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During the last decades, the sales-figures for so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) have been increasing steadily and substantially. A recent report predicts this trend to continue:

… The global market for alternative and complementary medicines is projected to experience substantial growth in the next few years. The rising expenditure of the healthcare facilities is considered as the major factor that is likely to encourage the growth of the overall market in the coming years. In addition, the increasing number of initiatives being taken by Governments across the globe to promote alternative and complementary medicines is projected to accelerate the market’s growth. Thanks to these factors, the global alternative and complementary medicine market is likely to exhibit a promising growth rate in the near future.

A significant rise in the number of initiatives by NGOs and government organizations to encourage the use of alternative and complementary medicines is estimated to bolster global market in the near future. In addition to this, technological advancements in this field and the rising inclination of consumers towards these medicines and practices are likely to offer lucrative growth opportunities for the leading players operating in the alternative and complementary medicine market across the globe. However, the lack of scientific results is expected to hamper the overall growth of the market in the next few years…

From a regional perspective, Europe is considered as one of the leading segment, thanks to the significant revenue contribution in the last few years. This region is expected to account for a large share of the global alternative and complementary medicine market with the rising use of botanicals. In addition to this, the increasing awareness among consumers regarding the availability of effective alternative and complementary medicines and the benefits they offers are expected to encourage the growth of the Europe market in the coming years.

Furthermore, with the rising popularity of medical tourism, the alternative and complementary medicine market in Asia Pacific is projected to witness a steady growth in the next few years. Moreover, the presence of a large number of new players operating in this region is likely to offer promising growth opportunities over the forecast period. The Middle East and Africa segment is anticipated to experience a healthy growth in the alternative and complementary medicine market in the near future.

The global market for alternative and complementary medicines is presently at a highly competitive stage and is predicted to experience an intense level of competition among the leading players in the coming years. The prominent players in the market are focusing on the expansion of the product portfolio so as to attract a large number of consumers across the globe. This is likely to help them in creating a brand name and acquiring a leading position in the global market. Some of the leading players operating in the alternative and complementary medicine market across the globe are Herb Pharm, Yoga Tree, Quantum Touch Inc., Helio USA Inc., Pure encapsulations, Inc., Pacific Nutritional Inc., Deepure Plus, Herbal Hills, Iyengar Yoga Institute, The Healing Company, and Nordic Naturals.

Yes, I know, this is little more than hot air mixed with platitudes and advertisements to purchase the full report. I used to buy such documents for my department and research but was invariably disappointed. They provide are expensive and of very little of value.

Yet, one thing has been confirmed over the years: the prediction of steady growth of the SCAM-industry is rarely wrong (certain sections, such as homeopathy, have been shrinking in some regions, but the industry as a whole is financially healthy). The scientific evidence seems to get less and less convincing, yet consumers buy more and more of these products. They may do little good and have the potential to cause quite a bit of harm, but consumers continue to waste their money on them.

The question is: why?

There are, of course, many reasons. An important one is that the gullible public wants to believe in SCAM, and the SCAM-industry is highly skilled in misleading us. What is worse: many governments, instead of limiting the damage, are mildly or even overtly supportive of the SCAM-industry.

Whenever I contemplate this depressing state of affairs, I realise that my blog is important. It is only a drop in the ocean, I know, but still…




Excessive eccentric exercise of inadequately conditioned skeletal muscle results in focal sites of injury within the muscle fibres. These injuries cause pain which usually is greatest about 72 hours after the exercise. This type of pain is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and provides an accessible model for studying the effects of various treatments that are said to have anaesthetic activities; it can easily be reproducibly generated without lasting harm or ethical concerns.

In so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) DOMS is employed regularly to test treatments which are promoted for pain management. Thus several acupuncture trials using this method have become available. Yet, the evidence for the effects of acupuncture on DOMS is inconsistent which begs the question whether across all trials an effects emerges.

The aim of this systematic review therefore was to explore the effects of acupuncture on DOMS. Studies investigating the effect of acupuncture on DOMS in humans that were published before March 2020 were obtained from 8 electronic databases. The affected muscles, groups, acupuncture points, treatment sessions, assessments, assessment times, and outcomes of the included articles were reviewed. The data were extracted and analysed via a meta-analysis.

