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

acupuncture

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Many experts doubt that acupuncture generates the many positive health effects that are being claimed by enthusiasts. Yet, few consider that acupuncture might not be merely useless but could even make things worse. Here is a trial that seems to suggest exactly that.

This study evaluated whether combining two so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs), acupuncture and massage, reduce postoperative stress, pain, anxiety, muscle tension, and fatigue more than massage alone.

Patients undergoing autologous tissue breast reconstruction were randomly assigned to one of two postoperative SCAMs for three consecutive days. All participants were observed for up to 3 months. Forty-two participants were recruited from January 29, 2016 to July 11, 2018. Twenty-one participants were randomly assigned to massage alone and 21 to massage and acupuncture. Stress, anxiety, relaxation, nausea, fatigue, pain, and mood (score 0-10) were measured at enrollment before surgery and postoperative days 1, 2, and 3 before and after the intervention. Patient satisfaction was evaluated.

Stress decreased from baseline for both Massage-Only Group and Massage+Acupuncture Group after each treatment intervention. Change in stress score from baseline decreased significantly more in the Massage-Only Group at pretreatment and posttreatment. After adjustment for baseline values, change in fatigue, anxiety, relaxation, nausea, pain, and mood scores did not differ between groups. When patients were asked whether they would recommend the study, 100% (19/19) of Massage-Only Group and 94% (17/18) of Massage+Acupuncture Group responded yes.

The authors concluded tha no additive beneficial effects were observed with addition of acupuncture to massage for pain, anxiety, relaxation, nausea, fatigue, and mood. Combined massage and acupuncture was not as effective in reducing stress as massage alone, although both groups had significant stress reduction. These findings indicate a need for larger studies to explore these therapies further.

I recently went to the supermarket to find out whether combining two bank notes (£10 + £5) can buy more goods than one £10 note alone. What I found was interesting: the former did indeed purchase more than the latter. Because I am a scientist, I did not stop there; I went to a total of 10 shops and my initial finding was confirmed each time: A+B results in more than A alone.

It stands to reason that the same thing happens with clinical trials. We even tested this hypothesis in a systematic review entitled ‘A trial design that generates only ”positive” results‘. Here is our abstract:

In this article, we test the hypothesis that randomized clinical trials of acupuncture for pain with certain design features (A + B versus B) are likely to generate false positive results. Based on electronic searches in six databases, 13 studies were found that met our inclusion criteria. They all suggested that acupuncture is effective (one only showing a positive trend, all others had significant results). We conclude that the ‘A + B versus B’ design is prone to false positive results and discuss the design features that might prevent or exacerbate this problem.

But why is this not so with the above-mentioned study?

Why is, in this instance, A even more that A+B?

There are, of course, several possible answers. To use my supermarket example again, the most obvious one is that B is not a £5 note but a negative amount, a dept note, in other words: A + B can only be less than A alone, if B is a minus number. In the context of the clinical trail, this means acupuncture must have caused a negative effect.

But is that possible? Evidently yes! Many patients don’t like needles and experience stress at the idea of a therapist sticking one into their body. Thus acupuncture would cause stress, and stress would have a negative effect on all the other parameters quantified in the study (pain, anxiety, muscle tension, and fatigue).

My conclusion: in certain situations, acupuncture is more than just useless; it makes things worse.

Some of us got used to the idea that acupuncture might be effective for pain. But could it work for infections? Unlikely! Well, let’s not rely on gut feelings; let’s have a fair and critical look at the evidence.

This systematic review assessed the evidence for acupuncture for uncomplicated recurrent urinary tract infections (rUTI) women. Five randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating the effects of acupuncture and related therapies for prophylaxis or treatment of uncomplicated rUTI in women were included. The methodological quality of the studies and the strength of the evidence were low to moderate. The chance of achieving a composite cure with acupuncture therapies was greater than that with antibiotics (three studies, 170 participants, RR 1.92, 95% CI 1.31‐2.81, I2 = 38%). The risk of UTI recurrence was lower with acupuncture than with no treatment (two studies, 135 participants, RR 0.39, 95% CI 0.26–0.58, I2 = 0%) and sham acupuncture (one study, 53 participants, RR 0.45, 95% CI 0.22–0.92).

