As I write these words, I am travelling back from a medical conference. The organisers had invited me to give a lecture which I concluded saying: “anyone in medicine not believing in evidence-based health care is in the wrong business”. This statement was meant to stimulate the discussion and provoke the audience who were perhaps just a little on the side of those who are not all that taken by science.
I may well have been right, because, in the coffee break, several doctors disputed my point; to paraphrase their arguments: “You don’t believe in the value of experience, you think that science is the way to know everything. But you are wrong! Philosophers and other people, who are a lot cleverer than you, tell us that science is not the way to real knowledge; and in some forms of medicine we have a wealth of experience which we cannot ignore. This is at least as important as scientific knowledge. Take TCM, for instance, thousands of years of tradition must mean something; in fact it tells us more than science will ever be able to. Qi-energy, for instance, is a concept based on experience, and science is useless at verifying it.”
I disagreed, of course. But I am afraid that I did not convince my colleagues. The appeal to tradition is amazingly powerful, so much so that even well-seasoned physicians fall for it. Yet it nevertheless is a fallacy, I am sure.
So what does experience tell us, how is it generated and why should it be unreliable?
On the level of the individual, experience emerges when a clinician makes similar observations several times in a row. This is so persuasive that few doctors are immune to the phenomenon. Let’s assume the experience is about acupuncture, more precisely about acupuncture for smoking cessation. The acupuncturist presumably has learnt during his training that his therapy works for that indication via stimulating the flow of Qi, and promptly tries it on several patients. Some of them come back for more and report that they find it easier to give up cigarettes after consulting him. This happens repeatedly, and our clinician forthwith is convinced – in fact, he knows – that acupuncture is effective for smoking cessation.
If we critically analyse this scenario, what does it tell us? It tells us very little of relevance, I am afraid. The scenario is entirely compatible with a whole host of explanations which have nothing to do with the effects of acupuncture per se:
- Those patients who did not manage to stop smoking might not have returned. Only seeing his successes without his failures, the acupuncturist would have got the wrong end of the stick.
- Human memory is selective such that the few patients who did come back and reported failure might easily get forgotten by the clinician. We all remember the good things and forget the disappointments, particularly if we are clinicians.
- The placebo-effect might have played a dirty trick on the experience of our acupuncturist.
- Some patients might have used nicotine patches that helped him to stop smoking without disclosing this fact to the acupuncturist who then, of course, attributed the benefit to his needling.
- The acupuncturist – being a very kind and empathetic clinician – might have involuntarily induced some of his patients to show kindness in return and thus tell porkies about their smoking habits which would have created a false positive impression about the effectiveness of his treatment.
- Being so empathetic, the acupuncturists would have provided lots of encouragement to stop smoking which, in some patients, might have been sufficient to kick the habit.
The long and short of all this is that our acupuncturist gradually got convinced by this interplay of factors that Qi exists and that acupuncture is an ineffective treatment. Hence forth he would bet his last shirt that he is right about this – after all, he has seen it with his own eyes, not just once but many times. And he will doubt anyone who shows him evidence that says otherwise. In fact, he is likely become very sceptical about scientific evidence in general – just like the doctors who talked to me after my lecture.
On a population level, such experience will be prevalent in not just one but most acupuncturists. Our clinician’s experience is certainly not unique; others will have made it too. In fact, as an acupuncturist, it is hard not to make it. Acupuncturists would have told everyone else about it, perhaps reported it on conferences or published it in articles or books. Experience of this nature is passed on from generation to generation, and soon someone will be able to demonstrate that acupuncture has been used ’effectively’ for smoking cessation since decades or centuries. The creation of a myth out of unreliable experience is thus complete.
Am I saying that experience of this nature is always and necessarily wrong or useless? No, I am not. It can be and often is correct. But, at the same time, it is frequently incorrect. It can serve as a valuable indicator but not more. Experience is not a tool for reliably informing us about the effectiveness of medical interventions. Experience based-medicine is an obsolete pseudo-medicine burdened with concepts that are counter-productive to optimal health care.
Philosophers and other people who are much cleverer than I am have been trying for some time to separate good from bad science and evidence from experience. Most recently, two philosophers, MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI and MAARTEN BOUDRY, commented specifically on this problem in relation to TCM. I leave you with some extensive quotes from what they wrote.
