MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

acupuncture

An article with this title was published recently by a team from Israel; essentially, it reports two interesting case histories:

Case 1

A 59-year-old male underwent a course of acupuncture for chronic low back pain, by a acupuncturist. During the therapy, the patient noted swelling at the point of puncture, but his therapist dismissed the claim. The region continued to swell, and three days later his family doctor diagnosed cellulitis and prescribed oral amoxicillin with clavulanic acid. The following day the patient’s condition worsened—he started to suffer from chills and more intense pain, so he went to the emergency room. At that stage, the patient had a fever of 37.9°C, a pulse of 119, and a blood pressure of 199/87. Edema was noted over the patient’s entire right flank (Figure 1A). Laboratory results were notable for a level of glucose of 298 mg/dL, sodium of 128 mmol/L, and white blood count (WBC) of 26,500 cells/μL with left shift. An emergency CT revealed an abscess of the abdominal wall involving the muscles, but no intra-abdominal pathology (Figure 1B).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.The patient received broad-spectrum antibiotics and was taken to the operating room for debridement. Upon incision there was subcutaneous edema with no puss, gangrene of the entire external oblique muscle, and an abscess between the external and internal oblique muscles. The muscles were debrided back to healthy, bleeding tissue and the wound copiously irrigated with saline. The wound was left open, with gauze and iodine as a cover. Gram stains and cultures returned group B streptococcus (GBS) sensitive to penicillin, and antibiotic coverage was adjusted accordingly. The patient returned to the operating room for serial debridement until the wound developed healthy granulation tissue. The patient received four units of blood and required 13 days of hospitalization. To date, he suffers from a disfiguring wound of his abdominal wall.

Considering the fact that group B streptococci live primarily in the female vagina, and that the acupuncturist was a young female, it is possible to assume that the cause for this grave illness was due to improper hygiene while treating our patient with acupuncture. Although rare, this tragic consequence of acupuncture has been seen previously by other researchers.

Case 2

A 27-year-old male with chronic cervical and back pain without any previous medical treatment or imaging was referred to a tertiary medical facility. To manage his pain, the patient used the services of a chiropractor who used cervical manipulation. Immediately after such a manipulation, the patient felt a severe cervical pain; 30 minutes after manipulation the patient started feeling paresthesia in his hands and legs. The patient was admitted to an emergency room with symptoms of progressive weakness in all four extremities and weakness. No additional symptoms were seen. Immediate MRI demonstrated an epidural hematoma at the C3-4 level (Figure 2).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The patient underwent immediate surgery to evacuate the hematoma via an anterior approach and C3-4 cage placement. The day after surgery the patient showed a remission of symptoms. At 6 months follow-up his remission was complete.

The literature includes several reports of SSPE immediately following a chiropractic manipulation that was considered the cause of this event. The authors of this case report concluded that chiropractic procedures can be dangerous when performed by practitioners who might be only partially trained, who might tend to perform an insufficient patient examination before the procedure, and thus endanger their patients.

On this blog, I have repeatedly warned that not all alternative treatments are free of risks. These two cases are impressive reminders of this undeniable fact.

I am sure that most proponents of alternative medicine will try to claim that

  • such complications are true rarities,
  • I am alarmist to keep alerting my readers to such events,
  • conventional medicine is dimensions more harmful,
  • the above cases are caused by poor practice.

However, I feel compelled to stress that there are no adequate post-marketing surveillance systems in alternative medicine and that the true frequencies of such events are therefore unknown. It seems therefore imperative (and not alarmist) to publicize such risks as widely as possible – in the hope that alternative practitioners, one day, might do the ethically and morally correct thing and implement proper surveillance of their practices.

For every condition which is not curable by conventional medicine there are dozens of alternative treatments that offer a cure or at least symptomatic relief. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is such a disease. It is hard to find an alternative therapy that is not being promoted for MS.

Acupuncture is, of course, no exception. It is widely promoted for treating MS symptoms and many MS patients spend lots of money hoping that it does. The US ‘National MS Society’, For instance claim that acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression. There is no evidence, however, that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of MS exacerbations or slow the progression of disability. And the ‘British Acupuncture Council’ state that acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression.