A total of 15 articles were included, and relief of DOMS-related pain was the primary outcome. The meta-analysis showed that there were no significant differences between acupuncture and sham/control groups, except for acupuncture for DOMS on day 1 (total SMD = -0.62; 95% CI = -1.12∼0.11, P < 0.05) by comparing with control groups.

The authors concluded that acupuncture for DOMS exhibited very-small-to-small and small-to-moderate effects on pain relief for the sham and no acupuncture conditions, respectively. Evidence indicating the effects of acupuncture on DOMS was little because the outcome data during the follow-up were insufficient to perform an effective meta-analysis.

A mere glance at the Forrest plot reveals that acupuncture is unlikely to have any effect on DOMS at all. The very small average effect that does emerge originates mainly from one outlier, the 2008 study by Itoh et al. This trial was published by three acupuncturists from the Department of Clinical Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Meiji University of Integrative Medicine, Kyoto, Japan. It has numerous weaknesses, for instance there are just 10 volunteers in each group, and can therefore be safely discarded.

In essence, this means that there is no good evidence that acupuncture is effective at reducing pain caused by DOMS.

At present, we see a wave of promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a treatment of corona-virus infections. In this context, we should perhaps bear in mind that much of the Chinese data seem to be less than reliable. Moreover, I find it important to alert people to a stern warning recently published by two Australian experts. Here is the crucial passage from their paper:

We wish to highlight significant concerns regarding the association between traditional herbal medicines and severe, non-infective interstitial pneumonitis and other aggressive pulmonary syndromes, such as diffuse alveolar haemorrhage and ARDS which have emerged from Chinese and Japanese studies particularly during the period 2017−2019. Initially the association between traditional herbal therapies and pneumonitis was based on isolated case reports. These included hypersensitivity pneumonitis associated with the use of traditional Chinese or Japanese medicines such as Sai-rei-to, Oren-gedoku-to, Seisin-renshi-in and Otsu-ji-to (9 references in supplemental file). Larger cohorts and greater numbers now support this crucial relationship. In a Japanese cohort of 73 patients, pneumonitis development occurred within 3 months of commencing traditional medicine in the majority of patients [], while a large report from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, described more than 1000 cases of lung injury secondary to traditional medications, the overwhelming majority of which (852 reports) were described as ‘interstitial lung disease [].

Currently the constituent of traditional herbal medicines which is considered most likely to underlie causation of lung disease is Scutellariae Radix also known as Skullcap or ou-gon, which has been implicated through immunological evidence of hypersensitivity as well as circumstantial evidence, being present in all of those medicines outlined above []. Notably, skullcap is a constituent of QPD as used and described in the paper by Ren et al. relating to COVID-19 []. Scutellariae Radix-induced ARDS and COVID-19 disease share the same characteristic chest CT changes such as ground-glass opacities and airspace consolidation, therefore distinguishing between lung injury due to SARS-CoV-2 and that secondary to TCM may be very challenging. The potential for iatrogenic lung injury with TCM needs to be acknowledged []…

Morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 are almost entirely related to lung pathology []. Factors which impose a burden on lung function such as chronic lung disease and smoking are associated with increased risk for a poor outcome. Severe COVID-19 may be associated with a hypersensitivity pneumonitis component responsive to corticosteroid therapy []. Against this background the use of agents with little or no evidence of clinical efficacy and which have been significantly implicated in causing interstitial pneumonitis that could complicate SARS-CoV-2 infection, should be considered with extreme caution.

In conclusion, the benefits of TCM in the treatment of COVID-19 remain unproven and may be potentially deleterious. We recognise that there is currently insufficient evidence to prove the role of TCM in the causation of interstitial pneumonitis, however the circumstantial data is powerful and it would seem prudent to avoid these therapies in patients with known or suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection, until the evidence supports their use.

Declaration of Competing Interest: There are no conflicts to declare.

As recently reported, the most thorough review of the subject showed that the evidence for acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain is very weak. Yesterday, NICE published a draft report that seems to somewhat disagree with this conclusion (and today, this is being reported in most of the UK daily papers). The draft is now open to public consultation until 14 September 2020 and many of my readers might want to comment.

The draft report essentially suggests that people with chronic primary pain (CPP) should not get pain-medication of any type, but be offered supervised group exercise programmes, some types of psychological therapy, or acupuncture. While I understand that chronic pain should not be treated with long-term pain-medications – I did even learn this in medical school all those years ago – one might be puzzled by the mention of acupuncture.

