Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is popular, not least because it is heavily marketed and thus often perceived as natural and safe. But is this assumption true?
This study analysed liver tests before and following treatment with herbal Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in order to evaluate the risk of liver injury. Patients with normal values of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) as a diagnostic marker for ruling out pre-existing liver disease were enrolled in a prospective study of a safety program carried out at the First German Hospital of TCM from 1994 to 2015. All patients received herbal products, and their ALT values were reassessed 1-3 d prior to discharge. To evaluate causality for suspected TCM herbs, the Roussel Uclaf Causality Assessment Method (RUCAM) was used.
The report presents data of 21470 patients. ALT ranged from 1 × to < 5 × upper limit normal (ULN) in 844 patients (3.93%) and suggested mild or moderate liver adaptive abnormalities. A total of 26 patients (0.12%) experienced higher ALT values of ≥ 5 × ULN (300.0 ± 172.9 U/L, mean ± SD). Causality for TCM herbs was estimated to be probable in 8/26 patients, possible in 16/26, and excluded in 2/26 cases.
Compared with the large TCM study cohort, patients in the liver injury study cohort were older and contained a higher percentage of women, whereas the duration of the hospital stay was similar in both cohorts. The TCM herbs were rarely applied mostly as mixtures consisting of several herbs adding up to 35 different drugs during the patients’ four-week stay. The daily dosage was 95 ± 30 g and thus slightly higher than in the TCM study cohort. Among the many herbal TCM used by the 26 patients in the liver injury cohort, Bupleuri radix and Scuterllariae radix were the two TCM herbs most frequently implicated in liver injury, with variable RUCAM-based causality gradings. Most of the patients received one to six TCM drugs that were associated with potential liver injury as evidenced from the scientific literature, e.g., one patient (case 8) received six potentially hepatotoxic herbal TCM drugs during their hospital stay.
The authors concluded that in 26 (0.12%) of 21470 patients treated with herbal TCM, liver injury with ALT values of ≥ 5 × ULN was found, which normalized shortly following treatment cessation, also substantiating causality.
In the discussion section of the paper, the authors comment that the use of TCM is widely considered less risky as compared with synthetic drugs, although data on direct comparisons are not available in support of this view. Populations using herbal TCM, drugs, either alone, or combined experience more drug-induced liver injury (DILI) than herb-induced liver injury (HILI), possibly due to a higher use of drugs. Valid data of incidence and prevalence of HILI caused by TCM herbs are lacking, and respective data cannot be derived from the present study.
This study is most valuable, in my view. Its strength is clearly the huge sample size. Top marks for the authors for publishing it!
Having said that, we need to take the incidence figures with a pinch of salt, I think. In reality they could be much higher because:
- other settings will not be as tightly supervised as the unusual hospital setting;
- in most other situations the quality of the Chinese herbs might be less controlled;
- there could be adulteration;
- there could be contamination.
The ‘elephant in the room’ obviously is the inevitable question about benefit. Like any other treatment, TCM cannot be judged on the basis of its risk but must be evaluated according to its risk/benefit balance. I realise that this was not the subject of the present study, but it is nevertheless crucial: do the benefits of TCM outweigh its risks?
I am not aware that this is the case (but more than willing to consider any sound evidence readers might supply). More importantly, I am not aware of good evidence to show that, for any condition, TCM would be superior in terms of risk/benefit balance than conventional options. This is not a trivial issue: clinicians have the ethical obligation to apply the best (the one with the most positive risk/benefit balance) treatment to their patients.
If I am right, then TCM should not be used in therapeutic routine in or outside hospitals.
If I am right, the ‘First German Hospital of TCM‘ should close asap; it would be violating fundamental ethical principles.
If I am right, the debate about the risks of TCM is almost irrelevant because we simply should not use it.
Or did I misunderstand something here?
What do you think?
Few people would argue that Cochrane reviews tend to be the most rigorous, independent and objective assessments of therapeutic interventions we currently have. Therefore, it is relevant to see what they tell us about the value of acupuncture.
Here is a fascinating overview of all Cochrane reviews of acupuncture. It was compiled by the formidable guys at ‘FRIENDS OF SCIENCE-BEASED MEDICINE‘ in Australia. They gave me the permission to publish it here (thanks Loretta!).
Considering this collective evidence, it would be hard to dispute the conclusion that there is no convincing evidence that acupuncture is an effective therapy, I believe.
