MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Chinese studies

One could define alternative medicine by the fact that it is used almost exclusively for conditions for which conventional medicine does not have an effective and reasonably safe cure. Once such a treatment has been found, few patients would look for an alternative.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is certainly one such condition. Despite intensive research, we are still far from being able to cure it. It is thus not really surprising that AD patients and their carers are bombarded with the promotion of all sorts of alternative treatments. They must feel bewildered by the choice and all too often they fall victim to irresponsible quacks.

Acupuncture is certainly an alternative therapy that is frequently claimed to help AD patients. One of the first websites that I came across, for instance, stated boldly: acupuncture improves memory and prevents degradation of brain tissue.

But is there good evidence to support such claims? To answer this question, we need a systematic review of the trial data. Fortunately, such a paper has just been published.

The objective of this review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for treating AD. Eight electronic databases were searched from their inception to June 2014. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) with AD treated by acupuncture or by acupuncture combined with drugs were included. Two authors extracted data independently.

Ten RCTs with a total of 585 participants were included in a meta-analysis. The combined results of 6 trials showed that acupuncture was better than drugs at improving scores on the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) scale. Evidence from the pooled results of 3 trials showed that acupuncture plus donepezil was more effective than donepezil alone at improving the MMSE scale score. Only 2 trials reported the incidence of adverse reactions related to acupuncture. Seven patients had adverse reactions related to acupuncture during or after treatment; the reactions were described as tolerable and not severe.

The Chinese authors of this review concluded that acupuncture may be more effective than drugs and may enhance the effect of drugs for treating AD in terms of improving cognitive function. Acupuncture may also be more effective than drugs at improving AD patients’ ability to carry out their daily lives. Moreover, acupuncture is safe for treating people with AD.

Anyone reading this and having a friend or family member who is affected by AD will think that acupuncture is the solution and warmly recommend trying this highly promising option. I would, however, caution to remain realistic. Like so very many systematic reviews of acupuncture or other forms of TCM that are currently flooding the medical literature, this assessment of the evidence has to be taken with more than just a pinch of salt:

  • As far as I can see, there is no biological plausibility or mechanism for the assumption that acupuncture can do anything for AD patients.
  • The abstract fails to mention that the trials were of poor methodological quality and that such studies tend to generate false-positive findings.
  • The trials had small sample sizes.
  • They were mostly not blinded.
  • They were mostly conducted in China, and we know that almost 100% of all acupuncture studies from that country draw positive conclusions.
  • Only two trials reported about adverse effects which is, in my view, a sign of violation of research ethics.

As I already mentioned, we are currently being flooded with such dangerously misleading reviews of Chinese primary studies which are of such dubious quality that one could do probably nothing better than to ignore them completely.

Isn’t that a bit harsh? Perhaps, but I am seriously worried that such papers cause real harm:

  • They might motivate some to try acupuncture and give up conventional treatments which can be helpful symptomatically.
  • They might prompt some families to spend sizable amounts of money for no real benefit.
  • They might initiate further research into this area, thus drawing money away from research into much more promising avenues.

IT IS HIGH TIME THAT RESEARCHERS START THINKING CRITICALLY, PEER-REVIEWERS DO THEIR JOB PROPERLY, AND JOURNAL EDITORS STOP PUBLISHING SUCH MISLEADING ARTICLES.

Moxibustion is an ancient variation of acupuncture using  moxa made from dried mugwort (Artemisia argyi). It has long played an important role in the traditional heath care systems of China and other Asian countries. More recently, it has become popular also in the West. Practitioners use moxa sticks indirectly to warm acupuncture needles, or burn it close to the patient’s skin. Essentially, moxibustion is a treatment where acupuncture points are stimulated mainly or exclusively by the heat of burning moxa.

Because of moxibustion’s long history of usage and the fact that it is employed in many countries for a very wide range of conditions, some might argue that it has stood the ‘test of time’ and should be considered to be a well-established therapy. More critical thinkers would, however, point out that this is not an argument but a classical fallacy.

My team at Exeter regularly had research fellows from Korea and other Asian countries, and we managed to develop a truly productive cooperation. It enabled us to conduct systematic reviews including the Asian literature – and this is how we got involved in an unusual amount of research into moxibustion which, after all, is a fairly exotic alternative therapy. In 2010, we began a series of systematic reviews of moxibustion.

