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

progress

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The concept of ultra-processed food (UPF) was initially developed and the term coined by the Brazilian nutrition researcher Carlos Monteiro, with his team at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (NUPENS) at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. They argue that “the issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing,” and “from the point of view of human health, at present, the most salient division of food and drinks is in terms of their type, degree, and purpose of processing.”

Examples of UPF include:

Ultra-processed food is bad for our health! This message is clear and has been voiced so many times – not least by proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – that most people should now understand it.

But how bad?

And what diseases does UPF promote?

How strong is the evidence?

I did a quick Medline search and was overwhelmed by the amount of research on this subject. In 2022 alone, there were more than 2000 publications! Here are the conclusions from just a few recent studies on the subject:

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a systematic review of the subject. I am merely trying to give a rough impression of the research that is emerging. A few thoughts seem nonetheless appropriate.

  1. The research on this subject is intense.
  2. Even though most studies disclose associations and not causal links, there is in my view no question that UPF aggravates many diseases.
  3. The findings of the current research are highly consistent and point to harm done to most organs.
  4. Even though this is a subject on which advocates of SCAM are exceedingly keen, none of the research I saw was conducted by SCAM researchers.
  5. The view of many SCAM proponents that conventional medicine does not care about nutrition is clearly not correct.
  6. Considering how unhealthy UPF is, there seems to be a lack of effective education and action aimed at preventing the harm UPF does to us.

I remember being a student in Munich – that was about half a century ago! – protesting against some new regulations that my University (LMU) was trying to implement. We were in the street and some placards read: “TRAUE NIEMAND UEBER 30!” (DON’T TRUST ANYONE BEYOND THE AGE OF 30!).

And now I am 75!

Do I still trust myself?

Not with everything, of course.

For instance, I would not trust myself to ski down neck-breaking slopes; nor would I trust myself to pass the medical exams again; nor to drum 3 times per week in jazz clubs.

But, generally speaking, I do manage not that badly. In particular, I think I am capable of providing (hopefully constructive) criticism and reliable information on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), the subject that became my hobby horse in the late 1970s and subsequently my job in the early 1990s.

At my age, people often ask me about regrets.

Do I have regrets?

I used to answer this question with a straight NO.

Lately, I am realizing that this is not entirely true.

I have quite a few regrets – mostly, they are relatively trivial. But some go deeper.

Those who know my CV well often wonder “Do you not regret having left your position in Vienna?” It’s a legitimate question: in Vienna, I had a position for life, a large and well-funded department of high reputation. In Exeter, I initially had as good as nothing followed by 20 years of fighting for ever more scarce funding.

Despite all this, the positives of the last 30 years more than outweighed the negatives, in my view: I was soon able to build up a productive team of researchers; together we managed to publish some exciting and important research; and eventually, we even managed to get a reputation – depending on who you ask, a good or a bad one.

But more important for me was just being in England. I loved it! No, not the food, not the weather, but the British openness, tolerance, understatement, politeness, integrity, gentleness, and decency. Sadly, since the Brexit vote, much of this has started to slowly disappear.

So, regrets?

Yes, several!

Would I do it all again?

Yes!

I am an incorrigible optimist convinced that the UK is presently going through a bit of a rough patch that soon will end. It’s just that, at the age of 75, I feel they better hurry up.

PS

The birthday cake just came from Natalie Grams – thanks Natalie

On 20/1/2023, I conducted multiple Medline searches aimed at generating a rough idea about which areas of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are currently more research active than others. I searched for:

  1. the topic in question
  2. clinical trial
  3. publication in 2023

Here are my findings (subject area and the number of hits):

  • TCM 56
  • dietary supplements 47
  • acupuncture 34
  • integrative medicine 27
  • mindfulness 26
  • herbal medicine 23
  • massage 10
  • aromatherapy 2
  • hypnotherapy 2
  • osteopathy 2
  • tai chi 2
  • chiropractic 1
  • homeopathy 0
  • iridology 0
  • naturopathy 0
  • Reiki 0

Several caveats must be considered, of course: The searches do not include all SCAMs. The results are not precise and most of the retrieved articles are not really clinical trials (in fact, only a minority are). The numbers are low because I deliberately did this exercise early in the year.

