There must be well over 10 000 clinical trials of acupuncture; Medline lists ~5 000, and many more are hidden in the non-Medline listed literature. That should be good news! Sadly, it isn’t.

It should mean that we now have a pretty good idea for what conditions acupuncture is effective and for which illnesses it does not work. But we don’t! Sceptics say it works for nothing, while acupuncturists claim it is a panacea. The main reason for this continued controversy is that the quality of the vast majority of these 10 000 studies is not just poor, it is lousy.

“Where is the evidence for this outraging statement???” – I hear the acupuncture-enthusiasts shout. Well, how about my own experience as editor-in-chief of FACT? No? Far too anecdotal?

How about looking at Cochrane reviews then; they are considered to be the most independent and reliable evidence in existence? There are many such reviews (most, if not all [co-]authored by acupuncturists) and they all agree that the scientific rigor of the primary studies is fairly awful. Here are the crucial bits of just the last three; feel free to look for more:

All of the studies had a high risk of bias

All included trials had a high risk of bias…

The studies were not judged to be free from bias…

Or how about providing an example? Good idea! Here is a new trial which could stand for numerous others:

This study was performed to compare the efficacy of acupuncture versus corticosteroid injection for the treatment of Quervain’s tendosynovitis (no, you do not need to look up what condition this is for understanding this post). Thirty patients were treated in two groups. The acupuncture group received 5 acupuncture sessions of 30 minutes duration. The injection group received one methylprednisolone acetate injection in the first dorsal compartment of the wrist. The degree of disability and pain was evaluated by using the Quick Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (Q-DASH) scale and the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) at baseline and at 2 weeks and 6 weeks after the start of treatment. The baseline means of the Q-DASH and the VAS scores were 62.8 and 6.9, respectively. At the last follow-up, the mean Q-DASH scores were 9.8 versus 6.2 in the acupuncture and injection groups, respectively, and the mean VAS scores were 2 versus 1.2. Thus there were short-term improvements of pain and function in both groups.

The authors drew the following conclusions: Although the success rate was somewhat higher with corticosteroid injection, acupuncture can be considered as an alternative option for treatment of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.

The flaws of this study are exemplary and numerous:

  • This should have been a study that compares two treatments – the technical term is ‘equivalence trial – and such studies need to be much larger to produce a meaningful result. Small sample sizes in equivalent trials will always make the two treatments look similarly effective, even if one is a pure placebo.
  • There is no gold standard treatment for this condition. This means that a comparative trial makes no sense at all. In such a situation, one ought to conduct a placebo-controlled trial.
  • There was no blinding of patients; therefore their expectation might have distorted the results.
  • The acupuncture group received more treatments than the injection group; therefore the additional attention might have distorted the findings.
  • Even if the results were entirely correct, one cannot conclude from them that acupuncture was effective; the notion that it was similarly ineffective as the injections is just as warranted.

These are just some of the most fatal flaws of this study. The sad thing is that similar criticisms can be made for most of the 10 000 trials of acupuncture. But the point here is not to nit-pick nor to quack-bust. My point is a different and more serious one: fatally flawed research is not just a ‘poor show’, it is unethical because it is a waste of scarce resources and, even more importantly, an abuse of patients for meaningless pseudo-science. All it does is it misleads the public into believing that acupuncture might be good for this or that condition and consequently make wrong therapeutic decisions.

In acupuncture (and indeed in most alternative medicine) research, the problem is so extremely wide-spread that it is high time to do something about it. Journal editors, peer-reviewers, ethics committees, universities, funding agencies and all others concerned with such research have to work together so that such flagrant abuse is stopped once and for all.

We all know, I think, that chronic low back pain (CLBP) is common and causes significant suffering in individuals as well as cost to society. Many treatments are on offer but, as we have seen repeatedly on this blog, not one is convincingly effective and some, like chiropractic, is associated with considerable risks.

Enthusiasts claim that hypnotherapy works well, but too little is known about the minimum dose needed to produce meaningful benefits, the roles of home practice and hypnotizability on outcome, or the maintenance of treatment benefits beyond 3 months. A new trial was aimed at addressing these issues.

