I have often cautioned my readers about the ‘evidence’ supporting acupuncture (and other alternative therapies). Rightly so, I think. Here is yet another warning.
This systematic review assessed the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of postpartum depression (PPD). Nine trials involving 653 women were selected. A meta-analysis demonstrated that the acupuncture group had a significantly greater overall effective rate compared with the control group. Moreover, acupuncture significantly increased oestradiol levels compared with the control group. Regarding the HAMD and EPDS scores, no difference was found between the two groups. The Chinese authors concluded that acupuncture appears to be effective for postpartum depression with respect to certain outcomes. However, the evidence thus far is inconclusive. Further high-quality RCTs following standardised guidelines with a low risk of bias are needed to confirm the effectiveness of acupuncture for postpartum depression.
What a conclusion!
What a review!
What a journal!
Let’s start with the conclusion: if the authors feel that the evidence is ‘inconclusive’, why do they state that ‘acupuncture appears to be effective for postpartum depression‘. To me this does simply not make sense!
Such oddities are abundant in the review. The abstract does not mention the fact that all trials were from China (published in Chinese which means that people who cannot read Chinese are unable to check any of the reported findings), and their majority was of very poor quality – two good reasons to discard the lot without further ado and conclude that there is no reliable evidence at all.
The authors also tell us very little about the treatments used in the control groups. In the paper, they state that “the control group needed to have received a placebo or any type of herb, drug and psychological intervention”. But was acupuncture better than all or any of these treatments? I could not find sufficient data in the paper to answer this question.
Moreover, only three trials seem to have bothered to mention adverse effects. Thus the majority of the studies were in breach of research ethics. No mention is made of this in the discussion.
In the paper, the authors re-state that “this meta-analysis showed that the acupuncture group had a significantly greater overall effective rate compared with the control group. Moreover, acupuncture significantly increased oestradiol levels compared with the control group.” This is, I think, highly misleading (see above).
Finally, let’s have a quick look at the journal ‘Acupuncture in Medicine’ (AiM). Even though it is published by the BMJ group (the reason for this phenomenon can be found here: “AiM is owned by the British Medical Acupuncture Society and published by BMJ”; this means that all BMAS-members automatically receive the journal which thus is a resounding commercial success), it is little more than a cult-newsletter. The editorial board is full of acupuncture enthusiasts, and the journal hardly ever publishes anything that is remotely critical of the wonderous myths of acupuncture.
My conclusion considering all this is as follows: we ought to be very careful before accepting any ‘evidence’ that is currently being published about the benefits of acupuncture, even if it superficially looks ok. More often than not, it turns out to be profoundly misleading, utterly useless and potentially harmful pseudo-evidence.
Acupunct Med. 2018 Jun 15. pii: acupmed-2017-011530. doi: 10.1136/acupmed-2017-011530. [Epub ahead of print]
Li S, Zhong W, Peng W, Jiang G.
Most people probably think of acupuncture as being used mainly as a therapy for pain control. But acupuncture is currently being promoted (and has traditionally been used) for all sorts of conditions. One of them is stroke. It is said to speed up recovery and even improve survival rates after such an event. There are plenty of studies on this subject, but their results are far from uniform. What is needed in this situation, is a rigorous summary of the evidence.
The authors of this Cochrane review wanted to assess whether acupuncture could reduce the proportion of people suffering death or dependency after acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke. They included all randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of acupuncture started within 30 days after stroke onset. Acupuncture had to be compared with placebo or sham acupuncture or open control (no placebo) in people with acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke, or both. Comparisons were made versus (1) all controls (open control or sham acupuncture), and (2) sham acupuncture controls.
The investigators included 33 RCTs with 3946 participants. Outcome data were available for up to 22 trials (2865 participants) that compared acupuncture with any control (open control or sham acupuncture) but for only 6 trials (668 participants) comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture.
When compared with any control (11 trials with 1582 participants), findings of lower odds of death or dependency at the end of follow-up and over the long term (≥ three months) in the acupuncture group were uncertain and were not confirmed by trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture. In trials comparing acupuncture with any control, findings that acupuncture was associated with increases in the global neurological deficit score and in the motor function score were uncertain. These findings were not confirmed in trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture.Trials comparing acupuncture with any control showed little or no difference in death or institutional care or death at the end of follow-up.The incidence of adverse events (eg, pain, dizziness, faint) in the acupuncture arms of open and sham control trials was 6.2% (64/1037 participants), and 1.4% of these patients (14/1037 participants) discontinued acupuncture. When acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture, findings for adverse events were uncertain.
