The pro arguments essentially are the well-rehearsed points acupuncture-fans like to advance:
- Some guidelines do recommend acupuncture.
- Sham acupuncture is not a valid comparator.
- The largest meta-analysis shows a small effect.
- Acupuncture is not implausible.
- It improves quality of life.
Cummings concludes as follows: In summary, the pragmatic view sees acupuncture as a relatively safe and moderately effective intervention for a wide range of common chronic pain conditions. It has a plausible set of neurophysiological mechanisms supported by basic science.12 For those patients who choose it and who respond well, it considerably improves health related quality of life, and it has much lower long term risk for them than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It may be especially useful for chronic musculoskeletal pain and osteoarthritis in elderly patients, who are at particularly high risk from adverse drug reactions.
Our arguments are also not new; essentially, we stress that:
- The effects of acupuncture are too small to be clinically relevant.
- They are probably not even caused by acupuncture, but the result of residual bias.
- Pragmatic trials are of little value in defining efficacy.
- Acupuncture is not free of risks.
- Regular acupuncture treatments are expensive.
- There is no generally accepted, plausible mechanism.
We concluded that after decades of research and hundreds of acupuncture pain trials, including thousands of patients, we still have no clear mechanism of action, insufficient evidence for clinically worthwhile benefit, and possible harms. Therefore, doctors should not recommend acupuncture for pain.
Neither Asbjorn nor I have any conflicts of interests to declare.
Dr Cummings, by contrast, states that he is the salaried medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, which is a membership organisation and charity established to stimulate and promote the use and scientific understanding of acupuncture as part of the practice of medicine for the public benefit. He is an associate editor for Acupuncture in Medicine, published by BMJ. He has a modest private income from lecturing outside the UK, royalties from textbooks, and a partnership teaching veterinary surgeons in Western veterinary acupuncture. He has participated in a NICE guideline development group as an expert adviser discussing acupuncture. He has used Western medical acupuncture in clinical practice following a chance observation as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force in 1989.
My question to you is this: WHICH OF THE TWO POSITION IS THE MORE REASONABLE ONE?
Please, do let us know by posting a comment here, or directly at the BMJ article (better), or both (best).
“Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed.”
This is what I wrote in the ‘RULES’ of this blog when I first started it almost 4 years ago. Sadly, very few people writing comments observe this rule. Perhaps, I just thought, I did not observe it either? So, here are my conflicts of interest: none.
Not true!!! I hear some people say. But it is!
I have no financial interest in any ‘Big Pharma’ or ‘TINY CAM’, and I get not a penny for writing this blog.
How do I pay for my living? Mind your own business… well, on second thought, even that must not be a secret: I get a small pension and have some savings.
Still not convinced?
Perhaps it’s time to define what ‘conflicts of interests’ are. According to Wikipedia, they can be defined as situations in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial interest, or otherwise, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization.
So, not having financial benefits from my current work does not necessarily mean that I have no conflicts of interest. The above definitions vaguely mentions ‘or otherwise’ – and that could be important. What could this mean in the context of this blog?
Well, I might have very strong beliefs, for instance (for instance, very strong beliefs that acupuncture is by definition nonsense [see below]). We all know that strong beliefs can corrupt motivation (and a lot more). And if I ask myself, do you have strong beliefs?, I have to say: Yes, absolutely!
I believe that:
- good evidence is a prerequisite for progress in healthcare,
- good evidence must be established by rigorous research,
- we should not tolerate double standards in healthcare,
- patients deserve to be treated with the best available treatments,
- making therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence is wrong.
These strong beliefs might make me biased in the eyes of many who comment on this blog. In Particular, we recently had a bunch of acupuncturists who went on the rampage attacking me personally the best they could. However, a rational analysis of my beliefs can hardly produce evidence for bias against anything other than the promotion of unproven therapies to the unsuspecting public.
The above mentioned acupuncturists seem to think that I have always been against acupuncture for the sake of being against acupuncture. However, this is not true. The proof for this statement is very simple: I have published quite a bit of articles that concluded positively – even (WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?) about acupuncture for back pain! A prominently published meta-analysis of 2005 (with me as senior author) concluded: “Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain.” (This of course was 11 years ago when the evidence was, in fact, positive; today, this seems to have changed – just like the NICE guidelines [probably not a coincidence!])
Conflicts of interest? No, not on my side, I think.
But what about the ‘other side’?
The unruly horde of acupuncturists (no, this is not an ad hominem attack, it’s a fact) who recently made dozens of ad hominem attacks against me, what about them?
- They earn their money with acupuncture.
- They have invested in acupuncture training often for long periods of time.
- They have invested in practice equipment etc.
- Some of them sell books on acupuncture.
- Others run courses.
- And all of them very clearly and demonstrably have strong beliefs about acupuncture.
I think the latter point constitutes by far the most important conflict of interest in this context.
