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

One theory as to how acupuncture works is that it increases endorphin levels in the brain. These ‘feel-good’ chemicals could theoretically be helpful for weaning alcohol-dependent people off alcohol. So, for once, we might have a (semi-) plausible mechanism as to how acupuncture could be clinically effective. But a ‘beautiful hypothesis’ does not necessarily mean acupuncture works for alcohol dependence. To answer this question, we need clinical trials or systematic reviews of clinical trials.

A new systematic review assessed the effects and safety of acupuncture for alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). All RCTs of drug plus acupuncture or acupuncture alone for the treatment of AWS were included. Eleven RCTs with a total of 875 participants were included. In the acute phase, two trials reported no difference between drug plus acupuncture and drug plus sham acupuncture in the reduction of craving for alcohol; however, two positive trials reported that drug plus acupuncture was superior to drug alone in the alleviation of psychological symptoms. In the protracted phase, one trial reported acupuncture was superior to sham acupuncture in reducing the craving for alcohol, one trial reported no difference between acupuncture and drug (disulfiram), and one trial reported acupuncture was superior to sham acupuncture for the alleviation of psychological symptoms. Adverse effects were tolerable and not severe.

The authors concluded that there was no significant difference between acupuncture (plus drug) and sham acupuncture (plus drug) with respect to the primary outcome measure of craving for alcohol among participants with AWS, and no difference in completion rates (pooled results). There was limited evidence from individual trials that acupuncture may reduce alcohol craving in the protracted phase and help alleviate psychological symptoms; however, given concerns about the quantity and quality of included studies, further large-scale and well-conducted RCTs are needed.

There is little to add here. Perhaps just two short points:

1. The quality of the trials was poor; only one study of the 11 trials was of acceptable rigor. Here is its abstract:

We report clinical data on the efficacy of acupuncture for alcohol dependence. 503 patients whose primary substance of abuse was alcohol participated in this randomized, single blind, placebo controlled trial. Patients were assigned to either specific acupuncture, nonspecific acupuncture, symptom based acupuncture or convention treatment alone. Alcohol use was assessed, along with depression, anxiety, functional status, and preference for therapy. This article will focus on results pertaining to alcohol use. Significant improvement was shown on nearly all measures. There were few differences associated with treatment assignment and there were no treatment differences on alcohol use measures, although 49% of subjects reported acupuncture reduced their desire for alcohol. The placebo and preference for treatment measures did not materially effect the results. Generally, acupuncture was not found to make a significant contribution over and above that achieved by conventional treatment alone in reduction of alcohol use.

To me, this does not sound all that encouraging.

2.  Of the 11 RCTs, 8 failed to report on adverse effects of acupuncture. In my book, this means these trials were in violation with basic research ethics.

My conclusion of all this: another ugly fact kills a beautiful hypothesis.

3 Responses to Acupuncture for alcohol withdrawal syndrome – another ugly fact kills a beautiful hypothesis

  • My conclusion of all this: another ugly fact kills a beautiful hypothesis.

    When the data and the theory disagree, trust the theory!

  • If acupuncture ‘works’ by increasing endorphin levels, why doesn’t eating a bar of chocolate also produce the same medical benefits?

    • It probably does produce the exact same benefits. But, (un?)fortunately, it already sells like crazy, so there is no need for chocolate vs. acupuncture (equivalence) trials, plus these would clearly show that it would be impossible to determine which of the two treatments a patients has had, i.e. that acupuncture is (sometimes not) as good as chocolate (at best), while costing around 10 times as much (at best), or more…in short, it wouldn’t be good for the acumarket.

      That said, all due respect to chocolate manufacturers for not making absurd health claims.

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