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

TCM

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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 clinicaltrials.gov 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 AND YET SO FAR!

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

Tuina is a massage therapy that originates from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Many of the techniques used in tuina resemble those of a western massage like gliding, kneading, vibration, tapping, friction, pulling, rolling, pressing, and shaking. Tuina involves a range of manipulations usually performed by the therapist’s finger, hand, elbow, knee, or foot. They are applied to muscle or soft tissue at specific locations of the body.

The aim of Tuina is to enhance the flow of the ‘vital energy’ or ‘chi’, that is alleged to control our health. Proponents of the therapy recommend Tuina for a range of conditions, including paediatric ones. Paediatric Tuina has been widely used in children with acute diarrhea in China. However, due to a lack of high-quality clinical evidence, the benefit of Tuina is not clear.

This study aimed to assess the effect of paediatric Tuina compared with sham Tuina as add-on therapy in addition to usual care for 0-6-year-old children with acute diarrhea.

Eighty-six participants aged 0-6 years with acute diarrhea were randomized to receive Tuina plus usual care (n = 43) or sham Tuina plus usual care (n = 43). The primary outcomes were days of diarrhea from baseline and times of diarrhea on day 3. Secondary outcomes included a global change rating (GCR) and the number of days when the stool characteristics returned to normal. Adverse events were assessed.

Tuina treatment in the intervention group was performed on the surface of the children’s body using moderate pressure (Fig. 1a). Tuina treatment in the control group was different: the therapist used one hand to hold the child’s hand or put one hand on the child’s body, while the other hand performed manipulations on the therapist’s own hand instead of the child’s hand or body (Fig. ​(Fig.11b).

Tuina was associated with a reduction in times of diarrhea on day 3 compared with sham Tuina in both ITT and per-protocol analyses. However, the results were not significant when adjusted for social-demographic and clinical characteristics. No significant difference was found between groups in days of diarrhea, global change rating, or number of days when the stool characteristics returned to normal.

The authors concluded that in children aged 0-6 years with acute diarrhea, pediatric Tuina showed significant effects in terms of reducing times of diarrhea compared with sham Tuina. Studies with larger sample sizes and adjusted trial designs are warranted to further evaluate the effect of pediatric Tuina therapy.

This study was well-reported and has interesting features, such as the attempt to use a placebo control and blinding (whether blinding was successful is a different matter and was not tested in the trial). It is, therefore, all the more surprising that the essentially negative result is turned into a positive one. After adjustment, the differences disappear (a fact which the authors hardly mention in the paper), which means they are not due to the treatment but to group differences and confounding. This, in turn, means that the study shows not the effectiveness but the ineffectiveness of Tuina.

The state of acupuncture research has long puzzled me. The first thing that would strike who looks at it is its phenomenal increase:

  • Until around the year 2000, Medline listed about 200 papers per year on the subject.
  • From 2005, there was a steep, near-linear increase.
  • It peaked in 2020 when we had a record-breaking 20515 acupuncture papers currently listed in Medline.

Which this amount of research, one would expect to get somewhere. In particular, one would hope to slowly know whether acupuncture works and, if so, for which conditions. But this is not the case.

On the contrary, the acupuncture literature is a complete mess in which it gets more and more difficult to differentiate the reliable from the unreliable, the useful from the redundant, and the truth from the lies. Because of this profound confusion, acupuncture fans are able to claim that their pet-therapy is demonstrably effective for a wide range of conditions, while skeptics insist it is a theatrical placebo. The consumer might listen in bewilderment.

