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

I have said it often, and I say it again: I do like well-conducted systematic reviews; and Cochrane reviews are usually the best, i. e. most transparent, most thorough and least biased. Thus, I was pleased to see a new Cochrane review of acupuncture aimed at assessing the benefits and harms of acupuncture in patients with hip OA.

The authors included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, another active treatment, or no specific treatment; and RCTs that evaluated acupuncture as an addition to another treatment. Major outcomes were pain and function at the short term (i.e. < 3 months after randomization) and adverse events.

Six RCTs with 413 participants were included. Four RCTs included only people with OA of the hip, and two included a mix of people with OA of the hip and knee. All RCTs included primarily older participants, with a mean age range from 61 to 67 years, and a mean duration of hip OA pain from two to eight years. Approximately two-thirds of participants were women. Two RCTs compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture; the other four RCTs were not blinded. All results were evaluated at short-term (i.e. four to nine weeks after randomization).In the two RCTs that compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture, the sham acupuncture control interventions were judged believable, but each sham acupuncture intervention was also judged to have a risk of weak acupuncture-specific effects, due to placement of non-penetrating needles at the correct acupuncture points in one RCT, and the use of penetrating needles not inserted at the correct points in the other RCT. For these two sham-controlled RCTs, the risk of bias was low for all outcomes.

The combined analysis of two sham-controlled RCTs gave moderate quality evidence of little or no effect in reduction in pain for acupuncture relative to sham acupuncture. Due to the small sample sizes in the studies, the confidence interval includes both the possibility of moderate benefit and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture (120 participants; Standardized Mean Difference (SMD) -0.13, (95% Confidence Interval (CI) -0.49 to 0.22); 2.1 points greater improvement with acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture on 100 point scale (i.e., absolute percent change -2.1% (95% CI -7.9% to 3.6%)); relative percent change -4.1% (95% CI -15.6% to 7.0%)). Estimates of effect were similar for function (120 participants; SMD -0.15, (95% CI -0.51 to 0.21)). No pooled estimate, representative of the two sham-controlled RCTs, could be calculated or reported for the quality of life outcome.

The four other RCTs were unblinded comparative effectiveness RCTs, which compared (additional) acupuncture to four different active control treatments. There was low quality evidence that addition of acupuncture to the routine primary care that RCT participants were receiving from their physicians was associated with statistically significant and clinically relevant benefits, compared to the routine primary physician care alone, in pain (1 RCT; 137 participants; mean percent difference -22.9% (95% CI -29.2% to -16.6%); relative percent difference -46.5% (95% CI -59.3% to -33.7%)) and function (mean percent difference -19.0% (95% CI -24.41 to -13.59); relative percent difference -38.6% (95% CI -49.6% to -27.6%)). There was no statistically significant difference for mental quality of life and acupuncture showed a small, significant benefit for physical quality of life.

The effects of acupuncture compared with either advice plus exercise or NSAIDs are uncertain. The authors are also uncertain whether acupuncture plus patient education improves pain, function, and quality of life, when compared to patient education alone.

In general, the overall quality of the evidence for the four comparative effectiveness RCTs was low to very low, mainly due to the potential for biased reporting of patient-assessed outcomes due to lack of blinding and sparse data.

Information on safety was reported in 4 RCTs. Two RCTs reported minor side effects of acupuncture, which were primarily minor bruising, bleeding, or pain at needle insertion sites.

The authors concluded that acupuncture probably has little or no effect in reducing pain or improving function relative to sham acupuncture in people with hip osteoarthritis. Due to the small sample size in the studies, the confidence intervals include both the possibility of moderate benefits and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture. One unblinded trial found that acupuncture as an addition to routine primary physician care was associated with benefits on pain and function. However, these reported benefits are likely due at least partially to RCT participants’ greater expectations of benefit from acupuncture. Possible side effects associated with acupuncture treatment were minor.

This is an excellent review of data that (because of contradictions, methodological limitations, heterogeneity etc.) are not easy to evaluate fairly. The review shows that previous verdicts about acupuncture for osteoarthritis might have been too optimistic. Acupuncture has no or only very small specific therapeutic effects. As we have much better therapeutic options for this condition, it means that acupuncture can no longer be recommended as an effective therapy.

That surely must be big news in the little world of acupuncture!

I have been personally involved in several similar reviews:

In 1997, I concluded that the most rigorous studies suggest that acupuncture is not superior to sham-needling in reducing pain of osteoarthritis: both alleviate symptoms to roughly the same degree.

In 2006, the balance of evidence seemed to have shifted and more positive data had emerged; consequently our review concluded that sham-controlled RCTs suggest specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with peripheral joint OA. Considering its favourable safety profile acupuncture seems an option worthy of consideration particularly for knee OA. Further studies are required particularly for manual or electro-acupuncture in hip OA.

Now, it seems that my initial conclusion of 1996 was more realistic. To me this is a fascinating highlight on the fact that in EBM, we change our minds based on the current best evidence. By contrast, in alternative medicine, as we have often lamented on this blog, minds do not easily change and all too often dogma seems to reign.

The new Cochrane review is important in several ways. Firstly, it affirms an appropriately high standard for such reviews. Secondly, it originates from a research team that has, in the past, been outspokenly pro-acupuncture; it is therefore unlikely that the largely negative findings were due to an anti-acupuncture bias. Thirdly – and most importantly – osteoarthritis has been THE condition for which even critical reviewers had to admit that there was at least some good, positive evidence.

It seems therefore, that yet again a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact.

12 Responses to Acupuncture: a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact

  • Hi Edzard. Are you certain that Sham acupuncture (e.g. the Streitberger needle) does not itself modulate pain?

  • As sham acupuncture doesn’t cause bruising, bleeding, or pain, I would expect a fair number of subjects to be unblinded. The statistics are beyond me, but I’d guess that an increased confidence interval would be corrective.

  • And once again an A+B vs B trial is the only cited instance in reported improvement.

  • Yet again doubts are raised regarding the validity of sham acupuncture. Such a doubt means the study is self-defeating.

    There is no doubt about the status of a sugar pill. A sugar pill is a sham treatment. Drugs are measured against sham treatments. Acupuncture is measured against…?

    Science can’t say it works but can’t exactly say is doesn’t. Acupuncture is popular and serious adverse effects very rare. So what’s the real harm?

    Acupuncture has no scientific underpinning but has spawned an industry of fake research. That’s a harm.

  • LOL, their conclusion was sample was too small to statically differentiate. And findings were subjective. Come back again.

  • Great post. Thanks for your work, Dr Ernst.
    What’s your opinión about this RCT with acupuncture and sham acupuncture for aromatase inhibitors induced arthralgia? Presented in last edition of San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium:

    http://www.ascopost.com/News/58329

    Placebo effect for both, true and sham acupuncture?

    Could it be thought that the higher effect in true acupuncture arm is explained because sham acupuncture is not perceived as true acupuncture by patients, loosing its theatrical placebo effect ?

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