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Acupuncture is a veritable panacea; it cures everything! At least this is what many of its advocates want us to believe. Does it also have a role in supportive cancer care?

Let’s find out.

This systematic review evaluated the effects of acupuncture in women with breast cancer (BC), focusing on patient-reported outcomes (PROs).

A comprehensive literature search was carried out for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) reporting PROs in BC patients with treatment-related symptoms after undergoing acupuncture for at least four weeks. Literature screening, data extraction, and risk bias assessment were independently carried out by two researchers. The authors stated that they followed the ‘Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses’ (PRISMA) guidelines.

Out of the 2, 524 identified studies, 29 studies representing 33 articles were included in this meta-analysis. The RCTs employed various acupuncture techniques with a needle, such as hand-acupuncture and electroacupuncture. Sham/placebo acupuncture, pharmacotherapy, no intervention, or usual care were the control interventions. About half of the studies lacked adequate blinding.

At the end of treatment (EOT), the acupuncture patients’ quality of life (QoL) was measured by the QLQ-C30 QoL subscale, the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Endocrine Symptoms (FACT-ES), the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy–General/Breast (FACT-G/B), and the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life Questionnaire (MENQOL), which depicted a significant improvement. The use of acupuncture in BC patients lead to a considerable reduction in the scores of all subscales of the Brief Pain Inventory-Short Form (BPI-SF) and Visual Analog Scale (VAS) measuring pain. Moreover, patients treated with acupuncture were more likely to experience improvements in hot flashes scores, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and anxiety compared to those in the control group, while the improvements in depression were comparable across both groups. Long-term follow-up results were similar to the EOT results. Eleven RCTs did not report any information on adverse effects.

The authors concluded that current evidence suggests that acupuncture might improve BC treatment-related symptoms measured with PROs including QoL, pain, fatigue, hot flashes, sleep disturbance and anxiety. However, a number of included studies report limited amounts of certain subgroup settings, thus more rigorous, well-designed and larger RCTs are needed to confirm our results.

This review looks rigorous on the surface but has many weaknesses if one digs only a little deeper. To start with, it has no precise research question: is any type of acupuncture better than any type of control? This is not a research question that anyone can answer with just a few studies of mostly poor quality. The authors claim to follow the PRISMA guidelines, yet (as a co-author of these guidelines) I can assure you that this is not true. Many of the included studies are small and lacked blinding. The results are confusing, contradictory and not clearly reported. Many trials fail to mention adverse effects and thus violate research ethics, etc., etc.

The conclusion that acupuncture might improve BC treatment-related symptoms could be true. But does this paper convince me that acupuncture DOES improve these symptoms?


Qigong can be described as a mind-body-spirit practice that improves one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing technique, self-massage, sound, and focused intent. But does it really improve health?

The purpose of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of Qigong in improving the quality of life and relieving fatigue, sleep disturbance, and cancer-related emotional disturbances (distress, depression, and anxiety) in women with breast cancer.

The PubMed, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Web of Science, Sinomed, Wanfang, VIP, and China National Knowledge Infrastructure databases were searched from their inceptions to March 2020 for controlled clinical trials. Two reviewers selected relevant trials that assessed the benefit of Qigong for breast cancer patients independently. A methodological quality assessment was conducted according to the criteria of the 12 Cochrane Back Review Group for risk of bias independently. A meta-analysis was performed using Review Manager 5.3.

A total of 17 trials were found in which 1236 cases were enrolled. The quality of the included trials was generally low, as only 5 of them were rated high quality. 14 studies were conducted in China. The types of qigong included Baduanjin Qigong (9 trials), Chan-Chuang Qigong (1 trial), Goulin New Qigong (2 Trials), Tai Chi Qigong (2 Trials), and Kuala Lumpur Qigong (1 trial). The course of qigong ranged from 21 days to more than 6 months. Four trials compared qigong to no treatment, one sham Qigong, seven compared to other types of exercise, and 6 to usual care.

The results showed significant positive effects of Qigong on quality of life (n = 950, standardized mean difference (SMD), 0.65, 95 % confidence interval (CI) 0.23–1.08, P =  0.002). Depression (n = 540, SMD = −0.32, 95 % CI −0.59 to −0.04, P =  0.02) and anxiety (n = 439, SMD = −0.71, 95 % CI −1.32 to −0.10, P =  0.02) were also significantly relieved in the Qigong group. There was no significant benefit on fatigue (n = 401, SMD = −0.32, 95 % CI  0.71 to 0.07, P = 0.11) or sleep disturbance relief compared to that observed in the control group (n = 298, SMD = −0.11, 95 % CI  0.74 to 0.52, P = 0.73).

