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

TCM

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Earlier this year, I started the ‘WORST PAPER OF 2022 COMPETITION’. As a prize, I am offering the winner (that is the lead author of the winning paper) one of my books that best fits his/her subject. I am sure this will overjoy him or her. I hope to identify about 10 candidates for the prize, and towards the end of the year, I let my readers decide democratically on who should be the winner. In this spirit of democratic voting, let me suggest to you entry No 9. Here is the unadulterated abstract:

Background

With the increasing popularity of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) by the global community, how to teach basic knowledge of TCM to international students and improve the teaching quality are important issues for teachers of TCM. The present study was to analyze the perceptions from both students and teachers on how to improve TCM learning internationally.

Methods

A cross-sectional national survey was conducted at 23 universities/colleges across China. A structured, self-reported on-line questionnaire was administered to 34 Chinese teachers who taught TCM course in English and to 1016 international undergraduates who were enrolled in the TCM course in China between 2017 and 2021.

Results

Thirty-three (97.1%) teachers and 900 (88.6%) undergraduates agreed Chinese culture should be fully integrated into TCM courses. All teachers and 944 (92.9%) undergraduates thought that TCM had important significance in the clinical practice. All teachers and 995 (97.9%) undergraduates agreed that modern research of TCM is valuable. Thirty-three (97.1%) teachers and 959 (94.4%) undergraduates thought comparing traditional medicine in different countries with TCM can help the students better understand TCM. Thirty-two (94.1%) teachers and 962 (94.7%) undergraduates agreed on the use of practical teaching method with case reports. From the perceptions of the undergraduates, the top three beneficial learning styles were practice (34.3%), teacher’s lectures (32.5%), case studies (10.4%). The first choice of learning mode was attending to face-to-face teaching (82.3%). The top three interesting contents were acupuncture (75.5%), Chinese herbal medicine (63.8%), and massage (55.0%).

Conclusion

To improve TCM learning among international undergraduates majoring in conventional medicine, integration of Chinese culture into TCM course, comparison of traditional medicine in different countries with TCM, application of the teaching method with case reports, and emphasization of clinical practice as well as modern research on TCM should be fully considered.

I am impressed with this paper mainly because to me it does not make any sense at all. To be blunt, I find it farcically nonsensical. What precisely? Everything:

  • the research question,
  • the methodology,
  • the conclusion
  • the write-up,
  • the list of authors and their affiliations: Department of Chinese Integrative Medicine, Women’s Hospital, School of Medicine, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, School of Basic Medicine, Qingdao University, Qingdao, China, Department of Chinese Integrative Medicine, The Second Affiliated Hospital of Kunming Medical University, Kunming, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The Affiliated Hospital of Xuzhou Medical University, Xuzhou, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Medical College, China Three Gorges University, Yichang, China, Basic Teaching and Research Department of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Xinjiang Medical University, Urumqi, China, Institute of Integrative Medicine, Dalian Medical University, Dalian, China, Department of Chinese and Western Medicine, Chongqing Medical University, Chongqing, China, Department of Chinese and Western Medicine, North Sichuan Medical College, Nanchong, China, Department of Chinese and Western Medicine, School of Medicine, Xiamen University, Xiamen, China, School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Capital Medical University, Beijing, China, School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Southern Medical University, Guangzhou, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University, Suzhou, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, School of Medicine, Xiamen University, Xiamen, China, Department of Chinese Medicine/Department of Chinese Integrative Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Anhui Medical University, Hefei, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shengjing Hospital Affiliated to China Medical University, Shenyang, China, Department of Acupuncture, Affiliated Hospital of Jiangsu University, Zhenjiang, China, Teaching and Research Section of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The Second Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University, Suzhou, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The Second Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University, Harbin, China, Department of Chinese Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Anhui Medical University, Hefei, China, Department of Chinese Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Kunming Medical University, Kunming, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shengli Clinical Medical College of Fujian Medical University, Fuzhou, China, Department of Chinese Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Jinzhou Medicine University, Jinzhou, China, Department of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University, Harbin, China, Department of Chinese Medicine, The Second Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University, Guangzhou, China, Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Fujian Medical University, Fuzhou, China.
  • the journal that had this paper peer-reviewed and published.

But what impressed me most with this paper is the way the authors managed to avoid even the slightest hint of critical thinking. They even included a short paragraph in the discussion section where they elaborate on the limitations of their work without ever discussing the true flaws in the conception and execution of this extraordinary example of pseudoscience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electroacupuncture (EA) is often advocated for depression and sleep disorders but its efficacy remains uncertain. The aim of this study was, therefore, to “assess the efficacy and safety of EA as an alternative therapy in improving sleep quality and mental state for patients with insomnia and depression.”

