this systematic review need NOT to be verified by more RCTs to enhance statistical power” — foremost, I think, the findings need to be interpreted with much more caution and re-written. In fact, the findings show quite clearly that there is no good evidence to use acupuncture for coronary heart disease. To pretend otherwise is, in my view, not responsible.

There might be an important lesson here: A SEEMINGLY SLIGHT CORRECTION OF CONCLUSIONS OF SUCH SYSTEMATIC REVIEWS MIGHT SAVE LIVES.

This week is acupuncture awareness week, and I will use this occasion to continue focusing on this therapy. This first time ever event is supported by the British Acupuncture Council who state that it aims to “help better inform people about the ancient practice of traditional acupuncture. With 2.3 million acupuncture treatments carried out each year, acupuncture is one of the most popular complementary therapies practised in the UK today.

Right, let’s inform people about acupuncture then! Let’s show them that there is often more to acupuncture research than meets the eye.

My team and I have done lots of research into acupuncture and probably published more papers on this than any other subject. We had prominent acupuncturists on board from the UK, Korea, China and Japan, we ran conferences, published books and are proud to have been innovative and productive in our multidisciplinary research. But here I do not intend to dwell on our own achievements, rather I will highlight several important new papers in this area.

Korean authors just published a meta-analysis to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture as  therapy for gouty arthritis. Ten RCTs involving 852 gouty arthritis patients were included. Six studies of 512 patients reported a significant decrease in uric acid in the treatment group compared with a control group, while two studies of 120 patients reported no such effect. The remaining four studies of 380 patients reported a significant decrease in pain in the treatment group.

The authors conclude “that acupuncture is efficacious as complementary therapy for gouty arthritis patients”.

We should be delighted with such a positive and neat result! Why then do I hesitate and have doubts?

I believe that this paper reveals several important issues in relation to systematic reviews of Chinese acupuncture trials and studies of other TCM interventions. In fact, this is my main reason for discussing the new meta-analysis here. The following three points are crucial, in my view:

1) All the primary studies were from China, and 8 of the 10 were only available in Chinese.

2) All of them had major methodological flaws.

3) It has been shown repeatedly that all acupuncture-trials from China are positive.

Given this situation, the conclusions of any review for which there are only Chinese acupuncture studies might as well be written before the actual research has started. If the authors are pro-acupuncture, as the ones of the present article clearly are, they will conclude that “acupuncture is efficacious“. If the research team has some critical thinkers on board, the same evidence will lead to an entirely different conclusion, such as “due to the lack of rigorous trials, the evidence is less than compelling.

Systematic reviews are supposed to be the best type of evidence we currently have; they are supposed to guide therapeutic decisions. I find it unacceptable that one and the same set of data could be systematically analysed to generate such dramatically different outcomes. This is confusing and counter-productive!

So what is there to do? How can we prevent being misled by such articles? I think that medical journals should refuse to publish systematic reviews which so clearly lack sufficient critical input. I also believe that reviewers of predominantly Chinese studies should provide English translations of these texts so that they can be independently assessed by those who are not able to read Chinese – and for the sake of transparency, journal editors should insist on this point.

And what about the value of acupuncture for gouty arthritis? I think I let the readers draw their own conclusion.

Everyone knows, I think, that smoking is bad for our health. Why then do so many of us still smoke? Because smoking is addictive – and addictions are, by definition, far from easy to get rid of. Many smokers try acupuncture, and acupuncturists are making a ‘pretty penny’ on the assumption that  their treatment is an effective way to stop the habit. But what does the best evidence tell us?

A new randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial with 125 smokers was conducted to determine whether ear acupuncture with electrical stimulation (auriculotherapy) once a week for 5 consecutive weeks is more effective than sham treatment.

The results showed that there was no difference in the rate of smoking cessation between the two groups. After 6 weeks, the auriculotherapy group achieved a rate of 20.9% abstinence which was not significantly different from the 17.9% in the sham group.

