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

acupuncture

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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.

 

Battlefield Acupuncture (BFA) – I presume the name comes from the fact that it is so simple, it could even be used under combat situations – is a form of ear acupuncture developed 20 years ago by Dr Richard Niemtzow. BFA employs gold semipermanent needles that are placed at up to 5 specific sites in one or both ears.  The BFA needles are small conical darts that pierce the outer ear in designated locations and remain in place until they fall out typically within 3–4 days.

The US Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management and the Veterans Health Administration National Pain Management Program Office recently completed a 3-year acupuncture education and training program, which deployed certified BFA trainers for the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration medical centers. Over 2800 practitioners were thus trained to provide BFA. The total costs amounted to $ 5.4 million.

This clearly begs the question:

DOES IT WORK?

 This review aims to investigate the effects and safety of BFA in adults with pain. Electronic databases were searched for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) published in English evaluating efficacy and safety of BFA in adults with pain, from database inception to September 6, 2019. The primary outcome was pain intensity change, and the secondary outcome was safety. Nine RCTs were included in this review, and five trials involving 344 participants were analyzed quantitatively. Compared with no intervention, usual care, sham BFA, and delayed BFA interventions, BFA had no significant improvement in the pain intensity felt by adults suffering from pain. Few adverse effects (AEs) were reported with BFA therapy, but they were mild and transitory.

The authors of this review concluded that BFA is a safe, rapid, and easily learned acupuncture technique, mainly used in acute pain management, but no significant efficacy was found in adult individuals with pain, compared with the control groups. Given the poor methodological quality of the included studies, high-quality RCTs with rigorous evaluation methods are needed in the future.

And here are my comments:

  • SAFE? Impossible to tell on the basis of 344 patients.
  • RAPID? True, but meaningless, as it does not work.
  • EASILY LEARNT? True, it’s simple and seems ever so stupid.
  • NO SIGNIFICANT EFFICACY? That I can easily believe.

I am amazed that anyone would fall for an idea as naive as BFA. That it should be the US military is simply hilarious, in my view. I am furthermore baffled that anyone recommends more study of such monumental nonsense.

Why, oh why?

Acupuncture is far-fetched (to put it mildly). Ear acupuncture is positively ridiculous. BFA seems beyond ridiculous and must be the biggest military hoax since general Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin painted façades to fool Catherine the Great into thinking that an area was far richer than it truly was.

 

The new NICE draft guideline on acupuncture for chronic pain has been published several months ago, and we discussed it here. Now the final document entitled ‘Chronic pain (primary and secondary) in over 16s: assessment of all chronic pain and management of chronic primary pain‘ has been published on 7/4/2021. Like the draft, it includes quite a bit about acupuncture. Let me just quote three essential sections:

Recommendations: Acupuncture for chronic primary pain

Consider a single course of acupuncture or dry needling, within a traditional Chinese or Western acupuncture system, for people aged 16 years and over to manage chronic primary pain, but only if the course:

  • is delivered in a community setting and
  • is delivered by a band 7 (equivalent or lower) healthcare professional with appropriate training and
  • is made up of no more than 5 hours of healthcare professional time (the number and length of sessions can be adapted within these boundaries) or
  • is delivered by another healthcare professional with appropriate training and/or in another setting for equivalent or lower cost.

_____________________________

Many studies (27 in total) showed that acupuncture reduced pain and improved quality of life in the short term (up to 3 months) compared with usual care or sham acupuncture. There was not enough evidence to determine longer-term benefits. The committee acknowledged the difficulty in blinding for sham procedures, but agreed that the benefit compared with a sham procedure indicated a specific treatment effect of acupuncture. There was a wide variation among the studies in the type and intensity of the intervention used, and the studies were from many different countries. The committee agreed that the type of acupuncture or dry needling should depend on the individual needs of the person with pain.

Two economic evaluations (1 in the UK) showed that acupuncture offered a good balance of benefits and costs for people with chronic neck pain. However, both studies had limitations; a notable limitation being that the costs of acupuncture seemed low. Threshold analysis based on these studies indicated the maximum number of hours of a band 6 and 7 healthcare professional’s time that would make the intervention cost effective.

An original economic model was developed for this guideline, which compared acupuncture with no acupuncture. The model used data from studies with usual care comparisons, not comparisons with sham acupuncture, because the committee agreed that a usual care comparison in an economic model better reflects the real world benefit of the intervention. The model showed that acupuncture was likely to be cost effective. The committee considered the results to be robust, and agreed that the studies used in the model were representative of the whole evidence review. Acupuncture remained cost effective when the assumed benefits and costs were varied (sensitivity analysis).

Overall, the committee agreed that there was a large evidence base showing acupuncture to be clinically effective in the short term (3 months); the original economic modelling also showed it is likely to be cost effective. However, they were uncertain whether the beneficial effects would be sustained long term and were aware of the high resource impact of implementation. Taking these factors into account, the committee made a recommendation to consider acupuncture or dry needling for chronic primary pain, caveated by the factors likely to make the intervention cost effective. These were: only if delivered in the community, and with a maximum of 5 treatment hours (based on the average resource use in the trials in the model and on the threshold analysis), and from a band 7 (equivalent cost or lower) healthcare professional (based on the threshold analysis). It was agreed there may be different ways of delivering the service that enable acupuncture to be delivered for the same costs, which would equally be appropriate. The committee agreed that discontinuing before this total amount of course time would be an option if the person finds that the first few sessions are not effective.

