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

clinical trial

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A low intake of selenium has been associated with increased cardiovascular mortality in some epidemiological studies. This could be reduced by supplementation with selenium and coenzyme Q10. D-dimer, a fragment of fibrin mirroring fibrinolysis, is a biomarker of thromboembolism, increased inflammation, endothelial dysfunction and is associated with cardiovascular mortality in ischemic heart disease.

The objective of this trial was to examine the impact of selenium and coenzyme Q10 on the level of D-dimer, and its relationship to cardiovascular mortality. D-dimer was measured in 213 individuals at the start and after 48 months of a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial with selenium yeast (200 µg/day) and coenzyme Q10 (200 mg/day) (n = 106) or placebo (n = 107). The follow-up time was 4.9 years.

All included individuals were low in selenium (mean 67 μg/L, SD 16.8). The differences in D-dimer concentration were evaluated by the use of T-tests, repeated measures of variance, and ANCOVA analyses. At the end, a significantly lower D-dimer concentration was observed in the active treatment group in comparison with those on placebo (p = 0.006). Although D-dimer values at baseline were weakly associated with high-sensitive CRP, while being more strongly associated with soluble tumour necrosis factor receptor 1 and sP-selectin, controlling for these in the analysis there was an independent effect on D-dimer.

In participants with a D-dimer level above median at baseline, the supplementation resulted in significantly lower cardiovascular mortality compared to those on placebo (p = 0.014). All results were validated with a persisting significant difference between the two groups.

The authors concluded that supplementation with selenium and coenzyme Q10 in a group of elderly low in selenium and coenzyme Q10 prevented an increase in D-dimer and reduced the risk of cardiovascular mortality in comparison with the placebo group. The obtained results also illustrate important associations between inflammation, endothelial function and cardiovascular risk.

These results are interesting and potentially important. The authors agree that their study is not fully conclusive: “Even if the size of the study population is small, we regard the results as being interesting from a scientific point of view, and for hypothesis-generating. The included participants represented a relatively narrow age stratum, so it is not possible to extrapolate the results to other age groups without uncertainty. Finally, as the evaluated population consisted of Caucasians who were low in selenium and coenzyme Q10, it is not necessarily true that the obtained results could be extrapolated to another population.” It might furthermore be of interest to note that part of the analysis cost was supported by grants from Pharma Nord Aps, Denmark, the County Council of Östergötland, Linköping University.

What is needed next, I think, are independent replications. Also of interest would be to determine whether the effects are due to the selenium, or the Q10, or both. And finally, one must caution consumers to not overdose on selenium which could have a host of negative effects on health.

Qigong is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine using meditation, exercise, deep breathing, and other techniques with a view of strengthening the assumed life force ‘qi’ and thus improving health and prolong life. There are several distinct forms of qigong which can be categorized into two main groups, internal qigong, and external qigong. Internal qigong refers to a physical and mental training method for the cultivation of oneself to achieve optimal health in both mind and body. Internal qigong is not dissimilar to tai chi but it also employs the coordination of different breathing patterns and meditation. External qigong refers to a treatment where qigong practitioners direct their qi-energy to the patient with the intention to clear qi-blockages or balance the flow of qi within that patient. According to Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, qigong allows access to higher realms of awareness. The assumptions of qigong are not scientifically plausible and its clinical effectiveness remains unproven.

The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of internal Qigong for the management of a symptom cluster comprising fatigue, dyspnea, and anxiety in patients with lung cancer.

A total of 156 lung cancer patients participated in this trial, and they were randomized to a Qigong group (6 weeks of intervention) or a waitlist control group receiving usual care. A professional coach with 12 years of experience in teaching Qigong was employed to guide the participants’ training. The training protocol was developed according to the “Qigong Standard” enacted by the Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. The training involved a series of simple, repeated practices including body posture/movement, breathing practice, and meditation performed in synchrony. It mainly consisted of gentle movements designed to bring about a deep state of relaxation and included 7 postures. The symptom cluster was assessed at baseline, at the end of treatment (primary outcome), and at 12 weeks, alongside measures of cough and quality of life (QOL).

