Acupuncture is a veritable panacea; it cures everything! At least this is what many of its advocates want us to believe. Does it also have a role in supportive cancer care?
Let’s find out.
This systematic review evaluated the effects of acupuncture in women with breast cancer (BC), focusing on patient-reported outcomes (PROs).
A comprehensive literature search was carried out for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) reporting PROs in BC patients with treatment-related symptoms after undergoing acupuncture for at least four weeks. Literature screening, data extraction, and risk bias assessment were independently carried out by two researchers. The authors stated that they followed the ‘Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses’ (PRISMA) guidelines.
Out of the 2, 524 identified studies, 29 studies representing 33 articles were included in this meta-analysis. The RCTs employed various acupuncture techniques with a needle, such as hand-acupuncture and electroacupuncture. Sham/placebo acupuncture, pharmacotherapy, no intervention, or usual care were the control interventions. About half of the studies lacked adequate blinding.
At the end of treatment (EOT), the acupuncture patients’ quality of life (QoL) was measured by the QLQ-C30 QoL subscale, the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Endocrine Symptoms (FACT-ES), the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy–General/Breast (FACT-G/B), and the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life Questionnaire (MENQOL), which depicted a significant improvement. The use of acupuncture in BC patients lead to a considerable reduction in the scores of all subscales of the Brief Pain Inventory-Short Form (BPI-SF) and Visual Analog Scale (VAS) measuring pain. Moreover, patients treated with acupuncture were more likely to experience improvements in hot flashes scores, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and anxiety compared to those in the control group, while the improvements in depression were comparable across both groups. Long-term follow-up results were similar to the EOT results. Eleven RCTs did not report any information on adverse effects.
The authors concluded that current evidence suggests that acupuncture might improve BC treatment-related symptoms measured with PROs including QoL, pain, fatigue, hot flashes, sleep disturbance and anxiety. However, a number of included studies report limited amounts of certain subgroup settings, thus more rigorous, well-designed and larger RCTs are needed to confirm our results.
This review looks rigorous on the surface but has many weaknesses if one digs only a little deeper. To start with, it has no precise research question: is any type of acupuncture better than any type of control? This is not a research question that anyone can answer with just a few studies of mostly poor quality. The authors claim to follow the PRISMA guidelines, yet (as a co-author of these guidelines) I can assure you that this is not true. Many of the included studies are small and lacked blinding. The results are confusing, contradictory and not clearly reported. Many trials fail to mention adverse effects and thus violate research ethics, etc., etc.
The conclusion that acupuncture might improve BC treatment-related symptoms could be true. But does this paper convince me that acupuncture DOES improve these symptoms?
Qigong can be described as a mind-body-spirit practice that improves one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing technique, self-massage, sound, and focused intent. But does it really improve health?
The purpose of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of Qigong in improving the quality of life and relieving fatigue, sleep disturbance, and cancer-related emotional disturbances (distress, depression, and anxiety) in women with breast cancer.
The PubMed, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Web of Science, Sinomed, Wanfang, VIP, and China National Knowledge Infrastructure databases were searched from their inceptions to March 2020 for controlled clinical trials. Two reviewers selected relevant trials that assessed the benefit of Qigong for breast cancer patients independently. A methodological quality assessment was conducted according to the criteria of the 12 Cochrane Back Review Group for risk of bias independently. A meta-analysis was performed using Review Manager 5.3.
A total of 17 trials were found in which 1236 cases were enrolled. The quality of the included trials was generally low, as only 5 of them were rated high quality. 14 studies were conducted in China. The types of qigong included Baduanjin Qigong (9 trials), Chan-Chuang Qigong (1 trial), Goulin New Qigong (2 Trials), Tai Chi Qigong (2 Trials), and Kuala Lumpur Qigong (1 trial). The course of qigong ranged from 21 days to more than 6 months. Four trials compared qigong to no treatment, one sham Qigong, seven compared to other types of exercise, and 6 to usual care.
The results showed significant positive effects of Qigong on quality of life (n = 950, standardized mean difference (SMD), 0.65, 95 % confidence interval (CI) 0.23–1.08, P = 0.002). Depression (n = 540, SMD = −0.32, 95 % CI −0.59 to −0.04, P = 0.02) and anxiety (n = 439, SMD = −0.71, 95 % CI −1.32 to −0.10, P = 0.02) were also significantly relieved in the Qigong group. There was no significant benefit on fatigue (n = 401, SMD = −0.32, 95 % CI 0.71 to 0.07, P = 0.11) or sleep disturbance relief compared to that observed in the control group (n = 298, SMD = −0.11, 95 % CI 0.74 to 0.52, P = 0.73).
The authors concluded that this review shows that Qigong is beneficial for improving quality of life and relieving depression and anxiety; thus, Qigong should be encouraged in women with breast cancer.
No, this review does not show that Qigong is beneficial for improving quality of life and relieving depression and anxiety!
- Most primary studies were of very poor quality.
- Most were from China, and we know (and have often discussed) that such trials are most unreliable.
- No trial even attempted to control for placebo effects.
A better conclusion would therefore be something like this:
Even though most trials conclude positively, the value of Qigong can, for a range of reasons, not be determined on the basis of the evidence available to date.
Neuropathic pain is difficult to treat. Luckily, we have acupuncture! Acupuncturists leave us in no doubt that their needles are the solution. But are they correct or perhaps victims of wishful thinking?