_______________________________

Acupuncture versus sham acupuncture
Pain reduction
Very low quality evidence from 13 studies with 1230 participants showed a clinically important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at ≤3 months. Low quality evidence from 2 studies with 159 participants showed a clinically important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at ≤3 months.

Low quality evidence from 4 studies with 376 participants showed no clinically important difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture at >3 months. Moderate quality evidence from 2 studies with 159 participants showed a clinically important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at >3 months. Low quality evidence from 1 study with 61 participants showed no clinically important difference between acupuncture
and sham acupuncture at >3 months.

______________END OF QUOTES____________

I will leave this here without a comment for the moment and look forward to reading what you think about this.

This study was aimed at determining the effectiveness of electroacupuncture or auricular acupuncture for chronic musculoskeletal pain in cancer survivors.

The Personalized Electroacupuncture vs Auricular Acupuncture Comparativeness Effectiveness (PEACE) trial is a randomized clinical trial that was conducted from March 2017 to October 2019 (follow-up completed April 2020) across an urban academic cancer center and 5 suburban sites in New York and New Jersey. Study statisticians were blinded to treatment assignments. The 360 adults included in the study had a prior cancer diagnosis but no current evidence of disease, reported musculoskeletal pain for at least 3 months, and self-reported pain intensity on the Brief Pain Inventory (BPI) ranging from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable).

Patients were randomized 2:2:1 to:

  1. electroacupuncture (n = 145),
  2. auricular acupuncture (n = 143),
  3. or usual care (n = 72).

Intervention groups received 10 weekly sessions of electroacupuncture or auricular acupuncture. Ten acupuncture sessions were offered to the usual care group from weeks 12 through 24.

The primary outcome was a change in the average pain severity score on the BPI from baseline to week 12. Using a gatekeeping multiple-comparison procedure, electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture were compared with usual care using a linear mixed model. Noninferiority of auricular acupuncture to electroacupuncture was tested if both interventions were superior to usual care.

Among 360 cancer survivors (mean [SD] age, 62.1 [12.7] years; mean [SD] baseline BPI score, 5.2 [1.7] points; 251 [69.7%] women; and 88 [24.4%] non-White), 340 (94.4%) completed the primary end point. Compared with usual care, electroacupuncture reduced pain severity by 1.9 points (97.5% CI, 1.4-2.4 points; P < .001) and auricular acupuncture reduced by 1.6 points (97.5% CI, 1.0-2.1 points; P < .001) from baseline to week 12. Noninferiority of auricular acupuncture to electroacupuncture was not demonstrated. Adverse events were mild; 15 of 143 (10.5%) patients receiving auricular acupuncture and 1 of 145 (0.7%) patients receiving electroacupuncture discontinued treatments due to adverse events (P < .001).

The authors of this study concluded that, in this randomized clinical trial among cancer survivors with chronic musculoskeletal pain, electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture produced greater pain reduction than usual care. However, auricular acupuncture did not demonstrate noninferiority to electroacupuncture, and patients receiving it had more adverse events.

I think the authors made a mistake in formulating their conclusions. Perhaps they allow me to correct it:

In this randomized clinical trial among cancer survivors with chronic musculoskeletal pain, electroacupuncture plus usual care and auricular acupuncture plus usual care produced greater pain reduction than usual care alone.

I know, I must sound like a broken record, but – because it followed the often-discussed ‘A+B versus B’ design – this study does simply not show what the authors conclude. In fact, it tells us very little about any effects caused by the two acupuncture versions per se. The study does not control for placebo effects and therefore its results are consistent with acupuncture itself having no effect at all.

Here is an attempt at explaining the ‘A+B versus B’ study design I posted previously:

As regularly mentioned on this blog, there are several ways to design a study such that the risk of producing a negative result is minimal. The most popular one in SCAM research is the ‘A+B versus B’ design…

Imagine you have an amount of money A and your friend owns the same sum plus another amount B. Who has more money? Simple, it is, of course your friend: A+B will always be more than A [unless B is a negative amount]. For the same reason, such “pragmatic” trials will always generate positive results [unless the treatment in question does actual harm]. Treatment as usual plus acupuncture is more than treatment as usual alone, and the former is therefore more than likely to produce a better result. This will be true, even if acupuncture is a pure placebo – after all, a placebo is more than nothing, and the placebo effect will impact on the outcome, particularly if we are dealing with a highly subjective symptom such as fatigue.

Imagine the two interventions had been a verbal encouragement or pat on the shoulder or a pat on the right shoulder for group 1 and one on the left for group 2. The findings could well have been very similar. To provide evidence that acupuncture PRODUCES PAIN REDUCTION, we need proper tests of the hypothesis. And to ‘determine the effectiveness of electroacupuncture or auricular acupuncture for chronic musculoskeletal pain in cancer survivors’, we need a different methodology.