The authors concluded that acupuncture showed promising results compared to no treatment and sham acupuncture in reducing recurrence, based on low to moderate certainty evidence. Low certainty evidence found acupuncture increased the chance of achieving a composite cure compared to antibiotics. Findings from this review should be interpreted with caution, taking into consideration the biases identified and small sample size of the included trials. Included studies suggest acupuncture has a good safety profile for women with UTI, and may be considered as a therapeutic option in the treatment and prevention of rUTI in women, particularly those who are unresponsive to, or intolerant of, antibiotics. Rigorously designed research is needed to inform clinical decisionmaking about the use of acupuncture for women with UTIs.

The authors of this review are affiliated to the Second Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine (Guangdong Provincial Hospital of Chinese Medicine), Guangdong Provincial Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and The Second Clinical College, Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, Guangzhou, China and the China-Australia International Research Centre for Chinese Medicine, School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, RMIT University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. The review was funded by the China-Australia International Research Centre for Chinese Medicine (CAIRCCM) (International Cooperation Project, Grant Number 2012DFA31760), and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) (Grant Number 81873261). In view of these facts, it is strange, I think, that the authors declared no conflicts of interest.

The 5 primary studies included in this review are the following:

    1. Alraek T, Soedal LI, Fagerheim SU, Digranes A, Baerheim A. Acupuncture treatment in the
      prevention of uncomplicated recurrent lower urinary tract infections in adult women. American journal of
      public health. 2002;92(10):1609-11.
    2. Aune A, Alraek T, LiHua H, Baerheim A. Acupuncture in the prophylaxis of recurrent lower urinary
      tract infection in adult women. Scandinavian journal of primary health care. 1998;16(1):37-9.
    3. Hong JY, Li F, Liang XQ, Hou Z. [Efficacy observation on female chronic pyelonephritis treated with
      abdominal cluster-needling therapy]. Zhongguo zhen jiu = Chinese acupuncture & moxibustion.
      2013;33(4):303-5.
    4. Yu SM, Guo DD. Moxibustion combined with antibiotics was used to treat 30 cases of chronic
      urinary tract infection in adult women. Shandong Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
      2010;29(09):621-2.
    5. Liu JL, Luo Q, Liu XH, Lin L. Observation on the clinical effect of external treatment of strong renal
      moxibustion on recurrent urinary tract infection. China Modern Doctor. 2018;56(29):116-8.

As always, it is worth checking these studies for reliability.

In the trial by Alraek et al patients were randomised patients to receive either acupuncture or no treatment. Is anyone surprised that the former group fared better than the latter? (I am not!)

The trial by Aune et al is the only study that attempted to control for placebo effects by using a sham control group. This is what they used as a sham treatment: Sham acupuncture was given using six needles superficially inserted in the calves, thighs or abdomen outside known acupuncture points or meridians. Needles were not manipulated in the sham group. Sham controls have the purpose of rendering patients unaware whether they receive the real or the sham treatment. The method used here cannot achieve this aim; patients were easily able to determine that they were in the control group.

The last three trials are all not Medline-listed studies authored by Chinese investigators published in inaccessible journals in Chinese. We know that such studies invariably report positive outcomes which are often fabricated and thus have a reliability close to zero. But even if we ignore these facts for a moment, from what I see in the results table of the review, these studies are invalid. All three are equivalence trials of acupuncture versus antibiotics; with a sample size of merely around 30, they must be woefully underpowered and thus unable to generate a reliable result.

The authors of this review claim that the risk of bias of trials was generally high or unclear. This is an understatement to put it mildly. In fact, the quality of the studies was mostly dismal.

In view of all this, I take the liberty to re-formulate the conclusions drawn by the review authors as follows:

Due to the lack of reliable RCTs, the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment or prevention of rUTIs remains unproven. Due to the implausibility of the therapy, its effectiveness seems highly unlikely.

PS

The BJOG should never have published such a deeply misleading paper.

I was alerted to an article entitled ‘Energy Medicine: Current Status and Future Perspectives‘ by Christina L Ross, Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine, Medical Center Boulevard, Winston-Salem, USA. Dr Ross’ paper , she tells us, was supported by the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine. The Center for Integrative Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine aims to expand knowledge of integrative medicine through research and educational opportunities.

The article in question is lengthy yet intriguing. Here, I will present just two short excerpts.

