MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

TCM

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This new RCT by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia was aimed at ‘examining the effect of changing treatment timing and the use of manual, electro acupuncture on the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea’. It had four arms:

  1. low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
  2. high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
  3. low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
  4. and high frequency electro acupuncture (HF-EA).

A total of 74 women were given 12 treatments over three menstrual cycles, either once per week (LF groups) or three times in the week prior to menses (HF groups). All groups received a treatment in the first 48 hours of menses. The primary outcome was the reduction in peak menstrual pain at 12 months from trial entry.

During the treatment period and 9 month follow-up all groups showed statistically significant reductions in peak and average menstrual pain compared to baseline. However, there were no differences between groups. Health related quality of life increased significantly in 6 domains in groups having high frequency of treatment compared to two domains in low frequency groups. Manual acupuncture groups required less analgesic medication than electro-acupuncture groups. HF-MA was most effective in reducing secondary menstrual symptoms compared to both–EA groups.

The authors concluded that acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity and duration after three months of treatment and this was sustained for up to one year after trial entry. The effect of changing mode of stimulation or frequency of treatment on menstrual pain was not significant. This may be due to a lack of power. The role of acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials.

If I were not used to reading rubbish research of alternative medicine in general and acupuncture in particular, this RCT would amaze me – not so much because of its design, execution, or write-up, but primarily because of its conclusion (why, oh why, I ask myself, did PLOS ONE publish this paper?). They are, I think, utterly barmy.

Let me explain:

  • acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity” – oh no, it didn’t; at least this is not what the study proves; the fact that pain was perceived as less could be due to a host of factors, for instance regression towards the mean, or social desirability; as there was no proper control group, nobody can tell;
  • the lack of difference between treatments “may be due to a lack of power”. Yes, but more likely it is due to the fact that all versions of a placebo therapy generate similar outcomes.
  • acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials”. Why? Because the authors have a quasi-religious belief in acupuncture? And if they have, why did they not design their study ‘appropriately’?

The best conclusion I can suggest for this daft trial is this: IN THIS STUDY, THE PRIMARY ENDPOINT SHOWED NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 4 TREATMENT GROUPS. THE RESULTS ARE THEREFORE FULLY COMPATIBLE WITH THE NOTION THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS A PLACEBO THERAPY.

Something along these lines would, in my view, have been honest and scientific. Sadly, in acupuncture research, we very rarely get such honest science and the ‘National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia’ has no track record of being the laudable exception to this rule.

I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:

  • is on alternative medicine,
  • focusses on acupuncture,
  • is authored by Chinese researchers,
  • was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?

The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!

As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.

The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.

And what is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING!

  • The review is of very poor quality.
  • The primary studies are even worse.
  • The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
  • The conclusions are misleading.

Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.

And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.

In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:

56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.

Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!

And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.

The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.

A recent article is a case in point, I think.

START OF QUOTE

Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.

Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK,  although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.

The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.

Key findings  

Herbs for high blood pressure

The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.

Herbs for diabetes

The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.

Herbs for cholesterol 

The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.

Herbs for heart disease

Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.

Limitations with trials

But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.

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Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.

None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.

With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.

In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.

As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:

START OF QUOTE

…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.

First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…

Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.

END OF QUOTE

Sound advice indeed.

Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!

Concerned about the new ACP guidelines on ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’, Andrea MacGregor asked me to publish her ‘open letter’:

I am a student about to graduate and register as a massage therapist in Canada, and I am writing to express my concern with your recommendation of the use of acupuncture in your new guideline for low-back pain management.

Leading medical and health research experts from around the world, including many who are highly familiar with the use of complementary and alternative therapies, have contributed to a highly informed commentary (attached) assembled by the Friends of Science in Medicine association (Aus.), which supports a strong conclusion that acupuncture is not effective for any specific condition, and that the evidence for it being an effective intervention for low-back pain is not convincing. Another review of acupuncture by FSM concluding that there is a lack of evidence of a therapeutic effect has been endorsed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Respected American medical science writers also maintain that claims of acupuncture’s efficacy are not science-based (examples here and here).

Additionally, previous acupuncture recommendations are being reconsidered by prominent institutions in other parts of the world. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline for NHS patients in the United Kingdom now recommends against the use of acupuncture for low-back pain, following a high-quality review that critically examined the existing evidence regarding the use of acupuncture and found it to be no more effective than a placebo. The Toronto Hospital for Sick Children has also recently removed references on their website that suggested the efficacy of acupuncture in managing specific chronic pain conditions. The World Health Organization has done the same, no longer suggesting that acupuncture is effective for low-back pain and sciatica.

As someone about to enter a field that is frequently associated with, or considered a part of, complementary healthcare, I know how tempting it can be for us, as professionals and as researchers, to exaggerate claims of efficacy and pin some very high hopes on “new possibilities” in physical therapies.

I also know first-hand how misguided and overblown some of these claims and hopes can be. Many of my own peers and instructors are proponents of acupuncture, and it is common for Canadian massage therapists to become licensed acupuncturists (a similar connection between massage and acupuncture communities, of course, also exists in the United States). I have often seen my own mentors and comrades pushing for the use of acupuncture treatments for many chronic and serious conditions for which there is no basis of evidence at all of acupuncture’s efficacy, including systemic, neurological, and developmental conditions. When questioned, they will usually refer to authorities perceived as “legitimate”, including the American College of Physicians, to say that claims of acupuncture “working” are backed by experts— whether their claims are even pain-related or not.

