MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

placebo

1 2 3 5

This double-blind RCT aimed to test the efficacy of self-administered acupressure for pain and physical function in adults with knee osteoarthritis (KOA).

150 patients with symptomatic KOA participated and were randomized to

  1. verum acupressure,
  2. sham acupressure,
  3. or usual care.

Verum and sham, but not usual care, participants were taught to self-apply acupressure once daily, five days/week for eight weeks. Assessments were collected at baseline, 4 and 8 weeks. The numeric rating scale (NRS) for pain was administered during weekly phone calls. Outcomes included the WOMAC pain subscale (primary), the NRS and physical function measures (secondary). Linear mixed regression was conducted to test between group differences in mean changes from baseline for the outcomes at eight weeks.

Compared with usual care, both verum and sham participants experienced significant improvements in WOMAC pain, NRS pain and WOMAC function at 8 weeks. There were no significant differences between verum and sham acupressure groups in any of the outcomes.

The authors concluded that self-administered acupressure is superior to usual care in pain and physical function improvement for older people with KOA. The reason for the benefits is unclear and placebo effects may have played a role.

Another very odd conclusion!

The authors’ stated aim was to TEST THE EFFICACY OF ACUPRESSURE. To achieve this aim, they rightly compared it to a placebo (sham) intervention. This comparison did not show any differences between the two. Ergo, the only correct conclusion is that acupressure is a placebo.

I know, the authors (sort of) try to say this in their conclusions: placebo effects may have played a role. But surely, this is more than a little confusing. Placebo effects were quite evidently the sole cause of the observed outcomes. Is it ethical to confuse the public in this way, I wonder.

 

 

The aim of this pragmatic study was “to investigate the effectiveness of acupuncture in addition to routine care in patients with allergic asthma compared to treatment with routine care alone.”

Patients with allergic asthma were included in a controlled trial and randomized to receive up to 15 acupuncture sessions over 3 months plus routine care, or to a control group receiving routine care alone. Patients who did not consent to randomization received acupuncture treatment for the first 3 months and were followed as a cohort. All trial patients were allowed to receive routine care in addition to study treatment. The primary endpoint was the asthma quality of life questionnaire (AQLQ, range: 1–7) at 3 months. Secondary endpoints included general health related to quality of life (Short-Form-36, SF-36, range 0–100). Outcome parameters were assessed at baseline and at 3 and 6 months.

A total of 1,445 patients were randomized and included in the analysis (184 patients randomized to acupuncture plus routine care and 173 to routine care alone, and 1,088 in the nonrandomized acupuncture plus routine care group). In the randomized part, acupuncture was associated with an improvement in the AQLQ score compared to the control group (difference acupuncture vs. control group 0.7 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.5–1.0]) as well as in the physical component scale and the mental component scale of the SF-36 (physical: 2.5 [1.0–4.0]; mental 4.0 [2.1–6.0]) after 3 months. Treatment success was maintained throughout 6 months. Patients not consenting to randomization showed similar improvements as the randomized acupuncture group.

The authors concluded that in patients with allergic asthma, additional acupuncture treatment to routine care was associated with increased disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared to treatment with routine care alone.

We have been over this so many times (see for instance here, here and here) that I am almost a little embarrassed to explain it again: it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. The currently most popular way to achieve this aim in alternative medicine research is to do a ‘A+B versus B’ study, where A = the experimental treatment, and B = routine care. As A always amounts to more than nothing – in the above trial acupuncture would have placebo effects and the extra attention would also amount to something – A+B must always be more than B alone. The easiest way of thinking of this is to imagine that A and B are both finite amounts of money; everyone can understand that A+B must always be more than B!

Why then do acupuncture researchers not get the point? Are they that stupid? I happen to know some of the authors of the above paper personally, and I can assure you, they are not stupid!

So, why?

I am afraid there is only one reason I can think of: they know perfectly well that such an RCT can only produce a positive finding, and precisely that is their reason for conducting such a study. In other words, they are not using science to test a hypothesis, they deliberately abuse it to promote their pet therapy or hypothesis.

As I stated above, it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. Yet, it is arguably also unethical, perhaps even fraudulent, to do this. In my view, such RCTs amount to pseudoscience and scientific misconduct.

Acupuncture is little more than a theatrical placebo! If we confront an acupuncture fan with this statement, he/she is bound to argue that there are some indications for which the evidence is soundly positive. One of these conditions, they would claim, is nausea and vomiting. But how strong are these data? A new study sheds some light on this question.

The objective of this RCT was to evaluate if consumption of antiemetics and eating capacity differed between patients receiving verum acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or standard care only during radiotherapy. Patients were randomized to verum (n = 100) or sham (n = 100) acupuncture (telescopic blunt sham needle) (12 sessions) and registered daily their consumption of antiemetics and eating capacity. A standard care group (n = 62) received standard care only.