In the abstract, the author concisely explains the nature of energy medicine:

Quantum physics teaches us there is no difference between energy and matter. All systems in the human being, from the atomic to the molecular level, are constantly in motion-creating resonance. This resonance is important to understanding how subtle energy directs and maintains health and wellness in the human being. Energy medicine (EM), whether human touch or device-based, is the use of known subtle energy fields to therapeutically assess and treat energetic imbalances, bringing the body’s systems back to homeostasis (balance).

In the paper itself, the author explains what this means in relation to various SCAM modalities, such as acupuncture:

Acupuncture can be considered an electromagnetic phenomenon due to the ionic charge between 2 acupuncture points. This has been demonstrated by Mussat and others. Acupuncture needles with 1 metal (copper, silver, bronze, or an alloy) for the shaft and another metal for the handle, form tiny batteries. Some acupuncture therapies use additional electrical stimulation (2–4 Hz) applied to the needles. From this electrical perspective, each organ in the body is like a battery housed in a sac of electrolytes, with a positive potential on the surface of the sac that is the aggregate result of electrical processes in the tissues of the organs. The positive potential at the needle tip attracts negatively charged ions from the interstitial medium until a saturation equilibrium is achieved. The normal functions of an organ tend to generate stronger and more harmonic ionic effects than organs with trauma or disease. Acupuncture is considered a wiring system in the body, as is the analog perineural nervous system, and ion transfer within blood plasma. It is difficult to use a voltmeter to measure the voltage in organs because voltages pulse in the body. It is common to use an ohm meter to measure the voltage and convert ohms to volts using Ohm’s law (voltage = ohms × amps).

Table 1 shows frequencies that correspond to organ function. Assuming amperage is constant, then ohms = voltage.

Frequencies Associated With Normal Organ Function.

Organ Frequency (MHz)
Brain 70–78
Thyroid 62–68
Lungs 58–65
Thymus 65–68
Heart 67–70
Spleen 60–80
Liver 55–60
Stomach 58–65
Colon 70–78

______________________________

Is that what the Wake Forest School of Medicine considers to be ‘expanding knowledge … through research and educational opportunities’ ? Where is the actual research that backs up any of the weird claims made above? Is it truly knowledge that is being expanded here … or is it perhaps total, utter BS?

The objective of this RCT was to compare the effects of

  • spinal thrust-manipulation + electrical dry needling + various medications (TMEDN-group)
  • to non-thrust peripheral joint/soft-tissue mobilization + exercise + interferential current + various medications(NTMEX-group)

on pain and disability in patients with subacromial pain syndrome (SAPS).

Patients with SAPS were randomized into the TMEDN group (n=73) or the NTMEX group (n=72). Primary outcomes included the shoulder pain and disability index (SPADI) and the numeric pain rating scale (NPRS). Secondary outcomes included Global Rating of Change (GROC) and medication intake. The treatment period was 6 weeks; with follow-up at 2 weeks, 4 weeks, and 3 months.

At 3 months, the TMEDN group experienced significantly greater reductions in shoulder pain and disability compared to the NTMEX group. Effect sizes were large in favour of the TMEDN group. At 3 months, a greater proportion of patients within the TMEDN group achieved a successful outcome (GROC≥+5) and stopped taking medication.

The authors concluded that cervicothoracic and upper rib thrust-manipulation combined with electrical dry needling resulted in greater reductions in pain, disability and medication intake than non-thrust peripheral joint/soft-tissue mobilization, exercise and interferential current in patients with SAPS. These effects were maintained at 3 months.

The authors of this trial have impressive looking affiliations:

  • American Academy of Manipulative Therapy Fellowship in Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy, Montgomery, AL.
  • Montgomery Osteopractic Physiotherapy & Acupuncture Clinic, Montgomery, AL.
  • Research Physical Therapy Specialists, Columbia, SC.
  • Department of Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Alcorcón, Spain.
  • Cátedra de Clínica, Investigación y Docencia en Fisioterapia: Terapia Manual, Punción Seca y Ejercicio, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Alcorcón, Madrid, Spain.
  • Copper Queen Community Hospital, Bisbee, AZ.
  • BenchMark Physical Therapy, Atlanta, GA.
  • Eastside Medical Care Center, El Paso, TX.
  • Department of Physical Therapy, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.
  • Tybee Wellness & Osteopractic, Tybee Island, Georgia, GA.

If one expected a well-designed study from all this collective expertise, one would have been disappointed.

