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

TCM

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An article referring to comments Prof David Colquhoun and I recently made in THE TIMES about acupuncture for children caught my attention. In it, Rebecca Avern, an acupuncturist specialising in paediatrics and heading the clinical programme at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine, makes a several statements which deserve a comment. Here is her article in full, followed by my short comments.

START OF QUOTE

Just before Christmas an article appeared in the Times with the headline ‘Professors raise alarm over rise of acupuncture for children’. There has been little or nothing in the mainstream press relating to paediatric acupuncture. So, in a sense, and in the spirit of ‘all press is good press’, this felt like progress. The article quoted myself and Julian Scott, and mentioned several childhood conditions for which children seek treatment. It also mentioned some of the reasons that parents choose acupuncture for their children.

However, it included some negative quotes from our old friends Ernst and Colquhoun. The first was Ernst stating that he was ‘not aware of any sound evidence showing that acupuncture is effective for any childhood conditions’. Colquhoun went further to state that there simply is not ‘the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that acupuncture helps anything in children’. Whilst they may not be aware of it, good evidence does exist, albeit for a limited number of conditions. For example, a 2016 meta-analysis and systematic review of the use of acupuncture for post-operative nausea and vomiting (PONV) concluded that children who received acupuncture had a significantly lower risk of PONV than those in the control group or those who received conventional drug therapy.[i]

Ernst went on to mention the hypothetical risk of puncturing a child’s internal organs but he failed to provide evidence of any actual harm. A 2011 systematic review analysing decades of acupuncture in children aged 0 to 17 years prompted investigators to conclude that acupuncture can be characterised as ‘safe’ for children.[ii]

Ernst also mentioned what he perceived is a far greater risk. He expressed concern that children would miss out on ‘effective’ treatment because they are having acupuncture. In my experience running a paediatric acupuncture clinic in Oxford, this is not the case. Children almost invariably come already having received a diagnosis from either their GP or a paediatric specialist. They are seeking treatment, such as in the case of bedwetting or chronic fatigue syndrome, because orthodox medicine is unable to effectively treat or even manage their condition. Alternatively, their condition is being managed by medication which may be causing side effects.

When it comes to their children, even those parents who may have reservations about orthodox medicine, tend to ensure their child has received all the appropriate exploratory tests. I have yet to meet a parent who will not ensure that their child, who has a serious condition, has the necessary medication, which in some cases may save their lives, such as salbutamol (usually marketed as Ventolin) for asthma or an EpiPen for anaphylactic reactions. If a child comes to the clinic where this turns out not to be the case, thankfully all BAcC members have training in a level of conventional medical sciences which enables them to spot ‘red flags’. This means that they will inform the parent that their child needs orthodox treatment either instead of or alongside acupuncture.

The article ended with a final comment from Colquhoun who believes that ‘sticking pins in babies is a rather unpleasant form of health fraud’. It is hard not to take exception to the phrase ‘sticking pins in’, whereas what we actually do is gently and precisely insert fine, sterile acupuncture needles. The needles used to treat babies and children are usually approximately 0.16mm in breadth. The average number of needles used per treatment is between two and six, and the needles are not retained. A ‘treatment’ may include not only needling, but also diet and lifestyle advice, massage, moxa, and parental education. Most babies and children find an acupuncture treatment perfectly acceptable, as the video below illustrates.

The views of Colquhoun and Ernst also beg the question of how acupuncture compares in terms of safety and proven efficacy with orthodox medical treatments given to children. Many medications given to children are so called ‘off-label’ because it is challenging to get ethical approval for randomised controlled trials in children. This means that children are prescribed medicines that are not authorised in terms of age, weight, indications, or routes of administration. A 2015 study noted that prescribers and caregivers ‘must be aware of the risk of potential serious ADRs (adverse drug reactions)’ when prescribing off-label medicines to children.[iii]

There are several reasons for the rise in paediatric acupuncture to which the article referred. Most of the time, children get better when they have acupuncture. Secondly, parents see that the treatment is gentle and well tolerated by their children. Unburdened by chronic illness, a child can enjoy a carefree childhood, and they can regain a sense of themselves as healthy. A weight is lifted off the entire family when a child returns to health. It is my belief that parents, and children, vote with their feet and that, despite people such as Ernst and Colquhoun wishing it were otherwise, more and more children will receive the benefits of acupuncture.

