MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

TCM

Acupuncture Today is a much-read online publication for people interested in acupuncture. It informs us that Chinese medicine is quite complex and can be difficult for some people to comprehend. This is because TCM is based, at least in part, on the Daoist belief that we live in a universe in which everything is interconnected. What happens to one part of the body affects every other part of the body. The mind and body are not viewed separately, but as part of an energetic system. Similarly, organs and organ systems are viewed as interconnected structures that work together to keep the body functioning.

To me, this sounds suspiciously woolly. Do they think that conventional healthcare professionals view the various body-parts as separate entities? Do they feel that conventional practitioners see the mind entirely separate from the body? Do they believe others fail to realize that what affects the brain does not affect the rest of the body? These common preconceptions have always puzzled me. Intrigued, I read on.

Elsewhere we learn that Acupuncture Today and acupuncturetoday.com are the only complete news sources in the profession and we don’t take this honor lightly. The acupuncture and Oriental medicine profession is a blend of ancient traditions, healing styles and modern therapies. We provide content that is comprehensive enough to appeal to each of the profession’s diverse groups. In addition, we provide a complete suite of additional products including newsletters, calendars and classifieds that provide our advertisers with the contextual platform they need to communicate with our readers, their customers.

Acupuncture Today seems to reflect a lot of what many acupuncturists want to hear – and thus it might provide us with an important insight into the mind-set of acupuncturists. On their website, I found an article which fascinated me:

START OF QUOTE

A more efficient method for diagnosis and treatment by remote medical dowsing has been found and used in acupuncture with great success. The procedure involves a pendulum, a picture of the patient, an anatomy book, a steel pointer, and a very thin bamboo pointer.

Being a dentist, orthodontist, acupuncturist and dowser, I like to take the liberty of treating a person affected with lockjaw or temporal-mandibular joint ailments via remote dowsing…

…When the mandible cannot open due to a spasm, the chief symptom is pain. Until energy is restored, the muscle cannot lengthen and pain cannot be eliminated. Acupuncture is a good way to correct this condition without the use of a dental appliance. Dentists specializing in treating TMJ use a computerized equipment scan (electrosonography), surface electromyography and the myomonitor to relax the muscles.

Another procedure to treat TMJ is using dowsing. At this point, I will talk about dowsing procedures and information needed to successfully carry out the procedures. Remote dowsing requires the use of the pendulum, a slender bamboo pointer, an anatomy book, a picture of the patient and a steel pointer.

To treat a TMJ patient, the picture of the patient is dowsed holding a pendulum in the right hand while the left hand uses a bamboo pointer to touch the closing and opening muscles individually in the anatomy book. The closing muscles will have good energy (as evidenced by the circular movement of the pendulum) while the lower head of the lateral pterygoid will have no energy (as evidenced by little or no movement of the pendulum). Having advance information on TMJ acupuncture points helps, but these points will have to be tested if needling will supply energy. Master Tong has suggested a point between Liver 2 and Liver 3. I find Spleen 2, a distal point related to the lower head of the lateral pterygoid, to be more effective. This can be checked by having the patient hold the point of the steel pointer so it touches Spleen 2 on the large toe.

To treat a TMJ patient, the picture of the patient is dowsed holding a pendulum in the right hand while the left hand uses a bamboo pointer to touch the closing and opening muscles individually in the anatomy book. The closing muscles will have good energy (as evidenced by the circular movement of the pendulum) while the lower head of the lateral pterygoid will have no energy (as evidenced by little or no movement of the pendulum). Having advance information on TMJ acupuncture points helps, but these points will have to be tested if needling will supply energy. Master Tong has suggested a point between Liver 2 and Liver 3. I find Spleen 2, a distal point related to the lower head of the lateral pterygoid, to be more effective. This can be checked by having the patient hold the point of the steel pointer so it touches Spleen 2 on the large toe.

By dowsing the picture of the patient with the right hand and using a bamboo pointer to touch the lower head of the pterygoid muscle in the anatomy book with the left hand, it will be evident by the circular movement of the pendulum that these muscles now have good energy. This is done before the needle is inserted. In this manner all points can be checked for ailments such as TMJ, stroke, backaches, and neck and shoulder problems before needling. When the needles are placed and after the needling procedure, energy can be checked using the pendulum. By being very accurate on the location of acupuncture points, less treatments will be needed to obtain results. Another point is Small Intestine 19, a local point which is also very effective. Good results are obtained by careful and accurate needling. Therefore, the number of visits are few…

Dowsing is a diagnostic aid that has been used for other situations and can be very helpful to acupuncturists. In conclusion, I feel that remote dowsing is a great approach to diagnosis and treatment.