The authors concluded that this updated review indicates that apparently improved outcomes with acupuncture in acute stroke are confounded by the risk of bias related to use of open controls. Adverse events related to acupuncture were reported to be minor and usually did not result in stopping treatment. Future studies are needed to confirm or refute any effects of acupuncture in acute stroke. Trials should clearly report the method of randomization, concealment of allocation, and whether blinding of participants, personnel, and outcome assessors was achieved, while paying close attention to the effects of acupuncture on long-term functional outcomes.
This Cochrane review seems to be thorough, but it is badly written (Cochrane reviewers: please don’t let this become the norm!). It contains some interesting facts. The majority of the studies came from China. This review confirmed the often very poor methodological quality of acupuncture trials which I have frequently mentioned before.
In particular, the RCTs originating from China were amongst those that most overtly lacked rigor, also a fact that has been discussed regularly on this blog.
For me, by far the most important finding of this review is that studies which at least partly control for placebo effects fail to show positive results. Depending on where you stand in the never-ending debate about acupuncture, this could lead to two dramatically different conclusions:
- If you are a believer in or earn your living from acupuncture, you might say that these results suggest that the trials were in some way insufficient and therefore they produced false-negative results.
- If you are a more reasonable observer, you might feel that these results show that acupuncture (for acute stroke) is a placebo therapy.
Regardless to which camp you belong, one thing seems to be certain: acupuncture for stroke (and other indications) is not supported by sound evidence. And that means, I think, that it is not responsible to use it in routine care.
The only time we discussed gua sha, it led to one of the most prolonged discussions we ever had on this blog (536 comments so far). It seems to be a topic that excites many. But what precisely is it?
Gua sha, sometimes referred to as “scraping”, “spooning” or “coining”, is a traditional Chinese treatment that has spread to several other Asian countries. It has long been popular in Vietnam and is now also becoming well-known in the West. The treatment consists of scraping the skin with a smooth edge placed against the pre-oiled skin surface, pressed down firmly, and then moved downwards along muscles or meridians. According to its proponents, gua sha stimulates the flow of the vital energy ‘chi’ and releases unhealthy bodily matter from blood stasis within sore, tired, stiff or injured muscle areas.
The technique is practised by TCM practitioners, acupuncturists, massage therapists, physical therapists, physicians and nurses. Practitioners claim that it stimulates blood flow to the treated areas, thus promoting cell metabolism, regeneration and healing. They also assume that it has anti-inflammatory effects and stimulates the immune system.
These effects are said to last for days or weeks after a single treatment. The treatment causes microvascular injuries which are visible as subcutaneous bleeding and redness. Gua sha practitioners make far-reaching therapeutic claims, including that the therapy alleviates pain, prevents infections, treats asthma, detoxifies the body, cures liver problems, reduces stress, and contributes to overall health.
Gua sha is mildly painful, almost invariably leads to unsightly blemishes on the skin which occasionally can become infected and might even be mistaken for physical abuse.
There is little research of gua sha, and the few trials that exist tend to be published in Chinese. But recently, a new paper has emerged that is written in English. The goal of this systematic review was to evaluate the available evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of gua sha for the treatment of patients with perimenopausal syndrome.
A total of 6 RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Most were of low methodological quality. When compared with Western medicine therapy alone, meta-analysis of 5 RCTs indicated favorable statistically significant effects of gua sha plus Western medicine. Moreover, study participants who received Gua Sha therapy plus Western medicine therapy showed significantly greater improvements in serum levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH) compared to participants in the Western medicine therapy group.
The authors concluded that preliminary evidence supported the hypothesis that Gua Sha therapy effectively improved the treatment efficacy in patients with perimenopausal syndrome. Additional studies will be required to elucidate optimal frequency and dosage of Gua Sha.
This sounds as though gua sha is a reasonable therapy.
Yet, I think this notion is worth being critically analysed. Here are some caveats that spring into my mind:
- Gua sha lacks biological plausibility.
- The reviewed trials are too flawed to allow any firm conclusions.
- As most are published in Chinese, non-Chinese speakers have no possibility to evaluate them.
- The studies originate from China where close to 100% of TCM trials report positive results.
- In my view, this means they are less than trustworthy.
- The authors of the above-cited review are all from China and might not be willing, able or allowed to publish a critical paper on this subject.
- The review was published in Complement Ther Clin Pract., a journal not known for its high scientific standards or critical stance towards TCM.
So, is gua sha a reasonable therapy?