The results showed no significant interaction effect between group and time for the symptom cluster, the primary outcome measure of this study, overall and for fatigue and anxiety. However, a significant trend towards improvement was observed on fatigue (P = .004), dyspnea (P = .002), and anxiety (P = .049) in the Qigong group from baseline assessment to the end of intervention at the 6th week (within-group changes). Improvements in dyspnea and in the secondary outcomes of cough, global health status, functional well-being and QOL symptom scales were statistically significant between the 2 groups (P = .001, .014, .021, .001, and .002, respectively).

The authors concluded that Qigong did not alleviate the symptom cluster experience. Nevertheless, this intervention was effective in reducing dyspnea and cough, and improving QOL. More than 6 weeks were needed, however, for detecting the effect of Qigong on improving dyspnea. Furthermore, men benefited more than women. It may not be beneficial to use Qigong to manage the symptom cluster consisting of fatigue, dyspnea, and anxiety, but it may be effective in managing respiratory symptoms (secondary outcomes needing further verification in future research). Future studies targeting symptom clusters should ensure the appropriateness of the combination of symptoms.

I am getting very tired of negative trials getting published as (almost) positive ones. The primary outcome measure of this study did not yield a positive result. The fact that some other endpoints suggested a positive might provide an impetus for further study but does not demonstrate Qigong to be effective. I know the first author of this study is a fan of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), but this should not stop him from doing proper science.

Thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) involves the insertion of thread at specific points on the body surface. The claim is that TEAT provides a sustained stimulation of acupoints and is therefore superior to needle acupuncture. Initially, TEAT was used in China to treat obesity, today it is employed to treat many conditions, including musculoskeletal conditions such as ankle sprain, shoulder pain, lumbar intervertebral disc herniation, and plantar fasciitis. Its effectiveness is, however, doubtful and so is its safety.

This review evaluated the safety of thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) and discuss the prevention and treatment of some adverse events (AEs).

Databases, including China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), CBMdisc, Wanfang, VIP databases and PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Web of Science, were searched from their inception to January 2020. Included were randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and case reports in which AEs with TEAT were reported. Cochrane Collaboration’s tool and RevMan V.5.3.3 software were used to evaluate the quality of the studies.

A total of 61 articles (45 RCTs and 16 case reports) with a total of 620 cases of AEs were included in this review. These studies were published in two countries: China and South Korea. Twenty-eight kinds of AEs were noted. The most common AEs were induration, bleeding and ecchymosis, redness and swelling, fever, and pain. They accounted for 75.35% of all AEs.  Most AEs were mild.; The rarest AEs were epilepsy, irregular menstruation, skin ulcer, thread malabsorption, and fat liquefaction, with 1 case each. Not all of them had a clear causal relationship with TEAT. Most of the AEs were local reactions and systemic reactions accounted for only 1.27%. Although the included studies showed that AEs were very commonly encountered (11.09%), only 5 cases of severe AEs reported from 2013 to 2017 (0.1%) by using catgut thread, which is rarely employed nowadays with new absorbable surgical suture being more popular. All of the patients with severe AEs were recovered after symptomatic treatment with no sequelae.

The authors concluded that the evidence showed that TEAT is a relatively safe and convenient therapy especially since application of new absorbable surgical suture. Improving practitioner skills, regulating operations, and paying attention to the patients’ conditions may reduce the incidence of AEs and improve safety of TEAT.

TEAT was initially used in China only but recently it has become popular elsewhere as well. Therefore the question about its risks has become relevant. The present paper is interesting in that it demonstrates that AEs do occur with some regularity. The authors’ conclusion that TEAT is “relatively safe” is, however, not justified because:

  1. the total sample size was not large enough for a generalizable conclusion;
  2. only RCTs and case reports were included, whereas case series and case-control studies (which would provide more relevant data) were excluded or might not even exist;
  3. RCTs of acupuncture often fail to mention or under-report AEs;
  4. acupuncture papers from China are notoriously unreliable.

So, all we can conclude from the evidence presented here is that AEs after TEAT do occur and do not seem to be all that rare. As the efficacy of TEAT has not been shown beyond doubt, this must inevitably lead to the conclusion that the risk-benefit balance of TEAT is not positive. In turn, that means that TEAT cannot be recommended as a treatment for any condition.