Yet, the findings do, I think, give an indication as to the current state of SCAM research and indicate which areas are more research active than others. To put the numbers in perspective, here are a few conventional therapies for which I searched on the same day and in the same manner:

  • pharmacology 539
  • physiotherapy 162
  • psychiatry 239
  • surgery 879

I think this makes one point fairly clear: SCAM is not an impressively research-active area. Another point stems from looking at the individual articles. TCM and acupuncture articles are almost exclusively authored by Chinese researchers. While this might not be surprising, the fact that herbal medicine is similar did amaze me; about half of the papers in this category are by Chinese authors. Essentially, this suggests that more than half of the SCAM articles currently originate from China. Considering the concerns one must have about Chinese SCAM research (see for instance here and here), do you think this finding might be worrying?

The far greater worry, I feel, is the attitude of the SCAM researchers publishing their work. Glancing at these papers I did not get the impression that many approached their subject critically, In fact, most of the papers looked to me overtly promotional and of poor quality. For instance, I did not see a single paper assessing the risks of SCAM which arguably is the most important issue in SCAM research. I admit that these concerns cannot be addressed by the above simple head count; they are best dealt with by critically analyzing individual studies – a task I regularly try to tackle on this blog

 

It has been reported that a German consumer association, the ‘Verbraucherzentrale NRW’, has first cautioned the manufacturer MEDICE Arzneimittel Pütter GmbH & Co. and then sued them for misleading advertising statements. The advertisement in question gave the wrong impression that their homeopathic remedy MEDITONSIN would:

  1. for certain generate a health improvement,
  2. have no side effects,
  3. be superior to “chemical-synthetic drugs”.

The study used by the manufacturer in support of such claims was not convincing according to the Regional Court of Dortmund. The results of a “large-scale study with more than 1,000 patients” presented a pie chart indicating that 90% of the patients were satisfied or very satisfied with the effect of Meditonsin. However, this was only based on a “pharmacy-based observational study” with little scientific validity, as pointed out by the consumer association. Despite the lack of evidence, the manufacturer claimed that their study “once again impressively confirms the good efficacy and tolerability of Meditonsin® Drops”. The Regional Court of Dortmund disagreed with the manufacturer and agreed with the reasoning of the consumer association.

“It is not permitted to advertise with statements that give the false impression that a successful treatment can be expected with certainty, as suggested by the advertising for Meditonsin Drops,” emphasizes Gesa Schölgens, head of “Faktencheck Gesundheitswerbung,” a joint project of the consumer centers of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. According to German law, this is prohibited. In addition, the Regional Court of Dortmund considered consumers to be misled by the advertising because the false impression was created that no harmful side effects are to be expected when Meditonsin Drops are taken. The package insert of the drug lists several side effects, according to which there could even be an initial worsening of symptoms after taking the drug.

The claim of advantages of the “natural remedy” represented by the manufacturer in comparison with “chemical-synthetic medicaments, which merely suppress the symptoms”, was also deemed to be inadmissible. Such comparative advertising is inadmissible.

__________________________________

This ruling is, I think, interesting in several ways. The marketing claims of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) products seem all too often not within the limits of the laws. One can therefore hope that this case might inspire many more legal cases against the inadmissible advertising of SCAMs.

 

On Sunday, December 18, 2022, the General Assembly of the European Humanist Federation (EHF)met for the very last time. It was decided that, from 2023, there will be only one international humanist organization and resources will be concentrated there, namely with the Humanists International. It was felt that this is the best way to strengthen the humanist network in Europe as well as in the world. The EHF has thus stopped its own activities and the liquidation surplus will go to Humanists International.

____________________

Humanists International (HI) is the global representative body of the humanist movement, uniting a diverse community of non-religious organizations and individuals. On their website, the organization states the following:

Inspired by humanist values, we are optimistic for a world where everyone can have a dignified and fulfilling life. We build, support and represent the global humanist movement and work to champion human rights and secularism.

What we do

We campaign on humanist issues. We defend humanists at risk of persecution and violence. We lobby for humanist values at international institutions, including the United Nations. And we work to build the humanist movement around the world. Find out more about the work we do on behalf of the global humanist community.

Our members and supporters

Our Members and Associates include humanist, rationalist, secular, ethical culture, atheist and freethought organisations from all over the world. Our community also includes many individual supporters who share our vision and values.

Find out more about our member organizations around the world. If you represent a humanist or secular organization you can find out more and apply for membership here. If you are interested in supporting us as an individual, you can sign up here.

Below, you can read more about our history, our strategy and how our organization is managed and governed.