One hundred veterans with CLBP participated in a randomized, four parallel group study. The groups were (1) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention without audio recordings for home practice; (2) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings; (3) a two-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings and brief weekly reminder telephone calls; and (4) an eight-session active (biofeedback) control intervention.

Participants in all four groups reported significant pre- to post-treatment improvements in pain intensity, pain interference and sleep quality. The three hypnotherapy groups combined reported significantly more pain intensity reduction than the control group. There was no significant difference among the three hypnotherapy groups. Over half of the participants who received hypnotherapy reported clinically meaningful (≥30%) reductions in pain intensity, and they maintained these benefits for at least 6 months after treatment. Neither hypnotizability nor amount of home practice was associated significantly with treatment outcome.

The authors conclude that two sessions of self-hypnosis training with audio recordings for home practice may be as effective as eight sessions of hypnosis treatment. If replicated in other patient samples, the findings have important implications for the application of hypnosis treatment for chronic pain management.

Even though this trial has several important limitations, I do agree with the authors: these results would be worth an independent replication – not least because self-hypnosis is cheap and does not carry great risks. What would be interesting, in my view, are studies that compare several alternative LBP therapies (e.g. chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, various form of exercise and hypnotherapy) in terms of cost, risks, long-term effectiveness and patients’ preference. I somehow feel that the results of such comparative trials might overturn the often issued recommendations for spinal manipulation, i.e. chiropractic or osteopathy.

What is the best treatment for the millions of people who suffer from chronic low back pain (CLBP)? If we are honest, no therapy has yet been proven to be overwhelmingly effective. Whenever something like that happens in medicine, we have a proliferation of interventions which all are promoted as effective but which, in fact, work just marginally. And sure enough, in the case of CLBP, we have a constantly growing list of treatments none of which is really convincing.

One of the latest additions to this list is PILATES.

Pilates? What is this ? One practitioner describes it as follows: In Pilates, we pay a lot of attention to how our body parts are lined up in relation to each other, which is our alignment. We usually think of our alignment as our posture, but good posture is a dynamic process, dependent on the body’s ability to align its parts to respond to varying demands effectively. When alignment is off, uneven stresses on the skeleton, especially the spine, are the result. Pilates exercises, done with attention to alignment, create uniform muscle use and development, allowing movement to flow through the body in a natural way.

For example, one of the most common postural imbalances that people have is the tendency to either tuck or tilt the pelvis. Both positions create weaknesses on one side of the body and overly tight areas on the other. They deny the spine the support of its natural curves and create a domino effect of aches and pains all the way up the spine and into the neck. Doing Pilates increases the awareness of the proper placement of the spine and pelvis, and creates the inner strength to support the natural curves of the spine. This is called having a neutral spine and it has been the key to better backs for many people.

Mumbo-jumbo? Perhaps; in any case, we need evidence! Is there any at all? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Recently, someone even published a proper systematic review.

This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of Pilates exercise in people with chronic low back pain (CLBP).

A search for RCTs was undertaken in 10 electronic. Two independent reviewers did the selection of evidence and evaluated the quality of the primary studies. To be included, relevant RCTs needed to be published in the English language. From 152 studies, 14 RCTs could be included.

The methodological quality of RCTs ranged from “poor” to “excellent”. A meta-analysis of RCTs was not undertaken due to the heterogeneity of RCTs. Pilates exercise provided statistically significant improvements in pain and functional ability compared to usual care and physical activity between 4 and 15 weeks, but not at 24 weeks. There were no consistent statistically significant differences in improvements in pain and functional ability with Pilates exercise, massage therapy, or other forms of exercise at any time period.

The authors drew the following conclusions: Pilates exercise offers greater improvements in pain and functional ability compared to usual care and physical activity in the short term. Pilates exercise offers equivalent improvements to massage therapy and other forms of exercise. Future research should explore optimal Pilates exercise designs, and whether some people with CLBP may benefit from Pilates exercise more than others.