One of the first such articles included 9 RCTs testing the effectiveness of this treatment for stroke rehabilitation. Three RCTs reported favorable effects of moxibustion plus standard care on motor function versus standard care alone Three randomized clinical trials compared the effects of moxibustion on activities of daily living alone but failed to show favorable effects of moxibustion.

Also in 2010, our systematic review of RCTs of moxibustion as a treatment of ulcerative colitis (UC) concluded that current evidence is insufficient to show that moxibustion is an effective treatment of UC. Most of included trials had high risk of bias. More rigorous studies seem warranted.

Our (2010) systematic review od RCTs of moxibustion as a therapy in cancer care found that the evidence was limited to suggest moxibustion is an effective supportive cancer care in nausea and vomiting. However, all studies had a high risk of bias so effectively there was not enough evidence to draw any conclusion.

Our (2010) systematic review of RCTs of moxibustion for treating hypertension concluded that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that moxibustion is an effective treatment for hypertension.

Our (2010) systematic review of RCTs of moxibustion for constipation concluded as follows: Given that the methodological quality of all RCTs was poor, the results from the present review are insufficient to suggest that moxibustion is an effective treatment for constipation. More rigorous studies are warranted.

Our (2010) systematic review found few RCTs were available that test the effectiveness of moxibustion in the management of pain, and most of the existing trials had a high risk of bias. Therefore, more rigorous studies are required before the effectiveness of moxibustion for the treatment of pain can be determined.

Our (2011) systematic review of 14 RCTs of moxibustion for rheumatic conditions failed to provide conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of moxibustion compared with drug therapy in rheumatic conditions.

The, so far, last article in this series has only just been published. The purpose of this systematic review was to assess the efficacy of moxibustion as a treatment of chemotherapy-induced leukopenia. Twelve databases were searched from their inception through June 2014, without a language restriction. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) were included, if moxibustion was used as the sole treatment or as a part of a combination therapy with conventional drugs for leukopenia induced by chemotherapy. Cochrane criteria were used to assess the risk of bias.

Six RCTs with a total of 681 patients met our inclusion criteria. All of the included RCTs were associated with a high risk of bias. The trials included patients with various types of cancer receiving ongoing chemotherapy or after chemotherapy. The results of two RCTs suggested the effectiveness of moxibustion combined with chemotherapy vs. chemotherapy alone. In four RCTs, moxibustion was more effective than conventional drug therapy. Six RCTs showed that moxibustion was more effective than various types of control interventions in increasing white blood cell counts.

Our conclusion: there is low level of evidence based on these six trials that demonstrates the superiority of moxibustion over drug therapies in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced leukopenia. However, the number of trials, the total sample size, and the methodological quality are too low to draw firm conclusions. Future RCTs appear to be warranted.

Was all this research for nothing?

I know many people who would think so. However, I disagree. If nothing else, these articles demonstrated several facts quite clearly:

  • There is quite a bit of research even on the most exotic alternative therapy; sometimes one needs to look hard and include languages other than English.
  • Studies from China and other Asian counties very rarely report negative results; this fact casts a dark shadow on the credibility of such data.
  • The poor quality of trials in most areas of alternative medicine is lamentable and must be stimulus for researchers in this field to improve their act.
  • Authors of systematic reviews must resist the temptation to draw positive conclusions based on flawed primary data.
  • Moxibustion is a perfect example for demonstrating that the ‘test of time’ is no substitute for evidence.
  • As for moxibustion, it cannot currently be considered an evidence-based treatment for any condition.

Acupuncture seems to be as popular as never before – many conventional pain clinics now employ acupuncturists, for instance. It is probably true to say that acupuncture is one of the best-known types of all alternative therapies. Yet, experts are still divided in their views about this treatment – some proclaim that acupuncture is the best thing since sliced bread, while others insist that it is no more than a theatrical placebo. Consumers, I imagine, are often left helpless in the middle of these debates. Here are 7 important bits of factual information that might help you make up your mind, in case you are tempted to try acupuncture.