Our history

Humanists International was founded in Amsterdam in 1952. Originally five Humanist organizations — the American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, British Ethical Union (later the British Humanist Association and now Humanists UK), Vienna Ethical Society and the Dutch Humanist league — hosted our inaugural congress in Amsterdam, 22–27 August 1952, founding the organization that was then called the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). On the last day of the congress five resolutions were passed, which included a statement of the fundamentals of “modern, ethical Humanism”, a resolution which would come to be known as the Amsterdam Declaration.

Now registered in New York, USA, the main administrative headquarters are in London, United Kingdom, Humanists International is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) with representation on various United Nations committees and other international bodies. We seek to influence international policy through representation and information, to build the humanist network, and let the world know about the worldview of Humanism.

___________________________

Humanism focuses on living ethically and thinking rationally while refusing to rely on supernatural sources. The humanist movement aims at making the world a better place. I consider myself a humanist (without being a member of an organization) and believe the world could do with more of us.

The INDY and many other news outlets reported that the British Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen, has called on prime minister Rishi Sunak to suspend mRNA covid vaccines after alleging they are “not safe, not effective and not necessary”.

During Wednesday’s PMQs (13 December), Bridgen stated that “since the rollout in the UK of the BioNTech-Pfizer mRNA vaccine, we have had almost half a million reports of adverse effects from the public”, a message he later reiterated on Twitter.

Posting a snippet from his debate, Bridgen tweeted: “Almost half a million yellow card reports of adverse effects following administration of the Biotech Pfizer mRNA vaccine in the UK alone! Answers are desperately needed. #completelyunprecedented”.

Bridgen also claimed that a leading figure in the British Heart Foundation is suppressing evidence that the Covid vaccines cause heart damage, even sending non-disclosure agreements to his research team.

Facebook flagged his post with a notice urging users to ensure that they share “reliable information.” It included two links to “continue sharing” or “get vaccine info.”

The scandals Bridgen has been involved in seem too numerous to mention (e.g. violation of parliamentary standards, homophobic remarks, antisemitic statements). Here is just one of the most recent:

Leicestershire MP has been ordered to pay £800,000 and been evicted from his five bedroom home by a judge following a legal dispute involving the family vegetable business. It is currently unknown where Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, lives after being given final deadline of August 24 to vacate the premises in Coleorton, near Coalville.

The 57-year-old was branded “dishonest” by a High Court judge in March – who ruled that Bridgen “lied” under oath. Judge Brian Rawlings said he was so dishonest that nothing he said about the dispute with AB Produce, a vegetable and potato supplier based in Measham, could be taken at face value.

Bridgen was also said to have behaved in an “abusive”, “arrogant” and “aggressive” way during the dispute, in which he has spent years suing the firm. A later judgment in June, reported by the Times on Sunday, forced the MP to vacate the £1.5 million-valued property owned by AB Produce that he has lived in since 2015…

For a fact check on Bridgeon’s vaccine claims, see here. And below are a few reactions from Twitter users to Bridgen’s Covid proctophsia:

First a High Court judge says Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen, lied under oath, then he evicts him from his home and orders him to pay £800,000 now Facebook flags his posts as Covid misinformation. How’s your week going?

Andrew Bridgen MP now promoting Dr David Cartland, a man who aligns himself with claims that Freemasons rule the world; that Covid doesn’t exist; and that medical doctors who don’t share his views should be executed (screenshots H/T

Andrew Bridgen MP now promoting Dr David Cartland, a man who aligns himself with claims that Freemasons rule the world; that Covid doesn’t exist; and that medical doctors who don’t share his views should be executed.

This Andrew Bridgen? ‘A Conservative MP lied under oath, behaved in an abusive, arrogant and aggressive way, and was so dishonest that his claims about a multimillion-pound family dispute could not be taken at face value, a high court judge has ruled.’

Proper tinfoil-hat stuff from Andrew Bridgen, suggesting Covid vaccines are unsafe, misrepresenting data, and implying some sort of conspiracy between ‘Big Pharma’ and MHRA.