So, Pilates can be added to the long list of treatments that work for CLBP, albeit not convincingly better than most other therapies on offer. Does that mean these options are all as good or as bad as the next? I don’t think so.

Let’s assume chiropractic/osteopathic manipulations, massage and various forms of exercise are all equally effective. How do we decide which is more commendable than the next? We clearly need to take other important factors into account:

  • cost
  • risks
  • acceptability for patients
  • availability

If we use these criteria, it becomes instantly clear that chiropractic and osteopathy are not favourites in this race for the most commendable CLBP-treatment. They are neither cheap nor free of risks. Massage is virtually risk-free but not cheap. This leaves us with various forms of exercise, including Pilates. But which exercise is better than the next? At present, we do not know, and therefore the last two factors are crucial: if people love doing Pilates and if they easily stick with it, then Pilates is fine.

I am sure chiropractors will (yet again) disagree with me but, to me, this logic could hardly be more straight forward.

There is some (albeit not compelling) evidence to suggest that chiropractic spinal manipulation might be effective for treating non-specific back pain. But what about specific back pain, such as the one caused by a herniated disc? Some experts believe that, in patients suffering from such a condition, manipulations are contra-indicated (because the latter can cause the former), while others think that manipulation might be an effective treatment option (although the evidence is far from compelling). Who is correct? The issue can only be resolved with data from well-designed clinical investigations. A new trial might therefore enlighten us.

The stated purposes of this study were:

  1. to evaluate patients with low-back pain (LBP) and leg pain due to magnetic resonance imaging-confirmed disc herniation treated with high-velocity, low-amplitude spinal manipulation in terms of their short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes of self-reported global impression of change and pain levels
  2. to determine if outcomes differ between acute and chronic patients using.

The researchers conducted a ‘prospective cohort outcomes study‘ with 148 patients with LBP, leg pain, and physical examination abnormalities with concordant lumbar disc herniations. Baseline numerical rating scale (NRS) data for LBP, leg pain, and the Oswestry questionnaire were obtained. The specific lumbar spinal manipulation was dependent upon whether the disc herniation was intraforaminal or paramedian as seen on the magnetic resonance images and was performed by a chiropractor. Outcomes included the patient’s global impression of change scale for overall improvement, the NRS for LBP, leg pain, and the Oswestry questionnaire at 2 weeks, 1, 3, and 6 months, and 1 year. The proportion of patients reporting “improvement” on the patient’s global impression of change scale was calculated for all patients and for acute vs chronic patients. Pre-treatment and post-treatment NRS scores were compared using the paired t test. Baseline and follow-up Oswestry scores were compared using the Wilcoxon test. Numerical rating scale and Oswestry scores for acute vs chronic patients were compared using the unpaired t test for NRS scores and the Mann-Whitney U test for Oswestry scores.

Significant improvements for all outcomes at all time points were reported. At 3 months, 91% of patients were “improved”, and 88% were “improved” after 1 year. Acute patients improved faster by 3 months than did chronic patients. 81.8% of chronic patients 89.2% felt “improved” at 1 year. No adverse events were reported.

The researchers concluded that a large percentage of acute and importantly chronic lumbar disc herniation patients treated with chiropractic spinal manipulation reported clinically relevant improvement.

Does this new study meaningfully contribute to our knowledge about the effectiveness of chiropractic manipulation for back pain caused by herniated discs? The short answer to this question is NO.

A longer answer might be that the report does tell us something relevant about the quality of this research project. We know from countless studies that ~50% of patients experience adverse effects after spinal manipulations by a chiropractor. This means that any report claiming that NO ADVERSE EFFECTS WERE REPORTED is puzzling to a degree that we have to seriously question its quality or even honesty. In this context, it is relevant to mention that a recent review of the evidence concluded that a cause-effect relationship exists between the manipulative treatment and the development of disc herniation.

