This meta-analysis was conducted by researchers affiliated to the Evangelical Clinics Essen-Mitte, Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. (one of its authors is an early member of my ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME). The paper assessed the safety of acupuncture in oncological patients.
The PubMed, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and Scopus databases were searched from their inception to August 7, 2020. Randomized controlled trials in oncological patients comparing invasive acupuncture with sham acupuncture, treatment as usual (TAU), or any other active control were eligible. Two reviewers independently extracted data on study characteristics and adverse events (AEs). Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane Risk of Bias Tool.
Of 4590 screened articles, 65 were included in the analyses. The authors observed that acupuncture was not associated with an increased risk of intervention-related AEs, nonserious AEs, serious AEs, or dropout because of AEs compared with sham acupuncture and active control. Compared with TAU, acupuncture was not associated with an increased risk of intervention-related AEs, serious AEs, or dropout because of AEs but was associated with an increased risk for nonserious AEs (odds ratio, 3.94; 95% confidence interval, 1.16-13.35; P = .03). However, the increased risk of nonserious AEs compared with TAU was not robust against selection bias. The meta-analyses may have been biased because of the insufficient reporting of AEs in the original randomized controlled trials.
The authors concluded that the current review indicates that acupuncture is as safe as sham acupuncture and active controls in oncological patients. The authors recommend researchers heed the CONSORT (Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials) safety and harm extension for reporting to capture the side effects and better investigate the risk profile of acupuncture in oncology.
You might think this article is not too bad. So, why do I feel that this paper is so bad?
One reason is that the authors included evidence up to August 2020. Since then, there must have been hundreds of further papers on acupuncture. The article was therefore out of date before it was published.
But that is by no means my main reason. We know from numerous investigations that acupuncture studies often fail to report AEs (and thus violate publication ethics). This means that this new analysis is merely an amplification of the under-reporting. It is, in other words, a means of perpetuating a wrong message.
Yes, you might say, but the authors acknowledge this; they even state in the abstract that “The meta-analyses may have been biased because of the insufficient reporting of AEs in the original randomized controlled trials.” True, but this fact does not erase the mistake, it merely concedes it. At the very minimum, the authors should have phrased their conclusion differently, e.g.: the current review confirms that AEs of acupuncture are under-reported in RCTs. Therefore, a meta-analysis of RCTs is unable to verify whether acupuncture is safe. From other types of research, we know that it can cause serious AEs.
An even better solution would have been to abandon or modify the research project when they first came across the mountain of evidence showing that RCTs often fail to mention AEs.
As it stands, the conclusion that acupuncture is as safe as sham acupuncture is simply not true. Since the article probably looks sound to naive readers, I feel that is a particularly good candidate for the WORST PAPER OF 2022 COMPETITION.
For those who are interested, here are 4 of my own peer-reviewed articles on the safety of acupuncture (much more can, of course, be found on this blog):
- Patient safety incidents from acupuncture treatments: a review of reports to the National Patient Safety Agency – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Acupuncture–a critical analysis – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Prospective studies of the safety of acupuncture: a systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The risks of acupuncture – PubMed (nih.gov)