The objective of this trial, just published in the BMJ, was to assess the efficacy of manual acupuncture as prophylactic treatment for acupuncture naive patients with episodic migraine without aura. The study was designed as a multi-centre, randomised, controlled clinical trial with blinded participants, outcome assessment, and statistician. It was conducted in 7 hospitals in China with 150 acupuncture naive patients with episodic migraine without aura.
They were given the following treatments:
- 20 sessions of manual acupuncture at true acupuncture points plus usual care,
- 20 sessions of non-penetrating sham acupuncture at heterosegmental non-acupuncture points plus usual care,
- usual care alone over 8 weeks.
The main outcome measures were change in migraine days and migraine attacks per 4 weeks during weeks 1-20 after randomisation compared with baseline (4 weeks before randomisation).
A total of 147 were included in the final analyses. Compared with sham acupuncture, manual acupuncture resulted in a significantly greater reduction in migraine days at weeks 13 to 20 and a significantly greater reduction in migraine attacks at weeks 17 to 20. The reduction in mean number of migraine days was 3.5 (SD 2.5) for manual versus 2.4 (3.4) for sham at weeks 13 to 16 and 3.9 (3.0) for manual versus 2.2 (3.2) for sham at weeks 17 to 20. At weeks 17 to 20, the reduction in mean number of attacks was 2.3 (1.7) for manual versus 1.6 (2.5) for sham. No severe adverse events were reported. No significant difference was seen in the proportion of patients perceiving needle penetration between manual acupuncture and sham acupuncture (79% v 75%).
The authors concluded that twenty sessions of manual acupuncture was superior to sham acupuncture and usual care for the prophylaxis of episodic migraine without aura. These results support the use of manual acupuncture in patients who are reluctant to use prophylactic drugs or when prophylactic drugs are ineffective, and it should be considered in future guidelines.
Considering the many flaws in most acupuncture studies discussed ad nauseam on this blog, this is a relatively rigorous trial. Yet, before we accept the conclusions, we ought to evaluate it critically.
The first thing that struck me was the very last sentence of its abstract. I do not think that a single trial can ever be a sufficient reason for changing existing guidelines. The current Cochrance review concludes that the available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Thus, one could perhaps argue that, together with the existing data, this new study might strengthen its conclusion.
In the methods section, the authors state that at the end of the study, we determined the maintenance of blinding of patients by asking them whether they thought the needles had penetrated the skin. And in the results section, they report that they found no significant difference between the manual acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups for patients’ ability to correctly guess their allocation status.
I find this puzzling, since the authors also state that they tried to elicit acupuncture de-qi sensation by the manual manipulation of needles. They fail to report data on this but this attempt is usually successful in the majority of patients. In the control group, where non-penetrating needles were used, no de-qi could be generated. This means that the two groups must have been at least partly de-blinded. Yet, we learn from the paper that patients were not able to guess to which group they were randomised. Which statement is correct?
This may sound like a trivial matter, but I fear it is not.
Like this new study, acupuncture trials frequently originate from China. We and others have shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. If that is so, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive before one has even seen it. Neither do the researchers need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the trial has started.
You don’t believe the findings of my research nor those of others?
Excellent! It’s always good to be sceptical!
But in this case, do you believe Chinese researchers?
In this systematic review, all RCTs of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. An impressive total of 840 trials were found. Among them, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.
So, at least three independent reviews have found that Chinese acupuncture trials report virtually nothing but positive findings. Is that enough evidence to distrust Chinese TCM studies?
But there are even more compelling reasons for taking evidence from China with a pinch of salt:
A survey of clinical trials in China has revealed fraudulent practice on a massive scale. China’s food and drug regulator carried out a one-year review of clinical trials. They concluded that more than 80 percent of clinical data is “fabricated“. The review evaluated data from 1,622 clinical trial programs of new pharmaceutical drugs awaiting regulator approval for mass production. According to the report, much of the data gathered in clinical trials are incomplete, failed to meet analysis requirements or were untraceable. Some companies were suspected of deliberately hiding or deleting records of adverse effects, and tampering with data that did not meet expectations. “Clinical data fabrication was an open secret even before the inspection,” the paper quoted an unnamed hospital chief as saying. Chinese research organisations seem have become “accomplices in data fabrication due to cutthroat competition and economic motivation.”
So, am I claiming the new acupuncture study just published in the BMJ is a fake?
Am I saying that it would be wise to be sceptical?
Sadly, my scepticism is not shared by the BMJ’s editorial writer who concludes that the new study helps to move acupuncture from having an unproven status in complementary medicine to an acceptable evidence based treatment.
Call me a sceptic, but that statement is, in my view, hard to justify!