… pointing out that some traditional Chinese remedies (like drinking fresh turtle blood to alleviate cold symptoms) may in fact work, and therefore should not be dismissed as pseudoscience… risks confusing the possible effectiveness of folk remedies with the arbitrary theoretical-metaphysical baggage attached to it. There is no question that some folk remedies do work. The active ingredient of aspirin, for example, is derived from willow bark…
… claims about the existence of “Qi” energy, channeled through the human body by way of “meridians,” though, is a different matter. This sounds scientific, because it uses arcane jargon that gives the impression of articulating explanatory principles. But there is no way to test the existence of Qi and associated meridians, or to establish a viable research program based on those concepts, for the simple reason that talk of Qi and meridians only looks substantive, but it isn’t even in the ballpark of an empirically verifiable theory.
…the notion of Qi only mimics scientific notions such as enzyme actions on lipid compounds. This is a standard modus operandi of pseudoscience: it adopts the external trappings of science, but without the substance.
…The notion of Qi, again, is not really a theory in any meaningful sense of the word. It is just an evocative word to label a mysterious force of which we do not know and we are not told how to find out anything at all.
Still, one may reasonably object, what’s the harm in believing in Qi and related notions, if in fact the proposed remedies seem to help? Well, setting aside the obvious objections that the slaughtering of turtles might raise on ethical grounds, there are several issues to consider. To begin with, we can incorporate whatever serendipitous discoveries from folk medicine into modern scientific practice, as in the case of the willow bark turned aspirin. In this sense, there is no such thing as “alternative” medicine, there’s only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t.
Second, if we are positing Qi and similar concepts, we are attempting to provide explanations for why some things work and others don’t. If these explanations are wrong, or unfounded as in the case of vacuous concepts like Qi, then we ought to correct or abandon them. Most importantly, pseudo-medical treatments often do not work, or are even positively harmful. If you take folk herbal “remedies,” for instance, while your body is fighting a serious infection, you may suffer severe, even fatal, consequences.
…Indulging in a bit of pseudoscience in some instances may be relatively innocuous, but the problem is that doing so lowers your defenses against more dangerous delusions that are based on similar confusions and fallacies. For instance, you may expose yourself and your loved ones to harm because your pseudoscientific proclivities lead you to accept notions that have been scientifically disproved, like the increasingly (and worryingly) popular idea that vaccines cause autism.
Philosophers nowadays recognize that there is no sharp line dividing sense from nonsense, and moreover that doctrines starting out in one camp may over time evolve into the other. For example, alchemy was a (somewhat) legitimate science in the times of Newton and Boyle, but it is now firmly pseudoscientific (movements in the opposite direction, from full-blown pseudoscience to genuine science, are notably rare)….
The borderlines between genuine science and pseudoscience may be fuzzy, but this should be even more of a call for careful distinctions, based on systematic facts and sound reasoning. To try a modicum of turtle blood here and a little aspirin there is not the hallmark of wisdom and even-mindedness. It is a dangerous gateway to superstition and irrationality
The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.
In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.
For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.
In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labour
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:
- One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
- One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
- One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
- One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
- One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
- If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.
I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!
Australian researchers wanted to know whether acupuncture is effective for alleviating the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a common painful condition for which no universally accepted treatment exists. For this purpose, they conducted a Cochrane review. After extensive literature searches, they identified 9 RCTs, extracted their data and assessed risk of bias.
The results show that all studies except one were at low risk of selection bias; five were at risk of selective reporting bias; two were subject to attrition bias (favouring acupuncture); three were subject to performance bias (favouring acupuncture) and one to detection bias (favouring acupuncture).
Three studies utilised electro-acupuncture (EA) and the remainder manual acupuncture (MA) without electrical stimulation.
Low quality evidence from one study (13 participants) showed EA improved symptoms with no adverse events at one month following treatment.
Moderate quality evidence from six studies (286 participants) indicated that acupuncture (EA or MA) was no better than sham acupuncture, except for less stiffness at one month. Subgroup analysis of two studies (104 participants) indicated benefits of EA. Mean pain was 70 points on 0 to 100 point scale with sham treatment; EA reduced pain by 13% (5% to 22%).
Low-quality evidence from one study suggested that MA resulted in poorer physical function: mean function in the sham group was 28 points (100 point scale); treatment worsened function by a mean of 6 points.
