MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

placebo

Massage is an agreeable and pleasant treatment. It comes in various guises and, according to many patients’ experience, it relaxes both the mind and the body. But does it have therapeutic effects which go beyond such alleged benefits?

There is a considerable amount of research to test whether massage is effective for some conditions, including depression. In most instances, the evidence fails to be entirely convincing. Our own systematic review of massage for depression, for instance, concluded that there is currently a lack of evidence.

This was ~5 years ago – but now a new trial has emerged. It was aimed at determining whether massage therapy reduces symptoms of depression in subjects with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease. Subjects were randomized into one of three groups to receive either Swedish massage (the type that is best researched amongst the many massage-variations that exist), or touch, or no such interventions. The treatment period lasted for eight weeks. Patients had to be at least 16 years of age, HIV-positive, suffering from a major depressive disorder, and on a stable neuropsychiatric, analgesic, and antiretroviral regimen for > 30 days with no plans to modify therapy for the duration of the study. Approximately 40% of the subjects were taking antidepressants, and all subjects were judged to be medically stable.

Patients in the Swedish massage and touch groups visited the massage therapist for one hour twice per week. In the touch group, a massage therapist placed both hands on the subject with slight pressure, but no massage, in a uniform distribution in the same pattern used for the massage subjects.

The primary and secondary outcome measures were the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression score and the Beck Depression Inventory. The results showed that, compared to no intervention and/or touch, massage significantly reduced the severity of depression at week 4, 6 and 8.

The authors’ conclusion is clear: The results indicate that massage therapy can reduce symptoms of depression in subjects with HIV disease. The durability of the response, optimal “dose” of massage, and mechanisms by which massage exerts its antidepressant effects remain to be determined.

Clinical trials of massage therapy encounter formidable problems. No obvious funding source exists, and the expertise to conduct research is minimal within the realm of massage therapy. More importantly, it is difficult to find solutions to the many methodological issues involved in designing rigorous trials of massage therapy.

One such issue is the question of an adequate control intervention which might enable to blind patients and thus account for the effects of placebo, compassion, attention etc. The authors of the present trial have elegantly solved it by creating a type of sham treatment which consisted of mere touch. However, this will only work well, if patients can be made to believe that the sham-intervention was a real treatment, and if somehow the massage therapist is prevented to influence the patients through verbal or non-verbal communications. In the current trial, patients were not blinded, and therefore patients’ expectations may have played a role in influencing the results.

Despite this drawback, the study is one of the more rigorous investigations of massage therapy to date. Its findings offer hope to those patients who suffer from depression and who are desperate for an effective and foremost safe treatment to ease their symptoms.

My conclusion: the question whether massage alleviates depression is intriguing and well worth further study.

Acupuncture remains a highly controversial treatment: its mechanism of action is less than clear and the clinical results are equally unconvincing. Of course, one ought to differentiate between different conditions; the notion that acupuncture is a panacea is most certainly nonsense.

In many countries, acupuncture is being employed mostly in the management of pain, and it is in this area where the evidence is perhaps most encouraging. Yet, even here the evidence from the most rigorous clinical trials seems to suggest that much, if not all of the effects of acupuncture might be due to placebo.

Moreover, we ought to be careful with generalisations and ask what type of pain? One very specific pain is that caused by aromatase inhibitors (AI), a medication frequently prescribed to women suffering from breast cancer. Around 50 % of these patients complain of AI-associated musculoskeletal symptoms (AIMSS) and 15 % discontinue treatment because of these complaints. So, can acupuncture help these women?

A recent randomised, sham-controlled trial tested whether acupuncture improves AIMSS. Postmenopausal women with early stage breast cancer, experiencing AIMSS were randomized to eight weekly real or sham acupuncture sessions. The investigators evaluated changes in the Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability Index (HAQ-DI) and pain visual analog scale (VAS). Serum estradiol, β-endorphin, and proinflammatory cytokine concentrations were also measured pre and post-intervention. In total, 51 women were enrolled of whom 47 were evaluable (23 randomized to real and 24 to sham acupuncture).

Baseline characteristics turned out to be balanced between groups with the exception of a higher HAQ-DI score in the real acupuncture group. The results failed to show a statistically significant difference in reduction of HAQ-DI or VAS between the two groups. Following eight weekly treatments, a significant reduction of IL-17 was noted in both groups. No significant modulation was seen in estradiol, β-endorphin, or other proinflammatory cytokine concentrations in either group. No difference in AIMSS changes between real and sham acupuncture was seen.

Even though this study was not large, it was rigorously executed and well-reported. As many acupuncturists claim that their treatment alleviates pain and as many women suffering from AM-induced pain experience benefit, acupuncture advocates will nevertheless claim that the findings of this study are wrong, misleading or irrelevant. The often remarkable discrepancy between experience and evidence will again be the subject of intense discussions. How can a tiny trial overturn the experience of so many?

The answer is: VERY EASILY! In fact, the simplest explanation is that both are correct. The trial was well-done and its findings are thus likely to be true. The experience of patients is equally true – yet it relies not on the effects of acupuncture per se, but on the context in which it is given. In simple language, the effects patients experience after acupuncture are due to a placebo-response.

This is the only simple explanation which tallies with both the evidence and the experience. Once we think about it carefully, we realise that acupuncture is highly placebo-genic:

It is exotic.

It is invasive.

It is slightly painful.

It involves time with a therapist.

It involves touch.

If anyone had the task to develop a treatment that maximises placebo-effects, he could not come up with a better intervention!

Ahhh, will acupuncture-fans say, this means that acupuncture is a helpful therapy. I don’t care how it works, as long as it does help. Did we not just cover this issues in some detail? Indeed we did –  and I do not feel like re-visiting the three fallacies which underpin this sentence again.

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