  1. Acupuncture is ancient; some enthusiast thus claim that it has ‘stood the test of time’, i. e. that its long history proves its efficacy and safety beyond reasonable doubt and certainly more conclusively than any scientific test. Whenever you hear such arguments, remind yourself that the ‘argumentum ad traditionem’ is nothing but a classic fallacy. A long history of usage proves very little – think of how long blood letting was used, even though it killed millions.
  2. We often think of acupuncture as being one single treatment, but there are many different forms of this therapy. According to believers in acupuncture, acupuncture points can be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Finally, some clinicians employ the traditional Chinese approach based on the assumption that two life forces are out of balance and need to be re-balanced, while so-called ‘Western’ acupuncturists adhere to the concepts of conventional medicine and claim that acupuncture works via scientifically explainable mechanisms that are unrelated to ancient Chinese philosophies.
  3. Traditional Chinese acupuncturists have not normally studied medicine and base their practice on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between yin and yang which has no basis in science. This explains why acupuncture is seen by traditional acupuncturists as a ‘cure all’ . In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological explanations as to how acupuncture might work. However, it is important to note that, even though they may appear plausible, these explanations are currently just theories and constitute no proof for the validity of acupuncture as a medical intervention.
  4. The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition affecting mankind; according to the more modern view, it is effective for a relatively small range of conditions only. On closer examination, the vast majority of these claims can be disclosed to be based on either no or very flimsy evidence. Once we examine the data from reliable clinical trials (today several thousand studies of acupuncture are available – see below), we realise that acupuncture is associated with a powerful placebo effect, and that it works better than a placebo only for very few (some say for no) conditions.
  5. The interpretation of the trial evidence is far from straight forward: most of the clinical trials of acupuncture originate from China, and several investigations have shown that very close to 100% of them are positive. This means that the results of these studies have to be taken with more than a small pinch of salt. In order to control for patient-expectations, clinical trials can be done with sham needles which do not penetrate the skin but collapse like miniature stage-daggers. This method does, however, not control for acupuncturists’ expectations; blinding of the therapists is difficult and therefore truly double (patient and therapist)-blind trials of acupuncture do hardly exist. This means that even the most rigorous studies of acupuncture are usually burdened with residual bias.
  6. Few acupuncturists warn their patients of possible adverse effects; this may be because the side-effects of acupuncture (they occur in about 10% of all patients) are mostly mild. However, it is important to know that very serious complications of acupuncture are on record as well: acupuncture needles can injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg.
  7. Given that, for the vast majority of conditions, there is no good evidence that acupuncture works beyond a placebo response, and that acupuncture is associated with finite risks, it seems to follow that, in most situations, the risk/benefit balance for acupuncture fails to be convincingly positive.

If you are pregnant, a ‘breech presentation’ is not good news. It occurs when the fetus presents ‘bottom-down’ in the uterus. There are three types:

  • Breech with extended legs (frank) – 85% of cases
  • Breech with fully flexed legs (complete)
  • Footling (incomplete) with one or both thighs extended

The significance of breech presentation is its association with higher perinatal mortality and morbidity when compared to cephalic presentations. This is due both to pre-existing congenital malformation, increased incidence of breech in premature deliveries and increased risk of intrapartum trauma or asphyxia. Caesarean section has been adopted as the ‘normal’ mode of delivery for term breech presentations in Europe and the USA, as the consensus is that this reduces the risk of birth-related complications.

But Caesarian section is also not a desirable procedure. Something far less invasive would be much more preferable, of course. This is where the TCM-practitioners come in. They claim they have the solution: moxibustion, i.e. the stimulation of acupuncture points by heat. But does it really work? Can it turn the fetus into the correct position?

This new study aimed to assess the efficacy of moxibustion (heating of the acupuncture needle with an igniting charcoal moxa stick) with acupuncture for version of breech presentations to reduce their rate at 37 weeks of gestation and at delivery. It was a randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind trial including 328 pregnant women recruited in a university hospital center between 33 4/7 and 35 4/7 weeks of gestation. Moxibustion with acupuncture or inactivated laser (placebo) treatment was applied to point BL 67 for 6 sessions. The principal endpoint was the percentage of fetuses in breech presentation at 37 2/7 weeks of gestation.