We see a similar situation with advertisers and media using the guise of “expert-backed” legitimization to recommend acupuncture in misleading ways, often to vulnerable people who could be making better-informed and more effective treatment and management choices for their conditions. Many of these advertising and media entities specifically mention the American College of Physicians as lending credence to their claims, sometimes somewhat out of context.

As someone with a chronic neurological disorder, I find it troubling to see untrue or exaggerated claims of benefit for incurable or serious conditions when we could be focusing on more accurate ideas and having more honest, realistic discussions of our options. This is also important when it comes to deciding how to best allocate our limited health funding resources. Quite a lot of our insurance and out-of-pocket funds are spent on alternative therapies, and it’s important to see things going to use in a way that’s proportionate and appropriate to the evidence we have.

I hope that you will reconsider your recommendation of a practice that is simply not supported by the majority of the research evidence that exists to date. Patients with complex conditions, including low-back pain, deserve accurate and realistic information regarding their treatment options, especially from such trusted and reputable sources as the American College of Physicians. Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

Andrea MacGregor

Below are informed conclusions on acupuncture from 28 international experts from 10 countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America.

These include:

– Sir Richard John Roberts, English biochemist and molecular biologist, 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine  – Prof Nikolai Bogduk AM, Emeritus Professor of Pain Medicine, University of Newcastle, Australia – Prof Timothy Caulfield,  LLM, FRSC, FCAHS, Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Policy, Trudeau Fellow & Professor, Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, Research Director, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta, Canada – Prof. Assimakis Kanellopoulos, PhD MSc.Prof. Applied Physiotherapy, TEI Lamia, Greece – Prof Lesley Campbell AM, MBBS, FRACP FRCP(UK), Senior Endocrinologist, Diabetes Services, St Vincent’s Hospital, Professor of Medicine, UNSW. Laboratory Co-Head, Clinical Diabetes, Appetite and Metabolism, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, SVH, NSW, Australia – Emeritus Prof Donald M. Marcus, MD, Professor of Medicine and Immunology, Emeritus, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, United States of America (USA) – Dr Michael Vagg, MBBS(Hons) FAFRM(RACP) FFPMANZCA, Consultant in Rehabilitation and Pain Medicine, Barwon Health. Clinical Senior Lecturer, Deakin University School of Medicine. Fellow, Institute for Science in Medicine, Victoria, Australia – Prof Bernie Garrett, The University of British Columbia, School of Nursing, Vancouver, BC, Canada – A/Prof David H Gorski, MD PhD FACS, surgical oncologist, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, Team Leader, Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Team, Co-Leader, Breast Cancer Biology Program, Co-Director, Alexander J Walt Comprehensive Breast Center, Chief, Section of Breast Surgery, A/Professor, Surgery, Wayne State University School of Medicine, , and Professor (Honorary) Hanoi Medical University, USA – Prof Carl Bartecchi, MD, MACP, Distinguished Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, USA – Prof David Colquhoun, FRS, Dept of Pharmacology, UCL United Kingdom (UK) – Prof Edzard Ernst, MD PhD FMEdSci FSB FRCP FRCP(Edin), Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, UK – Prof Marcello Costa FAAS. Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor and Professor of Neurophysiology (2012), Professor of Neurophysiology, Flinders University, Australia. – Emeritus Prof Alastair H MacLennan AO MB CHb MD FRCOG FRANZCOG. The Robinson Research Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia – Prof John M Dwyer AO PhD FRACP FRCPI Doc Uni(Hon) ACU. Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of New South Wales. Founder of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance. Clinical consultant to the NSW Government’s Inter-Agency committee on Health Care Fraud, Australia – A/Prof Steven M Novella, clinical neurologist Yale University School of Medicine, Connecticut,  USA – Prof William M London, EdD, MPH, Department of Public Health, California State University, Los Angeles, USA – Dr Steven Barrett, MD, retired psychiatrist, author, co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), USA – Prof. Steven L. Salzberg, Ph.D., Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, USA – Prof Christopher C French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK – Dr Cees Renckens MD PhD, gynaecologist, past president of the Dutch Society against Quackery, Netherlands  – Dr Alain Braillon. MD PhD. Senior consultant. University hospital, France – Dr John McLennan, MBBS FRACP, Paediatrician, Vic – Prof Shaun Holt, BPharm(hons), MBChB(hons), Medical Researcher, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand – Dr Lloyd B Oppel, MD, MHSc, Canada – Professor Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Southern Denmark & Odense University Hospital, Denmark – Prof Maurizio Pandolfi MD, Florence, former Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology, The University of Lund, Sweden, Italy – Professor Mark Baker, Centre for Clinical Practice Director, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), UK

According to Sir Richard: “From everything I have read about acupuncture I have to conclude that the evidence for efficacy is just not there.  I can believe it has a very strong and effective placebo effect, but if it really worked as advertised why are the numbers of successful outcomes so small when compared to treatments such as drugs that really do work. As a scientist, who likes to see proper experiments carried out so that the results can be judged with a rational analysis, the experiments I have read about just don’t meet even a low bar of acceptability. I certainly do not believe it should be endorsed as an effective treatment by any professional scientific or medical body that values its reputation.”

According to Professor Bogduk: “Although studies have shown that acupuncture “works”, the definition of “works” is generous. Most studies show minimal to no effect greater than that of sham therapy. Needles do not need to be placed at specific points; so, learning about meridians is not required. Effectiveness is marginally greater in those patients who believe in acupuncture or expect it to work. However, no studies have shown that acupuncture stops pain, while also restoring normal function and removing the need for other health care.”