Yesterday (18/1/2021), I had a quick (actually, it was not that quick after all) look into what Medline currently lists in terms of new acupuncture research published in 2021 and found a few other things that are remarkable:

  1. There were already 100 papers dated 2021 (today, there were even 118); that corresponds to about 5 new articles per day and makes acupuncture one of the most research-active areas of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).
  2. Of these 100 papers, only 7 were clinical trials (CTs). In my view, clinical trials would be more important than any other type of research on acupuncture. To see that they amount to just 7% of the total is therefore disappointing.
  3. Twelve papers were systematic reviews (SRs). It is odd, I find, to see almost twice the amount of SRs than CTs.
  4. Eighteen papers referred to protocols of studies of SRs. In particular protocols of SRs are useless in my view. It seems to me that the explanation for this plethora of published protocols might be the fact that Chinese researchers are extremely keen to get papers into Western journals; it is an essential boost to their careers.
  5. Seven papers were surveys. This multitude of survey research is typical for all types of SCAM.
  6. Twenty-four articles were on basic research. I find basic research into an ancient therapy of questionable clinical use more than a bit strange.
  7. The rest of the articles were other types of publications and a few were misclassified.
  8. The vast majority (n = 81) of the 100 papers were authored exclusively by Chinese researchers (and a few Korean). In view of the fact that it has been shown repeatedly that practically all acupuncture studies from China report positive results and that data fabrication seems rife in China, this dominance of China could be concerning indeed.

Yes, I find all this quite concerning. I feel that we are swamped with plenty of pseudo-research on acupuncture that is of doubtful (in many cases very doubtful) reliability. Eventually, this will create an overall picture for the public that is misleading to the extreme (to check the validity of the original research is a monster task and way beyond what even an interested layperson can do).

And what might be the solution? I am not sure I have one. But for starters, I think, that journal editors should get a lot more discerning when it comes to article submissions from (Chinese) acupuncture researchers. My advice to them and everyone else:

if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

This is an analysis that I have long hesitated to conduct. The reason for my hesitation is simple: some people might think it is vindictive, revengeful or ad hominem. After reflecting about it for years, I have now decided to go ahead with it (sorry, it’s a bit lengthy). This case study is not meant to be vindictive, but offers an important insight into the power of conflicts of interest in SCAM that are not financial but ideological. I think it is crucial that people are aware of and consider such conflicts carefully, and I can’t see how else I might demonstrate my point so plainly.

Dr Adrian White was a co-worker of mine for about 10 years. He became a trusted colleague, my ‘right hand’ man and even my deputy at my Exeter department. When I discovered that my trust had been misplaced, I did not prolong his contract (I will not dwell on this episode, those who are interested find it in my memoir). Adrian then got a senior research fellowship with Prof John Campbell (not my favourite colleague at Exeter) at the department of general practice where he continued his research on acupuncture for about 10 more years largely unsupervised.

Adrian had been an acupuncturist body and soul (in fact, I had never before met anyone so utterly convinced of the value of this therapy). When he joined my team, he was scientifically naive, and we spent many month trying to teach him how to think like a scientist. Initially, he found it very difficult to think critically about acupuncture. Later, I thought the problem was under control. Yet, most of his research in my department was guided by me and tightly supervised (i.e. I made sure that out studies were testing rather than promoting SCAM, and that our reviews were critical assessments of the existing evidence).

Thus there exist two separate and well-documented periods of a pro-acupuncture researcher:

  • 10 years guided by me and members of my team;
  • 10 years largely unsupervised.

What could be more tempting than to compare Adrian’s output during these two periods?

To do this, I looked up all of Adrian’s 120 publications on acupuncture and selected those 52 articles that generated factual new data (mostly clinical trials or systematic reviews). As it happens, they are numerically distributed almost equally within the two periods. The endpoints for my analysis were the directions of the conclusions of his papers. I therefore extracted, dated, and rated the 52 articles as follows:

  • P = positive from the point of view of an acupuncture advocate,
  • N = negative from the point of view of an acupuncture advocate.
  • P/N = not clearly pointing in either direction.

To render this exercise transparent (occasionally, I was not entirely sure about my ratings), I copied all the 52 conclusions and provided links to the original papers so that anyone inferested is able to check easily.

Here are my findings. Articles 1 – 27 were published AFTER Adrian had left my department; articles 28 – 52 are his papers from the time while he worked with me.