This is, of course, all very elementary. Nothing elaborate or complicated! Scientists know it; editors know it; reviewers know it. Or at least they should know it. Therefore, I am at a loss trying to understand why even journals of high standing publish IMPROPER tests, better known as pseudo-science.

It is hard not to conclude that they deliberately try to mislead us.

Two recent reviews have evaluated the evidence for acupuncture as a means of preventing migraine attacks.

The first review assessed the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for the prophylaxis of episodic or chronic migraine in adult patients compared to pharmacological treatment.

The authors included randomized controlled trials published in western languages that compared any treatment involving needle insertion (with or without manual or electrical stimulation) at acupuncture points, pain points or trigger points, with any pharmacological prophylaxis in adult (≥18 years) with chronic or episodic migraine with or without aura according to the criteria of the International Headache Society.

Nine randomized trials were included encompassing 1,484 patients. At the end of the intervention, a small reduction was found in favor of acupuncture for the number of days with migraine per month: (SMD: -0.37; 95% CI -1.64 to -0.11), and for response rate (RR: 1.46; 95% CI 1.16-1.84). A moderate effect emerged in the reduction of pain intensity in favor of acupuncture (SMD: -0.36; 95% CI -0.60 to -0.13), and a large reduction in favor of acupuncture in both the dropout rate due to any reason (RR 0.39; 95% CI 0.18 to 0.84) and the dropout rate due to adverse event (RR 0.26; 95% CI 0.09 to 0.74). The quality of the evidence was moderate for all these primary outcomes. Results at longest follow-up confirmed these effects.

The authors concluded that, based on moderate certainty of evidence, we conclude that acupuncture is mildly more effective and much safer than medication for the prophylaxis of migraine.

 

The second review aimed to perform a network meta-analysis to compare the effectiveness and acceptability between topiramate, acupuncture, and Botulinum neurotoxin A (BoNT-A).

The authors searched OVID Medline, Embase, the Cochrane register of controlled trials (CENTRAL), the Chinese Clinical Trial Register, and clinicaltrials.gov for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared topiramate, acupuncture, and BoNT-A with any of them or placebo in the preventive treatment of chronic migraine. A network meta-analysis was performed by using a frequentist approach and a random-effects model. The primary outcomes were the reduction in monthly headache days and monthly migraine days at week 12. Acceptability was defined as the number of dropouts owing to adverse events.

A total of 15 RCTs (n = 2545) could be included. Eleven RCTs were at low risk of bias. The network meta-analyses (n = 2061) showed that acupuncture (2061 participants; standardized mean difference [SMD] -1.61, 95% CI: -2.35 to -0.87) and topiramate (582 participants; SMD -0.4, 95% CI: -0.75 to -0.04) ranked the most effective in the reduction of monthly headache days and migraine days, respectively; but they were not significantly superior over BoNT-A. Topiramate caused the most treatment-related adverse events and the highest rate of dropouts owing to adverse events.

The authors concluded that Topiramate and acupuncture were not superior over BoNT-A; BoNT-A was still the primary preventive treatment of chronic migraine. Large-scale RCTs with direct comparison of these three treatments are warranted to verify the findings.

Unquestionably, these are interesting findings. How reliable are they? Acupuncture trials are in several ways notoriously tricky, and many of the primary studies were of poor quality. This means the results are not as reliable as one would hope. Yet, it seems to me that migraine prevention is one of the indications where the evidence for acupuncture is strongest.

A second question might be practicability. How realistic is it for a patient to receive regular acupuncture sessions for migraine prevention? And finally, we might ask how cost-effective acupuncture is for that purpose and how its cost-effectiveness compares to other options.

Several previously published clinical trials have suggested that both acupuncture and sham acupuncture exert significant, non-specific effects on treatment outcomes when compared to no-treatment controls. A recently developed framework (mechanisms in orthodox and complementary and alternative medicine-MOCAM) suggests that the non-specific effects of acupuncture originate from multiple domains (e.g. patient characteristics, acupuncturist skill/technique, the patient-acupuncturist relationship, and the acupuncture environment). However, it remains to be determined precisely how these domains influence the non-specific effects of treatment among patients receiving acupuncture and sham acupuncture in clinical trials.

To address this issue, researchers conducted a systematic review to synthesize existing qualitative evidence on how trial participants randomized to acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups experience non-specific effects, regardless of the types of medical conditions investigated.

This systematic review included primary qualitative studies embedded in randomized controlled trials designed to investigate acupuncture or sham acupuncture interventions. Eligible studies published in English were derived from a search of five international databases. The methodological quality of included studies was evaluated using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) tool. Using a framework synthesis approach, the identified MOCAM framework was adapted based on the synthesis of the available qualitative evidence.

