Postoperative ileus (POI), the phenomenon that after an operation the intestines tend to be inactive for a few days, can cause intense pain and thus contributes significantly to human suffering. It also prolongs hospital stay and increases the risks of post-operative complications. There is no known effective treatment for POI.
In China, POI is often treated with acupuncture, and due to this fact acupuncture became known in the West: James Reston, a journalist who accompanied Nixon on his first trip to China, had to have an appendectomy in a Beijing hospital, he subsequently suffered from POI, was treated with acupuncture and moxibustion, experienced symptom-relief, and subsequently wrote about it in the New York Times. This was the beginning of the present acupuncture-boom.
Since then, thousands of acupuncture trials have been published but, intriguingly, very few have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture for POI. Now researchers from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York have conducted a randomized, sham-controlled trial to test whether acupuncture reduces POI more effectively than sham acupuncture.
Ninety colon cancer patients undergoing elective colectomy were randomized to receive 30 min of true or sham acupuncture twice daily during their first three postoperative days. GI-3 (the later of the following two events: time that the patient first tolerated solid food, AND time that the patient first passed flatus OR a bowel movement) and GI-2 (the later of the following two events: time patient first tolerated solid food AND time patient first passed a bowel movement) were determined. Pain, nausea, vomiting, and use of pain medications were evaluated daily for the first three postoperative days. Eighty-one patients received the allocated intervention: 39 the true acupuncture and 42 the sham acupuncture. The mean time to GI-3 was 149 hours and 146 hours for the acupuncture group and the sham acupuncture group. No significant differences were found between groups for secondary endpoints.
The authors’ conclusion was clear: True acupuncture as provided in this study did not reduce POI more significantly than sham acupuncture.
So, did a mere misunderstanding start the present acupuncture boom? POI inevitably normalises with time. Did the journalist just imagine that acupuncture helped, while nature cured the condition? It would seem so, according to this study. But perhaps things are not just black or white. Almost at the same time as the New York trial, another study was emerged.
Researchers from Hong Kong conducted an RCT with 165 patients undergoing elective laparoscopic surgery for colonic and upper rectal cancer. Patients were assigned randomly to receive electroacupuncture (n = 55) or sham acupuncture (n = 55), once daily from postoperative days 1-4, or no acupuncture (n = 55). The primary outcome was time to defecation. Secondary outcomes included postoperative analgesic requirement, time to ambulation, and length of hospital stay. The results showed that patients who received electroacupuncture had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received no acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 122.1 ± 53.5 h) and length of hospital stay (6.5 ± 2.2 vs 8.5 ± 4.8 days). Patients who received electroacupuncture also had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received sham acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 107.5 ± 46.2 h). Electroacupuncture was more effective than no or sham acupuncture in reducing postoperative analgesic requirement and time to ambulation.
The Chinese researchers’ conclusion is equally clear: electroacupuncture reduced the duration of postoperative ileus, time to ambulation, and postoperative analgesic requirement, compared with no or sham acupuncture, after laparoscopic surgery for colorectal cancer.
The only other trial I know in this area failed to show that acupuncture shortens POI. What should we make of these data? A systematic review would be nice, of course, but, to the best of my knowledge, none is currently available.
Is this a question of everyone being able to pick and chose the evidence they like? Is it a question of who we trust, the researchers in New York or those in China? Is it a question of where the treatment was done authentically? Is it a question of critically analysing which study had the higher risks of bias? Or is it a question of simply saying that two negative studies are more than one positive trial?
Confused? Me too, a little!
Whatever answers we chose, several things seems fairly certain to me. It would be wrong to say that there is good evidence for acupuncture as a treatment of POI. And the acupuncture-boom that ensued after Reston’s article was to a very large degree built on a simple misunderstanding: POI is a condition that resolves literally into thin air whether we treat it or not.