Many cancer patients will suffer from severe, debilitating fatigue during the course of their illness. The exact cause of this common symptom is not entirely clear. Most likely it is due to a combination of the cancer and the treatments used to cure it. Managing cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is thus an important part of the palliative and supportive care of cancer patients. Acupuncture is often advocated for this purpose and many centres use it routinely. The question therefore is, does it work?
The most recent trial on this subject was aimed at assessing the effectiveness of maintenance acupuncture in the management of CRF; acupuncture or self-acupuncture/self-needling was compared with no such treatment. Breast cancer patients who previously had received acupuncture were randomized to have 4 acupuncturist-delivered weekly sessions, 4 self-administered weekly acupuncture sessions (self-needling); or no acupuncture at all. The primary outcome-measure was general fatigue, while mood, quality of life and safety served as secondary endpoints. In total, 197 patients were randomized: 65 to therapist-delivered sessions, 67 to self-acupuncture/self-needling and 65 to no further acupuncture. The results failed to demonstrate significant inter-group differences in any of the parameters evaluated. The authors concluded that “maintenance acupuncture did not yield important improvements beyond those observed after an initial clinic-based course of acupuncture“.
But this is just one single of several available studies. Acupuncture-fans might suspect me of cherry-picking a largely negative study. If we want a fair verdict, we must consider the totality of the evidence. The aim of our systematic review was therefore to critically evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture (AT) for CRF based on all the trial data available to us.
Fourteen databases were searched from their respective inception to November 2012. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of AT for the treatment of CRF were considered for inclusion. The risk of bias/methodological quality was assessed using the method suggested by the Cochrane Collaboration. Seven RCTs met the eligibility criteria. Most were small pilot studies with serious methodological flaws. Four of them showed effectiveness of AT or AT in addition to usual care (UC) over sham AT, UC, enhanced UC, or no intervention for alleviating CRF. Three RCTs failed to demonstrate an effect of AT over sham treatment.
Our conclusion had to be cautious: “Overall, the quantity and quality of RCTs included in the analysis were too low to draw meaningful conclusions. Even in the positive trials, it remained unclear whether the observed outcome was due to specific effects of AT or nonspecific effects of care. Further research is required to investigate whether AT demonstrates specific effects on CRF”
There will, of course, be those who claim that no trial evidence is needed in this case; if a cancer-patient benefits from the treatment, she should have it regardless of whether it works as a placebo or has effects beyond that. I do sympathize with this attitude but should point out that there are a number of points to consider when making it:
2) There are other treatments against CRF; if we blindly advocate acupuncture, we might not offer the best option to our patients.
3) If we spend our limited resources on acupuncture, we might not afford treatments which are more effective.
4) If we are happy using acupuncture because it conveys a sizable placebo-effect, how will we make progress in finding treatments that are more effective?
It is therefore difficult to decide whether or not to recommend acupuncture for CRF. There are some arguments for both sides. Skeptics or critical thinkers or clinicians adhering to the principles of evidence-based medicine are unlikely to condone it, and some people might accuse them for cruelly and heartlessly denying severely ill patients help which they so badly need. Personally, I fail to see what is cruel or heartless in insisting that these patients receive the treatment which demonstrably works best – and that does not seem to be acupuncture.