I let you make this judgement.
On this blog, we have seen more than enough evidence of how some proponents of alternative medicine can react when they feel cornered by critics. They often direct vitriol in their direction. Ad hominem attacks are far from being rarities. A more forceful option is to sue them for libel. In my own case, Prince Charles went one decisive step further and made sure that my entire department was closed down. In China, they have recently and dramatically gone even further.
This article in Nature tells the full story:
A Chinese doctor who was arrested after he criticized a best-selling traditional Chinese remedy has been released, after more than three months in detention. Tan Qindong had been held at the Liangcheng county detention centre since January, when police said a post Tan had made on social media damaged the reputation of the traditional medicine and the company that makes it.
On 17 April, a provincial court found the police evidence for the case insufficient. Tan, a former anaesthesiologist who has founded several biomedical companies, was released on bail on that day. Tan, who lives in Guangzhou in southern China, is now awaiting trial. Lawyers familiar with Chinese criminal law told Nature that police have a year to collect more evidence or the case will be dismissed. They say the trial is unlikely to go ahead…
The episode highlights the sensitivities over traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) in China. Although most of these therapies have not been tested for efficacy in randomized clinical trials — and serious side effects have been reported in some1 — TCM has support from the highest levels of government. Criticism of remedies is often blocked on the Internet in China. Some lawyers and physicians worry that Tan’s arrest will make people even more hesitant to criticize traditional therapies…
Tan’s post about a medicine called Hongmao liquor was published on the Chinese social-media app Meipian on 19 December…Three days later, the liquor’s maker, Hongmao Pharmaceuticals in Liangcheng county of Inner Mongolia autonomous region, told local police that Tan had defamed the company. Liangcheng police hired an accountant who estimated that the damage to the company’s reputation was 1.4 million Chinese yuan (US$220,000), according to official state media, the Beijing Youth Daily. In January, Liangcheng police travelled to Guangzhou to arrest Tan and escort him back to Liangcheng, according to a police statement.
Sales of Hongmao liquor reached 1.63 billion yuan in 2016, making it the second best-selling TCM in China that year. It was approved to be sold by licensed TCM shops and physicians in 1992 and approved for sale over the counter in 2003. Hongmao Pharmaceuticals says that the liquor can treat dozens of different disorders, including problems with the spleen, stomach and kidney, as well as backaches…
Hongmao Pharmaceuticals did not respond to Nature’s request for an interview. However, Wang Shengwang, general manager of the production center of Hongmao Liquor, and Han Jun, assistant to the general manager, gave an interview to The Paper on 16 April. The pair said the company did not need not publicize clinical trial data because Hongmao liquor is a “protected TCM composition”. Wang denied allegations in Chinese media that the company pressured the police to pursue Tan or that it dispatched staff to accompany the police…
Xia is worried that the case could further silence public criticism of TCMs, environmental degredation, and other fields where comment from experts is crucial. The Tan arrest “could cause fear among scientists” and dissuade them from posting scientific comments, he says.
END OF QUOTE
On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed concerns over the validity of TCM data/material that comes out of China (see for instance here, here and here). This chilling case, I am afraid, is not prone to increase our confidence.
Some say that Chinese herbal medicine offers a solution.
This Chinese multi-centre RCT included 588 mothers considering breastfeeding. The intervention group received the Chinese herbal mixture Zengru Gao, while the control group received no therapy. The primary outcomes were the percentages of fully and partially breastfeeding mothers, and a secondary outcome was baby’s daily formula intake.
At day 3 and 7 after delivery, significant differences were found in favour of Zengru Gao group on the percentage of full/ partial breastfeeding. At day 7, the percentage of full/ partial breastfeeding of the active group increased to 71.48%/20.70% versus 58.67%/30.26% in the control group, the differences remained significant. No statistically significant differences were detected on primary measures at day. While intake of formula differed between groups at day 1 and 3, this difference did not achieve statistical significance, but this difference was apparent by day 7.
The authors concluded that the Chinese Herbal medicine Zengru Gao enhanced breastfeeding success during one week postpartum. The approach is acceptable to participants and merits further evaluation.
To the naïve observer, this study might look rigorous, but it is a seriously flawed RCT. Here are just some of its most obvious limitations:
- All we get in the methods section is this explanation: Participants were randomly allocated to the blank control group or the intervention group: Zengru Gao, orally, 30 g a time and 3 times a day. This seems to indicate that the control group got no treatment at all which means there was no blinding nor placebo control. The authors even comment on this point in the discussion section of their paper stating that because we included new mothers who received no treatment as a control group, we were able to prove that the improvement in breastfeeding was not due to the placebo effect. However, this is a totally nonsensical argument.