The results show that more patients in the verum and the sham acupuncture group did not need any antiemetic medications, as compared to the standard care group after receiving 27 Gray dose of radiotherapy. More patients in the verum and the sham acupuncture group were capable of eating as usual, compared to the standard care group. Patients receiving acupuncture had lower consumption of antiemetics and better eating capacity than patients receiving standard antiemetic care, plausible by nonspecific effects of the extra care during acupuncture.

The authors concluded that patients receiving acupuncture had lower consumption of antiemetics and better eating capacity than patients receiving standard antiemetic care, plausible by nonspecific effects of the extra care during acupuncture.

I find these conclusions odd because they seem to state that acupuncture was more effective than standard care. Subsequently – almost as an afterthought – they mention that its effects are brought about by nonspecific effects. This is grossly misleading, in my view.

The study was designed as a comparison between real and sham acupuncture, and the standard care group was not a randomised comparison group. Therefore, the main result and conclusion has to focus on the comparison between verum and sham acupuncture. This comparison shows that the two did not produce different result. Therefore, the study shows that acupuncture was not effective.

A much more reasonable conclusion would have been: THIS STUDY FAILED TO FIND SIGNIFICANT EFFECTS OF ACUPUNCTURE BEYOND PLACEBO.

‘Country News’ just published an article about our heir to the throne. Here is an excerpt:

The Prince of Wales has revealed he uses homeopathic treatments for animals on his organic farm at Highgrove to help reduce reliance on antibiotics, the article stated. He said his methods of farming tried wherever possible to ‘‘go with the grain of nature’’ to avoid dependency on antibiotics, pesticides and other forms of chemical intervention.

The prince made these comments to experts at a summit at the Royal Society in London as part of a global battle against the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. ‘‘In fact, it was one of the reasons I converted my farming operation to an organic, or agro-ecological, system over 30 years ago, and why incidentally we have been successfully using homeopathic — yes, homeopathic — treatments for my cattle and sheep as part of a program to reduce the use of antibiotics,’’ Prince Charles said. Calling for ‘‘urgent and coherent’’ global action, he said antibiotics were being overused. ‘‘It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that, as has been pointed out by many authorities, antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, as a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.’’

The prince continued: ‘‘I find it difficult to understand how we can continue to allow most of the antibiotics in farming, many of which are also used in human medicine, to be administered to healthy animals… Could we not devise more effective systems where we reserve antibiotics for treating animals where the use is fully justified by the seriousness of the illness?’’

END OF EXCERPT

Charles seems to have a few reasonable points her. Sadly he then spoils it all by not being able to resist his passion for quackery.

  • Yes, we have over-used antibiotics both in human and in veterinary medicine.
  • Yes, this has now gone so far that it now endangers our health.
  • Yes, it is a scandal that so little has happened in this respect, despite us knowing about the problem for many years.
  • No, homeopathy is not the solution to any of the above!!!

The Prince claims he has been ‘successfully using homeopathy’. This is nonsense, and he should know it. Highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos, and to use placebos for sick animals cannot be a good idea. For those who need the evidence for these (all too obvious) statements, here it is:

A recent systematic review assessed the efficacy of homeopathy in cattle, pigs and poultry. Only peer-reviewed publications dealing with homeopathic remedies, which could possibly replace or prevent the use of antibiotics in the case of infective diseases or growth promotion in livestock were included. Search results revealed a total number of 52 trials performed within 48 publications fulfilling the predefined criteria. Twenty-eight trials were in favour of homeopathy, with 26 trials showing a significantly higher efficacy in comparison to a control group, whereas 22 showed no medicinal effect. Cure rates for the treatments with antibiotics, homeopathy or placebo varied to a high degree, while the remedy used did not seem to make a big difference. No study had been repeated under comparable conditions. Consequently, the use of homeopathy cannot claim to have sufficient prognostic validity where efficacy is concerned. When striving for high therapeutic success in treatment, the potential of homeopathy in replacing or reducing antibiotics can only be validated if evidence of efficacy is confirmed by randomised controlled trials under modified conditions.

If we want to reduce antibiotics, we need to stop using them for situations where they are not necessary, and we must improve husbandry such that antibiotics are not required for disease prevention. To a large extent this is a question of educating those who are responsible for administering antibiotics. Education has to be rational and evidence-based. Homeopathy is irrational and believe-based.

Yet again, Prince Charles’ views turn out to be a hindrance to progress.

God save the Queen!

A new study published in JAMA investigated the long-term effects of acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture and being placed in a waiting-list control group for migraine prophylaxis. The trial was a 24-week randomized clinical trial (4 weeks of treatment followed by 20 weeks of follow-up). Participants were randomly assigned to 1) true acupuncture, 2) sham acupuncture, or 3) a waiting-list control group. The trial was conducted from October 2012 to September 2014 in outpatient settings at three clinical sites in China. Participants 18 to 65 years old were enrolled with migraine without aura based on the criteria of the International Headache Society, with migraine occurring 2 to 8 times per month.

