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

Thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) involves the insertion of thread at specific points on the body surface. The claim is that TEAT provides a sustained stimulation of acupoints and is therefore superior to needle acupuncture. Initially, TEAT was used in China to treat obesity, today it is employed to treat many conditions, including musculoskeletal conditions such as ankle sprain, shoulder pain, lumbar intervertebral disc herniation, and plantar fasciitis. Its effectiveness is, however, doubtful and so is its safety.

This review evaluated the safety of thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) and discuss the prevention and treatment of some adverse events (AEs).

Databases, including China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), CBMdisc, Wanfang, VIP databases and PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Web of Science, were searched from their inception to January 2020. Included were randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and case reports in which AEs with TEAT were reported. Cochrane Collaboration’s tool and RevMan V.5.3.3 software were used to evaluate the quality of the studies.

A total of 61 articles (45 RCTs and 16 case reports) with a total of 620 cases of AEs were included in this review. These studies were published in two countries: China and South Korea. Twenty-eight kinds of AEs were noted. The most common AEs were induration, bleeding and ecchymosis, redness and swelling, fever, and pain. They accounted for 75.35% of all AEs.  Most AEs were mild.; The rarest AEs were epilepsy, irregular menstruation, skin ulcer, thread malabsorption, and fat liquefaction, with 1 case each. Not all of them had a clear causal relationship with TEAT. Most of the AEs were local reactions and systemic reactions accounted for only 1.27%. Although the included studies showed that AEs were very commonly encountered (11.09%), only 5 cases of severe AEs reported from 2013 to 2017 (0.1%) by using catgut thread, which is rarely employed nowadays with new absorbable surgical suture being more popular. All of the patients with severe AEs were recovered after symptomatic treatment with no sequelae.

The authors concluded that the evidence showed that TEAT is a relatively safe and convenient therapy especially since application of new absorbable surgical suture. Improving practitioner skills, regulating operations, and paying attention to the patients’ conditions may reduce the incidence of AEs and improve safety of TEAT.

TEAT was initially used in China only but recently it has become popular elsewhere as well. Therefore the question about its risks has become relevant. The present paper is interesting in that it demonstrates that AEs do occur with some regularity. The authors’ conclusion that TEAT is “relatively safe” is, however, not justified because:

  1. the total sample size was not large enough for a generalizable conclusion;
  2. only RCTs and case reports were included, whereas case series and case-control studies (which would provide more relevant data) were excluded or might not even exist;
  3. RCTs of acupuncture often fail to mention or under-report AEs;
  4. acupuncture papers from China are notoriously unreliable.

So, all we can conclude from the evidence presented here is that AEs after TEAT do occur and do not seem to be all that rare. As the efficacy of TEAT has not been shown beyond doubt, this must inevitably lead to the conclusion that the risk-benefit balance of TEAT is not positive. In turn, that means that TEAT cannot be recommended as a treatment for any condition.

 

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