Any such clinical trial should be answering a simple question: is therapy XX effective? It is about pinning an observed effect on to a treatment. It is about establishing cause and effect. It is about finding an answer to a clinically relevant question.

The above study does none of that. Even if we accepted its result as valid, it could be interpreted as meaning one of many different things, for instance:

  1. Acupuncture was effective.
  2. Dry needling was effective.
  3. The electrical current was effective.
  4. Mobilisation made things worse.
  5. Exercise made things worse.
  6. one or multiple positive or negative interactions between the therapies.
  7. The drugs in the experimental group were more effective than those taken by controls.
  8. The experimental group adhered to their drug prescriptions better than controls.
  9. Any mixture of the above.

So, the reader of this paper can chose which of the interpretations he or she prefers. I suggest that:

  • Any researcher who designs a foreseeably nonsensical trial should go back to school.
  • Any ethics committee that passes such a study needs to retire.
  • Any funder who gives money for it wastes scarce resources.
  • Any reviewer who recommends publication needs to learn about trial design.
  • Any editor who publishes such a trial needs to go.

The point I am trying to make is that conducting a clinical trial comes with responsibilities. Poorly designed studies are not just a waste of resources, they are a disservice to patients, they undermine the public’s trust in science and they are unethical.

This recent Cochrane review assessed the effects of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for post-caesarean pain. Randomised clinical trials (RCTs), including quasi-RCTs and cluster-RCTs, comparing SCAM, alone or associated with other forms of pain relief, versus other treatments or placebo or no treatment, for the treatment of post-CS pain were included.

A total of 37 studies (3076 women) investigating 8 different SCAM therapies for post-CS pain relief were found. There was substantial heterogeneity among the trials. The primary outcome measures were pain and adverse effects. Secondary outcome measures included vital signs, rescue analgesic requirement at 6 weeks after discharge; all of which were poorly reported or not reported at all.

Acupuncture/acupressure

The quality of the RCTs was low. Whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) have any effect on pain. Acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) may reduce pain at 12 hours (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.64 to 0.07; 130 women; 2 studies; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (SMD -0.63, 95% CI -0.99 to -0.26; 2 studies; 130 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) have any effect on the risk of adverse effects.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (mean difference (MD) -2.63 visual analogue scale (VAS), 95% CI -3.48 to -1.77; 3 studies; 360 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -3.38 VAS, 95% CI -3.85 to -2.91; 1 study; 200 women; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether aromatherapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety) compared with placebo plus analgesia.

Electromagnetic therapy

Electromagnetic therapy may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (MD -8.00, 95% CI -11.65 to -4.35; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -13.00 VAS, 95% CI -17.13 to -8.87; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence).

Massage

There were 6 RCTs (651 women), 5 of which were quasi-RCTs, comparing massage (foot and hand) plus analgesia versus analgesia. All the evidence relating to pain, adverse effects (anxiety), vital signs and rescue analgesic requirement was very low-certainty.

Music therapy

Music therapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -0.84, 95% CI -1.23 to -0.46; participants = 115; studies = 2; I2 = 0%; low-certainty evidence), 24 hours (MD -1.79, 95% CI -2.67 to -0.91; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence), and also when compared with analgesia at one hour (MD -2.11, 95% CI -3.11 to -1.10; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -2.69, 95% CI -3.67 to -1.70; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether music therapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety), when compared with placebo plus analgesia because the quality of evidence is very low.

Reiki

The investigators were uncertain whether Reiki plus analgesia compared with analgesia alone has any effect on pain, adverse effects, vital signs or rescue analgesic requirement because the quality of evidence is very low (one study, 90 women). Relaxation Relaxation may reduce pain compared with standard care at 24 hours (MD -0.53 VAS, 95% CI -1.05 to -0.01; 1 study; 60 women; low-certainty evidence).

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

TENS (versus no treatment) may reduce pain at one hour (MD -2.26, 95% CI -3.35 to -1.17; 1 study; 40 women; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -1.10 VAS, 95% CI -1.37 to -0.82; 3 studies; 238 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -0.70 VAS, 95% CI -0.87 to -0.53; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce heart rate (MD -7.00 bpm, 95% CI -7.63 to -6.37; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence) and respiratory rate (MD -1.10 brpm, 95% CI -1.26 to -0.94; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether TENS plus analgesia (versus analgesia) has any effect on pain at six hours or 24 hours, or vital signs because the quality of evidence is very low (two studies, 92 women).

