MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pain

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: 

Acupuncture

Alexander technique

Aromatherapy

Autogenic training

Biofeedback

Chiropractic (spinal manipulation)

Copper bracelets

Craniosacral therapy

Crystal healing

Feldenkrais

Kinesiology (applied kinesiology)

Healing therapies

Hypnotherapy

Imagery

Magnet therapy (static magnets)

Massage

Meditation

Music therapy

Osteopathy (spinal manipulation)

Qigong (internal qigong)

Reflexology

Relaxation therapy

Shiatsu

Tai chi

Yoga 

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?

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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