But perhaps we need first ask, WHAT IS CPP? The NICE report informs us that CPP represents chronic pain as a condition in itself and which can’t be accounted for by another diagnosis, or where it is not the symptom of an underlying condition (this is known as chronic secondary pain). I find this definition most unsatisfactory. Pain is usually a symptom and not a disease. In many forms of what we now call CPP, an underlying disease does exist but might not yet be identifiable, I suspect.

The evidence on acupuncture considered for the draft NICE report included conditions like:

  • neck pain,
  • myofascial pain,
  • radicular arm pain,
  • shoulder pain,
  • prostatitis pain,
  • mechanical neck pain,
  • vulvodynia.

I find it debatable whether these pain syndromes can be categorised to be without an underlying diagnosis. Moreover, I find it problematic to lump them together as though they were one big entity.

The NICE draft document is huge and far too big to be assessed in a blog like mine. As it is merely a draft, I also see little point in evaluating it or parts of in detail. Therefore, my comments are far from detailed, very brief and merely focussed on pain (the draft NICE report considers several further outcome measures).

There is a separate document for acupuncture, from which I copy what I consider the key evidence:

Acupuncture versus sham acupuncture

Pain reduction

Very low quality evidence from 13 studies with 1230 participants showed a clinically
important benefit of acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at ≤3 months. Low quality
evidence from 2 studies with 159 participants showed a clinically important benefit of
acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at ≤3 months.

Low quality evidence from 4 studies with 376 participants showed no clinically important
difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture at >3 months. Moderate quality
evidence from 2 studies with 159 participants showed a clinically important benefit of
acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture at >3 months. Low quality evidence from 1
study with 61 participants showed no clinically important difference between acupuncture
and sham acupuncture at >3 months.

As acupuncture has all the features that make a perfect placebo (slightly invasive, mildly painful, exotic, involves touch, time and attention), I see little point in evaluating its efficacy through studies that make no attempt to control for placebo effects. This is why the sham-controlled studies are central to the question of acupuncture’s efficacy, no matter for what condition.

Reading the above evidence carefully, I fail to see how NICE can conclude that CPP patients should be offered acupuncture. I am sure that some readers will disagree and am looking forward to reading their comments.

This analysis was aimed at assessing the associations of acupuncture use with mortality, readmission and reoperation rates in hip fracture patients using a longitudinal population-based database. A retrospective matched cohort study was conducted using data for the years 1996-2012 from Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database. Hip fracture patients were divided into:

  • an acupuncture group consisting of 292 subjects who received at least 6 acupuncture treatments within 183 days of hip fracture,
  • and a propensity score matched “no acupuncture” group of 876 subjects who did not receive any acupuncture treatment and who functioned as controls.

The two groups were compared using survival analysis and competing risk analysis.

Compared to non-treated subjects, subjects treated with acupuncture had

  • a lower risk of overall death (hazard ratio (HR): 0.41, 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.24-0.73, p = 0.002),
  • a lower risk of readmission due to medical complications (subdistribution HR (sHR): 0.64, 95% CI: 0.44-0.93, p = 0.019)
  • and a lower risk of reoperation due to surgical complications (sHR: 0.62, 95% CI: 0.40-0.96, p = 0.034).

The authors concluded that postoperative acupuncture in hip fracture patients is associated with significantly lower mortality, readmission and reoperation rates compared with those of matched controls.

That’s a clear and neat finding; the question is, what does it mean?

Here are a few possibilities for consideration:

  1. As a result of having at least 6 acupuncture sessions, patients had lower rates of mortality, readmission and reoperation.
  2. As a result of having lower rates of mortality, readmission and reoperation, patients used acupuncture.
  3. As a result of some other factor, patients had both lower rates of mortality, readmission and reoperation and at least 6 sessions of acupuncture.

Which of the three possibilities is the most likely?

  1. Some enthusiasts might think that acupuncture makes you live longer. But does anyone truly believe it reduces the likelihood of needing a reoperation? Seriously? Well, I don’t see even a hint of a mechanism by which acupuncture might achieve this. Therefore, I would categorise this possibility as highly unlikely.
  2. It stands to reason that patients who are alive and well use more acupuncture than those who are dead or in need of surgery. So, this possibility is not entirely inconceivable.
  3. It seems very likely that people who are more health conscious might use acupuncture and live longer, need less readmissions or surgery. No doubt, this possibility is by far the best explanation of the findings of this retrospective matched cohort study.