The authors concluded that some SCAM therapies may help reduce post-CS pain for up to 24 hours. The evidence on adverse events is too uncertain to make any judgements on safety and we have no evidence about the longer-term effects on pain. Since pain control is the most relevant outcome for post-CS women and their clinicians, it is important that future studies of SCAM for post-CS pain measure pain as a primary outcome, preferably as the proportion of participants with at least moderate (30%) or substantial (50%) pain relief. Measuring pain as a dichotomous variable would improve the certainty of evidence and it is easy to understand for non-specialists. Future trials also need to be large enough to detect effects on clinical outcomes; measure other important outcomes as listed in this review, and use validated scales.

I feel that the Cochrane Collaboration does itself no favours by publishing such poor reviews. This one is both poorly conceived and badly reported. In fact, I see little reason to deal with pain after CS differently than with post-operative pain in general. Some of the modalities discussed are not truly SCAM. Most of the secondary endpoints are irrelevant. The inclusion of adverse effects as a primary endpoint seems nonsensical considering that SCAM studies are notoriously bad at reporting them. Many of the allegedly positive findings rely on trial designs that cannot control for placebo effects (e.g A+B versus B); therefore they tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the therapy.

Most importantly, the conclusions are not helpful. I would have simply stated that none of the SCAM modalities are supported by convincing evidence as treatments for pain control after CS.

Excessive eccentric exercise of inadequately conditioned skeletal muscle results in focal sites of injury within the muscle fibres. These injuries cause pain which usually is greatest about 72 hours after the exercise. This type of pain is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and provides an accessible model for studying the effects of various treatments that are said to have anaesthetic activities; it can easily be reproducibly generated without lasting harm or ethical concerns.

In so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) DOMS is employed regularly to test treatments which are promoted for pain management. Thus several acupuncture trials using this method have become available. Yet, the evidence for the effects of acupuncture on DOMS is inconsistent which begs the question whether across all trials an effects emerges.

The aim of this systematic review therefore was to explore the effects of acupuncture on DOMS. Studies investigating the effect of acupuncture on DOMS in humans that were published before March 2020 were obtained from 8 electronic databases. The affected muscles, groups, acupuncture points, treatment sessions, assessments, assessment times, and outcomes of the included articles were reviewed. The data were extracted and analysed via a meta-analysis.

A total of 15 articles were included, and relief of DOMS-related pain was the primary outcome. The meta-analysis showed that there were no significant differences between acupuncture and sham/control groups, except for acupuncture for DOMS on day 1 (total SMD = -0.62; 95% CI = -1.12∼0.11, P < 0.05) by comparing with control groups.

The authors concluded that acupuncture for DOMS exhibited very-small-to-small and small-to-moderate effects on pain relief for the sham and no acupuncture conditions, respectively. Evidence indicating the effects of acupuncture on DOMS was little because the outcome data during the follow-up were insufficient to perform an effective meta-analysis.

A mere glance at the Forrest plot reveals that acupuncture is unlikely to have any effect on DOMS at all. The very small average effect that does emerge originates mainly from one outlier, the 2008 study by Itoh et al. This trial was published by three acupuncturists from the Department of Clinical Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Meiji University of Integrative Medicine, Kyoto, Japan. It has numerous weaknesses, for instance there are just 10 volunteers in each group, and can therefore be safely discarded.

In essence, this means that there is no good evidence that acupuncture is effective at reducing pain caused by DOMS.

Tasuki is a sort of sash for holding up the sleeves on a kimono. It also retracts the shoulders and keeps the head straight up. By correcting the wearer’s posture, it might even prevent or treat neck pain. The greater the forward head posture, for example, the more frequent are neck problems.  However, there is little clinical evidence to support or refute this hypothesis.

This study was conducted to determine whether Tasuki-style posture supporter improves neck pain compared to waiting-list. It was designed as an individually-randomized, open-label, waiting-list-controlled study. Adults with non-specific chronic neck pain who reported 10 points or more on modified Neck Disability Index (mNDI: range, 0-50; higher points indicate worse condition) were enrolled. Participants were randomly assigned 1:1 to the intervention group or to a waiting-list control group. The primary outcome was the change in mNDI at 1 week.