Participants in the true acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups received treatment 5 days per week for 4 weeks for a total of 20 sessions. Participants in the waiting-list group did not receive acupuncture but were informed that 20 sessions of acupuncture would be provided free of charge at the end of the trial. Participants used diaries to record migraine attacks. The primary outcome was the change in the frequency of migraine attacks from baseline to week 16. Secondary outcome measures included the migraine days, average headache severity, and medication intake every 4 weeks within 24 weeks.

A total of 249 participants 18 to 65 years old were enrolled, and 245 were included in the intention-to-treat analyses. Baseline characteristics were comparable across the 3 groups. The mean (SD) change in frequency of migraine attacks differed significantly among the 3 groups at 16 weeks after randomization; the mean (SD) frequency of attacks decreased in the true acupuncture group by 3.2 (2.1), in the sham acupuncture group by 2.1 (2.5), and the waiting-list group by 1.4 (2.5); a greater reduction was observed in the true acupuncture than in the sham acupuncture group (difference of 1.1 attacks; 95% CI, 0.4-1.9; P = .002) and in the true acupuncture vs waiting-list group (difference of 1.8 attacks; 95% CI, 1.1-2.5; P < .001). Sham acupuncture was not statistically different from the waiting-list group (difference of 0.7 attacks; 95% CI, −0.1 to 1.4; P = .07).

The authors concluded that among patients with migraine without aura, true acupuncture may be associated with long-term reduction in migraine recurrence compared with sham acupuncture or assigned to a waiting list.

Note the cautious phraseology: “… acupuncture may be associated with long-term reduction …”

The authors were, of course, well advised to be so atypically cautious:

  • Comparisons to the waiting list group are meaningless for informing us about the specific effects of acupuncture, as they fail to control for placebo-effects.
  • Comparisons between real and sham acupuncture must be taken with a sizable pinch of salt, as the study was not therapist-blind and the acupuncturists may easily have influenced their patients in various ways to report the desired result (the success of patient-blinding was not reported but would have gone some way to solving this problem).
  • The effect size of the benefit is tiny and of doubtful clinical relevance.

My biggest concern, however, is the fact that the study originates from China, a country where virtually 100% of all acupuncture studies produce positive (or should that be ‘false-positive’?) findings and data fabrication has been reported to be rife. These facts do not inspire trustworthiness, in my view.

So, does acupuncture work for migraine? The current Cochrane review included 22 studies and its authors concluded that the available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long-term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking.

So, maybe acupuncture is effective. Personally, I am not convinced and certainly do not think that the new JAMA study significantly strengthened the evidence.

Prof Walach has featured on this blog before, for instance here, and here. He is a psychologist by training and a vocal and prominent advocate of several bogus treatments, including homeopathy. He also is the editor in chief of the journal ‘Complementary Medicine Research’ and regularly uses this position to sing the praise of homeopathy. There is a degree of mystery about his affiliation: he informed me about 10 months ago that he has left his post at the Europa Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder (“Dass ich als “ehemaliger Professor” geführt werde liegt daran, dass ich  Ende Januar aufgehört habe. Meine Stelle ist ausgelaufen und ich habe
sie nicht mehr verlängert.”). Yet all, even his recent papers still carry this address.

His latest article is entitled ‘The future of homeopathy’ is no exception. It is remarkable not just because of the mysterious affiliation but also – and mostly – because of its content. Here is my translation of a brief passage from this paper [I added some numbers in square brackets which refer to footnotes below].

START OF MY TRANSLATION

It is entirely undisputed that homeopathy with its therapeutic principles runs against the mainstream of science; and in this, Weymayr [1] is correct. However, to build on this fact a veritable research prohibition, such as the ‘scientability-concept’ suggests, is not just wrong from a science theoretical perspective, but… also discloses a dogmatic and unscientific stance.

If we see things soberly, homeopathy is – from a science theory point of view – an anomaly: empiric data prove that effects appear regularly and more and more frequently [2].  This is being demonstrated with meta-analyses of placebo-controlled clinical trials. And this also shows with our own provings, which conform well with the newly developed standards as well as with the newer provings. Effects are furthermore noted with such frequency in animal and plant-based studies. Contrary to often voiced statements, there are also models which produce replicated effects – for instance the model of children with ADHD which is currently being replicated. Repeatedly high quality pilot studies emerge, such as the one by Gassmann et al., which show that unexpected effects also appear with higher potencies, documented with objective methods. Homeopathy proves itself as useful in large pragmatic trials of which we, however, have far too few. And let’s not forget: homeopathy is pragmatically useful. Even though aggravations do occur occasionally during homeopathic treatments, the claim that homeopathy is dangerous is a careless interpretation of the data. [3]