This review was aimed at determining the proportion of patients with neuropathic pain who achieve a clinically meaningful improvement in their pain with the use of different pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments.
Randomized controlled trials were included that reported a responder analysis of adults with neuropathic pain-specifically diabetic neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, or trigeminal neuralgia-treated with any of the following 8 treatments: exercise, acupuncture, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), topical rubefacients, opioids, anticonvulsant medications, and topical lidocaine.
A total of 67 randomized controlled trials were included. There was moderate certainty of evidence that anticonvulsant medications (risk ratio of 1.54; 95% CI 1.45 to 1.63; number needed to treat [NNT] of 7) and SNRIs (risk ratio of 1.45; 95% CI 1.33 to 1.59; NNT = 7) might provide a clinically meaningful benefit to patients with neuropathic pain. There was low certainty of evidence for a clinically meaningful benefit for rubefacients (ie, capsaicin; NNT = 7) and opioids (NNT = 8), and very low certainty of evidence for TCAs. Very low-quality evidence demonstrated that acupuncture was ineffective. All drug classes, except TCAs, had a greater likelihood of deriving a clinically meaningful benefit than having withdrawals due to adverse events (number needed to harm between 12 and 15). No trials met the inclusion criteria for exercise or lidocaine, nor were any trials identified for trigeminal neuralgia.
The authors concluded that there is moderate certainty of evidence that anticonvulsant medications and SNRIs provide a clinically meaningful reduction in pain in those with neuropathic pain, with lower certainty of evidence for rubefacients and opioids, and very low certainty of evidence for TCAs. Owing to low-quality evidence for many interventions, future high-quality trials that report responder analyses will be important to strengthen understanding of the relative benefits and harms of treatments in patients with neuropathic pain.
This review was published in a respected mainstream journal and conducted by a multidisciplinary team with the following titles and affiliations:
- Associate Professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
- Pharmacist in Edmonton, Alta, and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
- Family physician and Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta.
- Family physician and Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
- Pharmacist, Clinical Evidence Expert Lead for the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
- Pharmacist in Edmonton and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
- Pharmacist and Clinical Evidence Expert at the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
- Family physician, Director of Programs and Practice Support at the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
- Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
- Pharmacist at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’lle-de-Montréal and Clinical Associate Professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Montreal in Quebec.
- Care of the elderly physician and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
- Family physician and Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
- Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
- Research assistant at the University of Alberta.
- Medical student at the University of Alberta.
- Nurse in Edmonton and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
As far as I can see, the review is of sound methodology, it minimizes bias, and its conclusions are therefore trustworthy. They suggest that acupuncture is not effective for neuropathic pain.
But how can this be? Do the authors not know about all the positive evidence on acupuncture? A quick search found positive recent reviews of acupuncture for all of the three indications in question:
- Diabetic neuropathy: Acupuncture alone and vitamin B combined with acupuncture are more effective in treating DPN compared to vitamin B.
- Herpes zoster: Acupuncture may be effective for patients with HZ.
- Trigeminal neuralgia: Acupuncture appears more effective than pharmacotherapy or surgery.
How can we explain this obvious contradiction?
Which result should we trust?
Do we believe pro-acupuncture researchers who published their papers in pro-acupuncture journals, or do we believe the findings of researchers who could not care less whether their work proves or disproves the effectiveness of acupuncture?
I think that these papers offer an exemplary opportunity for us to study how powerful the biases of researchers can be. They also remind us that, in the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), we should always be very cautious and not accept every conclusion that has been published in supposedly peer-reviewed medical journals.
In the world of homeopathy, Prof Michael Frass is a famous man. He is the First Chairman of the Scientific Society for Homeopathy (WissHom), the president of the Umbrella organization of Austrian Doctors for Holistic Medicine, and the Vicepresident of the Doctors Association for Classical Homeopathy. Frass has featured on this blog before, not least because he has published numerous studies of homeopathy, none of which has ever failed to produce a positive result.
This is not just remarkable, in my view, it defies logic and the laws of nature. Even if homeopathy were a supremely effective therapy – a very broad consensus holds that it is not! – one would occasionally expect some negative results. No treatment works under all circumstances
… that is no treatment except homeopathy, according to Frass.
Recently Frass amazed even the world of oncology by publishing a study suggesting that homeopathy can prolong the survival of lung cancer patients. Every oncologist I know was flabbergasted.
Can this be true? This is the question, many people have been asking for some time in relation to Frass’s research.
In my quest to shine more light on it, I was recently alerted to an article by the formidable Austrian investigative journalist, Alwin Schönberger. In 2015, he came across a press release announcing that “HOMEOPATHY HAD BEEN PROVEN TO WORK AFTER ALL” (strikingly similar to one issued in 2018). It came from Austria’s leading manufacturer who was giving an award to an apparently outstanding thesis supervised by Frass. Even today, this piece of research has not been published in the peer-reviewed literature.
Yet, after some difficulties, Schönberger managed to obtain a copy. What he found was surprising, and he thus published his findings in the respected Austrian journal ‘Profil’ (2. Mai 2015 • profil 22).
Frass’s student had been given the task to systematically review all the homeopathy trials published between 2008 and 2012. Contrary to the hype of the press release, the meta-analysis merely suggested a very small effect. When digging deeper, Schönberger found several inconsistencies and mistakes in the analysis. They all were such that they produced a false-positive picture for homeopathy. Upon their correction, homeopathy turned out to be no longer significantly superior to placebo. Frass was then interviewed about it and claimed that the inconsistencies were only ‘errors’ but insisted that homeopathy is not a placebo therapy.
