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

My previous post praised the validity and trustworthiness of Cochrane reviews. This post continues in the same line.

Like osteoarthritis, acute stroke has been a condition for which acupuncture-fans prided themselves of being able to produce fairly good evidence. A Cochrane review of 2005, however, was inconclusive and concluded that the number of patients is too small to be certain whether acupuncture is effective for treatment of acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke. Larger, methodologically-sound trials are required.

So, 13 years later, we do have more evidence, and it would be interesting to know what the best evidence tells us today. This new review will tell us because it is the update of the previous Cochrane Review originally published in 2005.

The authors sought randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of acupuncture started within 30 days from stroke onset compared with placebo or sham acupuncture or open control (no placebo) in people with acute ischemic or haemorrhagic stroke, or both. Needling into the skin was required for acupuncture. Comparisons were made versus (1) all controls (open control or sham acupuncture), and (2) sham acupuncture controls.

Two review authors applied the inclusion criteria, assessed trial quality and risk of bias, and extracted data independently. They contacted study authors to ask for missing data and assessed the quality of the evidence by using the GRADE approach. The primary outcome was defined as death or dependency at the end of follow-up.

In total, 33 RCTs with 3946 participants were included. Twenty new trials with 2780 participants had been completed since the previous review. Outcome data were available for up to 22 trials (2865 participants) that compared acupuncture with any control (open control or sham acupuncture) but for only six trials (668 participants) that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture control. The authors downgraded the evidence to low or very low quality because of risk of bias in included studies, inconsistency in the acupuncture intervention and outcome measures, and imprecision in effect estimates.

When compared with any control (11 trials with 1582 participants), findings of lower odds of death or dependency at the end of follow-up and over the long term (≥ three months) in the acupuncture group were uncertain (odds ratio [OR] 0.61, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.46 to 0.79; very low-quality evidence; and OR 0.67, 95% CI 0.53 to 0.85; eight trials with 1436 participants; very low-quality evidence, respectively) and were not confirmed by trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture (OR 0.71, 95% CI 0.43 to 1.18; low-quality evidence; and OR 0.67, 95% CI 0.40 to 1.12; low-quality evidence, respectively).In trials comparing acupuncture with any control, findings that acupuncture was associated with increases in the global neurological deficit score and in the motor function score were uncertain (standardized mean difference [SMD] 0.84, 95% CI 0.36 to 1.32; 12 trials with 1086 participants; very low-quality evidence; and SMD 1.08, 95% CI 0.45 to 1.71; 11 trials with 895 participants; very low-quality evidence).

These findings were not confirmed in trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture (SMD 0.01, 95% CI -0.55 to 0.57; low-quality evidence; and SMD 0.10, 95% CI -0.38 to 0.17; low-quality evidence, respectively).Trials comparing acupuncture with any control reported little or no difference in death or institutional care at the end of follow-up (OR 0.78, 95% CI 0.54 to 1.12; five trials with 1120 participants; low-quality evidence), death within the first two weeks (OR 0.91, 95% CI 0.33 to 2.55; 18 trials with 1612 participants; low-quality evidence), or death at the end of follow-up (OR 1.08, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.58; 22 trials with 2865 participants; low-quality evidence).

The incidence of adverse events (eg, pain, dizziness, fainting) in the acupuncture arms of open and sham control trials was 6.2% (64/1037 participants), and 1.4% of these (14/1037 participants) discontinued acupuncture. When acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture, findings for adverse events were uncertain (OR 0.58, 95% CI 0.29 to 1.16; five trials with 576 participants; low-quality evidence).

The authors concluded that this updated review indicates that apparently improved outcomes with acupuncture in acute stroke are confounded by the risk of bias related to use of open controls. Adverse events related to acupuncture were reported to be minor and usually did not result in stopping treatment. Future studies are needed to confirm or refute any effects of acupuncture in acute stroke. Trials should clearly report the method of randomization, concealment of allocation, and whether blinding of participants, personnel, and outcome assessors was achieved, while paying close attention to the effects of acupuncture on long-term functional outcomes.

These cautious conclusions might be explained by the fact that Chinese researchers are reluctant to state anything overtly negative about any TCM therapy. Recently, one expert who spoke out was even imprisoned for criticising a TCM product! But in truth, this review really shows that acupuncture has no convincing effect in acute stroke.

And for me, this conclusion is fascinating. I have been involved in acupuncture/stroke research since the early 1990s.

Our RCT produced a resounding negative result concluding that acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients.

Our 1996 systematic review concluded that the evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct for stroke rehabilitation is encouraging but not compelling.

By 2001, more data had become available but the conclusion became even less encouraging: there is no compelling evidence to show that acupuncture is effective in stroke rehabilitation.

Finally, by 2010, there were 10 RCT and we were able to do a meta-analysis of the data. We concluded that our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke.

Yes, my reviews were on slightly different research questions. Yet, they do reveal how a critical assessment of the slowly emerging evidence had to arrive at more and more negative conclusions about the role of acupuncture in the management of stroke patients. For a long time, this message was in stark contrast to what acupuncture-fans were claiming. I wonder whether they will now finally change their mind.

5 Responses to Acupuncture for acute stroke? Perhaps better not!

  • 13 years after their first systematic review the authors reach the same conclusion: No clear evidence of benefit and better quality trials are required.

    13 wasted years.

    • sorry, but I don’t think that the 2 conclusions are the same, not even similar.

      • I note that the authors of the 2005 and 2018 Cochrane Reviews are not the same. My apologies.
        Both Cochrane Reviews call for better quality trials. After thirteen years that is most disappointing.

  • Looking a little more closely at this updated Cochrane Review.

    20 new trials have been added to 13 included in the previous review. Of the new trials the only one in which participants and outcome assessors were blinded was Park et al. 2005. This was also the only new trial conducted outside China (Exeter, U.K.).

    The 2005 Cochrane Review called for better quality trials. China has failed to respond. Who will dare to undertake the high quality trials which might reveal their national “gem” to be a crock of excreta?
    https://www.economist.com/china/2017/09/01/why-chinas-traditional-medicine-boom-is-dangerous

    The most rigorous trial for stroke to be published since the 2005 Cochrane Review is Park et al. The negative result could hardly surprise anyone with a properly functioning brain. I don’t believe any more trials are required. I take issue with the updated Cochrane Review on this point.

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