Most people probably think of acupuncture as being used mainly as a therapy for pain control. But acupuncture is currently being promoted (and has traditionally been used) for all sorts of conditions. One of them is stroke. It is said to speed up recovery and even improve survival rates after such an event. There are plenty of studies on this subject, but their results are far from uniform. What is needed in this situation, is a rigorous summary of the evidence.
The authors of this Cochrane review wanted to assess whether acupuncture could reduce the proportion of people suffering death or dependency after acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke. They included all randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of acupuncture started within 30 days after stroke onset. Acupuncture had to be compared with placebo or sham acupuncture or open control (no placebo) in people with acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke, or both. Comparisons were made versus (1) all controls (open control or sham acupuncture), and (2) sham acupuncture controls.
The investigators included 33 RCTs with 3946 participants. 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 6 trials (668 participants) comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture.
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 and were not confirmed by trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture. 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. These findings were not confirmed in trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture.Trials comparing acupuncture with any control showed little or no difference in death or institutional care or death at the end of follow-up.The incidence of adverse events (eg, pain, dizziness, faint) in the acupuncture arms of open and sham control trials was 6.2% (64/1037 participants), and 1.4% of these patients (14/1037 participants) discontinued acupuncture. When acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture, findings for adverse events were uncertain.
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.
This Cochrane review seems to be thorough, but it is badly written (Cochrane reviewers: please don’t let this become the norm!). It contains some interesting facts. The majority of the studies came from China. This review confirmed the often very poor methodological quality of acupuncture trials which I have frequently mentioned before.
In particular, the RCTs originating from China were amongst those that most overtly lacked rigor, also a fact that has been discussed regularly on this blog.
For me, by far the most important finding of this review is that studies which at least partly control for placebo effects fail to show positive results. Depending on where you stand in the never-ending debate about acupuncture, this could lead to two dramatically different conclusions:
- If you are a believer in or earn your living from acupuncture, you might say that these results suggest that the trials were in some way insufficient and therefore they produced false-negative results.
- If you are a more reasonable observer, you might feel that these results show that acupuncture (for acute stroke) is a placebo therapy.
Regardless to which camp you belong, one thing seems to be certain: acupuncture for stroke (and other indications) is not supported by sound evidence. And that means, I think, that it is not responsible to use it in routine care.