A 32-week patient- and assessor-blinded, randomized, sham-controlled clinical trial (8-week intervention plus 24-week follow-up) was conducted from September 1, 2016, to July 30, 2019, at 3 tertiary hospitals in Shanghai, China. Patients were randomized to receive

  1. EA treatment and standard care,
  2. sham acupuncture (SA) treatment and standard care,
  3. standard care only as control.

Patients in the EA or SA groups received a 30-minute treatment 3 times per week (usually every other day except Sunday) for 8 consecutive weeks. All treatments were performed by licensed acupuncturists with at least 5 years of clinical experience. A total of 6 acupuncturists (2 at each center; including X.Y. and S.Z.) performed EA and SA, and they received standardized training on the intervention method before the trial. The regular acupuncture method was applied at the Baihui (GV20), Shenting (GV24), Yintang (GV29), Anmian (EX-HN22), Shenmen (HT7), Neiguan (PC6), and SanYinjiao (SP6) acupuncture points, with 0.25 × 25-mm and 0.30 × 40-mm real needles (Wuxi Jiajian Medical Device Co, Ltd), or 0.30 × 30-mm sham needles (Streitberger sham device [Asia-med GmbH]).

For patients in the EA group, rotating or lifting-thrusting manipulation was applied for deqi sensation after needle insertion. The 2 electrodes of the electrostimulator (CMNS6-1 [Wuxi Jiajian Medical Device Co, Ltd]) were connected to the needles at GV20 and GV29, delivering a continuous wave based on the patient’s tolerance. Patients in the SA group felt a pricking sensation when the blunt needle tip touched the skin, but without needle insertion. All indicators of the nearby electrostimulator were set to 0, with the light switched on. Standard care (also known as treatment as usual or routine care) was used in the control group. Patients receiving standard care were recommended by the researchers to get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and manage their stress level during the trial. They were asked to keep the regular administration of antidepressants, sedatives, or hypnotics as well. Psychiatrists in the Shanghai Mental Health Center (including X.L.) guided all patients’ standard care treatment and provided professional advice when a patient’s condition changed.

The primary outcome was change in Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) from baseline to week 8. Secondary outcomes included PSQI at 12, 20, and 32 weeks of follow-up; sleep parameters recorded in actigraphy; Insomnia Severity Index; 17-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale score; and Self-rating Anxiety Scale score.

Among the 270 patients (194 women [71.9%] and 76 men [28.1%]; mean [SD] age, 50.3 [14.2] years) included in the intention-to-treat analysis, 247 (91.5%) completed all outcome measurements at week 32, and 23 (8.5%) dropped out of the trial. The mean difference in PSQI from baseline to week 8 within the EA group was -6.2 (95% CI, -6.9 to -5.6). At week 8, the difference in PSQI score was -3.6 (95% CI, -4.4 to -2.8; P < .001) between the EA and SA groups and -5.1 (95% CI, -6.0 to -4.2; P < .001) between the EA and control groups. The efficacy of EA in treating insomnia was sustained during the 24-week postintervention follow-up. Significant improvement in the 17-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (-10.7 [95% CI, -11.8 to -9.7]), Insomnia Severity Index (-7.6 [95% CI, -8.5 to -6.7]), and Self-rating Anxiety Scale (-2.9 [95% CI, -4.1 to -1.7]) scores and the total sleep time recorded in the actigraphy (29.1 [95% CI, 21.5-36.7] minutes) was observed in the EA group during the 8-week intervention period (P < .001 for all). No between-group differences were found in the frequency of sleep awakenings. No serious adverse events were reported.

The result of the blinding assessment showed that 56 patients (62.2%) in the SA group guessed wrongly about their group assignment (Bang blinding index, −0.4 [95% CI, −0.6 to −0.3]), whereas 15 (16.7%) in the EA group also guessed wrongly (Bang blinding index, 0.5 [95% CI, 0.4-0.7]). This indicated a relatively higher degree of blinding in the SA group.

The authors concluded that, in this randomized clinical trial of EA treatment for insomnia in patients with depression, quality of sleep improved significantly in the EA group compared with the SA or control group at week 8 and was sustained at week 32.

This trial seems rigorous, it has a sizable sample size, uses a credible placebo procedure, and is reported in sufficient detail. Why then am I skeptical?

  • Perhaps because we have often discussed how untrustworthy acupuncture studies from China are?
  • Perhaps because I fail to see a plausible mechanism of action?
  • Perhaps because the acupuncturists could not be blinded and thus might have influenced the outcome?
  • Perhaps because the effects of sham acupuncture seem unreasonably small?
  • Perhaps because I cannot be sure whether the acupuncture or the electrical current is supposed to have caused the effects?
  • Perhaps because the authors of the study are from institutions such as the Shanghai Municipal Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Department of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Huadong Hospital, Fudan University, Shanghai,
  • Perhaps because the results seem too good to be true?