And this is where the somewhat trivial story has an unexpected twist and gets truly bizarre:
I have just leant that the same group of conflicted acupuncturists are now planning to publicly attack the panel of experts responsible for drafting the NICE guidelines. The reason? They feel that this panel had significant conflicts of interest that led them to come out against acupuncture.
Perhaps I should mention that I was not a member of this group, but I suspect that some of its members might have links to the pharmaceutical industry. It is almost impossible to find top experts in any area of medicine who do not have such links. You either gather experts with potential conflicts of interest, or you get non-experts without them. Would that bias them against acupuncture or any other alternative therapy? I very much doubt it.
What I do not doubt for a minute is that conflicts of interest are of major importance in these discussions. And by that I mean the more than obvious (but nevertheless undeclared) conflicts of interest of the acupuncturists. It seems that those with the strongest conflicts of interest shout the loudest about the non-existent or irrelevant conflict of interest of those who do not happen to share their quasi-religious belief in acupuncture.
On this blog, I have repeatedly pleaded for a change of the 2010 NICE guidelines for low back pain (LBP). My reason was that it had become quite clear that their recommendation to use spinal manipulation and acupuncture for recurrent LBP was no longer supported by sound evidence.
Two years ago, a systematic review (authored by a chiropractor and published in a chiro-journal) concluded that “there is no conclusive evidence that clearly favours spinal manipulation or exercise as more effective in treatment of CLBP.” A the time, I wrote a blog explaining that “whenever two treatments are equally effective (or, in this case, perhaps equally ineffective?), we must consider other important criteria such as safety and cost. Regular chiropractic care (chiropractors use spinal manipulation on almost every patient, while osteopaths and physiotherapists employ it less frequently) is neither cheap nor free of serious adverse effects such as strokes; regular exercise has none of these disadvantages. In view of these undeniable facts, it is hard not to come up with anything other than the following recommendation: until new and compelling evidence becomes available, exercise ought to be preferred over spinal manipulation as a treatment of chronic LBP – and consequently consulting a chiropractor should not be the first choice for chronic LBP patients.”
Three years ago, a systematic review of acupuncture for LBP (published in a TCM-journal) concluded that the effect of acupuncture “is likely to be produced by the nonspecific effects of manipulation.” At that time I concluded my blog-post with this question: Should NICE be recommending placebo-treatments and have the tax payer foot the bill? Now NICE have provided an answer.
The new draft guideline by NICE recommends various forms of exercise as the first step in managing low back pain. Massage and manipulation by a physiotherapist should only be used alongside exercise; there is not enough evidence to show they are of benefit when used alone. Moreover, patients should be encouraged to continue with normal activities as far as possible. Crucially, the draft guideline no longer recommends acupuncture for treating low back pain.
NICE concluded that the evidence shows that acupuncture is not better than sham treatment. Paracetamol on its own is no longer recommended either, instead non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin should be tried first. Talking therapies are recommended in combination with physical therapies for patients who had no improvement on previous treatments or who have significant psychological and social barriers to recovery.
Professor Mark Baker, clinical practice director for NICE, was quoted stating “Regrettably there is a lack of convincing evidence of effectiveness for some widely used treatments. For example acupuncture is no longer recommended for managing low back pain with or without sciatica. This is because there is not enough evidence to show that it is more effective than sham treatment.”
Good news for us all, I would say:
- good news for patients who now hear from an accepted authority what to do when they suffer from LBP,
- good news for society who does no longer need to spend vast amounts of money on questionable therapies,
- good news for responsible clinicians who now have clear guidance which they can show and explain to their patients.
Not so good news, I admit, for acupuncturists, chiropractors and osteopaths who just had a major source of their income scrapped. I have tried to find some first reactions from these groups but, for the moment, they seemed to be stunned into silence – nobody seems to have yet objected to the new guideline. Instead, I found a very recent website where chiropractic is not just recommended for LBP therapy but where patients are instructed that, even in the absence of pain, they need to see their chiropractor regularly: “Maintenance chiropractic care is well supported in studies for controlling chronic LBP.”
NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF YOUR CASH-FLOW…they seem to conclude.
The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.
In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.
For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.
In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labour
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:
- One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
- One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
- One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
- One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
- One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
- If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.
I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!
In 2010, NICE recommended acupuncture for chronic low back pain (cLBP). Acupuncturists were of course delighted; the British Acupuncture Council, for instance, stated that they fully support NICE’s (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) decision that acupuncture be made available on the NHS for chronic lower back pain. Traditional acupuncture has been used for over 2,000 years to alleviate back pain and British Acupuncture Council members have for many many years been successfully treating patients for this condition either in private practice or working within the NHS. In effect, therefore, these new guidelines are a rubber stamp of the positive work already being undertaken as well as an endorsement of the wealth of research evidence now available in this area.
More critical experts, however, tended to be surprised about this move and doubted that the evidence was strong enough for a positive recommendation. Now a brand-new meta-analysis sheds more light on this important issue.