What do you think?
The aim of this three-armed, parallel, randomized exploratory study was to determine, if two types of acupuncture (auricular acupuncture [AA] and traditional Chinese acupuncture [TCA]) were feasible and more effective than usual care (UC) alone for TBI–related headache. The subjects were previously deployed Service members (18–69 years old) with mild-to-moderate TBI and headaches. The interventions explored were UC alone or with the addition of AA or TCA. The primary outcome was the Headache Impact Test (HIT). Secondary outcomes were the Numerical Rating Scale (NRS), Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, Post-Traumatic Stress Checklist, Symptom Checklist-90-R, Medical Outcome Study Quality of Life (QoL), Beck Depression Inventory, State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, and expectancy of outcome and acupuncture efficacy.
Mean HIT scores decreased in the AA and TCA groups but increased slightly in the UC-only group from baseline to week 6 [AA, −10.2% (−6.4 points); TCA, −4.6% (−2.9 points); UC, +0.8% (+0.6 points)]. Both acupuncture groups had sizable decreases in NRS (Pain Best), compared to UC (TCA versus UC: P = 0.0008, d = 1.70; AA versus UC: P = 0.0127, d = 1.6). No statistically significant results were found for any other secondary outcome measures.
The authors concluded that both AA and TCA improved headache-related QoL more than UC did in Service members with TBI.
The stated aim of this study (to determine whether AA or TCA both with UC are more effective than UC alone) does not make sense and should therefore never have passed ethics review, in my view. The RCT followed a design which essentially is the much-lamented ‘A+B versus B’ protocol (except that a further groups ‘C+B’ was added). The nature of such designs is that there is no control for placebo effects, the extra time and attention, etc. Therefore, such studies cannot fail but generate positive results, even if the tested intervention is a placebo. In such trials, it is impossible to attribute any outcome to the experimental treatment. This means that the positive results are known before the first patient has been enrolled; hence they are an unethical waste of resources which can only serve one purpose: to mislead us. It also means that the conclusions drawn above are not correct.
An alternative and in my view more accurate conclusion would be this one: both AA and TCA had probably no effect; the improved headache-related QoL was due to the additional attention and expectation in the two experimental groups and is unrelated to the interventions tested in this study.
In our new book, MORE HARM THAN GOOD, we discuss that such trials are deceptive to the point of being unethical. Considering the prominence and experience of Wayne Jonas, the 1st author of this paper, such obvious transgression is more than a little disappointing – I would argue that is amounts to overt scientific misconduct.
The common cold is a perfect condition for providers of alternative medicine:
- it is prevalent (good money to be earned),
- it is not normally dangerous,
- it nevertheless reduces quality of life and thus patients look for a treatment,
- there probably is not a single alternative therapy that does not claim to be effective for it,
- it is gone after about a week, treated or not.
But is there an alternative therapy that does actually work? An article by the Cochrane Collaboration provides an excellent overview. It includes conventional as well as alternative treatments; here I have merely copied the passages related to the latter:
There was great excitement in the 1970s when Linus Pauling, (a Nobel laureate twice over), concluded from placebo-controlled trials that Vitamin C could prevent and alleviate the common cold. Further research followed and a Cochrane review, published in 2013, found 29 clinical trials, involving 11,306 participants. Unfortunately, the review did not confirm Pauling’s findings. Taking regular Vitamin C did not reduce the incidence of colds in the general population, although there was a modest reduction in the duration and severity of symptoms. The only people who appeared to derive some benefit were those who undertook short bursts of extreme exercise, such as marathon runners and skiers. In this group the risk of getting a cold was halved.
Trials looking at taking high dose Vitamin C at the onset of cold symptoms showed no consistent effect on the duration and severity of symptoms and more research is needed to clarify these findings.
Echinacea is widely used in Europe and North America for common colds. A Cochrane review (2014) showed that some Echinacea products may be more effective than placebo in treating colds but the overall evidence for clinically relevant effects was weak. There was some evidence of a small preventative effect.
Inhaled steam has been used for decades (see earlier reference to my childhood humiliation!) thinking that it helps drain away mucus more effectively and possibly destroys the cold virus. A Cochrane review (2017) of six trials with 387 participants showed no consistent benefit for this intervention.