The results show that the percentage of fetuses in breech presentation at 37 2/7 weeks of gestation was not significantly different in both groups (72.0 in the moxibustion with acupuncture group compared with 63.4% in the placebo group).

The authors concluded that treatment by moxibustion with acupuncture was not effective in correcting breech presentation in the third trimester of pregnancy.

You might well ask why on earth anyone expected that stimulating an acupuncture point would turn a fetus in the mother’s uterus into the optimal position that carries the least risk during the process of giving birth. This is what proponents of this technique say about this approach:

During a TCM consultation to turn a breech baby the practitioner will take a comprehensive case history, make a diagnosis and apply the appropriate acupuncture treatment.  They will assess if moxibustion might be helpful. Practitioners will then instruct women on how to locate the appropriate acupuncture points and demonstrate how to safely apply moxa at home. The acupuncture point UB 67 is the primary point selected for use because it is the most dynamic point to activate the uterus.  Its forte is in turning malpositioned babies.  It is located on the outer, lower edge of both little toenails. According to TCM theory, moxa has a tonifying and warming effect which promotes movement and activity.  The nature of heat is also rising.  This warming and raising effect is utilised to encourage the baby to become more active and lift its bottom up in order to gain adequate momentum to summersault into the head down position. This technique can also be used to reposition transverse presentation, a situation where the baby’s has its shoulder or back pointing down, or is lying sideways across the abdomen.

Not convinced? I can’t say I blame you!

Clearly, we need to know what the totality of the most reliable evidence shows; and what better than a Cochrane review to inform us about it? Here is what it tells us:

Moxibustion was not found to reduce the number of non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with no treatment (P = 0.45). Moxibustion resulted in decreased use of oxytocin before or during labour for women who had vaginal deliveries compared with no treatment (risk ratio (RR) 0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.13 to 0.60). Moxibustion was found to result in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with acupuncture (RR 0.25, 95% CI 0.09 to 0.72). When combined with acupuncture, moxibustion resulted in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth (RR 0.73, 95% CI 0.57 to 0.94), and fewer births by caesarean section (RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.98) compared with no treatment. When combined with a postural technique, moxibustion was found to result in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with the postural technique alone (RR 0.26, 95% CI 0.12 to 0.56).

In other words, there is indeed some encouraging albeit not convincing evidence! How can this be? There is no plausible explanation why this treatment should work!

But there is a highly plausible explanation why the results of many of the relevant trials are false-positive thus rendering a meta-analysis false-positive as well. I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog that practically all Chinese TCM-studies report (false) positive results; and many of the studies included in this review were done in China. The Cochrane review provides a strong hint about the lack of rigor in its ‘plain language summary’:

The included trials were of moderate methodological quality, sample sizes in some of the studies were small, how the treatment was applied differed and reporting was limited. While the results were combined they should be interpreted with caution due to the differences in the included studies. More evidence is needed concerning the benefits and safety of moxibustion.

So, would I recommend moxibustion for breech conversion? I don’t think so!

Imagine an area of therapeutics where 100% of all findings of hypothesis-testing research is positive, i.e. comes to the conclusion that the treatment in question is effective. Theoretically, this could mean that the therapy is a miracle cure which is useful for every single condition in every single setting. But sadly, there are no miracle cures. Therefore something must be badly and worryingly amiss with the research in an area that generates 100% positive results.

Acupuncture is such an area; we and others have shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. In other words, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive – even more extreme: one does not need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the research has started. But you might not believe my research nor that of others. We might be chauvinist bastards who want to discredit Chinese science. In this case, you might perhaps believe Chinese researchers.

In this systematic review, all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. A total of 840 RCTs were found, including 727 RCTs comparing acupuncture with conventional treatment, 51 RCTs with no treatment controls, and 62 RCTs with sham-acupuncture controls. Among theses 840 RCTs, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The percentages of RCTs concealment of the information on withdraws or sample size calculations were 43.7%, 5.9%, 4.9%, 9.9%, and 1.7% respectively.

The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.