A total of 20 studies of high methodological quality were included. The proposed model indicated that the effects of acupuncture may be increased by:

  • maintaining a professional status,
  • applying a holistic treatment approach,
  • practicing empathy,
  • providing patients with an appropriate explanation of the theory behind acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

From the patient’s perspective, the efficacy of treatment can be increased by:

  • following the lifestyle modification advice provided by acupuncturists,
  • maintaining a positive attitude toward treatment efficacy,
  • actively engaging with acupuncturists during the consultation,
  • making behavioral changes based on experience gained during the trial.

The authors concluded that the results of this study may provide a basis for improving and standardizing key components of non-specific effects in acupuncture treatment, and for improving the isolation of specific effects in future clinical trials involving acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

The authors also state that having a positive attitude and high expectations regarding treatment efficacy can lead to positive health outcomes, along with a sense of curiosity and altruistic desire to join clinical trials. Indeed, previous clinical trials have reported that higher expectations regarding treatment effects may help to reduce fatigue and alleviate osteoarthritis in both acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups. Similar benefits of positive expectations have also been observed among patients with irritable bowel syndrome in sham acupuncture trials. 

SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR!

So close to admitting that these findings indicate quite strongly that acupuncture is but a theatrical placebo.

My ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME’ is filling up nicely. But I noticed that so far we have nobody from Spain. That can be rectified ever so easily. I think I found the ideal candidate to join this group of illustrious experts who never bring themselves to publish a negative conclusion: JORGE VAS.

Jorge Vas works at the ‘Pain Treatment Unit, Doña Mercedes Primary Health Care Center, Dos Hermanas’ in Spain. I have long noticed his research which is focused on ACUPUNCTURE. From memory, I had the impression that his findings are always positive.

But is this true? To find out, I did a Medline search and found 11 clinical trials of acupuncture in his name, published between 2006 and 2019. Here are the conclusions:

  1. After 2 weeks of treatment, ear acupuncture applied by midwives and associated with standard obstetric care significantly reduces lumbar and pelvic pain in pregnant women, improves quality of life and reduces functional disability.
  2. Individualised acupuncture treatment in primary care in patients with fibromyalgia proved efficacious in terms of pain relief, compared with placebo treatment. The effect persisted at 1 year, and its side effects were mild and infrequent. Therefore, the use of individualised acupuncture in patients with fibromyalgia is recommended.
  3. The use of acupuncture to treat impingement syndrome seems to be a safe and reliable technique to achieve clinically significant results and could be implemented in the therapy options offered by the health services.
  4. …all 3 modalities of acupuncture were better than conventional treatment alone…
  5. Moxibustion treatment applied at acupuncture point BL67 can avoid the need for caesarean section and achieve cost savings for the healthcare system in comparison with conventional treatment.
  6. The application of auriculopressure in patients with non-specific spinal pain in primary healthcare is effective and safe, and therefore should be considered for inclusion in the portfolio of primary healthcare services.
  7. The degree of pain relief experienced by patients from acupuncture justifies a more rigorous study.
  8. Moxibustion at acupuncture point BL67 is effective and safe to correct non-vertex presentation when used between 33 and 35 weeks of gestation. We believe that moxibustion represents a treatment option that should be considered to achieve version of the non-vertex fetus.
  9. Single-point acupuncture in association with physiotherapy improves shoulder function and alleviates pain, compared with physiotherapy as the sole treatment. This improvement is accompanied by a reduction in the consumption of analgesic medicaments.
  10. Acupuncture plus diclofenac is more effective than placebo acupuncture plus diclofenac for the symptomatic treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee.
  11. In the treatment of the intensity of chronic neck pain, acupuncture is more effective than the placebo treatment and presents a safety profile making it suitable for routine use in clinical practice.

Eleven of 11 trials with a positive conclusion!

That surely is a rare feast.

Actually, I cheated a tiny bit. The unabridged sentence from the conclusion of paper N4 was: In the analysis adjusted for the total sample (true acupuncture relative risk 5.04, 95% confidence interval 2.24-11.32; sham acupuncture relative risk 5.02, 95% confidence interval 2.26-11.16; placebo acupuncture relative risk 2.57 95% confidence interval 1.21-5.46), as well as for the subsample of occupationally active patients, all 3 modalities of acupuncture were better than conventional treatment alone, but there was no difference among the 3 acupuncture modalities, which implies that true acupuncture is not better than sham or placebo acupuncture. Thus this (multicentre) study was negative with just a touch of positivity.

But still, look at the range of conditions that respond positively to acupuncture in Vas’ hands. Is there anyone who doubts that Jorge Vas does not deserve to join all these other geniuses in THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME?

I am sure that Vas has more than merited to join them.

WELCOME JORGE VAS!

The state of acupuncture research has long puzzled me. The first thing that would strike who looks at it is its phenomenal increase:

  • Until around the year 2000, Medline listed about 200 papers per year on the subject.
  • From 2005, there was a steep, near-linear increase.
  • It peaked in 2020 when we had a record-breaking 20515 acupuncture papers currently listed in Medline.

Which this amount of research, one would expect to get somewhere. In particular, one would hope to slowly know whether acupuncture works and, if so, for which conditions. But this is not the case.