If you have other and better reasons, I’d be most interested to hear them.

Camilla spent ten days at the end of October in a sophisticated meditation and fitness center in southern India. Life has recently been hectic for the Queen Consort: at 75, she has been in a non-stop succession of various ceremonies for the funeral of Elizabeth II, always one step behind her husband, not to mention her new status as sovereign… Enough to block her chakras in no time.

She came to the resort with her bodyguards and a handful of friends and was able to take advantage of the tailor-made treatments concocted for her by the master of the house, Dr Issac Mathai, who created this high-end holistic centre on a dozen hectares of scented gardens near Bangalore. The program includes massages, herbal steam baths, yoga, naturopathy, homeopathy, meditation, and Ayurvedic treatments to “cleanse, de-stress, soothe and revitalize the mind, body and soul”, as the establishment’s website states.

Guests are required to follow an individualized, meat-free diet, with organic food from the resort’s vegetable gardens, based on lots of salads or soups – Camilla is said to be a fan of sweet corn soup with spinach. Cigarettes and mobile phones are not allowed, although it is assumed that Camilla must have some privileges due to her status… and the basic rate for the suites, which starts at $950 a night – the price of the rooms varies between $260 and $760, the rate including a consultation with the doctors.

Charles and Camilla have been fans of the Soukya Centre in India for a decade. The place corresponds in every way to their deep-rooted convictions about health. Like her husband, Camilla is a follower of organic food, she also practices yoga and treats her face with creams made from nettle and bee venom. For his part, Charles has long been an advocate of alternative medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and also hypnosis… He even set up a foundation to support complementary medicine by lobbying the British health service to include it in complementary therapies for certain patients, which caused an uproar among the pundits of traditional medicine.

________________________

If you suspected I was (yet again) sarcastic about the royal couple, you are mistaken. The text above is only my (slightly shortened) translation of an article published in the French magazine LE POINT (even the title is theirs). I found the article amusing and interesting; so, I looked up the Indian health center. Here are some of the things I found:

The 1st impression is that they are not shy about promotion calling themselves THE WORLD’S BEST AYURVEDA TREATMENT CENTER. The doctor in charge was once a ‘Consultant Physician’ at the Hale Clinic in London, where he treated a number of high-profile people. As his professional background, he offers this:

M.D. (Homeopathy); Hahnemann Post-Graduate Institute of Homeopathy, London M.R.C.H, London; Chinese Pulse Diagnosis and Acupuncture, WHO Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Nanjing, China; Trained (Mind-Body Medicine Programme) at Harvard Medical School, USA

The approach of the center is described as follows:

The fundamental principle underlying Holistic Treatment is that the natural defense and immune system of an individual when strengthened, has the potential to heal and prevent diseases. In the age of super-specialisation where human beings are often viewed as a conglomeration of organs, it is crucial to understand ourselves as multi-dimensional beings with a body, mind and spirit. These interconnected dimensions need to be in perfect harmony to ensure real well-being.

And about homeopathy, they claim this:

Homeopathy originated in 1796 in Germany, and was discovered by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, a German scientist. Homeopathy is popular today as a non-intrusive, holistic system of medicine. Instead of different medicines for different parts of the body, one single constitutional remedy is prescribed. As a system of medicine, Homeopathy is highly scientific, safe, logical and an extremely effective method of healing. For over 200 years people have used Homeopathy to maintain their good health, and also to treat and cure a wide range of illnesses like allergies, metabolic disorders, atopic dermatitis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Auto-immune disorders.

At this stage, I felt I had seen enough. Yes, you are right, we did not learn a lot from this little exploration. No, hold on! We did learn that homeopathy is highly scientific, safe, logical, and extremely effective!

 

The question, however, is should we believe it?

Yesterday, L’EXPRESS published an interview with me. It was introduced with these words (my translation):

Professor emeritus at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, Edzard Ernst is certainly the best connoisseur of unconventional healing practices. For 25 years, he has been sifting through the scientific evaluation of these so-called “alternative” medicines. With a single goal: to provide an objective view, based on solid evidence, of the reality of the benefits and risks of these therapies. While this former homeopathic doctor initially thought he was bringing them a certain legitimacy, he has become one of their most enlightened critics. It is notable as a result of his work that the British health system, the NHS, gave up covering homeopathy. Since then, he has never ceased to alert us to the abuses and lies associated with these practices. For L’Express, he looks back at the challenges of regulating this vast sector and deciphers the main concepts put forward by “wellness” professionals – holism, detox, prevention, strengthening the immune system, etc.