Yes, of course, errors happen in research. But if they all go in one direction and if that direction coincides with the interests of the researchers, we have the right, perhaps even the duty, to be suspicious. The questions that arise from this story are, I think, as follows:
- Have the errors been corrected?
- Are there perhaps other errors in Frass’s research?
- Can we trust anything that Frass says?
- Is it time to consider an official investigation into Frass’s studies of homeopathy?
The Chinese have made several attempts to persuade us that their traditional remedies are effective for COVID-19 infections. Here is yet another one. This review summarised the evidence of the therapeutic effects and safety of Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) used with or without conventional western therapy for COVID-19. All clinical studies of the therapeutic effects and safety of CHM for COVID-19 were included. The authors
- summarized the general characteristics of included studies,
- evaluated the methodological quality of the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) using the Cochrane risk of bias tool,
- analyzed the use of CHM,
- used Revman 5.4 software to present the risk ratio (RR) or mean difference (MD) and their 95% confidence interval (CI) to estimate the therapeutic effects and safety of CHM.
A total of 58 clinical studies were identified including;
- 10 RCTs,
- 1 non-randomized controlled trials,
- 11 retrospective studies with a control group,
- 12 case-series,
- 24 case-reports.
All of the studies had been performed in China. No RCTs of high methodological quality were identified. The most frequently tested oral Chinese patent medicine, Chinese herbal medicine injection, or prescribed herbal decoction were:
- Lianhua Qingwen granule/capsule,
- Xuebijing injection,
- Maxing Shigan Tang.
The pooled analyses showed that there were statistical differences between the intervention group and the comparator group (RR 0.42, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.82, six RCTs; RR 0.38, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.64, five retrospective studies with a control group), indicating that CHM plus conventional western therapy appeared to be better than conventional western therapy alone in reducing aggravation rate.
In addition, compared with conventional western therapy, CHM plus conventional western therapy had the potential advantages in increasing the recovery rate and shortening the duration of fever, cough, and fatigue, improving the negative conversion rate of nucleic acid test, and increasing the improvement rate of chest CT manifestations and shortening the time from receiving the treatment to the beginning of chest CT manifestations improvement.
For adverse events, the pooled data showed that there were no statistical differences between the CHM and the control groups.
The authors concluded that current low certainty evidence suggests that there maybe a tendency that CHM plus conventional western therapy is superior to conventional western therapy alone. The use of CHM did not increase the risk of adverse events.
One of the principles to remember here is this: RUBBISH IN, RUBBISH OUT. If you meta-analyze primary data that are rubbish, your findings can only be rubbish as well.
All one needs to know about the primary data entered into the present analysis is that there were no rigorous RCTs… not one! That means the evidence is, as the authors rightly but modestly conclude of LOW CERTAINTY. My conclusions would have been a little different:
- In terms of safety, the dataset is too small and unreliable to make any judgment.
- In terms of efficacy, there is no sound data that CHM has a positive effect.
This is an analysis that I have long hesitated to conduct. The reason for my hesitation is simple: some people might think it is vindictive, revengeful or ad hominem. After reflecting about it for years, I have now decided to go ahead with it (sorry, it’s a bit lengthy). This case study is not meant to be vindictive, but offers an important insight into the power of conflicts of interest in SCAM that are not financial but ideological. I think it is crucial that people are aware of and consider such conflicts carefully, and I can’t see how else I might demonstrate my point so plainly.
Dr Adrian White was a co-worker of mine for about 10 years. He became a trusted colleague, my ‘right hand’ man and even my deputy at my Exeter department. When I discovered that my trust had been misplaced, I did not prolong his contract (I will not dwell on this episode, those who are interested find it in my memoir). Adrian then got a senior research fellowship with Prof John Campbell (not my favourite colleague at Exeter) at the department of general practice where he continued his research on acupuncture for about 10 more years largely unsupervised.
Adrian had been an acupuncturist body and soul (in fact, I had never before met anyone so utterly convinced of the value of this therapy). When he joined my team, he was scientifically naive, and we spent many month trying to teach him how to think like a scientist. Initially, he found it very difficult to think critically about acupuncture. Later, I thought the problem was under control. Yet, most of his research in my department was guided by me and tightly supervised (i.e. I made sure that out studies were testing rather than promoting SCAM, and that our reviews were critical assessments of the existing evidence).
Thus there exist two separate and well-documented periods of a pro-acupuncture researcher:
- 10 years guided by me and members of my team;
- 10 years largely unsupervised.
What could be more tempting than to compare Adrian’s output during these two periods?
To do this, I looked up all of Adrian’s 120 publications on acupuncture and selected those 52 articles that generated factual new data (mostly clinical trials or systematic reviews). As it happens, they are numerically distributed almost equally within the two periods. The endpoints for my analysis were the directions of the conclusions of his papers. I therefore extracted, dated, and rated the 52 articles as follows:
- P = positive from the point of view of an acupuncture advocate,
- N = negative from the point of view of an acupuncture advocate.
- P/N = not clearly pointing in either direction.
To render this exercise transparent (occasionally, I was not entirely sure about my ratings), I copied all the 52 conclusions and provided links to the original papers so that anyone inferested is able to check easily.
Here are my findings. Articles 1 – 27 were published AFTER Adrian had left my department; articles 28 – 52 are his papers from the time while he worked with me.