END OF QUOTE

If I had not seen alternative practitioners doing this procedure with my own eyes, I might have thought the article is a hoax. Sadly, this is the ‘real world’ of alternative medicine.

I tried to find some acupuncturists who had objected to this intense nonsense, but I was not successful in this endeavour. The article was published 6 years ago (no, not on 1 April!), yet so far, nobody has objected.

I have also tried to see whether articles promoting quackery of this nature are rare exceptions in the realm of acupuncture, or whether they are regular occurrences. My impression is that the latter is the case.

What can be concluded from all this?

In a previous post about quackery in chiropractic, I have argued that the tolerance of quackery must be one of the most important hallmarks of a quack profession. As I still believe this to be true, I have to ask to which extend THE TOLERANCE OF SUCH EXTREME QUACKERY MAKES ACUPUNCTURISTS QUACKS?

[I would be most interested to have my readers’ views on this question]

On this blog, I have discussed the lamentable quality of TCM products before (e. g. here, here and here). In a nutshell, far too high percentages of them are contaminated with toxic substances or adulterated with prescription drugs. It is no question: these deficits put many consumers at risk. Equally, there is no question that the problem has been known for decades.

For the Chinese exporters, such issues are a great embarrassment, not least because TCM-products are amongst the most profitable of all the Chinese exports. In the past, Chinese officials have tried to ignore or suppress the subject as much as possible. I presume they fear that their profits might be endangered by being open about the dubious quality of their TCM-exports.

Recently, however, I came across a website where unusually frank and honest statements of Chinese officials appeared about TCM-products. Here is the quote:

China is to unroll the fourth national survey of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) resources to ensure a better development of the industry, said a senior health official…

With the public need for TCM therapies growing, the number of medicine resources has decreased and people have turned to the cultivated ones. However, due to a lack of standards, the cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use, said Wang Guoqiang, director of the State Administration of TCM, at a TCM seminar held in Kunming, Yunnan Province in southwest China.

There is a pressing need to protect TCM resources, Wang said. “I’ve heard people saying that medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry, which I must admit, is no exaggeration,” he said.

The survey has been piloted in 922 counties in 31 provinces in China since 2011. According to its official website, it will draw a clear picture of the variety, distribution, storage and growth trends of TCM resources, including herbs, animals, minerals and synthetic materials.

TCM includes a range of traditional medical practices originating in China. It includes such treatments as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage (tuina), exercise (qigong) and dietary therapy.

Although well accepted in the mainstream of medical care throughout East Asia, TCM is considered an alternative medical system in much of the western world and has been a source of controversy. A milestone in the recognition of TCM came when Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her discovery of Artemisinin, a medicinal herb, to help treat malaria.

END OF QUOTE

Surely, these are remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented statements by Chinese officials:

…cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use…

…medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry…

Let’s hope that, after such words, there will be appropriate actions… finally.

We were recently informed that Americans spend more than US$ 30 billion per year on alternative medicine. This is a tidy sum by anyone’s standards, and we may well ask:

Why do so many people opt for alternative medicine?

The enthusiasts claim, of course, that this is because alternative medicine is effective and safe. As there is precious little data to support this claim, it is probably not the true answer. There must be other reasons, and I could name several. For instance, it could be due to consumers being conned by charlatans.

During the 25 years or so that I have been researching alternative medicine, I got the impression that there are certain ‘tricks of the trade’ which alternative practitioners use in order to convince the often all too gullible public. In this series of posts, I will present some of them.

Here are the first three:

TREAT A NON-EXISTING CONDITION

There is nothing better for committing a health fraud than to treat a condition that the patient in question does not have. Many alternative practitioners have made a true cult of this handy option. Go to a chiropractor and you will in all likelihood receive a diagnosis of ‘subluxation’. See a TCM practitioner and you might be diagnosed suffering from ‘chi deficiency’ or ‘chi blockage’ etc.

Each branch of alternative practitioners seem to have created their very own diagnoses, and they have one thing in common: they are figments of their imaginations. To arrive at such diagnoses, the practitioner would often use diagnostic techniques which have either been found to lack validity, or which have never been validated at all. Many practitioners appreciate all of this, of course, but it would be foolish of them to admit it – after all, these diagnoses earn them the bulk of their living!

The beauty of a non-existing diagnosis is that the practitioner can treat it, and treat it and treat it…until the client has run out of money or patience. Then, one day, the practitioner can proudly announce to his patient “you are completely healthy now”. This happens to be true, of course, because the patient has been healthy all along.

My advice for preventing to get fleeced in this way: make sure that the diagnosis given by an alternative practitioner firstly exists at all in the realm of real medicine and secondly is correct; if necessary ask a real healthcare professional.

