Mini-scalpel acupuncture or acupotomy is a relatively new type of non-invasive acupuncture/ micro surgery using a small needle-scalpel invented by Professor Zhu Hanzhang around 30 years ago in China. It is a slightly thicker and more blunt instrument that gets under the skin and is able to break apart adhesions and muscle knots more effectively than a regular acupuncture needle would.
Never mind, the question is does it work!
A systematic review showed that almost all studies reported an effect of acupotomy on joint pain compared to a variety of controls. On reflection, this is hardly surprising:
- all the trials were from China;
- all had major methodological flaws.
This means that we need better studies to decide the efficacy question.
This new study investigated the efficacy and safety of mini-scalpel acupuncture (MA) for knee osteoarthritis (KOA) in an assessor-blinded randomized controlled pilot trial; this would provide information for a large-scale randomized controlled trial.
Participants (n = 24) were recruited and randomly allocated to the MA group (experimental) or acupuncture group (control). The MA group received treatment once a week for 3 weeks (total of 3 treatments), while the acupuncture group received treatment two times per week for 3 weeks (total of 6 treatments). The primary outcome was pain as assessed by a visual analogue scale (VAS). The secondary outcomes (intensity of current pain, stiffness, and physical function) were assessed using the short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire (SF-MPQ) and Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Assessments were performed at baseline, 1, 2, and 3 during treatment and at week 5 (2 weeks after the end of treatment).
Of the 24 participants, 23 completed the study. Both groups showed significant improvements in VAS, SF-MPQ, and WOMAC. There were no significant differences between the MA and acupuncture groups. No serious adverse event occurred and blood test results were within normal limits.
The authors concluded that although both MA and acupuncture provide similar effects with regard to pain control in patients with KOA, MA may be more effective in providing pain relief because the same relief was obtained with fewer treatments. A large-scale clinical study is warranted to further clarify these findings.
I can recommend this article to anyone who wants a quick introduction into the critical analysis of clinical trials. It is a veritable treasure trove of mistakes, flaws, errors, fallacies etc. Here are just a few:
- The authors aim of investigating the safety of MA is unobtainable. It would require not 24 but probably 24 000 patients.
- The authors aim of investigating the efficacy of MA is equally unobtainable. It would require a much larger sample than 24, a sham control arm, identical treatment schedules, patient-blinding, etc.
- Calling the trial a ‘pilot’ is endearing but, except for the title and the insufficient sample size, this study has none of the characteristics of a pilot study.
- In their ‘introduction’, the authors state that miniscalpel acupuncture (MA) is a new subtype of acupuncture that is effective in treating chronic soft tissue injuries such as adhesions and contractures. This is clearly wrong but discloses their bias very plainly.
- The authors statement that both MA and acupuncture provide similar effects with regard to pain control in patients with KOA is misleading. It implies that both interventions had specific effects. Without a sham control arm, this is pure speculation.
- Similarly their assumption that MA may be more effective in providing pain relief because the same relief was obtained with fewer treatments, is pure fantasy.
- In fact, as MA requires injections of local anaesthetics, any outcome is heavily confounded by this addition.
- In the discussion section, the authors state that because MA is invasive and provides a strong stimulus, some participants complained of stiff and dull pain for few days after treatment. Yet, when reporting adverse effects in the results section, this was not mentioned.
- The way this study was designed, it should have been clear from the start that it would not produce any meaningful findings. Seen from this perspective, running the trial could even be seen as a breach of research ethics.
- According to the aims of a pilot study and the authors hope that their study would provide information for a large-scale randomized controlled trial, all reporting of outcomes is misplaced and should be replaced by information as to how a definitive trial should be conducted.
The following footnote is worth mentioning: This study is supported by a grant from the Ministry of Health & Welfare, Korea. It suggests to me that this ministry should urgently re-think its funding strategy and recruit some reviewers who are capable of critical analysis.
In my view, this is a lousy study which the authors decides to call ‘a pilot’ in order to get it published in a lousy journal.
Do musculoskeletal conditions contribute to chronic non-musculoskeletal conditions? The authors of a new paper – inspired by chiropractic thinking, it seems – think so. Their meta-analysis was aimed to investigate whether the most common musculoskeletal conditions, namely neck or back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, contribute to the development of chronic disease.