- A definitive three-arm trial is feasible. Further follow-up reminders, minimum data collection and incentives should be considered to improve participant retention in the follow-up processes in the standardised advice and exercise booklet arm. (2016) P/N
- The available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long-term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking. (2016) P
- The available results suggest that acupuncture is effective for treating frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches, but further trials – particularly comparing acupuncture with other treatment options – are needed. (2016) P
- Acupuncture during pregnancy appears to be associated with few AEs when correctly applied. (2014) P
- Although pooled estimates suggest possible short-term effects there is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, or laser therapy have a sustained benefit on smoking cessation for six months or more. However, lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Electrostimulation is not effective for smoking cessation. Well-designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions. (2014) P
- The current evidence suggests that acupuncture may have some effects on drug dependence that have been missed because of choice of outcome in many previous studies, and future studies should use outcomes suggested by clinical experience. Body points and electroacupuncture, used in the original clinical observation, justify further research. (2013) P
- Acceptability is very high and may be maximised by taking a number of factors into account: full information should be provided before treatment begins; flexibility should be maintained in the appointment system and different levels of contact between fellow patients should be fostered; sufficient space and staffing should be provided and single-sex groups used wherever possible. (2012) P
- This is the first evaluation of nurse-led group (multibed) acupuncture clinics for patients with knee osteoarthritis to include a 2 year follow-up. It shows the practicability of offering a low-cost acupuncture service as an alternative to knee surgery and the service’s success in providing long-term symptom relief in about a third of patients. Using realistic assumptions, the cost consequences for the local commissioning group are an estimated saving of £100 000 a year. Sensitivity analyses are presented using different assumptions. (2012) P
- There is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further, well designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions. (2011) P/N
- Eight (8) of 10 international acupuncture experts were able to reach consensus on the syndromes, symptoms, and treatment of postmenopausal women with hot flashes. The syndromes were similar to those used by practitioners in the ACUFLASH clinical trial, but there were considerable differences between the acupuncture points. This difference is likely to be the result of differences in approach of training schools, and whether it is relevant for clinical outcomes is not well understood. (2011) P
- 70% of those patients eligible to participate volunteered to do so; all participants had clinically identified MTrPs; a 100% completion rate was achieved for recorded self-assessment data; no serious adverse events were reported as a result of either intervention; and the end of treatment attrition rate was 17%. A phase III study is both feasible and clinically relevant. This study is currently being planned. (2010) P
- In conclusion, the results from all studies are in agreement with the hypothesis that acupuncture needling relieves hot flushes. There are few data however supporting the hypothesis that the effect of acupuncture is point specific. Future research should investigate whether there is a biological effect of needling on hot flushes or not, whether tailored treatment is superior to standardised treatment, and ways of delivering treatment that causes least discomfort and least cost. (2010) P
- Acupuncture can contribute to a more rapid reduction in vasomotor symptoms and increase in health-related quality of life in postmenopausal women but probably has no long-term effects. (2010) P
- within the context of this pilot study, the sham acupuncture intervention was found to be a credible control for acupuncture. This supports its use in a planned, definitive, randomised controlled trial on a similar whiplash injured population. (2009) N/P
- factors other than the TCM syndrome diagnoses and the point selection may be of importance regarding the outcome of the treatment. (2009) N/P
- Acupuncture plus self-care can contribute to a clinically relevant reduction in hot flashes and increased health-related quality of life in postmenopausal women. (2009) P
- the authors conclude that acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches. (2009) P
- there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine attacks only or to routine care. There is no evidence for an effect of ‘true’ acupuncture over sham interventions, though this is difficult to interpret, as exact point location could be of limited importance. Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects. Acupuncture should be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. (2009) P
- We have conducted the first survey of the effects of provision of acupuncture in UK general practice, using data provided by the NHS, and uncovered a wide variation in the availability of the service in different areas. We have been unable to demonstrate any consistent differences in the prescribing or referral rates that could be due to the use of acupuncture in these practices. The wide variation in the data means that if such a trend exists, a very large survey would be needed to identify it. However, we discovered inaccuracies and variations in presentation of data by the PCTs which have made the numerical input, and hence our results, unreliable. Thus the practicalities of access to data and the problems with data accuracy would preclude a nationwide survey. (2008) P
- In conclusion, there is limited evidence deriving from one study that deep needling directly into myofascial trigger points has an overall treatment effect when compared with standardised care. Whilst the result of the meta-analysis of needling compared with placebo controls does not attain statistically significant, the overall direction could be compatible with a treatment effect of dry needling on myofascial trigger point pain. However, the limited sample size and poor quality of these studies highlights and supports the need for large scale, good quality placebo controlled trials in this area. (2009) P
- We conclude that limited evidence supports acupuncture use in treating pregnancy-related pelvic and back pain. Additional high-quality trials are needed to test the existing promising evidence for this relatively safe and popular complementary therapy. (2008) P
- Acupuncture appears to offer symptomatic improvement to some patients with fibromyalgia in a tertiary clinic who have failed to respond to other treatments. In view of its safety, further acupuncture research is justified in this population. (2007) P
- It is speculated that optimal results from acupuncture treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee may involve: climatic factors, particularly high temperature; high expectations of patients; minimum of four needles; electroacupuncture rather than manual acupuncture, and particularly, strong electrical stimulation to needles placed in muscle; and a course of at least 10 treatments. These factors offer some support to criteria for adequate acupuncture used in the recent review. In addition, ethnic and cultural factors may influence patients’ reporting of their symptoms, and different versions of an outcome measure are likely to differ in their sensitivity – both factors which may lead to apparent rather than real differences between studies. The many variables in a study are likely to be more tightly controlled in a single centre study than in multicentre studies. (2007) P