MAINTENANCE TREATMENT

As I just stated, practitioners like to treat and treat and treat conditions which simply do not exist. When – for whatever reason – this strategy fails, the next ‘trick of the trade’ is often to convince the patient of the necessity of ‘maintenance’ treatment. This term describes the regular treatment of an individual who is entirely healthy but who, according to the practitioner, needs regular treatments in order not to fall ill in future. The best example here is chiropractic.

Many chiropractors proclaim that maintenance treatment is necessary for keeping a person’s spine aligned – and only a well-serviced spine will keep all of our body’s systems working perfectly. It is like with a car: if you don’t service it regularly, it will sooner or later break down. You don’t want this to happen to your body, do you? To many ‘worried well’, this sounds so convincing that they actually fall for this scam. It goes without saying that the value of maintenance treatment is unproven.

My advice is to start running as soon as a practitioner mentions maintenance treatments.

IT MUST GET WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER

Many patients fail to experience an improvement of their condition or even feel worse after receiving alternative treatments. Practitioners of alternative medicine love to tell these patients that this is normal because things have to get worse before they get better. They tend to call this a ‘healing crisis’. Like so many notions of alternative practitioners, the healing crisis is a phenomenon for which no or very little compelling evidence was ever produced.

Imagine a patient with moderately severe symptoms consulting a practitioner and receiving treatment. There are only three things that can happen to her:

  • she can get better,
  • she might experience no change at all,
  • or she might get worse.

In the first scenario, the practitioner would obviously claim that his therapy is responsible for the improvement. In the second scenario, he might say that, without his therapy, things would have deteriorated. In the third scenario, he would tell his patient that the healing crisis is the reason for her experience. In other words,  the myth of the healing crisis is little more than a ‘trick of the trade’ to make even these patients continue supporting the practitioner’s livelihood.

My advice: when you hear the term ‘healing crisis’, go and find a real doctor to help you with your condition.

 

 

 

 

The ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’ is filling up very nicely. Remember: so far, I have honoured the following individuals for (almost) never publishing anything else but positive results (in brackets are the main alternative therapies of each researcher and the countries where they are currently based):

Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)

Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)

Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)

Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)

George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)

John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)

Today, I am about to admit another female to our club of alt med elite (the group was in danger of getting a bit too male-dominated) : Prof Nicola Robinson from the School of Health and Social Care, London South Bank University, UK. She may not be known to many of my readers; therefore I better provide some extra information. Her own institution wrote her up as follows:

Professor Nicola Robinson joined London South Bank University in March 2011 as Professor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Integrated Health. Previously she was Professor of Complementary Medicine, University of West London. Professor Robinson’s former posts include; Consultant Epidemiologist Brent and Harrow Health Authority, Senior lecturer in Primary Healthcare University College London, Lecturer at Charing Cross and Westminster Hospital Medical School and Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

She graduated from Leicester University with a BSc (Hons) in Biological Sciences, and her PhD from Manchester University was in Immunology. She has been a registered acupuncturist since 1982. In 1985 Nicola was awarded an RD Lawrence Fellowship by Diabetes UK and in 1993 she was given an Honorary Membership of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine for her contribution to epidemiology and health services research. 

In 2004, Nicola was awarded a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to visit China, to explore educational and research initiatives in Traditional Chinese Medicine at various universities and hospitals. Nicola has a keen interest in complementary medicine and its assimilation and integration into mainstream health care and has been involved in various research initiatives with professional groups. 

Nicola has written over 200 scientific articles in peer reviewed journals, prepared scientific reports and presented research at local, national and international conferences. She is the Editor in Chief of the European Journal of Integrative Medicine (Elsevier) as well as being on the editorial boards of other scientific journals. She has had considerable research experience in various aspects of public health that has covered a wide range of subject arenas including: complementary medicine, cancer, patient public engagement, mental health, diabetes, coronary heart disease, HIV, cystic fibrosis and psychosocial aspects of disease. She has various research links in China and has had successfully supervised both Chinese and UK PhD students.

As always, I conducted a Medline search for ‘Robinson N, alternative medicine’, which generated 50 articles. I excluded those articles that were not on alternative medicine (probably from someone by the same name) and those that had no abstract with conclusions about the value of alternative medicine. Of the rest, I included the most recent 10 papers. Below I show these articles with the appropriate links and the conclusion (in bold).

Integrative treatment for low back pain: An exploratory systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.

Hu XY, Chen NN, Chai QY, Yang GY, Trevelyan E, Lorenc A, Liu JP, Robinson N.

