MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

hay fever

Clinical trials of acupuncture can be quite challenging. In particular, it is often difficult to make sure that any observed outcome is truly due to the treatment and not caused by some other factor(s). How tricky this can be, shows a recently published study.

A new RCT has all (well, almost all) the features of a rigorous study. It tested the effects of acupuncture in patients suffering from hay fever. The German investigators recruited 46 specialized physicians in 6 hospital clinics and 32 private outpatient clinics. In total, 422 patients with IgE sensitization to birch and grass pollen were randomized into three groups: 1) acupuncture plus rescue medication (RM) (n= 212), 2) sham acupuncture plus RM (n= 102), or 3) RM alone (n= 108). Twelve acupuncture sessions were provided in groups 1 and 2 over 8 weeks. The outcome measures included changes in the Rhinitis Quality of Life Questionnaire (RQLQ) overall score and the RM score (RMs) from baseline to weeks 7, 8 and 16 in the first year as well as week 8 in the second year after randomization.

Compared with sham acupuncture and with RM, acupuncture was associated with improvement in RQLQ score and RMS. There were no differences after 16 weeks in the first year. After the 8-week follow-up phase in the second year, small improvements favoring real acupuncture over  sham were noted.

Based on these results, the authors concluded that “acupuncture led to statistically significant improvements in disease-specific quality of life and antihistamine use measures after 8 weeks of treatment compared with sham acupuncture and with RM alone, but the improvements may not be clinically significant.

The popular media were full of claims that this study proves the efficacy of acupuncture. However, I am not at all convinced that this conclusion is not hopelessly over-optimistic.

It might not have been the acupuncture itself that led to the observed improvements; they could well have been caused by several factors unrelated to the treatment itself. To understand my concern, we need to look closer at the actual interventions employed by the investigators.

The real acupuncture was done on acupuncture points thought to be indicated for hay fever. The needling was performed as one would normally do it, and the acupuncturists were asked to treat the patients in  group 1 in such a way that they were likely to experience the famous ‘de-qi’ feeling.

The sham acupuncture, by contrast, was performed on non-acupuncture points; acupuncturists were asked to use shallow needling only and they were instructed to try not to produce ‘de-qi’.

This means that the following factors in combination or alone could have caused [and in my view probably did cause] the observed differences in outcomes between the acupuncture and the sham group:

1) verbal or non-verbal communication between the acupuncturists and the patient [previous trials have shown this factor to be of crucial importance]

2) the visibly less deep needling in the sham-group

3) the lack of ‘de-qi’ experience in the sham-group.

Sham-treatments in clinical trials serve the purpose of a placebo. They are thus meant to be indistinguishable from the verum. If that is not the case [as in the present study], the trial cannot be accepted as being patient-blind. If a trial is not patient-blind, the expectations of patients will most certainly influence the results.

Therefore I believe that the marginal differences noted in this study were not due to the effects of acupuncture per se, but were an artifact caused through de-blinding of the patients. De facto, neither the patients nor the acupuncturists were blinded in this study.

If that is true, the effects were not just not clinically relevant, as noted by the authors, they also had nothing to do with acupuncture. In other words, acupuncture is not of proven efficacy for this condition – a verdict which is also supported by our systematic review of the subject which concluded that “the evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture for the symptomatic treatment or prevention of allergic rhinitis is mixed. The results for seasonal allergic rhinitis failed to show specific effects of acupuncture…”

Once again, we have before us a study which looks impressive at first glance. At closer scrutiny, we find, however, that it had important design flaws which led to false positive results and conclusions. In my view, it would have been the responsibility of the authors to discuss these limitations in full detail and to draw conclusions that take them into account. Moreover, it would have been the duty of the peer-reviewers and journal editors to pick up on these points. Instead the editors even commissioned an accompanying editorial which displays an exemplary lack of critical thinking.

Having failed to do any of this, they are in my opinion all guilty of misleading the world media who reported extensively and often uncritically on this new study thus misleading us all. Sadly, the losers in this bonanza of incompetence are the many hay fever sufferers who will now be trying (and paying for) useless treatments.

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