The authors searched several electronic databases for cohort studies reporting adjusted estimates of the association between baseline neck or back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip and subsequent diagnosis of a chronic disease (cardiovascular disease , cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease or obesity).
There were 13 cohort studies following 3,086,612 people. In the primary meta-analysis of adjusted estimates, osteoarthritis (n= 8 studies) and back pain (n= 2) were the exposures and cardiovascular disease (n=8), cancer (n= 1) and diabetes (n= 1) were the outcomes. Pooled adjusted estimates from these 10 studies showed that people with a musculoskeletal condition have a 17% increase in the rate of developing a chronic disease compared to people without a musculoskeletal condition.
The authors concluded that musculoskeletal conditions may increase the risk of chronic disease. In particular, osteoarthritis appears to increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Prevention and early
treatment of musculoskeletal conditions and targeting associated chronic disease risk factors in people with long
standing musculoskeletal conditions may play a role in preventing other chronic diseases. However, a greater
understanding about why musculoskeletal conditions may increase the risk of chronic disease is needed.
For the most part, this paper reads as if the authors are trying to establish a causal relationship between musculoskeletal problems and systemic diseases at all costs. Even their aim (to investigate whether the most common musculoskeletal conditions, namely neck or back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, contribute to the development of chronic disease) clearly points in that direction. And certainly, their conclusion that musculoskeletal conditions may increase the risk of chronic disease confirms this suspicion.
In their discussion, they do concede that causality is not proven: While our review question ultimately sought to assess a causal connection between common musculoskeletal conditions and chronic disease, we cannot draw strong conclusions due to poor adjustment, the analysis methods employed by the included studies, and a lack of studies investigating conditions other than OA and cardiovascular disease…We did not find studies that satisfied all of Bradford Hill’s suggested criteria for casual inference (e.g. none estimated dose–response effects) nor did we find studies that used contemporary causal inference methods for observational data (e.g. a structured identification approach for selection of confounding variables or assessment of the effects of unmeasured or residual confounders. As such, we are unable to infer a strong causal connection between musculoskeletal conditions and chronic diseases.
In all honesty, I would see this a little differently: If their review question ultimately sought to assess a causal connection between common musculoskeletal conditions and chronic disease, it was quite simply daft and unscientific. All they could ever hope is to establish associations. Whether these are causal or not is an entirely different issue which is not answerable on the basis of the data they searched for.
An example might make this clearer: people who have yellow stains on their 2nd and 3rd finger often get lung cancer. The yellow fingers are associated with cancer, yet the link is not causal. The association is due to the fact that smoking stains the fingers and causes cancer. What the authors of this new article seem to suggest is that, if we cut off the stained fingers of smokers, we might reduce the cancer risk. This is clearly silly to the extreme.
So, how might the association between musculoskeletal problems and systemic diseases come about? Of course, the authors might be correct and it might be causal. This would delight chiropractors because DD Palmer, their founding father, said that 95% of all diseases are caused by subluxation of the spine, the rest by subluxations of other joints. But there are several other and more likely explanations for this association. For instance, many people with a systemic disease might have had subclinical problems for years. These problems would prevent them from pursuing a healthy life-style which, in turn, resulted is musculoskeletal problems. If this is so, musculoskeletal conditions would not increase the risk of chronic disease, but chronic diseases would lead to musculoskeletal problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that this reverse causality is the truth; I am simply saying that it is one of several possibilities that need to be considered. The fact that the authors failed to do so, is remarkable and suggests that they were bent on demonstrating what they put in their conclusion. And that, to me, is an unfailing sign of poor science.
I have said it often, and I say it again: I do like well-conducted systematic reviews; and Cochrane reviews are usually the best, i. e. most transparent, most thorough and least biased. Thus, I was pleased to see a new Cochrane review of acupuncture aimed at assessing the benefits and harms of acupuncture in patients with hip OA.
The authors included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, another active treatment, or no specific treatment; and RCTs that evaluated acupuncture as an addition to another treatment. Major outcomes were pain and function at the short term (i.e. < 3 months after randomization) and adverse events.