Such claims seem a little over-optimistic; let’s have a look what the evidence really tells us.

The purpose of this brand-new review was to assess the literature on the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating MS. A literature search resulted in 12 peer-reviewed articles on the subject that examined the use of acupuncture to treat MS related quality of life, fatigue, spasticity, and pain. The majority of the studies were poorly designed-without control, randomization, or blinding. Description of the subjects, interventions, and outcome measures as well as statistical analysis were often lacking or minimal.

The authors concluded that although many of the studies suggested that acupuncture was successful in improving MS related symptoms, lack of statistical rigor and poor study design make it difficult to draw any conclusions about the true effectiveness of this intervention in the MS population. Further studies with more rigorous designs and analysis are needed before accurate claims can be made as to the effectiveness of acupuncture in this population.

And what about other alternative therapies? Our own systematic review of the subject included 12 randomized controlled trials: nutritional therapy (4), massage (1), Feldenkrais bodywork (1), reflexology (1), magnetic field therapy (2), neural therapy (1) and psychological counselling (2). But the evidence was not compelling for any of these therapies, with many trials suffering from significant methodological flaws. There is evidence to suggest some benefit of nutritional therapy for the physical symptoms of MS. Magnetic field therapy and neural therapy appear to have a short-term beneficial effect on the physical symptoms of MS. Massage/bodywork and psychological counselling seem to improve depression, anxiety and self-esteem.

That was some time ago,  and it is therefore reasonable to ask: has the evidence changed? Thankfully, the ‘American Academy of Neurology’ has just published the following guidelines entitles complementary and alternative medicine in multiple sclerosis:

Clinicians might offer oral cannabis extract for spasticity symptoms and pain (excluding central neuropathic pain) (Level A). Clinicians might offer tetrahydrocannabinol for spasticity symptoms and pain (excluding central neuropathic pain) (Level B). Clinicians should counsel patients that these agents are probably ineffective for objective spasticity (short-term)/tremor (Level B) and possibly effective for spasticity and pain (long-term) (Level C). Clinicians might offer Sativex oromucosal cannabinoid spray (nabiximols) for spasticity symptoms, pain, and urinary frequency (Level B). Clinicians should counsel patients that these agents are probably ineffective for objective spasticity/urinary incontinence (Level B). Clinicians might choose not to offer these agents for tremor (Level C). Clinicians might counsel patients that magnetic therapy is probably effective for fatigue and probably ineffective for depression (Level B); fish oil is probably ineffective for relapses, disability, fatigue, MRI lesions, and quality of life (QOL) (Level B); ginkgo biloba is ineffective for cognition (Level A) and possibly effective for fatigue (Level C); reflexology is possibly effective for paresthesia (Level C); Cari Loder regimen is possibly ineffective for disability, symptoms, depression, and fatigue (Level C); and bee sting therapy is possibly ineffective for relapses, disability, fatigue, lesion burden/volume, and health-related QOL (Level C). Cannabinoids may cause adverse effects. Clinicians should exercise caution regarding standardized vs nonstandardized cannabis extracts and overall CAM quality control/nonregulation. Safety/efficacy of other CAM/CAM interaction with MS disease-modifying therapies is unknown.

Interestingly, on yesterday it was announced that the NHS in Wales has just made available a cannabis-based spray for MS-sufferers (I should mention that most cannabis-based preparations are not full plant extracts and thus by definition not herbal but conventional medicines).

It would be wonderful, if other alternative therapies were of proven benefit to MS-sufferers. But sadly, this does not seem to be the case. I think it is better to be truthful about this than to raise false hopes of desperate patients.

Blinding patients in clinical trials is a key methodological procedure for minimizing bias and thus making sure that the results are reliable. In alternative medicine, blinding is not always straight forward, and many studies are therefore not patient-blinded. We all know that this can introduce bias into a trial, but how large is its effect on study outcomes?