Chin J Integr Med. 2015 Oct 26. [Epub ahead of print]

Integrative treatment that combines CAM with conventional therapies appeared to have beneficial effects on pain and function. However, evidence is limited due to heterogeneity, the relatively small numbers available for subgroup analyses and the low methodological quality of the included trials. Identification of studies of true IM was not possible due to lack of reporting of the intervention details.

Complementary therapy provision in a London community clinic for people living with HIV/AIDS: a case study.

Lorenc A, Banarsee R, Robinson N.

Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2014 Feb;20(1):65-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2013.10.003. Epub 2013 Oct 15

Complementary Ttherapies may provide important support and treatment options for HIV disease, but cost effectiveness requires further evaluation.

A review of the use of complementary and alternative medicine and HIV: issues for patient care.

Lorenc A, Robinson N.

AIDS Patient Care STDS. 2013 Sep;27(9):503-10. doi: 10.1089/apc.2013.0175. Review

Clinicians, particularly nurses, should consider discussing CAM with patients as part of patient-centered care, to encourage valuable self-management and ensure patient safety.

Meditative movement for respiratory function: a systematic review.

Lorenc AB, Wang Y, Madge SL, Hu X, Mian AM, Robinson N.

Respir Care. 2014 Mar;59(3):427-40. doi: 10.4187/respcare.02570. Epub 2013 Jul 23. Review

The available evidence does not support meditative movement for patients with CF, and there is very limited evidence for respiratory function in healthy populations. The available studies had heterogeneous populations and provided inadequate sampling information, so clinically relevant conclusions cannot be drawn. Well powered, randomized studies of meditative movement are needed.

Is the diurnal profile of salivary cortisol concentration a useful marker for measuring reported stress in acupuncture research? A randomized controlled pilot study.

Huang W, Taylor A, Howie J, Robinson N.

J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Mar;18(3):242-50. doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0325. Epub 2012 Mar 2.

This pilot study suggests that TCA could reduce stress and increase the morning rise of the cortisol profile; however, this was not distinguishable from the effect of attention only.

The evidence for Shiatsu: a systematic review of Shiatsu and acupressure.

Robinson N, Lorenc A, Liao X.

BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Oct 7;11:88. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-88. Review.

Evidence is improving in quantity, quality and reporting, but more research is needed, particularly for Shiatsu, where evidence is poor. Acupressure may be beneficial for pain, nausea and vomiting and sleep.

Autogenic Training as a behavioural approach to insomnia: a prospective cohort study.

Bowden A, Lorenc A, Robinson N.

Prim Health Care Res Dev. 2012 Apr;13(2):175-85. doi: 10.1017/S1463423611000181. Epub 2011 Jul 26

This study suggests that AT may improve sleep patterns for patients with various health conditions and reduce anxiety and depression, both of which may result from and cause insomnia. Improvements in sleep patterns occurred despite, or possibly due to, not focusing on sleep during training. AT may provide an approach to insomnia that could be incorporated into primary care.

Traditional and complementary approaches to child health.

Robinson N, Lorenc A.

Nurs Stand. 2011 May 25-31;25(38):39-47.

Health visitors had greater knowledge and understanding of TCA than practice nurses or nurse practitioners, often informed by patients and personal experience. Health visitors reported that they discussed TCA with families using a culturally competent and family-centred approach to explain the advantages and disadvantages of TCA. This is probably made possible by their ongoing, close relationship with parents in the home environment and their focus on child health. Other primary care nurses were reluctant to engage with patients on TCA because of concerns about liability, lack of information and practice and policy constraints. Practice nurses and nurse practitioners may be able to improve their holistic and patient-centred practice by learning from health visitors’ experience, particularly cultural differences and safety issues. Nurses and their professional bodies may need to explore how this can be achieved given the time-limited and focused nature of practice-based consultations.

A case study exploration of the value of acupuncture as an adjunct treatment for patients diagnosed with schizophrenia: results and future study design.

Ronan P, Robinson N, Harbinson D, Macinnes D.

Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Xue Bao. 2011 May;9(5):503-14

The study indicates that patients diagnosed with schizophrenia would benefit from acupuncture treatment alongside conventional treatment.

An investigation into the effectiveness of traditional Chinese acupuncture (TCA) for chronic stress in adults: a randomised controlled pilot study.

Huang W, Howie J, Taylor A, Robinson N.

Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011 Feb;17(1):16-21. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.05.013. Epub 2010 Jun 19

This pilot study suggests that TCA may be successful in treating the symptoms of stress, through a combination of specific and non-specific effects; but may not relate directly to how a person perceives their stress.

I think we have here a very clear case: Prof Robinson has investigated a range of very different alternative therapies for vastly different conditions. She drew 9 positive and one negative conclusions. This renders her ‘Trustworthiness Index’ truly remarkable. I am therefore confident that we all can agree to admit her to the ALT MED HALL OF FAME.