Six RCTs with 413 participants were included. Four RCTs included only people with OA of the hip, and two included a mix of people with OA of the hip and knee. All RCTs included primarily older participants, with a mean age range from 61 to 67 years, and a mean duration of hip OA pain from two to eight years. Approximately two-thirds of participants were women. Two RCTs compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture; the other four RCTs were not blinded. All results were evaluated at short-term (i.e. four to nine weeks after randomization).In the two RCTs that compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture, the sham acupuncture control interventions were judged believable, but each sham acupuncture intervention was also judged to have a risk of weak acupuncture-specific effects, due to placement of non-penetrating needles at the correct acupuncture points in one RCT, and the use of penetrating needles not inserted at the correct points in the other RCT. For these two sham-controlled RCTs, the risk of bias was low for all outcomes.
The combined analysis of two sham-controlled RCTs gave moderate quality evidence of little or no effect in reduction in pain for acupuncture relative to sham acupuncture. Due to the small sample sizes in the studies, the confidence interval includes both the possibility of moderate benefit and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture (120 participants; Standardized Mean Difference (SMD) -0.13, (95% Confidence Interval (CI) -0.49 to 0.22); 2.1 points greater improvement with acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture on 100 point scale (i.e., absolute percent change -2.1% (95% CI -7.9% to 3.6%)); relative percent change -4.1% (95% CI -15.6% to 7.0%)). Estimates of effect were similar for function (120 participants; SMD -0.15, (95% CI -0.51 to 0.21)). No pooled estimate, representative of the two sham-controlled RCTs, could be calculated or reported for the quality of life outcome.
The four other RCTs were unblinded comparative effectiveness RCTs, which compared (additional) acupuncture to four different active control treatments. There was low quality evidence that addition of acupuncture to the routine primary care that RCT participants were receiving from their physicians was associated with statistically significant and clinically relevant benefits, compared to the routine primary physician care alone, in pain (1 RCT; 137 participants; mean percent difference -22.9% (95% CI -29.2% to -16.6%); relative percent difference -46.5% (95% CI -59.3% to -33.7%)) and function (mean percent difference -19.0% (95% CI -24.41 to -13.59); relative percent difference -38.6% (95% CI -49.6% to -27.6%)). There was no statistically significant difference for mental quality of life and acupuncture showed a small, significant benefit for physical quality of life.
The effects of acupuncture compared with either advice plus exercise or NSAIDs are uncertain. The authors are also uncertain whether acupuncture plus patient education improves pain, function, and quality of life, when compared to patient education alone.
In general, the overall quality of the evidence for the four comparative effectiveness RCTs was low to very low, mainly due to the potential for biased reporting of patient-assessed outcomes due to lack of blinding and sparse data.
Information on safety was reported in 4 RCTs. Two RCTs reported minor side effects of acupuncture, which were primarily minor bruising, bleeding, or pain at needle insertion sites.
The authors concluded that acupuncture probably has little or no effect in reducing pain or improving function relative to sham acupuncture in people with hip osteoarthritis. Due to the small sample size in the studies, the confidence intervals include both the possibility of moderate benefits and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture. One unblinded trial found that acupuncture as an addition to routine primary physician care was associated with benefits on pain and function. However, these reported benefits are likely due at least partially to RCT participants’ greater expectations of benefit from acupuncture. Possible side effects associated with acupuncture treatment were minor.
This is an excellent review of data that (because of contradictions, methodological limitations, heterogeneity etc.) are not easy to evaluate fairly. The review shows that previous verdicts about acupuncture for osteoarthritis might have been too optimistic. Acupuncture has no or only very small specific therapeutic effects. As we have much better therapeutic options for this condition, it means that acupuncture can no longer be recommended as an effective therapy.
That surely must be big news in the little world of acupuncture!
I have been personally involved in several similar reviews:
In 2006, the balance of evidence seemed to have shifted and more positive data had emerged; consequently our review concluded that sham-controlled RCTs suggest specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with peripheral joint OA. Considering its favourable safety profile acupuncture seems an option worthy of consideration particularly for knee OA. Further studies are required particularly for manual or electro-acupuncture in hip OA.