I applaud the authors’ courageous efforts to conduct this analysis, but I do not agree with their conclusion. The question why all Chinese acupuncture trials are positive has puzzled me since many years, and I have quizzed numerous Chinese colleagues why this might be so. The answer I received was uniformly that it would be very offensive for Chinese researchers to conceive a study that does not confirm the views held by their peers. In other words, acupuncture research in China is conducted to confirm the prior assumption that this treatment is effective. It seems obvious that this is an abuse of science which must cause confusion.

Whatever the reasons for the phenomenon, and we can only speculate about them, the fact has been independently confirmed several times and is now quite undeniable: acupuncture trials from China – and these constitute the majority of the evidence-base in this area – cannot be trusted. The only way to adequately deal with this problem that I can think of is to discard them outright.

The news that the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) positively affects cancer survival might come as a surprise to many readers of this blog; but this is exactly what recent research has suggested. As it was published in one of the leading cancer journals, we should be able to trust the findings – or shouldn’t we?

The authors of this new study used the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database to conduct a retrospective population-based cohort study of patients with advanced breast cancer between 2001 and 2010. The patients were separated into TCM users and non-users, and the association between the use of TCM and patient survival was determined.

A total of 729 patients with advanced breast cancer receiving taxanes were included. Their mean age was 52.0 years; 115 patients were TCM users (15.8%) and 614 patients were TCM non-users. The mean follow-up was 2.8 years, with 277 deaths reported to occur during the 10-year period. Multivariate analysis demonstrated that, compared with non-users, the use of TCM was associated with a significantly decreased risk of all-cause mortality (adjusted hazards ratio [HR], 0.55 [95% confidence interval, 0.33-0.90] for TCM use of 30-180 days; adjusted HR, 0.46 [95% confidence interval, 0.27-0.78] for TCM use of > 180 days). Among the frequently used TCMs, those found to be most effective (lowest HRs) in reducing mortality were Bai Hua She She Cao, Ban Zhi Lian, and Huang Qi.

The authors of this paper are initially quite cautious and use adequate terminology when they write that TCM-use was associated with increased survival. But then they seem to get carried away by their enthusiasm and even name the TCM drugs which they thought were most effective in prolonging cancer survival. It is obvious that such causal extrapolations are well out of line with the evidence they produced (oh, how I wished that journal editors would finally wake up to such misleading language!) .

Of course, it is possible that some TCM drugs are effective cancer cures – but the data presented here certainly do NOT demonstrate anything like such an effect. And before such a far-reaching claim is being made, much more and much better research would be necessary.

The thing is, there are many alternative and plausible explanations for the observed phenomenon. For instance, it is conceivable that users and non-users of TCM in this study differed in many ways other than their medication, e.g. severity of cancer, adherence to conventional therapies, life-style, etc. And even if the researchers have used clever statistical methods to control for some of these variables, residual confounding can never be ruled out in such case-control studies.

Correlation is not causation, they say. Neglect of this elementary axiom makes for very poor science – in fact, it produces dangerous pseudoscience which could, like in the present case, lead a cancer patient straight up the garden path towards a premature death.

Alternative medicine thrives in the realm of common chronic conditions which conventional medicine cannot cure and which respond well to treatment with placebos. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is such a condition, and IBS-sufferers who are often frustrated with the symptomatic relief conventional medicine has to offer are only too keen to try any therapy that promises help. There is hardly an alternative therapy which does not claim to be the solution to IBS-symptoms: herbal medicine, mind-body interventions, homeopathy (the subject of my next post), acupuncture, even ‘MOXIBUSTION‘.

Moxibustion is a derivative of acupuncture; instead of needles, this method employs heat to stimulate acupuncture points. Proponents believe that the effects of moxibustion are roughly equivalent to those of acupuncture but many acupuncturists feel that they are less powerful. One website explains: Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves the burning of mugwort, a small, spongy herb, to facilitate healing. Moxibustion has been used throughout Asia for thousands of years; in fact, the actual Chinese character for acupuncture, translated literally, means “acupuncture-moxibustion.” The purpose of moxibustion, as with most forms of traditional Chinese medicine, is to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi, and maintain general health.

Many proponents of moxibustion claim that their treatment works for IBS. The evidence is, however, far less clear. Two recent meta-analyses might tell us more.