[i] Shin HC et al, The effect of acupuncture on post-operative nausea and vomiting after pediatric tonsillectomy: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Accessed January 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26864736

[ii] Franklin R, Few Serious Adverse Events in Pediatric Needle Acupuncture. Accessed January 2019from: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/753934?src=trendmd_pilot

[iii] Aagaard L (2015) Off-Label and Unlicensed Prescribing of Medicines in Paediatric Populations: Occurrence and Safety Aspects. Basic and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology. Accessed January 2019 from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/bcpt.12445

END OF QUOTE

  1. GOOD EVIDENCE: The systematic review cited by Mrs Avern was based mostly on poor-quality trials. It even included cohort studies without a control group. To name it as an example of good evidence, merely discloses an ignorance about what good evidence means.
  2. SAFETY: The article Mrs Avern referred to is a systematic review of reports on adverse events (AEs) of acupuncture in children. A total of 279 AEs were found.  Of these, 25 were serious (12 cases of thumb deformity, 5 infections, and 1 case each of cardiac rupture, pneumothorax, nerve impairment, subarachnoid haemorrhage, intestinal obstruction, haemoptysis, reversible coma, and overnight hospitalization), 1 was moderate (infection), and 253 were mild. The mild AEs included pain, bruising, bleeding, and worsening of symptoms. Considering that there is no reporting system of such AEs, this list of AEs is, I think, concerning and justifies my concerns over the safety of acupuncture in children. The risks are certainly not ‘hypothetical’, as Mrs Avern claimed, and to call it thus seems to be in conflict with the highest standard of professional care (see below). Because the acupuncture community has still not established an effective AE-surveillance system, nobody can tell whether such events are frequent or rare. We all hope they are infrequent, but hope is a poor substitute for evidence.
  3. COMPARISON TO OTHER TREATMENTS: Mrs Avern seems to think that acupuncture has a better risk/benefit profile than conventional medicine. Having failed to show that acupuncture is effective and having demonstrated that it causes severe adverse effects, this assumption seems nothing but wishful thinking on her part.
  4. EXPERIENCE: Mrs Avern finishes her article by telling us that ‘children get better when they have acupuncture’. She seems to be oblivious to the fact that sick children usually get better no matter what. Perhaps the kids she treats would have improved even faster without her needles?

In conclusion, I do not doubt the good intentions of Mrs Avern for one minute; I just wished she were able to develop a minimum of critical thinking capacity. More importantly, I am concerned about the BRITISH ACUPUNCTURE COUNCIL, the organisation that published Mrs Avern’s article. On their website, they state: The British Acupuncture Council is committed to ensuring all patients receive the highest standard of professional care during their acupuncture treatment. Our Code of Professional Conduct governs ethical and professional behaviour, while the Code of Safe Practice sets benchmark standards for best practice in acupuncture. All BAcC members are bound by these codes. Who are they trying to fool?, I ask myself.

The objective of this ‘real world’ study was to evaluate the effectiveness of integrative medicine (IM) on patients with coronary artery disease (CAD) and investigate the prognostic factors of CAD in a real-world setting.

A total of 1,087 hospitalized patients with CAD from 4 hospitals in Beijing, China were consecutively selected between August 2011 and February 2012. The patients were assigned to two groups:

  1. Chinese medicine (CM) plus conventional treatment, i.e., IM therapy (IM group). IM therapy meant that the patients accepted the conventional treatment of Western medicine and the treatment of Chinese herbal medicine including herbal-based injection and Chinese patent medicine as well as decoction for at least 7 days in the hospital or 3 months out of the hospital.
  2. Conventional treatment alone (CT group).

The endpoint was a major cardiac event [MCE; including cardiac death, myocardial infarction (MI), and the need for revascularization].