The positive outcomes reported in this new study could, of course, be due to a range of factors which are unrelated to the manipulations administered by the chiropractors:

  1. placebo-effects
  2. natural history of disc herniation
  3. regression towards the mean
  4. other treatments employed by the patients
  5. social desirability

To be able to say with any degree of certainty that the manipulations had anything to do with the observed positive outcomes would require an entirely different study-design. Should we assume that this is not known in the world of chiropractic? Or should we consider that chiropractors shy away from rigorous research because they fear its results?

The term prospective cohort outcomes study, seems to be a chiropractic invention (cohort studies are by definition prospective, and observational studies are usually prospective). It seems that, behind this long and impressive word, one can easily hide the fact that this study design fails to make the slightest attempt of controlling for non-specific effects; the term sounds scientific – but when we analyse what it means, we discover that this methodology is little more than a self-serving consumer survey. Most scientists would call such an investigation quite simply an OBSERVATIONAL STUDY.

I think it is time that chiropractors start doing proper research which actually does answer some of the many open questions regarding spinal manipulation.

I find it always nice to see that people appreciate my work. Yet sometimes I am a little surprised to realise what some commercially interested firms make of it. Recently I came across a website that proudly used my research for advertising the use of magnetic bracelets against pain. Here is the text in question:

The extra strong magnets make this magnetic bracelet the fastest acting pain reliever. While wearing this magnetic bracelet customers with wrist and hand pain report significant pain relief….

What is a magnetic bracelet and what are the benefits? Magnetic bracelets are a piece of jewelry, worn for the therapeutic benefits of the magnetic field. Magnetic bracelets has been used successfully by many people for pain relief of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, tendinitis and bursitis.

A randomized, placebo controlled trial with three parallel groups, came to the conclusion : Pain from osteoarthritis of the hip and knee decreases when wearing magnetic bracelets. It is uncertain whether this response is due to specific or non-specific (placebo) effects. Tim Harlow, general practitioner, Colin Greaves, research fellow, Adrian White, senior research fellow, Liz Brown, research assistant, Anna Hart, statistician, Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine.

The entrepreneurs seem to have forgotten a few things which we tried to make clear in our paper:

  • this article was published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ which specialises in publishing unusual and odd findings with a high entertainment value,
  • in our paper, we point out that “the contamination of group B with stronger magnets prevented a more objective estimation of any-placebo effect”,
  • and stressed that “there were problems with the weak magnets”,
  • and that “a per-specification analysis suggested (but could not confirm) a specific effect of magnetic bracelets over and above placebo”.

Most importantly, this was just one trial, and surely one swallow does not make a summer! We should always consider the totality of the reliable evidence. Being conscientious researchers, at the time, we did exactly that and conducted a systematic review. Here is the abstract in its full beauty:


Static magnets are marketed with claims of effectiveness for reducing pain, although evidence of scientific principles or biological mechanisms to support such claims is limited. We performed a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the clinical evidence from randomized trials of static magnets for treating pain.


Systematic literature searches were conducted from inception to March 2007 for the following data sources: MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine Database), CINAHL, Scopus, the Cochrane Library and the UK National Research Register. All randomized clinical trials of static magnets for treating pain from any cause were considered. Trials were included only if they involved a placebo control or a weak magnet as the control, with pain as an outcome measure. The mean change in pain, as measured on a 100-mm visual analogue scale, was defined as the primary outcome and was used to assess the difference between static magnets and placebo.


Twenty-nine potentially relevant trials were identified. Nine randomized placebo-controlled trials assessing pain with a visual analogue scale were included in the main meta-analysis; analysis of these trials suggested no significant difference in pain reduction (weighted mean difference [on a 100-mm visual analogue scale] 2.1 mm, 95% confidence interval -1.8 to 5.9 mm, p = 0.29). This result was corroborated by sensitivity analyses excluding trials of acute effects and conditions other than musculoskeletal conditions. Analysis of trials that assessed pain with different scales suggested significant heterogeneity among the trials, which means that pooling these data is unreliable.


The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment. For osteoarthritis, the evidence is insufficient to exclude a clinically important benefit, which creates an opportunity for further investigation.