If that is so, does this paper tell us anything useful at all?

Not really (that’s why it was published in an acupuncture journal which few people would read)

On second thought, perhaps it does tell us something valuable: retrospective matched cohort studies are hopeless when it comes to establishing cause and effect!

Acupressure is the stimulation of specific points, called acupoints, on the body surface by pressure for therapeutic purposes. The required pressure can be applied manually of by a range of devices. Acupressure is based on the same tradition and assumptions as acupuncture. Like acupuncture, it is often promoted as a panacea, a ‘cure-all’.

Several systematic reviews of the clinical trials of acupressure have been published. An overview published in 2010 included 9 such papers and concluded that the effectiveness of this treatment has not been conclusively demonstrated for any condition.

But since 2010, more trials have become available.

Do they change the overall picture?

The objective of this study was to test the efficacy of acupressure on patient-reported postoperative recovery. The researchers conducted a single centre, three-group, blind, randomised controlled, pragmatic trial assessing acupressure therapy on the PC6, LI4 and HT7 acupoints. Postoperative patients expected to stay in hospital at least 2 days after surgery were included and randomised to three groups:

  1. In the acupressure group, pressure was applied for 6 min (2 min per acupoint), three times a day after surgery for a maximum of 2 postoperative days during the hospital stay.
  2. In the sham group, extremely light touch was applied to the acupoints.
  3. The third group did not receive any such intervention.

All patients also received the normal postoperative treatments.

The primary outcome was the change in the quality of recovery (QoR), using the QoR-15 questionnaire, between postoperative days 1 and 3. Key secondary outcomes included patients’ satisfaction, postoperative nausea and vomiting, pain score and opioid (morphine equivalent) consumption. Assessors for the primary and secondary endpoints were blind to the group allocation.

A total of 163 patients were randomised (acupressure n=55, sham n=53, no intervention n=55). The mean (SD) postoperative change in QoR-15 did not differ statistically (P = 0.27) between the acupressure, sham and no intervention groups: 15.2 (17.8), 14.2 (21.9), 9.2 (21.7), respectively. Patient satisfaction (on a 0 to 10 scale) was statistically different (P = 0.01) among these three groups: 9.1 (1.5), 8.4 (1.6) and 8.2 (2.2), respectively. Changes in pain score and morphine equivalent consumption were not significantly different between the groups.

The authors concluded that two days of postoperative acupressure therapy (up to six treatments) did not significantly improve patient QoR, postoperative nausea and vomiting, pain score or opioid consumption. Acupressure, however, was associated with improved patient satisfaction.

This study is a good example to show why it is so difficult (or even impossible) to use a clinical trial for demonstrating the ineffectiveness of a therapy for any given condition. The above trial fails to show that acupressure had a positive effect on the primary outcome measure. Acupressure fans will, however, claim that:

  • there was a positive effect on patient satisfaction,
  • the treatment was too intense/long,
  • the treatment was not intense/long enough,
  • the wrong points were used,
  • the sample size was too small,
  • the patients were too ill,
  • the patients were not ill enough,
  • etc., etc.

In the end, such discussions often turn out to be little more than a game of pigeon chess. Perhaps it is best to ask before planning such a trial:


If the answer is no, why do the study in the first place?

Yesterday, I received a tweet from a guy called Bart Huisman (“teacher beekeeping, nature, biology, classical homeopathy, agriculture, health science, social science”). I don’t know him and cannot remember whether I had previous contact with him. His tweet read as follows:

“Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”.”

This refers to a story that I had almost forgotten. It’s a nice one with a ‘happy ending’, so let me recount it here briefly.

In 2005, the BBC had hired me as an advisor for their 4-part TV series on alternative medicine.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Prof Kathy Sykes presented the opening scene taking place in a Chinese operation theatre. In it a Chinese women was having open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. Kathy’s was visibly impressed and said on camera that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  However, the images clearly revealed that the patient was receiving all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines. So, Prof Sykes was telling the UK public a bunch of porkies. This was bound to confuse many viewers.