Now, it seems that my initial conclusion of 1996 was more realistic. To me this is a fascinating highlight on the fact that in EBM, we change our minds based on the current best evidence. By contrast, in alternative medicine, as we have often lamented on this blog, minds do not easily change and all too often dogma seems to reign.
The new Cochrane review is important in several ways. Firstly, it affirms an appropriately high standard for such reviews. Secondly, it originates from a research team that has, in the past, been outspokenly pro-acupuncture; it is therefore unlikely that the largely negative findings were due to an anti-acupuncture bias. Thirdly – and most importantly – osteoarthritis has been THE condition for which even critical reviewers had to admit that there was at least some good, positive evidence.
It seems therefore, that yet again a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact.
The question whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) has any specific therapeutic effects is still open. This fact must irritate ardent chiropractors, and they therefore try everything to dispel our doubts. One way would be to demonstrate a dose-effect relationship between SMT and the clinical outcome. But, for several reasons, this is not an easy task.
This RCT was aimed at identifying the dose-response relationship between visits for SMT and chronic cervicogenic headache (CGH) outcomes; to evaluate the efficacy of SMT by comparison with a light massage control.
The study included 256 adults with chronic CGH. The primary outcome was days with CGH in the prior 4 weeks evaluated at the 12- and 24-week primary endpoints. Secondary outcomes included CGH days at remaining endpoints, pain intensity, disability, perceived improvement, medication use, and patient satisfaction. Participants were randomized to 4 different dose levels of chiropractic SMT: 0, 6, 12, or 18 sessions. They were treated 3 times per week for 6 weeks and received a focused light-massage control at sessions when SMT was not assigned. Linear dose effects and comparisons to the no-manipulation control group were evaluated at 6, 12, 24, 39, and 52 weeks.
A linear dose-response was observed for all follow-ups, a reduction of approximately 1 CGH day/4 weeks per additional 6 SMT visits (p<.05); a maximal effective dose could not be determined. CGH days/4 weeks were reduced from about 16 to 8 for the highest and most effective dose of 18 SMT visits. Mean differences in CGH days/4 weeks between 18 SMT visits and control were -3.3 (p=.004) and -2.9 (p=.017) at the primary endpoints, and similar in magnitude at the remaining endpoints (p<.05). Differences between other SMT doses and control were smaller in magnitude (p > .05). CGH intensity showed no important improvement nor differed by dose. Other secondary outcomes were generally supportive of the primary.
The authors concluded that there was a linear dose-response relationship between SMT visits and days with CGH. For the highest and most effective dose of 18 SMT visits, CGH days were reduced by half, and about 3 more days per month than for the light-massage control.
This trial would make sense, if the effectiveness of SMT for CGH had been a well-documented fact, and if the study had rigorously controlled for placebo-effects.
But guess what?
Neither of these conditions were met.
A recent review concluded that there are few published randomized controlled trials analyzing the effectiveness of spinal manipulation and/or mobilization for TTH, CeH, and M in the last decade. In addition, the methodological quality of these papers is typically low. Clearly, there is a need for high-quality randomized controlled trials assessing the effectiveness of these interventions in these headache disorders. And this is by no means the only article making such statements; similar reviews arrive at similar conclusions. In turn, this means that the effects observed after SMT are not necessarily specific effects due to SMT but could easily be due to placebo or other non-specific effects. In order to avoid confusion, one would need a credible placebo – one that closely mimics SMT – and make sure that patients were ‘blinded’. But ‘light massage’ clearly does not mimic SMT, and patients obviously were aware of which interventions they received.
So, an alternative – and I think at least as plausible – conclusion of the data provided by this new RCT is this:
Chiropractic SMT is associated with a powerful placebo response which, of course, obeys a dose-effect relationship. Thus these findings are in keeping with the notion that SMT is a placebo.
And why would the researchers – who stress that they have no conflicts of interest – mislead us by making this alternative interpretation of their findings not abundantly clear?
I fear, the reason might be simple: they also seem to mislead us about their conflicts of interest: they are mostly chiropractors with a long track record of publishing promotional papers masquerading as research. What, I ask myself, could be a stronger conflict of interest?