So, would I, on the basis of the current best evidence, recommend magnetic bracelets to people who suffer from pain? No! In my view, only charlatans would do such a thing.

One alternative therapy that I have so far neglected on this blog is the Alexander Technique (AT). Actually, it was not really meant to become an alternative therapy when it was first discovered.

F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor, often experienced chronic laryngitis while performing. As his doctors could not help him, he developed a solution on his own. He found that excess muscular tension in his neck and body were causing his problems, and began to experiment on new ways to speak and move with greater ease. His health improved to such an extent that he decided to teach others what he had learned. Over a career span of more than fifty years, he refined his methods. After teaching for over 35 years, he began to train teachers of the ‘Alexander Technique’.

As used in alternative medicine, AT is an educational method aimed at increased sensory awareness and kinesthetic control to modify postural and movement patterns which might be associated with musculoskeletal problems. Proponents claim AT works for a range of conditions, including:

It has been suggested that AT is effective for chronic low back pain; however, so far only one recent study has determined its effects on chronic non-specific neck pain.

In this randomized controlled trial, patients were randomly allocated to either 5 weekly sessions of AT, heat pack application (HEAT) or guided imagery (GI). The primary outcome measure  was the neck pain intensity on a 100-mm visual analogue scale at week 5. Secondary outcomes included neck disability, quality of life, satisfaction and adverse effects. Analyses of covariance were applied on an intention-to-treat population testing ordered hypotheses AT vs. HEAT and AT vs. GI.

A total of 72 patients were included, and 52 of them received all 5 interventions. No significant group difference was found for neck pain intensity when AT was compared to HEAT. However, an exploratory analysis revealed superiority of AT over GI. Significant group differences were also found for physical quality of life in favor of AT vs. HEAT or GI. Adverse events mainly related to slightly increased pain and muscle soreness. AT patients reported increased body awareness and control over the body, relaxing or stimulating effects and mood changes after the sessions.

The authors conclude that 5 sessions of AT were no better than a heat pack application for relieving chronic non-specific neck pain. Therefore it cannot be recommended as routine intervention at this time. Since exploratory analysis revealed some improvements of AT further trials are warranted for conclusive judgment.

One of the most irritating things with alternative medicine research, in my view, is the phenomenon that researchers tend to be quasi-religious advocates of the treatment they investigate. This seems to compel them all too often to extrapolate beyond reason and to drawing conclusions which are way too optimistic, frequently to an extend that borders on scientific misconduct. It is therefore a real pleasure to find an article that does not fall into this trap. I commend the authors for reporting this RCT and for their wisdom of being adequately cautious when formulating their conclusions.

I only wished it would happen more often!

It is almost 10 years ago that Prof Kathy Sykes’ BBC series entitled ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE was aired. I had been hired by the BBC as their advisor for the programme and had tried my best to iron out the many mistakes that were about to be broadcast. But the scope for corrections turned out to be narrow and, at one stage, the errors seemed too serious and too far beyond repair to continue with my task. I had thus offered my resignation from this post. Fortunately this move led to some of my concerns being addressed after all, and they convinced me to remain in post.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Kathy presented the opening scene of a young women undergoing open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. All the BBC had ever shown me and asked me to advise on was the text – I had never seen the images. Kathy’s text included the statement that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  I had not objected to this statement in the firm belief that the images of the film would back up this extraordinary claim. As it turned out, it did not; the patient clearly had all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines and, in the film, these were openly in the view of Kathy Sykes.

This overt contradiction annoyed not just me but several other people as well. One of them was Simon Singh who filed an official complaint against the BBC for misleading the public, and eventually won his case.

The notion that acupuncture can serve as an alternative to anaesthesia or other surgical conditions crops up with amazing regularity. It is important not least because is often used as a promotional tool with the implication that, IF ACUPUNCTURE CAN ACHIVE SUCH DRAMATIC EFFECTS, IT MUST BE AN INCREDIBLY USEFUL TREATMENT! It is therefore relevant to ask what the scientific evidence tells us about this issue.