  1. A definitive three-arm trial is feasible. Further follow-up reminders, minimum data collection and incentives should be considered to improve participant retention in the follow-up processes in the standardised advice and exercise booklet arm. (2016) P/N
  2. The available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long-term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking. (2016) P
  3. The available results suggest that acupuncture is effective for treating frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches, but further trials – particularly comparing acupuncture with other treatment options – are needed. (2016) P
  4. Acupuncture during pregnancy appears to be associated with few AEs when correctly applied. (2014) P
  5. Although pooled estimates suggest possible short-term effects there is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, or laser therapy have a sustained benefit on smoking cessation for six months or more. However, lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Electrostimulation is not effective for smoking cessation. Well-designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions. (2014) P
  6. The current evidence suggests that acupuncture may have some effects on drug dependence that have been missed because of choice of outcome in many previous studies, and future studies should use outcomes suggested by clinical experience. Body points and electroacupuncture, used in the original clinical observation, justify further research. (2013) P
  7. Acceptability is very high and may be maximised by taking a number of factors into account: full information should be provided before treatment begins; flexibility should be maintained in the appointment system and different levels of contact between fellow patients should be fostered; sufficient space and staffing should be provided and single-sex groups used wherever possible. (2012) P
  8. This is the first evaluation of nurse-led group (multibed) acupuncture clinics for patients with knee osteoarthritis to include a 2 year follow-up. It shows the practicability of offering a low-cost acupuncture service as an alternative to knee surgery and the service’s success in providing long-term symptom relief in about a third of patients. Using realistic assumptions, the cost consequences for the local commissioning group are an estimated saving of £100 000 a year. Sensitivity analyses are presented using different assumptions. (2012) P
  9. There is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further, well designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence-based interventions. (2011) P/N
  10. Eight (8) of 10 international acupuncture experts were able to reach consensus on the syndromes, symptoms, and treatment of postmenopausal women with hot flashes. The syndromes were similar to those used by practitioners in the ACUFLASH clinical trial, but there were considerable differences between the acupuncture points. This difference is likely to be the result of differences in approach of training schools, and whether it is relevant for clinical outcomes is not well understood. (2011) P
  11. 70% of those patients eligible to participate volunteered to do so; all participants had clinically identified MTrPs; a 100% completion rate was achieved for recorded self-assessment data; no serious adverse events were reported as a result of either intervention; and the end of treatment attrition rate was 17%. A phase III study is both feasible and clinically relevant. This study is currently being planned. (2010) P
  12. In conclusion, the results from all studies are in agreement with the hypothesis that acupuncture needling relieves hot flushes. There are few data however supporting the hypothesis that the effect of acupuncture is point specific. Future research should investigate whether there is a biological effect of needling on hot flushes or not, whether tailored treatment is superior to standardised treatment, and ways of delivering treatment that causes least discomfort and least cost. (2010) P
  13. Acupuncture can contribute to a more rapid reduction in vasomotor symptoms and increase in health-related quality of life in postmenopausal women but probably has no long-term effects. (2010) P
  14. within the context of this pilot study, the sham acupuncture intervention was found to be a credible control for acupuncture. This supports its use in a planned, definitive, randomised controlled trial on a similar whiplash injured population. (2009) N/P
  15. factors other than the TCM syndrome diagnoses and the point selection may be of importance regarding the outcome of the treatment. (2009) N/P
  16. Acupuncture plus self-care can contribute to a clinically relevant reduction in hot flashes and increased health-related quality of life in postmenopausal women. (2009) P
  17. the authors conclude that acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches. (2009) P