In what way is homeopathy an anomaly? I have already years ago argued that the signature of the data does not suggest that we are dealing with a classical local effect. This would be an effect which would conform with the usual criterion of causality and would thus be stable, regular and more and more evident with improved experimentation. It is unnecessary to repeat this argument [4] for the purpose of this editorial. But precisely the question of the classic causal effect is the controversy. And exactly this is the issue used by the new wave of critic of homeopathy which is openly aimed at the demise of homeopathy. This situation occurs because also the homeopaths are victims of the misapprehension  that homeopathy is based on a classic causal process. But this assumption is most likely wrong, and homeopaths would be well-advised on the one side to point to the empiric evidence, and on the other side to practice theoretical chastity making clear that, for the time being, we have not a clue how homeopathy functions. This is the typical situation when a scientific anomaly occurs…

My prognosis would be: if we stop to misunderstand homeopathy as a classic causal phenomenon and instead view and research it as a non-classical phenomenon, homeopathy would have a chance and science would get richer by a new category of phenomena. This approach will prompt criticism, because it renders the world more complex rather than simpler. But this cannot be changed. Perhaps a new era of therapeutics might even emerge which does not abolish the molecular paradigm but makes it appear as one of several possibilities. [5]

END OF MY TRANSLATION

For those of you who can read German, here is the original text with references:

Dass die Homöopathie mit ihren therapeutischen Prinzipien dem Hauptstrom der Wissenschaft immer schon zuwiderlief, ist völlig unbestritten, und darin hat Weymayr recht. Aber auf dieser Tatsache ein regelrechtes «Forschungsverbot» aufbauen zu wollen, wie es das Szientabilitätskonzept vorsieht, das ist nicht nur wissenschaftstheoretisch absolut falsch, wie wir in einer Replik gezeigt haben [2], sondern offenbart auch eine dogmatische und unwissenschaftliche Einstellung.

Wenn man die Sache nüchtern sieht, ist die Homöopathie – wissenschaftstheoretisch betrachtet – eine Anomalie [3]: Empirische Daten belegen, dass immer wieder und insgesamt häufiger als zufällig erwartet Effekte auftreten. Das zeigen Meta-Analysen placebokontrollierter klinischer Studien [4,5,6]. Und das zeigt sich sowohl in unseren eigenen Arzneimittel-Prüfungen [7], die im Übrigen den erst neuerdings entwickelten Standards gut entsprechen [8], als auch in neueren Prüfungen [9]. Auch in Tierexperimenten [10,11,12,13] und in Pflanzenstudien [14,15,16] treten Effekte in solcher Häufigkeit auf. Entgegen oft gehörten Äußerungen gibt es durchaus auch Modelle, die replizierte Effekte ergeben – etwa das Modell homöopathischer Behandlung von Kindern mit Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-/Hyperaktivitätssyndrom [17,18], das gerade repliziert wird [19]. Immer wieder gibt es qualitativ hochwertige Pilotstudien, wie die unlängst publizierte von Gassmann et al. [20], die zeigen, dass unerwartete Effekte auch unter höheren Potenzen und dokumentiert mit objektiven Methoden zu beobachten sind. Homöopathie erweist sich in großen pragmatischen Studien, von denen es allerdings viel zu wenige gibt, als nützlich [21,22,23]. Und nicht zu vergessen: Homöopathie ist pragmatisch hilfreich [24,25,26,27]. Zwar kommt es bei homöopathischer Behandlung gelegentlich zu einer Erstverschlimmerung [28,29], aber die Behauptung, Homöopathie sei gefährlich [30], ist eine fahrlässige Interpretation der Daten [31].

Inwiefern ist die Homöopathie dann eine Anomalie? Ich habe schon vor Jahren argumentiert, dass die Signatur der Daten in der Homöopathie nicht dafür spricht, dass wir es mit einem klassischen, lokalen Effekt zu tun haben [32]. Das wäre ein Effekt, der dem gewöhnlichen Kriterium der Kausalität entspräche und somit stabil, regelmäßig und bei immer besserer Experimentierkunst immer deutlicher hervorträte. Dieses Argument jetzt wieder aufzurollen, ist im Rahmen eines Editorials müßig. Aber genau die Frage nach einem klassisch-kausalen Effekt ist letztlich der Stein des Anstoßes. Und genau diesen Anstoß nimmt nun die neue Welle der Homöopathiekritik, die erklärtermaßen auf die Abschaffung der Homöopathie abzielt, zu ihrem Anlass. Diese Situation ergibt sich, weil auch die Homöopathen dem Selbstmissverständnis aufsitzen, Homöopathie sei ein klassisch-kausaler Prozess. Das ist höchstwahrscheinlich falsch, und die Homöopathie wäre gut beraten, einerseits auf die empirischen Befunde hinzuweisen und auf der anderen Seite theoretische Enthaltsamkeit zu üben und klarzulegen, dass wir vorläufig keinerlei Ahnung haben, wie Homöopathie funktioniert. Das ist die typische Situation, wenn eine wissenschaftliche Anomalie vorliegt…