This was the question we wanted to address in a recent publication. Specifically, our aim was to summarise recent systematic reviews of acupuncture for surgical conditions.

Thirteen electronic databases were searched for relevant reviews published since 2000. Data were extracted by two independent reviewers according to predefined criteria. Twelve systematic reviews met our inclusion criteria. They related to the prevention or treatment of post-operative nausea and vomiting as well as to surgical or post-operative pain. The reviews drew conclusions which were far from uniform; specifically for surgical pain the evidence was not convincing. We concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention in surgical settings.”

So, Kathy Sykes’ comment was misguided in more than just one way: firstly, the scene she described in the film did not support what she was saying; secondly, the scientific evidence fails to support the notion that acupuncture can be used as an alternative to analgesia during surgery.

This story has several positive outcomes all the same. After seeing the BBC programme, Simon Singh contacted me to learn my views on the matter. This prompted me to support his complaint against the BBC and helped him to win this case. Furthermore, it led to a co-operation and friendship which produced our book TRICK OR TREATMENT.

Chronic neck pain is common and makes the life of many sufferers a misery. Pain-killers are helpful, of course, but who wants to take such medications on the long-term? Is there anything else these patients can do?

Massage therapy has been shown to work but how often for how long? This trial was designed to evaluate the optimal dose of massage for individuals with chronic neck pain. 228 individuals with chronic non-specific neck pain were recruited and randomized them to 5 groups receiving various doses of massage:

  1. 30-minute treatments 2 or 3 times weekly
  2. 60-minute treatments once weekly
  3. 60-minutte treatments twice weekly
  4. 60-minute treatments thrice weekly
  5. a 4-week period on a wait list

Neck-related dysfunction was assessed with the Neck Disability Index (range, 0-50 points) and pain intensity with a numerical rating scale (range, 0-10 points) at baseline and at 5 weeks.

The results suggested that 30-minute treatments were not significantly better than the waiting list control condition in terms of achieving a clinically meaningful improvement in neck dysfunction or pain, regardless of the frequency of treatments. In contrast, 60-minute treatments 2 and 3 times weekly significantly increased the likelihood of such improvement compared with the control condition in terms of both neck dysfunction and pain intensity.

The authors conclude that after 4 weeks of treatment, we found multiple 60-minute massages per week more effective than fewer or shorter sessions for individuals with chronic neck pain. Clinicians recommending massage and researchers studying this therapy should ensure that patients receive a likely effective dose of treatment.

So two or three hours of massage therapy seems to be optimal as a treatment for chronic neck pain. This would cost ~£ 200-300 per week! Who can or wants to afford this? And are there other options that might be less expensive and equally or more effective? For instance, is physiotherapeutic exercise an option?

I am not sure I know the answers to these questions but, before we recommend massage therapy to the many who chronically suffer from neck pain, we should find out.

A meta-analysis compared the effectiveness of spinal manipulation therapies (SMT), medical management, physical therapies, and exercise for acute and chronic low back pain. Studies were chosen based on inclusion in prior evidence syntheses. Effect sizes were converted to standardized mean effect sizes and probabilities of recovery. Nested model comparisons isolated non-specific from treatment effects. Aggregate data were tested for evidential support as compared to shams.

The results suggest that, of 84% acute pain variance, 81% was from non-specific factors and 3% from treatment. No treatment was better than sham. Most acute results were within 95% confidence bands of that predicted by natural history alone. For chronic pain, 66% out of 98% was non-specific, but treatments influenced 32% of outcomes. Chronic pain treatments also fitted within 95% confidence bands as predicted by natural history. The evidential support for treating chronic back pain as compared to sham groups was weak, but chronic pain appeared to respond to SMT, while whole systems of chiropractic management did not.