A single trial with 146 participants showed that taking garlic every day for three months might prevent occurrences of the common cold but the evidence was of low quality and more research is needed to validate this finding. (Cochrane review 2014.)
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The article obviously focuses only on such therapies for which Cochrane reviews have been published. What about other treatments? As I already mentioned, if we believe the promoters of alternative medicine, the list is long. But fortunately, we do not believe them and want to see the evidence.
Yes, some chiropractors claim that their manipulations are effective for the common cold. But, as with almost all of their claims, this cannot be taken seriously; the assumption is bogus.
CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINES
A systematic review concluded that their use for common cold is not supported by robust evidence.
Ages ago, I published a small study with promising results:
Twenty-five volunteers were submitted to sauna bathing, with 25 controls abstaining from this or comparable procedures. In both groups the frequency, duration and severity of common colds were recorded for six months. There were significantly fewer episodes of common cold in the sauna group. This was found particularly during the last three months of the study period when the incidence was roughly halved compared to controls. The mean duration and average severity of common colds did not differ significantly between the groups. It is concluded that regular sauna bathing probably reduces the incidence of common colds, but further studies are needed to prove this.
Sadly, the findings were never replicated.
Grin and bear it!
(That is the cold as well as the myriad of false claims made by enthusiasts of alternative medicine)
Remember Oetzi? Well, he was (almost) Bavarian. He had acupuncture points tattooed all over his body, and he lived more than 5000 years ago. And now the Chinese have the chutzpa to claim having invented acupuncture 3 000 ago. No, they have nicked it from the Bavarians! It’s obvious!
But it gets better.
You must admit this is convincing evidence, if there ever was one.
What does this Bavarian slapping therapy cure?
It is a holistic form of energy healing to cure foremost thirst. You have to drink 1 litre of beer (a herbal infusion of hops and a few other ingredients – also Bavarian, of course) before you start and 2 when it’s over (perfect detox as well!). Moreover it is a better workout than Tai Chi, and it re-balances your vital energies more effectively than any acupuncture needle.
Trust me – I am a (Bavarian) doctor!
The claims that are being made for the health benefits of Chinese herbal medicine are impressive. I am not sure that there is even a single human disease that is not alleged to be curable with the use of some Chinese herbal mixture. I find this worrying because some patients might actually believe such outrageous nonsense, particularly since Chinese researchers seem to bend over backwards to support them with science… or should I say pseudoscience?
This study was aimed at evaluating the association between mortality rate and early use of Chinese herbal products (CHPs) among patients with lung cancer. The researchers conducted a retrospective cohort study based on the National Health Insurance Research Database, Taiwan Cancer Registry, and Cause of Death Data. Patients with newly diagnosed lung cancer between 2002 and 2010 were classified as either the CHP (n = 422) or the non-CHP group (n = 2828) based on whether they used CHP within 3 months after first diagnosis of lung cancer. A Cox regression model was used to examine the hazard ratio (HR) of death for propensity score (PS) matching samples.
After PS matching, average survival time of the CHP group was significantly longer than that of the non-CHP group. The adjusted HR (0.82; 95% CI: 0.73-0.92) in the CHP group was lower than the non-CHP group. Stratified by clinical cancer stages, CHP group had longer survival time in the stage 3 subgroup. When the exposure period of CHP use was changed from 3 to 6 months, results remained similar.
The authors concluded that results indicated that patients with lung cancer who used CHP within 3 months after first diagnosis had a lower hazard of death than non-CHP users, especially for stage 3 lung cancer. Further experimental studies are needed to examine the causal relationship.
I would argue the direct opposite: further studies along these lines would be a waste of time!
I can name numerous reasons for this, for example:
- Investigating CHP as though it is one entity is nonsense. There are thousands of different CHPs; some are placebos; some are toxic; and a few might even have some health effects.
- The observed effect is almost certainly an artefact; the matching of the groups might have been sub-optimal; the CHP group differed systematically from the control group, for instance, by adhering to a healthier life-style; etc, etc.
All of this should be so obvious that it hardly deserves a mention. Why then do the authors not point it out prominently and clearly? Why did they ever embark on such a fatally flawed project? I cannot be sure, of course, … but perhaps one possible answer might be that the lead author is affiliated to a Department of Chinese Medicine?
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:
- low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
- high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
- low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
- 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?
- 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.
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.
END OF QUOTE
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.
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.
– 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.”