The authors concluded that this review shows that Qigong is beneficial for improving quality of life and relieving depression and anxiety; thus, Qigong should be encouraged in women with breast cancer.

No, this review does not show that Qigong is beneficial for improving quality of life and relieving depression and anxiety!


  1. Most primary studies were of very poor quality.
  2. Most were from China, and we know (and have often discussed) that such trials are most unreliable.
  3. No trial even attempted to control for placebo effects.

A better conclusion would therefore be something like this:

Even though most trials conclude positively, the value of Qigong can, for a range of reasons, not be determined on the basis of the evidence available to date.

Tai chi is a form of exercise that combines deep breathing and relaxation with meditative, slow movements. Originally developed as a martial art in 13th-century China, tai chi is now practised around the world as a health-promoting exercise. Despite its popularity, its therapeutic value is not clear.

This randomized, assessor-blinded trial examined the therapeutic efficacy of tai chi for the management of central obesity. A total of 543 participants with central obesity were randomly assigned in a 1:1:1 ratio to:

  • a control group with no exercise intervention (n = 181),
  • conventional exercise consisting of aerobic exercise and strength training (EX group) (n = 181),
  • a tai chi group (TC group) (n = 181). Interventions lasted 12 weeks.

Outcomes were assessed at baseline, week 12, and week 38. The primary outcome was waist circumference (WC). Secondary outcomes were body weight; body mass index; high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), triglyceride, and fasting plasma glucose levels; blood pressure; and incidence of remission of central obesity.

The adjusted mean difference in WC from baseline to week 12 in the control group was 0.8 cm (95% CI, -4.1 to 5.7 cm). Both intervention groups showed reductions in WC relative to control (adjusted mean differences: TC group vs. control, -1.8 cm [CI, -2.3 to -1.4 cm]; P < 0.001; EX group vs. control: -1.3 cm [CI, -1.8 to -0.9 cm]; P < 0.001); both intervention groups also showed reductions in body weight (P < 0.05) and attenuation of the decrease in HDL-C level relative to the control group. The favorable changes in WC and body weight were maintained in both the TC and EX groups, whereas the beneficial effect on HDL-C was only maintained in the TC group at week 38.

The authors concluded that Tai chi is an effective approach to reduce WC in adults with central obesity aged 50 years or older.

This is a decent trial with an odd conclusion: it is not just the Tai chi intervention but both types of exercise that yield significantly positive effects on the primary outcome measure. So, why did the authors not conclude exercise is an effective approach to reduce WC in adults with central obesity aged 50 years or older?

Could it be that such a conclusion would have meant stating the obvious?

Neuropathic pain is difficult to treat. Luckily, we have acupuncture! Acupuncturists leave us in no doubt that their needles are the solution. But are they correct or perhaps victims of wishful thinking?

This review was aimed at determining the proportion of patients with neuropathic pain who achieve a clinically meaningful improvement in their pain with the use of different pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments.

Randomized controlled trials were included that reported a responder analysis of adults with neuropathic pain-specifically diabetic neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, or trigeminal neuralgia-treated with any of the following 8 treatments: exercise, acupuncture, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), topical rubefacients, opioids, anticonvulsant medications, and topical lidocaine.

A total of 67 randomized controlled trials were included. There was moderate certainty of evidence that anticonvulsant medications (risk ratio of 1.54; 95% CI 1.45 to 1.63; number needed to treat [NNT] of 7) and SNRIs (risk ratio of 1.45; 95% CI 1.33 to 1.59; NNT = 7) might provide a clinically meaningful benefit to patients with neuropathic pain. There was low certainty of evidence for a clinically meaningful benefit for rubefacients (ie, capsaicin; NNT = 7) and opioids (NNT = 8), and very low certainty of evidence for TCAs. Very low-quality evidence demonstrated that acupuncture was ineffective. All drug classes, except TCAs, had a greater likelihood of deriving a clinically meaningful benefit than having withdrawals due to adverse events (number needed to harm between 12 and 15). No trials met the inclusion criteria for exercise or lidocaine, nor were any trials identified for trigeminal neuralgia.

The authors concluded that there is moderate certainty of evidence that anticonvulsant medications and SNRIs provide a clinically meaningful reduction in pain in those with neuropathic pain, with lower certainty of evidence for rubefacients and opioids, and very low certainty of evidence for TCAs. Owing to low-quality evidence for many interventions, future high-quality trials that report responder analyses will be important to strengthen understanding of the relative benefits and harms of treatments in patients with neuropathic pain.