 

Indian homeopaths aimed at evaluating the efficacy of individualized homeopathy (IH) for atopic dermatitis (AD). They conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, short-term, preliminary trial in an Indian homeopathy hospital. Patients were randomized to either IH (n = 30) or identical-looking placebo (n = 30) using computerized randomization and allocation. Outcomes were patient-oriented scoring of AD (PO-SCORAD; primary endpoint), Dermatological Life Quality Index (DLQI) score, and AD burden score for adults (ADBSA; secondary endpoints), measured monthly for 3 months. An intention-to-treat sample was analyzed after adjusting baseline differences.

On PO-SCORAD, improvement was higher in IH against placebo, but nonsignificant statistically (pmonth 1 = 0.433, pmonth 2 = 0.442, pmonth 3 = 0.229). Secondary outcomes were also nonsignificant – both DLQI and ADBSA (p > 0.05). Four adverse events (diarrhea, injury, common cold) were recorded.

The authors concluded that there was a small, but nonsignificant direction of effect towards homeopathy, which renders the trial inconclusive. A properly powered robust trial is indicated.

Thee questions:

  1. Why use statistics only to ignore its results?
  2. Why discredit research into so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in this way?
  3. Who on earth would publish such misleading conclusions?

This article was published in Complementary Medicine Research which claims to be an international peer-reviewed journal that aims to bridge the gap between conventional and complementary/alternative medicine on a sound scientific basis, promoting their mutual integration. It boasts that “experts of both conventional medicine and complementary/alternative medicine cooperate on the journal’s editorial board, ensuring a high standard of scientific quality”. Its editor is Harald Walach who we have met several times before.

I had a look at the long list of members of the editorial board and was unable to see many ‘experts in conventional medicine’. If that is so, the journal’s peer review process is bound to turn into a farcical procedure where any rubbish will pass.

The journal reminds authors that “published research must comply with internationally-accepted standards for research practice and reporting.” I believe that the internationally accepted standards of research reporting include something about not misleading the public by claiming that the absence of an effect is a small effect in favor of homeopathy. By revealing that there was no significant effect, the authors of this study demonstrate that IH was not effective as a treatment of AD. It is in my mind unethical to try to disguise this result by making it look like a small positive effect or claiming the result was inconclusive.

High standard of scientific quality?

No, quite the opposite!

Energy healing is an umbrella term for a range of paranormal healing practices. Their common denominator is the belief in a mystical ‘energy’ that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Forms of energy healing have existed in many ancient cultures. The ‘New Age’ movement has brought about a revival of these ideas, and today energy healing systems are amongst the most popular alternative therapies in the US as well as in many other countries.

Energy healing relies on the esoteric belief in some form of ‘energy’ which is distinct from the concept of energy understood in physics and refers to some life force such as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or prana in Ayurvedic medicine. Some proponents employ terminology from quantum physics and other ‘cutting-edge’ science to give their treatments a scientific flair which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be but a veneer of pseudo-science. The ‘energy’ that energy healers refer to is not measurable and lacks biological plausibility.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of energy healing (EH) therapy prior to and following posterior surgical correction for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) compared to controls.

Patients were prospectively randomized to one of two groups: standard operative care for surgery (controls) vs. standard care with the addition of three EH sessions. The outcomes included visual analog scales (VAS) for pain and anxiety (0-10), days until conversion to oral pain medication, and length of hospital stay. For the experimental group, VAS was assessed pre- and post-EH session.

Fifty patients were enrolled-28 controls and 22 EH patients. The controls had a median of 12 levels fused vs. 11 in the EH group (p = 0.04). Pre-operative thoracic and lumbar curve magnitudes were similar (p > 0.05). Overall VAS pain scores increased from pre- to post-operative (p < 0.001), whereas the VAS anxiety scores decreased immediately post-operative (p < 0.001). The control and pre-EH assessments were statistically similar. Significant decreases in VAS pain and anxiety scores from pre to post-EH assessments were noted for the EH group. Both groups transitioned to oral pain medication a median of 2 days post-operative (p = 0.11). The median days to discharge were four in the controls and three in the EH group (p = 0.07).