The authors  of this study concluded that “the results … do not support the use of auriculotherapy to assist with smoking  cessation. It is possible that a longer treatment duration, more frequent sessions, or other modifications of the intervention       protocol used in this study may result in a different outcome. However, based on the results of this study, there is no evidence that auriculotherapy is superior to placebo when offered once a week for 5 weeks, as described in previous uncontrolled studies.”

Of course, they are correct to state that, theoretically, a different treatment regimen might have generated different outcomes. But how likely is that in reality?

To answer this question, we might consult the Cochrane review on the subject (which incidentally is close to my heart: I initiated it many years ago and was its senior author until it was plagiarised by my former co-worker and my name was replaced by that of his new boss [never a dull day in alternative medicine research!]).

The latest version of this article concludes that “there is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further, well designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions

This is a very, very (yes, I meant very, very) odd conclusion, I think. If I had still been an author of this plagiarised paper, I would have suggested something a little more straightforward: 33 studies of various types of acupuncture for smoking cessation are currently available (if we include the new trial, the number is 34). The totality of this evidence fails to show that acupuncture is effective. Therefore acupuncture should NOT be considered a valid option for this indication.

Acupuncture remains a highly controversial treatment: its mechanism of action is less than clear and the clinical results are equally unconvincing. Of course, one ought to differentiate between different conditions; the notion that acupuncture is a panacea is most certainly nonsense.

In many countries, acupuncture is being employed mostly in the management of pain, and it is in this area where the evidence is perhaps most encouraging. Yet, even here the evidence from the most rigorous clinical trials seems to suggest that much, if not all of the effects of acupuncture might be due to placebo.

Moreover, we ought to be careful with generalisations and ask what type of pain? One very specific pain is that caused by aromatase inhibitors (AI), a medication frequently prescribed to women suffering from breast cancer. Around 50 % of these patients complain of AI-associated musculoskeletal symptoms (AIMSS) and 15 % discontinue treatment because of these complaints. So, can acupuncture help these women?

A recent randomised, sham-controlled trial tested whether acupuncture improves AIMSS. Postmenopausal women with early stage breast cancer, experiencing AIMSS were randomized to eight weekly real or sham acupuncture sessions. The investigators evaluated changes in the Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability Index (HAQ-DI) and pain visual analog scale (VAS). Serum estradiol, β-endorphin, and proinflammatory cytokine concentrations were also measured pre and post-intervention. In total, 51 women were enrolled of whom 47 were evaluable (23 randomized to real and 24 to sham acupuncture).

Baseline characteristics turned out to be balanced between groups with the exception of a higher HAQ-DI score in the real acupuncture group. The results failed to show a statistically significant difference in reduction of HAQ-DI or VAS between the two groups. Following eight weekly treatments, a significant reduction of IL-17 was noted in both groups. No significant modulation was seen in estradiol, β-endorphin, or other proinflammatory cytokine concentrations in either group. No difference in AIMSS changes between real and sham acupuncture was seen.

Even though this study was not large, it was rigorously executed and well-reported. As many acupuncturists claim that their treatment alleviates pain and as many women suffering from AM-induced pain experience benefit, acupuncture advocates will nevertheless claim that the findings of this study are wrong, misleading or irrelevant. The often remarkable discrepancy between experience and evidence will again be the subject of intense discussions. How can a tiny trial overturn the experience of so many?

The answer is: VERY EASILY! In fact, the simplest explanation is that both are correct. The trial was well-done and its findings are thus likely to be true. The experience of patients is equally true – yet it relies not on the effects of acupuncture per se, but on the context in which it is given. In simple language, the effects patients experience after acupuncture are due to a placebo-response.

This is the only simple explanation which tallies with both the evidence and the experience. Once we think about it carefully, we realise that acupuncture is highly placebo-genic:

It is exotic.

It is invasive.

It is slightly painful.

It involves time with a therapist.

It involves touch.

If anyone had the task to develop a treatment that maximises placebo-effects, he could not come up with a better intervention!