A total of 1,040 patients finished the 2-year follow-up. Of them, 49.4% received IM therapy. During the 2-year follow-up, the total incidence of MCE was 11.3%. Most of the events involved revascularization (9.3%). Cardiac death/MI occurred in 3.0% of cases. For revascularization, logistic stepwise regression analysis revealed that age ⩾ 65 years [odds ratio (OR), 2.224], MI (OR, 2.561), diabetes mellitus (OR, 1.650), multi-vessel lesions (OR, 2.554), baseline high sensitivity C-reactive protein level ⩾ 3 mg/L (OR, 1.678), and moderate or severe anxiety/depression (OR, 1.849) were negative predictors (P<0.05); while anti-platelet agents (OR, 0.422), β-blockers (OR, 0.626), statins (OR, 0.318), and IM therapy (OR, 0.583) were protective predictors (P<0.05). For cardiac death/MI, age ⩾ 65 years (OR, 6.389) and heart failure (OR, 7.969) were negative predictors (P<0.05), while statin use (OR, 0.323) was a protective predictor (P<0.05) and IM therapy showed a beneficial tendency (OR, 0.587), although the difference was not statistically significant (P=0.218).

The authors concluded that in a real-world setting, for patients with CAD, IM therapy was associated with a decreased incidence of revascularization and showed a potential benefit in reducing the incidence of cardiac death or MI.

What the authors call ‘real world setting’ seems to be a synonym of ‘lousy science’, I fear. I am not aware of good evidence to show that herbal injections and concoctions are effective treatments for CAD, and this study can unfortunately not change this. In the methods section of the paper, we read that the treatment decisions were made by the responsible physicians without restriction. That means the two groups were far from comparable. In their discussion section, the authors state; we found that IM therapy was efficacious in clinical practice. I think that this statement is incorrect. All they have shown is that two groups of patients with similar diagnoses can differ in numerous ways, including clinical outcomes.

The lessons here are simple:

  1. In clinical trials, lack of randomisation (the only method to create reliably comparable groups) often leads to false results.
  2. Flawed research is currently being used by many proponents of  SCAM (so-called alternative medicine) to mislead us about the value of SCAM.
  3. The integration of dubious treatments into routine care does not lead to better outcomes.
  4. Integrative medicine, as currently advocated by SCAM-proponents, is a nonsense.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have a higher risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Despite good evidence for effectiveness, acupuncture is often advocated for RA, and it has not been reported to prevent CHD in patients with RA.

The authors of this analysis aimed to assess the risk of developing CHD in acupuncture-users and non-users of patients with RA. They identified 29,741 patients with newly diagnosed RA from January 1997 to December 2010 from the Registry of Catastrophic Illness Patients Database from the Taiwanese National Health Insurance Research Database. Among them, 10,199 patients received acupuncture (acupuncture users), and 19,542 patients did not receive acupuncture (no-acupuncture users). After performing 1:1 propensity score matching by sex, age, baseline comorbidity, conventional treatment, initial diagnostic year, and index year, there were 9932 patients in both the acupuncture and no-acupuncture cohorts. The main outcome was the diagnosis of CHD in patients with RA in the acupuncture and no-acupuncture cohorts.

Acupuncture users had a lower incidence of CHD than non-users (adjusted HR = 0.60, 95% CI = 0.55-0.65). The estimated cumulative incidence of CHD was significantly lower in the acupuncture cohort (log-rank test, p < .001). Subgroup analysis showed that patients receiving manual acupuncture of traditional Chinese medicine style, electroacupuncture, or combination of both all had a lower incidence of CHD than patients never receiving acupuncture treatment. The beneficial effect of acupuncture on preventing CHD was independent of age, sex, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and statins use.

The authors concluded that this is the first large-scale study to reveal that acupuncture might have beneficial effect on reducing the risk of CHD in patients with RA. This study may provide useful information for clinical utilization and future studies.

Pigs might fly, but – call me a sceptic – I somehow doubt it almost as much as I doubt that acupuncture might have beneficial effect on reducing the risk of CHD.

Why?

Because of two reasons mainly:

  1. For the life of me, I cannot see a mechanism by which acupuncture achieves this extraordinary feast (the authors allege an anti-inflammatory effect of acupuncture which I find wholly unconvincing).
  2. There is a much simpler explanation for the observed outcomes.