  18. there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine attacks only or to routine care. There is no evidence for an effect of ‘true’ acupuncture over sham interventions, though this is difficult to interpret, as exact point location could be of limited importance. Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects. Acupuncture should be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. (2009) P
  19. We have conducted the first survey of the effects of provision of acupuncture in UK general practice, using data provided by the NHS, and uncovered a wide variation in the availability of the service in different areas. We have been unable to demonstrate any consistent differences in the prescribing or referral rates that could be due to the use of acupuncture in these practices. The wide variation in the data means that if such a trend exists, a very large survey would be needed to identify it. However, we discovered inaccuracies and variations in presentation of data by the PCTs which have made the numerical input, and hence our results, unreliable. Thus the practicalities of access to data and the problems with data accuracy would preclude a nationwide survey. (2008) P
  20. In conclusion, there is limited evidence deriving from one study that deep needling directly into myofascial trigger points has an overall treatment effect when compared with standardised care. Whilst the result of the meta-analysis of needling compared with placebo controls does not attain statistically significant, the overall direction could be compatible with a treatment effect of dry needling on myofascial trigger point pain. However, the limited sample size and poor quality of these studies highlights and supports the need for large scale, good quality placebo controlled trials in this area. (2009) P
  21. We conclude that limited evidence supports acupuncture use in treating pregnancy-related pelvic and back pain. Additional high-quality trials are needed to test the existing promising evidence for this relatively safe and popular complementary therapy. (2008) P
  22. Acupuncture appears to offer symptomatic improvement to some patients with fibromyalgia in a tertiary clinic who have failed to respond to other treatments. In view of its safety, further acupuncture research is justified in this population. (2007) P
  23. It is speculated that optimal results from acupuncture treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee may involve: climatic factors, particularly high temperature; high expectations of patients; minimum of four needles; electroacupuncture rather than manual acupuncture, and particularly, strong electrical stimulation to needles placed in muscle; and a course of at least 10 treatments. These factors offer some support to criteria for adequate acupuncture used in the recent review. In addition, ethnic and cultural factors may influence patients’ reporting of their symptoms, and different versions of an outcome measure are likely to differ in their sensitivity – both factors which may lead to apparent rather than real differences between studies. The many variables in a study are likely to be more tightly controlled in a single centre study than in multicentre studies.  (2007) P
  24. Any effects of acupressure on smoking withdrawal, as an adjunct to the use of NRT and behavioural intervention, are unlikely to be detectable by the methods used here and further preliminary studies are required before the hypothesis can be tested. (2007) P
  25. Auricular acupuncture appears to be effective for smoking cessation, but the effect may not depend on point location. This calls into question the somatotopic model underlying auricular acupuncture and suggests a need to re-evaluate sham controlled studies which have used ‘incorrect’ points. Further experiments are necessary to confirm or refute these observational conclusions. (2006) P
  26. Acupuncture that meets criteria for adequate treatment is significantly superior to sham acupuncture and to no additional intervention in improving pain and function in patients with chronic knee pain. Due to the heterogeneity in the results, however, further research is required to confirm these findings and provide more information on long-term effects. (2007) P
  27. There is no consistent evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further research using frequent or continuous stimulation is justified. (2006) N/P
  28. Acupuncture is not superior to sham treatment for recovery in activities of daily living and health-related quality of life after stroke, although there may be a limited effect on leg function in more severely affected patients.  (2005) N
  29. The evidence from controlled trials is insufficient to conclude whether acupuncture is an effective treatment for depression, but justifies further trials of electroacupuncture. (2005) N
  30. Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain. No evidence suggests that acupuncture is more effective than other active therapies. (2005) N/P
  31. In view of the small number of studies and their variable quality, doubt remains about the effectiveness of acupuncture for gynaecological conditions. Acupuncture and acupressure appear promising for dysmenorrhoea, and acupuncture for infertility, and further studies are justified. (2003) N