The interview itself is quite extraordinary, in my view. While UK, US, and German journalists usually are at pains to tone down my often outspoken answers, the French journalists (there were two doing the interview with me) did nothing of the sort. This starts with the title of the piece: “Homeopathy is implausible but energy healing takes the biscuit”.

The overall result is one of the most outspoken interviews of my entire career. Let me offer you a few examples (again my translation):

Why are you so critical of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who promote these wellness methods?

Sadly, we have gone from evidence-based medicine to celebrity-based medicine. A celebrity without any medical background becomes infatuated with a certain method. They popularize this form of treatment, very often making money from it. The best example of this is Prince Charles, sorry Charles III, who spent forty years of his life promoting very strange things under the guise of defending alternative medicine. He even tried to market a “detox” tincture, based on artichoke and dandelion, which was quickly withdrawn from the market.

How to regulate this sector of wellness and alternative medicines? Today, anyone can present himself as a naturopath or yoga teacher…

Each country has its own regulation, or rather its own lack of regulation. In Germany, for instance, we have the “Heilpraktikter”. Anyone can get this paramedical status, you just have to pass an exam showing that you are not a danger to the public. You can retake this exam as often as you want. Even the dumbest will eventually pass. But these practitioners have an incredible amount of freedom, they even may give infusions and injections. So there is a two-tier health care system, with university-trained doctors and these practitioners.

In France, you have non-medical practitioners who are fighting for recognition. Osteopaths are a good example. They are not officially recognized as a health profession. Many schools have popped up to train them, promising a good income to their students, but today there are too many osteopaths compared to the demand of the patients (knowing that nobody really needs an osteopath to begin with…). Naturopaths are in the same situation.

In Great Britain, osteopaths and chiropractors are regulated by statute. There is even a Royal College dedicated to chiropractic. It’s a bit like having a Royal College for hairdressers! It’s stupid, but we have that. We also have professionals like naturopaths, acupuncturists, or herbalists who have an intermediate status. So it’s a very complex area, depending on the state. It is high time to have more uniform regulations in Europe.

But what would adequate regulation look like?

From my point of view, if you really regulate a profession like homeopaths, it means that these professionals may only practice according to the best scientific evidence available. Which, in practice, means that a homeopath cannot practice homeopathy. This is why these practitioners have a schizophrenic attitude toward regulation. On the one hand, they would like to be recognized to gain credibility. But on the other hand, they know very well that a real regulation would mean that they would have to close shop…

What about the side effects of these practices?

If you ask an alternative practitioner about the risks involved, he or she will take exception. The problem is that there is no system in alternative medicine to monitor side effects and risks. However, there have been cases where chiropractors or acupuncturists have killed people. These cases end up in court, but not in the medical literature. The acupuncturists have no problem saying that a hundred deaths due to acupuncture – a figure that can be found in the scientific literature – is negligible compared to the millions of treatments performed every day in this discipline. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many cases that are not published and therefore not included in the data, because there is no real surveillance system for these disciplines.

Do you see a connection between the wellness sector and conspiracy theories? In the US, we saw that Qanon was thriving in the yoga sector, for example…

Several studies have confirmed these links: people who adhere to conspiracy theories also tend to turn to alternative medicine. If you think about it, alternative medicine is itself a conspiracy theory. It is the idea that conventional medicine, in the name of pharmaceutical interests, in particular, wants to suppress certain treatments, which can therefore only exist in an alternative world. But in reality, the pharmaceutical industry is only too eager to take advantage of this craze for alternative products and well-being. Similarly, universities, hospitals, and other health organizations are all too willing to open their doors to these disciplines, despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness.

 

The objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of acupuncture on cognitive task performance in college students.

Sixty students aged 18-25 years were randomly allocated into acupuncture group (AG) (n=30) and control group (CG) (n=30). The AG underwent 20 min of acupuncture/day, while the CG underwent their normal routine for 10 days. Assessments were performed before and after the intervention.

Between-group analysis showed a significant increase in AG’s six-letter cancellation test (SLCT) score compared with CG. Within-group analysis showed a significant increase in the scores of all tests (i.e. SLCT, forward and backward Digit span test [DST]) in AG, while a significant increase in backward DST was observed in CG.

The authors concluded that acupuncture has a beneficial effect on improving the cognitive function of college students.

I am unable to access the full paper [it is behind a paywall]. Thus, I am unable to assess the study in further detail. As I am skeptical about the validity of the effect, I can only assume that it is due to the expectation of the volunteers receiving acupuncture. There was not even an attempt to control for placebo effects!

The over-stated conclusion made me wonder what else the 1st author has published. It turns out he has three more Medline-listed papers to his name all of which are about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).

The 1st one is an RCT similar to the one above, i.e. without an attempt to control for placebo effects. Its conclusion is equally over-stated: Acupuncture could be considered as an effective treatment modality for the management of primary dysmenorrhea.