The propensity score used here did, of course, only match the groups for a hand-full of factors. Yet there are many more that could play a part which the authors could not consider because they did not have the data to do so. The one that foremost comes to my mind is a generally healthier life-style of the patients using acupuncture. I think it stands to reason that people who bother to have and pay for an additional treatment are higher motivated to adhere to a life-style (e. g. smoking-cessation, exercise, nutrition, stress) that reduces the CHD-risk. And the influence of this factor could be very significant indeed. As the devil’s advocate, I could therefore even postulate that acupuncture itself had a slightly detrimental effect which, however, was over-ridden by the massive effect of the healthier life-style.

And the lesson to learn from all this?

Before we conclude about ‘beneficial effects’ of acupuncture or any other therapy, we need RCTs that effectively eliminate these rather obvious confounders.

 

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is caused by the tendons in the wrist getting too tight and thus putting pressure on the nerves that run beneath them. The symptoms can include:

  • pain in fingers, hand or arm,
  • numb hands,
  • tingling or ‘pins and needles’,
  • a weak thumb or difficulty gripping.

These symptoms often start slowly and they can come and go but often get worse over time. They are usually worse at night and may keep patients from having a good night’s sleep.

The treatments advocated for CTS include painkillers, splints and just about every alternative therapy one can think of, particularly acupuncture. Acupuncture may be popular, but does it work?

This new Cochrane review was aimed at assessing the evidence for acupuncture and similar treatments for CTS. It included 12 studies with 869 participants. Ten studies reported the primary outcome of overall clinical improvement at short‐term follow‐up (3 months or less) after randomisation. Most studies could not be combined in a meta‐analysis due to heterogeneity, and all had an unclear or high overall risk of bias. Only 7 studies provided information on adverse events.

The authors (two of them are from my former Exeter team) found that, in comparison with placebo or sham-treatments, acupuncture and laser acupuncture have little or no effect in the short term on symptoms of CTS. It is uncertain whether acupuncture and related interventions are more or less effective in relieving symptoms of CTS than corticosteroid nerve blocks, oral corticosteroids, vitamin B12, ibuprofen, splints, or when added to NSAIDs plus vitamins, as the certainty of any conclusions from the evidence is low or very low and most evidence is short term. The included studies covered diverse interventions, had diverse designs, limited ethnic diversity, and clinical heterogeneity.

The authors concluded that high‐quality randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are necessary to rigorously assess the effects of acupuncture and related interventions upon symptoms of CTS. Based on moderate to very‐low certainty evidence, acupuncture was associated with no serious adverse events, or reported discomfort, pain, local paraesthesia and temporary skin bruises, but not all studies provided adverse event data.

This last point is one that I made very often: most trials of acupuncture fail to report adverse effects. This is doubtlessly unethical (it gives a false-positive overall impression about acupuncture’s safety). And what can you do with studies that are unethical? My answer is simple: bin them!

Most of the trials were of poor or very poor quality. Such studies tend to generate false-positive results. And what can you do with studies that are flimsy and misleading? My answer is simple: bin them!

So, what can we do with acupuncture trials of CTS? … I let you decide.

But binning the evidence offers little help to patients who suffer from chronic, progressive CTS. What can those patients do? Go and see a surgeon! (S)he will cure you with a relatively simply and safe operation; in all likelihood, you will never look back at dubious treatments.

Acupressure is the stimulation of acu-points by using pressure instead of needles, as in acupuncture. The evidence for or against acupressure mirrors that of acupuncture, except there is far less of it. This is why this new trial might be important.

The aim of this RCT was to determine the effect of self-acupressure on fasting blood sugar (FBS) and insulin level in type 2 diabetes patients. A total of 60 diabetic patients were selected from diabetes clinic in Rafsanjan in Iran, and  assigned to 2 groups, 30 in the acupressure and 30 in the control-group. The intervention group received acupressure at ST-36, LIV-3, KD-3 and SP-6 points bilaterally for 5 minutes at each point in 10 seconds pressure and 2 seconds rest periods. Subjects in the control group received no intervention. The FBS and insulin levels were measured before and after the intervention for both groups.