(Pity that a high-impact journal like SPINE did not spot these [not so little] flaws)
We have repeatedly discussed the fact that alternative medicine (AM) is by no means free of risks. I find it helpful to divide them into two broad categories:
- direct risks of the intervention (such as stroke due to neck manipulation, or cardiac tamponade caused by acupuncture, or liver damage due to a herbal remedy) and
- indirect risks usually due to the advice given by AM practitioners.
The latter category is often more important than the former. It includes delay of effective treatment due to treatment with an ineffective or less effective form of AM. It is clear that this will cause patients to suffer unnecessarily.
Several investigations have recently highlighted this important problem, including this study from Singapore which assessed the predictors of AM-use in patients with early inflammatory arthritis (EIA), and its impact on delay to initiation of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARD). Data were collected prospectively from EIA patients aged ≥ 21 years. Current or prior AM-use was ascertained by face-to-face interviews. Predictors of AM-use and its effect on time to DMARD initiation were determined by multivariate logistic regression and Cox proportional hazards, respectively.
One hundred and eighty patients were included: 83.9% had rheumatoid arthritis, 57% were seropositive. Median (IQR). Chinese race, being non-English speaking, smoking and high DAS28 were independent predictors of AM-use. AM-users initiated DMARD later (median [IQR] 21.5 [13.1-30.4] vs. 15.6 [9.4-22.7] weeks in non-users, P = 0.005). AM-use and higher DAS28 were associated with a longer delay to DMARD initiation. Race, education level, being non-English speaking, smoking and sero-positivity were not associated.
The authors concluded that healthcare professionals should be aware of the unique challenges in treating patients with EIA in Asia. Healthcare beliefs regarding AM may need to be addressed to reduce treatment delay.
These findings are not dissimilar to results previously discussed, for instance:
- AM-use delays cancer diagnosis.
- The advice of non-medically qualified practitioners may delay cancer therapy.
- Chiropractic care may delay referral to effective treatment.
- Consultations with homeopaths can delay effective therapy.
The only solution to the problem I can think of would be to educate AM practitioners and the public such that they are aware of the issue and do everything possible to prevent such problems. But this is, of course, easier said than done, and it seems more than just optimistic to hope that such endeavours might be successful. The public is currently bombarded with misleading information and outright lies about AM (many of my previous post have addressed this problem). And practitioners would have to operate against their own financial interest to prevent these problems from occurring.
This means that treatment delays caused by AM-use and advice from AM practitioners are inevitable…
unless you have a better idea.
If so, please let me know.
This study tested chondroitin sulfate 800 mg/day (CS) pharmaceutical-grade in the management of symptomatic knee osteoarthritis. It was designed as a prospective, randomised, 6-month, 3-arm, double-blind, double-dummy, placebo and celecoxib (200 mg/day)-controlled trial. The primary endpoints were changes in pain on a Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) and in the Lequesne Index (LI). Minimal-Clinically Important Improvement (MCII), Patient-Acceptable Symptoms State (PASS) were used as secondary endpoints.
A total of 604 patients, diagnosed according to American College of Rheumalogy (ACR) criteria, were recruited in five European countries and followed for 182 days. CS and celecoxib showed a greater significant reduction in pain and LI than placebo. In the intention-to-treat (ITT) population, pain reduction in VAS at day 182 in the CS group (−42.6 mm) and in celecoxib group (−39.5 mm) was significantly greater than the placebo group (−33.3 mm) (p=0.001 for CS and p=0.009 for celecoxib). No difference observed between CS and celecoxib. Similar trend for the LI, as reduction in this metric in the CS group (−4.7) and celecoxib group (−4.6) was significantly greater than the placebo group (−3.7) (p=0.023 for CS and p=0.015 for celecoxib). Again, no difference was observed between CS and celecoxib. Both secondary endpoints (MCII and PASS) at day 182 improved significantly in the CS and celecoxib groups. All treatments demonstrated excellent safety profiles.
The authors concluded that a 800 mg/day pharmaceutical-grade CS is superior to placebo and similar to celecoxib in reducing pain and improving function over 6 months in symptomatic knee osteoarthritis (OA) patients. This formulation of CS should be considered a first-line treatment in the medical management of knee OA.