The other two papers refer to one case report each. Despite the fact that case reports (as any researcher must know) do not lend themselves to conclusions about the effectiveness of the treatments employed, the authors’ conclusions seem to again over-state the case:

What does that tell us?

I don’t know about you, but I would not rely on acupuncture to improve my mental performance.

Earlier this year, I started the ‘WORST PAPER OF 2022 COMPETITION’. As a competition without a prize is no fun, I am offering the winner (that is the lead author of the winning paper) one of my books that best fits his/her subject. I am sure this will overjoy him or her.

And how do we identify the winner? I will continue blogging about nominated papers (I hope to identify about 10 in total), and towards the end of the year, I let my readers decide democratically.

In this spirit of democratic voting, let me suggest to you ENTRY No 8 (it is so impressive that I must show you the unadulterated abstract):

Introduction

Female sexual dysfunction (FSD) seriously affects the quality of life of women. However, most women do not have access to effective treatment.

Aim

This study aimed to determine the feasibility and effectiveness of the use of acupuncture in FSD treatment based on existing clear acupuncture protocol and experience-supported face-to-face therapy.

Methods

A retrospective analysis was performed on 24 patients with FSD who received acupuncture from October 2018 to February 2022. The Chinese version of the female sexual function index , subjective sensation, sexual desire, sexual arousal, vaginal lubrication, orgasm, sexual satisfaction, and dyspareunia scores were compared before and after the treatment in all 24 patients.

Main Outcome Measure

A specific female sexual function index questionnaire was used to assess changes in female sexual function before and after the acupuncture treatment.

Results

In this study, the overall treatment improvement rate of FSD was 100%. The Chinese version of the female sexual function index total score, sexual desire score, sexual arousal score, vaginal lubrication score, orgasm score, sexual satisfaction score, and dyspareunia score during intercourse were significantly different before and after the treatment (P < .05). Consequently, participants reported high levels of satisfaction with acupuncture. This study indicates that acupuncture could be a new and effective technique for treating FSD. The main advantages of this study are its design and efficacy in treating FSD. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture in the treatment of FSD using the female sexual function index scale from 6 dimensions. The second advantage is that the method used (ie, the nonpharmacological method) is simple, readily available, highly safe with few side effects, and relatively inexpensive with high patient satisfaction. However, limitations include small sample size and lack of further detailed grouping, pre and post control study of patients, blank control group, and pre and post control study of sex hormones.

Conclusion

Acupuncture can effectively treat FSD from all dimensions with high safety, good satisfaction, and definite curative effect, and thus, it is worthy of promotion and application.

My conclusion is very different: acupuncture can effectively kill any ability for critical thinking.

I hardly need to list the flaws of this paper – they are all too obvious, e.g.:

  • there is no control group; the results might therefore be due to a host of factors that are unrelated to acupuncture,
  • the trial was too small to allow far-reaching conclusions,
  • the study does not tell us anything about the safety of acupuncture.

The authors call their investigation a ‘pilot study’. Does that excuse the flimsiness of their effort? No! A pilot study cannot draw conclusions such as the above.

What’s the harm? you might ask; nobody will ever read such rubbish and nobody will have the bizarre idea to use acupuncture for treating FSD. I’m afraid you would be wrong to argue in this way. The paper already got picked up by THE DAILY MAIL in an article entitled “Flailing libido? Acupuncture could help boost sex drive, scientists say” which was as devoid of critical thinking as the original study. Thus we can expect that hundreds of desperate women are already getting needled and ripped off as we speak. And in any case, offensively poor science is always harmful; it undermines public trust in research (and it renders acupuncture research the laughing stock of serious scientists).

 

England’s record goalscorer Ellen White has revealed she suffered a punctured lung while receiving acupuncture treatment. The injury accelerated her decision to retire. White, 33, said she was still coming to terms with the “traumatic” injury.

Manchester City had sourced a “specialist” – evidently not such an excellent acupuncturist because the complication is avoidable with proper knowledge of anatomy – outside the club to provide her with acupuncture to treat her back problem because of a high number of injuries in the squad at the time. “If you’d said to me two or three years ago that you’re going to retire, I would have said ‘absolutely not’, but I’ve got to a time in my career,” she said. “I had a challenging time last year – coming back from the Olympics, I basically punctured my lung, and it was a lot for me to have to go through and a big reason that accelerated my want to retire.”

The injury happened when she returned to her club with a back spasm last summer. “It punctured my lung which isn’t something that happens normally, obviously,” she said. “It was a really traumatic time for me and something that I’m still figuring out now, still working through. I had to wait for the lung to basically inflate again. I had a needle put into my chest to drag all the air out then hopefully the lung would inflate again – which it has. At the time, I think for me, I just got into a zone of: ‘I need to get back playing. We’ve got these games – I want to be back playing for my club; I want to be back playing for England. I went very tunnel vision,” she said. “It wasn’t until a good two or three months later, it just hit me like a train, what actually happened and how traumatic it was.”