On the contrary, the acupuncture literature is a complete mess in which it gets more and more difficult to differentiate the reliable from the unreliable, the useful from the redundant, and the truth from the lies. Because of this profound confusion, acupuncture fans are able to claim that their pet-therapy is demonstrably effective for a wide range of conditions, while skeptics insist it is a theatrical placebo. The consumer might listen in bewilderment.

Yesterday (18/1/2021), I had a quick (actually, it was not that quick after all) look into what Medline currently lists in terms of new acupuncture research published in 2021 and found a few other things that are remarkable:

  1. There were already 100 papers dated 2021 (today, there were even 118); that corresponds to about 5 new articles per day and makes acupuncture one of the most research-active areas of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).
  2. Of these 100 papers, only 7 were clinical trials (CTs). In my view, clinical trials would be more important than any other type of research on acupuncture. To see that they amount to just 7% of the total is therefore disappointing.
  3. Twelve papers were systematic reviews (SRs). It is odd, I find, to see almost twice the amount of SRs than CTs.
  4. Eighteen papers referred to protocols of studies of SRs. In particular protocols of SRs are useless in my view. It seems to me that the explanation for this plethora of published protocols might be the fact that Chinese researchers are extremely keen to get papers into Western journals; it is an essential boost to their careers.
  5. Seven papers were surveys. This multitude of survey research is typical for all types of SCAM.
  6. Twenty-four articles were on basic research. I find basic research into an ancient therapy of questionable clinical use more than a bit strange.
  7. The rest of the articles were other types of publications and a few were misclassified.
  8. The vast majority (n = 81) of the 100 papers were authored exclusively by Chinese researchers (and a few Korean). In view of the fact that it has been shown repeatedly that practically all acupuncture studies from China report positive results and that data fabrication seems rife in China, this dominance of China could be concerning indeed.

Yes, I find all this quite concerning. I feel that we are swamped with plenty of pseudo-research on acupuncture that is of doubtful (in many cases very doubtful) reliability. Eventually, this will create an overall picture for the public that is misleading to the extreme (to check the validity of the original research is a monster task and way beyond what even an interested layperson can do).

And what might be the solution? I am not sure I have one. But for starters, I think, that journal editors should get a lot more discerning when it comes to article submissions from (Chinese) acupuncture researchers. My advice to them and everyone else:

if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is, as we all know, an umbrella term. Under this umbrella, we find hundreds of different modalities that have little in common with each other. Here I often focus on:

  • homeopathy,
  • chiropractic,
  • acupuncture,
  • herbal medicine.

There are uncounted others, and in my recent book, I published critical evaluations 150 of them. But for the moment, let’s keep to the 4 SCAMs listed above.

What strikes me regularly is that many SCAM enthusiasts do seem to appreciate my critical assessments of SCAM; for instance:

  • When I point out that the assumptions of homeopathy fly in the face of science, most SCAM enthusiasts agree.
  • When I point out that chiropractic spinal manipulations might not be safe, most SCAM enthusiasts agree.
  • When I point out that acupuncture is not a panacea, most SCAM enthusiasts agree.
  • When I point out that herbal remedies can interact with prescribed drugs, most SCAM enthusiasts agree.

Most but not all!

  • Those who find my criticism of homeopathy unfair are the homeopaths and their proponents.
  • Those who find my criticism of chiropractic unfair are the chiropractors and their proponents.
  • Those who find my criticism of acupuncture unfair are the acupuncturists and their proponents.
  • Those who find my criticism of herbal medicine unfair are the herbalists and their proponents.

Hardly ever does a herbalist defend homeopathy’s weird assumptions; rarely does an acupuncturist tell me that I am too harsh with the chiropractors; never have I heard a chiropractor complain that my criticism of acupuncture is unjustified.

Entirely obvious?

Perhaps!

But I find it nevertheless curious, because my critical stance is always the same. I do not change it for this or that form of SCAM (I would also not change it for conventional medicine, but I leave it to those who have more specific expertise to do the criticising). I have no axe to grind against any particular SCAM. All I do is point out flaws in their logic, limitations in their studies, gaps in the evidence. All I do is provide my honest interpretation of the evidence.

It really seems to me that everyone appreciates my honesty, until I start being honest with them.

And this is why I find it curious. Homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, herbalists and all the other types of SCAM practitioners like to be seen on the side of science, evidence, critical thinking and progress. This, I suppose, is good for the (self) image; it might even help the delusion that they are all evidence-based. But as soon as someone applies science, evidence, critical thinking and progress to their very own little niche within SCAM, they stop liking it and start aggressing the critic.

I suppose this is entirely obvious as well?

Perhaps!

But it also exposes the double standard that is so deeply ingrained in SCAM.

This is an analysis that I have long hesitated to conduct. The reason for my hesitation is simple: some people might think it is vindictive, revengeful or ad hominem. After reflecting about it for years, I have now decided to go ahead with it (sorry, it’s a bit lengthy). This case study is not meant to be vindictive, but offers an important insight into the power of conflicts of interest in SCAM that are not financial but ideological. I think it is crucial that people are aware of and consider such conflicts carefully, and I can’t see how else I might demonstrate my point so plainly.