The authors concluded that EH therapy resulted in a decrease in patient’s pre-operative anxiety. Offering this CAM modality may enhance the wellbeing of the patient and their overall recovery when undergoing posterior surgical correction for AIS.

I am getting tired of explaining that this trial design tells us as good as nothing about the effects of the tested therapy per se. As we have discussed ad nauseam on this blog, A+B is always more than B alone. Such trials appear to be rigorous and fool many people, but they are unable to control for context effects, like placebo or attention. Therefore, I need to re-write the conclusions:

The placebo effect and the extra attention associated with EH therapy resulted in a decrease in patients’ pre-operative anxiety. EH itself is most likely bar any effect. Further studies in this area are not required.

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

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

This clearly begs the question:

DOES IT WORK?

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

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

And here are my comments:

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

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

Why, oh why?

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

 

Previous studies have shown inconclusive results of homeopathy in the treatment of warts. A team of Indian homeopaths aimed to assess the feasibility of a future definitive trial, with a preliminary assessment of differences between effects of individualized homeopathic (IH) medicines and placebos in the treatment of cutaneous warts.

A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial (n = 60) was conducted at the dermatology outpatient department of D.N. De Homoeopathic Medical College and Hospital, West Bengal. Patients were randomized to receive either IH (n = 30) or identical-looking placebo (n = 30). Primary outcome measures were numbers and sizes of warts; the secondary outcome was the Dermatology Life Quality Index (DLQI) questionnaire measured at baseline, and every month up to 3 months. Group differences and effect sizes were calculated on the intention-to-treat sample.

Attrition rate was 11.6% (IH, 3; placebo, 4). Intra-group changes were significantly greater (all < 0.05, Friedman tests) in IH than placebo. Inter-group differences were statistically non-significant (all > 0.05, Mann-Whitney U tests) with small effect sizes-both in the primary outcomes (number of warts after 3 months: IH median [inter-quartile range; IQR] 1 [1, 3] vs. placebo 1 [1, 2]; p = 0.741; size of warts after 3 months: IH 5.6 mm [2.6, 40.2] vs. placebo 6.3 [0.8, 16.7]; p = 0.515) and in the secondary outcomes (DLQI total after 3 months: IH 4.5 [2, 6.2] vs. placebo 4.5 [2.5, 8]; p = 0.935). Thuja occidentalis (28.3%), Natrum muriaticum (10%) and Sulphur (8.3%) were the most frequently prescribed medicines. No harms, homeopathic aggravations, or serious adverse events were reported.

The Indian homeopaths draw the following conclusion: As regards efficacy, the preliminary study was inconclusive, with a statistically non-significant direction of effect favoring homeopathy. The trial succeeded in showing that an adequately powered definitive trial is both feasible and warranted.

INCONCLUSIVE?

No, the findings are not inconclusive at all! Read the results again: they confirm that homeopathy is a placebo therapy.

So, why is this trial worth writing about?

Surely, we did not expect anything else than a negative outcome from such a study?!

No, we didn’t.

But there is still something quite remarkable about this study: I have previously noted that virtually all studies of homeopathy by Indian researchers report positive results. AND THIS ONE DOESN’T!!!

Alright, it tries to hide the fact that the findings were negative, but this already seems to be a step in the right direction. So, well done, my Indian friends!!!

Perhaps one day, you will be able to admit that homeopathy is a placebo therapy?

 

 

Osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) is frequently recommended by osteopaths for improving breastfeeding. But does it work?

This double-blind randomised clinical trial tested whether OMT was effective for facilitating breastfeeding. Breastfed term infants were eligible if one of the following criteria was met:

  • suboptimal breastfeeding behaviour,
  • maternal cracked nipples,
  • maternal pain.

The infants were randomly assigned to the intervention or the control group. The intervention consisted of two sessions of early OMT, while in the control group, the manipulations were performed on a doll behind a screen. The primary outcome was the exclusive breastfeeding rate at 1 month, which was assessed in an intention-to-treat analysis. Randomisation was computer generated and only accessible to the osteopath practitioner. The parents, research assistants and paediatricians were masked to group assignment.