Didier Raoult, the French scientist who became well-known for his controversial stance on hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19, has featured on this blog before (see here, here, and here). Less well-known is the fact that he has attracted controversy before. In 2006, Raoult and 4 co-authors were banned for one year from publishing in the journals of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), after a reviewer for Infection and Immunity discovered that four figures from the revised manuscript of a paper about a mouse model for typhus were identical to figures from the originally submitted manuscript, even though they were supposed to represent a different experiment. In response, Raoult “resigned from the editorial board of two other ASM journals, canceled his membership in the American Academy of Microbiology, ASM’s honorific leadership group, and banned his lab from submitting to ASM journals”. In response to Science covering the story in 2012, he stated that, “I did not manage the paper and did not even check the last version”. The paper was subsequently published in a different journal.

Now, the publisher PLOS is marking nearly 50 articles by Didier Raoult, with expressions of concern while it investigates potential research ethics violations in the work. PLOS has been looking into more than 100 articles by Raoult and determined that the issues in 49 of the papers, including reuse of ethics approval reference numbers, warrant expressions of concern while the publisher continues its inquiry.

In August of 2021, Elisabeth Bik wrote on her blog about a series of 17 articles from IHU-Méditerranée Infection that described different studies involving homeless people in Marseille over a decade, but all listed the same institutional ethics approval number. Bik and other commenters on PubPeer have identified ethical concerns in many other papers, including others in large groups of papers with the same ethical approval numbers. Subsequently, Bik has received harassment and legal threats from Raoult.

David Knutson, senior manager of communications for PLOS, sent ‘Retraction Watch’ this statement:

PLOS is issuing interim Expressions of Concerns for 49 articles that are linked to researchers affiliated with IHU-Méditerranée Infection (Marseille, France) and/or the Aix-Marseille University, as part of an ongoing case that involves more than 100 articles in total. Many of the papers in this case include controversial scientist Didier Raoult as a co-author.

Several whistleblowers raised concerns about articles from this institute, including that several ethics approval reference numbers have been reused in many articles. Our investigation, which has been ongoing for more than a year, confirmed ethics approval reuse and also uncovered other issues including:

  • highly prolific authorship (a rate that would equate to nearly 1 article every 3 days for one or more individuals), which calls into question whether PLOS’ authorship criteria have been met
  • undeclared COIs with pharmaceutical companies

To date, PLOS has completed a detailed initial assessment of 108 articles in total and concluded that 49 warrant an interim Expression of Concern due to the nature of the concerns identified. We’ll be following up with the authors of all articles of concern in accordance with COPE guidance and PLOS policies, but we anticipate it will require at least another year to complete this work.

Raoult is a coauthor on 48 of the 49 papers in question. This summer, Raoult retired as director of IHU-Méditerranée Infection, the hospital and research institution in Marseille that he had overseen since 2011, following an inspection by the French National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) that found “serious shortcomings and non-compliances with the regulations for research involving the human person” at IHU-Méditerranée Infection and another Marseille hospital. ANSM imposed sanctions on IHU-Méditerranée Infection, including suspending a research study and placing any new research involving people under supervision, and called for a criminal investigation. Other regulators have also urged Marseille’s prosecutor to investigate “serious malfunctions” at the research institution.

Pierre-Edouard Fournier, the new director of IHU-Méditerranée Infection, issued a statement on September 7th that said he had “ensured that all clinical trials in progress relating to research involving the human person (RIPH) were suspended pending the regularization of the situation.” Also in September, the American Society for Microbiology placed expressions of concern on 6 of Raoult’s papers in two of its journals, citing “a ‘scientific misconduct investigation’ by the University of Aix Marseille,” where the researcher also has an affiliation.

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Christian Lehman predicted on my blog that ” If Covid19 settles in the long-term, he [Raoult] will not be able to escape a minutely detailed autopsy of his statements and his actions. And the result will be devastating.” It seems he was correct.

 

The American Heart Association has issued a statement outlining research on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for heart failure. They found some SCAMs that work, some that don’t work, and some that are harmful.

Alternative therapies that may benefit people with heart failure include:

  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA, fish oil) have the strongest evidence among complementary and alternative agents for clinical benefit in people with heart failure and may be used safely, in moderation, in consultation with their health care team. Omega-3 PUFA is associated with a lower risk of developing heart failure and, for those who already have heart failure, improvements in the heart’s pumping ability. There appears to be a dose-related increase in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rhythm), so doses of 4 grams or more should be avoided.
  • Yoga and Tai Chi, in addition to standard treatment, may help improve exercise tolerance and quality of life and decrease blood pressure.