Dr Adrian White was a co-worker of mine for about 10 years. He became a trusted colleague, my ‘right hand’ man and even my deputy at my Exeter department. When I discovered that my trust had been misplaced, I did not prolong his contract (I will not dwell on this episode, those who are interested find it in my memoir). Adrian then got a senior research fellowship with Prof John Campbell (not my favourite colleague at Exeter) at the department of general practice where he continued his research on acupuncture for about 10 more years largely unsupervised.

Adrian had been an acupuncturist body and soul (in fact, I had never before met anyone so utterly convinced of the value of this therapy). When he joined my team, he was scientifically naive, and we spent many month trying to teach him how to think like a scientist. Initially, he found it very difficult to think critically about acupuncture. Later, I thought the problem was under control. Yet, most of his research in my department was guided by me and tightly supervised (i.e. I made sure that out studies were testing rather than promoting SCAM, and that our reviews were critical assessments of the existing evidence).

Thus there exist two separate and well-documented periods of a pro-acupuncture researcher:

  • 10 years guided by me and members of my team;
  • 10 years largely unsupervised.

What could be more tempting than to compare Adrian’s output during these two periods?

To do this, I looked up all of Adrian’s 120 publications on acupuncture and selected those 52 articles that generated factual new data (mostly clinical trials or systematic reviews). As it happens, they are numerically distributed almost equally within the two periods. The endpoints for my analysis were the directions of the conclusions of his papers. I therefore extracted, dated, and rated the 52 articles as follows:

  • P = positive from the point of view of an acupuncture advocate,
  • N = negative from the point of view of an acupuncture advocate.
  • P/N = not clearly pointing in either direction.

To render this exercise transparent (occasionally, I was not entirely sure about my ratings), I copied all the 52 conclusions and provided links to the original papers so that anyone inferested is able to check easily.

Here are my findings. Articles 1 – 27 were published AFTER Adrian had left my department; articles 28 – 52 are his papers from the time while he worked with me.

