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

Mini-scalpel acupuncture or acupotomy is a relatively new type of non-invasive acupuncture/ micro surgery using a small needle-scalpel invented by Professor Zhu Hanzhang around 30 years ago in China. It is a slightly thicker and more blunt instrument that gets under the skin and is able to break apart adhesions and muscle knots more effectively than a regular acupuncture needle would.

Sounds weird?

Never mind, the question is does it work!

A systematic review showed that almost all studies reported an effect of acupotomy on joint pain compared to a variety of controls. On reflection, this is hardly surprising:

  • all the trials were from China;
  • all had major methodological flaws.

This means that we need better studies to decide the efficacy question.

This new study investigated the efficacy and safety of mini-scalpel acupuncture (MA) for knee osteoarthritis (KOA) in an assessor-blinded randomized controlled pilot trial; this would provide information for a large-scale randomized controlled trial.

Participants (n = 24) were recruited and randomly allocated to the MA group (experimental) or acupuncture group (control). The MA group received treatment once a week for 3 weeks (total of 3 treatments), while the acupuncture group received treatment two times per week for 3 weeks (total of 6 treatments). The primary outcome was pain as assessed by a visual analogue scale (VAS). The secondary outcomes (intensity of current pain, stiffness, and physical function) were assessed using the short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire (SF-MPQ) and Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Assessments were performed at baseline, 1, 2, and 3 during treatment and at week 5 (2 weeks after the end of treatment).

Of the 24 participants, 23 completed the study. Both groups showed significant improvements in VAS, SF-MPQ, and WOMAC. There were no significant differences between the MA and acupuncture groups. No serious adverse event occurred and blood test results were within normal limits.

The authors concluded that although both MA and acupuncture provide similar effects with regard to pain control in patients with KOA, MA may be more effective in providing pain relief because the same relief was obtained with fewer treatments. A large-scale clinical study is warranted to further clarify these findings.

I can recommend this article to anyone who wants a quick introduction into the critical analysis of clinical trials. It is a veritable treasure trove of mistakes, flaws, errors, fallacies etc. Here are just a few:

  • The authors aim of investigating the safety of MA is unobtainable. It would require not 24 but probably 24 000 patients.
  • The authors aim of investigating the efficacy of MA is equally unobtainable. It would require a much larger sample than 24, a sham control arm, identical treatment schedules, patient-blinding, etc.
  • Calling the trial a ‘pilot’ is endearing but, except for the title and the insufficient sample size, this study has none of the characteristics of a pilot study.
  • In their ‘introduction’, the authors state that miniscalpel acupuncture (MA) is a new subtype of acupuncture that is effective in treating chronic soft tissue injuries such as adhesions and contractures. This is clearly wrong but discloses their bias very plainly.
  • The authors statement that both MA and acupuncture provide similar effects with regard to pain control in patients with KOA is misleading. It implies that both interventions had specific effects. Without a sham control arm, this is pure speculation.
  • Similarly their assumption that MA may be more effective in providing pain relief because the same relief was obtained with fewer treatments, is pure fantasy.
  • In fact, as MA requires injections of local anaesthetics, any outcome is heavily confounded by this addition.
  • In the discussion section, the authors state that because MA is invasive and provides a strong stimulus, some participants complained of stiff and dull pain for few days after treatment. Yet, when reporting adverse effects in the results section, this was not mentioned.
  • The way this study was designed, it should have been clear from the start that it would not produce any meaningful findings. Seen from this perspective, running the trial could even be seen as a breach of research ethics.
  • According to the aims of a pilot study and the authors hope that their study would provide information for a large-scale randomized controlled trial, all reporting of outcomes is misplaced and should be replaced by information as to how a definitive trial should be conducted.

The following footnote is worth mentioning: This study is supported by a grant from the Ministry of Health & Welfare, Korea. It suggests to me that this ministry should urgently re-think its funding strategy and recruit some reviewers who are capable of critical analysis.

In my view, this is a lousy study which the authors decides to call ‘a pilot’ in order to get it published in a lousy journal.

One Response to Mini-scalpel acupuncture = maxi-nonsense

  • This was placebo controlled because acupuncture is a theatrical placebo. So it shows that their tiny trial found no effects greater than placebo. If a pilot trial finds a zero effect size, should the conclusion be that it is not possible to estimate how large a trial group is needed, so no further trial should be done?

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