The first systematic review and meta-analysis was published by Korean researchers and aimed at critically evaluating the current evidence on moxibustion for improving global symptoms of IBS. The authors conducted extensive searches and found a total of 20 RCTs to be included in their analyses. The risk of bias in these studies was generally high. Compared with pharmacological medications, moxibustion significantly alleviated overall IBS symptoms but there was a moderate inconsistency among the 7 RCTs. Moxibustion combined with acupuncture was more effective than pharmacological therapy but a moderate inconsistency among the 4 studies was found. When moxibustion was added to pharmacological medications or herbal medicine, no additive benefit of moxibustion was shown compared with pharmacological medications or herbal medicine alone. One small sham-controlled trial found no difference between moxibustion and sham control in symptom severity. Moxibustion appeared to be associated with few adverse events but the evidence is limited due to poor reporting.

The authors concluded that moxibustion may provide benefit to IBS patients although the risk of bias in the included studies is relatively high. Future studies are necessary to confirm whether this finding is reproducible in carefully-designed and conducted trials and to firmly establish the place of moxibustion in current practice.

The way I see it, these conclusions are far too optimistic. There was only one RCT that controlled for placebo-effects, and the results of that study were negative. Thus I would conclude that some studies report effectiveness of moxibustion for IBS, yet the effects seem not to be caused by the treatment per se but are most likely due to a placebo-effect.

The second systematic review and meta-analysis was published by Chinese researchers and aimed at evaluating the clinical efficacy and safety of moxibustion and acupuncture in treatment of IBS. The authors included randomized and quasi-randomized clinical trials in their analyses and were able to include 11 trials. Their meta analysis suggests that the effectiveness of the combined methods of acupuncture and moxibustion is superior to conventional western medication treatment. The authors concluded that acupuncture-moxibustion for IBS is better than the conventional western medication treatment.

While the first meta-analysis was at least technically sound, the second seems to have too many flaws to mention: the search methodology was flimsy, many available studies were not included, their risk of bias was not assessed critically, the conclusions are based more on wishful thinking than on the available data, etc.

If we consider that moxibustion is a method of stimulating acupoints, we have to assume that it can at best be as effective as acupuncture, quite possibly slightly less. Thus it is relevant to see what the evidence tells us about acupuncture for IBS. The current Cochrane review of acupuncture for IBS shows that sham-controlled RCTs have found no benefits of acupuncture relative to a credible sham acupuncture control for IBS symptom severity or IBS-related quality of life.

I think I rest my case.

This post has an odd title and addresses an odd subject. I am sure some people reading it will ask themselves “has he finally gone potty; is he a bit xenophobic, chauvinistic, or what?” I can assure you none of the above is the case.

Since many years, I have been asked to peer-review Chinese systematic reviews and meta-analyses of TCM-trials submitted to various journals and to the Cochrane Collaboration for publication, and I estimate that around 300 such articles are available today. Initially, I thought they were a valuable contribution to our knowledge, particularly for the many of us who cannot read Chinese languages. I hoped they might provide reliable information about this huge and potentially important section of the TCM-evidence. After doing this type of work for some time, I became more and more frustrated; now I have decided not to accept this task any longer – not because it is too much trouble, but because I have come to the conclusion that these articles are far less helpful than I had once assumed; in fact, I now fear that they are counter-productive.

In order to better understand what I mean, it might be best to use an example; this recent systematic review seems as good for that purpose as any.

Its Chinese authors “hypothesized that the eligible trials would provide evidence of the effect of Chinese herbs on bone mineral density (BMD) and the therapeutic benefits of Chinese medicine treatment in patients with bone loss. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were thus retrieved for a systematic review from Medline and 8 Chinese databases. The authors identified 12 RCTs involving a total of 1816 patients. The studies compared Chinese herbs with placebo or standard anti-osteoporotic therapy. The pooled data from these RCTs showed that the change of BMD in the spine was more pronounced with Chinese herbs compared to the effects noted with placebo. Also, in the femoral neck, Chinese herbs generated significantly higher increments of BMD compared to placebo. Compared to conventional anti-osteoporotic drugs, Chinese herbs generated greater BMD changes.