  32.  In conclusion, the results suggest that the procedure using the new device is indistinguishable from the same procedure using real needles in acupuncture naïve subjects, and is inactive, where the specific needle sensation (de qi) is taken as a surrogate measure of activity. It is therefore a valid control for acupuncture trials. The findings also lend support to the existence of de qi, a major concept underlying traditional Chinese acupuncture. (2002) N/P
  33. There is no clear evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation. (2002) N
  34. Collectively, these data imply that acupuncture is superior to various control interventions, although there is insufficient evidence to state whether it is superior to placebo. (2002) N/P
  35. In conclusion, the incidence of adverse events following acupuncture performed by doctors and physiotherapists can be classified as minimal; some avoidable events do occur. Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention. (2001) N/P
  36. Based on the evidence of rigorous randomised controlled trials, there is no compelling evidence to show that acupuncture is effective in stroke rehabilitation. Further, better-designed studies are warranted. (2001) N
  37. Although it has already been demonstrated that severe adverse events seem to be uncommon in standard practice, many serious cases of negligence have been found in the present review, suggesting that training system for acupuncturists (including medical doctors) should be improved and that unsupervised self-treatment should be discouraged. (2001) N
  38. Direct needling of myofascial trigger points appears to be an effective treatment, but the hypothesis that needling therapies have efficacy beyond placebo is neither supported nor refuted by the evidence from clinical trials. Any effect of these therapies is likely because of the needle or placebo rather than the injection of either saline or active drug. Controlled trials are needed to investigate whether needling has an effect beyond placebo on myofascial trigger point pain. (2001) N/P
  39. Although the incidence of minor adverse events associated with acupuncture may be considerable, serious adverse events are rare. Those responsible for establishing competence in acupuncture should consider how to reduce these risks. (2001) N
  40. In conclusion, this study does not provide evidence that this form of acupuncture is effective in the prevention of episodic tension-type headache. (2000) N
  41. The present study provides no strong evidence to support the hypothesis that the acupuncture point SP6 is more tender in women and in men. Recommendations for further investigations are discussed.  (2000) N
  42. Acupuncture has not been demonstrated to be efficacious as a treatment for tinnitus on the evidence of rigorous randomized controlled trials. (2000) N
  43. We conclude that acupuncture continues to be associated with occasional, serious adverse events and fatalities. These events have no geographical limits. Most of these events are due to negligence. Everyone concerned with setting standards, delivering training, and maintaining competence in acupuncture should familiarise themselves with the lessons to be learnt from these untoward events. (2000) N
  44. Overall, the existing evidence suggests that acupuncture has a role in the treatment of recurrent headaches. However, the quality and amount of evidence is not fully convincing. There is urgent need for well-planned, large-scale studies to assess effectiveness and efficiency of acupuncture under real life conditions. (1999) N/P
  45. While the frequency of adverse effects of acupuncture is unknown and they may be rare, knowledge of normal anatomy and anatomical variations is essential for safe practice and should be reviewed by regulatory bodies and those responsible for training courses. (1999) N
  46.  In conclusion, the hypothesis that acupuncture is efficacious in the treatment of neck pain is not based on the available evidence from sound clinical trials. Further studies are justified. (1999) N
  47. Even though all studies are in accordance with the notion that acupuncture is effective for temporomandibular joint dysfunction, this hypothesis requires confirmation through more rigorous investigations. (1999) N
  48. Acupuncture is not free of risks. All adverse events reported in 1997 would have been avoidable. The absolute number of cases is small, but the degree of underreporting remains unknown. (1999) N
  49. This form of electroacupuncture is no more effective than placebo in reducing nicotine withdrawal symptoms. (1998) N
  50. Acupuncture was shown to be superior to various control interventions, although there is insufficient evidence to state whether it is superior to placebo. (1998) N/P
  51. Considerable variation was observed in the scores awarded by the acupuncture experts. (1998) N
  52. It is therefore concluded that, according to the data published to date, the evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct for stroke rehabilitation is encouraging but not compelling. More and better trials are required to clarify this highly relevant issue. (1996) N