There were no significant differences between the acupressure and control group regarding age, sex and level of education. The insulin level significantly increased after treatment in the acupressure group (p=0.001). There were no significant differences between the levels of insulin in study or control groups. Serum FBS level decreased significantly after intervention in the acupressure group compared to the control group (p=0.02).

The authors concluded that self-acupressure as a complementary alternative medicine can be a helpful complementary method in reducing FBS and increasing insulin levels in type 2 diabetic patients.

I do not want to go into the methodological details of this study; suffice to say that it was less than rigorous and that its findings are therefore not trustworthy (never mind the fact that the results are biologically implausible). Even if that had not been the case, a single study would certainly not be sufficient reason to reach the conclusion that acupressure is helpful to control diabetes. For that, I am sure, we would need at least half a dozen independent replications.

Like most people, I have several non-medical friends who suffer from diabetes. They would love nothing better than having a simple, safe and effective method applying pressure to their skin in order to manage their disease. If they read this paper, some of them might conclude that acupressure is the answer to their problems and use it to control their condition. One does not need all that much imagination to see that this could seriously harm them, or even cost several lives.

Acupressure might be virtually free of risks, but with a bit of ill advice, even seemingly harmless treatments can kill.

Ginkgo biloba is a well-researched herbal medicine which has shown promise for a number of indications. But does this include coronary heart disease?

The aim of this systematic review was to provide information about the effectiveness and safety of Ginkgo Leaf Extract and Dipyridamole Injection (GD) as one adjuvant therapy for treating angina pectoris (AP) and to evaluate the relevant randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with meta-analysis. (Ginkgo Leaf Extract and Dipyridamole Injection is a Chinese compound preparation, which consists of ginkgo flavone glycosides (24%), terpene lactones (ginkgolide about 13%, ginkgolide about 2.9%) and dipyridamole.)

RCTs concerning AP treated by GD were searched and the Cochrane Risk Assessment Tool was adopted to assess the methodological quality of the RCTs. A total of 41 RCTs involving 4,462 patients were included in the meta-analysis. The results indicated that the combined use of GD and Western medicine (WM) against AP was associated with a higher total effective rate [risk ratio (RR)=1.25, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.21–1.29, P<0.01], total effective rate of electrocardiogram (RR=1.29, 95% CI: 1.21–1.36, P<0.01). Additional, GD combined with WM could decrease the level of plasma viscosity [mean difference (MD)=–0.56, 95% CI:–0,81 to–0.30, P<0.01], fibrinogen [MD=–1.02, 95% CI:–1.50 to–0.54, P<0.01], whole blood low shear viscosity [MD=–2.27, 95% CI:–3.04 to–1.49, P<0.01], and whole blood high shear viscosity (MD=–0.90, 95% CI: 1.37 to–0.44, P<0.01).

The authors concluded that comparing with receiving WM only, the combine use of GD and WM was associated with a better curative effect for patients with AP. Nevertheless, limited by the methodological quality of included RCTs more large-sample, multi-center RCTs were needed to confirm our findings and provide further evidence for the clinical utility of GD.

If one reads this conclusion, one might be tempted to use GD to cure AP. I would, however, strongly warn everyone from doing so. There are many reasons for my caution:

  • All the 41 RCTs originate from China, and we have repeatedly discussed that Chinese TCM trials are highly unreliable.
  • The methodological quality of the primary RCTs was, according to the review authors ‘moderate’. This is not true; it was, in fact, lousy.
  • Dipyridamole is not indicated in angina pectoris.
  • To the best of my knowledge, there is no good evidence from outside China to suggest that Ginkgo biloba is effective for angina pectoris.
  • Angina pectoris is caused by coronary artery disease (a narrowing of one or more coronary arteries due to atherosclerosis), and it seems implausible that this condition can be ‘cured’ with any medication.

So, what we have here is yet another nonsensical paper, published in a dubious journal, employing evidently irresponsible reviewers, run by evidently irresponsible editors, hosted by a seemingly reputable publisher (Springer). This is reminiscent of my previous post (and many posts before). Alarmingly, it is also what I encounter on a daily basis when scanning the new publications in my field.