One of them was Simon Singh. At the time, I did not know Simon (to be honest, I did not even know of him) and was surprised to receive a phone call from him. He politely asked me to confirm that I had been the adviser of the BBC on this production. I was happy to confirm this fact. Then he asked why I had missed such a grave error. I replied that I could not possibly have spotted it, because all I had been asked to do was to review and correct the text of the programme which the BBC had sent to me by email. Before it was broadcast, I had not seen a single passage of the film.

Correcting the text had already led to several problems (not so much regarding the acupuncture part but mostly the other sections), because the BBC was reluctant to change several of the mistakes I had identified. When I told them that, in this case, I would quit, they finally found a way to alter them. But the cooperation had been far from easy. I explained all this to Simon and eventually he asked me whether I would be willing to support the official complaint he was about to file with the BBC. I agreed. This is probably where I used the term ‘deception’ that Mr Huisman mentioned in his tweet.

So, Simon submitted his complaint and eventually won the case.

But this is not the happy ending I was referring to.

During the course of the complaint, Simon and I realised that we were thinking alike and were getting on well. A few months later, he suggested that the two of us write a book together about alternative medicine. At first, I was hesitant. Simon said, “let’s try just one chapter, and see how it works out.” So we did. It turned out to be fun and instructive for both of us. So we did the other chapters as well. The book was published in 2008 and is called TRICK OR TREATMENT. It was published in about 20 different languages and the German version became ‘science book of the year in 2011 (I think).

And that’s not the happy ending either (in fact, it caused a lot of hardship for Simon who was sued by the BCA; luckily, he won that case too).

The real happy ending is the fact that Simon and I became friends for life.

Thank you Bart Huisman for reminding me of this rather lovely story.


By guest blogger Loretta Marron

If scientists were fearful of a clinical trial’s producing negative results, would they even pursue it? A draft Chinese regulation issued in late May aims to criminalise individual scientists and organisations whom China claims damage the reputation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Beijing has a reputation for reprimanding those who decry TCM. Such criticism is blocked on Chinese Internet. Silencing doctors is becoming the norm.

In January 2018, former anaesthetist, Tan Qindong, was arrested and spent more than three months in detention after criticising a widely advertised, best-selling ‘medicinal’ TCM liquor. Claiming that it was a ‘poison’, he believed that he was protecting the elderly and vulnerable patients with high blood pressure. Police claimed that a post on social media damaged the reputation of the TCM ‘liquor’ and of the company making it. Shortly after release, he suffered post-traumatic stress and was hospitalised.

On 30 December 2019, Chinese ophthalmologist, the late Dr Li Wenliang, was one of the first to recognise the outbreak of COVD-19. He posted a private warning to a group of fellow doctors about a possible outbreak of an illness resembling severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). He encouraged them to protect themselves from infection. Days later, after his post when viral, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan and forced to “admit to lying about the existence of a worrying new virus”. Li was accused of violating the provisions of the “People’s Republic of China Public Order Management and Punishment Law” for spreading “unlawful spreading of untruthful topics on the internet” and of disturbing the social order. He was made to sign a statement that he would “halt this unlawful behaviour”.

In April 2020, Chinese physician Yu Xiangdong, a senior medico who worked on the front line battling COVID-19, posted on Weibo, a Twitter-like site, a criticism of the use of antibiotics and TCM to treat COVID-19. He was demoted from his positions as assistant dean at the Central Hospital in the central city of Huangshi and director of quality management for the city’s Edong Healthcare Group. Well known for promoting modern medicine amongst the Chinese, Yu had almost a million followers on social media. All his postings vanished.

Beijing insists that TCM has been playing a crucial role in COVID-19 prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Claims continue to be made for “effective TCM recipes”. However, no randomised clinical trial has been published in any reputable journal.

TCM needs proper scrutiny, but criticising it could land you years in prison. If the benefits of suggested herbal remedies are to be realised, good clinical studies must be encouraged. For TCM, this might never be permitted.

Don’t think for a moment that you are safe in Australia.