This was the research question addressed by a recent systematic review of randomized clinical trials with one sub-study (i.e. experimental vs control) involving blinded patients and another, otherwise identical, sub-study involving non-blinded patients. Within each trial, the researchers compared the difference in effect sizes (i.e. standardized mean differences) between the two sub-studies. A difference <0 indicates that non-blinded patients generated a more optimistic effect estimate. The researchers then pooled the differences with random-effects inverse variance meta-analysis, and explored reasons for heterogeneity.

The main analysis included 12 trials with a total of 3869 patients. Ten of these RCTs were studies of acupuncture. The average difference in effect size for patient-reported outcomes was -0.56 (95% confidence interval -0.71 to -0.41), (I(2 )= 60%, P = 0.004), indicating that non-blinded patients exaggerated the effect size by an average of 0.56 standard deviation, but with considerable variation. Two of the 12 trials also used observer-reported outcomes, showing no indication of exaggerated effects due lack of patient blinding.

There was an even larger effect size difference in the 10 acupuncture trials [-0.63 (-0.77 to -0.49)], than in the two non-acupuncture trials [-0.17 (-0.41 to 0.07)]. Lack of patient blinding was also associated with increased attrition rates and the use of co-interventions: ratio of control group attrition risk 1.79 (1.18 to 2.70), and ratio of control group co-intervention risk 1.55 (0.99 to 2.43).

The authors conclude that this study provides empirical evidence of pronounced bias due to lack of patient blinding in complementary/alternative randomized clinical trials with patient-reported outcomes.

This is a timely, rigorous and important analysis. In alternative medicine, we currently see a proliferation of trials that are not patient-blinded. We always suspected that they are at a high risk of generating false-positive results – now we know that this is, in fact, the case.

What should we do with this insight? In my view, the following steps would be wise:

  1. Take the findings from the existing trials that are devoid of patient-blinding with more than just a pinch of salt.
  2. Discourage the funding of future studies that fail to include patient-blinding.
  3. If patient-blinding is truly and demonstrably impossible – which is not often the case – make sure that the trialists at least include blinding of the assessors of the primary outcome measures.

There must be well over 10 000 clinical trials of acupuncture; Medline lists ~5 000, and many more are hidden in the non-Medline listed literature. That should be good news! Sadly, it isn’t.

It should mean that we now have a pretty good idea for what conditions acupuncture is effective and for which illnesses it does not work. But we don’t! Sceptics say it works for nothing, while acupuncturists claim it is a panacea. The main reason for this continued controversy is that the quality of the vast majority of these 10 000 studies is not just poor, it is lousy.

“Where is the evidence for this outraging statement???” – I hear the acupuncture-enthusiasts shout. Well, how about my own experience as editor-in-chief of FACT? No? Far too anecdotal?

How about looking at Cochrane reviews then; they are considered to be the most independent and reliable evidence in existence? There are many such reviews (most, if not all [co-]authored by acupuncturists) and they all agree that the scientific rigor of the primary studies is fairly awful. Here are the crucial bits of just the last three; feel free to look for more:

All of the studies had a high risk of bias

All included trials had a high risk of bias…

The studies were not judged to be free from bias…

Or how about providing an example? Good idea! Here is a new trial which could stand for numerous others:

This study was performed to compare the efficacy of acupuncture versus corticosteroid injection for the treatment of Quervain’s tendosynovitis (no, you do not need to look up what condition this is for understanding this post). Thirty patients were treated in two groups. The acupuncture group received 5 acupuncture sessions of 30 minutes duration. The injection group received one methylprednisolone acetate injection in the first dorsal compartment of the wrist. The degree of disability and pain was evaluated by using the Quick Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (Q-DASH) scale and the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) at baseline and at 2 weeks and 6 weeks after the start of treatment. The baseline means of the Q-DASH and the VAS scores were 62.8 and 6.9, respectively. At the last follow-up, the mean Q-DASH scores were 9.8 versus 6.2 in the acupuncture and injection groups, respectively, and the mean VAS scores were 2 versus 1.2. Thus there were short-term improvements of pain and function in both groups.