In total, 50 participants were enrolled. Of these participants, 26 (52%) were randomly assigned to the intervention group and 24 to the waiting-list. Attrition rate was low in both groups (1/50). The mean mNDI change score at 1 week was more favourable for Tasuki than waiting-list (between-group difference, -3.5 points (95% confidence interval (CI), -5.3 to -1.8); P = .0002). More participants (58%) had moderate benefit (at least 30% improvement) with Tasuki than with waiting-list (13%) (relative risk 4.6 (95% CI 1.5 to 14); risk difference 0.45 (0.22 to 0.68)).

The author concluded that this trial suggests that wearing Tasuki might moderately improve neck pain. With its low-cost, low-risk, and easy-to-use nature, Tasuki could be an option for those who suffer from neck pain.

In the previous two posts, we discussed how lamentably weak the evidence for acupuncture and spinal manipulation is regarding the management of pain such as ‘mechanical’ neck pain. Here we have a well-reported study with a poor design (no control for non-specific effects) which seems to suggest that simply wearing a Tasuki is just as effective as acupuncture or spinal manipulation.

What is the lesson from this collective evidence?

Is it that we should forget about acupuncture and spinal manipulation for chronic neck pain?

Perhaps.

Or is it that poor trial designs generate unreliable evidence?

More likely.

Or is it that any treatment, however daft, will generate positive outcomes, if the researchers are sufficiently convinced of its benefit?

Yes, I think so.

___________________

 

PS

If you had chronic neck pain, would you rather have your neck manipulated, needles stuck into your body, or get a Tasuki? (Spoiler: Tasuki is risk-free, the other two treatments are not!)

 

As recently reported, the most thorough review of the subject showed that the evidence for acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain is very weak. Yesterday, NICE published a draft report that seems to somewhat disagree with this conclusion (and today, this is being reported in most of the UK daily papers). The draft is now open to public consultation until 14 September 2020 and many of my readers might want to comment.

The draft report essentially suggests that people with chronic primary pain (CPP) should not get pain-medication of any type, but be offered supervised group exercise programmes, some types of psychological therapy, or acupuncture. While I understand that chronic pain should not be treated with long-term pain-medications – I did even learn this in medical school all those years ago – one might be puzzled by the mention of acupuncture.

But perhaps we need first ask, WHAT IS CPP? The NICE report informs us that CPP represents chronic pain as a condition in itself and which can’t be accounted for by another diagnosis, or where it is not the symptom of an underlying condition (this is known as chronic secondary pain). I find this definition most unsatisfactory. Pain is usually a symptom and not a disease. In many forms of what we now call CPP, an underlying disease does exist but might not yet be identifiable, I suspect.

The evidence on acupuncture considered for the draft NICE report included conditions like:

  • neck pain,
  • myofascial pain,
  • radicular arm pain,
  • shoulder pain,
  • prostatitis pain,
  • mechanical neck pain,
  • vulvodynia.

I find it debatable whether these pain syndromes can be categorised to be without an underlying diagnosis. Moreover, I find it problematic to lump them together as though they were one big entity.

The NICE draft document is huge and far too big to be assessed in a blog like mine. As it is merely a draft, I also see little point in evaluating it or parts of in detail. Therefore, my comments are far from detailed, very brief and merely focussed on pain (the draft NICE report considers several further outcome measures).

There is a separate document for acupuncture, from which I copy what I consider the key evidence:

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.

As acupuncture has all the features that make a perfect placebo (slightly invasive, mildly painful, exotic, involves touch, time and attention), I see little point in evaluating its efficacy through studies that make no attempt to control for placebo effects. This is why the sham-controlled studies are central to the question of acupuncture’s efficacy, no matter for what condition.

Reading the above evidence carefully, I fail to see how NICE can conclude that CPP patients should be offered acupuncture. I am sure that some readers will disagree and am looking forward to reading their comments.

This analysis was aimed at assessing the associations of acupuncture use with mortality, readmission and reoperation rates in hip fracture patients using a longitudinal population-based database. A retrospective matched cohort study was conducted using data for the years 1996-2012 from Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database. Hip fracture patients were divided into:

  • an acupuncture group consisting of 292 subjects who received at least 6 acupuncture treatments within 183 days of hip fracture,
  • and a propensity score matched “no acupuncture” group of 876 subjects who did not receive any acupuncture treatment and who functioned as controls.

The two groups were compared using survival analysis and competing risk analysis.