According to Professor Caulfield: “In popular culture, acupuncture is often portrayed as being effective for a range of conditions. It is held up as an alternative medicine success story. In fact, the relevant data are, at best, equivocal. The most rigorous studies, such as those that are well controlled and use sham comparators, have found that in most situations acupuncture is little better than placebo.  More importantly, the supernatural foundations of the practice – that illness can be attributed to an imbalance in a life force energy – has absolutely no scientific basis. Given this reality, public representations of acupuncture that present it as science-based and effective can be deeply misleading.  Policies are needed to counter this noise, including, inter alia, the more aggressive deployment of truth-in-advertising regulations, the enforcement of a conceptually consistent science-based informed consent standard, and the oversight of healthcare professionals by the relevant regulatory entities.”

According to Professor Kanellopoulos: “According to the systematic reviews in the field of acupuncture, the benefits of the method, if any, are nothing more than a temporary placebo effect. From a scientific point of view, acupuncture is based on a theory, which has nothing to do with modern physiology and medicine. From a researcher’s point of view, any presented acupuncture effectiveness is due to methodological errors, data manipulation, statistical artefacts and (purposely?) poorly designed clinical trials in general. Finally, regarding the patient, any symptom’s relief comes from despair and post hoc fallacy. After decades of research and over 3000 clinical trials, any continuation of practicing, advertising, and research in the field of acupuncture is a waste of resources and puts the patients at risk, raising ethical issues for both science and society.”

According to Professor Campbell: “Acupuncture holds great theatrical appeal through its dramatic and historical aspects, particularly to those who feel that conventional medicine has failed to offer pain relief or sufficient improvement in symptoms. However an extensive body of data now exists from rigorous approaches to testing the validity of its claims of benefit actually related to the placement of the needles and not to placebo effect. For example, most recently the beneficial effect achieved in relieving fatigue in Parkinsons Disease (and there was one) was identical in a randomised controlled trial to that of placebo.”

According to Professor Donald M. Marcus: “When trials of acupuncture for relief of pain of osteoarthritis of the knee or back pain include a sham acupuncture control, there is no clinically relevant difference in efficacy between the conventional and sham procedures. A number of sham procedures have been used, including toothpicks in a plastic guide tube in a study of back pain. It’s evident that relief of pain, and probably other complaints, by acupuncture is mediated by a placebo mechanism. Since there is no scientific evidence supporting its efficacy, medical insurance should not pay for acupuncture treatments. Moreover, it is unethical to deceive patients by providing a placebo treatment without disclosure.”

According to pain specialist Dr Vagg: “Due to the lack of a scientifically plausible mechanism, and the poor quality of the bulk of the research concerning acupuncture in its many and varied forms, no credible body of pain medicine researchers or clinicians has endorsed any type of acupuncture as a recommended treatment for any identifiable group of patients with persistent pain. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that further research of high quality will change this conclusion, given that high-quality, randomized and double-blinded studies have uniformly shown that any form of acupuncture is indistinguishable from placebo, making further research unwarranted.”

According to Professor Garrett: “Current levels of evidence on acupuncture as a therapeutic intervention for any condition is very poor. Most studies reported  are of very poor quality and are not reliable. Unfortunately, there is a strong element of propaganda in the dissemination of support for acupuncture in China, as it is a part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine supported by the government there. As such, much research has been demonstrated to involve data fabrication and extreme levels of confirmation bias. There are also strong ethical concerns about research involving acupuncture in China for anesthesia or other conditions where there is no established clinical theoretical basis for its use, and far better established therapeutics are available. Overall the current state of evidence on acupuncture is that the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment of any health condition remains unproven, and the only good quality trials have identified it has no better outcomes than placebo. Therefore, any claims of efficacy made against specific medical conditions are deceptive.”

According to Professor Gorski: “Acupuncture seems to garner more belief because it seems more plausible. The reason is that, unlike many other alternative therapies, acupuncture actually involves a physical act, namely inserting needles into the skin. However, it is also the case that the more acupuncture has been studied, the more it has become clear that it is, as David Colquhoun and Steve Novella put it, nothing more than a theatrical placebo. Indeed, as acupuncture is more rigorously studied in randomized clinical trials with proper controls and proper blinding, the more its seeming effects disappear, so that it becomes indistinguishable from placebo. Nor is it without risk, either. Recommending acupuncture to treat any condition is, from an ethical and scientific view, indefensible.”

According to Professor Bartecchi: “Acupuncture has no medical value other than that of a placebo. Acupuncture as viewed by many of us in academic medicine is merely an elaborate, theatrical placebo, a pre-scientific superstition which lacks a plausible mechanism. It really fits the bill as an alternative medicine hoax.”

According to Professor Colquhoun: “After over 3000 trials, some of them very well designed, there is still argument about the effectiveness of acupuncture.  If that were the case for a new drug, it would long since have been abandoned. The literature suggests that acupuncture has only a small and variable placebo effect: too small to be of noticeable benefit to patients. Most of its apparent effects result from a statistical artefact, regression to the mean. The continued use of acupuncture probably arises from the lack of effective treatments for conditions like non-specific low back pain. That cannot be justified, Neither is it worth spending yet more money on further research. The research has been done and it failed to produce convincing evidence.”