Meine Prognose wäre: Wenn wir aufhören, die Homöopathie als klassisches Phänomen misszuverstehen, und sie stattdessen als ein mögliches nichtklassisches Phänomen betrachten und beforschen, dann hat die Homöopathie eine Chance und die Wissenschaft wird um eine neue Kategorie von Phänomenen reicher. Dieser Ansatz wird Kritik hervorrufen, denn er macht die Welt eher komplexer als einfacher. Aber das lässt sich nicht ändern. Vielleicht kann sogar eine neue Ära der Therapie beginnen, die das molekulare Paradigma nicht abschafft, aber als eine von mehreren Möglichkeiten erscheinen lässt.


Rather than commenting on this text in full detail, I simply want to provide a few explanations [they refer to the numbers in square brackets inserted by me into my translation] in order to facilitate understanding. I hope, however, that my readers will comment as much as they feel like.

1) Weymayr argued that certain fields lack plausibility to a degree that they do not merit being investigated. Here is an abstract of an article by him:

Evidence-based medicine (EbM) has proved to be very useful in healthcare; thanks to its methodology the reliability of our knowledge of the benefits and harms of interventions can be assessed. This at least applies to interventions which are based on a plausible concept for their mechanism of action and which have already achieved positive effects in experiments and simple studies. However, for interventions whose concepts contradict scientific findings EbM has proved to be unsuitable; it has not been able to prevent that they are still regarded as effective amongst wide parts of the population and medical experts. Particularly homeopathy has managed to even present itself as scientifically justified by using EbM. With the aim of highlighting the speculative character of homeopathy and other procedures and of preventing EbM from getting damaged, the concept of scientability is introduced in this article. This concept only approves of clinical studies if the intervention that is to be tested does not contradict definite scientific findings.

2) A scientific anomaly is “something which cannot be explained by currently accepted scientific theories. Sometimes the new phenomenon leads to new rules or theories, e.g., the discovery of x-rays and radiation.

3) Even a minimal amount of critical thinking leads to the conclusion that the claims made about homeopathy in this paragraph are mostly not true or exaggerated. On this blog, there is plenty of evidence to contradict Walach on all the points he made here.

4) Walach’s argument is detailed in this article:

Among homeopaths the common idea about a working hypothesis for homeopathic effects seems to be that, during the potentization process, ‘information’ or ‘energy’ is being preserved or even enhanced in homeopathic remedies. The organism is said to be able to pick up this information, which in turn will stimulate the organism into a self-healing response. According to this view the decisive element of homeopathic therapy is the remedy which locally contains and conveys this information. I question this view for empirical and theoretical reasons. Empirical research has shown a repetitive pattern, in fundamental and clinical research alike: there are many anomalies in high-dilution research and clinical homeopathic trials which will set any observing researcher thinking. But no single paradigm has proved stable enough in order to produce repeatable results independent of the researcher. I conclude that the database is too weak and contradictory to substantiate a local interpretation of homeopathy, in which the remedy is endowed with causal-informational content irrespective of the circumstances. I propose a non-local interpretation to understand the anomalies along the lines of Jung’s notion of synchronicity and make some predictions following this analysis.

5) In a nutshell, Walach seems to be saying:

  • the empirical evidence for homeopathy is strong;
  • nobody understands the mechanisms by which the effects of homeopathy are brought about;
  • if we all claim that homeopathy is a ‘scientific anomaly’ which operates according to Jung’s notion of synchronicity, the discrepancy between strong evidence and lack of plausible explanation disappears and everyone can be happy.

This is wrong for the following reasons, in my view:

  • the evidence is not strong but negative or extremely weak;
  • we understand very well that the effects of homeopathy are due to non-specific effects;
  • therefore there is no need for a new paradigm;
  • Jung’s notion of synchronicity is pure speculation and not applicable to therapeutics.

In summary, Prof Walach would do well to stop philosophising about homeopathy, read up about critical analysis, fine-tune his BS-detector and familiarise himself with Occam’s razor.

 

‘The use of a harmless alternative therapy is not necessarily wrong. Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it can help many patients. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject such therapies simply because they are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence’.

How often have I heard this notion in one or another form?

I hear such words almost every day.

Arguments along these lines are difficult to counter. Any attempt to do so is likely to make us look blinkered, high-handed and less than compassionate.

Yet we all – well almost all – know that the notion is wrong. Not only that, it can be dangerous.

I will try to explain this with a concrete example of a patient employing a harmless alternative remedy with great success… until… well, you’ll see.