- The experimental treatment is not reproducible. The authors state: Zengru Gao, a Chinese herbal formula, which is composed of 8 herbs: Semen Vaccariae, Medulla Tetrapanacis, Radix Rehmanniae Praeparata, Radix Angelicae Sinensis, Radix Paeoniae Alba,Rhizoma Chuanxiong, Herba Leonuri, Radix Trichosanthis. This is not enough information to replicate the study outside China where the mixture is not commercially available.
- The primary outcome was the percentage of fully, and partially breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding was defined as mother’s milk given by direct breast feeding. Full breastfeeding meant that no other types of milk or solids were given. Partially breastfeeding meant that sustained latch with deep rhythmic sucking through the length of the feed, with some pause, on either/ or both breasts. We are not being told how the endpoint was quantified. Presumably women kept diaries. We cannot guess how accurate this process was.
- As far as I can see, there was no correction for multiple testing for statistical significance. This means that some or all of the significant results might be false-positive.
- There is insufficient data to show that the herbal mixture is safe for the mothers and the babies. At the very minimum, the researchers should have measured essential safety parameters. This omission is a gross violation of research ethics.
- Towards the end of the paper, we find the following statement: The authors would like to thank the Research and Development Department of Zhangzhou Pien Tze Huang Pharmaceutical co., Ltd. … The authors declare that they have no competing interests. And the 1st and 3rd authors are “affiliated with” Guangzhou Hipower Pharmaceutical Technology Co., Ltd, Guangzhou, China, i. e. work for the manufacturer of the mixture. This does clearly not make any sense whatsoever.
I have seen too many flawed studies of alternative medicine to be shocked or even surprised by this level of incompetence and nonsense. Yet, I still find it lamentable. But, in my view, the worst is that supposedly peer-reviewed journals such as ‘BMC Complement Altern Med’ publish such overt rubbish.
It would be easy to shrug one’s shoulder and bin the paper. But the effect of such fatally flawed research is too serious for that. In our recent book MORE HARM THAN GOOD? THE MORAL MAZE OF COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we discuss that such flawed science amounts to a violation of medical ethics: CAM journals allocate peer review tasks to a narrow range of CAM enthusiasts who often have been chosen by the authors of the article in question. The raison d’être of CAM journals and CAM researchers is inextricably tied to a belief in CAM, resulting in a self-referential situation which is permissive to the acceptance of weak or ﬂawed reports of clinical effectiveness… Defective research—whether at the design, execution, analysis, or reporting stage—corrupts the repository of reliable medical knowledge. Ultimately, this leads to suboptimal and erroneous treatment decisions…
Can conventional therapy (CT) be combined with herbal therapy (CT + H) in the management of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) to the benefit of patients? This was the question investigated by Chinese researchers in a recent retrospective cohort study funded by grants from China Ministry of Education, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, and Beijing Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning.
In total, 344 outpatients diagnosed as probable dementia due to AD were collected, who had received either CT + H or CT alone. The GRAPE formula was prescribed for AD patients after every visit according to TCM theory. It consisted mainly (what does ‘mainly’ mean as a description of a trial intervention?) of Ren shen (Panax ginseng, 10 g/d), Di huang (Rehmannia glutinosa, 30 g/d), Cang pu (Acorus tatarinowii, 10 g/d), Yuan zhi (Polygala tenuifolia, 10 g/d), Yin yanghuo (Epimedium brevicornu, 10 g/d), Shan zhuyu (Cornus officinalis, 10 g/d), Rou congrong (Cistanche deserticola, 10 g/d), Yu jin (Curcuma aromatica, 10 g/d), Dan shen (Salvia miltiorrhiza, 10 g/d), Dang gui (Angelica sinensis, 10 g/d), Tian ma (Gastrodia elata, 10 g/d), and Huang lian (Coptis chinensis, 10 g/d), supplied by Beijing Tcmages Pharmaceutical Co., LTD. Daily dose was taken twice and dissolved in 150 ml hot water each time. Cognitive function was quantified by the mini-mental state examination (MMSE) every 3 months for 24 months.