Article 8.25 of the Free Trade Agreement Between the Government of Australia and the Government of the People’s Republic of China reads:

Traditional Chinese Medicine Services (“TCM”)

  1. Within the relevant committees to be established in accordance with this Agreement, and subject to available resources, Australia and China shall cooperate on matters relating to trade in TCM services.
  2. Cooperation identified in paragraph 2 shall:

(a)    include exchanging information, where appropriate, and discussing policies, regulations and actions related to TCM services; and

(b)   encourage future collaboration between regulators, registration authorities and relevant professional bodies of the Parties to facilitate trade in TCM and complementary medicines, in a manner consistent with all relevant regulatory frameworks. Such collaboration, involving the competent authorities of both Parties – for Australia, notably the Department of Health, and for China the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine – will foster concrete cooperation and exchanges relating to TCM.

By guest blogger Loretta Marron

Although assumed to be traditional, what we know today as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ (TCM) was invented in the 1950s for political reasons by then Chairman Mao. It has since been proclaimed by Xi Jinping, now life-President of the People’s Republic of China, as the “jewel” in the millennia of Chinese civilization.

In May this year, Xi “announced plans to criminalise criticism of traditional Chinese medicine”. Speaking out against TCM could land you years in prison, prosecuted for “picking fights to disturb public order” and “defaming” the practice.

With the industry expected to earn $420 billion by the end of 2020, covid-19 has provided Xi with a platform to promote unproven, potentially harmful TCM. To keep these profits filling Chinese coffers, the World Health Organization (WHO) remains silent and those challenging TCM are silenced.

In January, the late Dr Li Wenliang was arrested and gaoled for warning China about covid-19. Li was one of up to nine people who were disciplined for spreading rumours about it. As the virus silently spread around the world, Beijing told the WHO that there was ‘no clear evidence’ of spread between humans.

As their death toll passed 1,000, Beijing’s response was to remove senior officials and to sack hundreds over their handling of the outbreak. With the support of the WHO, claims continue to be made that TCM “has been proved effective in improving the cure rate”, denying the simple fact that “patients would have recovered even if they hadn’t taken the Chinese medicine”.

With cases now heading for 8 million, and over four hundred thousand people confirmed dead world-wide and with economies in free-fall, Beijing continues, “to protect its interests and people overseas; to gain leadership of international governance”,for financial gain, to aggressively use its national power. Under the guise of ‘International Aid’, during the pandemic, Beijing promoted treatments based on unproven traditional medicine, sending TCM practitioners to countries including Italy, France and Iran.

Countries challenging Beijing can expect claims of racism and financial retaliation.

Back in 2016, the Chinese State Council released a “Strategic Development Plan for Chinese Medicine (2016-2030)”, seeking to spread ‘knowledge’ into campuses, homes and abroad.

In July 2017, a law promising equal status for TCM and western medicine came into effect. Provisions included encouragement to China’s hospitals to set up TCM centres. “The new law on traditional Chinese medicine will improve global TCM influence, and give a boost to China’s soft power”.

In 2019, after strong lobbying by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), WHO added a chapter on TCM to their official International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).  In China, doctors are now instructed to prescribe traditional medicine to most patients.

While Chinese herbs might have exotic names, they are, once translated, often the same as western herbs, many of which might have significant interactions. WHO fails to acknowledge any drug interactions.

In 1967, Mao launched Project 523 to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested and none had worked. Trained in pharmacology and modern western methods, Tu Youyou used the scientific method to test sweet wormwood, a herb traditionally used in China for fever, where she developed a useful artemisinin derivative for resistant malaria. The drug has saved millions of lives. In 2015 she won the Nobel Prize for her work. However, Tu’s work is not a blanket endorsement of TCM: without the years of research, she would not have been successful.

TCM is commercially driven. Criticism of remedies is often blocked on the Internet in China, and critics have been jailed.  The majority of TCM’s are not tested for efficacy in randomized clinical trials. Clinical trials are usually of poor quality and serious side effects are underreported.   China has even rolled back regulations as Beijing forcefully promotes TCM’s as an alternative to proven western medicine. An increasing number of prestigious research hospitals now prescribe and dispense herbs that may cause drug interactions alongside western medicine for major illness patients.

TCM’s are not safe. Most systematic reviews suggest that there is no good or consistent evidence for effectiveness, negative results aren’t published, research data are fabricated and TCM-exports are of dubious quality.

If the benefits of herbal remedies are to be realised, good clinical studies must be encouraged.