Moderate quality evidence from one study (58 participants) found that, compared with standard therapy alone (antidepressants and exercise), adjunct acupuncture therapy reduced pain at one month after treatment.
Low quality evidence from one study (38 participants) showed a short-term benefit of acupuncture over antidepressants in pain relief.
Moderate-quality evidence from one study (41 participants) indicated that deep needling with or without deqi did not differ in pain, fatigue, function or adverse events.
Four studies reported no differences between acupuncture and control or other treatments described at six to seven months follow-up.
No serious adverse events were reported, but there were insufficient adverse events to be certain of the risks.
The authors draw the following conclusions: There is low to moderate-level evidence that compared with no treatment and standard therapy, acupuncture improves pain and stiffness in people with fibromyalgia. There is moderate-level evidence that the effect of acupuncture does not differ from sham acupuncture in reducing pain or fatigue, or improving sleep or global well-being. EA is probably better than MA for pain and stiffness reduction and improvement of global well-being, sleep and fatigue. The effect lasts up to one month, but is not maintained at six months follow-up. MA probably does not improve pain or physical functioning. Acupuncture appears safe. People with fibromyalgia may consider using EA alone or with exercise and medication. The small sample size, scarcity of studies for each comparison, lack of an ideal sham acupuncture weaken the level of evidence and its clinical implications. Larger studies are warranted.
What does all that mean? In my view, it means that there is no sound evidence base for acupuncture as a treatment of fibromyalgia – or as we expressed it in our own systematic review of 2007: The notion that acupuncture is an effective symptomatic treatment for fibromyaligia is not supported by the results from rigorous clinical trials. On the basis of this evidence, acupuncture cannot be recommended for fibromyalgia.
In 2010, NICE recommended acupuncture for chronic low back pain (cLBP). Acupuncturists were of course delighted; the British Acupuncture Council, for instance, stated that they fully support NICE’s (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) decision that acupuncture be made available on the NHS for chronic lower back pain. Traditional acupuncture has been used for over 2,000 years to alleviate back pain and British Acupuncture Council members have for many many years been successfully treating patients for this condition either in private practice or working within the NHS. In effect, therefore, these new guidelines are a rubber stamp of the positive work already being undertaken as well as an endorsement of the wealth of research evidence now available in this area.
More critical experts, however, tended to be surprised about this move and doubted that the evidence was strong enough for a positive recommendation. Now a brand-new meta-analysis sheds more light on this important issue.
Its aim was to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture as a therapy for cLBP. The authors found 13 RCTs which matched their inclusion criteria. Their results show that, compared with no treatment, acupuncture achieved better outcomes in terms of pain relief, disability recovery and better quality of life. These effects were, however, not observed when real acupuncture was compared to sham acupuncture. Acupuncture achieved better outcomes when compared with other treatments. No publication bias was detected.
The authors conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain, but this effect is likely to be produced by the nonspecific effects of manipulation.
In plain English, this means that the effects of acupuncture on cLBP are most likely due to placebo. Should NICE be recommending placebo-treatments and have the tax payer foot the bill? I think I can leave it to my readers to answer this question.
Hot flushes are a big problem; they are not life-threatening, of course, but they do make life a misery for countless menopausal women. Hormone therapy is effective, but many women have gone off the idea since we know that hormone therapy might increase their risk of getting cancer and cardiovascular disease. So, what does work and is also risk-free? Acupuncture?
Together with researchers from Quebec, we wanted to determine whether acupuncture is effective for reducing hot flushes and for improving the quality of life of menopausal women. We decided to do this in form of a Cochrane review which was just published.
We searched 16 electronic databases in order to identify all relevant studies and included all RCTs comparing any type of acupuncture to no treatment/control or other treatments. Sixteen studies, with a total of 1155 women, were eligible for inclusion. Three review authors independently assessed trial eligibility and quality, and extracted data. We pooled data where appropriate.
Eight studies compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture. No significant difference was found between the groups for hot flush frequency, but flushes were significantly less severe in the acupuncture group, with a small effect size. There was substantial heterogeneity for both these outcomes. In a post hoc sensitivity analysis excluding studies of women with breast cancer, heterogeneity was reduced to 0% for hot flush frequency and 34% for hot flush severity and there was no significant difference between the groups for either outcome. Three studies compared acupuncture with hormone therapy, and acupuncture turned out to be associated with significantly more frequent hot flushes. There was no significant difference between the groups for hot flush severity. One study compared electro-acupuncture with relaxation, and there was no significant difference between the groups for either hot flush frequency or hot flush severity. Four studies compared acupuncture with waiting list or no intervention. Traditional acupuncture was significantly more effective in reducing hot flush frequency, and was also significantly more effective in reducing hot flush severity. The effect size was moderate in both cases.