The effects of this incessant stream of nonsense can only have one of two effects:

  1. People take this ‘evidence’ seriously. In this case, many patients might pay with their lives for this collective incompetence.
  2. People conclude that alt med research cannot be taken seriously. In this case, we are unlikely to ever see anything useful emerging from it.

Either way, the result will be profoundly negative!

It is high time to stop this idiocy; but how?

I wish, I knew the answer.

Shiatsu has been mentioned here before (see for instance here, here and here). It is one of those alternative therapies for which a plethora of therapeutic claims are being made in the almost total absence of reliable evidence. This is why I am delighted each time a new study emerges.

This proof of concept study explored the feasibility of ‘hand self-shiatsu’ as an intervention to promote sleep onset and continuity for young adults with SRC. It employed a prospective case-series design, where participants, athletes who have suffered from concussion, act as their own controls. Baseline and follow-up data included standardized self-reported assessment tools and sleep actigraphy. Seven athletes, aged between 18 and 25 years, participated. Although statistically significant improvement in actigraphy sleep scores between baseline and follow-up was not achieved, metrics for sleep quality and daytime fatigue showed significant improvement.

The authors concluded from these data that these findings support the hypothesis that ‘hand self-shiatsu has the potential to improve sleep and reduce daytime fatigue in young postconcussion athletes. This pilot study provides guidance to refine research protocols and lays a foundation for further, large-sample, controlled studies.

How very disappointing! If this was truly meant to be a pilot study, it should not mention findings of clinical improvement at all. I suspect that the authors labelled it ‘a pilot study’ only when they realised that it was wholly inadequate. I also suspect that the study did not yield the result they had hoped for (a significant improvement in actigraphy sleep scores), and thus they included the metrics for sleep quality and daytime fatigue in the abstract.

In any case, even a pilot study of just 7 patients is hardly worth writing home about. And the remark that participants acted as their own controls is a new level of obfuscation: there were no controls, and the results are based on before/after comparisons. Thus none of the outcomes can be attributed to shiatsu; more likely, they are due to the natural history of the condition, placebo effects, concomitant treatments, social desirability etc.

What sort of journal publishes such drivel that can only have the effect of giving a bad name to clinical research? The Journal of Integrative Medicine (JIM) is a peer-reviewed journal sponsored by Shanghai Association of Integrative Medicine and Shanghai Changhai Hospital, China. It is a continuation of the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine (JCIM), which was established in 2003 and published in Chinese language. Since 2013, JIM has been published in English language. They state that the editorial board is committed to publishing high-quality papers on integrative medicine... I consider this as a bad joke! More likely, this journal is little more than an organ for popularising TCM propaganda in the West.

And which publisher hosts such a journal?

Elsevier

What a disgrace!

 

This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the effects of acupuncture on the quality of life of migraineurs.  Only randomized controlled trials that were published in Chinese and English were included. In total, 62 trials were included for the final analysis; 50 trials were from China, 3 from Brazil, 3 from Germany, 2 from Italy and the rest came from Iran, Israel, Australia and Sweden.

Acupuncture resulted in lower Visual Analog Scale scores than medication at 1 month after treatment and 1-3 months after treatment. Compared with sham acupuncture, acupuncture resulted in lower Visual Analog Scale scores at 1 month after treatment.

The authors concluded that acupuncture exhibits certain efficacy both in the treatment and prevention of migraines, which is superior to no treatment, sham acupuncture and medication. Further, acupuncture enhanced the quality of life more than did medication.

The authors comment in the discussion section that the overall quality of the evidence for most outcomes was of low to moderate quality. Reasons for diminished quality consist of the following: no mentioned or inadequate allocation concealment, great probability of reporting bias, study heterogeneity, sub-standard sample size, and dropout without analysis.

Further worrisome deficits are that only 14 of the 62 studies reported adverse effects (this means that 48 RCTs violated research ethics!) and that there was a high level of publication bias indicating that negative studies had remained unpublished. However, the most serious concern is the fact that 50 of the 62 trials originated from China, in my view. As I have often pointed out, such studies have to be categorised as highly unreliable.