TCM is not medicine. It’s little more than a philosophy or a set of traditional beliefs, about various concoctions and interventions and their alleged effect on health and diseases.

To stop misleading the world with what Mao himself saw as nonsense, and to mitigate future pandemics, WHO can and should remove all mention of TCM other than to state that it is unproven and could be dangerous.

The US ‘Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) have published a most comprehensive review update entitled ‘Noninvasive Nonpharmacological Treatment for Chronic Pain‘. It followed the AHRQ Methods Guide for Effectiveness and Comparative Effectiveness. The conditions included were:

  • Chronic low back pain
  • Chronic neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis (knee, hip, hand)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic tension headache

Here are the main findings related to acupuncture:


  • Acupuncture was associated with a small improvement in short-term function compared with sham acupuncture or usual care (4 trials); there was no difference between acupuncture and controls in intermediate-term (3 trials) or long-term (1 trial) function (: low). Acupuncture was associated with small improvements in short-term (5 trials) and long-term (1 trial) pain compared with sham acupuncture, usual care, an attention control, or a placebo intervention but there was no difference in intermediate-term pain (5 trials) (SOE: moderate for short term, low for intermediate term and long term).


  • Acupuncture was associated with small improvements in short-term (5 trials) and intermediate-term (3 trials) function versus sham acupuncture, a placebo (sham laser), or usual care; one trial reported no difference in function in the long term (: low for all time periods). For pain, there were no differences for acupuncture versus sham acupuncture or placebo interventions in the short (4 trials), intermediate (3 trials), or long (1 trial) term (SOE: low for all time periods).


  • No differences were seen between acupuncture and control interventions (sham acupuncture, waitlist, or usual care) for function in the short term (4 trials) or the intermediate term (4 trials) (: low for short term; moderate for intermediate term). Stratified analysis showed no differences between acupuncture and sham treatments (4 trials) but moderate improvement in function compared with usual care (2 trials) short term. For pain, there were no differences between acupuncture versus control interventions in the short term (6 trials) or clinically meaningful differences in the intermediate term (4 trials) (SOE: low for short term; moderate for intermediate term). Short-term differences in pain were significant for acupuncture versus usual care but not for acupuncture versus sham acupuncture.


  • Laser acupuncture was associated with small, short-term improvements in pain intensity and in the number of headache days per month versus sham in one trial (: low).


  • Acupuncture was associated with a small improvement in function compared with sham acupuncture at short-term (3 trials [1 new]) and intermediate-term (2 trials) follow-up (: moderate). There was no effect for acupuncture versus sham acupuncture on pain in the short term (4 trials [1 new]) or intermediate term (3 trials) (SOE: low) or based on pooled estimates across control conditions (sham or attention control, 5 trials [2 new]) SOE: low).


Treatment-related SAEs were rare (across 5 , 5 neck pain, 4 , 1 knee , and 1  trial); only one event (needle insertion site pain lasting1 month) in a LBP patient (<1%) in one trial was considered related to treatment,

SAEs not considered to be related to acupuncture or the study conditions (range 0% to 9% across 5 , 5 neck pain, 4 , 1 knee , and 1  trial). These included hospitalization (primarily) or outpatient treatment; reasons were not specified.

The most commonly reported non-serious AEs: swelling, bruising, bleeding or pain at the acupuncture site (1% to 61%, 12 RCTs; or 1% to 18% excluding an outlier trial)); numbness, discomfort, pain or increase in symptoms (1% to 14%; 11 RCTs), dizziness, nausea, fainting (1% to 7%, 7 RCTs), headache (1% to 2%; 4 RCTs), vasovagal symptoms (1% to 4%; 2 RCTs), respiratory problems, chest discomfort (1%; 2 neck pain RCTs), and infection at needle insertion site [1%; 1  (knee )]


I find this interesting, especially if we consider that chronic pain is THE domain for acupuncture (as practised in the West). It shows that, contrary to what so many enthusiasts try to tell us, the evidence for acupuncture is very weak. It also demonstrates that, contrary to what some sceptics assume, the evidence is not totally negative.

As far as harms are concerned, we need to be aware of the fact that the above conclusions are based on clinical trials. We and others have repeatedly shown that in the real of SCAM many, if not most clinical studies fail to mention adverse effects. This means two things: firstly, the trialists violate research ethics; secondly, the above information is woefully incomplete.

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