The results are remarkable (particularly considering that one would not expect unbiased studies or reviews of acupuncture to generate plenty of positive conclusions):

0 times N, 5 times N/P, 22 times P – after Adrian had left my department,

17 times N, 7 times N/P, 0 times P – while Adrian worked in my department.

From these figures, it is tempting to calculate the ratios for both periods of negative : positive conclusions:

zero versus infinite

If that is not impressive, I don’t know what is!

Looking just at the positive and the negative papers over the years:

One could discuss these papers in more detail, but I think this is hardly necessary. Just a few highlights perhaps: look at articles No 5, 20 and 27 for examples of turning an essentially negative finding into a positive conclusion. Notice that Adrian conducted a clinical trial of acupuncture for smoking cessation (No 49) while working with me and later published uncritical positive reviews on the subject. Does this not indicate that he distrusted his own study because it had not generated the result he had hoped for?

Of course, my analysis is merely a case study and therefore my findings are not generalisable. However, in my personal experience, the described phenomenon is by no means an exception in SCAM research. I have observed similar phenomena over and over again. Just look at the ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME that I created for this blog:

But Adrian’s case might be unique because it allows us to make a longitudinal observation over two decades. And it suggests to me that an ideological bias can (and often is) so strong and indistructable that is re-emerges as soon as it is no longer kept under strict control.

I have long suspected that ideological conflicts of interest have a much more powerful influence in SCAM research than financial ones. Such an overpowering influence might even be characteristic to much of SCAM research. And because it can be so dominant, it seems important to know about. People reading research need to be aware that it originates from a biased source, and funders who finance research would be wise to think twice about supporting researchers who are likely to generate findings that are biased and therefore false-positive. In the final analysis, such research is worse than no research at all.

This systematic review and meta-analysis was aimed at investigating the effect and safety of acupuncture for the treatment of chronic spinal pain.

The authors included 22 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving patients with chronic spinal pain treated by acupuncture versus sham acupuncture, no treatment, or another treatment were included. Chronic spinal pain was defined as:

  • chronic neck pain,
  • chronic low back pain,
  • or sciatica for more than 3 months.

Fourteen studies had a high risk of bias, 5 studies had a low risk of bias, and 5 studies had an unclear risk of bias. Pooled analysis revealed that:

  • acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to sham acupuncture (weighted mean difference [WMD]  -12.05, 95% confidence interval [CI] -15.86 to -8.24),
  • acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to mediation control (WMD -18.27, 95% CI -28.18 to -8.37),
  • acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to usual care control (WMD -9.57, 95% CI -13.48 to -9.44),
  • acupuncture can reduce chronic spinal pain compared to no treatment control (WMD -17.10, 95% CI -24.83 to -9.37).

In terms of functional disability, acupuncture can improve physical function at

  • immediate-term follow-up (standardized mean difference [SMD] -1.74, 95% CI -2.04 to -1.44),
  • short-term follow-up (SMD -0.89, 95% CI -1.15 to -0.62),
  • long-term follow-up (SMD -1.25, 95% CI -1.48 to -1.03).

Trials assessed as having a high risk of bias (WMD −13.45, 95% CI −17.23 to −9.66, I 2 96.2%, moderate-quality evidence, including 14 studies and 1379 patients) found greater effects of acupuncture treatment than trials assessed as having a low risk of bias (WMD −11.99, 95% CI −13.94 to −10.03, I 2 44.6%, high-quality evidence, including 4 studies and 432 patients), but smaller effects than trials assessed as having an unclear risk of bias (WMD −14.51, 95% CI −17.25 to −11.78, I 2 0%, high-quality evidence, including 3 studies and 190 patients).

Only 6 trials provided information on adverse events. No trial reported data on serious adverse events during acupuncture treatment. The most frequent adverse events were temporarily worsened pain and needle pain at the acupuncture site, which can decrease quickly after a short period of rest.

The authors concluded that compared to no treatment, sham acupuncture, or conventional therapy such as medication, massage, and physical exercise, acupuncture has a significantly superior effect on the reduction in chronic spinal pain and function improvement. Acupuncture might be an effective treatment for patients with chronic spinal pain and it is a safe therapy.

I think this is a thorough review which produced interesting findings. I agree with most of what the authors report, except with their conclusions which I find too optimistic. In view of the facts that

  • only 5 RCTs had a low risk of bias,
  • collectively, the rigorous trials reported smaller effect sizes,
  • the majority of trials failed to mention adverse effects which, in my view, casts considerable doubt on their quality and ethical standard,

I would have phrased the conclusion differently: compared to no treatment, sham acupuncture, or conventional therapies, acupuncture seems to have a significantly superior effect on pain and function. Due to the lack rigour of most studies, these effects are less certain than one would have wished. Many trials fail to report adverse effects which reflects poorly on their quality and ethics and prevents conclusions about the safety of acupuncture. In essence, this means that the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture as a treatment of chronic spinal pain remains uncertain.

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