The patient is a married women with two kids. She is well known to her doctor because she has suffered from a range of symptoms for years, and the doctor – despite extensive tests – could never find anything really wrong with her. He knows about his patient’s significant psychological problems and has, on occasion, been tempted to prescribe tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Before he does so, however, he tells her to try Rescue Remedies@ (homeopathically diluted placebos from the range of Bach Flower Remedies). The patient is generally ‘alternatively inclined’, seems delighted with this suggestion and only too keen to give it a try.

After a couple of weeks, she reports that the Rescue Remedies (RR) are helping her. She says she can cope much better with stressful situations and has less severe and less frequent headaches or other symptoms. As she embarks on a long period of taking RR more or less regularly, she becomes convinced that the RR are highly effective and uses them whenever needed with apparent success. This goes on for months, and everyone is happy: the patient feels she has finally found a ‘medication that works’, and the doctor (who knows only too well that RR are placebos) is pleased that his patient is suffering less without needing real medication.

Then, a few months later, the patient notices that the RR are becoming less and less effective. Not only that, she also thinks that her headaches have changed and are becoming more intense. As she has been conditioned to believe that the RR are highly effective, she continues to take them. Her doctor too agrees and encourages her to carry on as before. But the pain gets worse and worse. When she develops other symptoms, her doctor initially tries to trivialise them, until they cannot be trivialised any longer. He eventually sends her to a specialist.

The patient has to wait a couple of weeks until an appointment can be arranged. The specialist orders a few tests which take a further two weeks. Finally, he diagnoses a malignant, possibly fast growing brain tumour. The patient has a poor prognosis but nevertheless agrees to an operation. Thereafter, she is paralysed on one side, needs 24-hour care, and dies 4 weeks post-operatively.

The surgeon is certain that, had he seen the patient several months earlier, the prognosis would have been incomparably better and her life could have been saved.

I suspect that most seasoned physicians have encountered stories which are not dissimilar. Fortunately they often do not end as tragically as this one. We tend to put them aside, and the next time the situation arises where a patient reports benefit from a bogus treatment we think: ‘Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it might help. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject this ‘feel-good factor’.

I hope my story might persuade you that this notion is not necessarily correct.

If you are unable to make your patient feel better without resorting to quackery, my advice is to become a pathologist!!!

Acupuncture is often recommended as a treatment for shoulder pain, but its effectiveness is far from proven. A new study has just been published; but does it change this uncertainty?

A total of 227 patients with subacromial pain syndrome were recruited to this RCT. The patients were allocated to three groups who received either A) group exercise, B) group exercise plus acupuncture or C) group exercise plus electro-acupuncture. The primary outcome measure was the Oxford Shoulder Score. Follow-up was post treatment, and at 6 and 12 months. Data were analysed on intention-to-treat principles with imputation of missing values.

Treatment groups were similar at baseline. All treatment groups demonstrated improvements over time. Between-group estimates were, however, small and non-significant.

The authors concluded that neither acupuncture nor electro-acupuncture were found to be more beneficial than exercise alone in the treatment of subacromial pain syndrome. 

Well, that was to be expected!… I hear the rationalists amongst us exclaim.

Actually, I am not so sure.

One could easily have expected that the acupuncture groups (B and C) show a significant advantage over group A.

Why?

Because acupuncture is a ‘theatrical placebo’, a ritual that impresses patients and thus impacts on results, particularly on subjective outcomes like pain. If the results had shown a benefit for acupuncture + exercise (groups B and C) versus exercise alone (group A), what would we have made of it? Acupuncture fans would surely have claimed that it is evidence confirming acupuncture’s effectiveness. Sceptics, on the other hand, would have rightly insisted that it demonstrates nothing of the sort – it merely confirms that placebo effects can affect clinical outcomes such as pain.

As it turned out, however, this trial results happened to indicate that these placebo-effects can be so small that they fail to reach the level of statistical significance.

I think there is one noteworthy message here: RCTs with such a design (no adequate control for placebo effects) can easily generate false-positive results (in this case, this did not happen, but it was nevertheless a possible outcome). Such studies are popular but utterly useless: they don’t advance our knowledge one single iota. If that is so, we should not waste our resources on them because, in the final analysis, this is not ethical. In other words, we must stop funding research that has little or no chance of advancing our knowledge.

This new RCT was embargoed until today; so, I had to wait until I was able to publish my comments. Here are the essentials of the study:

The Swedish investigators compared the effect of two types of acupuncture versus no acupuncture in infants with colic in public child health centres (CHCs). The study was designed as a multicentre, randomised controlled, single-blind, three-armed trial (ACU-COL) comparing two styles of acupuncture with no acupuncture, as an adjunct to standard care. Among 426 infants whose parents sought help for colic and registered their child’s fussing/crying in a diary, 157 fulfilled the criteria for colic and 147 started the intervention.

Parallel to usual care, study participants visited the study CHC twice a week for 2 weeks. Thus, all infants received usual care plus 4 extra visits to a CHC, during which parents met a nurse for 20–30 min and were able to discuss their infant’s symptoms. Together these were considered to represent gold standard care. The nurse listened, and gave evidence-based advice and calming reassurance. Breastfeeding mothers were encouraged to continue breastfeeding. At each visit, the study nurse carried the infant to a separate treatment room where they were left alone with the acupuncturist for 5 min.