According to Professor Ernst: “The current evidence on acupuncture is mixed. Many trials are less than rigorous and thus not reliable. Much of the research comes from China where data fabrication has been disclosed to be at epidemic levels; it would therefore be a mistake to rely on studies from China which almost invariably report positive results.  If we account for such caveats and critically review the literature, we arrive at the following conclusions: – Acupuncture is clearly not free of risks, some of which are serious;  – The effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment of any condition remains unproven, and – The current research in this area is mostly pseudo-research aimed at promoting rather than testing acupuncture”.

According to Professor Costa: “Acupuncture as a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine is not based on science simply because, as for all pre-scientific medicines, whether Greco-Roman-European, Indian or any other, none are founded on any evidence. As a Neuroscientist, I teach medical and non medical students the very foundations of how the nervous system works and how sensory stimulation affects the brain. There simply is no evidence that twigging the skin with needles or, for that matter with toothpicks, does any more than create an expectation to feel better. This is the well-known placebo effect. Selling placebos under the disguise of medicine is totally unethical.”

According to Professor MacLennan: “Acupuncture is elaborate quackery and like many placebos sold by those without responsibility for or knowledge of the wide range of health disorders and disease it can be dangerous. Dangerous because acupuncture may delay correct diagnosis and therapy, dangerous because it may delay possible evidence-based therapies and allow progression of disorders present and dangerous because it sucks limited health resources from the community.   Acupuncturists derive their income from elaborate subterfuge, taking advantage of the gullible unwell who are desperate, uneducated and seek a magic cure. If there is a placebo effect it is usually temporary, and eventually disappointment from lack of long term effect may lead to secondary depression in the patient.    According to Professor Dwyer: “Modern understanding of human anatomy and the distribution and function of the components of the human nervous system make a nonsense of theories that suggest there are invisible meridians criss-crossing the body wherein there are trigger spots which, when stimulated, can produce an array of benefits remote from that site. Scientists however, while dismissing the prescientific explanations offered by traditional Chinese medicine, have sought other reasons why acupuncture might provide clinical benefits particularly the relief of pain. Numerous theories have been addressed by numerous studies with many being conducted using disciplined scientific methods. The conclusions leave us with no doubt that acupuncture provides the scenario for a superb theatrical placebo; no more.”

According to Dr Novella:  “Pain is a big problem. If you read about pain management centers, you might think it had been solved. It has not. And when no effective treatment exists for a medical problem, it leads to a tendency to clutch at straws. Research has shown that acupuncture is little more than such a straw. It is clear from meta-analyses that results of acupuncture trials are variable and inconsistent, even for single conditions. After thousands of trials of acupuncture and hundreds of systematic reviews, arguments continue unabated. In 2011, Pain published an editorial that summed up the present situation well.”

According to Professor London & Dr Barrett: “The optimistic article by Vickers et al did not consider an important point. Research studies may not reflect what takes place in most acupuncturist offices. Most acupuncturists are graduates of “oriental medical schools,” where they learn about 5element theory, “energy” flow through meridians, and other fanciful traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) concepts that do not correspond with scientific knowledge of anatomy, physiology, or pathology. Practitioners of TCM typically rely on inappropriate diagnostic procedures (pulse and tongue diagnosis) and prescribe herbal mixtures that have not been sufficiently studied. Diagnoses based on TCM such as “Qi stagnation,” “blood stagnation,” “kidney Qi deficiency,” and “yin deficiency” may not jeopardize patients who are treated in an academic setting, where they have received a medical diagnosed before entering the study. But what about people with conditions that TCM-trained acupuncturists are not qualified or inclined to diagnose? Real-world evaluations of acupuncture should also consider the cost of unnecessary treatment.”

According to Professor Salzberg: “Acupuncture is a pre-scientific practice that persists only because of relentless and often very clever marketing by its proponents. The claimed mechanisms by which acupuncture works are clearly and obviously false: modern physiology, neurology, cell biology, and other scientific disciplines explain how pain signals are transmitted in the body, and none of them support the supposed “qi” or energy fields flowing along “meridians,” as acupuncturists describe them. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that acupuncture doesn’t work for any medical condition. Acupuncture proponents ignore the evidence and persist, primarily because they profit from their practices. There are also documented risks of complications from acupuncture, ranging from infections to punctured lungs. For these and other reasons, recommending acupuncture for any patient is simply unethical. Acupuncturists make profits by putting patients at risk.”

According to Professor French: “Acupuncture has been extensively evaluated with respect to its possible therapeutic effectiveness for a wide range of disorders. The overall conclusion from meta-analyses of such studies is that any beneficial effects reported are small in terms of effect size and probably best accounted for in terms of statistical artefacts and placebo effects, etc. In general, the higher the quality of the study, the less likely are any beneficial effects to be reported. In light of this, it would be unwise and unethical to recommend acupuncture as the treatment of choice for any condition.”