- Any effects of acupressure on smoking withdrawal, as an adjunct to the use of NRT and behavioural intervention, are unlikely to be detectable by the methods used here and further preliminary studies are required before the hypothesis can be tested. (2007) P
- Auricular acupuncture appears to be effective for smoking cessation, but the effect may not depend on point location. This calls into question the somatotopic model underlying auricular acupuncture and suggests a need to re-evaluate sham controlled studies which have used ‘incorrect’ points. Further experiments are necessary to confirm or refute these observational conclusions. (2006) P
- Acupuncture that meets criteria for adequate treatment is significantly superior to sham acupuncture and to no additional intervention in improving pain and function in patients with chronic knee pain. Due to the heterogeneity in the results, however, further research is required to confirm these findings and provide more information on long-term effects. (2007) P
- There is no consistent evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further research using frequent or continuous stimulation is justified. (2006) N/P
- Acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients. (2005) N
- The evidence from controlled trials is insufficient to conclude whether acupuncture is an effective treatment for depression, but justifies further trials of electroacupuncture. (2005) N
- Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain. No evidence suggests that acupuncture is more effective than other active therapies. (2005) N/P
- In view of the small number of studies and their variable quality, doubt remains about the effectiveness of acupuncture for gynaecological conditions. Acupuncture and acupressure appear promising for dysmenorrhoea, and acupuncture for infertility, and further studies are justified. (2003) N
- In conclusion, the results suggest that the procedure using the new device is indistinguishable from the same procedure using real needles in acupuncture naïve subjects, and is inactive, where the specific needle sensation (de qi) is taken as a surrogate measure of activity. It is therefore a valid control for acupuncture trials. The findings also lend support to the existence of de qi, a major concept underlying traditional Chinese acupuncture. (2002) N/P
- There is no clear evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation. (2002) N
- Collectively, these data imply that acupuncture is superior to various control interventions, although there is insufficient evidence to state whether it is superior to placebo. (2002) N/P
- In conclusion, the incidence of adverse events following acupuncture performed by doctors and physiotherapists can be classified as minimal; some avoidable events do occur. Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention. (2001) N/P
- Based on the evidence of rigorous randomised controlled trials, there is no compelling evidence to show that acupuncture is effective in stroke rehabilitation. Further, better-designed studies are warranted. (2001) N
- Although it has already been demonstrated that severe adverse events seem to be uncommon in standard practice, many serious cases of negligence have been found in the present review, suggesting that training system for acupuncturists (including medical doctors) should be improved and that unsupervised self-treatment should be discouraged. (2001) N
- Direct needling of myofascial trigger points appears to be an effective treatment, but the hypothesis that needling therapies have efficacy beyond placebo is neither supported nor refuted by the evidence from clinical trials. Any effect of these therapies is likely because of the needle or placebo rather than the injection of either saline or active drug. Controlled trials are needed to investigate whether needling has an effect beyond placebo on myofascial trigger point pain. (2001) N/P
- Although the incidence of minor adverse events associated with acupuncture may be considerable, serious adverse events are rare. Those responsible for establishing competence in acupuncture should consider how to reduce these risks. (2001) N
- In conclusion, this study does not provide evidence that this form of acupuncture is effective in the prevention of episodic tension-type headache. (2000) N
- The present study provides no strong evidence to support the hypothesis that the acupuncture point SP6 is more tender in women and in men. Recommendations for further investigations are discussed. (2000) N
- Acupuncture has not been demonstrated to be efficacious as a treatment for tinnitus on the evidence of rigorous randomized controlled trials. (2000) N
- We conclude that acupuncture continues to be associated with occasional, serious adverse events and fatalities. These events have no geographical limits. Most of these events are due to negligence. Everyone concerned with setting standards, delivering training, and maintaining competence in acupuncture should familiarise themselves with the lessons to be learnt from these untoward events. (2000) N
- Overall, the existing evidence suggests that acupuncture has a role in the treatment of recurrent headaches. However, the quality and amount of evidence is not fully convincing. There is urgent need for well-planned, large-scale studies to assess effectiveness and efficiency of acupuncture under real life conditions. (1999) N/P
- While the frequency of adverse effects of acupuncture is unknown and they may be rare, knowledge of normal anatomy and anatomical variations is essential for safe practice and should be reviewed by regulatory bodies and those responsible for training courses. (1999) N
- In conclusion, the hypothesis that acupuncture is efficacious in the treatment of neck pain is not based on the available evidence from sound clinical trials. Further studies are justified. (1999) N
- Even though all studies are in accordance with the notion that acupuncture is effective for temporomandibular joint dysfunction, this hypothesis requires confirmation through more rigorous investigations. (1999) N
- Acupuncture is not free of risks. All adverse events reported in 1997 would have been avoidable. The absolute number of cases is small, but the degree of underreporting remains unknown. (1999) N
- This form of electroacupuncture is no more effective than placebo in reducing nicotine withdrawal symptoms. (1998) N
- Acupuncture was shown to be superior to various control interventions, although there is insufficient evidence to state whether it is superior to placebo. (1998) N/P
- Considerable variation was observed in the scores awarded by the acupuncture experts. (1998) N
- It is therefore concluded that, according to the data published to date, the evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct for stroke rehabilitation is encouraging but not compelling. More and better trials are required to clarify this highly relevant issue. (1996) N
The results are remarkable (particularly considering that one would not expect unbiased studies or reviews of acupuncture to generate plenty of positive conclusions):
0 times N, 5 times N/P, 22 times P – after Adrian had left my department,
17 times N, 7 times N/P, 0 times P – while Adrian worked in my department.