As if to celebrate the end of ‘Acupuncture Awareness Week’, I am off today to give a few lectures in Oslo. One title is most fitting: ACUPUNCTURE: FACTS AND FALLACIES. Here are some of the fallacies I intend to discuss:

  • Appeal to popularity
  • Appeal to tradition
  • Science can explain how it works
  • Acupuncture is a ‘cure-all’
  • It worked for me, my aunt, etc.
  • Acupuncture even works for animals
  • Even if it’s just a placebo, it helps patients.
  • It defies scientific testing.
  • Acupuncture research is productive
  • Acupuncture is by definition rubbish
  • Acupuncture is risk-free
  • Its benefits outweigh its risks

None of these themes need much by way of explanation for the readers of this blog, I think.

So, why do I mention them at all?

The answer is simple: I was hoping to get a few inspirations and tips from you for further subjects that I might include.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MAIN FALLACIES IN THE REALM OF ACUPUNCTURE?

The current ‘Acupuncture Awareness Week’ is perhaps a good occasion to look beyond acupuncture for humans. The ‘Chi Institute’ is an organisation that teaches TCM for animals. There you can specialise in all sorts of intriguing things that a critical mind would have never thought about. Take acupuncture for horses, for instance; on their website, the Institute informs us that:

The Equine Acupuncture Program…certifies students in veterinary acupuncture with an emphasis on horses. The program begins with an overview of fundamental aspects of Chinese Medicine, including Ying-Yang and Five Elements theory, which serve as a foundation for case diagnosis and treatment presented later in the class. A variety of acupuncture techniques are taught, including electro-acupuncture and moxibustion, in addition to conventional “dry” needling. Students of the program learn acupuncture points on large animals only, and horses are used for practice in the wet labs.

The program is presented in five sessions (two online and three on-site) over a period of six months. Online sessions are composed of lectures that students can stream at their own convenience. Afternoon wet-labs of on-site sessions give students the opportunity to learn acupuncture points on live animals in small lab groups of five to six students per instructor. A spring class and a fall class are held each year. Equine Acupuncture is offered to licensed veterinarians and veterinary school junior/senior students only.

Major Topics: 

  • Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) Principles: Five Elements, Yin-Yang, Eight Principles, Zang-Fu Physiology and Pathology, Meridians and Channels
  • Scientific Basis of Acupuncture
  • 200 Transpositional Equine Acupuncture Points (hands-on, wet-lab demos)
  • 70 Classical Equine Acupuncture Points (hands-on, wet-lab demos)
  • How to needle acupuncture points in horses
  • TCVM Diagnostic Systems, including Tongue and Pulse Diagnosis
  • How to integrate acupuncture into your practice
  • How to use veterinary acupuncture to diagnose and treat:
      1. Musculoskeletal conditions, lameness and neurological disorders
      2. Cardiovascular diseases and respiratory disorders
      3. Gastrointestinal disorders and behavioral problems
      4. Dermatological problems and immune-mediated diseases
      5. Renal & urinary disorders and reproductive disorders
  • Veterinary acupuncture techniques:
      1. Dry needle (conventional needling)
      2. Aqua-acupuncture (point injection)
      3. Electro-acupuncture
      4. Hemo-acupuncture
      5. Moxibustion

But is there not something missing, I asked myself when I read this. What about the evidence? What about the question whether there is any proof that any of this works?
As it happens, some time ago, we looked into this by conducting a systematic review. Here is our abstract ( I should mention that the first author of this paper was a vet who was very fond of acupuncture):

Acupuncture is a popular complementary treatment option in human medicine. Increasingly, owners also seek acupuncture for their animals. The aim of the systematic review reported here was to summarize and assess the clinical evidence for or against the effectiveness of acupuncture in veterinary medicine. Systematic searches were conducted on Medline, Embase, Amed, Cinahl, Japana Centra Revuo Medicina and Chikusan Bunken Kensaku. Hand-searches included conference proceedings, bibliographies, and contact with experts and veterinary acupuncture associations. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. All controlled clinical trials testing acupuncture in any condition of domestic animals were included. Studies using laboratory animals were excluded. Titles and abstracts of identified articles were read, and hard copies were obtained. Inclusion and exclusion of studies, data extraction, and validation were performed independently by two reviewers. Methodologic quality was evaluated by means of the Jadad score. Fourteen randomized controlled trials and 17 nonrandomized controlled trials met our criteria and were, therefore, included. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhea, encouraging evidence exists that warrants further investigation in rigorous trials. Single studies reported some positive intergroup differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. These trials require independent replication. On the basis of the findings of this systematic review, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.