According to Dr Renckens: “In 1683 the Dutch physician Willem ten Rhijne published the first book in the western world in which the word ‘acupuncture’ was mentioned, which referred to – as the Dutch title of the book was – ‘The Chinese and Japanese way of curing all diseases and especially the podagra by burning moxa and stabbing the Golden Needle’. This exotic treatment did not gain any popularity in the Netherlands and was mainly ridiculed. This heavenly situation remained unchanged until Nixon’s trip to China (1972) and the ‘successful’ acupuncture-treatment of the journalist James Reston of the New York Times. His story in that influential newspaper caused worldwide interest in acupunctures possible benefits. Also in the Netherlands and as early as 1989 a series of systematic reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture in a number of diseases was published in the Huisarts & Wetenschap, a journal of GP’s in the Dutch language (Ter Riet et al. H&W,1989;32:308-312).Their final conclusion was: ‘the main achievement of Chinese acupuncture is to have discovered a number of spots on the human body into which needles can be safely inserted’. The huge amount of scientific research into acupuncture has since been unable to undermine this right conclusion.”
According to Dr Braillon: “No discrimination!  The US Federal Trade Commission announced that homeopathic drugs should “be held to the same truthin-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits”; very soon, homeopathic products will include statements indicating: “There is no scientific evidence backing homeopathic health claims” and “Homeopathic claims are based only on theories from the 1700s that are not accepted by modern medical experts.”  In Australia, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners formally recommended GPs to ban homeopathic products from their prescriptions and pharmacists to ban them from their shelves. The same should be required for acupuncture.”

According to Dr McLennon: “Despite claims for effectiveness, there have been very few studies of acupuncture on children that have confirmed significant benefits.  Conditions such as headache, abdominal pain, bed wetting and fibromyalgia and behaviour problems such as ADHD have been investigated. More trials with better structure have universally been recommended. A double blinded trial on the treatment of headaches with laser acupuncture illustrates the problems. The number of patients was quite small (21 in each arm), the diagnoses were reasonable medically but required rediagnosis to fit Traditional Chinese Medicine criteria and treatments were individualised based on these diagnoses. It was not made clear whether the patients were completely blinded i.e. unaware they received active treatment or placebo. Until blinding can be guaranteed, trials of acupuncture will remain inconclusive.”
According to Professor Holt: “Unlike some alternative therapies, acupuncture has been extensively studied for many medical conditions and a summary would be that the higher the quality of the study, the less likely it is that a benefit other than a placebo effect is found. Studies have shown conclusively that a key aspect of acupuncture, putting needles into energy lines for medical benefits, is not true, and the same effect is elicited wherever the needles are placed. Acupuncture is not a science-based practice, can cause side effects and is not recommended for any medical condition.”

According to Dr Oppel: “It is extremely concerning that there remains no plausible rationale for a mechanism of action of acupuncture.  It is noteworthy that different schools of acupuncture offer contradictory patterns of treatment. It should not go without notice that acupuncture has been so well-researched that there are hundreds , if not thousands, of clinical trials now available Unfortunately, although there is no compelling evidence of effectiveness for any of the myriad of conditions where  acupuncture is claimed to be of benefit, poor quality unreplicated trials continue to be put forward by proponents as proof of acupuncture’s effectiveness. Critical thinkers will also take note that while the large majority of acupuncture trials are positive, the vast majority of properly controlled trials are not.   We are in a situation now where we have excellent evidence that acupuncture is not effective.”

According to Professor Hróbjartsson: “While there have been many trials done with acupuncture, most of them are small pilot studies and large scale high quality trials are rare. Some studies have reported measurable effects, but the mechanism is not yet understood, the size of the effect is small and it is possible that a large part of the effect or all of the effect is placebo. It is obvious that you would see a physiological effect when you stick a needle into your body, the question is whether that has a measurable clinical effect. There is insufficient evidence to say that electro acupuncture is any more or any less effective.”

According to Professor Pandolfi: “With a rationale completely disconnected from the basic principles of science acupuncture cannot be considered as belonging to modern evidence–based medicine.”

According to Professor Baker: “Millions of people are affected every year by these often debilitating and distressing conditions. For most their symptoms improve in days or weeks. However for some, the pain can be distressing and persist for a long time. Regrettably there is a lack of convincing evidence of effectiveness for some widely used treatments. For example acupuncture is no longer recommended for managing low back pain with or without sciatica. This is because there is not enough evidence to show that it is more effective than sham treatment.”

Tui Na is a massage technique that is based on the Taoist principles of TCM. It involves a range of manipulations usually performed by an operator’s finger, hand, elbow, knee, or foot applied to muscle or soft tissue at specific parts of the body. According to one website of TCM-proponents “Tui Na makes use of various hand techniques in combination with acupuncture and other manipulation techniques. To enhance the healing process, the practitioner may recommend the use of Chinese herbs. Many of the techniques used in this massage resemble that of a western massage like gliding, kneading, vibration, tapping, friction, pulling, rolling, pressing and shaking. In Tui Na massage, the muscles and tendons are massaged with the help of hands, and an acupressure technique is applied to directly affect the flow of Qi at different acupressure points of the body, thus facilitating the healing process. It removes the blockages and keeps the energy moving through the meridians as well as the muscles. A typical session of Tui Na massage may vary from thirty minutes to an hour. The session timings may vary depending on the patient’s needs and condition. The best part of the therapy is that it relaxes as well as energizes the person. The main benefit of Tui Na massage is that it focuses on the specific problem, whether it is an acute or a chronic pain associated with the joints, muscles or a skeletal system. This technique is very beneficial in reducing the pain of neck, shoulders, hips, back, arms, highs, legs and ankle disorders. It is a very effective therapy for arthritis, pain, sciatica and muscle spasms. Other benefits of this massage therapy include alleviation of the stress related disorders like insomnia, constipation, headaches and other disorders related to digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems. The greatest advantage of Tui Na is that it focuses on maintaining overall balance with both physical and mental health. Any one who wants to avoid the side effects of drugs or a chemical based treatment can adopt this effective massage technique to alleviate their pain. Tui Na massage therapy is now becoming a more common therapy method due to its focus on specific problems rather than providing a general treatment.”