The results show that most of the patients were initially diagnosed with mild (MMSE = 21-26, n = 177) and moderate (MMSE = 10-20, n = 137) dementia. At 18 months, CT+ H patients scored on average 1.76 (P = 0.002) better than CT patients, and at 24 months, patients scored on average 2.52 (P < 0.001) better. At 24 months, the patients with improved cognitive function (△MMSE ≥ 0) in CT + H was more than CT alone (33.33% vs 7.69%, P = 0.020). Interestingly, patients with mild AD received the most robust benefit from CT + H therapy. The deterioration of the cognitive function was largely prevented at 24 months (ΔMMSE = -0.06), a significant improvement from CT alone (ΔMMSE = -2.66, P = 0.005).
The authors concluded that, compared to CT alone, CT + H significantly benefited AD patients. A symptomatic effect of CT + H was more pronounced with time. Cognitive decline was substantially decelerated in patients with moderate severity, while the cognitive function was largely stabilized in patients with mild severity over two years. These results imply that Chinese herbal medicines may provide an alternative and additive treatment for AD.
Conclusions like these render me speechless – well, almost speechless. This was nothing more than a retrospective chart analysis. It is not possible to draw causal conclusions from such data.
Because of a whole host of reasons. Most crucially, the CT+H patients were almost certainly a different and therefore non-comparable population to the CT patients. This flaw is so elementary that I need to ask, who are the reviewers letting such utter nonsense pass, and which journal would publish such rubbish? In fact, I can be used for teaching students why randomisation is essential, if we aim to find out about cause and effect.
Ahhh, it’s the BMC Complement Altern Med! I think the funders, editors, reviewers, and authors of this paper should all go and hide in shame.
A new acupuncture study puzzles me a great deal. It is a “randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot trial” evaluating acupuncture for cancer-related fatigue (CRF) in lung cancer patients. Twenty-eight patients presenting with CRF were randomly assigned to active acupuncture or placebo acupuncture groups to receive acupoint stimulation at LI-4, Ren-6, St-36, KI-3, and Sp-6 twice weekly for 4 weeks, followed by 2 weeks of follow-up. The primary outcome measure was the change in intensity of CFR based on the Chinese version of the Brief Fatigue Inventory (BFI-C). The secondary endpoint was the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Lung Cancer Subscale (FACT-LCS). Adverse events were monitored throughout the trial.
A significant reduction in the BFI-C score was observed at 2 weeks in the 14 participants who received active acupuncture compared with those receiving the placebo. At week 6, symptoms further improved. There were no significant differences in the incidence of adverse events of the two group.
The authors, researchers from Shanghai, concluded that fatigue is a common symptom experienced by lung cancer patients. Acupuncture may be a safe and feasible optional method for adjunctive treatment in cancer palliative care, and appropriately powered trials are warranted to evaluate the effects of acupuncture.
And why would this be puzzling?
There are several minor oddities here, I think:
- The first sentence of the conclusion is not based on the data presented.
- The notion that acupuncture ‘may be safe’ is not warranted from the study of 14 patients.
- The authors call their trial a ‘pilot study’ in the abstract, but refer to it as an ‘efficacy study’ in the text of the article.
But let’s not be nit-picking; these are minor concerns compared to the fact that, even in the title of the paper, the authors call their trial ‘double-blind’.
How can an acupuncture-trial be double-blind?
The authors used the non-penetrating Park needle, developed by my team, as a placebo. We have shown that, indeed, patients can be properly blinded, i. e. they don’t know whether they receive real or placebo acupuncture. But the acupuncturist clearly cannot be blinded. So, the study is clearly NOT double-blind!
As though this were not puzzling enough, there is something even more odd here. In the methods section of the paper the authors explain that they used our placebo-needle (without referencing our research on the needle development) which is depicted below.
Then they state that “the device is placed on the skin. The needle is then gently tapped to insert approximately 5 mm, and the guide tube is then removed to allow sufficient exposure of the handle for needle manipulation.” No further explanations are offered thereafter as to the procedure used.
Removing the guide tube while using our device is only possible in the real acupuncture arm. In the placebo arm, the needle telescopes thus giving the impression it has penetrated the skin; but in fact it does not penetrate at all. If one would remove the guide tube, the non-penetrating placebo needle would simply fall off. This means that, by removing the guide tube for ease of manipulation, the researchers disclose to their patients that they are in the real acupuncture group. And this, in turn, means that the trial was not even single-blind. Patients would have seen whether they received real or placebo acupuncture.
It follows that all the outcomes noted in this trial are most likely due to patient and therapist expectations, i. e. they were caused by a placebo effect.
Now that we have solved this question, here is the next one: IS THIS A MISUNDERSTANDING, CLUMSINESS, STUPIDITY, SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT OR FRAUD?
Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) is a common, benign condition. It can be treated by changing eating habits or drugs. Many alternative therapies are also on offer, for instance, acupuncture. But does it work? Let’s find out.
The objective of this meta-analysis was to explore the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). Four English and four Chinese databases were searched through June 2016. Randomised controlled trials investigating the effectiveness of manual acupuncture or electroacupuncture (MA/EA) for GORD versus or as an adjunct to Western medicine (WM) were selected.
A total of 12 trials involving 1235 patients were included. The results demonstrated that patients receiving MA/EA combined with WM had a superior global symptom improvement compared with those receiving WM alone with no significant heterogeneity. Recurrence rates of those receiving MA/EA alone were lower than those receiving WM with low heterogeneity, while global symptom improvement (six studies) and symptom scores (three studies) were similar. Descriptive analyses suggested that acupuncture also improves quality of life in patients with GORD.
The authors concluded that this meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture is an effective and safe treatment for GORD. However, due to the small sample size and poor methodological quality of the included trials, further studies are required to validate our conclusions.
I am glad the authors used the verb ‘suggest’ in their conclusions. In fact, even this cautious terminology is too strong, in my view. Here are 9 reasons why:
- The hypothesis that acupuncture is effective for GORD lacks plausibility.
- All the studies were of poor or very poor methodological quality.
- All but one were from China, and we know that all acupuncture trials from this country are positive, thus casting serious doubt on their validity.
- Six trials had the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design which never generates a negative result.
- There was evidence of publication bias, i. e. negative trials had disappeared and were thus not included in the meta-analysis.
- None of the trials made an attempt to control for placebo effects by using a sham-control procedure.
- None used patient-blinding.
- The safety of a therapy cannot be assessed on the basis of 12 trials
- Seven studies failed to report adverse effects, thus violating research ethics.
Considering these facts, I think that a different conclusion would have been more appropriate: this meta-analysis provides no good evidence for the assumption that acupuncture is an effective and safe treatment for GORD.
The claims that are being made for the health benefits of Chinese herbal medicine are impressive. I am not sure that there is even a single human disease that is not alleged to be curable with the use of some Chinese herbal mixture. I find this worrying because some patients might actually believe such outrageous nonsense, particularly since Chinese researchers seem to bend over backwards to support them with science… or should I say pseudoscience?
This study was aimed at evaluating the association between mortality rate and early use of Chinese herbal products (CHPs) among patients with lung cancer. The researchers conducted a retrospective cohort study based on the National Health Insurance Research Database, Taiwan Cancer Registry, and Cause of Death Data. Patients with newly diagnosed lung cancer between 2002 and 2010 were classified as either the CHP (n = 422) or the non-CHP group (n = 2828) based on whether they used CHP within 3 months after first diagnosis of lung cancer. A Cox regression model was used to examine the hazard ratio (HR) of death for propensity score (PS) matching samples.
After PS matching, average survival time of the CHP group was significantly longer than that of the non-CHP group. The adjusted HR (0.82; 95% CI: 0.73-0.92) in the CHP group was lower than the non-CHP group. Stratified by clinical cancer stages, CHP group had longer survival time in the stage 3 subgroup. When the exposure period of CHP use was changed from 3 to 6 months, results remained similar.
The authors concluded that results indicated that patients with lung cancer who used CHP within 3 months after first diagnosis had a lower hazard of death than non-CHP users, especially for stage 3 lung cancer. Further experimental studies are needed to examine the causal relationship.
I would argue the direct opposite: further studies along these lines would be a waste of time!
I can name numerous reasons for this, for example:
- Investigating CHP as though it is one entity is nonsense. There are thousands of different CHPs; some are placebos; some are toxic; and a few might even have some health effects.
- The observed effect is almost certainly an artefact; the matching of the groups might have been sub-optimal; the CHP group differed systematically from the control group, for instance, by adhering to a healthier life-style; etc, etc.
All of this should be so obvious that it hardly deserves a mention. Why then do the authors not point it out prominently and clearly? Why did they ever embark on such a fatally flawed project? I cannot be sure, of course, … but perhaps one possible answer might be that the lead author is affiliated to a Department of Chinese Medicine?
I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:
- is on alternative medicine,
- focusses on acupuncture,
- is authored by Chinese researchers,
- was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?
The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!
As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.
The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.
And what is wrong with that?
- The review is of very poor quality.
- The primary studies are even worse.
- The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
- The conclusions are misleading.
Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.
And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.
In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:
56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.
Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!
And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.