What a pity that the pupils of the above course are not being told that THERE IS NO COMPELLING EVIDENCE that any of the tings they are about to learn has any value…but that would be bad for business, wouldn’t it? And we cannot have a bit of evidence jeopardize a nice little earner, can we?

Yes, we discussed this study on a previous blog post. But, as it is ‘ACUPUNCTURE AWARENESS WEEK’ in the UK, and because of another reason (which will become clear in a minute) I decided to revisit the trial.

In case you have forgotten, here is its abstract once again:

Background: Hot flashes (HFs) affect up to 75% of menopausal women and pose a considerable health and financial burden. Evidence of acupuncture efficacy as an HF treatment is conflicting.

Objective: To assess the efficacy of Chinese medicine acupuncture against sham acupuncture for menopausal HFs.

Design: Stratified, blind (participants, outcome assessors, and investigators, but not treating acupuncturists), parallel, randomized, sham-controlled trial with equal allocation. (Australia New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry: ACTRN12611000393954)

Setting: Community in Australia.

Participants: Women older than 40 years in the late menopausal transition or postmenopause with at least 7 moderate HFs daily, meeting criteria for Chinese medicine diagnosis of kidney yin deficiency.

Interventions: 10 treatments over 8 weeks of either standardized Chinese medicine needle acupuncture designed to treat kidney yin deficiency or noninsertive sham acupuncture.

Measurements: The primary outcome was HF score at the end of treatment. Secondary outcomes included quality of life, anxiety, depression, and adverse events. Participants were assessed at 4 weeks, the end of treatment, and then 3 and 6 months after the end of treatment. Intention-to-treat analysis was conducted with linear mixed-effects models.

Results: 327 women were randomly assigned to acupuncture (n = 163) or sham acupuncture (n = 164). At the end of treatment, 16% of participants in the acupuncture group and 13% in the sham group were lost to follow-up. Mean HF scores at the end of treatment were 15.36 in the acupuncture group and 15.04 in the sham group (mean difference, 0.33 [95% CI, −1.87 to 2.52]; P = 0.77). No serious adverse events were reported.

Limitation: Participants were predominantly Caucasian and did not have breast cancer or surgical menopause.

Conclusion: Chinese medicine acupuncture was not superior to noninsertive sham acupuncture for women with moderately severe menopausal HFs.

When I first discussed this trial, I commented that the trial has several strengths: it includes a large sample size and the patients were adequately blinded to eliminate the effects of expectations. It was published in a top journal, and we can therefore assume that it was properly peer-reviewed. Combined with the evidence from our previous systematic review, this indicates that acupuncture has no effect beyond placebo.

The reason for bringing it up again is that a comment about the study has recently appeared, not just any old comment but one from the British Medical Acupuncture Society. It is, in my view, gratifying and interesting. It was published on ‘facebook’ and is therefore in danger of getting forgotten. I hope to preserve it by citing it in full.

Here it is:

A large rigorous trial published in a prestigious general medical journal, and the usual mantra rings out – acupuncture is no better than sham. In this case there was not a fraction of difference from a non-penetrating sham in a two-armed trial with over 300 women. Ok,…so we have known for some time that we really need 400 in each arm to demonstrate the usual difference over sham seen in meta-analysis in pain conditions, but there really was not even a sniff of a difference here. So is that it for acupuncture in hot flushes? Well, we have a 40% symptom reduction in both groups, and a strong conviction from some practitioners that it really seems to work. Is 40% enough for a strong conviction? I have heard some dramatic stories from medical acupuncturist colleagues that really would be hard to dismiss as non-specific effects, and from others I have heard relative ambivalence about the effects in hot flushes.

Personally I always try to consider mechanisms, and I wish researchers in the field would do the same before embarking on their trials. That is not intended as a criticism of this trial, but some consideration of mechanisms might allow us to explain all our data, including the contribution of this trial.

Acupuncture has recognised effects that are local to the needle, in the spinal cord (mainly in the segments stimulated) and in the brain (as well as humoral effects in CSF and blood). The latter are probably the mildest of the three categories, and require the best group of patient responders for them to be observable in clinical practice.

Menopausal hot flushes are explained by the effects of reduced oestrogens on the thermoregulatory centre in the anterior hypothalamus. It is certainly plausible that the neuro-inhibitory effects of endogenous opioids such as beta-endorphin, which we know can be released by acupuncture stimulation in experimental settings, could stablise neurones in the anterior hypothalamus that have become irritable due to a sudden drop in oestrogens.