One hundred twenty-eight mother-infant dyads were randomised, with 64 assigned to each group. In each group, five infants were lost to follow-up. In the intervention group, 31 of 59 (53%) of infants were still exclusively breastfed at 1 month vs 39 of 59 (66%) in the control group. After adjustment for suboptimal breastfeeding behaviour, caesarean section, use of supplements and breast shields, the adjusted OR was 0.44. No adverse effects were reported in either group.

The authors concluded dryly that OMT did not improve exclusive breastfeeding at 1 month.

This is a rigorous trial with clear and expected results. It was conducted in cooperation with a group of 7 French osteopaths, and the study was sponsored by the ‘Société Européenne de Recherche en Osthéopathie Périnatale et Pédiatrique’, the ‘Fonds pour la Recherche en Ostéopathie’ and ‘Formation et Recherche Ostéopathie et Prévention’. The researchers need to be congratulated on publishing this trial and expressing the results so clearly despite the fact that the findings were not what the osteopaths had hoped for.

Three questions come to my mind:

  1. Is any of the many therapeutic recommendations of osteopaths valid?
  2. Why was it ever assumed that OMT would be effective?
  3. Do we really have to test every weird assumption before we can dismiss it?

There are plenty of people who find it hard to accept that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are placebos. They religiously believe in the notion that homeopathy works and studiously ignore the overwhelming evidence (plus a few laws of nature). Yet, they pretend to staunchly believe in science and keep on conducting (pseudo?) scientific studies of homeopathy. To me, this seems oddly schizophrenic because, on the one hand, they seem to accept science by conducting trials, while, on the other hand, they reject science by negating the scientific consensus.

The objective of this recent study was to evaluate the quality of life (QoL) of women treated with homeopathy within the Public Health System of Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The study was designed as a prospective randomized controlled pragmatic trial. The patients were divided into two independent groups, one group underwent homeopathic treatment during a 6-month period, while the other did not receive any homeopathic treatment. In both randomized groups, patients maintained their conventional medical treatment as necessary. The World Health Organization Quality of Life abbreviated questionnaire (WHOQOL-BREF) was used for QoL analysis prior to treatment and 6 months later.

Randomization was successful in that it resulted in similar baseline results in three domains of QoL analysis for both groups. After 6 months’ treatment, the investigators noted a statistically significant difference between groups in the physical domain of WHOQOL-BREF: the average score improved to 63.6 ± (SD) 15.8 in the homeopathy group, compared with 53.1 ± (SD) 16.7 in the control group.

The authors concluded that homeopathic treatment showed a positive impact at 6 months on the QoL of women with chronic diseases. Further studies should be performed to determine the long-term effects of homeopathic treatment on QoL and its determinant factors.

I would not be surprised if the world of homeopathy were to celebrate this trial as yet another proof that homeopathy is effective. I am afraid, however, that I might have to put a damper on their excitement:

THIS STUDY DOES NOT SHOW WHAT YOU THINK IT DOES.

Why not?

Regular readers of this blog will have already guessed it: the trail follows the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design. Some people will think that I am obsessed with this theme – but I am not; it’s just that, in SCAM, it comes up with such depressing regularity. And as this blog is mainly about commenting on newly published research, I am unable to avoid the subject.

So, let me explain it again.

Think of it in monetary terms: you have an amount X, your friend has the same amount X plus an extra sum Y. Who do you think has more money? You don’t need to be a genius to guess, do you?

The same happens in the above ‘A+B versus B’ trial:

  • the patients in group 1 received homeopathy (A) plus usual care (B);
  • the patients in group 2 received usual care (B) and nothing else.

You don’t need to be a genius to guess who might have the better outcomes.

Because of homeopathy?

No! Because of the patients’ expectation, the placebo effect, and the extra attention of the homeopaths. They call this trial design ‘pragmatic’. I feel it is an attempt to mislead the public.

So, allow me to re-write the authors’ conclusion as follows:

The effect of a homeopathic consultation and the administration of a placebo generated a positive impact at 6 months on the QoL of women with chronic diseases. This was entirely predictable and totally unrelated to homeopathy. Further studies to determine the long-term effects of homeopathic treatment on QoL and its determinant factors are not needed.

 

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

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

Patients were randomized 2:2:1 to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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