Its aim was to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture as a therapy for cLBP. The authors found 13 RCTs which matched their inclusion criteria. Their results show that, compared with no treatment, acupuncture achieved better outcomes in terms of pain relief, disability recovery and better quality of life. These effects were, however, not observed when real acupuncture was compared to sham acupuncture. Acupuncture achieved better outcomes when compared with other treatments. No publication bias was detected.
The authors conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain, but this effect is likely to be produced by the nonspecific effects of manipulation.
In plain English, this means that the effects of acupuncture on cLBP are most likely due to placebo. Should NICE be recommending placebo-treatments and have the tax payer foot the bill? I think I can leave it to my readers to answer this question.
Musculoskeletal and rheumatic conditions, often just called “arthritis” by lay people, bring more patients to alternative practitioners than any other type of disease. It is therefore particularly important to know whether alternative medicines (AMs) demonstrably generate more good than harm for such patients. Most alternative practitioners, of course, firmly believe in what they are doing. But what does the reliable evidence show?
To find out, ‘Arthritis Research UK’ has sponsored a massive project lasting several years to review the literature and critically evaluate the trial data. They convened a panel of experts (I was one of them) to evaluate all the clinical trials that are available in 4 specific clinical areas. The results for those forms of AM that are to be taken by mouth or applied topically have been published some time ago, now the report, especially written for lay people, on those treatments that are practitioner-based has been published. It covers the following 25 modalities:
Chiropractic (spinal manipulation)
Kinesiology (applied kinesiology)
Magnet therapy (static magnets)
Osteopathy (spinal manipulation)
Qigong (internal qigong)
Our findings are somewhat disappointing: only very few treatments were shown to be effective.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, 24 trials were included with a total of 1,500 patients. The totality of this evidence failed to provide convincing evidence that any form of AM is effective for this particular condition.
For osteoarthritis, 53 trials with a total of ~6,000 patients were available. They showed reasonably sound evidence only for two treatments: Tai chi and acupuncture.
Fifty trials were included with a total of ~3,000 patients suffering from fibromyalgia. The results provided weak evidence for Tai chi and relaxation-therapies, as well as more conclusive evidence for acupuncture and massage therapy.
Low back pain had attracted more research than any of the other diseases: 75 trials with ~11,600 patients. The evidence for Alexander Technique, osteopathy and relaxation therapies was promising by not ultimately convincing, and reasonably good evidence in support of yoga and acupuncture was also found.
The majority of the experts felt that the therapies in question did not frequently cause harm, but there were two important exceptions: osteopathy and chiropractic. For both, the report noted the existence of frequent yet mild, as well as serious but rare adverse effects.
As virtually all osteopaths and chiropractors earn their living by treating patients with musculoskeletal problems, the report comes as an embarrassment for these two professions. In particular, our conclusions about chiropractic were quite clear:
There are serious doubts as to whether chiropractic works for the conditions considered here: the trial evidence suggests that it’s not effective in the treatment of fibromyalgia and there’s only little evidence that it’s effective in osteoarthritis or chronic low back pain. There’s currently no evidence for rheumatoid arthritis.
Our point that chiropractic is not demonstrably effective for chronic back pain deserves some further comment, I think. It seems to be in contradiction to the guideline by NICE, as chiropractors will surely be quick to point out. How can this be?
One explanation is that, since the NICE-guidelines were drawn up, new evidence has emerged which was not positive. The recent Cochrane review, for instance, concludes that spinal manipulation “is no more effective for acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy”
Another explanation could be that the experts on the panel writing the NICE-guideline were less than impartial towards chiropractic and thus arrived at false-positive or over-optimistic conclusions.
Chiropractors might say that my presence on the ‘Arthritis Research’-panel suggests that we were biased against chiropractic. If anything, the opposite is true: firstly, I am not even aware of having a bias against chiropractic, and no chiropractor has ever demonstrated otherwise; all I ever aim at( in my scientific publications) is to produce fair, unbiased but critical assessments of the existing evidence. Secondly, I was only one of a total of 9 panel members. As the following list shows, the panel included three experts in AM, and most sceptics would probably categorise two of them (Lewith and MacPherson) as being clearly pro-AM:
Professor Michael Doherty – professor of rheumatology, University of Nottingham
Professor Edzard Ernst – emeritus professor of complementary medicine, Peninsula Medical School
Margaret Fisken – patient representative, Aberdeenshire
Dr Gareth Jones (project lead) – senior lecturer in epidemiology, University of Aberdeen
Professor George Lewith – professor of health research, University of Southampton
Dr Hugh MacPherson – senior research fellow in health sciences, University of York
Professor Gary Macfarlane (chair of committee) – professor of epidemiology, University of Aberdeen
Professor Julius Sim – professor of health care research, Keele University
Jane Tadman – representative from Arthritis Research UK, Chesterfield
What can we conclude from all that? I think it is safe to say that the evidence for practitioner-based AMs as a treatment of the 4 named conditions is disappointing. In particular, chiropractic is not a demonstrably effective therapy for any of them. This, of course begs the question, for what condition is chiropractic proven to work! I am not aware of any, are you?