This review was published in a respected mainstream journal and conducted by a multidisciplinary team with the following titles and affiliations:

  • Associate Professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
  • Pharmacist in Edmonton, Alta, and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
  • Family physician and Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta.
  • Family physician and Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Pharmacist, Clinical Evidence Expert Lead for the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Pharmacist in Edmonton and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
  • Pharmacist and Clinical Evidence Expert at the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
  • Family physician, Director of Programs and Practice Support at the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
  • Pharmacist at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’lle-de-Montréal and Clinical Associate Professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Montreal in Quebec.
  • Care of the elderly physician and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Family physician and Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta.
  • Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
  • Research assistant at the University of Alberta.
  • Medical student at the University of Alberta.
  • Nurse in Edmonton and Clinical Evidence Expert for the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

As far as I can see, the review is of sound methodology, it minimizes bias, and its conclusions are therefore trustworthy. They suggest that acupuncture is not effective for neuropathic pain.

But how can this be? Do the authors not know about all the positive evidence on acupuncture? A quick search found positive recent reviews of acupuncture for all of the three indications in question:

  1. Diabetic neuropathy: Acupuncture alone and vitamin B combined with acupuncture are more effective in treating DPN compared to vitamin B.
  2. Herpes zoster: Acupuncture may be effective for patients with HZ.
  3. Trigeminal neuralgia: Acupuncture appears more effective than pharmacotherapy or surgery.

How can we explain this obvious contradiction?

Which result should we trust?

Do we believe pro-acupuncture researchers who published their papers in pro-acupuncture journals, or do we believe the findings of researchers who could not care less whether their work proves or disproves the effectiveness of acupuncture?

I think that these papers offer an exemplary opportunity for us to study how powerful the biases of researchers can be. They also remind us that, in the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), we should always be very cautious and not accept every conclusion that has been published in supposedly peer-reviewed medical journals.

Qigong is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine using meditation, exercise, deep breathing, and other techniques with a view of strengthening the assumed life force ‘qi’ and thus improving health and prolong life. There are several distinct forms of qigong which can be categorized into two main groups, internal qigong, and external qigong. Internal qigong refers to a physical and mental training method for the cultivation of oneself to achieve optimal health in both mind and body. Internal qigong is not dissimilar to tai chi but it also employs the coordination of different breathing patterns and meditation. External qigong refers to a treatment where qigong practitioners direct their qi-energy to the patient with the intention to clear qi-blockages or balance the flow of qi within that patient. According to Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, qigong allows access to higher realms of awareness. The assumptions of qigong are not scientifically plausible and its clinical effectiveness remains unproven.

The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of internal Qigong for the management of a symptom cluster comprising fatigue, dyspnea, and anxiety in patients with lung cancer.

A total of 156 lung cancer patients participated in this trial, and they were randomized to a Qigong group (6 weeks of intervention) or a waitlist control group receiving usual care. A professional coach with 12 years of experience in teaching Qigong was employed to guide the participants’ training. The training protocol was developed according to the “Qigong Standard” enacted by the Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. The training involved a series of simple, repeated practices including body posture/movement, breathing practice, and meditation performed in synchrony. It mainly consisted of gentle movements designed to bring about a deep state of relaxation and included 7 postures. The symptom cluster was assessed at baseline, at the end of treatment (primary outcome), and at 12 weeks, alongside measures of cough and quality of life (QOL).

The results showed no significant interaction effect between group and time for the symptom cluster, the primary outcome measure of this study, overall and for fatigue and anxiety. However, a significant trend towards improvement was observed on fatigue (P = .004), dyspnea (P = .002), and anxiety (P = .049) in the Qigong group from baseline assessment to the end of intervention at the 6th week (within-group changes). Improvements in dyspnea and in the secondary outcomes of cough, global health status, functional well-being and QOL symptom scales were statistically significant between the 2 groups (P = .001, .014, .021, .001, and .002, respectively).

The authors concluded that Qigong did not alleviate the symptom cluster experience. Nevertheless, this intervention was effective in reducing dyspnea and cough, and improving QOL. More than 6 weeks were needed, however, for detecting the effect of Qigong on improving dyspnea. Furthermore, men benefited more than women. It may not be beneficial to use Qigong to manage the symptom cluster consisting of fatigue, dyspnea, and anxiety, but it may be effective in managing respiratory symptoms (secondary outcomes needing further verification in future research). Future studies targeting symptom clusters should ensure the appropriateness of the combination of symptoms.