In my view, this is a good study with clear and useful results: CS seems to be efficacious and safe. Another recent study confirmed the superiority of CS over celecoxib at reducing cartilage volume loss in knee OA patients.
The current Cochrane review does not yet account for the new data; it concluded cautiously positive: A review of randomized trials of mostly low quality reveals that chondroitin (alone or in combination with glucosamine) was better than placebo in improving pain in participants with osteoarthritis in short-term studies. The benefit was small to moderate with an 8 point greater improvement in pain (range 0 to 100) and a 2 point greater improvement in Lequesne’s index (range 0 to 24), both seeming clinically meaningful. These differences persisted in some sensitivity analyses and not others. Chondroitin had a lower risk of serious adverse events compared with control. More high-quality studies are needed to explore the role of chondroitin in the treatment of osteoarthritis. The combination of some efficacy and low risk associated with chondroitin may explain its popularity among patients as an over-the-counter supplement.
The call for more high quality trials was justified but has now been answered. In my view, CS can be considered an evidence-based option in the management of OA.
This double-blind RCT aimed to test the efficacy of self-administered acupressure for pain and physical function in adults with knee osteoarthritis (KOA).
150 patients with symptomatic KOA participated and were randomized to
- verum acupressure,
- sham acupressure,
- or usual care.
Verum and sham, but not usual care, participants were taught to self-apply acupressure once daily, five days/week for eight weeks. Assessments were collected at baseline, 4 and 8 weeks. The numeric rating scale (NRS) for pain was administered during weekly phone calls. Outcomes included the WOMAC pain subscale (primary), the NRS and physical function measures (secondary). Linear mixed regression was conducted to test between group differences in mean changes from baseline for the outcomes at eight weeks.
Compared with usual care, both verum and sham participants experienced significant improvements in WOMAC pain, NRS pain and WOMAC function at 8 weeks. There were no significant differences between verum and sham acupressure groups in any of the outcomes.
The authors concluded that self-administered acupressure is superior to usual care in pain and physical function improvement for older people with KOA. The reason for the benefits is unclear and placebo effects may have played a role.
Another very odd conclusion!
The authors’ stated aim was to TEST THE EFFICACY OF ACUPRESSURE. To achieve this aim, they rightly compared it to a placebo (sham) intervention. This comparison did not show any differences between the two. Ergo, the only correct conclusion is that acupressure is a placebo.
I know, the authors (sort of) try to say this in their conclusions: placebo effects may have played a role. But surely, this is more than a little confusing. Placebo effects were quite evidently the sole cause of the observed outcomes. Is it ethical to confuse the public in this way, I wonder.
The ACUPUNCTURE NOW FOUNDATION (ANF) has featured on this blog before. Today I want to re-introduce them because I just came across one of their articles which I found remarkable. In it, they define what many of us have often wondered about: the most important myth about acupuncture.
Is it acupuncture’s current popularity, its long history, its mode of action, its efficacy, its safety?
No, here is the answer directly from the ANF:
The most important myth that needs to be put to rest is the idea promoted by a small group of vocal critics that acupuncture is nothing more than a placebo. Many cite the fact that studies showing acupuncture to be highly effective were of low quality and that several higher quality studies show that, while acupuncture was clinically effective, it usually does not outperform “sham” acupuncture. But those studies are dominated by the first quality issue cited above; studies with higher methodological rigor where the “real” acupuncture was so poorly done as to not be a legitimate comparison. Yet despite the tendency toward poor quality acupuncture in studies with higher methodological standards, a benchmark study was done that showed “real” acupuncture clearly outperforming “sham” acupuncture in four different chronic pain conditions.3 When you add this study together with the fact veterinary acupuncture is used successfully in many different animals, the idea of acupuncture only being placebo must now be considered finally disproven. This is further supported by studies which show that the underlying physiological pathways activated by acupuncture sometimes overlap, but can be clearly differentiated from, those activated by placebo responses.
Yes, I was too.
The myth, according to the ANF, essentially is that sceptics do not understand the scientific evidence. And these blinkered sceptics even go as far as ignoring the findings from what the ANF consider to be a ‘benchmark study’! Ghosh, that’s nasty of them!!!