This clearly begs the question IS IT EFFECTIVE?

This systematic review assessed the evidence of Tui Na for cervical radiculopathy. Seven databases were searched. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) incorporating Tui Na alone or Tui Na combined with conventional treatment were included. Five studies involving 448 patients were found. The pooled analysis from the 3 trials indicated that Tui Na alone showed a significant lowering immediate effects on pain score with moderate heterogeneity compared to cervical traction. The meta-analysis from 2 trials revealed significant immediate effects of Tui Na plus cervical traction in improving pain score with no heterogeneity compared to cervical traction alone. None of the RCTs mentioned adverse effects. There was very low quality or low quality evidence to support the results.

The authors concluded that “Tui Na alone or Tui Na plus cervical traction may be helpful to cervical radiculopathy patients, but supportive evidence seems generally weak. Future clinical studies with low risk of bias and adequate follow-up design are recommended.”

In my view, this is a misleading conclusion. A correct one would have been: THE CURRENT EVIDENCE IS INSUFFICIENT TO DRAW ANY CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE EFFECTIVENESS OF TUI NA.

Why?

Here are some of the most obvious reasons:

Personally, I am getting very tired of conclusions stating ‘…XY MAY BE EFFECTIVE/HELPFUL/USEFUL/WORTH A TRY…’ It is obvious that the therapy in question MAY be effective, otherwise one would surely not conduct a systematic review. If a review fails to produce good evidence, it is the authors’ ethical, moral and scientific obligation to state this clearly. If they don’t, they simply misuse science for promotion and mislead the public. Strictly speaking, this amounts to scientific misconduct.

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.

The ACUPUNCTURE NOW FOUNDATION (ANF) has featured on this blog before. Today I want to re-introduce them because I just came across one of their articles which I found remarkable. In it, they define what many of us have often wondered about: the most important myth about acupuncture.

Is it acupuncture’s current popularity, its long history, its mode of action, its efficacy, its safety?

No, here is the answer directly from the ANF:

The most important myth that needs to be put to rest is the idea promoted by a small group of vocal critics that acupuncture is nothing more than a placebo. Many cite the fact that studies showing acupuncture to be highly effective were of low quality and that several higher quality studies show that, while acupuncture was clinically effective, it usually does not outperform “sham” acupuncture. But those studies are dominated by the first quality issue cited above; studies with higher methodological rigor where the “real” acupuncture was so poorly done as to not be a legitimate comparison. Yet despite the tendency toward poor quality acupuncture in studies with higher methodological standards, a benchmark study was done that showed “real” acupuncture clearly outperforming “sham” acupuncture in four different chronic pain conditions.3 When you add this study together with the fact veterinary acupuncture is used successfully in many different animals, the idea of acupuncture only being placebo must now be considered finally disproven. This is further supported by studies which show that the underlying physiological pathways activated by acupuncture sometimes overlap, but can be clearly differentiated from, those activated by placebo responses.

Disappointed?

Yes, I was too.

The myth, according to the ANF, essentially is that sceptics do not understand the scientific evidence. And these blinkered sceptics even go as far as ignoring the findings from what the ANF consider to be a ‘benchmark study’! Ghosh, that’s nasty of them!!!

But, no – the benchmark study (actually, it was not a ‘study’ but a meta-analysis of studies) has been discussed fully on this blog (and in many other places too). Here is what I wrote in 2012 when it was first published:

An international team of acupuncture trialists published a meta-analysed of individual patient data to determine the analgesic effect of acupuncture compared to sham or non-acupuncture control for the following 4 chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, headache, and shoulder pain. Data from 29 RCTs, with an impressive total of 17 922 patients, were included.

The results of this new evaluation suggest that acupuncture is superior to both sham and no-acupuncture controls for each of these conditions. Patients receiving acupuncture had less pain, with scores that were 0.23 (95% CI, 0.13-0.33), 0.16 (95% CI, 0.07-0.25), and 0.15 (95% CI, 0.07-0.24) SDs lower than those of sham controls for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, and chronic headache, respectively; the effect sizes in comparison to no-acupuncture controls were 0.55 (95% CI, 0.51-0.58), 0.57 (95% CI, 0.50-0.64), and 0.42 (95% CI, 0.37-0.46) SDs.

Based on these findings, the authors reached the conclusion that “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture”.

… even the enthusiastic authors of this article admit that, when compared to sham, the effect size of real acupuncture is too small to be clinically relevant. Therefore one might argue that this meta-analysis confirms what critics have suggested all along: acupuncture is not a useful treatment for clinical routine.

Unsurprisingly, the authors of the meta-analysis do their very best to play down this aspect. They reason that, for clinical routine, the comparison between acupuncture and non-acupuncture controls is more relevant than the one between acupuncture and sham. But this comparison, of course, includes placebo- and other non-specific effects masquerading as effects of acupuncture – and with this little trick (which, by the way is very popular in alternative medicine), we can, of course, show that even sugar pills are effective.

I do not doubt that context effects are important in patient care; yet I do doubt that we need a placebo treatment for generating such benefit in our patients. If we administer treatments which are effective beyond placebo with kindness, time, compassion and empathy, our patients will benefit from both specific and non-specific effects. In other words, purely generating non-specific effects with acupuncture is far from optimal and certainly not in the interest of our patients. In my view, it cannot be regarded as not good medicine, and the authors’ conclusion referring to a “reasonable referral option” is more than a little surprising in my view.