I am getting very tired of negative trials getting published as (almost) positive ones. The primary outcome measure of this study did not yield a positive result. The fact that some other endpoints suggested a positive might provide an impetus for further study but does not demonstrate Qigong to be effective. I know the first author of this study is a fan of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), but this should not stop him from doing proper science.

Thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) involves the insertion of thread at specific points on the body surface. The claim is that TEAT provides a sustained stimulation of acupoints and is therefore superior to needle acupuncture. Initially, TEAT was used in China to treat obesity, today it is employed to treat many conditions, including musculoskeletal conditions such as ankle sprain, shoulder pain, lumbar intervertebral disc herniation, and plantar fasciitis. Its effectiveness is, however, doubtful and so is its safety.

This review evaluated the safety of thread embedding acupuncture therapy (TEAT) and discuss the prevention and treatment of some adverse events (AEs).

Databases, including China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), CBMdisc, Wanfang, VIP databases and PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Web of Science, were searched from their inception to January 2020. Included were randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and case reports in which AEs with TEAT were reported. Cochrane Collaboration’s tool and RevMan V.5.3.3 software were used to evaluate the quality of the studies.

A total of 61 articles (45 RCTs and 16 case reports) with a total of 620 cases of AEs were included in this review. These studies were published in two countries: China and South Korea. Twenty-eight kinds of AEs were noted. The most common AEs were induration, bleeding and ecchymosis, redness and swelling, fever, and pain. They accounted for 75.35% of all AEs.  Most AEs were mild.; The rarest AEs were epilepsy, irregular menstruation, skin ulcer, thread malabsorption, and fat liquefaction, with 1 case each. Not all of them had a clear causal relationship with TEAT. Most of the AEs were local reactions and systemic reactions accounted for only 1.27%. Although the included studies showed that AEs were very commonly encountered (11.09%), only 5 cases of severe AEs reported from 2013 to 2017 (0.1%) by using catgut thread, which is rarely employed nowadays with new absorbable surgical suture being more popular. All of the patients with severe AEs were recovered after symptomatic treatment with no sequelae.

The authors concluded that the evidence showed that TEAT is a relatively safe and convenient therapy especially since application of new absorbable surgical suture. Improving practitioner skills, regulating operations, and paying attention to the patients’ conditions may reduce the incidence of AEs and improve safety of TEAT.

TEAT was initially used in China only but recently it has become popular elsewhere as well. Therefore the question about its risks has become relevant. The present paper is interesting in that it demonstrates that AEs do occur with some regularity. The authors’ conclusion that TEAT is “relatively safe” is, however, not justified because:

  1. the total sample size was not large enough for a generalizable conclusion;
  2. only RCTs and case reports were included, whereas case series and case-control studies (which would provide more relevant data) were excluded or might not even exist;
  3. RCTs of acupuncture often fail to mention or under-report AEs;
  4. acupuncture papers from China are notoriously unreliable.

So, all we can conclude from the evidence presented here is that AEs after TEAT do occur and do not seem to be all that rare. As the efficacy of TEAT has not been shown beyond doubt, this must inevitably lead to the conclusion that the risk-benefit balance of TEAT is not positive. In turn, that means that TEAT cannot be recommended as a treatment for any condition.


The Chinese have made several attempts to persuade us that their traditional remedies are effective for COVID-19 infections. Here is yet another one. This review summarised the evidence of the therapeutic effects and safety of Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) used with or without conventional western therapy for COVID-19. All clinical studies of the therapeutic effects and safety of CHM for COVID-19 were included. The authors

  • summarized the general characteristics of included studies,
  • evaluated the methodological quality of the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) using the Cochrane risk of bias tool,
  • analyzed the use of CHM,
  • used Revman 5.4 software to present the risk ratio (RR) or mean difference (MD) and their 95% confidence interval (CI) to estimate the therapeutic effects and safety of CHM.

A total of 58 clinical studies were identified including;

  • 10 RCTs,
  • 1 non-randomized controlled trials,
  • 11 retrospective studies with a control group,
  • 12 case-series,
  • 24 case-reports.

All of the studies had been performed in China. No RCTs of high methodological quality were identified. The most frequently tested oral Chinese patent medicine, Chinese herbal medicine injection, or prescribed herbal decoction were:

  • Lianhua Qingwen granule/capsule,
  • Xuebijing injection,
  • Maxing Shigan Tang.