The acupuncturist treated the baby according to group allocation and recorded the treatment procedures and any adverse events. Disposable stainless steel 0.20×13 mm Vinco needles (Helio, Jiangsu Province, China) were used. Infants allocated to group A received standardised MA at LI4. One needle was inserted to a depth of approximately 3 mm unilaterally for 2–5 s and then withdrawn without stimulation. Infants allocated to group B received semi-standardised individualised acupuncture, mimicking clinical TCM practice. Following a manual, the acupuncturists were able to choose one point, or any combination of Sifeng, LI4 and ST36, depending on the infant’s symptoms, as reported in the diary. A maximum of five insertions were allowed per treatment. Needling at Sifeng consisted of 4 insertions, each to a depth of approximately 1 mm for 1 s. At LI4 and ST36, needles were inserted to a depth of approximately 3 mm, uni- or bilaterally. Needles could be retained for 30 seconds. De qi was not sought, therefore stimulation was similarly minimal in groups A and B. Infants in group C spent 5 min alone with the acupuncturist without receiving acupuncture.

The effect of the two types of acupuncture was similar and both were superior to gold standard care alone. Relative to baseline, there was a greater relative reduction in time spent crying and colicky crying by the second intervention week (p=0.050) and follow-up period (p=0.031), respectively, in infants receiving either type of acupuncture. More infants receiving acupuncture cried <3 hours/day, and thereby no longer fulfilled criteria for colic, in the first (p=0.040) and second (p=0.006) intervention weeks. No serious adverse events were reported.

The authors concluded that acupuncture appears to reduce crying in infants with colic safely.

Notice that the investigators are cautious and state in the abstract that “acupuncture appears to reduce crying…” Their conclusions from the actual article are, however, quite different; here they state the following:

Among those initially experiencing excessive infant crying, the majority of parents reported normal values once the infant’s crying had been evaluated in a diary and a diet free of cow’s milk had been introduced. Therefore, objective measurement of crying and exclusion of cow’s milk protein are recommended as first steps, to avoid unnecessary treatment. For those infants that continue to cry >3 hours/day, acupuncture may be an effective treatment option. The two styles of MA tested in ACU-COL had similar effects; both reduced crying in infants with colic and had no serious side effects. However, there is a need for further research to find the optimal needling locations, stimulation and treatment intervals.

Such phraseology is much more assertive and seems to assume acupuncture caused specific therapeutic effects. Yet, I think, this assumption is not warranted.

In fact, I believe, the study shows almost the opposite of what the authors conclude. Both minimal and TCM acupuncture seemed to reduce the symptoms of colic compared to no acupuncture at all. I think, this confirms previous research showing that acupuncture is a ‘theatrical placebo’. The study was designed without an adequate placebo group. It would have been easy to use some form of sham acupuncture in the control group. Why did the authors not do that? Heaven knows, but one might speculate that they were aiming for a positive result – and what better way to ensure it than with a ‘no treatment’ control group?

There are, of course, numerous other flaws. For instance, Prof David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London, criticised the study because of its lousy statistics:

START OF QUOTE

“It is truly astonishing that, in the 21st century, the BMJ still publishes a journal devoted to a form of pre-scientific medicine which after more than 3000 trials has still not been able to produce convincing evidence of efficacy1. Like most forms of alternative medicine, acupuncture has been advocated for a vast range of problems, and there is little evidence that it works for any of them. Colic has not been prominent in these claims. What parent would think that sticking needles into their baby would stop it crying? The idea sounds bizarre. It is. This paper certainly doesn’t show that it works.

“The statistical analysis in the paper is incompetent. This should have been detected by the referees, but wasn’t.  For a start, the opening statement, ‘A two-sided P value ≤0.05 was considered statistically significant’ is simply unacceptable in the light of all recent work about reproducibility.  Still worse, Table 1 uses the description ‘statistical tendency towards significance (p=0.051–0.1)’.

“Worst of all, Table 1 reports 24 different P values, of which three are (just) below 0.05. Yet no correction has been used for multiple comparisons. This is very bad practice. It’s highly unlikely that, if the proper correction had been done, any of the results would have given a type 1 error rate below 5%.

“Even were it not for this, most of the ‘significant’ P values are marginal (only slightly less than 0.05).  It is now well known that the type 1 error rate gives an optimistic view. What matters is the false positive rate – the chance that a ‘significant’ result is a false positive.  A p-value close to 0.05 implies that there is at least a 30% chance that they are false positives.  If one thought, a priori, that the chance of colic being cured by sticking needles into a baby was less than 50%, the false positive rate could easily be greater than 80%2.  It is now recognised that this misinterpretation of p-values is a major contributor to the crisis of reproducibility.