The authors drew the following conclusions: Although the success rate was somewhat higher with corticosteroid injection, acupuncture can be considered as an alternative option for treatment of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.

The flaws of this study are exemplary and numerous:

  • This should have been a study that compares two treatments – the technical term is ‘equivalence trial – and such studies need to be much larger to produce a meaningful result. Small sample sizes in equivalent trials will always make the two treatments look similarly effective, even if one is a pure placebo.
  • There is no gold standard treatment for this condition. This means that a comparative trial makes no sense at all. In such a situation, one ought to conduct a placebo-controlled trial.
  • There was no blinding of patients; therefore their expectation might have distorted the results.
  • The acupuncture group received more treatments than the injection group; therefore the additional attention might have distorted the findings.
  • Even if the results were entirely correct, one cannot conclude from them that acupuncture was effective; the notion that it was similarly ineffective as the injections is just as warranted.

These are just some of the most fatal flaws of this study. The sad thing is that similar criticisms can be made for most of the 10 000 trials of acupuncture. But the point here is not to nit-pick nor to quack-bust. My point is a different and more serious one: fatally flawed research is not just a ‘poor show’, it is unethical because it is a waste of scarce resources and, even more importantly, an abuse of patients for meaningless pseudo-science. All it does is it misleads the public into believing that acupuncture might be good for this or that condition and consequently make wrong therapeutic decisions.

In acupuncture (and indeed in most alternative medicine) research, the problem is so extremely wide-spread that it is high time to do something about it. Journal editors, peer-reviewers, ethics committees, universities, funding agencies and all others concerned with such research have to work together so that such flagrant abuse is stopped once and for all.

Yesterday, BBC NEWS published the following interesting text about a BBC4 broadcast entitled ‘THE ROYAL ACTIVIST’ aired on the same day:

Prince Charles has been a well-known supporter of complementary medicine. According to a… former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, it was a topic they shared an interest in.

“He had been constantly frustrated at his inability to persuade any health ministers anywhere that that was a good idea, and so he, as he once described it to me, found me unique from this point of view, in being somebody that actually agreed with him on this, and might want to deliver it.”
Mr Hain added: “When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005-7, he was delighted when I told him that since I was running the place I could more or less do what I wanted to do.***
“I was able to introduce a trial for complementary medicine on the NHS, and it had spectacularly good results, that people’s well-being and health was vastly improved.

“And when he learnt about this he was really enthusiastic and tried to persuade the Welsh government to do the same thing and the government in Whitehall to do the same thing for England, but not successfully,” added Mr Hain.

*** obviously there is no homeopathic remedy for megalomania (but that’s a different story)

Oh really?

A TRIAL?

SPECTACULARLY GOOD RESULTS?

NO KIDDING?

Let’s have a look at the ‘trial’ and its results. An easily accessible report provides the following details about it:

From February 2007 to February 2008, Get Well UK ran the UK’s first government-backed complementary therapy pilot. Sixteen practitioners provided treatments including acupuncture, osteopathy and aromatherapy, to more than 700 patients at two GP practices in Belfast and Derry.   

The BBC made an hour long documentary following our trials and tribulations, which was broadcast on BBC1 NI on 5 May 2008.

Following the successful completion of the pilot, the results were analysed by Social and Market Research and recommendations were made to the Health Minister

Aims and Objectives 

The aim of the project was to pilot services integrating complementary medicine into existing primary care services in Northern Ireland. Get Well UK provided this pilot project for the Department for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) during 2007.

The objectives were:

  • To measure the health outcomes of the service and monitor health improvements.
  • To redress inequalities in access to complementary medicine by providing therapies through the NHS, allowing access regardless of income.
  • To contribute to best practise in the field of delivering complementary therapies through primary care.
  • To provide work for suitably skilled and qualified practitioners.
  • To increase patient satisfaction with quick access to expert care.
  • To help patients learn skills to improve and retain their health.
  • To free up GP time to work with other patients.
  • To deliver the programme for 700 patients.