Compared to non-treated subjects, subjects treated with acupuncture had

  • a lower risk of overall death (hazard ratio (HR): 0.41, 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.24-0.73, p = 0.002),
  • a lower risk of readmission due to medical complications (subdistribution HR (sHR): 0.64, 95% CI: 0.44-0.93, p = 0.019)
  • and a lower risk of reoperation due to surgical complications (sHR: 0.62, 95% CI: 0.40-0.96, p = 0.034).

The authors concluded that postoperative acupuncture in hip fracture patients is associated with significantly lower mortality, readmission and reoperation rates compared with those of matched controls.

That’s a clear and neat finding; the question is, what does it mean?

Here are a few possibilities for consideration:

  1. As a result of having at least 6 acupuncture sessions, patients had lower rates of mortality, readmission and reoperation.
  2. As a result of having lower rates of mortality, readmission and reoperation, patients used acupuncture.
  3. As a result of some other factor, patients had both lower rates of mortality, readmission and reoperation and at least 6 sessions of acupuncture.

Which of the three possibilities is the most likely?

  1. Some enthusiasts might think that acupuncture makes you live longer. But does anyone truly believe it reduces the likelihood of needing a reoperation? Seriously? Well, I don’t see even a hint of a mechanism by which acupuncture might achieve this. Therefore, I would categorise this possibility as highly unlikely.
  2. It stands to reason that patients who are alive and well use more acupuncture than those who are dead or in need of surgery. So, this possibility is not entirely inconceivable.
  3. It seems very likely that people who are more health conscious might use acupuncture and live longer, need less readmissions or surgery. No doubt, this possibility is by far the best explanation of the findings of this retrospective matched cohort study.

If that is so, does this paper tell us anything useful at all?

Not really (that’s why it was published in an acupuncture journal which few people would read)

On second thought, perhaps it does tell us something valuable: retrospective matched cohort studies are hopeless when it comes to establishing cause and effect!

Yesterday, I received a tweet from a guy called Bart Huisman (“teacher beekeeping, nature, biology, classical homeopathy, agriculture, health science, social science”). I don’t know him and cannot remember whether I had previous contact with him. His tweet read as follows:

“Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”.”

This refers to a story that I had almost forgotten. It’s a nice one with a ‘happy ending’, so let me recount it here briefly.

In 2005, the BBC had hired me as an advisor for their 4-part TV series on alternative medicine.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Prof Kathy Sykes presented the opening scene taking place in a Chinese operation theatre. In it a Chinese women was having open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. Kathy’s was visibly impressed and said on camera that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  However, the images clearly revealed that the patient was receiving all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines. So, Prof Sykes was telling the UK public a bunch of porkies. This was bound to confuse many viewers.

One of them was Simon Singh. At the time, I did not know Simon (to be honest, I did not even know of him) and was surprised to receive a phone call from him. He politely asked me to confirm that I had been the adviser of the BBC on this production. I was happy to confirm this fact. Then he asked why I had missed such a grave error. I replied that I could not possibly have spotted it, because all I had been asked to do was to review and correct the text of the programme which the BBC had sent to me by email. Before it was broadcast, I had not seen a single passage of the film.

Correcting the text had already led to several problems (not so much regarding the acupuncture part but mostly the other sections), because the BBC was reluctant to change several of the mistakes I had identified. When I told them that, in this case, I would quit, they finally found a way to alter them. But the cooperation had been far from easy. I explained all this to Simon and eventually he asked me whether I would be willing to support the official complaint he was about to file with the BBC. I agreed. This is probably where I used the term ‘deception’ that Mr Huisman mentioned in his tweet.

So, Simon submitted his complaint and eventually won the case.

But this is not the happy ending I was referring to.

During the course of the complaint, Simon and I realised that we were thinking alike and were getting on well. A few months later, he suggested that the two of us write a book together about alternative medicine. At first, I was hesitant. Simon said, “let’s try just one chapter, and see how it works out.” So we did. It turned out to be fun and instructive for both of us. So we did the other chapters as well. The book was published in 2008 and is called TRICK OR TREATMENT. It was published in about 20 different languages and the German version became ‘science book of the year in 2011 (I think).

And that’s not the happy ending either (in fact, it caused a lot of hardship for Simon who was sued by the BCA; luckily, he won that case too).

The real happy ending is the fact that Simon and I became friends for life.

Thank you Bart Huisman for reminding me of this rather lovely story.

 

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