“Other problems concern the power calculation.  A priori calculations of power are well-known to be overoptimistic, because small trials usually overestimate the effect size.  In this case the initial estimated sample size was not attained, and a rather mysterious recalculation of power was used.

“Another small problem: the discussion points out that ‘the majority of infants in this cohort did not have colic’.

“The nature of the control group is not very clear. An appropriate control might have been to cuddle the baby – this was used in a study in which another implausible treatment, chiropractic, was shown not to work.  This appears not to have been done.

“Lastly, p-values are reported in the text without mention of effect sizes. This is contrary to all statistical advice.

“In conclusion, the design of the trial is reasonable (apart from the control group) but the statistical analysis is appalling.  It’s very likely that there aren’t any real effects of acupuncture at all. This paper serves more to muddy the waters than to add useful information. It’s a model for the sort of mistakes that have led to the crisis in reproducibility.  The BMJ should not be publishing this sort of stuff, and the referees seem to have no understanding of statistics.”

END OF QUOTE

Despite these rather obvious – some would say fatal – flaws, the editor of ACUPUNCTURE IN MEDICINE (AIM) thought this trial to be so impressively rigorous that he issued a press-release about it. This, I think, is particularly telling, perhaps even humorous: it shows what kind of a journal AIM is, and also provides an insight into the state of acupuncture research in general.

The long and short of it is that conclusions about specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture are not permissible. We know that colicky babies respond even to minimal attention, and this trial confirms that even a little additional TLC in the form of acupuncture will generate an effect. The observed outcome is most likely unrelated to acupuncture.

If you want to scientifically investigate this question, it might be a good idea NOT to start with the following sentence: “Auricular acupuncture (AA) is effective in the treatment of preoperative anxiety”. Yet, this is exactly what the authors did in their recent publication.

The aim of this new study was to investigate whether AA can reduce exam anxiety as compared to placebo and no intervention. Forty-four medical students were randomized to receive AA, placebo, or no intervention in a crossover manner. Subsequently they completed three comparable oral anatomy exams with an interval of one month between the exams/interventions.

A licensed acupuncturist with more than five years of experience with this technique applied AA at the acupuncture points MA-IC1 (Lung), MA-TF1 (ear Shenmen), MA-SC (Kidney), MA-AT1 (Subcortex) and MA-TG (Adrenal gland) bilaterally. Indwelling fixed ‘New Pyonex’ needles embedded in a skin-coloured adhesive tape were used for AA. The participants were instructed by the acupuncturist to stimulate the auricular needles for 3–5 minutes, if they felt anxious. For the placebo procedure, ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles were attached to five sites on the helix of the auricle bilaterally. ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles have the same appearance as AA needles but consist of self-adhesive tape only. In order to avoid potential physiologic effects of acupressure, the participants were not instructed to stimulate the attached ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles. AA and placebo needles were left in situ until the next day and were removed out of sight of the participants after the exam by the investigator, who was not involved in acupuncture procedure

Levels of anxiety were measured using a visual analogue scale before and after each intervention as well as before each exam. Additional measures included the State-Trait-Anxiety Inventory, duration of sleep at night, blood pressure, heart rate and the extent of participant blinding.

All included participants finished the study. Anxiety levels were reduced after AA and placebo intervention compared to baseline and the no intervention condition (p < 0.003). Moreover, AA was also better at reducing anxiety than placebo in the evening before the exam (p = 0.018). Participants were able to distinguish between AA and placebo intervention.

The authors concluded that both auricular acupuncture and placebo procedure were shown to be effective in reducing levels of exam anxiety in medical students. The superiority of verum AA over placebo AA and no intervention is considered to be due to stimulation of cranial nerves, but may have been increased in effect by insufficient participant blinding.

Here are just three of the major concerns I have about this study:

  • The trial design seems odd: a crossover study can only work well, if there is a stable baseline. This may not be the case with three consecutive exams; the anxiety experienced by students is bound to get less as time goes by. I think anyone who has passed a series of exams will confirm that there is a large degree of habituation.
  • It seems inadequate to employ just one acupuncturist; it means that the trial might end up testing not acupuncture per se but the skills of the therapist.
  • The placebo used for this study cannot possibly have fooled anyone into believing that it was real AA; volunteers were not even instructed to ‘stimulate’ the placebo devices. The difference to the ‘real thing’ must have been very clear to all involved. This means that the control for placebo-effects was woefully incomplete. In turn, this means that the observed outcomes are most likely due to residual bias.

In view of these concerns, allow me to re-phrase the authors’ conclusions:

THE RESULTS OF THIS POORLY-DESIGNED STUDY ARE DIFFICULT TO INTERPRET. MOST LIKELY THEY SHOW THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT EFFECTIVE BUT MERELY WORKS THROUGH A PLACEBO-RESPONSE.

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