From these figures, it is tempting to calculate the ratios for both periods of negative : positive conclusions:
zero versus infinite
If that is not impressive, I don’t know what is!
Looking just at the positive and the negative papers over the years:
One could discuss these papers in more detail, but I think this is hardly necessary. Just a few highlights perhaps: look at articles No 5, 20 and 27 for examples of turning an essentially negative finding into a positive conclusion. Notice that Adrian conducted a clinical trial of acupuncture for smoking cessation (No 49) while working with me and later published uncritical positive reviews on the subject. Does this not indicate that he distrusted his own study because it had not generated the result he had hoped for?
Of course, my analysis is merely a case study and therefore my findings are not generalisable. However, in my personal experience, the described phenomenon is by no means an exception in SCAM research. I have observed similar phenomena over and over again. Just look at the ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME that I created for this blog:
- John Weeks (editor of JCAM)
- Deepak Chopra (US entrepreneur)
- Cheryl Hawk (US chiropractor)
- David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)
- Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)
- Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)
- Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)
- Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)
- Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)
- George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)
- John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)
But Adrian’s case might be unique because it allows us to make a longitudinal observation over two decades. And it suggests to me that an ideological bias can (and often is) so strong and indistructable that is re-emerges as soon as it is no longer kept under strict control.
I have long suspected that ideological conflicts of interest have a much more powerful influence in SCAM research than financial ones. Such an overpowering influence might even be characteristic to much of SCAM research. And because it can be so dominant, it seems important to know about. People reading research need to be aware that it originates from a biased source, and funders who finance research would be wise to think twice about supporting researchers who are likely to generate findings that are biased and therefore false-positive. In the final analysis, such research is worse than no research at all.
This systematic review and meta-analysis was aimed at investigating the effect and safety of acupuncture for the treatment of chronic spinal pain.
The authors included 22 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving patients with chronic spinal pain treated by acupuncture versus sham acupuncture, no treatment, or another treatment were included. Chronic spinal pain was defined as:
- chronic neck pain,
- chronic low back pain,
- or sciatica for more than 3 months.
Fourteen studies had a high risk of bias, 5 studies had a low risk of bias, and 5 studies had an unclear risk of bias. Pooled analysis revealed that:
- acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to sham acupuncture (weighted mean difference [WMD] -12.05, 95% confidence interval [CI] -15.86 to -8.24),
- acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to mediation control (WMD -18.27, 95% CI -28.18 to -8.37),
- acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to usual care control (WMD -9.57, 95% CI -13.48 to -9.44),
- acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to no treatment control (WMD -17.10, 95% CI -24.83 to -9.37).
In terms of functional disability, acupuncture can improve physical function at
- immediate-term follow-up (standardized mean difference [SMD] -1.74, 95% CI -2.04 to -1.44),
- short-term follow-up (SMD -0.89, 95% CI -1.15 to -0.62),
- long-term follow-up (SMD -1.25, 95% CI -1.48 to -1.03).
Trials assessed as having a high risk of bias (WMD −13.45, 95% CI −17.23 to −9.66, I 2 96.2%, moderate-quality evidence, including 14 studies and 1379 patients) found greater effects of acupuncture treatment than trials assessed as having a low risk of bias (WMD −11.99, 95% CI −13.94 to −10.03, I 2 44.6%, high-quality evidence, including 4 studies and 432 patients), but smaller effects than trials assessed as having an unclear risk of bias (WMD −14.51, 95% CI −17.25 to −11.78, I 2 0%, high-quality evidence, including 3 studies and 190 patients).
Only 6 trials provided information on adverse events. No trial reported data on serious adverse events during acupuncture treatment. The most frequent adverse events were temporarily worsened pain and needle pain at the acupuncture site, which can decrease quickly after a short period of rest.
The authors concluded that compared to no treatment, sham acupuncture, or conventional therapy such as medication, massage, and physical exercise, acupuncture has a significantly superior effect on the reduction in chronic spinal pain and function improvement. Acupuncture might be an effective treatment for patients with chronic spinal pain and it is a safe therapy.
I think this is a thorough review which produced interesting findings. I agree with most of what the authors report, except with their conclusions which I find too optimistic. In view of the facts that
- only 5 RCTs had a low risk of bias,
- collectively, the rigorous trials reported smaller effect sizes,
- the majority of trials failed to mention adverse effects which, in my view, casts considerable doubt on their quality and ethical standard,
I would have phrased the conclusion differently: compared to no treatment, sham acupuncture, or conventional therapies, acupuncture seems to have a significantly superior effect on pain and function. Due to the lack rigour of most studies, these effects are less certain than one would have wished. Many trials fail to report adverse effects which reflects poorly on their quality and ethics and prevents conclusions about the safety of acupuncture. In essence, this means that the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture as a treatment of chronic spinal pain remains uncertain.
Acupuncture-moxibustion therapy (AMT) is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that has been used for centuries in treatment of numerous diseases. Some enthusiasts even seem to advocate it for chemotherapy-induced leukopenia (CIL) The purpose of this review was to evaluate the efficacy and safety of acupuncture-moxibustion therapy in treating CIL.