Despite her quick return to goalscoring form, which included becoming the Lionesses record goalscorer in November, the striker says she is still affected by the injury and suffers “phantom pain” where it feels like it is happening again. “It’s important for me now to tell my story, and say it was a big factor in my year and leading up to the decision of wanting to retire. Obviously, there are other factors that come into that as well. I don’t want it to happen to anybody else again is my main thing. I don’t want to walk away from the sport having not told it and not say that I want things in place for it not to happen to anyone else.”

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Pneumothorax is by far the most common of all the serious, potentially fatal complications caused by acupuncture. In thin individuals, several acupuncture points over the upper thorax are just a few centimeters away from the lung. Therefore, it is easily possible to puncture a lung by inserting an acupuncture needle. This is from my 2010 review of the subject:

About 90 deaths after acupuncture have been anecdotally documented in the medical literature. Thus, acupuncture has been associated with more deaths than most other ‘alternative’ therapies except herbal medicine … The fatalities are usually due to an acupuncture needle penetrating a vital organ. This, in turn, can cause pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, or major haemorrhage. Most instances of this nature are reported in the Asian literature which, for most of us, is not easily accessible.

A 2013 review of ours located 1104 cases that had been reported in the Korean literature alone. However, the truth of the matter is that nobody can be sure of the exact incidence figures. Why? Because there is no monitoring system that would reliably record such incidences.

I would argue that every single case of acupuncture-induced pneumothorax tells us that the acupuncturist was not adequately trained. With proper knowledge of anatomy, such complications should not happen. Therefore, such instances are a rude reminder that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is far too often in the hands of “specialists” who are a danger to the public.

Should Acupuncture-Related Therapies be Considered in Prediabetes Control?

No!

If you are pre-diabetic, consult a doctor and follow his/her advice. Do NOT do what acupuncturists or other self-appointed experts tell you. Do NOT become a victim of quackery.

But the authors of a new paper disagree with my view.

So, let’s have a look at the evidence.

Their systematic review was aimed at evaluating the effects and safety of acupuncture-related therapy (AT) interventions on glycemic control for prediabetes. The Chinese researchers searched 14 databases and 5 clinical registry platforms from inception to December 2020. Randomized controlled trials involving AT interventions for managing prediabetes were included.

Of the 855 identified trials, 34 articles were included for qualitative synthesis, 31 of which were included in the final meta-analysis. Compared with usual care, sham intervention, or conventional medicine, AT treatments yielded greater reductions in the primary outcomes, including fasting plasma glucose (FPG) (standard mean difference [SMD] = -0.83; 95% confidence interval [CI], -1.06, -0.61; P < .00001), 2-hour plasma glucose (2hPG) (SMD = -0.88; 95% CI, -1.20, -0.57; P < .00001), and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels (SMD = -0.91; 95% CI, -1.31, -0.51; P < .00001), as well as a greater decline in the secondary outcome, which is the incidence of prediabetes (RR = 1.43; 95% CI, 1.26, 1.63; P < .00001).

The authors concluded that AT is a potential strategy that can contribute to better glycemic control in the management of prediabetes. Because of the substantial clinical heterogeneity, the effect estimates should be interpreted with caution. More research is required for different ethnic groups and long-term effectiveness.

But this is clearly a positive result!

Why do I not believe it?

There are several reasons:

  • There is no conceivable mechanism by which AT prevents diabetes.
  • The findings heavily rely on Chinese RCTs which are known to be of poor quality and often even fabricated. To trust such research would be a dangerous mistake.
  • Many of the primary studies were designed such that they failed to control for non-specific effects of AT. This means that a causal link between AT and the outcome is doubtful.
  • The review was published in a 3rd class journal of no impact. Its peer-review system evidently failed.

So, let’s just forget about this rubbish paper?

If only it were so easy!

Journalists always have a keen interest in exotic treatments that contradict established wisdom. Predictably, they have been reporting about the new review thus confusing or misleading the public. One journalist, for instance, stated:

Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of illnesses — and now it could also help fight one of the 21st century’s biggest health challenges.

New research from Edith Cowan University has found acupuncture therapy may be a useful tool in avoiding type 2 diabetes.

The team of scientists investigated dozens of studies covering the effects of acupuncture on more than 3600 people with prediabetes. This is a condition marked by higher-than-normal blood glucose levels without being high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.

According to the findings, acupuncture therapy significantly improved key markers, such as fasting plasma glucose, two-hour plasma glucose, and glycated hemoglobin. Additionally, acupuncture therapy resulted in a greater decline in the incidence of prediabetes.