For quality of life measures, acupuncture was significantly less effective than HT, but traditional acupuncture was significantly more effective than no intervention. There was no significant difference between acupuncture and other comparators for quality of life. Data on adverse effects were lacking.
Our conclusion: We found insufficient evidence to determine whether acupuncture is effective for controlling menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, there was no evidence of a significant difference in their effect on menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with no treatment there appeared to be a benefit from acupuncture, but acupuncture appeared to be less effective than HT. These findings should be treated with great caution as the evidence was low or very low quality and the studies comparing acupuncture versus no treatment or HT were not controlled with sham acupuncture or placebo HT. Data on adverse effects were lacking.
I still have to meet an acupuncturist who is not convinced that acupuncture is not an effective treatment for hot flushes. You only need to go on the Internet to see the claims that are being made along those lines. Yet this review shows quite clearly that it is not better than placebo. It also demonstrates that studies which do suggest an effect do so because they fail to adequately control for a placebo response. This means that the benefit patients and therapists observe in routine clinical practice is not due to the acupuncture per se, but to the placebo-effect.
And what could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, is my answer; here are just 4 things that immediately spring into my mind:
1) Arguably, it is dishonest and unethical to use a placebo on ill patients in routine clinical practice and charge for it pretending it is a specific and effective treatment.
2) Placebo-effects are unreliable, small and usually of short duration.
3) In order to generate a placebo-effect, I don’t need a placebo-therapy; an effective one administered with compassion does that too (and generates specific effects on top of that).
4) Not all placebos are risk-free. Acupuncture, for instance, has been associated with serious complications.
The last point is interesting also in the context of our finding that the RCTs analysed failed to mention adverse-effects. This is a phenomenon we observe regularly in studies of alternative medicine: trialists tend to violate the most fundamental rules of research ethics by simply ignoring the need to report adverse-effects. In plain English, this is called ‘scientific misconduct’. Consequently, we find very little published evidence on this issue, and enthusiasts claim their treatment is risk-free, simply because no risks are being reported. Yet one wonders to what extend systematic under-reporting is the cause of that impression!
So, what about the legion of acupuncturists who earn a good part of their living by recommending to their patients acupuncture for hot flushes?
They may, of course, not know about the evidence which shows that it is not more than a placebo. Would this be ok then? No, emphatically no! All clinicians have a duty to be up to date regarding the scientific evidence in relation to the treatments they use. A therapist who does not abide by this fundamental rule of medical ethics is, in my view, a fraud. On the other hand, some acupuncturists might be well aware of the evidence and employ acupuncture nevertheless; after all, it brings good money! Well, I would say that such a therapist is a fraud too.
Acupuncture is not just one single form of therapy, there are dozens of variations of this theme. For instance, acupuncture-points can, according to proponents of this form of treatment, be stimulated in a number of ways: needles, heat (moxibustion), electrical current, laser-light, ultrasound or pressure. In the latter case, the therapy is called acupressure. This therapy is popular and often recommended as a form of self-treatment, for instance, to alleviate nausea and vomiting of all causes.
Chemotherapy-induced nausea/vomiting can normally be successfully treated with standard anti-emetic drugs. Some patients, however, may not respond satisfactorily and others prefer a drug-free option such as acupressure for which there has been encouraging evidence. A brand-new study sheds new light on this issue.
Its objective was to assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of self-administered acupressure using wristbands compared with sham acupressure wristbands and standard care alone in the management of chemotherapy-induced nausea. Secondary objectives included assessment of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the wristbands in relation to vomiting and quality of life and exploration of any age, gender and emetogenic risk effects. The trial was conducted in outpatient chemotherapy clinics in three regions in the UK involving 14 different cancer units/centres. Chemotherapy-naïve cancer patients were included receiving chemotherapy of low, moderate and high emetogenic risk. The intervention were acupressure wristbands pressing the P6 point (anterior surface of the forearm), sham-wrist bands providing no pressure on acupuncture-points or no wrist-bands at all; all three groups had standard care in addition. The main outcome measures were the Rhodes Index for Nausea/Vomiting, the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC) Antiemesis Tool and the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy – General (FACT-G). At baseline participants also completed measures of anxiety/depression, nausea/vomiting expectation and expectations from using the wristbands.