Meanwhile, some therapies were found to have harmful effects, such as interactions with common heart failure medications and changes in heart contraction, blood pressure, electrolytes and fluid levels:

  • While low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with worse heart failure outcomes, supplementation hasn’t shown benefit and may be harmful when taken with heart failure medications such as digoxin, calcium channel blockers and diuretics.
  • The herbal supplement blue cohosh, from the root of a flowering plant found in hardwood forests, might cause a fast heart rate called tachycardia, high blood pressure, chest pain and may increase blood glucose. It may also decrease the effect of medications taken to treat high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Lily of the valley, the root, stems and flower of which are used in supplements, has long been used in mild heart failure because it contains active chemicals similar to, but less potent than, the heart failure medicine digoxin. It may be harmful when taken with digoxin by causing very low potassium levels, a condition known as hypokalemia. Lily of the valley also may cause irregular heartbeat, confusion and tiredness.

Other therapies have been shown as ineffective based on current data, or have mixed findings, highlighting the importance of patients having a discussion with a health care professional about any non-prescribed treatments:

  • Routine thiamine supplementation isn’t shown to be effective for heart failure treatment unless someone has this specific nutrient deficiency.
  • Research on alcohol varies, with some data showing that drinking low-to-moderate amounts (1 to 2 drinks per day) is associated with preventing heart failure, while habitual drinking or intake of higher amounts is toxic to the heart muscle and known to contribute to heart failure.
  • There are mixed findings about vitamin E. It may have some benefit in reducing the risk of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, a type of heart failure in which the left ventricle is unable to properly fill with blood between heartbeats. However, it has also been associated with an increased risk of hospitalization in people with heart failure.
  • Co-Q10, or coenzyme Q10, is an antioxidant found in small amounts in organ meats, oily fish and soybean oil, and commonly taken as a dietary supplement. Small studies show it may help improve heart failure class, symptoms and quality of life, however, it may interact with blood pressure lowering and anti-clotting medicines. Larger trials are needed to better understand its effects.
  • Hawthorn, a flowering shrub, has been shown in some studies to increase exercise tolerance and improve heart failure symptoms such as fatigue. Yet it also has the potential to worsen heart failure, and there is conflicting research about whether it interacts with digoxin.

“Overall, more quality research and well-powered randomized controlled trials are needed to better understand the risks and benefits of complementary and alternative medicine therapies for people with heart failure,” said Chow. “This scientific statement provides critical information to health care professionals who treat people with heart failure and may be used as a resource for consumers about the potential benefit and harm associated with complementary and alternative medicine products.”

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No doubt, this assessment is a laudable attempt to inform patients responsibly. Personally, I am always a bit skeptical about such broad statements. SCAM encompasses some 400 different therapies, and I doubt that these can all be assessed in one single overview.

It is not difficult to find SCAMs that seem to have not been considered. Take this systematic review, for instance. It included 24 RCTs (n = 1314 participants) of 9 different mind-body interventions (MBI) types: Tai Chi (n = 7), yoga (n = 4), relaxation (n = 4), meditation (n = 2), acupuncture (n = 2), biofeedback (n = 2), stress management (n = 1), Pilates (n = 1), and reflexology (n = 1). Most (n = 22, 95.8%) reported small-to-moderate improvements in quality of life (14/14 studies), exercise capacity (8/9 studies), depression (5/5 studies), anxiety and fatigue (4/4 studies), blood pressure (3/5 studies), heart rate (5/6 studies), heart rate variability (7/9 studies), and B-type natriuretic peptide (3/4 studies). Studies ranged from 4 minutes to 26 weeks and group sizes ranged from 8 to 65 patients per study arm.

The authors concluded that, although wide variability exists in the types and delivery, RCTs of MBIs have demonstrated small-to-moderate positive effects on HF patients’ objective and subjective outcomes. Future research should examine the mechanisms by which different MBIs exert their effects.

Or take this systematic review of 38 RCTs of oral TCM remedies. The majority of the included trials were assessed to be of high clinical heterogeneity and poor methodological quality. The main results of the meta-analysis showed improvement in total MLHFQ score when oral Chinese herbal medicine plus conventional medical treatment (CMT) compared with CMT with or without placebo [MD = -5.71 (-7.07, -4.36), p < 0.01].