In their abstract, the part on the paper that most readers access, the authors reached the following conclusions: “Our results demonstrated that Chinese herb significantly increased lumbar spine BMD as compared to the placebo or other standard anti-osteoporotic drugs.” In the article itself, we find this more detailed conclusion: “We conclude that Chinese herbs substantially increased BMD of the lumbar spine compared to placebo or anti-osteoporotic drugs as indicated in the current clinical reports on osteoporosis treatment. Long term of Chinese herbs over 12 months of treatment duration may increase BMD in the hip more effectively. However, further studies are needed to corroborate the positive effect of increasing the duration of Chinese herbs on outcome as the results in this analysis are based on indirect comparisons. To date there are no studies available that compare Chinese herbs, Chinese herbs plus anti-osteoporotic drugs, and anti-osteoporotic drug versus placebo in a factorial design. Consequently, we are unable to draw any conclusions on the possible superiority of Chinese herbs plus anti-osteoporotic drug versus anti-osteoporotic drug or Chinese herb alone in the context of BMD.

Most readers will feel that this evidence is quite impressive and amazingly solid; they might therefore advocate routinely using Chinese herbs for the common and difficult to treat problem of osteoporosis. The integration of TCM might avoid lots of human suffering, prolong the life of many elderly patients, and save us all a lot of money. Why then am I not at all convinced?

The first thing to notice is the fact that we do not really know which of the ~7000 different Chinese herbs should be used. The article tells us surprisingly little about this crucial point. And even, if we manage to study this question in more depth, we are bound to get thoroughly confused; there are simply too many herbal mixtures and patent medicines to easily identify the most promising candidates.

The second and more important hurdle to making sense of these data is the fact that most of the primary studies originate from inaccessible Chinese journals and were published in Chinese languages which, of course, few people in the West can understand. This is entirely our fault, some might argue, but it does mean that we have to believe the authors, take their words at face value, and cannot check the original data. You may think this is fine, after all, the paper has gone through a rigorous peer-review process where it has been thoroughly checked by several top experts in the field. This, however, is a fallacy; like you and me, the peer-reviewers might not read Chinese either! (I don’t, and I reviewed quite a few of these papers; in some instances, I even asked for translations of the originals to do the job properly but this request was understandably turned down) In all likelihood, the above paper and most similar articles have not been properly peer-reviewed at all.

The third and perhaps most crucial point can only be fully appreciated, if we were able to access and understand the primary studies; it relates to the quality of the original RCTs summarised in such systematic reviews. The abstract of the present paper tells us nothing at all about this issue. In the paper, however, we do find a formal assessment of the studies’ risk of bias which shows that the quality of the included RCTs was poor to very poor. We also find a short but revealing sentence: “The reports of all trials mentioned randomization, but only seven described the method of randomization.” This remark is much more significant than it may seem: we have shown that such studies use such terminology in a rather adventurous way; reviewing about 2000 of these allegedly randomised trials, we found that many Chinese authors call a trial “randomised” even in the absence of a control group (one cannot randomise patients and have no control group)! They seem to like the term because it is fashionable and makes publication of their work easier. We thus have good reason to fear that some/many/most of the studies were not RCTs at all.

The fourth issue that needs mentioning is the fact that very close to 100% of all Chinese TCM-trials report positive findings. This means that either TCM is effective for every indication it is tested for (most unlikely, not least because there are many negative non-Chinese trials of TCM), or there is something very fundamentally wrong with Chinese research into TCM. Over the years, I have had several Chinese co-workers in my team and was invariably impressed by their ability to work hard and efficiently; we often discussed the possible reasons for the extraordinary phenomenon of 0% negative Chinese trials. The most plausible answer they offered was this: it would be most impolite for a Chinese researcher to produce findings which contradict the opinion of his/her peers.

In view of these concerns, can we trust the conclusions of such systematic reviews? I don’t think so – and this is why I have problems with research of this nature. If there are good reasons to doubt their conclusions, these reviews might misinform us systematically, they might not further but hinder progress, and they might send us up the garden path. This could well be in the commercial interest of the Chinese multi-billion dollar TCM-industry, but it would certainly not be in the interest of patients and good health care.

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.

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