Results 

The results of the pilot were analysed by Social and Market Research, who produced this report.

The findings can be summarised as follows: 

Following the pilot, 80% of patients reported an improvement in their symptoms, 64% took less time off work and 55% reduced their use of painkillers.

In the pilot, 713 patients with a range of ages and demographic backgrounds and either physical or mental health conditions were referred to various complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies via nine GP practices in Belfast and Londonderry. Patients assessed their own health and wellbeing pre and post therapy and GPs and CAM practitioners also rated patients’ responses to treatment and the overall effectiveness of the scheme.

Health improvement
• 81% of patients reported an improvement in their physical health
• 79% reported an improvement in their mental health
• 84% of patients linked an improvement in their health and wellbeing directly to their CAM treatment
• In 65% of patient cases, GPs documented a health improvement, correlating closely to patient-reported improvements
• 94% of patients said they would recommend CAM to another patient with their condition
• 87% of patient indicated a desire to continue with their CAM treatment

Painkillers and medication
• Half of GPs reported prescribing less medication and all reported that patients had indicated to them that they needed less
• 62% of patients reported suffering from less pain
• 55% reported using less painkillers following treatment
• Patients using medication reduced from 75% before treatment to 61% after treatment
• 44% of those taking medication before treatment had reduced their use afterwards

Health service and social benefits
• 24% of patients who used health services prior to treatment (i.e. primary and secondary care, accident and emergency) reported using the services less after treatment
• 65% of GPs reported seeing the patient less following the CAM referral
• Half of GPs said the scheme had reduced their workload and 17% reported a financial saving for their practice
• Half of GPs said their patients were using secondary care services less.

Impressed? Well, in case you are, please consider this:

  • there was no control group
  • therefore it is not possible to attribute any of the outcomes to the alternative therapies offered
  • they could have been due to placebo-effects
  • or to the natural history of the disease
  • or to regression towards the mean
  • or to social desirability
  • or to many other factors which are unrelated to the alternative treatments provided
  • most outcome measures were not objectively verified
  • the patients were self-selected
  • they would all have had conventional treatments in parallel
  • this ‘trial’ was of such poor quality that its findings were never published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • this was not a ‘trial’ but a ‘pilot study’
  • pilot studies are not normally for measuring outcomes but for testing the feasibility of a proper trial
  • the research expertise of the investigators was close to zero
  • the scientific community merely had pitiful smiles for this ‘trial’ when it was published
  • neither Northern Ireland nor any other region implemented the programme despite its “spectacularly good results”.

So, is the whole ‘trial’ story an utterly irrelevant old hat?

Certainly not! Its true significance does not lie in the fact that a few amateurs are trying to push bogus treatments into the NHS via the flimsiest pseudo-research of the century. The true significance, I think, is that it shows how Prince Charles, once again, oversteps the boundaries of his constitutional role.

If you are pregnant, a ‘breech presentation’ is not good news. It occurs when the fetus presents ‘bottom-down’ in the uterus. There are three types:

  • Breech with extended legs (frank) – 85% of cases
  • Breech with fully flexed legs (complete)
  • Footling (incomplete) with one or both thighs extended

The significance of breech presentation is its association with higher perinatal mortality and morbidity when compared to cephalic presentations. This is due both to pre-existing congenital malformation, increased incidence of breech in premature deliveries and increased risk of intrapartum trauma or asphyxia. Caesarean section has been adopted as the ‘normal’ mode of delivery for term breech presentations in Europe and the USA, as the consensus is that this reduces the risk of birth-related complications.

But Caesarian section is also not a desirable procedure. Something far less invasive would be much more preferable, of course. This is where the TCM-practitioners come in. They claim they have the solution: moxibustion, i.e. the stimulation of acupuncture points by heat. But does it really work? Can it turn the fetus into the correct position?