The authors concluded that there is some encouraging evidence of oral Chinese herbal medicine combined with CMT for the improvement of QoL in CHF patients. However, the evidence remains weak due to the small sample size, high clinical heterogeneity, and poor methodological quality of the included trials. Further, large sample size and well-designed trials are needed.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that TCM remedies are a viable option – in fact, I very much doubt it – but I am saying that attempts to provide comprehensive overviews of all SCAMs are problematic, and that incomplete overviews are just that: incomplete.

Yesterday, the post brought me a nice Christmas present. For many months, I had been working on updating and extending a book of mine. Then there were some delays at the publisher, but now it is out – what a delight!

The previous edition contained my evidence-based assessments of 150 alternative modalities (therapies and diagnostic techniques). This already was by no means an easy task. The new edition has 202 short, easy-to-understand, and fully-referenced chapters, each on a different modality. I am quite proud of the achievement. Let me just show you the foreword to the new edition:

Alternative medicine is full of surprises. For me, a big surprise was that the first edition of this book was so successful that I was invited to do a second one. I do this, of course, with great pleasure.

So, what is new? I have made two main alterations. Firstly, I updated the previous text by adding new evidence where it had emerged. Secondly, I added many more modalities—52, to be exact.

To the best of my knowledge, this renders the new edition of this book the most comprehensive reference text on alternative medicine available to date. It informs you about the nature, proven benefits, and potential risks of 202 different diagnostic methods and therapeutic interventions from the realm of so-called alternative medicine. If you use this information wisely, it could save you a lot of money. One day, it might even save your life.

I hope you enjoy using this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Like the first edition, the book is not about promoting so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) nor about the opposite. It is about evaluating SCAM critically but fairly. In other words, each subject had to be researched and the evidence for or against it explained such that a layperson will comprehend it. This proved to be a colossal task.

The end result will not please the many believers in SCAM, I am afraid. Yet, I hope it will suit those who realize that, in healthcare, progress is generated not through belief but through critical evaluation of the evidence.

Is acupuncture more than a theatrical placebo? Acupuncture fans are convinced that the answer to this question is YES. Perhaps this paper will make them think again.

A new analysis mapped the systematic reviews, conclusions, and certainty or quality of evidence for outcomes of acupuncture as a treatment for adult health conditions. Computerized search of PubMed and 4 other databases from 2013 to 2021. Systematic reviews of acupuncture (whole body, auricular, or electroacupuncture) for adult health conditions that formally rated the certainty, quality, or strength of evidence for conclusions. Studies of acupressure, fire acupuncture, laser acupuncture, or traditional Chinese medicine without mention of acupuncture were excluded. Health condition, number of included studies, type of acupuncture, type of comparison group, conclusions, and certainty or quality of evidence. Reviews with at least 1 conclusion rated as high-certainty evidence, reviews with at least 1 conclusion rated as moderate-certainty evidence and reviews with all conclusions rated as low- or very low-certainty evidence; full list of all conclusions and certainty of evidence.

A total of 434 systematic reviews of acupuncture for adult health conditions were found; of these, 127 reviews used a formal method to rate the certainty or quality of evidence of their conclusions, and 82 reviews were mapped, covering 56 health conditions. Across these, there were 4 conclusions that were rated as high-certainty evidence and 31 conclusions that were rated as moderate-certainty evidence. All remaining conclusions (>60) were rated as low- or very low-certainty evidence. Approximately 10% of conclusions rated as high or moderate-certainty were that acupuncture was no better than the comparator treatment, and approximately 75% of high- or moderate-certainty evidence conclusions were about acupuncture compared with a sham or no treatment.

Three evidence maps (pain, mental conditions, and other conditions) are shown below

The authors concluded that despite a vast number of randomized trials, systematic reviews of acupuncture for adult health conditions have rated only a minority of conclusions as high- or moderate-certainty evidence, and most of these were about comparisons with sham treatment or had conclusions of no benefit of acupuncture. Conclusions with moderate or high-certainty evidence that acupuncture is superior to other active therapies were rare.

These findings are sobering for those who had hoped that acupuncture might be effective for a range of conditions. Despite the fact that, during recent years, there have been numerous systematic reviews, the evidence remains negative or flimsy. As 34 reviews originate from China, and as we know about the notorious unreliability of Chinese acupuncture research, this overall result is probably even more negative than the authors make it out to be.

Considering such findings, some people (including the authors of this analysis) feel that we now need more and better acupuncture trials. Yet I wonder whether this is the right approach. Would it not be better to call it a day, concede that acupuncture generates no or only relatively minor effects, and focus our efforts on more promising subjects?

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