MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

One of the most commonly ‘accepted’ indications for acupuncture is anxiety. Many trials have suggested that it is effective for that condition. But is this really true? To find out, we need someone to conduct a systematic review or meta-analysis.

Korean researchers have just published such a paper; they wanted to assess the preoperative anxiolytic efficacy of acupuncture therapy and therefore conducted a meta-analysis of all RCTs on the subject. Four electronic databases were searched up to February 2014. Data were included in the meta-analysis from RCTs in which groups receiving preoperative acupuncture treatment were compared with control groups receiving a placebo for anxiety.

Fourteen publications with a total of 1,034 patients were included. Six RCTs, using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory-State (STAI-S), reported that acupuncture interventions led to greater reductions in preoperative anxiety relative to sham acupuncture. A further eight publications, employing visual analogue scales, also indicated significant differences in preoperative anxiety amelioration between acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

The authors concluded that aacupuncture therapy aiming at reducing preoperative anxiety has a statistically significant effect relative to placebo or nontreatment conditions. Well-designed and rigorous studies that employ large sample sizes are necessary to corroborate this finding.

From these conclusions most casual readers might get the impression that acupuncture is indeed effective. One has to dig a bit deeper to realise that is perhaps not so.

Why? Because the quality of the primary studies was often dismally poor. Most did not even mention adverse effects which, in my view, is a clear breach of publication ethics. What is more, all the studies were wide open to bias. The authors of the meta-analysis include in their results section the following short paragraph:

The 14 included studies exhibited various degrees of bias susceptibility (Figure 2 and Figure 3). The agreement rate, as measured using Cohen’s kappa, was 0.8 [32]. Only six studies reported concealed allocation; the other six described a method of adequate randomization, although the word “randomization” appeared in all of the articles. Thirteen studies prevented blinding of the participants. Participants in these studies had no previous experience of acupuncture. According to STRICTA, two studies enquired after patients’ beliefs as a group: there were no significant differences [20, 24].

There is a saying amongst experts about such meta-analyses: RUBBISH IN, RUBBISH OUT. It describes the fact that several poor studies, pooled meta-analytically, can never give a reliable result.

This does, however, not mean that such meta-analyses are necessarily useless. If the authors prominently (in the abstract) stress that the quality of the primary studies was wanting and that therefore the overall result is unreliable, they might inspire future researchers to conduct more rigorous trials and thus generate progress. Most importantly, by insisting on pointing out these limitations and by not drawing positive conclusions from flawed data, they would avoid misleading those health care professionals – and let’s face it, they are the majority – who merely read the abstract or even just the conclusions of such articles.

The authors of this review have failed to do any of this; they and the journal EBCAM have thus done a disservice to us all by contributing to the constant drip of misleading and false-positive information about the value of acupuncture.

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