Ahhh, will acupuncture-fans say, this means that acupuncture is a helpful therapy. I don’t care how it works, as long as it does help. Did we not just cover this issues in some detail? Indeed we did –  and I do not feel like re-visiting the three fallacies which underpin this sentence again.

According to Wikipedia, Gua sha involves repeated pressured strokes over lubricated skin with a smooth edge placed against the pre-oiled skin surface, pressed down firmly, and then moved downwards along muscles or meridians.This intervention causes bleeding from capillaries and sub-cutaneous blemishing which usually last for several days. According to a recent article on Gua Sha, it is a traditional healing technique popular in Asia and Asian immigrant communities involving unidirectional scraping and scratching of the skin until ‘Sha-blemishes’ appear.

Gua Sha paractitioners make far-reaching therapeutic claims, e.g.” Gua Sha is used whenever a patient has pain whether associated with an acute or chronic disorder… In addition to resolving musculo skeletal pain, Gua Sha is used to treat as well as prevent common cold, flu, bronchitis, asthma, as well as any chronic disorder involving pain, congestion of Qi and Blood“. Another source informs us that ” Gua Sha is performed to treat systemic toxicity, poor circulation, physical and  emotional stress, and migraines. Gua Sha healing promotes the flow of Qi  (energy) and blood throughout the body for overall health“.

Gua Sha “blemishes” can look frightful – more like the result of torture than of treatment. Yet with our current craze for all things exotic in medicine, Gua Sha is becoming popular also in Western countries. One German team has even published several RCTs of Gua Sha.

This group treated 40 patients with neck pain either with Gua Sha or locally applied heat packs. They found that, after one week, the pain was significantly reduced in the former compared to the latter group. The same team also published a study with 40 back or neck-pain patients who either received a single session of Gua Sha or were left untreated. The results indicate that one week later, the treated patients had less pain than the untreated ones.

My favoutite article on the subject must be a case report by the same German research team. It describes a woman suffering from chronic headaches. She was treated with a range of interventions, including Gua Sha – and her symptoms improved. From this course of events, the authors conclude that “this case provides first evidence that Gua Sha is effective in the treatment of headaches”

The truth, of course, is that neither this case nor the two RCTs provide any good evidence at all. The case-report is, in fact, a classic example of drawing hilariously over-optimistic conclusions from data that are everything but conclusive. And the two RCTs  just show how remarkable placebo-effects can be, particularly if the treatment is exotic, impressive, involves physical touch, is slightly painful and raises high expectations.

My explanation for the observed effects after Gua Sha is quite simple: imagine you have a headache and accidentally injure yourself – say you fall off your bike and the tarmac scrapes off an area of skin on your thigh. This hurts quite a bit and distracts you from your headache, perhaps even to such an extend that you do not feel it any more. As the wound heals, it gets a bit infected and thus hurts for several days; chances are that your headache will be gone for that period of time. Of course, the Gua Sha- effect would be larger because the factors mentioned above (exotic treatment, expectation etc.) but essentially the accident and the treatment work via similar mechanisms, namely distraction and counter-irritation. And neither Gua Sha nor injuring yourself on the tarmac are truly recommendable therapies, in my view.

But surely, for the patient, it does not matter how she gets rid of her headache! The main point is that Gua Sha works! In a way, this attitude is understandable – except, we do not need the hocus pocus of meridians, qi, TCM, ancient wisdom etc. nor do we need to tolerate claims that Gua Sha is “serious medicine” and has any specific effects whatsoever. All we do need is to apply some common sense and then use any other method of therapeutic counter-irritation; that might be more honest, safer and would roughly do the same trick.

No, I am wrong! I forgot something important: it would not be nearly as lucrative for the TCM-practitioner.

Would it not be nice to have a world where everything is positive? No negative findings ever! A dream! No, it’s not a dream; it is reality, albeit a reality that exists mostly in the narrow realm of alternative medicine research. Quite a while ago, we have demonstrated that journals of alternative medicine never publish negative results. Meanwhile, my colleagues investigating acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic etc. seem to have perfected their strategy of avoiding the embarrassment of a negative finding.