The pooled analyses showed that there were statistical differences between the intervention group and the comparator group (RR 0.42, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.82, six RCTs; RR 0.38, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.64, five retrospective studies with a control group), indicating that CHM plus conventional western therapy appeared to be better than conventional western therapy alone in reducing aggravation rate.

In addition, compared with conventional western therapy, CHM plus conventional western therapy had the potential advantages in increasing the recovery rate and shortening the duration of fever, cough, and fatigue, improving the negative conversion rate of nucleic acid test, and increasing the improvement rate of chest CT manifestations and shortening the time from receiving the treatment to the beginning of chest CT manifestations improvement.

For adverse events, the pooled data showed that there were no statistical differences between the CHM and the control groups.

The authors concluded that current low certainty evidence suggests that there maybe a tendency that CHM plus conventional western therapy is superior to conventional western therapy alone. The use of CHM did not increase the risk of adverse events.

One of the principles to remember here is this: RUBBISH IN, RUBBISH OUT. If you meta-analyze primary data that are rubbish, your findings can only be rubbish as well.

All one needs to know about the primary data entered into the present analysis is that there were no rigorous RCTs… not one! That means the evidence is, as the authors rightly but modestly conclude of LOW CERTAINTY. My conclusions would have been a little different:

  1. In terms of safety, the dataset is too small and unreliable to make any judgment.
  2. In terms of efficacy, there is no sound data that CHM has a positive effect.

Two recent reviews have evaluated the evidence for acupuncture as a means of preventing migraine attacks.

The first review assessed the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for the prophylaxis of episodic or chronic migraine in adult patients compared to pharmacological treatment.

The authors included randomized controlled trials published in western languages that compared any treatment involving needle insertion (with or without manual or electrical stimulation) at acupuncture points, pain points or trigger points, with any pharmacological prophylaxis in adult (≥18 years) with chronic or episodic migraine with or without aura according to the criteria of the International Headache Society.

Nine randomized trials were included encompassing 1,484 patients. At the end of the intervention, a small reduction was found in favor of acupuncture for the number of days with migraine per month: (SMD: -0.37; 95% CI -1.64 to -0.11), and for response rate (RR: 1.46; 95% CI 1.16-1.84). A moderate effect emerged in the reduction of pain intensity in favor of acupuncture (SMD: -0.36; 95% CI -0.60 to -0.13), and a large reduction in favor of acupuncture in both the dropout rate due to any reason (RR 0.39; 95% CI 0.18 to 0.84) and the dropout rate due to adverse event (RR 0.26; 95% CI 0.09 to 0.74). The quality of the evidence was moderate for all these primary outcomes. Results at longest follow-up confirmed these effects.

The authors concluded that, based on moderate certainty of evidence, we conclude that acupuncture is mildly more effective and much safer than medication for the prophylaxis of migraine.


The second review aimed to perform a network meta-analysis to compare the effectiveness and acceptability between topiramate, acupuncture, and Botulinum neurotoxin A (BoNT-A).

The authors searched OVID Medline, Embase, the Cochrane register of controlled trials (CENTRAL), the Chinese Clinical Trial Register, and for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared topiramate, acupuncture, and BoNT-A with any of them or placebo in the preventive treatment of chronic migraine. A network meta-analysis was performed by using a frequentist approach and a random-effects model. The primary outcomes were the reduction in monthly headache days and monthly migraine days at week 12. Acceptability was defined as the number of dropouts owing to adverse events.

A total of 15 RCTs (n = 2545) could be included. Eleven RCTs were at low risk of bias. The network meta-analyses (n = 2061) showed that acupuncture (2061 participants; standardized mean difference [SMD] -1.61, 95% CI: -2.35 to -0.87) and topiramate (582 participants; SMD -0.4, 95% CI: -0.75 to -0.04) ranked the most effective in the reduction of monthly headache days and migraine days, respectively; but they were not significantly superior over BoNT-A. Topiramate caused the most treatment-related adverse events and the highest rate of dropouts owing to adverse events.

The authors concluded that Topiramate and acupuncture were not superior over BoNT-A; BoNT-A was still the primary preventive treatment of chronic migraine. Large-scale RCTs with direct comparison of these three treatments are warranted to verify the findings.

Unquestionably, these are interesting findings. How reliable are they? Acupuncture trials are in several ways notoriously tricky, and many of the primary studies were of poor quality. This means the results are not as reliable as one would hope. Yet, it seems to me that migraine prevention is one of the indications where the evidence for acupuncture is strongest.