The authors of this intriguing paper conclude: Meta-analyses can extract comparative effectiveness information from existing literature. The relatively small portion of outcomes attributable to treatment explains why past research results fail to converge on stable estimates. The probability of treatment superiority between treatment arms was equivalent to that expected by random selection. Treatments serve to motivate, reassure, and calibrate patient expectations – features that might reduce medicalization and augment self-care. Exercise with authoritative support is an effective strategy for acute and chronic low back pain.

This essentially indicates that none of these treatments for low back pain are convincingly effective. In turn this means we might as well stop using them. Alternatively, we could opt for the therapy that carries the least risks and cost. As the authors point out, this treatment is exercise.

There are numerous types and styles of acupuncture, and the discussion whether one is better than the other has been long, tedious and frustrating. Traditional acupuncturists, for instance, individualise their approach according to their findings of pulse and tongue diagnoses as well as other non-validated diagnostic criteria. Western acupuncturists, by contrast, tend to use formula or standardised treatments according to conventional diagnoses.

This study aimed to compare the effectiveness of standardized and individualized acupuncture treatment in patients with chronic low back pain. A single-center randomized controlled single-blind trial was performed in a general medical practice of a Chinese-born medical doctor trained in both western and Chinese medicine. One hundred and fifty outpatients with chronic low back pain were randomly allocated to two groups who received either standardized acupuncture or individualized acupuncture. 10 to 15 treatments based on individual symptoms were given with two treatments per week.

The main outcome measure was the area under the curve (AUC) summarizing eight weeks of daily rated pain severity measured with a visual analogue scale. No significant differences between groups were observed for the AUC (individualized acupuncture mean: 1768.7; standardized acupuncture 1482.9; group difference, 285.8).

The authors concluded that individualized acupuncture was not superior to standardized acupuncture for patients suffering from chronic pain.

But perhaps it matters whether the acupuncturist is thoroughly trained or has just picked up his/her skills during a weekend course? I am afraid not: this analysis of a total of 4,084 patients with chronic headache, lower back pain or arthritic pain treated by 1,838 acupuncturists suggested otherwise. There were no differences in success for patients treated by physicians passing through shorter (A diploma) or longer (B diploma) training courses in acupuncture.

But these are just one single trial and one post-hoc analysis of another study which, by definition, cannot be fully definitive. Fortunately, we have more evidence based on much larger numbers. This brand-new meta-analysis aimed to evaluate whether there are characteristics of acupuncture or acupuncturists that are associated with better or worse outcomes.

An existing dataset, developed by the Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration, included 29 trials of acupuncture for chronic pain with individual data involving 17,922 patients. The available data on characteristics of acupuncture included style of acupuncture, point prescription, location of needles, use of electrical stimulation and moxibustion, number, frequency and duration of sessions, number of needles used and acupuncturist experience. Random-effects meta-regression was used to test the effect of each characteristic on the main effect estimate of pain. Where sufficient patient-level data were available, patient-level analyses were conducted.

When comparing acupuncture to sham controls, there was little evidence that the effects of acupuncture on pain were modified by any of the acupuncture characteristics evaluated, including style of acupuncture, the number or placement of needles, the number, frequency or duration of sessions, patient-practitioner interactions and the experience of the acupuncturist. When comparing acupuncture to non-acupuncture controls, there was little evidence that these characteristics modified the effect of acupuncture, except better pain outcomes were observed when more needles were used and, from patient level analysis involving a sub-set of 5 trials, when a higher number of acupuncture treatment sessions were provided.

The authors of this meta-analysis concluded that there was little evidence that different characteristics of acupuncture or acupuncturists modified the effect of treatment on pain outcomes. Increased number of needles and more sessions appear to be associated with better outcomes when comparing acupuncture to non-acupuncture controls, suggesting that dose is important. Potential confounders include differences in control group and sample size between trials. Trials to evaluate potentially small differences in outcome associated with different acupuncture characteristics are likely to require large sample sizes.

My reading of these collective findings is that it does not matter which type of acupuncture you use nor who uses it; the clinical effects are similar regardless of the most obvious potential determinants. Hardly surprising! In fact, one would expect such results, if one considered that acupuncture is a placebo-treatment.

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