Since several years, researchers in this field have adopted a study-design which is virtually sure to generate nothing but positive results. It is being employed widely by enthusiasts of placebo-therapies, and it is easy to understand why: it allows them to conduct seemingly rigorous trials which can impress decision-makers and invariably suggests even the most useless treatment to work wonders.

One of the latest examples of this type of approach is a trial where acupuncture was tested as a treatment of cancer-related fatigue. Most cancer patients suffer from this symptom which can seriously reduce their quality of life. Unfortunately there is little conventional oncologists can do about it, and therefore alternative practitioners have a field-day claiming that their interventions are effective. It goes without saying that desperate cancer victims fall for this.

In this new study, cancer patients who were suffering from fatigue were randomised to receive usual care or usual care plus regular acupuncture. The researchers then monitored the patients’ experience of fatigue and found that the acupuncture group did better than the control group. The effect was statistically significant, and an editorial in the journal where it was published called this evidence “compelling”.

Due to a cleverly over-stated press-release, news spread fast, and the study was celebrated worldwide as a major breakthrough in cancer-care. Finally, most commentators felt, research has identified an effective therapy for this debilitating symptom which affects so many of the most desperate patients. Few people seemed to realise that this trial tells us next to nothing about what effects acupuncture really has on cancer-related fatigue.

In order to understand my concern, we need to look at the trial-design a little closer. Imagine you have an amount of money A and your friend owns the same sum plus another amount B. Who has more money? Simple, it is, of course your friend: A+B will always be more than A [unless B is a negative amount]. For the same reason, such “pragmatic” trials will always generate positive results [unless the treatment in question does actual harm]. Treatment as usual plus acupuncture is more than treatment as usual, and the former is therefore moer than likely to produce a better result. This will be true, even if acupuncture is no more than a placebo – after all, a placebo is more than nothing, and the placebo effect will impact on the outcome, particularly if we are dealing with a highly subjective symptom such as fatigue.

I can be fairly confident that this is more than a theory because, some time ago, we analysed all acupuncture studies with such an “A+B versus B” design. Our hypothesis was that none of these trials would generate a negative result. I probably do not need to tell you that our hypothesis was confirmed by the findings of our analysis. Theory and fact are in perfect harmony.

You might say that the above-mentioned acupuncture trial does still provide important information. Its authors certainly think so and firmly conclude that “acupuncture is an effective intervention for managing the symptom of cancer-related fatigue and improving patients’ quality of life”. Authors of similarly designed trials will most likely arrive at similar conclusions. But, if they are true, they must be important!

Are they true? Such studies appear to be rigorous – e.g. they are randomised – and thus can fool a lot of people, but they do not allow conclusions about cause and effect; in other words, they fail to show that the therapy in question has led to the observed result.

Acupuncture might be utterly ineffective as a treatment of cancer-related fatigue, and the observed outcome might be due to the extra care, to a placebo-response or to other non-specific effects. And this is much more than a theoretical concern: rolling out acupuncture across all oncology centres at high cost to us all might be entirely the wrong solution. Providing good care and warm sympathy could be much more effective as well as less expensive. Adopting acupuncture on a grand scale would also stop us looking for a treatment that is truly effective beyond a placebo – and that surely would not be in the best interest of the patient.

I have seen far too many of those bogus studies to have much patience left. They do not represent an honest test of anything, simply because we know their result even before the trial has started. They are not science but thinly disguised promotion. They are not just a waste of money, they are dangerous – because they produce misleading results – and they are thus also unethical.

Is acupuncture an effective treatment for pain? This is a question which has attracted decades of debate and controversy. Proponents usually argue that it is supported by good clinical evidence, millennia of tradition and a sound understanding of the mechanisms involved. Sceptics, however, tend to be unimpressed and point out that the clinical evidence of proponents often is cherry-picked, that a long history of usage is fairly meaningless, and that the alleged mechanisms are tentative at best.