But, no – the benchmark study (actually, it was not a ‘study’ but a meta-analysis of studies) has been discussed fully on this blog (and in many other places too). Here is what I wrote in 2012 when it was first published:
An international team of acupuncture trialists published a meta-analysed of individual patient data to determine the analgesic effect of acupuncture compared to sham or non-acupuncture control for the following 4 chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, headache, and shoulder pain. Data from 29 RCTs, with an impressive total of 17 922 patients, were included.
The results of this new evaluation suggest that acupuncture is superior to both sham and no-acupuncture controls for each of these conditions. Patients receiving acupuncture had less pain, with scores that were 0.23 (95% CI, 0.13-0.33), 0.16 (95% CI, 0.07-0.25), and 0.15 (95% CI, 0.07-0.24) SDs lower than those of sham controls for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, and chronic headache, respectively; the effect sizes in comparison to no-acupuncture controls were 0.55 (95% CI, 0.51-0.58), 0.57 (95% CI, 0.50-0.64), and 0.42 (95% CI, 0.37-0.46) SDs.
Based on these findings, the authors reached the conclusion that “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture”.
… even the enthusiastic authors of this article admit that, when compared to sham, the effect size of real acupuncture is too small to be clinically relevant. Therefore one might argue that this meta-analysis confirms what critics have suggested all along: acupuncture is not a useful treatment for clinical routine.
Unsurprisingly, the authors of the meta-analysis do their very best to play down this aspect. They reason that, for clinical routine, the comparison between acupuncture and non-acupuncture controls is more relevant than the one between acupuncture and sham. But this comparison, of course, includes placebo- and other non-specific effects masquerading as effects of acupuncture – and with this little trick (which, by the way is very popular in alternative medicine), we can, of course, show that even sugar pills are effective.
I do not doubt that context effects are important in patient care; yet I do doubt that we need a placebo treatment for generating such benefit in our patients. If we administer treatments which are effective beyond placebo with kindness, time, compassion and empathy, our patients will benefit from both specific and non-specific effects. In other words, purely generating non-specific effects with acupuncture is far from optimal and certainly not in the interest of our patients. In my view, it cannot be regarded as not good medicine, and the authors’ conclusion referring to a “reasonable referral option” is more than a little surprising in my view.
Acupuncture-fans might argue that, at the very minimum, the new meta-analysis does demonstrate acupuncture to be statistically significantly better than a placebo. Yet I am not convinced that this notion holds water: the small residual effect-size in the comparison of acupuncture with sham might not be the result of a specific effect of acupuncture; it could be (and most likely is) due to residual bias in the analysed studies.
The meta-analysis is strongly driven by the large German trials which, for good reasons, were heavily and frequently criticised when first published. One of the most important potential drawbacks was that many participating patients were almost certainly de-blinded through the significant media coverage of the study while it was being conducted. Moreover, in none of these trials was the therapist blinded (the often-voiced notion that therapist-blinding is impossible is demonstrably false). Thus it is likely that patient-unblinding and the absence of therapist-blinding importantly influenced the clinical outcome of these trials thus generating false positive findings. As the German studies constitute by far the largest volume of patients in the meta-analysis, any of their flaws would strongly impact on the overall result of the meta-analysis.
So, has this new meta-analysis finally solved the decades-old question about the effectiveness of acupuncture? It might not have solved it, but we have certainly moved closer to a solution, particularly if we employ our faculties of critical thinking. In my view, this meta-analysis is the most compelling evidence yet to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain.
END OF QUOTE
The ANF-text then goes from bad to worse. First they cite the evidence from veterinary acupuncture as further proof of the efficacy of their therapy. Well, the only systematic review in this are is, I think, by my team; and it concluded that there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.
Lastly, the ANF mentions acupuncture’s mode of action which they seem to understand clearly and fully. Congratulations ANF! In this case, you are much better than the many experts in basic science or neurology who almost unanimously view these ‘explanations’ of how acupuncture might work as highly adventurous hypotheses or speculations.