In total, 500 patients were randomised (166 standard care, 166 sham acupressure + standard care, and 168 acupressure + standard care). Data were available for 361 participants for the primary outcome. The primary outcome analysis (nausea in cycle 1) revealed no differences between the three arms. Women responded more favourably to the use of sham acupressure wristbands than men. No significant differences were detected in relation to vomiting outcomes, anxiety and quality of life. Some transient adverse effects were reported, including tightness in the area of the wristbands, feeling uncomfortable when wearing them and minor swelling in the wristband area.There were no statistically significant cost differences associated with the use of real acupressure bands.
In total, 26 patients took part in qualitative interviews. The qualitative data suggested that participants perceived the wristbands (both real and sham) as effective and helpful in managing their nausea during chemotherapy.
The authors concluded that there were no statistically significant differences between the three arms in terms of nausea, vomiting and quality of life.
Intriguingly, this study was published in two different journals; and the second article reporting the identical data concluded that no clear recommendations can be made about the use of acupressure wristbands in the management of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.
A further equally new study tested acupressure for post-operative nausea/vomiting. One hundred and thirty-four healthy, non-smoking women scheduled for breast surgery were randomised either to P6 stimulation or to sham control. Wristbands were applied and covered with a dressing before induction of anaesthesia. Follow-up was carried out three times within 24 h postoperative. Primary outcomes were postoperative nausea and/or vomiting.
One hundred and twelve patients completed the study. There were no statistically significant differences in the incidence of nausea or vomiting. Approximately, one third of the patients reported adverse-effects caused by the wristband, for example, redness, swelling and tenderness.
The authors of this trial concluded as follows: We did not find the Vital-Band effective in preventing either nausea or vomiting after operation in women undergoing breast surgery.
There has been quite a bit of previous research on acupressure. The most recent summary included 2 meta-analyses, 6 systematic reviews and 39 RCTs of acupressure for various conditions. Its authors stated that the strongest evidence was for pain (particularly dysmenorrhoea, lower back and labour), post-operative nausea and vomiting.
So, is acupressure effective in reducing nausea and vomiting or not? The evidence is contradictory to a degree that is baffling. If we look closer at the existing trials, we are likely to find that the more rigorous studies and those published by researchers who do not have an axe to grind tend to produce negative findings. I am therefore not convinced that acupressure has any effects beyond placebo.
Postoperative ileus (POI), the phenomenon that after an operation the intestines tend to be inactive for a few days, can cause intense pain and thus contributes significantly to human suffering. It also prolongs hospital stay and increases the risks of post-operative complications. There is no known effective treatment for POI.
In China, POI is often treated with acupuncture, and due to this fact acupuncture became known in the West: James Reston, a journalist who accompanied Nixon on his first trip to China, had to have an appendectomy in a Beijing hospital, he subsequently suffered from POI, was treated with acupuncture and moxibustion, experienced symptom-relief, and subsequently wrote about it in the New York Times. This was the beginning of the present acupuncture-boom.
Since then, thousands of acupuncture trials have been published but, intriguingly, very few have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture for POI. Now researchers from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York have conducted a randomized, sham-controlled trial to test whether acupuncture reduces POI more effectively than sham acupuncture.
Ninety colon cancer patients undergoing elective colectomy were randomized to receive 30 min of true or sham acupuncture twice daily during their first three postoperative days. GI-3 (the later of the following two events: time that the patient first tolerated solid food, AND time that the patient first passed flatus OR a bowel movement) and GI-2 (the later of the following two events: time patient first tolerated solid food AND time patient first passed a bowel movement) were determined. Pain, nausea, vomiting, and use of pain medications were evaluated daily for the first three postoperative days. Eighty-one patients received the allocated intervention: 39 the true acupuncture and 42 the sham acupuncture. The mean time to GI-3 was 149 hours and 146 hours for the acupuncture group and the sham acupuncture group. No significant differences were found between groups for secondary endpoints.
The authors’ conclusion was clear: True acupuncture as provided in this study did not reduce POI more significantly than sham acupuncture.