This new study aimed to assess the efficacy of moxibustion (heating of the acupuncture needle with an igniting charcoal moxa stick) with acupuncture for version of breech presentations to reduce their rate at 37 weeks of gestation and at delivery. It was a randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind trial including 328 pregnant women recruited in a university hospital center between 33 4/7 and 35 4/7 weeks of gestation. Moxibustion with acupuncture or inactivated laser (placebo) treatment was applied to point BL 67 for 6 sessions. The principal endpoint was the percentage of fetuses in breech presentation at 37 2/7 weeks of gestation.

The results show that the percentage of fetuses in breech presentation at 37 2/7 weeks of gestation was not significantly different in both groups (72.0 in the moxibustion with acupuncture group compared with 63.4% in the placebo group).

The authors concluded that treatment by moxibustion with acupuncture was not effective in correcting breech presentation in the third trimester of pregnancy.

You might well ask why on earth anyone expected that stimulating an acupuncture point would turn a fetus in the mother’s uterus into the optimal position that carries the least risk during the process of giving birth. This is what proponents of this technique say about this approach:

During a TCM consultation to turn a breech baby the practitioner will take a comprehensive case history, make a diagnosis and apply the appropriate acupuncture treatment.  They will assess if moxibustion might be helpful. Practitioners will then instruct women on how to locate the appropriate acupuncture points and demonstrate how to safely apply moxa at home. The acupuncture point UB 67 is the primary point selected for use because it is the most dynamic point to activate the uterus.  Its forte is in turning malpositioned babies.  It is located on the outer, lower edge of both little toenails. According to TCM theory, moxa has a tonifying and warming effect which promotes movement and activity.  The nature of heat is also rising.  This warming and raising effect is utilised to encourage the baby to become more active and lift its bottom up in order to gain adequate momentum to summersault into the head down position. This technique can also be used to reposition transverse presentation, a situation where the baby’s has its shoulder or back pointing down, or is lying sideways across the abdomen.

Not convinced? I can’t say I blame you!

Clearly, we need to know what the totality of the most reliable evidence shows; and what better than a Cochrane review to inform us about it? Here is what it tells us:

Moxibustion was not found to reduce the number of non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with no treatment (P = 0.45). Moxibustion resulted in decreased use of oxytocin before or during labour for women who had vaginal deliveries compared with no treatment (risk ratio (RR) 0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.13 to 0.60). Moxibustion was found to result in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with acupuncture (RR 0.25, 95% CI 0.09 to 0.72). When combined with acupuncture, moxibustion resulted in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth (RR 0.73, 95% CI 0.57 to 0.94), and fewer births by caesarean section (RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.98) compared with no treatment. When combined with a postural technique, moxibustion was found to result in fewer non-cephalic presentations at birth compared with the postural technique alone (RR 0.26, 95% CI 0.12 to 0.56).

In other words, there is indeed some encouraging albeit not convincing evidence! How can this be? There is no plausible explanation why this treatment should work!

But there is a highly plausible explanation why the results of many of the relevant trials are false-positive thus rendering a meta-analysis false-positive as well. I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog that practically all Chinese TCM-studies report (false) positive results; and many of the studies included in this review were done in China. The Cochrane review provides a strong hint about the lack of rigor in its ‘plain language summary’:

The included trials were of moderate methodological quality, sample sizes in some of the studies were small, how the treatment was applied differed and reporting was limited. While the results were combined they should be interpreted with caution due to the differences in the included studies. More evidence is needed concerning the benefits and safety of moxibustion.

So, would I recommend moxibustion for breech conversion? I don’t think so!

An article in the ‘Huffpost Healthy Living’ recently discussed “the top three things that surprise people about acupuncture”. On closer inspection, they turn out to be the top three untruths about acupuncture. Here is (in italics and slightly abbreviated) what the article said.

Acupuncture is not just for pain

…It’s true that acupuncture can work wonders on pain conditions…However, acupuncture can alleviate a wide variety of ailments that have nothing to do with physical pain. Whether you have digestive issues, gynecological conditions, emotional concerns such as anxiety and depression, asthma, seasonal allergies, you name it, acupuncture can help address your symptoms.