Relevant studies were searched in 9 databases up to September 19, 2020. Two reviewers independently screened the studies for eligibility, extracted data, and assessed the methodological quality of selected studies. Meta-analysis of the pooled mean difference (MD) and risk ratio (RR) with their respective 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated.
Seventeen studies (1206 patients) were included, and the overall quality of the included studies was moderate. In comparison with medical therapy, AMT has a better clinical efficacy for CIL (RR, 1.24; 95% CI, 1.17-1.32; P < 0.00001) and presents advantages in increasing leukocyte count (MD, 1.10; 95% CI, 0.67-1.53; P < 0.00001). Also, the statistical results show that AMT performs better in improving the CIL patients’ Karnofsky performance score (MD, 5.92; 95% CI, 3.03-8.81; P < 0.00001).
The authors concluded that this systematic review and meta-analysis provides updated evidence that AMT is a safe and effective alternative for the patients who suffered from CIL.
A CIL is a serious complication. If I ever were afflicted by it, I would swiftly send any acupuncturist approaching my sickbed packing.
But this is not an evidence-based attitude!!!, I hear some TCM-fans mutter. What more do you want that a systematic review showing it works?
I beg to differ. Why? Because the ‘evidence’ is hardly what critical thinkers can accept as evidence. Have a look at the list of the primary studies included in this review:
- Lin Z. T., Wang Q., Yu Y. N., Lu J. S. Clinical observation of post-chemotherapy-leukopenia treated with ShenMai injectionon ST36. World Journal of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine. 2010;5(10):873–876. [Google Scholar]
- Wang H. Clinical Observation of Acupoint Moxibustion on Leukopenia Caused by Chemotherapy. Beijing, China: Beijing University of Chinese Medicine; 2011. [Google Scholar]
- Fan J. Y. Coupling of Yin and Yang between Ginger Moxibustion Improve the Clinical Effect of the Treatment of Chemotherapy Adverse Reaction. Henan, China: Henan University of Chinese Medicine; 2013. [Google Scholar]
- Lu D. R., Lu D. X., Wei M., et al. Acupoint injection with addie injection for patients of nausea and vomiting with cisplatin induced by chemotherapy. Journal of Clinical Acupuncture and Moxibustion. 2013;29(10):33–38. [Google Scholar]
- Yang J. E. The Clinical Observation on Treatment of Leukopenia after Chemotherapy with Needle Warming Moxibustion. Hubei, China: Hubei University of Chinese Medicine; 2013. [Google Scholar]
- Fu Y. H., Chi C. Y., Zhang C. Y. Clinical effect of acupuncture and moxibustion on leukopenia after chemotherapy of malignant tumor. Guide of China Medicine. 2014;12(12) [Google Scholar]
- Wang J. N., Zhang W. X., Gu Q. H., Jiao J. P., Liu L., Wei P. K. Protection of herb-partitioned moxibustion on bone marrow suppression of gastric cancer patients in chemotherapy period. Chinese Archives of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2014;32(12):110–113. [Google Scholar]
- Zhang J. The Clinical Research on Myelosuppression and Quality of Life after Chemotherapy Treated by Grain-Sized Moxibustion. Nanjing, China: Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine; 2014. [Google Scholar]
- Tian H., Lin H., Zhang L., Fan Z. N., Zhang Z. L. Effective research on treating leukopenia following chemotherapy by moxibustion. Clinical Journal of Chinese Medicine. 2015;7(10):35–38. [Google Scholar]
- Hu G. W., Wang J. D., Zhao C. Y. Effect of acupuncture on the first WBC reduction after chemotherapy for breast cancer. Beijing Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2016;35(8):777–779. [Google Scholar]
- Zhu D. L., Lu H. Y., Lu Y. Y., Wu L. J. Clinical observation of Qi-blood-supplementing needling for leukopenia after chemotherapy for breast cancer. Shanghai Journal of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. 2016;35(8):964–966. [Google Scholar]
- Chen L, Xu G. Y. Observation on the prevention and treatment of chemotherapy-induced leukopenia by moxibustion therapy. Zhejiang Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2016;51(8):p. 600. [Google Scholar]
- Mo T., Tian H., Yue S. B., Fan Z. N., Zhang Z. L. Clinical observation of acupoint moxibustion on leukocytopenia caused by tumor chemotherapy. World Chinese Medicine. 2016;11(10):2120–2122. [Google Scholar]
- Nie C. M. Nursing observation of acupoint moxibustion in the treatment of leucopenia after chemotherapy. Today Nurse. 2017;4:93–95. [Google Scholar]
- Wang D. Y. Clinical Research on Post-chemotherapy-leukopenia with Spleen-Kidney Yang Deficiency in Colorectal Cancer Treated with Point-Injection. Yunnan, China: Yunnan University of Chinese Medicine; 2017. [Google Scholar]
- Gong Y. Q, Zhang M. Q, Zhang B. C. Prevention and treatment of leucocytopenia after chemotherapy in patients with malignant tumor with ginger partitioned moxibustion. Chinese Medicine Modern Distance Education of China. 2018;16(21):135–137. [Google Scholar]
- Li Z. C., Lian M. J., Miao F. G. Clinical observation of fuzheng moxibustion combined with wenyang shengbai decoction in the treatment of 80 cases of leukopenia after chemotherapy. Hunan Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2019;35(3):64–66. [Google Scholar]
Notice anything peculiar?