So, did a mere misunderstanding start the present acupuncture boom? POI inevitably normalises with time. Did the journalist just imagine that acupuncture helped, while nature cured the condition? It would seem so, according to this study. But perhaps things are not just black or white. Almost at the same time as the New York trial, another study was emerged.
Researchers from Hong Kong conducted an RCT with 165 patients undergoing elective laparoscopic surgery for colonic and upper rectal cancer. Patients were assigned randomly to receive electroacupuncture (n = 55) or sham acupuncture (n = 55), once daily from postoperative days 1-4, or no acupuncture (n = 55). The primary outcome was time to defecation. Secondary outcomes included postoperative analgesic requirement, time to ambulation, and length of hospital stay. The results showed that patients who received electroacupuncture had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received no acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 122.1 ± 53.5 h) and length of hospital stay (6.5 ± 2.2 vs 8.5 ± 4.8 days). Patients who received electroacupuncture also had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received sham acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 107.5 ± 46.2 h). Electroacupuncture was more effective than no or sham acupuncture in reducing postoperative analgesic requirement and time to ambulation.
The Chinese researchers’ conclusion is equally clear: electroacupuncture reduced the duration of postoperative ileus, time to ambulation, and postoperative analgesic requirement, compared with no or sham acupuncture, after laparoscopic surgery for colorectal cancer.
The only other trial I know in this area failed to show that acupuncture shortens POI. What should we make of these data? A systematic review would be nice, of course, but, to the best of my knowledge, none is currently available.
Is this a question of everyone being able to pick and chose the evidence they like? Is it a question of who we trust, the researchers in New York or those in China? Is it a question of where the treatment was done authentically? Is it a question of critically analysing which study had the higher risks of bias? Or is it a question of simply saying that two negative studies are more than one positive trial?
Confused? Me too, a little!
Whatever answers we chose, several things seems fairly certain to me. It would be wrong to say that there is good evidence for acupuncture as a treatment of POI. And the acupuncture-boom that ensued after Reston’s article was to a very large degree built on a simple misunderstanding: POI is a condition that resolves literally into thin air whether we treat it or not.
The vexing question whether the acupuncture needle is as safe as most acupuncturists seem to believe has been raised several times before on this blog. Here is a new case-report by Japanese authors which sheds an interesting light on this issue.
A 62-year-old man was admitted to A+E complaining of dizziness and diaphoresis. He had received an acupuncture treatment in the sub-xyphoid area (lower 2 cm and left 1 cm point from the lower xyphoid process border) only about one hour ago. He had a history of cerebral infarction and atrial fibrillation, and the latter condition was treated with 2 mg warfarin per day. On admission, the acupuncture needle was still sticking in his sub-sternum.
His blood pressure was 80/50 mm Hg, and tachycardia with 110 beats/min was noted. The acupuncture-needle was duly removed, but the patient went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. Because his international normalized ratio was 1.99, 2 pints of fresh frozen plasma and 5 mg of vitamin K were administered at that stage. A transthoracic echocardiography revealed pericardial effusion with early diastolic collapse of the right ventricle. Emergency pericardiocentesis using a sub-costal approach was performed. After drainage of 500 mL of sanguineous effusion, the patient seemed to stabilize.
Two hours later, the drainage of pericardial effusion amounted to around 1000 mL, and cardiac arrest re-developed. After another resuscitation, an operation was performed under cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). A median sternotomy allowed visualization of huge hematomas over the right atrium and ventricle. After the hematomas had been evacuated, pulsating blood loss from the marginal branch of the right coronary artery was identified. The vessel had been torn into pieces, and it was ligated which stopped the bleeding. Thereafter, the patient remained hemodynamically stable. Subsequently the patient made an uneventful recovery and, eventually, he was discharged without further complications.
The authors of this case-report conclude as follows: To our best knowledge, this appears to be the first case of an acupuncture-related coronary artery injury. The important causes of this unfortunate adverse event are a lack of anatomic knowledge and an incorrect application of the procedure. It can be avoided that acupuncture leads to cardiac tamponade like most serious complications….every acupuncturist should be aware of the possible and life-threatening adverse events and be adequately trained to prevent them.
In 2011, we published a review of all cases of cardiac tamponade after acupuncture. At the time, we found a total of 26 such incidences. In 14 patients, the complications were fatal. In most reports, there was little doubt about causality. We concluded that cardiac tamponade is a serious, often fatal complication after acupuncture. As it is theoretically avoidable, acupuncturists should be trained to minimize the risk.