Acupuncturists go to school for a long time

People tend to be unaware of the extent to which acupuncturists train to become licensed in their profession. Many assume becoming an acupuncturist is similar to becoming a massage therapist or Reiki practitioner or yoga instructor… At minimum, a licensed acupuncturist in the United States has been to three years of graduate school. Four years is more common. They hold master’s degrees. Some acupuncturists with doctorates have studied at the graduate level for five-plus years. Upon graduating from an accredited school, all acupuncturists must pass multiple board exams to become licensed in their state. In addition to the academic and state requirements for practicing acupuncture, many acupuncturists seek hands-on training and mentorship in the form of apprenticeships and continuing education seminars.

Acupuncture is relaxing

Acupuncture needles are surprisingly thin. They do not bear any resemblance to needles that are used for injections or to draw blood… In most cases, the insertion of acupuncture needles does not hurt…Once the needles are in, they start working their magic, which is where the relaxation part comes in. Acupuncture helps shift your body out of sympathetic mode (fight or flight) and into parasympathetic mode (rest and digest). It mellows out the nervous system, decreases muscular tension, and helps quiet internal chatter…

AND NOW THE FACTS:

1) There is not a single condition for which the evidence is truly compelling demonstrating that acupuncture is more than a placebo. Certainly there is no good evidence that acupuncture works for digestive issues, gynecological conditions, emotional concerns such as anxiety and depression, asthma or seasonal allergies.

2) In most countries, anyone can call themselves an acupuncturist, regardless of background or training.

3) The relaxing element of an acupuncture session is foremost the fact that patients lie down and have to keep still for 20 minutes or so. The insertion of needles does cause mild pain in many patients, and the claim about parasympathetic mode is mostly phantasy.

I despair about the nonsense that is published about alternative medicine on a daily basis – not because I have an axe to grind, but because it misleads patients into making wrong therapeutic decisions.

A recent meta-analysis evaluated the efficacy of acupuncture for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and arrived at bizarrely positive conclusions.

The authors state that they searched 4 electronic databases for double-blind, placebo-controlled trials investigating the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of IBS. Studies were screened for inclusion based on randomization, controls, and measurable outcomes reported.

Six RCTs were included in the meta-analysis, and 5 articles were of high quality.  The pooled relative risk for clinical improvement with acupuncture was 1.75 (95%CI: 1.24-2.46, P = 0.001). Using two different statistical approaches, the authors confirmed the efficacy of acupuncture for treating IBS and concluded that acupuncture exhibits clinically and statistically significant control of IBS symptoms.

As IBS is a common and often difficult to treat condition, this would be great news! But is it true? We do not need to look far to find the embarrassing mistakes and – dare I say it? – lies on which this result was constructed.

The largest RCT included in this meta-analysis was neither placebo-controlled nor double blind; it was a pragmatic trial with the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design. Here is the key part of its methods section: 116 patients were offered 10 weekly individualised acupuncture sessions plus usual care, 117 patients continued with usual care alone. Intriguingly, this was the ONLY one of the 6 RCTs with a significantly positive result!

The second largest study (as well as all the other trials) showed that acupuncture was no better than sham treatments. Here is the key quote from this trial: there was no statistically significant difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

So, let me re-write the conclusions of this meta-analysis without spin, lies or hype: These results of this meta-analysis seem to indicate that:

  1. currently there are several RCTs testing whether acupuncture is an effective therapy for IBS,
  2. all the RCTs that adequately control for placebo-effects show no effectiveness of acupuncture,
  3. the only RCT that yields a positive result does not make any attempt to control for placebo-effects,
  4. this suggests that acupuncture is a placebo,
  5. it also demonstrates how misleading studies with the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design can be,
  6. finally, this meta-analysis seems to be a prime example of scientific misconduct with the aim of creating a positive result out of data which are, in fact, negative.