- The studies are all from China where data fabrication was reported to be rife.
- They are mostly unavailable for checking (why the published adds links that go nowhere is beyond me).
- Many do not look at all like randomised clinical trials (which, according to the authors, was an inclusion criterion).
- Many do not look as though their primary endpoint was the leukocyte count (which, according to the authors, was another inclusion criterion).
Intriguingly, the authors conclude that AMT is not just effective but also ‘safe’. How do they know? According to their own data extraction table, most studies failed to mention adverse effects. And how exactly is acupuncture supposed to increase my leukocyte count? Here is what the authors offer as a mode of action:
I think it is high time that we stop tolerating that the medical literature gets polluted with such nonsense (helped, of course, by journals that are beyond the pale) – someone might actually believe it, in which case it would surely hasten the death of vulnerable patients.
There is some encouraging evidence regarding the positive influence of vitamin D on COVID-19. But is it convincing? Is it causal? As always, it is worth looking at the totality of the reliable evidence.
In this systematic review and meta-analysis, the researchers analyze the association between vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19 severity. They conducted an analysis of the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency in people with the disease. Five online databases—Embase, PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, ScienceDirect and pre-print Medrevix were searched. The inclusion criteria were observational studies measuring serum vitamin D in adult and elderly subjects with COVID-19. The main outcome was the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in severe cases of COVID-19.
The researchers identified 1542 articles and 27 met their inclusion criteria. The results show that
- vitamin D deficiency was not associated with a higher chance of infection by COVID-19,
- severe cases of COVID-19 present 64% more vitamin D deficiency compared with mild cases,
- vitamin D concentration insufficiency increased hospitalization and mortality rates,
- There was a positive association between vitamin D deficiency and the severity of the disease.
The authors concluded that the results of the meta-analysis confirm the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in people with COVID-19, especially the elderly. We should add that vitamin D deficiency was not associated with COVID-19 infection. However, we observed a positive association between vitamin D deficiency and the severity of the disease. From this perspective, evaluating blood vitamin D levels could be considered in the clinical practice of health professionals. Moreover, vitamin D supplementation could be considered in patients with vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency, if they have COVID-19. However, there is no support for supplementation among groups with normal blood vitamin D values with the aim of prevention, prophylaxis or reducing the severity of the disease.
These are interesting findings, no doubt. They relate to associations, as the authors repeatedly stress in the text of the paper. They do not, however, signify cause and effect relationships. The principal outcome of this research should be a hypothesis that subsequently needs testing in clinical trials.
So, why on earth did the authors chose that seriously misleading title of their paper? It clearly implies a causal effect; and this can only be verified by conducting clinical trials. One such study has been published (as discussed here) and it concluded that administration of calcifediol may improve the clinical outcome of subjects requiring hospitalization for COVID-19.
My conclusion: it seems well worth conducting more and more rigorous clinical trials.
Melatonin is an indolamine hormone which is secreted from the human pineal gland during night-time acting as physiological regulator. In many countries, dietary supplements containing synthetically produced melatonin are available. Melatonin is being promoted as a treatment of a range of conditions, including virtually all types of cancer.
One website, for instance, states that the anti-cancer benefits of melatonin aren’t just indirect; this miracle molecule is also classified as a directly cytotoxic hormone and anti-cancer agent. Studies have referred to melatonin as a “full-service anti-cancer agent” due to its ability to inhibit the initiation of cell mutation and cancer growth, and to halt the progression and metastasis of cancer cell colonies.
Such statements sound far too good to be true. So, let’s have a look and find out what the evidence tells us. Test-tube experiments suggest that melatonin has anti-cancer effects. Its actions include the advancement of apoptosis, the arrest of the cell cycle, inhibition of metastasis, and antioxidant activity.
A review of 21 clinical trials of melatonin for cancer found positive effects for complete response, partial response, and stable disease. In trials combining melatonin with chemotherapy, adjuvant melatonin therapy decreased 1-year mortality and improved outcomes of complete response, partial response, and stable disease. In these studies, melatonin also significantly reduced asthenia, leukopenia, nausea and vomiting, hypotension, and thrombocytopenia. The authors concluded that melatonin may benefit cancer patients who are also receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy, supportive therapy, or palliative therapy by improving survival and ameliorating the side effects of chemotherapy.
A further systematic review of RCTs of melatonin in solid tumour cancer patients evaluated its effect on one-year survival. Ten trials were included of melatonin as either sole treatment or as adjunct treatment. Melatonin reduced the risk of death at 1 year. Effects were consistent across melatonin dose, and type of cancer. No severe adverse events were reported.
A 2012 systematic review confirmed these findings by concluding that Melatonin as an adjuvant therapy for cancer led to substantial improvements in tumor remission, 1-year survival, and alleviation of radiochemotherapy-related side effects.
Finally, a 2020 review concluded that melatonin in combination with anticancer agents may improve the efficacy of routine medicine and survival rate of patients with cancer.  Apart from its direct anticancer potential, melatonin also seems to reduce chemotherapy toxicity, while improving its therapeutic efficacy.
So, is this evidence compelling? While all this does indeed sound encouraging, it is necessary to mention several important caveats:
- The primary studies of melatonin suffer from several methodological shortcomings.
- Their vast majority originate from one single research group.
- In recent years, there have been no further clinical studies trying to replicate the initial findings.
This means that definitive trials are still missing, and it would seem wise to interpret the existing evidence with great caution.
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