Acupuncture-fans will, of course, claim (as before) that it is alarmist to go on about risks of acupuncture or alternative medicine which are so minute that they are dwarfed by those of conventional health care. And I will counter (as before) that it is never the absolute risk that counts, but that it is the risk benefit balance which defines the value of any therapeutic intervention. As long as we have no solid proof that acupuncture is more than a “theatrical placebo“, even a tiny risk weighs heavily and seems unacceptable.
But the true significance of this case-report lies elsewhere, in my view: risks of this nature can and should be avoided. The only way to achieve this aim is to train and educate acupuncturists properly. At present this does not seem to be the case, particularly in Asian countries where acupuncture is most popular. It is up to the acupuncture communities across the globe to get their act together.
Acupuncture has remained one of the most controversial topics in the area of alternative medicine. Is it plausible? Is it safe? Is it effective? The arguments have been raging for decades and are by no means settled yet. The June issue of Anesth. Analg. is partly dedicated to this debate; the editor has invited two teams of experts to put forward their contrasting views.
The team of experts arguing in support of acupuncture conclude as follows: “clinical trials support the efficacy of acupuncture in reducing post-operative nausea and vomiting and postoperative pain; however, evidence supporting acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain conditions is mixed. It should be noted that acupuncture trials in chronic pain have concluded that acupuncture treatment is often superior to standard of care or wait list controls and that acupuncture has minimal side effects and is cost effective. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that there are different neural correlates between verum and sham acupuncture stimulation. Additionally, all clinical trials and many research studies have assumed that the acupuncture effect is equal to the “needle” effect, failing to recognize that factors in addition to specific effects of needling are also important contributors to the therapeutic effect of acupuncture in the setting of chronic pain.
Last, acupuncture is an ancient medical intervention first developed in an era when there were no laboratory tests, technology, or science of anatomy. The reason that the practice of acupuncture has survived for thousands of years is because it has evolved over time, with changes ranging from the number of acupuncture points to the practice techniques. Instead of criticizing this ancient art with arguments culled from modern medicine and science, physicians and scientists should try to integrate current knowledge into this ancient, yet ever-evolving practice so it may be used to treat conditions for which pharmaceutical interventions are ineffective and/or potentially dangerous. Over the last decade, there has been a growing green movement and eco-sustainability trend as well as an increased awareness that the same medication may not be effective in treating every patient with the same biomedical diagnosis. This “new age-integrative medicine” in Western culture promotes a patient-oriented medical practice that complements the ancient Chinese theory behind acupuncture practice. Overall, acupuncture practice should not be seen as a placebo intervention or merely a needle therapy, but a medical option that not only treats disorders but also fosters a greater awareness of how harmonic interactions between self, family, work, and environment play a role in promoting health and restoring order”.
The two experts arguing against the usefulness of acupuncture draw the following conclusions: “It is clear from meta-analyses that results of acupuncture trials are variable and inconsistent, even for single conditions. After thousands of trials of acupuncture and hundreds of systematic reviews,arguments continue unabated. In 2011, Pain published an editorial that summed up the present situation well.
“Is there really any need for more studies? Ernst et al. point out that the positive studies conclude that acupuncture relieves pain in some conditions but not in other very similar conditions. What would you think if a new pain pill was shown to relieve musculoskeletal pain in the arms but not in the legs? The most parsimonious explanation is that the positive studies are false positives. In his seminal article on why most published research findings are false, Ioannidis points out that when a popular but ineffective treatment is studied, false positive results are common for multiple reason, including bias and low prior probability.”
Since it has proved impossible to find consistent evidence after more than 3000 trials, it is time to give up. It seems very unlikely that the money that it would cost to do another 3000 trials would be well-spent.
A small excess of positive results after thousands of trials is most consistent with an inactive intervention. The small excess is predicted by poor study design and publication bias. Furthermore, Simmons et al. demonstrated that exploitation of “undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis” can produce statistically positive results even from a completely nonexistent effect. They say this is “… not driven by a willingness to deceive but by the self-serving interpretation of ambiguity, which enables us to convince ourselves that whichever decisions produced the most publishable outcome must have also been the most appropriate.”
With acupuncture, in particular, there is documented profound bias among proponents. Existing studies are also contaminated by variables other than acupuncture, such as the frequent inclusion of “electroacupuncture” which is essentially transdermal electrical nerve stimulation masquerading as acupuncture.