The review can thus serve as a prime example for demonstrating how irresponsible research has the power to mislead millions. This is why I have often said that poor research is a danger to public health.

And what can be done about this more and more prevalent problem?

The answer is easy: people need to behave more responsibly; this includes:

  • trialists,
  • review authors,
  • editors,
  • peer-reviewers,
  • journalists.

Yes, the answer is easy in theory – but the practice is far from it!

I have often called out unreliable or fraudulent research in the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I think it is important to do so because the abundance of scientific misconduct is such that it has become a danger to public health. Today, I present yet another example:

This recent review claimed to summarize the evidence on TCM in treating MI, the clinical evaluations of TCM in treating male infertility (MI), and the molecular mechanisms of TCM effects. I was alerted to the fact that the authors cite a paper on acupuncture that I had co-authored. Here is the section in question from the review:

Acupuncture is one of the therapeutic techniques that are part of TCM. Acupuncture is a non-invasive technique and is regarded as free of risk if performed by trained personnel [35]. One of the advantages of acupuncture was that the incidence of adverse effects was substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted [35]. Acupuncture has been used in the treatment of male and female infertility and in assisted reproductive technology treatments for many years. A total of 100 patients with MI who met the diagnostic criteria were randomly divided into two groups [7]. Half of the patients received acupuncture treatment, and the other half received placebo acupuncture. After 10 weeks treatment, acupuncture successfully improved the indicators of the semen, including the spermatozoa survival rate, b-level activity rate, sperm density, sperm activity rate. A total of 28 infertile patients with severe oligoasthenozoospermia received acupuncture according to the principles of acupuncture and 29 infertile patients received placebo acupuncture. A significantly higher percentage of motile sperm (World Health Organization categories A-C), but no effect on sperm concentration, was found after acupuncture compared with placebo acupuncture [36]. Of the 279 cases of male sterility treated by the combination of acupuncture, pilose antler essence injection to acupoints and oral administration of Chinese materia medica, 142 cases (47.8%) were cured, 81 cases (27.3%) markedly effective, 53 cases (17.8%) effective and 21 cases (7.1%) ineffective [37]. The therapeutic effect of the combination of these three treatments was satisfactory.

Ref 7

Emerging evidence has shown that cell-cell interactions between testicular cells, in particular at the Sertoli cell-cell and Sertoli-germ cell interface, are crucial to support spermatogenesis. The unique ultrastructures that support cell-cell interactions in the testis are the basal ES (ectoplasmic specialization) and the apical ES. The basal ES is found between adjacent Sertoli cells near the basement membrane that also constitute the blood-testis barrier (BTB). The apical ES is restrictively expressed at the Sertoli-spermatid contact site in the apical (adluminal) compartment of the seminiferous epithelium. These ultrastructures are present in both rodent and human testes, but the majority of studies found in the literature were done in rodent testes. As such, our discussion herein, unless otherwise specified, is focused on studies in testes of adult rats. Studies have shown that the testicular cell-cell interactions crucial to support spermatogenesis are mediated through distinctive signaling proteins and pathways, most notably involving FAK, Akt1/2 and Cdc42 GTPase. Thus, manipulation of some of these signaling proteins, such as FAK, through the use of phosphomimetic mutants for overexpression in Sertoli cell epithelium in vitro or in the testis in vivo, making FAK either constitutively active or inactive, we can modify the outcome of spermatogenesis. For instance, using the toxicant-induced Sertoli cell or testis injury in rats as study models, we can either block or rescue toxicant-induced infertility through overexpression of p-FAK-Y397 or p-FAK-Y407 (and their mutants), including the use of specific activator(s) of the involved signaling proteins against pAkt1/2. These findings thus illustrate that a potential therapeutic approach can be developed to manage toxicant-induced male reproductive dysfunction. In this review, we critically evaluate these recent findings, highlighting the direction for future investigations by bringing the laboratory-based research through a translation path to clinical investigations.

This paper does not relate to the statement it is meant to support by the review authors.