It is almost 10 years ago that Prof Kathy Sykes’ BBC series entitled ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE was aired. I had been hired by the BBC as their advisor for the programme and had tried my best to iron out the many mistakes that were about to be broadcast. But the scope for corrections turned out to be narrow and, at one stage, the errors seemed too serious and too far beyond repair to continue with my task. I had thus offered my resignation from this post. Fortunately this move led to some of my concerns being addressed after all, and they convinced me to remain in post.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Kathy presented the opening scene of a young women undergoing open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. All the BBC had ever shown me and asked me to advise on was the text – I had never seen the images. Kathy’s text included the statement that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  I had not objected to this statement in the firm belief that the images of the film would back up this extraordinary claim. As it turned out, it did not; the patient clearly had all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines and, in the film, these were openly in the view of Kathy Sykes.

This overt contradiction annoyed not just me but several other people as well. One of them was Simon Singh who filed an official complaint against the BBC for misleading the public, and eventually won his case.

The notion that acupuncture can serve as an alternative to anaesthesia or other surgical conditions crops up with amazing regularity. It is important not least because is often used as a promotional tool with the implication that, IF ACUPUNCTURE CAN ACHIVE SUCH DRAMATIC EFFECTS, IT MUST BE AN INCREDIBLY USEFUL TREATMENT! It is therefore relevant to ask what the scientific evidence tells us about this issue.

This was the question we wanted to address in a recent publication. Specifically, our aim was to summarise recent systematic reviews of acupuncture for surgical conditions.

Thirteen electronic databases were searched for relevant reviews published since 2000. Data were extracted by two independent reviewers according to predefined criteria. Twelve systematic reviews met our inclusion criteria. They related to the prevention or treatment of post-operative nausea and vomiting as well as to surgical or post-operative pain. The reviews drew conclusions which were far from uniform; specifically for surgical pain the evidence was not convincing. We concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention in surgical settings.”

So, Kathy Sykes’ comment was misguided in more than just one way: firstly, the scene she described in the film did not support what she was saying; secondly, the scientific evidence fails to support the notion that acupuncture can be used as an alternative to analgesia during surgery.

This story has several positive outcomes all the same. After seeing the BBC programme, Simon Singh contacted me to learn my views on the matter. This prompted me to support his complaint against the BBC and helped him to win this case. Furthermore, it led to a co-operation and friendship which produced our book TRICK OR TREATMENT.

After a traumatic brain injury (TBI) the risk of stroke is significantly increased. Taiwanese researchers conducted a study to find out whether acupuncture can help to protect TBI patients from stroke. They used Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database to conduct a retrospective cohort study of 7409 TBI patients receiving acupuncture treatment and 29,636 propensity-score-matched TBI patients without acupuncture treatment as controls. Both TBI cohorts were followed for up to two years and adjusted for immortal time to measure the incidence and adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) of new-onset stroke.

TBI patients with acupuncture treatment (4.9 per 1000 person-years) had a lower incidence of stroke compared with those without acupuncture treatment (7.5 per 1000 person-years), with a HR of 0.59 (95% CI = 0.50-0.69) after adjustment for sociodemographics, coexisting medical conditions and medications. The association between acupuncture treatment and stroke risk was investigated by sex and age group (20-44, 45-64, and ≥65 years). The probability curve with log-rank test showed that TBI patients receiving acupuncture treatment had a lower probability of stroke than those without acupuncture treatment during the follow-up period (p<0.0001).

The authors conclude that patients with TBI receiving acupuncture treatment show decreased risk of stroke compared with those without acupuncture treatment. However, this study was limited by lack of information regarding lifestyles, biochemical profiles, TBI severity, and acupuncture points used in treatments.

I want to congratulate the authors for adding the last sentence to their conclusions. There is no plausible mechanism that I can think of by which acupuncture might bring about the observed effect. This does not mean that an effect does not exist; it means, however, that it is wise to be cautious and to not jump to conclusions which later need to be revised. The simplest interpretation, by far, of the observed phenomenon is that those patients opting to have acupuncture were, on average, less ill and therefore had a lower risk of stroke.

Having said that, the findings are, I think, intriguing enough to conduct further investigations – provided they are rigorous and eliminate the confounders that prevented this study from arriving at more definitive conclusions.

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