The best controlled studies show a clear pattern, with acupuncture the outcome does not depend on needle location or even needle insertion. Since these variables are those that define acupuncture, the only sensible conclusion is that acupuncture does not work. Everything else is the expected noise of clinical trials, and this noise seems particularly high with acupuncture research. The most parsimonious conclusion is that with acupuncture there is no signal, only noise.
The interests of medicine would be best-served if we emulated the Chinese Emperor Dao Guang and issued an edict stating that acupuncture and moxibustion should no longer be used in clinical practice.
No doubt acupuncture will continue to exist on the “High Streets” where they can be tolerated as a voluntary self-imposed tax on the gullible (as long as they do not make unjustified claims).”
The readers of this blog will no doubt make up their own mind as to which arguments are stronger, more logical, more convincing, and based on more reliable evidence. I recommend reading the full articles and studying the references.
Personally, I have no hesitation in agreeing with the second, more sceptical view, and I have to admit finding the pro-acupuncture arguments weak as well as full of clichés, fallacies and errors.
I look forward to a lively discussion.
A stroke is a condition where brain cells get irreversibly damaged either by a haemorrhage in the brain or by a blood clot cutting off oxygen supply. This process leaves most patients with neurological deficits such as difficulties in moving, speaking, concentrating etc. As other parts of the brain learn to take over, these problems can partly or completely resolve themselves over time, but many patients are left with permanent handicaps. Stroke-rehabilitation can minimise these problems, and there is a long-standing debate as to which measures are most effective. Acupuncture has been discussed as a method to improve the results of stroke-rehabilitation, but the evidence is hotly disputed. This is why a new study in this area is an important contribution to our existing knowledge.
The aim of this randomised trial was to test the effectiveness of acupuncture in promoting the recovery of patients with ischaemic stroke and to determine whether the outcomes of combined physiotherapy and acupuncture are superior to those with physiotherapy alone. The Chinese investigators recruited 120 patients who received one of three daily treatments: 1) acupuncture, 2) physiotherapy, 3) physiotherapy combined with acupuncture. Motor function in the limbs was measured with the Fugl-Meyer assessment (FMA); the modified Barthel index (MBI) was used to rate activities of daily living; both of these measures are validated and well-established. All evaluations were performed by assessors blinded to treatment allocation.
At baseline, FMA and MBI scores did not significantly differ among the treatment groups. Compared with baseline, on day 28 of therapy, the mean FMA scores of the physiotherapy, acupuncture, and combined treatment groups had increased by 65.6%, 57.7%, and 67.2%, respectively; on day 56, FMA scores had increased by 88.1%, 64.5%, and 88.6%, respectively. The respective MBI scores in the three groups had increased by 85.2%, 60.4%, and 63.4% at day 28 and by 108.0%, 71.2%, and 86.2% at day 56, respectively. However, FMA scores did not significantly differ between the three treatment groups on the 28th day. By the day 56, the FMA and MBI scores of the physiotherapy group were 46.1% and 33.2% greater, respectively, than those in the acupuncture group. No significant differences were seen between the combined treatment group and the other groups. The FMA subscores for the upper extremities did not show significant improvements in any group on day 56.
The authors draw the following conclusion: “Acupuncture is less effective for the outcome measures studied than is physiotherapy. Moreover, the therapeutic effect of combining acupuncture with physiotherapy was not superior to that of physiotherapy alone. A larger-scale clinical trial is necessary to confirm these finding.”
Our own study arrived at similarly disappointing conclusions: “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“. Our review of all 10 sham-controlled RCTs in this area is also in line with the results of this new study: “Our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke”
I am quite sure that some acupuncture-enthusiasts will dispute this evidence. They might argue that I am too critical, the trials were not done optimally, that acupuncturists have seen plenty of good results in their clinical practice, that acupuncture is a complex intervention that does not fit into the straight jacket of an RCT, that this or that “prestigious” organisation recommends acupuncture for stroke patients, that it would be wrong not to give acupuncture a try etc. etc. I would counter that the reliable evidence available to date is sufficiently conclusive to stop claiming that acupuncture is effective and thus give false hope to severely suffering, vulnerable patients. Moreover, I would advocate using the sparse available resources to help stroke victims with treatments that demonstrably work.