Ref 35

The review by Qin et al (1) includes 5 trials none of which should have been included in a quality metaanalysis as the methodology was unconvincing: In the trial by Alraek et al., patients were randomised to receive either acupuncture or no treatment. This means that no attempt was made to control for the effects of placebo or extra attention. Therefore, this study does not demonstrate an effect of acupuncture as the outcome could be due to non-specific effects unrelated with this therapy. By contrast, the trial by Aune et al. did attempt to control for placebo effects by using a sham control group. Sham acupuncture was given using six needles superficially inserted in the calves, thighs or abdomen outside known acupuncture points or meridians. Needles were not manipulated in the sham group. Sham or placebo controls have the purpose of rendering patients unaware of whether they receive the real or the sham treatment. The method used here cannot achieve this aim; patients would be easily able to tell which intervention they received. In other words, this study also did not adequately control for placebo effects. The remaining three trials are all not Medline-listed, authored by Chinese investigators and published in inaccessible journals. This should disqualify them from inclusion as they were unverifiable by the peer review process. According to the published table, they were equivalence trials of acupuncture versus antibiotics with a sample size around 30. This means they are grossly underpowered and thus unable to generate reliable results. Unless BJOG peer reviewers could see the primary articles, or be provided with translations from Chinese, the systematic review should not have been accepted. The “many eyes of science” requires transparency, testing, challenge and verification. Although in the past, inconclusive results of acupuncture have not been thought to be due to Chinese influence (2), it has been noted that virtually all recent published acupuncture trials are “positive” (3), raising questions of publication and other biases. Our colleagues are under tremendous pressure to publish, but we do them no favours by effectively lowering the standard of scientific peer review. Elite journals too have an obligation to train and reiterate about publication ethics and sound scientific writing (4). As none of the primary studies convincingly demonstrated that acupuncture is an effective therapy for recurrent urinary tract infections, no positive conclusion was warranted. Although Qin et al. did state that the risk of bias of the included trials was generally high or unclear (1), the BJOG nevertheless allowed them to turn massive uncertainty into relatively firm, positive conclusions in the abstract (“Acupuncture appeared to be beneficial for treatment and prophylaxis of rUTIs”) and tweetable abstract (“This review found that acupuncture may improve treatment and prevent recurrence of urinary tract infection in women”), thus leading to excited media headlines that inevitably mislead the public. ‘May’ is a weasel word which should be avoided as it is unfalsifiable (for example, pigs do not fly but they ‘may’ fly in the future). The definite, straightforward conclusion must be “There is no good evidence to support the use of acupuncture for the treatment and prophylaxis of recurrent UTIs”. It is not acceptable to give international credibility to an implausible modality that no objective, independent high-quality review has found effective beyond placebo (5). The dampening accompanying mini-commentary (6) does not undo the damage.
The review should be withdrawn while the primary papers are translated for peer reviewers to examine, the above limitations discussed in the text, and the positive ‘spin’ in conclusions corrected. These improvements would consolidate the researchers’ probity and justify the accolade of BJOG publication.

Our letter to the editor does not bear any relation to the statement it is meant to support by the review authors.

Ref 36

In this first prospective, randomized, single-blind, placebo-controlled study, 28 infertile patients with severe oligoasthenozoospermia received acupuncture according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and 29 infertile patients received placebo acupuncture. A significantly higher percentage of motile sperm (World Health Organization categories A–C), but no effect on sperm concentration, was found after acupuncture compared with placebo acupuncture.

This small study is far from convincing and does not lend itself to far-reaching conclusions

Ref 37

Of the 279 cases of male sterility treated by the combination of acupuncture, pilose antler
essence injection to acupoints and oral administration of Chinese materia medica, 142
cases (47.8%) were cured, 81 cases (27.3%) markedly effective, 53 cases (17.8%) effective
and 21 cases (7.1%) ineffective. The therapeutic effect of the combination of these three
treatments was satisfactory.

This study had no control group and used two different therapies. Therefore, it does not allow any conclusion about the effectiveness of acupuncture.

____________________

Perhaps you feel that these errors are trivial. But I would disagree. The review authors’ praise of acupuncture for MI is misplaced and will mislead the public. There are plenty of reviews on the subject, and those that are not overtly biased arrive at conclusions like these:

So, how did this sloppy review come about?

Its authors are affiliated to the TCM Regulating Metabolic Diseases Key Laboratory of Sichuan Province, Hospital of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chengdu 610072, China, and the Tea Research Institute, Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Chengdu 610066, China. A footnote tells us that their review was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China [No. 81973647] and the Xinglin scholar discipline promotion talent program of Chengdu University of traditional Chinese medicine [No. BSH2021018]. This sounds respectable enough.

The journal that published the review is ‘Pharmacological Research – Modern Chinese Medicine‘. Its stated aims are as follows: The journal publishes articles reporting on advances in our comprehension of mechanism and safety in experimental pharmacology and clinical efficacy and safety of pharmacologically active substances, including compound prescriptions, utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine applying modern scientific research methods. Studies reporting also on the mechanisms of actions of the active substance(s) investigated are encouraged.

The editors in chief of the journal are Guan-Hua Du, PhD, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, Beijing, China and Emilio Clementi, M.Mus, MD, PhD, University of Milan, Milan, Italy. No doubt, these are respectable scientists. And because they are, they should make sure that what they publish is correct – a criterion this recent review clearly does not meet.

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