So, what IS the most important myth about acupuncture? I am not sure and – unlike the ANF – I do not feel that I can speak for the rest of the world, but one of the biggest myths FOR ME is how acupuncture fans constantly manage to mislead the public.
In a recent PJ article, Michael Marshall from the ‘Good Thinking Society’ asked “WHY ON EARTH IS THE NHS SPENDING EVEN A SINGLE PENNY ON HOMEOPATHY?”. A jolly good question, given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, I thought – but one that must be uncomfortable to homeopaths. Sure enough, a proponent of homeopathy, Jeanette Lindsay from Glasgow, has objected to Marshall’s arguments in a short comment which is a fairly typical defence of homeopathy; I therefore take the liberty of reproducing it here (the 12 references in her text were added by me and refer to my footnotes below):
I wonder if people such as Michael Marshall (The Pharmaceutical Journal 2016;297:101), who would refuse  patients the option of NHS homeopathic treatment, have considered the plight of people failed by evidence-based medicine ?  Where are those with chronic, disabling conditions to turn when the medicines available on the NHS do not work, or worse, are positively harmful? 
Take the instance of a woman with multiple drug allergies who has no means of treating her severe inflammatory arthritis and no suitable analgesia.  It has been demonstrated that disease states with immune system involvement are particularly susceptible to the placebo effect but how does one induce this? Current thinking precludes treatment with placebo medicines but it so happens that homeopathic remedies would appear, from the results of clinical trials , to be a good substitute.  Used properly, there is a good chance that in this case homeopathic treatment may achieve a real therapeutic effect. 
Patients who cannot tolerate allopathic  treatment do not just go away because they cannot take the prescribed medicine.  They suffer and surely deserve a better range of options  than those provided by the current obsession with evidence-based medicine.  The availability of homeopathic treatment is important and should not be denied until better alternatives become commonplace.  Michael Marshall does not ‘refuse’ homeopathy on the NHS; that is not in his power. He merely questions whether NHS funds should not be spent on treatments that demonstrably do more good than harm.  I am sure he as carefully considered such patients.  Depending on the exact circumstances, such patients have many options: for instance, they could change their physician, have their diagnosis re-considered, or try a non-drug treatment.  An allergy to one drug is rarely (I would even say never) associated with allergies to all drugs for any given condition. Even if this were the case, there are several non-drug treatments for arthritis or other diseases.  I think this is fantasy; there is no good evidence from clinical trials to show that homeopathy is efficacious for either inflammatory or degenerative arthritis.  Is this an admission that homeopathic remedies are placebos?  I am not aware of sound evidence to support this statement.  ‘Allopathic’ is a derogatory term introduced by Hahnemann to defame conventional medicine.  I have never seen a patient who could not tolerate any prescription medicine. I suspect this is fantasy again.  Patients deserve the optimal therapy available for their conditions – that is a therapy that demonstrably generates more good than harm. Homeopathy is clearly not in this category.  An obsession? Yes, perhaps it is an obsession for some dedicated healthcare professionals to provide the best possible treatments for their patients. But the way it is put here, it sounds as though this was something despicable. I would argue that such an ‘obsession’ would be most commendable.  For practically all conditions, symptoms, illesses and diseases that afflict mankind, better alternatives than homeopathy have been available since about 150 years.
It seems to me that Jeanette Lindsay has been harshly disappointed by conventional medicine. Perhaps this is why, one day, she consulted a homeopath and received the empathy, understanding and compassion that she needed to get better. Many homeopaths excel at these qualities; and this is the main reason why their patients swear by them, even though their remedies are pure placebos.
My advice to such patients is: find a physician who has time, empathy and compassion. They do exist! Once you have found such a doctor, you can benefit from the compassion and empathy just as you may have benefitted from the homeopath’s compassion and empathy. But in addition to these benefits (and contrary to what you got from your homeopath), you will also be able to profit from the efficacy of the treatments prescribed.
To put it simply: homeopaths can help patients via non-specific therapeutic effects; responsible physicians can help patients via non-specific therapeutic effects plus the specific effects of the treatments they prescribe.
In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.
According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”
The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”
This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.
Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.
Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:
- the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
- the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
- the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
- the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
- not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
- the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
- there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.
My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.
Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.