Acupuncture-fans might argue that, at the very minimum, the new meta-analysis does demonstrate acupuncture to be statistically significantly better than a placebo. Yet I am not convinced that this notion holds water: the small residual effect-size in the comparison of acupuncture with sham might not be the result of a specific effect of acupuncture; it could be (and most likely is) due to residual bias in the analysed studies.

The meta-analysis is strongly driven by the large German trials which, for good reasons, were heavily and frequently criticised when first published. One of the most important potential drawbacks was that many participating patients were almost certainly de-blinded through the significant media coverage of the study while it was being conducted. Moreover, in none of these trials was the therapist blinded (the often-voiced notion that therapist-blinding is impossible is demonstrably false). Thus it is likely that patient-unblinding and the absence of therapist-blinding importantly influenced the clinical outcome of these trials thus generating false positive findings. As the German studies constitute by far the largest volume of patients in the meta-analysis, any of their flaws would strongly impact on the overall result of the meta-analysis.

So, has this new meta-analysis finally solved the decades-old question about the effectiveness of acupuncture? It might not have solved it, but we have certainly moved closer to a solution, particularly if we employ our faculties of critical thinking. In my view, this meta-analysis is the most compelling evidence yet to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain.

END OF QUOTE

The ANF-text then goes from bad to worse. First they cite the evidence from veterinary acupuncture as further proof of the efficacy of their therapy. Well, the only systematic review in this are is, I think, by my team; and it concluded that 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.

Lastly, the ANF mentions acupuncture’s mode of action which they seem to understand clearly and fully. Congratulations ANF! In this case, you are much better than the many experts in basic science or neurology who almost unanimously view these ‘explanations’ of how acupuncture might work as highly adventurous hypotheses or speculations.

So, what IS the most important myth about acupuncture? I am not sure and – unlike the ANF – I do not feel that I can speak for the rest of the world, but one of the biggest myths FOR ME is how acupuncture fans constantly manage to mislead the public.

Yes, to a large extend, quacks make a living by advertising lies. A paper just published confirms our worst fears.

This survey was aimed at identifying the frequency and qualitative characteristics of marketing claims made by Canadian chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths and acupuncturists relating to the diagnosis and treatment of allergy and asthma.

A total of 392 chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic and acupuncture clinic websites were located in 10 of the largest metropolitan areas in Canada. The main outcome measures were: mention of allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to diagnose allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to treat allergy, sensitivity or asthma, and claim of allergy, sensitivity or asthma treatment efficacy. Tests and treatments promoted were noted as qualitative examples.

The results show that naturopath clinic websites had the highest rates of advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (85%) and asthma (64%), followed by acupuncturists (68% and 53%, respectively), homeopaths (60% and 54%) and chiropractors (33% and 38%). Search results from Vancouver were most likely to advertise at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (72.5%) and asthma (62.5%), and results from London, Ontario were least likely (50% and 40%, respectively). Of the interventions advertised, few are scientifically supported; the majority lack evidence of efficacy, and some are potentially harmful.

[Legend to figure above: Percentage of alternative medicine clinic websites advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy/sensitivity or asthma. Presenting the data in this way demonstrates that the Canadian naturopath, homeopath and acupuncturist websites studied have >50% rates of making at least one health-related claim for both allergy/sensitivity and asthma.]

The authors concluded that the majority of alternative healthcare clinics studied advertised interventions for allergy and asthma. Many offerings are unproven. A policy response may be warranted in order to safeguard the public interest.

In the discussion section, the authors state: “These claims raise ethical issues, because evidence in support of many of the tests and treatments identified on the websites studied is lacking. For example, food-specific IgG testing was commonly advertised, despite the fact that the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has recommended not to use this test due to the absence of a body of research supporting it. Live blood analysis, vega/electrodiagnostic testing, intravenous vitamin C, probiotics, homeopathic allergy remedies and several other tests and treatments offered all lack substantial scientific evidence of efficacy. Some of the proposed treatments are so absurd that they lack even the most basic scientific plausibility, such as ionic foot bath detoxification…

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that several proposed treatments for allergy, sensitivity or asthma are potentially harmful. These include intravenous hydrogen peroxide, spinal manipulation and possibly others. Furthermore, a negative effect of the use of invalid and inaccurate allergy testing is the likelihood that such testing will lead to alterations and exclusions in diets, which can subsequently result in malnutrition and other physiological problems…”

This survey originates from Canada, and one might argue that elsewhere the situation is not quite as bad. However, I would doubt it; on the contrary, I would not be surprised to learn that, in some other countries, it is even worse.

Several national regulators have, at long last, become aware of the dangers of advertising of outright quackery. Consequently, some measures are now beginning to be taken against it. I would nevertheless argue that these actions are far too slow and by no means sufficiently effective.

We easily forget that asthma, for instance, is a potentially life-threatening disease. Advertising of bogus claims is therefore  much more than a forgivable exaggeration aimed at maximising the income of alternative practitioners – it is a serious threat to public health.

We must insist that regulators protect us from such quackery and prevent the serious harm it can do.

The boom of alternative medicine in the US – and consequently in the rest of the developed world – is intimately connected with a NHI centre now called NCCIH (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health). It was founded in the early 1990s because some politicians were bent on promoting quackery. Initially the institution had modest funding but, after more political interference, it had ample cash to pursue all sorts of activities, including sponsoring research into alternative therapies at US universities. A most interesting video summarising the history of the NCCIH can be seen here.