  1. A definitive three-arm trial is feasible. Further follow-up reminders, minimum data collection and incentives should be considered to improve participant retention in the follow-up processes in the standardised advice and exercise booklet arm. (2016) P/N
  2. The available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long-term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking. (2016) P
  3. The available results suggest that acupuncture is effective for treating frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches, but further trials – particularly comparing acupuncture with other treatment options – are needed. (2016) P
  4. Acupuncture during pregnancy appears to be associated with few AEs when correctly applied. (2014) P
  5. Although pooled estimates suggest possible short-term effects there is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, or laser therapy have a sustained benefit on smoking cessation for six months or more. However, lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Electrostimulation is not effective for smoking cessation. Well-designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions. (2014) P
  6. The current evidence suggests that acupuncture may have some effects on drug dependence that have been missed because of choice of outcome in many previous studies, and future studies should use outcomes suggested by clinical experience. Body points and electroacupuncture, used in the original clinical observation, justify further research. (2013) P
  7. Acceptability is very high and may be maximised by taking a number of factors into account: full information should be provided before treatment begins; flexibility should be maintained in the appointment system and different levels of contact between fellow patients should be fostered; sufficient space and staffing should be provided and single-sex groups used wherever possible. (2012) P
  8. This is the first evaluation of nurse-led group (multibed) acupuncture clinics for patients with knee osteoarthritis to include a 2 year follow-up. It shows the practicability of offering a low-cost acupuncture service as an alternative to knee surgery and the service’s success in providing long-term symptom relief in about a third of patients. Using realistic assumptions, the cost consequences for the local commissioning group are an estimated saving of £100 000 a year. Sensitivity analyses are presented using different assumptions. (2012) P
  9. There is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further, well designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions. (2011) P/N
  10. Eight (8) of 10 international acupuncture experts were able to reach consensus on the syndromes, symptoms, and treatment of postmenopausal women with hot flashes. The syndromes were similar to those used by practitioners in the ACUFLASH clinical trial, but there were considerable differences between the acupuncture points. This difference is likely to be the result of differences in approach of training schools, and whether it is relevant for clinical outcomes is not well understood. (2011) P
  11. 70% of those patients eligible to participate volunteered to do so; all participants had clinically identified MTrPs; a 100% completion rate was achieved for recorded self-assessment data; no serious adverse events were reported as a result of either intervention; and the end of treatment attrition rate was 17%. A phase III study is both feasible and clinically relevant. This study is currently being planned. (2010) P
  12. In conclusion, the results from all studies are in agreement with the hypothesis that acupuncture needling relieves hot flushes. There are few data however supporting the hypothesis that the effect of acupuncture is point specific. Future research should investigate whether there is a biological effect of needling on hot flushes or not, whether tailored treatment is superior to standardised treatment, and ways of delivering treatment that causes least discomfort and least cost. (2010) P
  13. Acupuncture can contribute to a more rapid reduction in vasomotor symptoms and increase in health-related quality of life in postmenopausal women but probably has no long-term effects. (2010) P
  14. within the context of this pilot study, the sham acupuncture intervention was found to be a credible control for acupuncture. This supports its use in a planned, definitive, randomised controlled trial on a similar whiplash injured population. (2009) N/P
  15. factors other than the TCM syndrome diagnoses and the point selection may be of importance regarding the outcome of the treatment. (2009) N/P
  16. Acupuncture plus self-care can contribute to a clinically relevant reduction in hot flashes and increased health-related quality of life in postmenopausal women. (2009) P
  17. the authors conclude that acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches. (2009) P
  18. there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine attacks only or to routine care. There is no evidence for an effect of ‘true’ acupuncture over sham interventions, though this is difficult to interpret, as exact point location could be of limited importance. Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects. Acupuncture should be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. (2009) P
  19. We have conducted the first survey of the effects of provision of acupuncture in UK general practice, using data provided by the NHS, and uncovered a wide variation in the availability of the service in different areas. We have been unable to demonstrate any consistent differences in the prescribing or referral rates that could be due to the use of acupuncture in these practices. The wide variation in the data means that if such a trend exists, a very large survey would be needed to identify it. However, we discovered inaccuracies and variations in presentation of data by the PCTs which have made the numerical input, and hence our results, unreliable. Thus the practicalities of access to data and the problems with data accuracy would preclude a nationwide survey. (2008) P
  20. In conclusion, there is limited evidence deriving from one study that deep needling directly into myofascial trigger points has an overall treatment effect when compared with standardised care. Whilst the result of the meta-analysis of needling compared with placebo controls does not attain statistically significant, the overall direction could be compatible with a treatment effect of dry needling on myofascial trigger point pain. However, the limited sample size and poor quality of these studies highlights and supports the need for large scale, good quality placebo controlled trials in this area. (2009) P
  21. We conclude that limited evidence supports acupuncture use in treating pregnancy-related pelvic and back pain. Additional high-quality trials are needed to test the existing promising evidence for this relatively safe and popular complementary therapy. (2008) P
  22. Acupuncture appears to offer symptomatic improvement to some patients with fibromyalgia in a tertiary clinic who have failed to respond to other treatments. In view of its safety, further acupuncture research is justified in this population. (2007) P
  23. It is speculated that optimal results from acupuncture treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee may involve: climatic factors, particularly high temperature; high expectations of patients; minimum of four needles; electroacupuncture rather than manual acupuncture, and particularly, strong electrical stimulation to needles placed in muscle; and a course of at least 10 treatments. These factors offer some support to criteria for adequate acupuncture used in the recent review. In addition, ethnic and cultural factors may influence patients’ reporting of their symptoms, and different versions of an outcome measure are likely to differ in their sensitivity – both factors which may lead to apparent rather than real differences between studies. The many variables in a study are likely to be more tightly controlled in a single centre study than in multicentre studies.  (2007) P
  24. Any effects of acupressure on smoking withdrawal, as an adjunct to the use of NRT and behavioural intervention, are unlikely to be detectable by the methods used here and further preliminary studies are required before the hypothesis can be tested. (2007) P
  25. Auricular acupuncture appears to be effective for smoking cessation, but the effect may not depend on point location. This calls into question the somatotopic model underlying auricular acupuncture and suggests a need to re-evaluate sham controlled studies which have used ‘incorrect’ points. Further experiments are necessary to confirm or refute these observational conclusions. (2006) P
  26. Acupuncture that meets criteria for adequate treatment is significantly superior to sham acupuncture and to no additional intervention in improving pain and function in patients with chronic knee pain. Due to the heterogeneity in the results, however, further research is required to confirm these findings and provide more information on long-term effects. (2007) P
  27. There is no consistent evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further research using frequent or continuous stimulation is justified. (2006) N/P
  28. Acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients.  (2005) N
  29. The evidence from controlled trials is insufficient to conclude whether acupuncture is an effective treatment for depression, but justifies further trials of electroacupuncture. (2005) N
  30. Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain. No evidence suggests that acupuncture is more effective than other active therapies. (2005) N/P
  31. In view of the small number of studies and their variable quality, doubt remains about the effectiveness of acupuncture for gynaecological conditions. Acupuncture and acupressure appear promising for dysmenorrhoea, and acupuncture for infertility, and further studies are justified. (2003) N
  32.  In conclusion, the results suggest that the procedure using the new device is indistinguishable from the same procedure using real needles in acupuncture naïve subjects, and is inactive, where the specific needle sensation (de qi) is taken as a surrogate measure of activity. It is therefore a valid control for acupuncture trials. The findings also lend support to the existence of de qi, a major concept underlying traditional Chinese acupuncture. (2002) N/P
  33. There is no clear evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation. (2002) N
  34. Collectively, these data imply that acupuncture is superior to various control interventions, although there is insufficient evidence to state whether it is superior to placebo. (2002) N/P
  35. In conclusion, the incidence of adverse events following acupuncture performed by doctors and physiotherapists can be classified as minimal; some avoidable events do occur. Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention. (2001) N/P
  36. Based on the evidence of rigorous randomised controlled trials, there is no compelling evidence to show that acupuncture is effective in stroke rehabilitation. Further, better-designed studies are warranted. (2001) N
  37. Although it has already been demonstrated that severe adverse events seem to be uncommon in standard practice, many serious cases of negligence have been found in the present review, suggesting that training system for acupuncturists (including medical doctors) should be improved and that unsupervised self-treatment should be discouraged. (2001) N
  38. Direct needling of myofascial trigger points appears to be an effective treatment, but the hypothesis that needling therapies have efficacy beyond placebo is neither supported nor refuted by the evidence from clinical trials. Any effect of these therapies is likely because of the needle or placebo rather than the injection of either saline or active drug. Controlled trials are needed to investigate whether needling has an effect beyond placebo on myofascial trigger point pain. (2001) N/P
  39. Although the incidence of minor adverse events associated with acupuncture may be considerable, serious adverse events are rare. Those responsible for establishing competence in acupuncture should consider how to reduce these risks. (2001) N
  40. In conclusion, this study does not provide evidence that this form of acupuncture is effective in the prevention of episodic tension-type headache. (2000) N
  41. The present study provides no strong evidence to support the hypothesis that the acupuncture point SP6 is more tender in women and in men. Recommendations for further investigations are discussed.  (2000) N
  42. Acupuncture has not been demonstrated to be efficacious as a treatment for tinnitus on the evidence of rigorous randomized controlled trials. (2000) N
  43. We conclude that acupuncture continues to be associated with occasional, serious adverse events and fatalities. These events have no geographical limits. Most of these events are due to negligence. Everyone concerned with setting standards, delivering training, and maintaining competence in acupuncture should familiarise themselves with the lessons to be learnt from these untoward events. (2000) N
  44. Overall, the existing evidence suggests that acupuncture has a role in the treatment of recurrent headaches. However, the quality and amount of evidence is not fully convincing. There is urgent need for well-planned, large-scale studies to assess effectiveness and efficiency of acupuncture under real life conditions. (1999) N/P
  45. While the frequency of adverse effects of acupuncture is unknown and they may be rare, knowledge of normal anatomy and anatomical variations is essential for safe practice and should be reviewed by regulatory bodies and those responsible for training courses. (1999) N
  46.  In conclusion, the hypothesis that acupuncture is efficacious in the treatment of neck pain is not based on the available evidence from sound clinical trials. Further studies are justified. (1999) N
  47. Even though all studies are in accordance with the notion that acupuncture is effective for temporomandibular joint dysfunction, this hypothesis requires confirmation through more rigorous investigations. (1999) N
  48. Acupuncture is not free of risks. All adverse events reported in 1997 would have been avoidable. The absolute number of cases is small, but the degree of underreporting remains unknown. (1999) N
  49. This form of electroacupuncture is no more effective than placebo in reducing nicotine withdrawal symptoms. (1998) N
  50. Acupuncture was shown to be superior to various control interventions, although there is insufficient evidence to state whether it is superior to placebo. (1998) N/P
  51. Considerable variation was observed in the scores awarded by the acupuncture experts. (1998) N
  52. It is therefore concluded that, according to the data published to date, the evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct for stroke rehabilitation is encouraging but not compelling. More and better trials are required to clarify this highly relevant issue. (1996) N