In view of this multitude of serious problems, I feel that the conclusions of this review must be re-formulated:

Despite the fact that many RCTs have been published, the effect of acupuncture on the quality of life of migraineurs remains unproven.

 

I only recently came across this review; it was published a few years ago but is still highly relevant. It summarizes the evidence of controlled clinical studies of TCM for cancer.

The authors searched all the controlled clinical studies of TCM therapies for all kinds of cancers published in Chinese in four main Chinese electronic databases from their inception to November 2011. They found a total of 2964 reports (involving 253,434 cancer patients) including 2385 randomized controlled trials and 579 non-randomized controlled studies.

The top seven cancer types treated were lung cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, esophagus cancer, colorectal cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer by both study numbers and case numbers. The majority of studies (72%) applied TCM therapy combined with conventional treatment, whilst fewer (28%) applied only TCM therapy in the experimental groups. Herbal medicine was the most frequently applied TCM therapy (2677 studies, 90.32%). The most frequently reported outcome was clinical symptom improvement (1667 studies, 56.24%) followed by biomarker indices (1270 studies, 42.85%), quality of life (1129 studies, 38.09%), chemo/radiotherapy induced side effects (1094 studies, 36.91%), tumour size (869 studies, 29.32%) and safety (547 studies, 18.45%).

The authors concluded that data from controlled clinical studies of TCM therapies in cancer treatment is substantial, and different therapies are applied either as monotherapy or in combination with conventional medicine. Reporting of controlled clinical studies should be improved based on the CONSORT and TREND Statements in future. Further studies should address the most frequently used TCM therapy for common cancers and outcome measures should address survival, relapse/metastasis and quality of life.

This paper is important, in my view, predominantly because it exemplifies the problem with TCM research from China and with uncritical reviews on this subject. If a cancer patient, who does not know the background, reads this paper, (s)he might think that TCM is worth trying. This conclusion could easily shorten his/her life.

The often-shown fact is that TCM studies from China are not reliable. They are almost invariably positive, their methodological quality is low, and they are frequently based on fabricated data. In my view, it is irresponsible to publish a review that omits discussing these facts in detail and issuing a stark warning.

TCM FOR CANCER IS A VERY BAD CHOICE!

The public is often impressed by scenes shown on TV where surgeons in China operate patients apparently with no other anaesthesia than acupuncture. Such films have undoubtedly contributed significantly to the common belief that acupuncture cannot possibly be a placebo (every single time I give a public talk about acupuncture, the issue comes up, and someone asks me: how can you doubt the efficacy of acupuncture when, in China, they use it for major operations?).

Some years ago, I have myself been involved is such a BBC broadcast and had to learn the hard way that such scenes are more than just a bit misleading.

Unfortunately, the experts rarely object to any of this. They seem to have become used to the false claims and overt propaganda that is rife in the promotion of acupuncture, and have resigned to the might of poor journalism.

The laudable exception is a team of French authors of a recent and excellent paper.

This unusual article analysed a clip from the program “Acupuncture, osteopathy, hypnosis: do complementary medicines have superpowers?” about acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures in China. Their aim was to propose a rational explanation for the phenomena observed and to describe the processes leading a public service broadcasting channel to offer this type of content at prime time and the potential consequences in terms of public health. For this purpose, they used critical thinking attitudes and skills, along with a bibliographical search of Medline, Google Scholar and Cochrane Library databases.

Their results reveal that the information delivered in the television clip is ambiguous. It did not allow the viewer to form an informed opinion on the relevance of acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. It is reasonable to assume that the clip shows surgery performed with undisclosed epidural anaesthesia coupled with mild intravenous anaesthesia, sometimes performed in other countries.

What needs to be highlighted, the authors of this critique state, is the overestimation of acupuncture added to the protocol. The media tend to exaggerate the risks and expected effects of the treatments they report on, which can lead patients to turn to unproven therapies.

The authors concluded that broadcasting such a clip at prime time underlines the urgent need for the public and all health professionals to be trained in sorting and critically analysing health information.

In my view, broadcasting such misleading films also underlines the urgent need for journalists to be conscious of their responsibility not to mislead the public and do more rigorous research before reporting on matters of health.

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