No other institution in the world had more funds for research into alternative medicine than the NCCIH, and it soon became the envy of alt med researchers globally. I have been invited by the NCCHI on several occasions and invariably was impressed by their apparent affluence. While we Europeans usually had to do our research on a shoe-string, our American colleagues seemed to be ‘rolling in it’.

I was often far less impressed with the research they sponsored. Not only it was invariably eye-wateringly expensive, but also its quality seemed often dismal. Sometimes, I even got the impression that research was used as a means of mainstreaming quackery for the unsuspecting American – and consequently world-wide – public.

An example of this mainstreaming is an article in JAMA published yesterday. Here is a short but telling excerpt:

Researchers led by Richard L. Nahin, PhD, MPH, lead epidemiologist at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), examined efficacy and safety evidence in 105 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted between January 1966 and March 2016. The review—geared toward primary care physicians as part of the journal’s Symposium on Pain Medicine—focused on popular complementary approaches to common pain conditions.

Unlike a typical systematic review that assigns quality values to the studies, the investigators conducted a narrative review, in which they simply looked at the number of positive and negative trials. “If there were more positives than negatives then we generally felt the approach had some value,” Nahin explained. “If there were more negatives, we generally felt the approach had less value.” Trials that were conducted outside of the United States were excluded from the review.

Based on a “preponderance” of positive vs negative trials, complementary approaches that may offer pain relief include acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Several other techniques had weaker evidence, according to the qualitative assessments, for specific pain conditions (see “Selected Complementary Health Approaches for Pain”). The treatments were generally safe, with no serious adverse events reported.

To me, this looks that NCCIH has now managed to persuade even the editors of JAMA to white-wash their dodgy science. The review referred to here is a paper we discussed some time ago on this blog. I then stated about it the following:

Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:

  • the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
  • the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
  • the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
  • the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
  • not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
  • the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
  • there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.

My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.

I find it puzzling that the ‘lead epidemiologist at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’ would publish such dubious research. Why does he do it? If you have watched the video mentioned above, you are inclined to think that it might be because of political interference.

However, I suggest another, in a way much more damming reason or contributing factor: the NCCIH has so long indulged in such poor science that even its top people have forgotten what good science looks like. I know this is a bold hypothesis; so, let me try to support it with some data.

Several years ago, my team together with several other researches have looked at the NCCIH-sponsored research systematically according to 4 different subject areas. Here are the conclusions of our articles reporting the findings:

ACUPUNCTURE

Seven RCTs had a low risk of bias. Numerous methodological shortcomings were identified. Many NCCAM-funded RCTs of acupuncture have important limitations. These findings might improve future studies of acupuncture and could be considered in the ongoing debate regarding NCCAM-funding. [Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 17(1) March 2012 15–21]

HERBAL MEDICINE

This independent assessment revealed a plethora of serious concerns related to NCCAM studies of herbal medicine. [Perfusion 2011; 24: 89-102]

ENERGY MEDICINE

In conclusion, the NCCAM-funded RCTs of energy medicine are prime examples of misguided investments into research. In our opinion, NCCAM should not be funding poor-quality studies of implausible practices. The impact of any future studies of energy medicine would be negligible or even detrimental. [Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 16(2) June 2011 106–109 ]

CHIROPRACTIC

In conclusion, our review demonstrates that several RCTs of chiropractic have been funded by the NCCAM. It raises numerous concerns in relation to these studies; in particular, it suggests that many of these studies are seriously flawed. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21207089]

I think I can rest my case and urge you to watch the video mentioned above.

The Scotsman reported that David Tredinnick, the somewhat feeble-minded Tory MP for Bosworth, has been at it again. Apparently he said that many of his constituents are only alive today because they have been treated with alternative medicine.

Tredennick recently urged ministers to spend more NHS money on alternative therapies such as homeopathy and acupuncture to treat patients. It seems to me that, for him and other quackery promoters, evidence and science are issues beyond comprehension. Mr Tredinnick also disclosed the fact that he received acupuncture at a Chinese medical clinic just before the Commons debate on cancer strategy – a regular treatment he credits with keeping him healthy.

Tredennick told his fellow MPs: “I was talking there to practitioners about what they are able to do for cancer patients, and there is actually a very long list of types of cancer that can be treated using traditional Chinese herbal medicine.“ One, cervical cancer, two, non-Hodkins lymphoma, three, HIV, four, colon cancer, five… six, breast cancer, seven, prostate cancer. And so the list goes on. “I have in my constituency several constituents who I believe are alive today because they have used Chinese medicine.“ And the reason for that is what it does is it strengthens your system, and it strengthens the immune system, and it is very effective after cancer treatment. It deals with particular symptoms.”

This is by no means the first outburst of quackery-promotion by the Right Honourable Gentleman. I have a whole selection of quotes from him which I sometimes use for amusing my audience during public lectures. Because amusing he is; Tredennick seems to be utterly devoid of rational thought when it comes to the subject of alternative medicine, and often his statements make for comedy gold. This time, however, he might be sailing closer to the wind than he perhaps realizes: Under English law, it is an offence to claim that any treatment can cure cancer, I believe.

We all had to learn to laugh about unethical and dangerous nonsense the ‘Tredennicks of this world’ regularly claim about alternative medicine. Laughing is the only solution for coping with such idiocy, I am afrid. If we don’t laugh, we have to consider taking it seriously – and this is a truly frightening prospect, particularly considering that this guy actually sits in parliament and has the power to influence our lives.

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