So are endogenous opioids always released by acupuncture? Well, they and their effects seem to be measurable in experiments that use what I call proper acupuncture. That is, strong stimulation to deep somatic tissue. In the laboratory, and indeed in my clinic, this is only usually achieved in a palatable manner by electroacupuncture to muscle, although repeated manual stimulation every few minutes may have similar effects.

Ee et al used a relatively gentle acupuncture protocol, so they may have only generated measurable effects, based on mechanistic speculation, in the most responsive patients, perhaps less than 10%.

What does all this tell us? Well this trial clearly demonstrates that gentle acupuncture protocols generate effects in women with hot flushes via context rather than penetrating needling. In conditions that rely on central effects, I think we still need to consider stronger stimulation protocols and enriched enrollment in trials, ie preselecting responders before randomisation.

In my original comment I also predicted: “One does not need to be a clairvoyant to predict that acupuncturists will now find what they perceive as a flaw in the new study and claim that its results were false-negative.”

I am so glad Mike Cummings and the BMAS rushed to prove me right.

It’s so nice to know one can rely on someone in these uncertain times!

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against systematic reviews. Quite to the contrary, I am sure they are an important source of information for patients, doctors, scientists, policy makers and others – after all, I have published more than 300 of such papers!

Having said that, I do dislike a certain type of systematic review, namely systematic reviews by Chinese authors evaluating TCM therapies and arriving at misleading conclusions. Such papers are currently swamping the marked.

At first glance, they look fine. On closer scrutiny, however, most turn out to be stereotypically useless, boring and promotional. The type of article I mean starts by stating its objective which usually is to evaluate the evidence for a traditional Chinese therapy as a treatment of a condition which few people in their right mind would treat with any form of TCM. It continues with details about the methodologies employed and then, in the results section, informs the reader that x studies were included in the review which mostly reported encouraging results but were wide open to bias. And then comes the crucial bit: THE CONCLUSIONS.

They are as predictable as they are misleading. let me give you two examples only published in the last few days.

The first review drew the following conclusions: This systematic review suggests that Chinese Herbal Medicine as an adjunctive therapy can improve cognitive impairment and enhance immediate response and quality of life in Senile Vascular Dementia patients. However, because of limitations of methodological quality in the included studies, further research of rigorous design is needed.

The second review concluded that the evidence that external application of traditional Chinese medicine is an effective treatment for venous ulcers is encouraging, but not conclusive due to the low methodological quality of the RCTs. Therefore, more high-quality RCTs with larger sample sizes are required.

Why does that sort of thing frustrate me so much? Because it is utterly meaningless and potentially harmful:

  • I don’t know what treatments the authors are talking about.
  • Even if I managed to dig deeper, I cannot get the information because practically all the primary studies are published in obscure journals in Chinese language.
  • Even if I  did read Chinese, I do not feel motivated to assess the primary studies because we know they are all of very poor quality – too flimsy to bother.
  • Even if they were formally of good quality, I would have my doubts about their reliability; remember: 100% of these trials report positive findings!
  • Most crucially, I am frustrated because conclusions of this nature are deeply misleading and potentially harmful. They give the impression that there might be ‘something in it’, and that it (whatever ‘it’ might be) could be well worth trying. This may give false hope to patients and can send the rest of us on a wild goose chase.

So, to ease the task of future authors of such papers, I decided give them a text for a proper EVIDENCE-BASED conclusion which they can adapt to fit every review. This will save them time and, more importantly perhaps, it will save everyone who might be tempted to read such futile articles the effort to study them in detail. Here is my suggestion for a conclusion soundly based on the evidence, not matter what TCM subject the review is about:

OUR SYSTEMATIC REVIEW HAS SHOWN THAT THERAPY ‘X’ AS A TREATMENT OF CONDITION ‘Y’ IS CURRENTLY NOT SUPPORTED BY SOUND EVIDENCE.

The discussion whether acupuncture is more than a placebo is as long as it is heated. Crucially, it is also quite tedious, tiresome and unproductive, not least because no resolution seems to be in sight. Whenever researchers develop an apparently credible placebo and the results of clinical trials are not what acupuncturists had hoped for, the therapists claim that the placebo is, after all, not inert and the negative findings must be due to the fact that both placebo and real acupuncture are effective.

Laser acupuncture (acupoint stimulation not with needle-insertion but with laser light) offers a possible way out of this dilemma. It is relatively easy to make a placebo laser that looks convincing to all parties concerned but is a pure and inert placebo. Many trials have been conducted following this concept, and it is therefore highly relevant to ask what the totality of this evidence suggests.

A recent systematic review did just that; specifically, it aimed to evaluate the effects of laser acupuncture on pain and functional outcomes when it is used to treat musculoskeletal disorders.