A second question might be practicability. How realistic is it for a patient to receive regular acupuncture sessions for migraine prevention? And finally, we might ask how cost-effective acupuncture is for that purpose and how its cost-effectiveness compares to other options.

 This study aimed to evaluate the effect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) on patients with gastric cancer following surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy in Taiwan. The cohort sampling data set was obtained from the Registry of Catastrophic Illness Patient Database, a research database of patients with severe illnesses from the National Health Insurance Research Database, Taiwan. Patients who had received a new diagnosis of gastric cancer and had undergone surgery were enrolled. the researchers matched TCM users and nonusers at a ratio of 1 : 3 based on the propensity score, and TCM users were also grouped into short-term and long-term users.

The number of TCM users and nonusers was 1701 and 5103 after applying the propensity score at a ratio of 1 : 3. Short-term users and long-term TCM users were independently associated with a decreased risk of death with HRs of 0.59 (95% confidence interval (CI), 0.55-0.65) and 0.41 (95% CI, 0.36-0.47), respectively, compared with TCM nonusers. The researchers also obtained similar results when they adjusted for covariates in the main model, as well as each of the additional listed covariates. They also observed similar HR trends in short-term users and long-term TCM users among men and women aged <65 years and ≥65 years. The most commonly prescribed single herb and herbal formula in our cohort were Hwang-Chyi (Radix Hedysari; 11.8%) and Xiang-Sha-Liu-Jun-Zi-Tang (15.5%), respectively.

The authors concluded that TCM use was associated with higher survival in patients with gastric cancer after surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy. TCM could be used as a complementary and alternative therapy in patients with gastric cancer after surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy.

This is an interesting study which seems well-done – except for one fatal mistake: even in the title, the authors imply a causal relationship between TCM and survival. Their conclusion has two sentences; the first one speaks correctly of an association. The second, however, not only implies causality but goes much further in suggesting that TCM should be used to prolong the life of patients. Yet, there are, of course, dozens of factors that could interfere with the findings or be the true cause of the observed outcome.

Anyone with a minimum of critical thinking ability should know that CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION; sadly, the authors of this study seem to be the exception.

Several previously published clinical trials have suggested that both acupuncture and sham acupuncture exert significant, non-specific effects on treatment outcomes when compared to no-treatment controls. A recently developed framework (mechanisms in orthodox and complementary and alternative medicine-MOCAM) suggests that the non-specific effects of acupuncture originate from multiple domains (e.g. patient characteristics, acupuncturist skill/technique, the patient-acupuncturist relationship, and the acupuncture environment). However, it remains to be determined precisely how these domains influence the non-specific effects of treatment among patients receiving acupuncture and sham acupuncture in clinical trials.

To address this issue, researchers conducted a systematic review to synthesize existing qualitative evidence on how trial participants randomized to acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups experience non-specific effects, regardless of the types of medical conditions investigated.

This systematic review included primary qualitative studies embedded in randomized controlled trials designed to investigate acupuncture or sham acupuncture interventions. Eligible studies published in English were derived from a search of five international databases. The methodological quality of included studies was evaluated using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) tool. Using a framework synthesis approach, the identified MOCAM framework was adapted based on the synthesis of the available qualitative evidence.

A total of 20 studies of high methodological quality were included. The proposed model indicated that the effects of acupuncture may be increased by:

  • maintaining a professional status,
  • applying a holistic treatment approach,
  • practicing empathy,
  • providing patients with an appropriate explanation of the theory behind acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

From the patient’s perspective, the efficacy of treatment can be increased by:

  • following the lifestyle modification advice provided by acupuncturists,
  • maintaining a positive attitude toward treatment efficacy,
  • actively engaging with acupuncturists during the consultation,
  • making behavioral changes based on experience gained during the trial.

The authors concluded that the results of this study may provide a basis for improving and standardizing key components of non-specific effects in acupuncture treatment, and for improving the isolation of specific effects in future clinical trials involving acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

The authors also state that having a positive attitude and high expectations regarding treatment efficacy can lead to positive health outcomes, along with a sense of curiosity and altruistic desire to join clinical trials. Indeed, previous clinical trials have reported that higher expectations regarding treatment effects may help to reduce fatigue and alleviate osteoarthritis in both acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups. Similar benefits of positive expectations have also been observed among patients with irritable bowel syndrome in sham acupuncture trials. 


So close to admitting that these findings indicate quite strongly that acupuncture is but a theatrical placebo.

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