This discrepancy of opinions is confusing, particularly for lay people who might be tempted to try acupuncture. But it might vanish in the light of a new, comprehensive and unique evaluation of the clinical evidence.

An international team of acupuncture trialists published a meta-analysed of individual patient data to determine the analgesic effect of acupuncture compared to sham or non-acupuncture control for the following 4 chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, headache, and shoulder pain. Data from 29 RCTs, with an impressive total of 17 922 patients, were included.

The results of this new evaluation suggest that acupuncture is superior to both sham and no-acupuncture controls for each of these conditions. Patients receiving acupuncture had less pain, with scores that were 0.23 (95% CI, 0.13-0.33), 0.16 (95% CI, 0.07-0.25), and 0.15 (95% CI, 0.07-0.24) SDs lower than those of sham controls for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, and chronic headache, respectively; the effect sizes in comparison to no-acupuncture controls were 0.55 (95% CI, 0.51-0.58), 0.57 (95% CI, 0.50-0.64), and 0.42 (95% CI, 0.37-0.46) SDs.

Based on these findings, the authors reached the conclusion that “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture”.

Only hours after its publication, this new meta-analysis was celebrated by believers in acupuncture as the strongest evidence yet on the topic currently available. Much of the lay press followed in the same, disappointingly uncritical vein.The authors of the meta-analysis, most of whom are known enthusiasts of acupuncture, seem entirely sure that they have provided the most compelling proof to date for the effectiveness of acupuncture. But are they correct or are they perhaps the victims of their own devotion to this therapy?

Perhaps, a more sceptical view would be helpful – after all, even the enthusiastic authors of this article admit that, when compared to sham, the effect size of real acupuncture is too small to be clinically relevant. Therefore one might argue that this meta-analysis confirms what critics have suggested all along: acupuncture is not a useful treatment for clinical routine.

Unsurprisingly, the authors of the meta-analysis do their very best to play down this aspect. They reason that, for clinical routine, the comparison between acupuncture and non-acupuncture controls is more relevant than the one between acupuncture and sham. But this comparison, of course, includes placebo- and other non-specific effects masquerading as effects of acupuncture – and with this little trick ( which, by the way is very popular in alternative medicine), we can, of course, show that even sugar pills are effective.

I do not doubt that context effects are important in patient care; yet I do doubt that we need a placebo treatment for generating such benefit in our patients. If we administer treatments which are effective beyond placebo with kindness, time, compassion and empathy, our patients will benefit from both specific and non-specific effects. In other words, purely generating non-specific effects with acupuncture is far from optimal and certainly not in the interest of our patients. In my view, it cannot be regarded as not good medicine, and the authors’ conclusion referring to a “reasonable referral option” is more than a little surprising in my view.

Acupuncture-fans might argue that, at the very minimum, the new meta-analysis does demonstrate acupuncture to be statistically significantly better than a placebo. Yet I am not convinced that this notion holds water: the small residual effect-size in the comparison of acupuncture with sham might not be the result of a specific effect of acupuncture; it could be (and most likely is) due to residual bias in the analysed studies.

The meta-analysis is strongly driven by the large German trials which, for good reasons, were heavily and frequently criticised when first published. One of the most important potential drawbacks was that many participating patients were almost certainly de-blinded through the significant media coverage of the study while it was being conducted. Moreover, in none of these trials was the therapist blinded (the often-voiced notion that therapist-blinding is impossible is demonstrably false). Thus it is likely that patient-unblinding and the absence of therapist-blinding importantly influenced the clinical outcome of these trials thus generating false positive findings. As the German studies constitute by far the largest volume of patients in the meta-analysis, any of their flaws would strongly impact on the overall result of the meta-analysis.

So, has this new meta-analysis finally solved the decades-old question about the effectiveness of acupuncture? It might not have solved it, but we have certainly moved closer to a solution, particularly if we employ our faculties of critical thinking. In my view, this meta-analysis is the most compelling evidence yet to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain.

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