The results are remarkable (particularly considering that one would not expect unbiased studies or reviews of acupuncture to generate plenty of positive conclusions):

0 times N, 5 times N/P, 22 times P – after Adrian had left my department,

17 times N, 7 times N/P, 0 times P – while Adrian worked in my department.

From these figures, it is tempting to calculate the ratios for both periods of negative : positive conclusions:

zero versus infinite

If that is not impressive, I don’t know what is!

Looking just at the positive and the negative papers over the years:

One could discuss these papers in more detail, but I think this is hardly necessary. Just a few highlights perhaps: look at articles No 5, 20 and 27 for examples of turning an essentially negative finding into a positive conclusion. Notice that Adrian conducted a clinical trial of acupuncture for smoking cessation (No 49) while working with me and later published uncritical positive reviews on the subject. Does this not indicate that he distrusted his own study because it had not generated the result he had hoped for?

Of course, my analysis is merely a case study and therefore my findings are not generalisable. However, in my personal experience, the described phenomenon is by no means an exception in SCAM research. I have observed similar phenomena over and over again. Just look at the ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME that I created for this blog:

But Adrian’s case might be unique because it allows us to make a longitudinal observation over two decades. And it suggests to me that an ideological bias can (and often is) so strong and indistructable that is re-emerges as soon as it is no longer kept under strict control.

I have long suspected that ideological conflicts of interest have a much more powerful influence in SCAM research than financial ones. Such an overpowering influence might even be characteristic to much of SCAM research. And because it can be so dominant, it seems important to know about. People reading research need to be aware that it originates from a biased source, and funders who finance research would be wise to think twice about supporting researchers who are likely to generate findings that are biased and therefore false-positive. In the final analysis, such research is worse than no research at all.

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