Extensive literature searches were used to identify all RCTs employing laser acupuncture. A meta-analysis was performed by calculating the standardized mean differences and 95% confidence intervals, to evaluate the effect of laser acupuncture on pain and functional outcomes. Included studies were assessed in terms of their methodological quality and appropriateness of laser parameters.

Forty-nine RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Two-thirds (31/49) of these studies reported positive effects. All of them were rated as being of high methodological quality and all of them included sufficient details about the lasers used. Negative or inconclusive studies mostly failed to demonstrate these features. For all diagnostic subgroups, positive effects for both pain and functional outcomes were more consistently seen at long-term follow-up rather than immediately after treatment.

The authors concluded that moderate-quality evidence supports the effectiveness of laser acupuncture in managing musculoskeletal pain when applied in an appropriate treatment dosage; however, the positive effects are seen only at long-term follow-up and not immediately after the cessation of treatment.

Surprised? Well, I am!

This is a meta-analysis I always wanted to conduct and never came round to doing. Using the ‘trick’ of laser acupuncture, it is possible to fully blind patients, clinicians and data evaluators. This eliminates the most obvious sources of bias in such studies. Those who are convinced that acupuncture is a pure placebo would therefore expect a negative overall result.

But the result is quite clearly positive! How can this be? I can see three options:

  • The meta-analysis could be biased and the result might therefore be false-positive. I looked hard but could not find any significant flaws.
  • The primary studies might be wrong, fraudulent etc. I did not see any obvious signs for this to be so.
  • Acupuncture might be more than a placebo after all. This notion might be unacceptable to sceptics.

I invite anyone who sufficiently understands clinical trial methodology to scrutinise the data closely and tell us which of the three possibilities is the correct one.

Chinese proprietary herbal medicines (CPHMs) are a well-established and a hugely profitable part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with a long history in China and elsewhere; they are used for all sorts of conditions, not least for the treatment of common cold. Many CPHMs have been listed in the ‘China national essential drug list’ (CNEDL), the official reference published by the Chinese Ministry of Health. One would hope that such a document to be based on reliable evidence – but is it?

The aim of a recent review was to provide an assessment on the potential benefits and harms of CPHMs for common cold listed in the CNEDL.

The authors of this assessment were experts from the Chinese ‘Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine’ and one well-known researcher of alternative medicine from the UK. They searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, SinoMed, CNKI, VIP, China Important Conference Papers Database, China Dissertation Database, and online clinical trial registry websites from their inception to 31 March 2013 for clinical studies of CPHMs listed in the CNEDL for common cold.

Of the 33 CPHMs listed in the 2012 CNEDL for the treatment of common cold, only 7 had any type of clinical trial evidence at all. A total of 6 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and 7 case series (CSs) could be included in the assessments.

All these studies had been conducted in China and published in Chinese. All of them were burdened with poor study design and low methodological quality, and all had to be graded as being associated with a very high risk of bias.

The authors concluded that the use of CPHMs for common cold is not supported by robust evidence. Further rigorous well designed placebo-controlled, randomized trials are needed to substantiate the clinical claims made for CPHMs.

I should state that it is, in my view, most laudable that the authors draw such a relatively clear, negative conclusion. This does certainly not happen often with papers originating from China, and George Lewith, the UK collaborator in this article, is also not known for his critical attitude towards alternative medicine. But there are other, less encouraging issues here to mention.

In the discussion section of their paper, the authors mention that the CNEDL has been approved by the Chinese Ministry of Public Health and is currently regarded as the accepted reference point for the medicines used in China. They also explain that the CNEDL was officially launched and implemented in August 2009. The CNEDL is now up-dated every 3 years, and its 2012 edition contains 520 medicines, including 203 CPHMs. The CPHMs listed in CNEDL cover 137 herbal remedies for internal medicine, 11 for surgery, 20 for gynaecology, 7 for ophthalmology, 13 for otorhinolaryngology and 15 for orthopaedics and traumatology.

Moreover, the authors inform us that about 3,100 medical and clinical experts had been recruited to evaluate the safety, effectiveness and costs of CPHMs. The selection process of medicines into CNEDL was strictly in accordance with the principle that they ‘must be preventive and curative, safe and effective, affordable, easy to use, think highly of both Chinese and Western medicine’. A detailed procedure for evaluation is, however, not available because the files are confidential.

The authors finally state that their paper demonstrates that the selection of CPHMs into the CNEDL is less likely to be ‘evidence-based’ and revealed the sharp contrast between the policy and priority given to by the Chinese government to Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM).

This surely must be a benign judgement, if there ever was one! I would say that the facts disclosed in this review show that TCM seems to exist in a strange universe where commercial interests are officially allowed to reign supreme over patients’ interests and public health.

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